53rd Welsh

A World War II Living History Group

The 53rd Welsh Division in World War II

Overview 

The 53rd Welsh Division served with distinction in North West Europe, 1944-45, however it is mostly forgotten and sidelined. Many histories omit mention of it completely, or relegate them down to poorly cited and sourced footnotes. However the Division ultimately earned several hard earned (and fitting) nicknames. The British called them 'Monty's Darlings', as they succeeded in every task they were given. The Germans called them 'Monty's Butchers' as the Division tore through them. The liberated civilians from concentration camps called them 'The Fairy Godmother Division' for their help and generosity to those who had been left to die by the broken and dying Nazi regime.

The Beginning 

The 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division was, in both World Wars, a Territorial formation and had an excellent combat record. Yet, even in Great Britain, its exploits are quite unknown, perhaps because it often fought in less "glamorous" battles.

The first 53rd Division, raised as part of the pre-war Territorial Force, fought at Gallipoli and thence in the Middle East, mainly in Palestine.*

The division was reactivated as part of the peacetime Territorial Force in late 1919, covering Wales and the Borders, becoming a full part of the new Territorial Army in 1921. 

The division trained extensively and, when war came again in September 1939, the 53rd Division was fully mobilised, temporarily covering the vital ports of South Wales before moving, in October 1939, to Northern Ireland. The division returned to the mainland United Kingdom in November 1941 where, after another brief spell in Wales and the Border Counties, it moved to Kent where it was to remain until D-Day, training and preparing for the invasion of Europe.

The Normandy Campaign, June-August 1944

Click this link for the Order of Battle of the 53rd Division in Normandy

The 53rd Division did not take part in D-Day itself, for it was designated as a "follow-up" formation, which meant it was to reinforce the units that had gradually carved out the Normandy beachhead. The division began to land in Normandy on the 23rd June 1944 and by the end of the month it was ready to take part in combat operations.

By July, the battle of Normandy had become a bitter slogging match, as the British and Canadian forces struggled to seize the city of Caen from the determined German defenders. The 53rd Division was attached to VIII Corps, which was just completing Operation EPSOM. The 53rd Division began to relieve elements of the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division in the salient that had been created by this operation, assuming a defensive position which it retained until mid-July.

The capture of most of Caen on 9 July changed the strategic situation in Normandy, for now the British and Canadian forces had to focus on gradually breaking out of the beachhead they had fought so hard to create. While preparations were made for the great armoured offensive east of Caen - Operation GOODWOOD - to the west of the city the 53rd Welsh and 15th Scottish Divisions launched Operation GREENLINE in the salient around the Odon River, with the aim of drawing in some of the German armoured reserves that could have posed a threat to the forces east of Caen.

On the night of the 15th July, the 53rd Division's 158th Brigade attacked towards the village of Evrecy. For the next two days, supported by the Churchill tanks of 34th Tank Brigade, it fought bitterly against the German infantry formations holding Evrecy, before withdrawing on the 17th having suffered heavy casualties. However, the operation overall had achieved its objectives, retaining the II SS Panzer Corps in the Odon sector and preventing it from interfering with GOODWOOD. 

A section from one of the 53rd's Royal Welch Fusilier battalions is briefed during operations around Evrecy, 16th July 1944. (IWM)

The 53rd Division remained in the Odon Salient for the rest of July, fighting actions that were often very brutal - such as the German assault on the 1/5th Welch around Le Bon Repos that almost wiped out an entire company. At the end of the month the division took over responsibility for Hill 112, which it was able to secure completely by the beginning of August.

The American breakout towards Avranches and the British advance during Operation BLUECOAT had met with great success and victory was now in sight. The 53rd Division began to move towards Falaise in early August and crossed the river Orne to the north-west of the city at Grimbosq on the 12th. It began to close in on the city from the west, sealing off any possible German escape routes. On the 16th August, as the first Canadian troops were entering Falaise, then-Captain Tasker Watkins of the 1/5th Welch won a Victoria Cross as his company was surrounded during a bungled attack across the main Falaise road.

Following the closure of the Falaise Gap on the 21st August the 21st Army Group began to move up to the River Seine. The 53rd Division crossed the river on the 30th August and began to move into northern France and Belgium.

Captain, later Major Tasker Watkins VC, 1/5th Welch, 53rd Division

Operations in Belgium and Holland, Autumn 1944

Following its crossing of the Seine, the 53rd Division advanced across northern France with considerable speed, reaching the Lille area by 5th September and crossing into Belgium on the 7th. The following day, the division arrived at Antwerp, reliving the 11th Armoured Division which had seized the great port city. It remained guarding the  city and its immediate surrounds until mid-September. When Operation MARKET GARDEN launched the Allied Airborne Army into southern Holland, the 53rd Division advanced from Antwerp to cross the Junction Canal near Lommel, where it then fought hard to expand the salient south of Eindhoven. Following the closure of Operation MARKET GARDEN, the division continued to fight against German forces around Eindhoven before it was temporarily moved north to defend the "Island" area between Nijmegen and Arnhem.

On the 22nd October, the 53rd Welsh Division returned southwards from Nijmegen to capture the town of s'Hertogenbosch. For the next five days it was involved in some brutal fighting advancing to and then capturing the town. It was during this operation that Captain Tasker Watkins was wounded by a mortar shell and returned to the United Kingdom to recuperate. The 53rd Division finally cleared s'Hertogenbosch on the 27th October.

Riflemen from the 53rd Division advance towards s'Hertogenbosch, October 1944 (IWM)

Following continued fighting, the 53rd took part in early November in Operation MALLARD, which was designed to remove the Germans completely from the western bank of the Maas river. Beginning on the 14th November, the division fought its way across the Wessem canal, into the town of Roermond on the river Maas, in which area it remained until relieved on 18th December. In theory, the division was supposed to be having a rest period, but further south, events were taking place that were to take the 53rd Division back into action.

The Battle of the Ardennes and the Advance into Germany

The Germans' last great offensive in the West, known today as the "Battle of the Bulge", came as a surprise to the Allies. Despite early successes against American units caught off-guard, resistance soon stiffened. On the 20th December elements from the division's 71st Brigade were sent to cover the area around Dinant on the Meuse, where it fought several actions until the end of the month. As the New Year drew closer, the rest of the 53rd Division, attached to XXX Corps, was sent to reinforce the American units holding the northern sector of the "Bulge". On the 1st January 1945. the 53rd Division relieved the American 2nd Armored Division (the "Hell on Wheels") between Marche and Hotton, where it remained until 17th January, gradually squeeing the German forces back as the Americans to the south and west closed the Bulge. On the 17th, the 53rd Division was finally drawn into reserve back at Eindhoven, preparing for the Battle of the Rhineland.

A group of infantrymen from the 53rd Division take a break in the Ardennes snow (IWM)

 

 

 

After a decent rest period, the 53rd Division returned to the front line as part of the assault force for Operation VERTIABLE - the attack into the Reichswald forest. Following a heavy barrage on 8th February 1945, elements of the division began to push into the tangle of woods against heavy resistance. By the 17th February, however, the assault had secured the forest and by the 24th February the Welsh Division was able to capture Weeze. Following continued fighting in the countryside to the west of the forest, the 53rd was again withdrawn on the 7th March for a brief rest to prepare for the crossing of the Rhine and the final battle to secure Germany.

Welsh infantry advance through the ruined Reichswald, February 1945 (IWM)

On the 24th March 1945, Operation PLUNDER unleashed the British Second Army across the River Rhine near Wesel. The 53rd Division began to cross the river on the 26th and pushed north to Bocholt, which it cleared by the end of that month, reaching the river Ems.. The division then pushed across northern Germany, clearing the last isolated pockets of German resistance, before it reached Hamburg on May 4th. There it ended the war.

During the nearly-year long campaign in North-West Europe, the 53rd Division had fought in some of the toughest engagements of the war, particularly at places like s'Hertogenbosch and the Reichswald. During these operations it suffered 9,849 killed, wounded and missing. Remaining in Germany, the division formed part of the occupation force and ultimately became part of the British Army of the Rhine. Subsequently deactivated, its spirit lives on today in the 160th (South Wales) Brigade.

Notes:

* For more see The Long, Long Trail, "The 53rd (Welsh) Division in 1914-1918, http://www.1914-1918.net/53div.htm