Coigach Folk

COIGACH'S SACRIFICE IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR


Page 10

THE 5th BATTALION, SEAFORTH HIGHLANDERS


 

 

The 5th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders was mobilised on 1st September 1939 but did not begin active service until August 1942 – then in the Middle East. It formed part of the 152nd Brigade in a reconstituted 51st Highland Division. It took part in the North African campaign, in the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943, in the invasion of Italy in September 1943, and finally D-day and North West Europe.

The actions of the 5th Seaforths are well explained on the 51st Highland Division website – www.51hd.co.uk. and also in Alastair Borthwick’s book Battalion.

Lieutenant Donald Macleod (Donnie Beag) who bravely fought when a Sergeant at the Battle of Abbeville, was later commissioned and transferred to the 5th Seaforth Highlanders.

Donnie Beag and his friend Sergeant Donald Hugh (Hughie) Macleod, also in the 5th Seaforths, would also have participated in the following campaigns:

North Africa:

Capture of Tripoli January 1943
Medenine March 1943 - over 50 enemy tanks were destroyed
Mareth Line March 1943.


MarethMap1943.png

Sicily: Operation Husky June-November 1943 in which Hugh was awarded the Military Medal.

The 51st Highland Division returned to Britain in November 1943 and after leave settled down to training for the invasion of mainland Europe.

Normandy: Operation Overlord June 1944

152 Brigade commanded by Brigadier A J H Cassels consisted of 2nd and 5th Seaforths and 5th Camerons. In outline the operation was to invade the Normandy coast from the Carentan estuary to just east of the mouth of the River Orne. The role of the 51st Highland Division in the landing was as a second echelon division to support and fill in behind the first wave. After the landings the operations in the following weeks were some of the worst the Division had experienced. On 13th June 1944, 152 Brigade ran into stiff opposition in the area of St. Honorine and Demouville. Their attacks were driven off and they went into a defensive position north of St. Honorine.

Operation Totalise: The Breakout

The 51st Highland Division was placed under command of the Canadian Corps and on 6th August moved forward. The attack began on the night of the 7th, and when the operation ended on the 10th August the 51st Highland Division had secured all its objectives.

With the "Breakout" battle complete the 51st Highland Division had several days to recover before the advance continued. From Lisieux they advanced east, crossing the Seine and dealing with the enemy rear guard. The intention was to isolate the port of Le Havre.

Return to St Valéry 1 September 1944

It was General Montgomery's wish that the Division should recapture St Valéry en Caux and he asked the Canadian Army commander to arrange this. Carrying on they arrived at St. Valéry on 1st September where the 5th Seaforth and 5th Camerons met each other in the Station Square (below).

Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge

Ronchamps 10 January 1945

Rhine Crossing:

Late March 1945 – where tragically Lieutenant Donald MacLeod and Sergeant Donald Hugh MacLeod lost their lives.

 

Rhine Crossing Casualties
 

Donald (Donnie Beag) Macleod, DCM, Lieutenant 4th/5th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, Service No. 309865, previously Sergeant, 4th Seaforth Highlanders, Service No. 2818541.  Died 24th March 1945 aged 29.

Much of the information in this biography is taken from a 15 page booklet on Donnie, written in 2011 by Roderick F Macleod, a resident of Polbain, for the Coigach Community Heritage Group (CCHG). A copy is available to view in the CCHG’s archive.

Donnie, born on 24th December 1914, was the younger son of Murdo, crofter and Jane née Maclean of 5 Achiltibuie, who had married on 11th December 1902 at Achiltibuie. Murdo was owner of a Fifie, the “Flower of Polbain”, with which he sailed long distances in search of herring. There were six children in the family, four girls and two boys.

Donnie was a member of the Territorial Army, like most local young men, and they regularly attended the annual camp, often held at Dingwall or Aberdeen. The attraction of joining the “Terriers” was a paid annual holiday, a new pair of boots and a chance to get away from home and croft work. At the beginning of WW2 Donnie was already a Sergeant and had been awarded the Territorial Efficiency Medal.

Donnie was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in June 1940 as a result of his actions on 4th June in the Battle of Abbeville; his citation is evidence of his bravery.


TNA WO 373/16

 

Eric Linklater’s book: The Highland Division mentions Donnie individually.

“Some survivors reached their first objective about six hundred yards up the slope [of Mont de Caubert]. They were few in number. Sgt. Donald Macleod was the only man left of his platoon. When his Officer was killed, Macleod led the platoon. Man after man fell to the clattering machine guns that cut them down like a reaper. Macleod himself, badly wounded, went on alone.”

“The 152nd Brigade lost twenty officers and five hundred and forty-three other ranks in the day’s fighting. Its battalions had been exposed to close machine-gun fire, to mortars, artillery and dive-bombing, and the Highlanders had not spared themselves. They had been signally unwilling to admit defeat and when defeat could no longer be denied, they often retained a stubbornly independent attitude to it. Sgt. Macleod, for instance, left wounded and alone on the Caubert Ridge eluded the enemy for two days and nights and finally rejoined his Battalion.”

It is not known where Donnie was treated for his wounds, or how he managed to return to Scotland. He reported back to Fort George, near Inverness (his official depot) but he had no identity papers and was treated with suspicion by the officer in charge. So he asked for CSM Calum ‘Beag’ Macleod to be sent for, and Calum assured the duty officer that he was who he said he was. Donnie was then sent home on leave and returned for training at Fort George after a while. The 51st Highland Division was reformed and became part of the 8th Army.

Jim Muir recalls that after he was wounded and sent home, Donnie was lobster fishing with him for a while. According to Jim, he didn’t have to go back to the front line but chose to because all his pals were there.


Jim Muir (centre) and Donnie (right) at Badentarbet.  Photo courtesy of CCHG.

Donnie then joined the 5th Seaforths (because the 4th had been decimated in the Battle of Abbeville and then lost in the Division’s surrender) and his Service No. changed to 309865. He was promoted to Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), then sailed for Egypt via South Africa to join the 8th Army and moved forward to engage with Rommel at El Alamein. He had a brief leave to recover from malaria, after which he continued into Sicily with the Highland Division. Donnie was “commissioned in the field” in Sicily in October 1943 and made a full Lieutenant on 14th April 1944.

Donnie with his mother whilst on leave in 1943.  Photo courtesy of CCHG.

He then returned to Britain to join the preparations for the D-Day invasion as part of the Normandy force in June 1944. Training was carried out at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire and later at Wimbish, Essex. 

The Seaforths fought through Europe against fierce resistance from a determined German army as far as the River Rhine. This is where Donnie met his death, but not before meeting up near Brussels with his sister Seordag Murray, the well-known Gaelic singer and Gaelic enthusiast, who was serving in the W.R.A.C., the women’s army.



 

The town of Rees, near Groin, was a major immediate objective of the Seaforths, and Donnie, who was platoon commander in charge of carriers, went ahead with a patrol of 2nd Seaforths to reconnoitre a suitable route for his carriers. Unfortunately, the patrol came under heavy mortar fire and Donnie was killed. The same day, the Divisional commander, General Tom Rennie, with whom Donnie had served from Normandy onwards, was also killed. Donnie’s Commanding Officer, Lt. Colonel John Sym wrote a letter of condolence to his parents and stated -

 
Photo:  Des Philippet

Donnie was killed outright by a shell while he was collecting the men of his patrol on the far bank, after crossing the river Rhine. He is buried near the village of Essenden though it is possible that a central cemetery may be found at a later date.” This did take place, and Donnie now lies in Reichswald Forest War Cemetery in Plot 52.C.1.

Alistair Borthwick in his book Battalion says “The far bank was a level, featureless place, with most of the landscape still obscured by mist and the smoke of shell-bursts. Here we were met by Sergeant Mackenzie of the snipers, who told us that Lieutenant Donnie Macleod DCM had been killed. He had gone forward to gather advanced information for the Groin attack.” 

In addition to the letter of condolence written by Lt Col John Sym, which Murdo and Jane Macleod received on the 21st April 1945, the following was sent by Brigadier H W Houldsworth who had played a major part in reforming and training the 51st Highland Division and fought with General Montgomery through the Africa Campaign with great distinction and bravery.

Dear Mr Macleod, 

I feel I must send you this letter to say how deeply I feel for you and Mrs Macleod in the loss of your gallant son Donnie.

I so well remember meeting you both after Mrs Houldsworth and I called to see Donnie after he got home wounded from France in 1940. He had served under my command during that early fighting and had won the DCM for great bravery.

Long years have passed since then and although Donnie and I did not fight together again I saw him frequently both in the African desert and at home while he fought alongside our son Ian. 

From all I have heard he continued to show the same bravery and powers of leadership, and his death in action after crossing the Rhine is deeply mourned by all ranks of the Seaforth Highlanders.

I pray that you and Mrs Macleod may be comforted in the knowledge of the wonderful part which Donnie had played in the defeat of Germany and it is through great Highlanders like Donnie Beag that the 51st Highland Division has won its great name.

Mrs Houldsworth joins me in deepest sympathy; we were very fond of Donnie.

Yours very truly,
HW Houldsworth, Brigadier

In June 1945 An Gaidheal, a 12-page monthly newspaper published in Scottish Gaelic, included an article on Donnie. Here is an extract transcribed from the original:

Outstanding Gael falls in action

By the death in action in Western Europe of Lieut. Donald Macleod, D.C.M. (Donnie Beag), Seaforth Highlanders, of Achiltibuie, Ross-shire, the Highlands in general and Lochbroom area in particular has lost one of its finest sons. Lieut. Macleod met his death while with the famous 51st Division in the Rhine advance.

Donnie was a general favourite with all who were privileged to know him. He was a fine specimen of a Highlander, standing over six feet, fair complexioned, pleasant manners and a real Gael. He was probably one of our best singers of Gaelic Song in the traditional manner and during his training periods in the Dingwall and Aberdeen Districts, no Ceilidh platform was complete without him. He was also an actor of no mean ability and well I do remember his very fine performance in a Gaelic Play at the Lochbroom Provincial Mod a few years before the outbreak of war. Incidentally, his team won 1st prize in the competition. He took part in a Broadcast Ceilidh from Inverness and his sweet tenor voice and beautiful Coigeach Gaelic delighted thousands of listeners. We mourn the passing of a gallant soldier and a gentleman.

Sadly, Donnie Beag and his great friend Donald Hugh MacLeod (Hughie) (see below) died within days of each other. This article appeared in the press a fortnight later.



Donald Hugh (Hughie) Macleod, MM, Sergeant 5th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, Service No. 2820987.  Died of wounds 30th March 1945, aged 22.

Prior to enlisting, Donald Hugh (Hughie) worked as a plumber and originally came from Croft 157 Achlochan in Achiltibuie. He was the son of Jean (Jane) Macleod who later lived in Ullapool. He was born in 1921 - Coigach 075/2 1. Fraser Muir states that he was not in the Territorials prior to the War and did not enlist until after 1940.

The two most significant moments in Hughie’s military life are highlighted here:

On 1st August 1943 in the Battle of the Sferro Hills he was acting as Intelligence Sergeant. The Division was tasked to take the road from Sferro to Catenanuova but to achieve this it was necessary to clear the enemy of the Sferro hills who were positioned on a line of hills running north-west to south-east. At the north-west end was point 224. To the right in a fold in the ground was Iazzovechio farm and further right Angelico farm, with Mount Etna in the background.



As a result of his conduct, Hughie was awarded the Military Medal.



TNA WO 373/3

 

The second most significant and tragic event was a few days after the 5th Seaforths crossed the Rhine at dawn on 24th March 1945.

 

'The Primrose Path Battle ' - night of 28th/29th March 1945. The 5th Seaforth supported by a company of the 5th Camerons were instructed to advance and seize the crossings on the Aastrang River and the small tributary the Holtwicker Bach, codenamed Primrose I and Primrose II respectively. The thrust north would place the Battalion between the German defenders that were still holding Anholt and the Dutch village of Dinxperlo.

From the start, the Battalion Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel J M Sym, "did not like the look of the operation". In the early hours of the 29th March his fears came true. The battalion, straddled across the River Aastrang and by now far forward of the other troops, was attacked from two sides and part of it, including his own Battalion Headquarters was overrun.

Extract from: Battalion by Alastair Borthwick

I got the wireless sets in, and then went upstairs to see how Sergeant Macleod was getting on with the lay-out of Battalion H.Q.,” said Jack Latta, the Signal Officer. “Just as I reached the top of the stairs, shooting started all over the place. Hughie Macleod was firing a sten round the edge of the front door; and when I got to the hall window there were Germans within a hundred yards, dodging about among the buildings. I started shooting too. Then the hall was full of grey smoke with sparks all through it, and the door came flying off its hinges, and I was lying against the wall. Hughie was groaning at the door. It’s funny, but I don’t remember a bang at all – just the smoke and the sparks. It was a bazooka. Hughie was dying, and I didn’t know that. I dragged him downstairs. There were four other wounded there too. I turned back, and at the top was a German pointing a gun at me and shouting down into the cellar.

Well… what could we do? We could hear more Boche outside, scraping away at the earth and sandbags over the cellar windows. We were helpless, and one grenade would have been the end of us. We put our hands up.

The Colonel and the part of Battalion H.Q. that most mattered were marched off to a house a short distance away.

The Battalion’s casualties were fourteen killed and forty wounded. We recovered all our prisoners. Colonel Sym walked in under his own power, after escaping for the third time in two years; when our mortars stonked the area and the Germans fled to the cellars, he had hidden behind a stove and escaped in the confusion.

Early next day our armour was pouring over the bridges. The Germans had cracked, and the hunt was up.”

 

As well as Achiltibuie War Memorial, Hugh is commemorated on Ullapool War Memorial, and also listed on a memorial at the village church of Dinxperlo commemorating the ‘fallen for the liberation of Dinxperlo on 29, 30 and 31 March 1945.’

He is also included on the family headstone in Badenscallie Burial Ground.


Photo:  Roddie Macpherson

Frederick Bain and Christina Macleod were Donald Hugh’s grandparents and Hugh Macleod who died in France in September 1916 was his uncle.

Hugh is buried in Venray War Cemetery, Netherlands, in Plot IV.B.10.


Photo:  Fred

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