In December 1944 the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own) found themselves in Holland, on the border with Germany. The 11th were an armoured car regiment, equipped mostly with the excellent Daimler armoured car, and part of the spearhead of the British 2nd Army preparing for the final push into Germany.
Previous wartime winters for the 11th had been spent in Egypt (1939), Libya (1940, 41 and 42), before returning to the UK in time for Christmas 1943. Since landing in France in June 1944, the regiment had come up against stiff German opposition, and the pause before crossing into Germany was a welcome opportunity to recharge batteries and refresh tired bodies.
In November, as the weather turned bitterly cold, the regiment had received an issue of the extremely welcome new tank suit, later known (affectionately) as the “Pixie Suit”. This was a blanket-lined windproof and waterproof one-piece suit which, using an ingenious selection of zips, could be made into a sleeping bag. It was very popular and survived in use until the 1970’s and beyond.
Shortly before Christmas 1944, most of the 11th Hussars were north of Maastricht, in the Netherlands, patrolling an area between the River Maas and the Juliana Canal, where German forces were trying to infiltrate the Allied lines. It was tiring, thankless work in poor conditions.
However, just before the festive season, Scottish troops of the 52nd (Lowland) Division had crossed into Germany, and A Squadron of the 11th was sent to support them, so on Christmas Day A and C Squadrons were out of the line, and could enjoy Christmas.
The regimental history describes the day:
‘The Christmas day of 1944 found little lacking in the fare available: pork, tinned turkey, mince-pies, Christmas pudding, cake, fruit, cigarettes and a couple of bottles of beer were provided for each man, while many a local fowl, hare, or even goose was somehow added to the menu.’
B and D squadrons had a harder time, but there was some distraction:
‘On Christmas Eve, a night which was bright and clear but intensely cold, there was a good deal of coming and going of horsed transport in the German lines; and soon after there drifted across the canal from Oud-Roosteren the sound of drunken shouts and singing. At first it was nothing more than the nostalgic strains of Heilige Nacht, Stille Nacht and the 11th Hussar patrols saw no need to interfere.’
However, as the evening went on: ‘Some orator began exhorting the men to fight to the death for the Fuhrer, and all the rest of it.’ So, as it was past midnight and B Squadron considered tolerance had gone far enough, the 11th called on their supporting artillery who quickly put a stop to matters!
The worst time was experienced by D Squadron in the ruined village of Gebroek. The Germans were only 500 yards away, so the village had been fortified and was occupied by a Troop under the command of sergeant W A Luke, MM, with 3 armoured cars, 2 scout cars, 2 anti-tanks guns (of the Norfolk yeomanry) and a tank belonging to an observation officer of the Royal Horse Artillery.
The night was clear and bright, with 12 degrees of frost. During the evening, sounds of a party could be heard from the enemy, and at one point a few drunken Germans appeared on horseback and offered to entertain the Hussars with a song. One of them is said to have been dressed as Santa Claus! They received ‘a rude answer.’ However, in the early hours (around 5.45) a sudden attack came from the Germans. Heavy shell fire and the severity of the attack, coupled with the artillery officer’s telephone lines being cut (thus preventing him calling for help) led Sergeant Luke to order a retirement to the west side of the village.
It was then found that none of the cars would start as their engines were frozen. The tank started, but its tracks were frozen into the ice, and none of the machine guns would fire because of the cold. As a result the fighting became hand to hand until the British could withdraw and call down supporting artillery.
B and D squadrons were withdrawn into reserve two days later and enjoyed a belated – and very welcome – Christmas Dinner!