In search of Private. T. Vincent (Great great Uncle Tommy), casualty of World War II
As a young girl, I have many fond memories of listening to my great grandmother Mary, re-telling tales of her early life. Her body then ravaged by arthritis left her unable to move without great pain, but her mind was still sharp and her memory most accurate.
It was no secret that from an early age she had “seen spirits”. The first, as a young child, was when she awoke to a small girl pulling at her blankets from the bottom of her bed. When she asked aloud “what do you want?” the young girl disappeared. Apparently they rarely spoke to her. I had two favourite incidents I used to ask Mary about over and over again. One was when she described seeing my grandad who was stood laughing in the suit he was buried in soon after he passed. He just appeared next to the fire place one afternoon, apparently roaring his head off! The other was of her younger brother Tommy whom she loved dearly. He was the only son born to Thomas and Margaret Vincent as Mary was one of several daughters, therefore Tommy was called up to serve in WW2 alone.
One day she recalls my grandmother Kathleen wanting to gather primroses. Mary turned to her and said “You can take Uncle Tommy’s penknife but be careful not to lose it. If you lose the penknife we’ll lose Uncle Tommy”. Unfortunately when she returned, Kathleen confessed to losing the penknife. That evening Mary had a premonition where she very vividly saw Tommy running dressed in his combats. She described him being near a bridge and as he ran he shouted “They’ve got me Mary”. A day or two after her dream, sure enough came a knock on the door. Sadly the uniformed gentleman stood with a telegram bearing terrible news of Tommy’s death although it was of no surprise to Mary!
Marynan as we used to call her lived into her 90’s. I went through my teens and into my twenties and went on to have 2 gorgeous boys. My youngests’ middle name is Thomas, named after this relative we never met, yet over the generations the description of this “lovely man” held fast. Fast forward 13 years and my eldest reads “The boy in the striped pyjamas” as part of his English studies. It sparked many conversations about the war, one question being “Did any of our family fight?”. Of course it prompted me to recall my great grandmother’s vision of uncle Tommy dying. My son was as intrigued as I recall being as a child, and so we thought we’d see if we can find out about his war days and whether Mary’s vision of her brother rang true. Who knew we’d get so far!
The War Graves Commission was a great place to start our search. We found that Thomas Vincent of Walworth, London died aged 32 years on 27/02/1945. His rank was a private and he fought in the 3rd British Infantry division and was a member of the 2nd Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment. His service number
was 6150056 and he died in Germany. He is buried in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery and we could even locate his grave number, his final resting place. The internet is a wonderful thing! I was able to see 5 photographs of the cemetery and could see row upon row of memorials. Infact I now know there are 7594 servicemen of the second world war buried or commemorated there. The cemetery was created after the war when burials were brought in from all over Western Germany and is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the country. Only 176 of the burials in the cemetery are unidentified, fortunately Tommy is not one of those. So this got me thinking. Let’s personally go and pay our respects and in advance of our travels, is it possible to find out more about his death?
At the outbreak of the war on 7th September 1939 the 2nd Battalion moved to Dorset to form part of the 3rd Infantry Division under Major General Bernard Montgomery. They formed part of the British Expeditionary Force which headed to France in late 1939. By 21st May 1940 it was clear they would be forced to withdraw. They waited on the beach at La Panne (Dunkirk) for their evacuation and whilst doing so they suffered 80 casualties.
On its return from France, the 2nd Battalion reformed and was sent to Frome in Somerset to be re-equipped to fight the expected German invasion. They trained throughout 1943 in preparation for the Normandy landings and remained in the UK until D-Day. Because of this lengthy training they were very well prepared but those who joined latterly as reinforcements only had 12 weeks training. I am yet to find out for sure at what point Tommy joined the battalion, whether he was a recruit prior to or post D-Day.
At the close of the battle for Normandy and after a brief stop in Belguim they arrived in Holland on 26th September. October saw the 2nd Battalion involved in some of the heaviest fighting since the end of June amid continual rain and mud at Overloon and Venraij. December proved considerably quieter. The battalion had printed its own Christmas card which was designed by the intelligence section following a battalion competition and many troops sent them home to their families. Christmas day on the Maas was a sad time. Every man got a bottle of beer and each received a can of plum duff. Men were gathered a platoon at a time and sent to the rear to enjoy Christmas dinner for an hour although spirits were said to have been very low.
On 18th January the battalion began further river crossing training in order to take patrols across the River Maas. Towards the end of January they pulled back to Venraij and they moved back to the Louvain area on the 7th February. Operation Veritable began on 8th February. Weather conditions were awful and mud slowed the troops. It was intended to advance significant numbers up to the Rhine through the Reichswald Forest, which was four miles deep. However the 3rd division had not been called on to participate in the first phase of clearing the forest or taking Cleve and Goch. During these intense battles, involving the SS, Panzers and German paratroopers, the 2nd Battalion had spent a quiet time in the back areas.
The battalion were next moved to Tilburg on the 24th February and then onto Goch going into trenches the following day. From Goch the 3rd divisions overall objective was to cut the line of the Udem-Weeze road and capture Kervenheim. Within this plan known as Operation Heather, the main action of the 2nd Battalion was to capture intact the bridge over the Muhlen-Fleuth on the road to Weeze. This operation was carried out to clear the final positions of the Germans west of the Rhine.
The night of 26th February a fellow comrade said “At Shaddenholf Farm that night we all knew it was the end, we expected to be killed. The surprising thing was that we all accepted it and because of that we fought better. Prior to that you fought but tried to save your life as well. But that night we thought it was our last on earth, so we gave the best that we could”.
The operation began at 7am on February 27th. The battalion initially captured 15 enemy soldiers and they reached objective Geurtzhof, codenamed ‘Duck’ by midday although the company was reduced to around 30 men for the onward assault on Kampshof. Due to mounting casualties they were ordered to secure the bridge and move at such speed that it was taken by 2pm with a further loss of just 3 men. The swift advance ensured that the bridge on the Uden-Weeze road in Rhineland was not blown. One platoon waded through the stream, a narrow tributary of the Niers river to capture the garrison at Schaddenhof. The Germans counter-attacked with tanks and infantry repeatedly during the course of the rest of the day and night, reaching and even entering the Schaddenhof farm buildings, desperately defended by the battalion. The Germans tried to cut them off between the farm buildings and the bridge and the dwindling ammunition made the situation desperate for the battalion. There was no armoured support of any significance on their side of the bridge, yet the men faced tanks and panzerfausts which fired directly at the farmhouse walls. The Germans entered the outbuilding and called on the battalion to surrender, and at times the situation inside the farmhouse appeared to the defenders, to be untenable. There were also concerns for the large number of casualties sheltering in the cellar below, who were unable to be evacuated for treatment.
However the battalion continued to put up opposition and managed to hold the farmhouse and finally the strong counter-attacks subsided at 4 o’clock in the morning. The battle had been a close run thing with 83 German dead and 150 POW taken. 9 officers of the 2nd Battalion had been killed and 147 soldiers had been killed or wounded. The Divisional commander re-named the bridge “Yorkshire Bridge” due to the fierce fighting and bravery of the East Yorks regiment in taking and holding it even when outnumbered and out-gunned. For 9 hours they bravely held it against superior numbers of German paratroopers despite low ammunition and heavy casualties. Although it formed just a small part of the overall operation, together, the jigsaw of small advances by all the Allied units ensured ultimate success, albeit a costly one.
So great great uncle Tommy bravely fought to the end. It turns out that Marynan’s vision was very accurate as he was likely taken near the bridge at Shaddenhof which is quite possibly the bridge she saw in the background of her dream! He would have most certainly been very fearful on his last evening of 26th Feb as described by a surviving comrade. It looks quite likely that he was killed somewhere between 7am-2pm and how sad to have valiantly fought so near to the end of the war, only to fall at one of the few remaining hurdles.
I am immensely proud of my ancestor and now that I know a bit of his story, I can’t help but feel like I know him. I am hugely thankful that he was identified which enabled him to have the dignified burial in the Reichswald Forest cemetery that he rightly deserved. This in turn lead to the placing of his very own memorial with thanks to the War Graves Commision for which we will go in search of as a family this summer. Some 72 years after his death, we will fly to Germany. We have created our very own lasting natural stone tribute which we will take with us and lay on his grave. As we walk on the land that Tommy fought fiercely to defend we will pay our respects to this wonderful man who did both his country and his family immensely proud.