Citation:   Alexander M. Ross.  (1993).  Slow March to a Regiment.  St. Catherines, Ontario: Vanwell Publishing Limited.  pp. 211–221.
Editor's Note:   This web page contains just over ten pages from the Ross book for­mat­ted con­tinu­ously.  The ori­ginal page breaks are re­cor­ded in HTML com­ments that can be viewed in the source for this page.  Foot­notes that ap­pear at the bot­tom of pages in the book ap­pear here in boxes at the ends of the para­graphs in which the foot­note call­outs oc­cur.  The book con­tains a glos­sary of terms and acro­nyms omit­ted here but the rele­vant ones from the glos­sary and many others are de­fined in tool tips on this page.  Each term will be de­fined only once in a para­graph, the first time that it ap­pears.  In the fol­low­ing ac­count, the for­mal role of Lieu­ten­ant Alex­an­der M. Ross was that of gun posi­tion of­fi­cer for F or Fox Troop of the 17th Field Regi­ment, Royal Cana­dian Ar­til­leryAlex­an­der Ross (-​) was awar­ded the Mili­tary Cross for his ac­tions at Ot­ter­loo.  Per­mis­sion for quot­ing this ma­ter­ial from his book was kindly pro­vi­ded by his daugh­ter.

Chapter 14

Otterloo and After

At first it was the old armoured razzle-dazzle that we'd almost forgotten in those rain-drenched Romagna flats along the Adriatic: in and out of gun positions, surging north, and no necessity to dig gun pits or dugouts.  But Otterloo, our Waterloo, was upon us.  It's not possible to write intelligently about what happened to us because what happened was like the sinking of the Titanic, very much a matter of being in the wrong place at the right time.
My C.P.O. and I were on the advance party which arrived at the village of Otterloo,19 ten miles north-west of Arnhem, at about .  The village was in the hands of the Irish, and all sorts of traffic jammed its streets.  Our second-in-command allotted us our gun area just north of the village limits in an open field that bordered on a pine forest.  A dirt road with a ditch on one side served as a boundary between the two troops of the battery.
19.   On Dutch maps, Otterlo
As the guns did not come in until after 1900 hours, the C.P.O. and I had all sorts of time to take stock of our location which alarmed us to the extent that we took a jeep to have a look about.  We were certainly sited ahead of the F.D.L.s which seemed to be vaguely defined by the village boundary.  That there may have been some doubt as to where the enemy were became apparent when we learned that our arc of fire was to be 360 degrees which meant that gun pits could be a drawback.  As there was no activity whatever in the immediate vicinity, the C.P.O. and I drove about two miles north on the dirt road but found no evidence of any living person.  The road was dusty, unused, and unmarked.20
20.   Further confirmation that no Germans were in the vicinity may be found in the "War Diary" belonging to the Irish Regiment of Canada for April 16, 1945.  Their Intelligence Officers reported that "The town of Otterloo and surrounding area were cleared of enemy by 1400 hours."
Back at the Battery position, the C.P.O. chose his Command Post about 600 feet ahead and east of mine and across the road.  E Troop was about the same distance south of the Battery command post; and directly across the road from F Troop.  My own Command Post was some two hundred feet ahead of the guns in a small brick house which had a lean-to at the side where we set up the artillery board and the signals equipment.  The pine woods were almost at the back door, so we hid the George vehicle among the trees.  The rest of our vehicles were in the Battery Wagon Lines about 1200 feet to the rear of the guns, next to a cemetery on the outskirts of Otterloo.
The Regiment's other two Batteries were scattered behind us and somewhat to our left, while R.H.Q. was to our right and behind E Troop.  By early evening the village streets were crowded with troops and vehicles of the Irish, even Divisional H.Q. was there.  As the Regiment had no screen of infantry in front, we had to establish as best we could our own all-round defense.  I gave orders for the Bren, rifles, and small arms ammunition to be brought to the guns of my Troop and for the gunners to dig slit trenches sited so as to give us as much defense as possible.  No gun pits were dug, which left the guns exposed.  That may have been a mistake — I'll never know.  It may even have saved lives as gun pits are dangerous places when shrapnel is flying about.
By 2100 hours we were on Theatre Grid, and by 2200 hours I had prepared our D.F. tasks on the artillery board.  For the next hour I checked what had been done at the guns by way of making us as secure as possible and found, as usual, that my gunners needed little supervision.  They even had the Bren mounted on the flank with a clear field of fire from a weapon pit.  I was somewhat relieved when three members of the Irish arrived and set up a 2 inch mortar and a Bren in front of our command post.  It was a thin screen but better than none at all.
Some time after 2300 hours I put up my safari at the door of the lean-to and lay down on it fully clothed.  It was a quiet, moist night, no moon, warm — very like a spring night in the country in Canada.  From my safari I could see on one side the outline of my No. 1 gun in the field and, on the other, the shaded light over the artillery board and the dim form of my signaller by the telephone.  Inside the house on the lower floor some of the gunners off duty, one of the "Acks", and a signaller had commandeered the living room and were asleep on the floor.
I, too, had just dozed off when something woke me out of a crazy dream in which I heard mother calling my name very clearly.  The next impression was equally ridiculous: the sound of horses and wagons on a dirt road very like what I'd heard so often at Simon Munro's in the evening when we would be bringing the last loads of hay or oats to the barn.  Having decided the sound was no part of my dream, I told the signaller to alert the C.P.O.  By the time he came on the line I heard someone yell out the challenge which that night was "Hockey".  There was no reply, "Puck," and in seconds a Bren somewhere fired.
And that's how it all began a few minutes after midnight on April 17.  To give a coherent account of what followed is nearly impossible because the fighting was so confused.  By 0100 hours one thing was glaringly obvious, the Regiment had been caught where an artillery unit ought not to be — ahead of the infantry and in the way of a determined enemy attack supported by mortars, machine guns, and even anti-tank weapons.
It was our Battery Command Post that took the brunt of the initial fighting.  By 0130 hours I had my last words with the C.P.O., who was able to assure me I was on my own.  By 0200 my telephone link with E Troop was cut, which meant that any further communication with other units of the Regiment had to be on foot, for I assumed — and incorrectly — that my George vehicle with its wireless set was by now in the hands of the enemy in the woods before us.  The nearest unit accessible to me was C Troop, about 300 yards behind my No.4 gun.  It was no use trying to go to E Troop because by this time the Krauts had infiltrated between our positions using the ditch along the road as an approach.  We could see them from time to time because, shortly after 0200 hours, they managed to set fire to the Battery Command Post, which created a huge glare lighting up both friend and foe.
The Jerries next went after my Command Post, wounding one of the Irish so seriously that their defense crumbled, and wounding one of my signallers when they sprayed the living room with a burst of machine gun fire.  But at this point, and for some reason beyond me, some of the attackers decided to surrender, which meant we had frightened, sour-smelling German prisoners stuffed inside the Command Post seeking safety, and German soldiers outside the house determined to kill us.
The greatest scare came when, within the Command Post, we heard the sound of breaking glass and saw the muzzle of a machine gun appear past the blackout curtain we'd draped over the one window of our lean-to.  Captors and prisoners alike froze in silence as the muzzle made a slow evolution round the room and then to our relief quietly withdrew.  I slipped outside and around the command post hoping to find and shoot the intruder, but he had left.
It's difficult to be clear about what happened next.  For one thing, on my return from the circuit of the house, more Germans appeared with their hands up so that I had to gather them and those in the command post and take them to the gun area where I made twenty-one of them lie down in a shallow depression and put one of my gun sergeants in charge of them while I went back to C Troop Command Post to get assistance to evacuate both the wounded and the prisoners.
C Troop put me in touch with both R.H.Q. and the Irish.  R.H.Q. were informed of my position and the Irish asked to provide a stretcher party and some men to escort the P.O.W.s.  I also asked for tank and infantry support, but that was not to be had — presumably because my gun area must have seemed to them altogether too unhealthy a place for either infantry or armour.
Back at the Fox Troop command post, with the Irish stretcher party, I soon realized how hopeless it was to hang on to the house.  The signaller in the living room had died of his wounds, and the gunners, awakened by the din, had decamped to the guns where they were energetically digging straight down.  I then gave orders to close down the command post and accompanied the remaining personnel, the stretcher bearers, and the P.O.W.s, back to C Troop command post and again requested tank support from R.H.Q. because I knew the G.G.H.G.s were in the village.  But no dice — so I walked, ran, and crawled back to the guns without getting shot or in any way damaged, although I was scared especially when Very flares lit up the whole area like day.  You feel as if you have no clothes on, and everybody is looking at you.
What made the situation very trying was a Jerry with a Spandau who had dug himself in between Fox Troop and the Battery Wagon Lines and was creating a little hell of his own by the light of a burning Workshops vehicle which, by the time I was back at the guns, was illuminating the rear of our position and, unfortunately, our own vehicles in the wagon lines.  More and more it was obvious that the best place for us was in the slit trenches.  For a time I thought of firing the 25-pdrs. using air burst with a low fuse setting to get at the Germans in the woods ahead of us.  I knew they were there because I had gone forward and listened.  You could hear them talking but the trouble was to know exactly where the sounds originated, as there was by this time an incredible racket everywhere.  And then I remembered the Kraut with the Spandau and what he might do to us if he saw the gunners silhouetted in the flash of the guns.  So I returned to the gun area and gave orders that no one was to use his small arms until he could be sure of hitting his target and that no one was to leave his slit trench — not that anyone now was likely to want to.  In addition I made it clear that in the event the enemy took us on, no one was to fire until I gave the order, so that we could gain the maximum surprise.
Meantime the Jerries had moved in on the Battery Wagon Lines, had engaged the drivers with potato mashers which set several of the vehicles on fire, creating a huge blaze enlivened by exploding ammu­nition.  This fireworks was further helped by our C.P.O.'s decision to direct our own artillery fire upon the enemy using the road and the edge of the woods as an approximate target area.  Eventually both field and medium guns were in on the act.21  Their fire, coupled with the effect of German small arms fire and mortaring, made life about Fox Troop exceedingly lively and perilous.  As at Monte Maggiore, my gunners and N.C.O.s were admirable in the face of so much adversity.  You could not ask for better men.
21.   The 17th Field Regiment's report on operations reveals that the Regiment and the 2/11 Medium Battery, Royal Artillery, fired on twenty-two targets, many of which were in the map square belonging to the 17th Field, and some of which were extremely close to or on Fox Troop's position.  Altogether the artillery fired some 325 rounds of high explosive during the engagement.
I made one more trip back to C Troop command post for three reasons: one, to protest the rounds from our own artillery that were falling on or very near our gun position; two, to get my Browning 9 mm cleaned as I had got dirt in the mechanism either from crawling or from rubbing against the side of my slit trench; three, to ask if I could have a Bren gunner and a couple of riflemen from the Irish to help me get the Jerry with the Spandau.  I saw him as a menace both to my gunners and to the drivers and their vehicles.
My plan was, if the Irish would give me covering fire from the flank, to sneak up on him from the rear of my guns.  So long as his attention was fixed on what was ahead of him or on fire that forced him to keep his head down, I was sure I could kill him.  With the amount of illumination available, I thought the Irish would have no trouble seeing me as I moved in.  It was, however, a plan that made no appeal to the Irish, and they refused to go along with it.
Now that I know what I do, I am sure I owe my life to Irish caution, for had I moved in upon the man I wanted to kill, I should have been picked off by Jerries concealed from me by the ditch and road that divided E and F Troops.  In the end we burned them out.
Once more I returned to my gunners through what seemed to me a real inferno of bursting shells and small arms fire.  You have no idea how attractive a hole in the ground about two feet by five feet by six is in these circumstances.  The one I had, I shared with one of my gun sergeants, an older man who was a bit embarrassed when both of us had to pee.  We contrived to do so by each of us digging out a small hole — exactly as a cat does.
None of my gun sergeants reported any casualties, and each one was steady and clear in giving response to my requests as to how each crew was faring.  We could see groups of Jerries at a distance moving in and out of light from burning vehicles and explosives.  They were now deep in the regimental area and, judging by the amount of small arms fire, meeting with very considerable resistance.
I found in the morning that the Battery Command Post personnel and those of E Troop command post, as well as E Troop gunners, having run out of S.A. ammunition, were forced to yield their positions and fall back on R.H.Q.  In the process, E Troop spiked its guns before withdrawing.  Meanwhile, ignorant of these happenings, we crouched in our foxholes and watched the fireworks and hoped the heavy stuff stayed away from us.  It was perhaps 0330 or 0400 when we were discovered.
A section of the enemy — perhaps fifteen or more, coming from the direction of the village — found, or perhaps just stumbled upon our position.  We could see them more clearly as they moved toward us, no mistaking their identity especially the potato mashers they carried and their close fitting helmets.  The gunners waited in silence.  When the outlines seemed to tower over us, I gave the word.  One burst from our weapons and the outlines changed shape and then faded.  Trouble was we didn't kill all of them, and four or five of the wounded couldn't get away.  I fear I must carry the cries of one of them to my life's end.  We could not evacuate them or give them much assistance.  That's one of the puzzling things about combat.  You can kill a man and forget about him, but wound him badly and you face a quite different set of circumstances.  One of our gunners,22 ignoring my order to stay in the slit trenches, got to one of the wounded, who was calling piteously, gave him water and a blanket and put him in a vacant slit trench.  It was, as I think of it now, the act of a brave, humane man, especially as the field around us was a ragged kaleidoscope of explosives — our own and the enemy's — with shrapnel singing off the steel of our guns.
22.   William Bull of FB gun.
And this continued until just after dawn, perhaps until 0600 hours, when greatly to the relief of our cramped bodies and weary minds we saw in the grey light and cordite-soaked air of our battlefield a Churchill tank from an Assault Squadron of the Royal Engineers come lumbering across the field towards us.  As the firing had died down, I climbed out of my slit trench and waved to the officer peering out of the iron monster's hatch.  The tank stopped; I climbed up the near side, and pointed to where I thought the Germans might be, whereupon the tank gunners began lobbing mortar bombs and spraying the woods with machine-gun fire.
Behind us I now caught sight of Wasp flame throwers from the Irish licking their way forward along the roadway where the Germans had dug in.  It was a ghastly spectacle.  The Germans died neatly, all facing the same way and nicely spaced.  Later, when I inspected them more closely, I could see no marks on them — just dead men and already swelling up.  I found the machine gunner whom I wanted to kill.  He had tried to get away but perished in flame curled up rather like the man and woman I saw who died in the eruption of Vesuvius in Pompeii.  I got the belt buckle off him for the sake of the "Gott mit Uns" on it.
And then the Germans came out of the woods to surrender, some old, some very young, and, to our surprise, a half-dozen very tough-looking women who scowled at us as they passed through.  That such a rag-taggle of people gave us such a hard time all night long is past my comprehension.  Of course, our own counterfire was not as effective as it should have been, but old Jerry had proved a damned formidable foe, and he'd caught us this time where we should not have been.  Someone blundered a little bit.
And the shambles that was Fox Troop gun position!  The wounded Germans were in bad shape.  One of them directly in front of my slit trench was, I am certain, my victim.  His grey face, his helpless hands, and the blood-soaked crotch of his grey-green trousers left me much dismayed.  He was still alive but no longer moaning.  We sent him to the rear on a stretcher.
Back in the Command Post I found my signaller dead, with staring eyes.  The gunner with me wouldn't touch him so I carried him out and put him in a Red Cross jeep.  I remember him so well: a quiet, kindly man of slight build who had, on occasion, as we awaited fire orders from his set, shyly told me of his wife and wee daughter awaiting his return on Canada's west coast.
And my guns!  Three of the four out of action, their aiming mechanisms twisted and broken from shrapnel.  Two caissons had flat tires and damaged doors.  Behind us were the skeletal remains of my troop's vehicles.  But the really good news!  Not one of the gunners had suffered any physical harm — not that we were that much more presentable than the P.O.W.s passing through us.
At the Battery Wagon Lines we were not so lucky, where one driver had been killed and sixteen wounded, one of whom died later in hospital.  I have worried much about them as I wonder who checked on them the night before and how it happened that most of them were sleeping under their vehicles when Jerry caught them.  They certainly knew how exposed our position was, and they would have seen the gunners on the previous evening returning to the vehicles for their rifles, the Bren gun, and ammunition.  Furthermore, they must have seen the gunners digging in around the guns.  But the example was lost on them.  They prepared only one slit trench.  Certainly, I never thought of them until I saw one of the vehicles blazing — which bothers me for I knew the drivers well and felt responsible for those of my own troop — and yet I do not recall ever having assumed this responsibility for the wagon lines; that was something left in the Sergeant Major's hands.  But this at the best is an excuse for something I didn't do.  A kind of irony attaches to this happening because my George vehicle in the occupied woods survived with only a flat tire.  The driver spent the night in a slit trench beside it and was never flushed out by the Germans.  And yet, a few yards away, were dead horses and smashed equipment that belonged to the enemy.
But that's war — so unpredictable — where the boundary line between praise and blame is sometimes hard to detect.  You have no time to change your mind once you are committed.  Had I lost all my gunners by electing to fight at the guns I should, I daresay, have been blamed for making a bad decision.  I could instead have spiked my guns and withdrawn back to the relative safety of the village.  That we did not do so, that we had no casualties at the guns, that we took in twenty-one prisoners, that, pace Montgomery, we killed five Germans and wounded at least that many more within a few feet of our position, may be matters for some praise and justification for the stand we took.23
23.   The Irish Regiment of Canada had 3 O.R.s killed, 3 officers and 14 O.R.s wounded.  The Irish took 22 Germans prisoner.  The 17th Canadian Field Regiment had 3 O.R.s killed, and 20 O.R.s wounded.  The 17th estimated that they accounted for 23 Germans killed, 11 wounded, and 36 taken prisoner.
But the praise, I think, should be muted.  It was a freak accident of war that for over nearly smothered us in destruction.  It could have had no possible effect upon the outcome of the war.  Friend and foe died and suffered for little reason.  Had someone ordered things a bit differently, the Regiment would not have been assigned to Map Reference Otterloo 6591.
In concluding my account of Otterloo, and the longest of my wartime letters, I warned Iain that what I had written was only my own impression of what had happened.  "Maybe," I said, "I shouldn't have told you what I have.  It's all somewhat like a bad dream that I wish I could forget."
But although Otterloo was, as I put it later, "a monstrous caprice of war in which the rag ends of a German battalion came close to savaging us," I, too, may have been exaggerating just as fifteen years later military historians, trying to be coolly objective, downgraded "the so-called 'battle of Otterloo'" into a "fierce little skirmish" in which the Germans suffered "possibly 300 casualties, with between 75 and 100 killed."24  But for the Regiment, that "fierce little skirmish" north of Arnhem will in all likelihood remain a battle honour as long probably as its gunners have memories to give it a place alongside the Liri Valley and Monte Maggiore, Coriano and the Marecchio, the Fiumicino and the Lamone.
24.   C.P. Stacey, The Victory Campaign: The Operations in North-West Europe, 1944-45 (Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1966), Vol. III, pp 578-79.