I served in ‘A’ Troop 85 Battery, 11th (Essex) Med Regt, Royal Artillery, during World War Two.
On the 20 October 1944 we were involved in the battle to clear the River Scheldt of the enemy in order that the Allies could get shipping down to the port of Antwerp.
We had orders to move to new positions ready in preparation for the battle of Breskens and - because of the weather conditions and very bad flooding - we had to send an advance party forward with the reconnaissance party to lay a platform of railway sleepers on which to stand the guns so that the wheels didn’t get bogged down in the mud.
We arrived at a farm that had been selected as our position. There were already some tanks and an assortment of military vehicles on the site. The tanks were 284 Armoured Assault Squadron, Royal Engineers, who were refuelling their ‘Congas’ (a modified Bren gun carrier with the engine removed and a storage tank to hold Liquid Nitro Glycerine in its place) - these were used in a system for clearing mines. The LNG would be pumped into a pipe or a hose and detonated to explode any mines either side of it.
At approximately 13:00 hours there was a massive explosion, which was devastating. We all instinctively hit the deck and lay there until the debris had stopped falling. When I looked up the tanks were badly damaged and burning, and other vehicles were also on fire and exploding - the carnage was terrible.
Exactly 50 years later in 1994, Martin Reagan, who was a Sgt Tank Commander in 284 Squadron at the time of the incident, went back to Holland to retrace the journey to the farm at a place called Ijzendijke. He introduced himself and was made very welcome along with his three sons who made the trip with him.
As a result of his visit, the local people said there should be a memorial set up in honour of the men that died there on that fateful day. There were a total of 41 killed, 16 missing and many wounded.
The Dutch people set up a committee to raise funds locally, and Martin did the same when he returned home to England. After considerable hard work and countless fund-raising letters, a large sum of money was made available with contributions coming from as far as Canada as well as the UK and Holland. The memorial was built and finally unveiled at a ceremony attended by a large number of veterans, relatives of those killed and Dutch people in October 1997.
There was a Court of Enquiry held at the farm on the day following the disastrous event, and both Martin and myself have tried to obtain a copy to see what the official findings were as to the cause of the explosion. Martin explored various avenues within the Royal Engineers and even employed the assistance of a researcher to visit the Public Record Office at Kew but to no avail.
I tried the Royal Artillery Museum, the Imperial War Museum.
As a last resort, I wrote to Professor Richard Holmes at the Security Studies Institute to ask if he could give advice as to where else we could search. In his reply he stated that if there is a copy of the findings of the Court of Enquiry it would almost certainly be at the PRO at Kew, but as we discovered previously it is not.
Martin knows that there had been trials in using the ‘Congas’ about a month before the explosion at Ijzendijke, and the conclusion was that the practice was extremely dangerous and therefore should not be used. This information was never passed on to 284 Assault Sqd, nor was information on the correct handling procedure for such a volatile substance as Liquid Nitro Glycerine, which should never have been transported in ‘Jerry’ cans.
The casualty list at Ijzendijke on the 20th October 1944 was:
Killed: 284 Armoured Assault Sqdn - 27; Royal Canadian Army service Corps - 10; ‘A’ Troop 85 Bty, 11th Essex Med Reg - 3; REME - 1.
Missing: 284 Armoured Assault Sqdn - 9;
Royal Canadian Service Corps - 7.
Also a large number of men wounded.
The farmhouse at Ijzendijke was completely demolished along with the barn. The orchard was stripped of all its fruits and trees destroyed.
Two daughters of the family De Doddelaere, who owned the farm, were badly wounded, but thankfully no civilians were killed.
Images from the explosion are etched on my mind forever.
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Philip Reinders, 2016