John Billingham 7th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders Feb 1945

Discussion in 'Veteran Accounts' started by Adrian Billingham, Apr 24, 2020.

  1. Adrian Billingham

    Adrian Billingham New Member

    My Dad was a proud Seaforth Highlander. Unfortunately, he died a few years ago, before I found this site. Despite being called up in 1943, due to a number of (fortunate) false starts he didn't see any action until February 1945, when he was moved into the Seaforths. I thought I would upload his story (as I know it) as it is probably not that unusual given the chaos of the times, but I thought it might be of interest.

    My Dad, John (Jack) Billingham was born and raised in Netherton in the Black Country.

    He was called up in July 1943, 4 months after his 18th birthday.

    Like a lot of working class lads at the time he was deemed as being a bit scrawny and underweight and was sent to a Physical Development Unit for several months to build him up.

    After this he was assigned to the Cheshire Regiment, where he trained as a Heavy Machine Gunner. Some of the training was on Salisbury Plain, and at one point he received a leg injury when a Bakelite plastic training grenade exploded next to him – his leg carried the scar for the rest of his life.

    Fortunately for Dad, not long before D-Day they decided that there were enough Heavy Machine Gunners and he was transferred to the Warwickshire Regiment, where he trained as a Bren Gun Carrier Driver. Eventually, he was sent across to France in September 1944; only to be told that they had enough Bren Gun Carrier Drivers. He was sent back to England and then across to Northern Ireland where he was put through his basic infantry training.

    He returned to France in February 1945 and on 22nd February was transferred into the 7th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, who had sustained high casualties. Reading internet bulletin boards and war diary extracts, it appears that the 7th Battalion suffered c25 casualties (including 13 killed as per CWGC) on the 12th February advance on Calcar, and c70 casualties (including 24 killed as per CWGC) on the 15th February attack on Moyland Wood, during the battle for the Reichswald Forest (Operation Veritable). There is an excellent description of the battles and participating regiments at

    The main battle for the Reichswald was over by the time Dad joined the Battalion, but on 22nd February Operation Blockbuster started, with the objective of taking the Hochwald forested ridge. The 7th Battalion was part of 46 Brigade of the 15th Scottish Division (which since January 1945 was part of the 1st Canadian Army) and was tasked with attacking woods to the north-east of Weeze.

    [Reading the war diaries, this action was finished by the end of February and the Battalion spent most of March training and preparing for the Rhine crossing, so the first major action Dad would probably have seen was on the day of the crossing].

    Not sure if the following stories Dad told happened during this battle or later, but at one point they were being shelled by German artillery and a piece of shrapnel, or a wooden shard from a tree, decapitated the guy advancing next to him. On another occasion, they advanced too quickly for the creeping barrage and ended up being shelled by their own (Canadian) artillery. They stopped their advance and after a while some Commando [Now think this was at the crossing of the Elbe [Operation Enterprise] as this was spearheaded by the 1st Commando Brigade, although they were also involved in the Rhine crossing?) appeared and wanted to know “what the bloody hell they were doing there as they should be first”. Dad was more than happy to let them go!

    Not sure if this happened to Dad’s battalion, but a group of British prisoners were taken into a barn by the Germans and shot. After this the attitude by some of the men towards taking German prisoners hardened and there were a couple of occasions when no mercy was shown.

    Operation Blockbuster concluded on the 5th March, when they linked up with the Ninth US Army, before continuing the advance to the Rhine.

    At 2am on 24th March, the 7th Battalion were in the second wave crossing the Rhine (Operation Plunder), somewhere between Wesel and Rees. They crossed in a canvas boat and (I have read) didn’t meet any opposition until later in the day when they ran into stiff opposition from German machine gun nests and later armoured counter attacks. Although not specifically related to this action, Dad often talked about the Brrrtt Brrrtt sound made by the German Spandau machine guns, compared to the slower thud thud sound of allied machine guns.

    Operation Varsity, the dropping of airborne troops behind the German lines started at 10am, and Dad remembered a great number of (Dakota) transport planes, each pulling 2 gliders going overhead, with many just being shot out of the sky by German anti-aircraft fire. From reports I have read, the 15th Scottish Division was able to link up with and reinforce the airborne troops in the afternoon of the 24th, thus avoiding the problems experienced in Operation Market Garden when the airborne troops were dropped too far in advance and were forced to surrender due to a lack of support.

    The Rhine crossing campaign was over by the 27th March and after that the battalion spent about a month advancing through Germany; much of it through villages and towns where they had to fight from street to street in places. It one town they were advancing behind a Churchill tank and as they approached a crossroads, two German tanks crossed in front of them. The Churchill fired two shots in quick succession, bang-bang, and knocked out the German tanks. Fortunately, because of the buildings in the way, the German tanks had not seen them. If they had and been able to turn to face them, with their stronger armour at the front, it would probably have been a totally different story! Air support was important and rocket attacks from Typhoon planes were used against German strongpoints.

    In Uelzen, Dad and a guy from Wolverhampton (don’t know his name), sheltered the night in a house. The German family were still there, hiding in the cellar and both sides kept to themselves.

    As they advanced the ground became flatter and more open, with the opposition being mainly members of the Hitler Youth (about 14-15 years old). On Luneburg Heath they were on a small hill overlooking an open crossroads when a German motorbike despatch rider was spotted coming towards them. They could probably have taken him prisoner, but one of the guys fancied himself as a sharpshooter and shot and killed him at distance (possibly as retaliation for the British soldiers killed in the barn?).

    At night it would get very cold and, because they had no anti-freeze, at night they would drain the water out of the radiators. One night they had to move a 5 ton truck and didn’t refill the radiator as they were only moving it a few yards. Even so, the engine overheated to the extent that it was igniting the fuel in the cylinder and wouldn’t stop – even with the ignition off and spark plugs removed. Eventually, Dad managed to stall it by putting it in gear and letting the clutch our while keeping his foot on the brake.

    At 2am on the 29th April, Dad was in the first wave of troops (15th Scottish Division and Canadian Commando) to cross the Elbe (Operation Enterprise). Dad crossed in a (Buffalo) amphibious vehicle and apart from the incident of advancing too quickly (that I mentioned earlier) it all went relatively smoothly. A few days later, British troops met up with Soviet troops by Wismar. Dad remembers this, but I don’t think he actually saw any Russians as he was in a different sector. He did remember seeing the Gloucester Meteor in action though – it was the first time an allied jet had been used and it was like nothing they had ever seen before.

    When the war ended on 7th May, the 7th Battalion was just outside Lubeck (Mollhagen per war diary). They were ordered up to the naval base at Kiel to accept the surrender of the forces there. As they approached Kiel, they were stopped by Military Police who told them they couldn’t go further as one of the German Battleships had refused to surrender and they thought it might open fire. After a few hours the situation was resolved, and they marched into the naval base with bagpipes blazing! The whole naval base was turned out with 100’s of Kriegsmarine on parade. One by one they had to march past my Dad and his mates to hand over their guns (like a scene out of a movie). Dad said he was really nervous as they were only a few of them and lots of armed Germans, but fortunately it all went off peacefully.

    After the war, Dad was stationed in Hamburg where, because he could drive, he used to ferry the Officers about in a Jeep. Hamburg had been devastated by the bombing and was in ruins. The population was starving, and you could get anything for a packet of cigarettes or a bar of chocolate.

    Dad returned to England in July 1946 to marry my Mum, but then had to return to the army. Not sure if he went back to Germany, but he was not formally demobbed until November 1947. According to his release book, Dad was in the 2nd Battalion, not the 7th. Because of this I struggled to find confirmation of the stories Dad told me until I came across the war diaries and other information shown on the website. I assume that because the 7th was only a temporary Battalion, it was disbanded at the end of the war and the men and their records reassigned to the permanent 2nd Battalion. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this website until after Dad died in 1995. Although he wasn’t in the Battalion that long and the fighting he saw was not as intense as some, it was a major part of his life and something he was very proud of – so much so that a schoolfriend who hadn’t seen him for 30 years didn’t recognise him and mistook him for a Scot due to his reaction to a Piper playing at the club they were in. He would have loved the website and I’m sure that it would have brought back many more stories and events which are now lost!.

    Attached is a photo of my Dad (John) on the left, with two of his comrades in the Seaforths taken at the end of the war. I think one of them is from Wolverhampton, but I don't know their names. View attachment 266663
    John Billingham and mates 7th Batt Seaforths 1945.jpg

    Attached Files:

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  2. Tullybrone

    Tullybrone Senior Member

    Last edited: Apr 24, 2020
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  3. Adrian Billingham

    Adrian Billingham New Member

    Hi Steve,
    Thanks for that.
    Interesting that the guy on the right was in the guards as I assumed they were all in the same regiment.
    I had a feeling that the guy sitting down was the one from Wolverhampton and think the photo may have been taken in Hamburg, so they may just be mates on a night out.
    I do have Dad's record of service card and his soldiers release book which was given to him when he demobbed in 1947, but I will have a look to see what other papers I can get.
    Do you know if it's possible to find out which company he was in, to match against the war diaries, or did they tend to move between companies as and when?
  4. Tullybrone

    Tullybrone Senior Member


    I think I can make out the “all seeing eye” badge on the bloke in the middle as well. As you say likely an immediate post war snap as GAD were disbanded July 1945.

    His service record will have much more detail of his service than the records you have currently. They don’t usually record moves below Battalion level I’m afraid. Those moves are usually found in Battalion Part II Orders but those records will be long gone into a bonfire.

    Last edited: Apr 24, 2020
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  5. Tricky Dicky

    Tricky Dicky Don'tre member

  6. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

  7. Adrian Billingham

    Adrian Billingham New Member

    Thanks TD - good shout on the medal ribbons I think.
    I have been exploring the site and threads for a little while and found out loads I didn't know or have been able to confirm a lot of what Dad told me.
    It's a great site.
  8. Historic Steve

    Historic Steve Researching 21 Army Group/BAOR post VE day

    Post VE Day the 7th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders served in 46th later 46th Infantry Brigade of 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division of and went into suspended animation 30 Jan 46
    2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders served in 152nd Infantry Brigade of 51st (Highland) Infantry Division later 13th Infantry Brigade of 5th Infantry Division then from 15 Jun 46 to 6th Guards Brigade of Guards Division in Hamburg!
    You can track your Dad's journey here (under construction)
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  9. Adrian Billingham

    Adrian Billingham New Member

    Thanks Steve - interesting but a bit confusing to a novice like me. Looking forward to disentangling it all :)
  10. Owen

    Owen -- --- -.. MOD

    The important bit of all that is you now know that photo was taken sometime after June 46. :)
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