Alexander M. Ross. (1993).
Slow March to a Regiment.
St. Catherines, Ontario: Vanwell Publishing Limited.
This web page contains just over ten pages from the Ross book
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Each term will be defined only once in a paragraph, the first time
that it appears.
In the following account, the formal role of
Alexander M. Ross was that of
gun position officer
for F or
Fox Troop of the 17th Field Regiment,
Royal Canadian Artillery.
was awarded the
for his actions at Otterloo.
Permission for quoting this material from his book
was kindly provided by his daughter.
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.
and I were on the advance party which arrived at the village of
ten miles north-west of Arnhem, at about
The village was in the hands of the
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
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
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
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
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
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
was to our right and behind E Troop.
By early evening the village streets were crowded with troops and vehicles of the
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
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
and by 2200 hours I had prepared our
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
They even had the
mounted on the flank with a clear field of fire from a weapon pit.
I was somewhat relieved when three members of the
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
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
By the time he came on the line I heard someone yell out the challenge which that night
There was no reply, "Puck," and in seconds a
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
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
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
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
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.
next went after my Command Post, wounding one of the
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. were informed of my position and the Irish asked to provide a stretcher party
and some men to escort the
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
back to C Troop command post and again requested tank support from
because I knew the
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
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
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
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
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.
Jerries had moved in on the Battery Wagon Lines, had
engaged the drivers with
several of the vehicles on fire, creating a huge blaze enlivened by exploding ammunition.
This fireworks was further helped by our
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
were admirable in the face of so much adversity.
You could not ask for better men.
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
gunner and a couple of riflemen from the
to help me get the
I saw him as a menace both to my gunners and to the drivers and their vehicles.
My plan was, if the
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
caution, for had I moved in upon the man
I wanted to kill, I should have been picked off by
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
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
ammunition, were forced to yield their positions and fall back on
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
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.
William Bull of
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
Behind us I now caught sight of Wasp flame throwers from the
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"
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
Of course, our own counterfire was not as effective as it should have been, but
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
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.
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
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
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
But this at the best is an excuse for something I didn't do.
A kind of irony attaches to this happening because my
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
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
The Irish Regiment of Canada had 3
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.
C.P. Stacey, The Victory Campaign: The Operations in North-West Europe, 1944-45
(Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1966), Vol. III, pp 578-79.