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IJzendijke, The Netherlands


On 20 October 1944 at a farm on Isabelleweg near the town of Ijzendijke, the Netherlands a horrific accidental explosion occurred. The explosion caused the death of forty-one British and Canadian soldiers and caused injury to another fifty-one some of which would be fatal. The majority of the soldiers present on that fateful day were from 204 Armoured Assault Squadron, Royal Engineers and soldiers of the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps of the 7th Infantry Brigade. It is unclear what actually caused the initial explosion and since no official investigation was ever done the incident went basically unrecorded. Finally Lance Sergeant Charles Martin Reagan who was there as the Commander of a Churchill Tank in 3 Troop 284 Armoured Assault Squadron, Royal Engineers in October of 1944 decided to write his account of events which occurred on that sad day. His account is a tribute to the sacrifice of those who lost their lives, those who were wounded and those who survived with scars which cannot be seen, all deserve recognition and their efforts should be recorded.

The problems posed by modern fortification warfare of that time was before attackers could get to grips with defenders they usually had to cross an Anti-Tank ditch, pass through a minefield, find a way over thickly laid barbed wire. Then deal with defenders who are probably in very strong and deep concrete positions. Ordinary Infantry supported with conventional armour would find the above conditions very difficult to overcome and very costly. With these problems in mind the British Army set up in 1942/43 a specially equipped Armoured Division under the Command of Major General Hobart hence the name that this equipment later acquired "Hobart Funnies". The 79th Armoured Division (British) who operated the so-called "Funnies" had one Canadian Regiment (The Royal Canadian Mechanical Engineers Regiment from Calgary ) attached to them. The concept and uses of these specialised "funnies" is as follows:

Assault Vehicles Royal Engineers or ( AVRE’S):


The gun was removed from the self-propelled gun (105-mm) and the chassis of a tank remodelled to create the Priest or first Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC).

Nicholus Straussler, a Hungarian Engineer in Britain created the " Duplex Drive " which was a tank with canvas curtains, which enabled it to swim to shore at approximately 4 knots per hour. The tank was propeller driven by the tank motor. The troops called it the Donald Duck.

Major A.S. Du Tot of the South African Army invented the first "Flail Tank". Referred to as the "Sherman Crab" it had a flail mounted on the front of a normal Sherman Tank used against mines. The flail was controlled by the tank's engine. The flail would explode the mines in front of the tank creating a path through a minefield. To avert the success of the Flail Tank the Germans used timed fuses on some of their mines.

The "Conger" invented by the Canadians was the first minefield detonator consisting of a rocket that was fired over a minefield, the rocket pulled behind it a sixty meter length of flexible hose. Nitro-glycerine was then pumped into the hose with the aid of compressed air. A time fuse was lit which detonated the nitro-glycerine clearing a path through the minefield. Because of the danger involved it was later replaced by the new detonator called the "Snake" or "Viper" which used a 20 foot section of 3 inch pipe loaded with TNT connected end to end and was pushed into place by a Sherman Tank across a minefield and electrically detonated. It would clear a path 20 feet wide.

The "Carpet Layer Churchill" had a 100 foot length of cloth reinforced with strips of wood mounted on a hydraulic operated roller bobbin that would allow the tank to travel over the carpet.

The " Churchill Ark " was an armoured ramp carrier. It was a tank with the turret removed and replaced with two timber ramps on the top that would allow other tanks to pass over it at a wall or other tank barriers.

The "Churchill with Facines" was a bundle of wooden stakes wrapped together with wire to form a bundle that could be laid into a ditch. The bundles disconnected by an explosive link.

The "Goat Tank" was a tank with a hydraulic mounted shaped charge on a frame at the front of a tank. The tank drives up to an object, places the charge and backs off. An electric cable then explodes the charge.

The "Conker Nut Tank" was a tank mounted with sixty 4.5-inch rockets in a frame on top of the turret.

The "Petard Tank" or Mortar Recoiling Spigot was a short-range launcher that fired a 40-pound HE (High Explosive) bombs a distance of 75 yards. The British called it the "Flying Dustbin for the Canadians it was the "Airborne Garbage Can". Regardless of the name you most certainly would not want to be standing in the near when such an object went flying through the air.

The "Crocodile Tank" was a tank that had a detachable trailer of liquid fuel, which was towed and could fire 100-foot flames in short bursts for clearing bunkers and fortified positions. The trailer could be released by an explosive link. In action they were fearsome to behold and quickly persuaded defenders that there was no future behind concrete.

By virtue of the nature of work performed by these Engineers and the task described of these vehicles large quantities of explosives were always carried. The explosives were carried in storage compartments inside the tank but they required a primary explosion to activate them, which would normally involve a primer or detonator so these explosives were considered quite safe.

The 204th Armoured Assault Squadron was brought to the area by transporters and off loaded in the night some 20-Km's from the actual assembly area on the Isabellaweg Farm in the Netherlands. Lance Sergeant Charles Martin Reagan and his crew in 3 Fox would bring up the rear. During their lasts mission in France the unit was tasked to assist the Canadians in dealing with the cross channel guns west of Calais and Fox 3's specific task for that mission was to carry "Fascine". In order to fasten these large bundles of wood some 8 feet in diameter held together with steel cables to the front of the tank the light bar holding the masked headlights and as ultra violet light had to be removed. The light bar had not been replaced which left the driver in an impossible situation particularly when the road was summered in water. Sergeant Reagan contacted his Troop Commander by radio and received permission to stop and fix his lights. He was given a six-figure grid reference as to the location of the Squadron assembly point and the Squadron disappeared into the night.

The lights were fixed and as he proceeded to the rendezvous point he missed the turnoff to Isabellaweg and wound up in the village of Ijzendijke which fortunately was occupied by the Canadians. He met an Infantry Sergeant that confirmed his location and said he was sure there were no German Units in the area but there was some concern there may be snipers in the area. The Canadian Sergeant directed him to the correct road to the Squadron. It was late and very dark seeing no sign of the Squadron after travelling a short distance Sergeant Reagan decided to spend the night and continue the next morning in daylight.

The next morning they turned back along the road to Ijzendijke came to the junction to Isabellaweg and off to the right they could see the farm and made radio contact with the Squadron. Because of a damaged culvert they were asked not to travel over it and given a location at the entrance to the farm to park their tank. Sergeant Reagan went forward on foot over the culvert and was shown the parking space he and his crew was to occupy and at that time was told he would be responsible for the "Conger" in the forthcoming mission.

At the approach to the Isabellaweg Farm where the 284th Armoured Assault Squadron, Royal Engineers were deployed there was an entrance road to the farm of some two hundred and fifty meters and halfway along the road there was a dyke passing under the road through a culvert. The culvert had collapsed due to the heavy weight of the tanks passing over it the previous night and trucks could only cross the dyke with the help of a recovery vehicle.

Then along came a convoy of Royal Canadian Army Service Corps vehicles. They would have been carrying the usual load for these occasions, food, rations, petrol etc. and one truck would be carrying the nitro-glycerine for the conger. Each truck had a difficult time being pulled across the collapsed culvert by the Armoured Recovery Vehicle which was really a Churchill Tank with the turret removed and lifting and towing gear installed to help the mechanics to work on tanks. The A.R.V. was a very powerful vehicle and would give the trucks a very rough time pulling them over the damaged culvert. In retrospect one must shudder to think of the truck carrying the nitro-glycerine receiving this treatment since this unstable liquid explosive was to be treated with the greatest respect and caution. The rations would have been delivered to a central point while the petrol may have been taken around to the three troops and the nitro-glycerine taken to the Conger or parking spot that had been designated for Fox 3 to be loaded into the storage tank.

By lunchtime Sergeant Reagan had still not received instructions to cross the damaged culvert. It looked like he would have to wait until the Canadian trucks had left so they were sitting around having lunch Sergeant Reagan was sitting on a "jerrycan" (Petrol Container) when the Squadron Commander Major Blomfield stopped his armoured car alongside the tank. He was not aware of instructions the crew had not to cross the damaged culvert.

It was shortly before 1300 hours and as Sergeant Reagan was explaining his situation to his Commander there came the sound of a tremendous explosion from the area of the farm. Major Blomfield said "Good God what was that"? Bent down shouted to his driver and the armoured car sped off along the road to the farm. Sergeant Reagan turned around to return to his crew and saw his driver "Ginger" Hall who had been seated opposite to him lying on the ground crying out in terrible pain with a shattered leg. Through the petrol container on which Sergeant Reagan had been sitting there was a hole you could put your hand through. It must have been a piece of shrapnel, which had caused the injury to his likeable and popular driver.

Getting his driver made as comfortable as possible in his circumstance Sergeant Reagan crossed the culvert on foot and made for the Squadron. Before him was a scene of devastation. The force of the explosion must have been that of a fireball there was wreckage everywhere. Men had been out in the open some working on tanks, probably refuelling, others inside of their tanks and quite a number had been upstairs in the barn, which had no been destroyed. One of the important early tasks was to search through the wreckage of the barn for our colleagues. There was stunned confusion everywhere with people doing what they thought they should do. In retrospect probably if all able survivors would have been called together and given specific tasks the rescue efforts would have been better. Solders from other units began to arrive, including medical personnel, to help with the terrible task of trying to rescue survivors, and there presents was comforting.

When nigh began to fall the survivors were taken to a nearby farm where they spent the night in a barn. Initially we learned that that fifteen of our colleagues had been killed and over fifty wounded some so seriously that they were given little chance of surviving. The Canadians had suffered as well again initially we heard three were killed and seven posted as missing.

The next morning we came to a consensus on how we would recover our tanks. We also had a visit by the General Commanding the 79th Armoured Division Major General Hobart who talked to us about the hardships and casualties of World War I and how they carried on in spite of everything. His speech was not well received and as Sergeant Reagan said "You do not discuss matters with a General, You do not talk to him unless invited to do so, you merely listen. I felt then as I feel now, that it would have been far better if he had not made his visit and allowed us to carry out the response we had already agreed upon".

Within an hour of the General's visit we were told that we were going to recover our tanks and load them on transporters. This was the first indication that we were being pulled out and we were all very disappointed. Trucks took them to the collapsed culvert and they crossed the dyke on foot to survey the scene of destruction and to decide which tanks could be driven out and which would have to be recovered by ARV's. It was during this time that Sergeant Reagan was about 30 meters from the now destroyed barn and about the same distance from a wire fence that enclosed a grass field were he saw three horses running across the field alongside each other. As he watched the horses an explosion erupted underneath the middle horse killing it and the other two galloped away. The explosion he witnessed was what you would expect from an anti-tank mine.

It is interesting how the mind can play trick on you! During the loading of the tanks Sergeant Reagan went to his tank and since he had no driver he decided to load the tank himself. They opened the tank and Sergeant Reagan went to the rear of the turret and primed the Ammal Pump, then gave the spring loaded "Ki-Gas" pump a few pulls which sprayed gas vapour in the induction manifold to ensure early firing. Then he got in the driver's seat and switched on the ignition but when he went to press the starter button a feeling came over him that he can never forget. He felt that the whole world was going to explode when he pressed the starter button; it was with joyous relief, when the only thing that happened was the engine roared into life. When the tanks were loaded the unit moved back over the border into Belgium , took up residence in a Chateau in an area between Zelzate and Eeklo where they stayed for a week.

At the end of the week the Squadron moved to the town of Lier outside of Antwerp where they stayed for about a month during which time the unit shortage in men and tanks was brought back up to strength. They then moved to Bladel near Eindhoven and left there in January 1945 passed through Tilburg-S-Hertgenbosch, over the bridge at Graves to Nijmegen. Then crossed the border into Germany, passing through the towns of Goch, Kleve and Kevelare. The great barrier of the Rhine River was crossed at Wesel, which turned out to be the last real obstacle of the war. They crossed the North German Plain with the British Liberation Army, soon to become British Army of the Rhine. On the day the war officially ended in Europe May 8th 1945 the unit was billeted in a school in the German Baltic port city of Lübeck. Sergeant Reagan had been a Tank Commander for sixteen months and his twenty first birthday was four days away. Quite a guy!!

In conclusion Sergeant Reagan reflects on how and why the tragedy may have happened. The fact was that there were plenty of explosives present but the soldier's professionalism in regards to the safe handling and storage of these devices would not come into question. The refuelling procedures had been carried out many many times and were carried out daily by hundreds of units throughout the Army with never a suggestion of an accident. Smoking was mentioned as a possible cause of the trouble but smoking in the vicinity of the tank was strictly forbidden and he cannot recall one instance of such un-discipline, but it is still a possibility. Tank crews often have to look after themselves and most crews had gas type of stove for cooking although he didn't see any being used on that fateful day. Another possibility that was always on his mind was that a "rogue" mine was involved remembering the three horses. Then there was the presence of nitro-glycerine, considering the rough ride it had over the damaged culvert can it become so unstable that it will explode spontaneously without a primary explosion, if it will then we could be very close to the answer.

There is one thing for sure that Sergeant Reagan knows. If the events of that time had been normal that is to say; If he didn't have to stop and replace his light bar; If he hadn't lost his way; If he had been able to see the Squadron from the map reference at the junction that he had been given at night; And finally that he could not cross the damaged culvert was an almost unbelievable stroke of good fortune. If all of these things had not happened, because of the task they had on this mission, he and his crew would have been parked beside the vehicle caring the nitro-glycerine when it exploded. The poet says "Let me like a soldier die" The soldier says "Please Lord let me die with my boots clean" another way of asking to be spared a violent death.

War is not an exiting game, even a just war that the liberation of Europe surely was. It brings tragedy, suffering and losses to all. It is messy and ugly even the innocent are called upon to pay a heavy price. The joy of seeing liberated people was tempered by the realisation for the first time of what a terrible thing occupation must have been and the hardship did not end with liberation.

Honour Roll


204 Armoured Assault Squadron, Royal Engineers

Rank

Name

Age

Buried or Missing & Commemorated

L/sgt

Barton, Rees

23

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

L/Sgt

Brock, Eric

25

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Spr

Cann, A.R. (died of wounds 21 Oct

22

Schoonselhof Cemetery Antwerp

Spr

Carr, Edward

29

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Spr

Creech, William

28

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Drv

Hammond, Paul Ernst

24

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Drv

King, William James

20

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Spr

Lawson, James

24

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Spr

Lewis, H.G. (died of wounds 21 Oct)

29

Burgen-Op-Zoom, The Netherlands

Drv

Malcolm, W (died of wounds 21 Oct)

20

Schoonselhof Cemetery Antwerp

Spr

Martin, James

33

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Spr

Maybee, James Arthur

35

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Drv

Miers, H. (died of wounds 25 Oct)

33

Schoonselhof Cemetery, Antwerp

Drv

Nisbet, Peter Samuel

30

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

L/Sgt

Redrup, Arthur

25

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Spr

Rennie, Donald William

35

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Spr

Shepherd-Singleton, H.

21

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Spr

Smith, Allan

20

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Spr

Smith, Harry

20

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Spr

Thompson, Cyrle

20

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Spr

Tuft, Edward

20

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Spr

Waiby, William

28

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

L/Sgt

Weston

21

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Spr

Wilson, Charles J.

20

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Spr

Wilson, James

34

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Spr

Wittington, Jack Victor

24

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Spr

Young, William Edward

20

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Royal Canadian Army Service Corps, 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade

Rank

Name

Age

Buried or Missing & Commemorated

Pte

Bateman, Albert J,

23

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Pte

Barbour, Victor

25

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Pte

Biggin, Eric

 

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Pte

Boatman, Lennord Joseph

26

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Pte

Carlson, Clifford Emil

23

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Cpl

Larkin, Edwin Edward

24

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Pte

O'Connor, Bernard Joseph

 

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Pte

Roulston, Lorne Edgar

23

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Pte

Sandison, Walter John

25

Missing Groesbeek, The Netherlands

Pte

Wall, Francais Henry

23

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Royal Artillery 11th (Essex) Medium Regiment

Rank

Name

Age

Buried or Missing & Commomerated

Gnr

Everett, Edward B.G.

19

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Gnr

Rider, William

19

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

L/Bdr

Sutherill, Kenneth L.

22

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium

Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers

Rank

Name

Age

Buried or Missing & Commomerated

Cfm

Cameron, William

34

Canadian War Cemetery Adegem, Belgium


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