2 RUR Assault Crossing of Meuese-Escaut Canal

Tuesday, 19 September, 1944

RUR crest/badgeThe 2nd Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel ‘Tommy’ Harris, was at Hacqueville, east of the River Seine near Rouen, when the Battalion was moved by Motor Transport on 16 September 1944, some 292 miles forward to participate in an assault crossing of the Meuse-Escaut Canal by 3rd Infantry Division to broaden a bridgehead established by the 50th (Northumbrian) Division. The 3rd Division included 9 Infantry Brigade consisting of the 2nd Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment, the 1st Battalion, King's Own Scottish Borderers and the 2nd Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles.

The 2 RUR route across France and Belgium passed through, Albert, Bapaume, Cambrai, Mons, Nivelles and Louvain, names associated with the RUR's actions in the First World War and the opening battles of the Second World War in the Retreat to Dunkirk. The Battalion arrived at Kolis south of Lille St Hubert at 1500 hours on 17 September and proceeded to dig in.

Orders and preparations were carried out during 18 September with company and platoon commanders conducting a somewhat limited recce of the canal by viewing the area from a church in Lille St Hubert. However, that afternoon, patrols moved into the village and recced towards the canal where they discovered a 6-foot wide ditch some 10-20 yards on the south side of the canal. Due to the canal's steep bank, it was impossible to provide detail on enemy locations, despite the best efforts of Captains Gaffakin and Boudains of B Company, who toured the area in civilian clothing.
The sequence of action was:

  • 1700 hrs: CO issued his final Orders. Deployed on the left of 9 Infantry Brigade's two-battalion frontage, 2 RUR was to advance on the left of the N748 route from Petit Brogel to Lille St Hubert; Zero Hour was to be 2359 hrs and the assault crossing would be carried out by B Company right, C Company left, A Company reserve on right, B Company reserve on left; Rifle platoons to cross in assault boats, jeeps and anti-tank guns on Class V Rafts, Company Fighting Echelon vehicles to follow on Class IX rafts; Battalion’s A and B Echelon supply transport to wait for Royal Engineers to build a Class 40 Bridge, then cross to support the Battalion.
  • 2130hrs: Battalion HQ establishes a Command Post in a house some 200 yards from the canal bank and adjacent to 2 RUR’s two company crossing points. Field telephone lines laid to companies in addition to establishing comms by 18 Set Wireless. Wireless comms was also established to Brigade HQ with 19 Sets.
  • 2230hrs: B and C Company under cover of dense ground mist move to Assembly Areas short of canal, Zand and Riet.
  • 2330 hrs: B and C Company arrive in position and await arrival of assault boats. Sapper NCO fails to contact OC Support Company, Major Wheeler, who is supervising this key element of the operation, the marrying up of assault craft to troops. However, all craft were present and once the Assault Pioneer Platoon managed effective unloading and launching, the lead assault companies embarked without serious delay, despite having to haul the craft up the canal bank’s 45 degrees incline for some 15 feet. Rifleman Green was later awarded the Military Medal for his coolness when, despite incoming enemy mortar fire, he continued to assemble assault boats while encouraging others, both verbally and by his example, to do the same.Meuse Escaut
  • 2345 hrs: From Z-15 to Z+15, 3 x Divisions’ artillery fired on various targets on the enemy bank with B Company reporting no casualties from rounds falling short into their area.
  • 0055hrs: Despite coming under MG fire during the crossing, both assault companies report objectives taken and a small bridgehead secured. In C Company, 15 Platoon was commanded not by an officer but by Sjt Rainey who would later be awarded the MM, including for his actions on the night of 18/19 September.
  • 0125 hrs: B Company reports 2 x POWs captured, C Company reports from its second objective taken and one section of the Bren Gun Carrier Platoon is in position covering C Company’s open left flank.
  • 0205 hrs: C Company, commanded by Major de Longueuil, reports enemy counterattack from left rear with enemy closed to within grenade throwing range.
  • 0245 hrs: C Company restores situation having driven off estimated 25-30 strong enemy fighting patrol. Captain Laving, the Company 2IC reported killed and two Riflemen wounded. For his actions during these events, Major de Longueuil would later be awarded the Military Cross.
  • 0345 hrs: B Company had crossed without casualties and achieved its first objective, a pathway some 200 yards inside the enemy bank. The second objective, a point north of a village had also been achieved. Recce patrols had pushed north to the rail line and south to the village, reporting enemy in strength in both locations. The CO, following discussions with OC B Company, directed A Company, commanded by Maj Sweeney MC, to cross the canal. The company commanders later conferred, and it was decided that A Company would capture the village from where the Germans overlooked the planned crossing site for the Class 40 bridge, yet to be constructed by Royal Engineers.
  • 0400 hrs: D Company was in position following its move forward across the canal to C Company’s left flank.
  • 0530 hrs: The lead platoon of A Company moves towards the village at first light while the ground mist still offers some obscuration. Contact is made when some 15 enemy are engaged around the first house. A further fire fight takes place when two horse-cart loads of Germans are engaged. They soon surrender when the platoon’s Sgt Peel lands a well-placed grenade in their midst. More prisoners were taken, and a POW sapper liberated – he had been captured during a recce the previous evening.
  • 0630 hrs: A Company reports the village clear. Moving on to its next objective, the Company suffers one fatal casualty, 2Lt Morgan, from a burst of heavy machine-gun fire.Meuse Escaut canal
  • 0730 hrs: D Company, having moved forward onto the railway crossing, its original objective, was relieved by A Company to cover the Battalion’s open flank.
  • 0800 hrs: 2 RUR is firm in its adjusted positions.
  • 0830 hrs: Battalion Assault Pioneer Platoon and Royal Engineers make great efforts to simultaneously cross the canal with guns towed by jeeps on the Class V and Class IX rafts.
  • 0900 hrs: Battalion Headquarters crosses the canal. Prior to this, from the home bank the CO had exercised agile and responsive tactical command and control over all four companies forward and in contact on the enemy bank as a result of an excellent and successful communications and radio/wireless plan, one of the key factors in the operation's overall success.
  • 1000 hrs: All Anti-tank guns are in position and there are no signs of an enemy counterattack.

The operation had cost the 2nd Battalion The Royal Ulster Rifles three killed and 20 wounded.

(Images are from the IWM Collection, upper right - BU 954 and lower right - BU 958)