This post is the second post in a series chronicling the life and wartime experiences of Dacker Thicke. Born on 18 January 1924 in Kirkland Lake Ontario, Dacker joined the Canadian armed forces at the tender age of fifteen in 1939 and was discharged for long service in 1945. He was overseas in active service for five and a half years.
To read part one of this series please click here.
A Narrow Escape from a Bridge too Far, Part II
Later that same day we received orders to turn over our boat duties to a Royal engineer company and take part in a rescue operation to assist the British 1st Airborne Division (paratroopers who were nicknamed the Red Devils) who were surrounded on three sides by Germans and the fourth side by the river due to poor communication from command and unfavorable weather for re-enforcements. They were cut off from all assistance and had to be transported to our side by crossing the river in boats we were to provide and man.
The Red Devils had found themselves surrounded and had been left to their own survival due to the promise of tank support that never materialized. Their only escape from their doomed position was to cross the river and find the protection of friendly forces. The river flowed at a fast twenty knots per hour and some of the men were forced to swim as the boats were being heavily shelled when they crossed to help the stranded men.
Unfortunately, to reach the Red Devils from the opposite side of the river meant to do so under constant German machine gun fire. My company was allotted a place to dock our sixteen-foot assault storm boats which were operated by an Evinrude outboard motor. We were to carry our boats up an incline and across a highway. The highway was strung with three strands of heavy duty steel wire with steel posts connecting them on both sides of the road. The Germans also knew where the crossing point was as it had been used on two previous nights. Below the line of machine gun fire was the exact place we had to cross the highway and therefore the Germans kept up a constant line of machine gun fire on that very spot.
The machine gun was locked in place and fired from a great distance away. This particular gun used bullet packs and every eighth bullet was a phosphorous bullet which would light up where their fire struck. This enabled the Germans to be sure that the gun was pointed in the exact direction and place they wanted to cover, but it also informed us of the same information.
The whole company was stalled because of the constant fixed firing from across the road. The enemy could raise or lower their firing at will if a large vehicle tried to drive down the highway. The officers were stymied about what to do. I studied the timing and the distance above the road and took note of how long it took each full pass of the machine gun to move from one side of the road to the other. I did so by counting the lighted phosphorous bullets passing the centre point of the road.
I made a decision, returned to my scouting car and picked up large wire cutters before returning back to our loading site. To the great surprise of the assembled officers, I crawled flat on my back across the road. Bullets passed mere inches above my face as I waited for the machine gun to continue its pass across the road. As the sun was setting it became easier to see the phosphorescent bullets, and I knew that when I saw one bullet there were eight before and eight bullets following after it. In the time in between the passes of the gun I reached up with the wire cutter and cut the first wire. I had to chew away at the wire because it was at least an inch thick and required many swipes of the wire cutter. I would wait, then lift the cutters, cut as much as I could then quickly lower my hands as the bullets whizzed by. I repeated this process until finally the first wire was cut through. It seemed like it took forever to cut through that first wire but I had no time to count my blessings before I was onto the next one.
The bullets came streaking over my head. I would hold my breath while the bullets would whizzed above, praying silently to God under my breath until I would see that phosphorous bullet and then resume. The wires were strung on steel poles every twelve or so feet and there were three lines of wire per post. Sometimes the bullets ricocheted off the poles and I prayed none would hit me before I could cut the last wire. I reached up and cut through the next wire, then the bullets came over me again and I went on like this chewing away at those thick wires with the cutters. I had been lying there cutting the wires for what seemed like hours, sweating and saying my prayers. I started to wonder what would happen if the Germans saw what I was doing and lowered their gun a fraction toward me, but lucky the Neder rijn is a wide river and I went unspotted. My hands were shaking and wet with sweat but I finally cut through that final wire and shimmied my way back across the road on my belly.
No one on my side of the road had dared to look over to the level of the road for fear of being shot. I counted the tracers and made my move flopping over the side of the road in between gun blasts. I rolled off the highway and into friendly arms. The whole time I had been cutting the wires, Red Devil paratroopers who had been able to swim across the swift current of the river were calling for help. They were dressed in the minimum of clothes and freezing as they waited to cross the road. They had stripped down and were barefoot so as not to be weighed down by their heavy boots when swimming across. God knows how many men had drowned trying to get across that river or had been cut down by machine gun fire when they reached the opposite bank. It was later revealed to me that the Red Devils had suffered very heavy casualties and had been much reduced in number. I believe that this was the last action by the Red Devil paratroopers in the Second World War. They called out that they were friends and we in return told them to wait and that we were coming to help them across the road; they replied with a flurry of salty language that we should at least try to help them before they froze their “balls off.”
I informed the Sergeant Major that the obstacles were now eliminated. He was somewhat mystified that I had returned from the road. I think everyone had believed that I would have been shot down after I leaped onto the road with my wire cutters. We were still unsure how we were going to get the sixteen foot motor boat across the road. With nerves burning a hole in my stomach, I asked permission to return to my scout car to replace my wire cutters and have a drink of bicarbonate soda. The entire ordeal had given me terrible heartburn (in those days we knew nothing of tumms). My stomach now relieved I returned to the action sight, but there was still confusion as to how to safely move the boat across the highway without getting all shot.
Taking up my wristwatch I suggested to the Sergeant Major to count the time it took for the German fixed line of fire to cross our point and to reach the far end and how long to return back to us. We had twelve seconds. If we lined up the boat with twenty or more men on each side, we could lift the boat and rush across down the other side with seconds to spare. He lined men on both sides of the boat and practiced lifting it several times. With many desperate men lifting, the boat was as light as a feather. Two men were needed to carry the motor across as well.
I suggested to the men that when the signal is given go, go like mad! At the measured time we heard go and we lifted that boat in a flash and we were down the other side with everyone sitting down well below the machine gun fire. We were surprised to see a number of Red Devils, some with only their shorts on dripping and shivering. They were the soldiers that were desperate enough to tackle the fast running river. All they could say was, “where in hell were the tanks they had been promised.” I told them they could cross the road by crawling on their stomachs or timing the machine gun passes. Then the Germans must have spotted our action as they started the mortar fire, of which the anchored boat was one of the first casualties. Everyone now knowing the timing followed the order and rushed back over the road and away from the mortar fire as we were out of range across the road.
We were able to guide many Red Devils survivors across the road with voice and light directing them to our location where they were clothed and fed. Our company retired to our base camp where we had overtaken a large SS building which was vacated. As the Germans vacated the building they had left behind the best of cooking equipment, so we took it over for our cook shack. Our cooks claimed they had never seen such high quality cooking facilities.
Several days after the Red Devil operation I was sitting at a table eating breakfast when a dispatch rider came to me and very officially handed me a pen and pad, ordering me to sign my name. I thought I was being sent home because of long service. He handed me a letter and out of curiosity waited as I opened it. He did not usually deliver letters of this kind to lower ranked men and was surprised when he found me. I opened the letter and was completely dumbfounded to find that I was being awarded the Military Medal for Bravery (see below).
As I read the letter my mind was blown and I had difficulty finishing my breakfast, so I set off to find the Sergeant Major. I found him and showed him the dispatch. He came back to me and told me to follow him to the Officer’s Mess Hall. When they read the dispatch they poured each of themselves a drink, including the Sergeant Major, minus me (this being the Officer’s Mess and me not being an Officer) and they all drank a toast in my honor. The Sergeant Major then said to go to the Quarter Master’s truck and told me he would give me the military medal ribbon to have sown onto my tunic to show I was decorated and that was that. I went back to the cook shack and ordered a fresh breakfast.
Here is the official account as stated by the commanding officer:
Recommended for the Military Medal, in recognition of gallantry and utter disregard for his own life and setting an example of bravery to his comrades which was directly responsible for the operation being carried out according to plan.
On the night of the 26th/27th September 1944 at Map Reference 683759 Arnhem Sheet No.6 NW/W 1/25,000, storm boats and assault boats were being used to evacuate Airborne troops, the Dorset Regiment, and casualties from the North bank of the River Neder Rijn. On the North bank a factory was burning furiously which lit up the entire South bank of the river. This particular point was used on two previous nights for assaults across the river and it was being continuously watched by enemy snipers on the far (North) bank. Immediately any movement on the near bank was seen by the enemy, flares were sent up and concentrated machine gun fire was made.
A flood bank with a 12 foot roadway on top of it had to be crossed and this was in direct view of the enemy. It was necessary to cut down three strands of thick wire on two fences on either side to allow the storm boats to be carried across the road and down the 400 yards of open country to the beach. Sapper Thicke without hesitation walked up to the wire and by bending it many times with his hands, and in direct view of the enemy, broke the wire. He immediately went across the road and continued the work on the North side of the road and removed the strands of thick wire with wire cutters and with a shovel removed the iron post.
Immediately after this was done he joined the carrying party and assisted in carrying the first storm boat to the beach. While this was being done, the enemy brought heavy machine gun fire on the party. When the next storm boat was to be launched, Sapper Thicke tried to join this party even though he had not been detailed to do so. Again, when volunteers were asked for to cross the river in assault boats, Sapper Thicke was the first to volunteer to make the hazardous trip.
About the Author
Dacker Thicke is an accomplished and published author of four books, one of which, Piper To The Rear, shares accounts of his military service. He is the uncle of both Alan and Todd Thicke and is the father of Lori Thicke, who is the President and co-founder of Translators Without Borders. Dacker has lived a long a full life and likes to boast that he has worked any job that is worth having and a few that aren’t. He even has a pilot’s license and has flown float planes for many years, and has also started a number of different businesses. Dacker’s books can be purchased through amazon.ca.
For more information, please view Dacker’s blog: dacker.org