WWII veteran who breeched the Rhine as part of Operation Plunder in 1945 pleas for rememberance of milestone crossing

Posted: 23/03/2019 | Scottish War Blinded

A World War Two veteran who was part of the operation that saw Allied troops cross the Rhine in 1945 – breeching the last natural barrier into Nazi Germany – is urging the public to remember the landmark event.


Crammed onto a buffalo tracked vehicle, Bill Robertson, then aged 19, was one of the British soldiers who first crossed the River Rhine south of Rees (Germany) as part of Operation Plunder on the night of March 23, 1945.


The young Private, from Perth, Scotland, was with the 5th/7th Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders when he faced the “dark, fast-flowing” river at 21.00 hours alongside soldiers of the 51st Highland Division.


Under enemy fire, Bill was one of the troops to make it across the waters onto German soil – an event which signified the beginning of the downfall for Hitler’s forces from within Germany.


Bill Robertson sits in a chair at his home


“We’d started moving at 17.00 hours. I think it was military police putting white tapes down so we just followed them to the banks of the Rhine,” said Bill, now aged 93, as he relayed his memories to charity Scottish War Blinded.


“You couldn’t carry anything extra. I’d just had my 19th birthday and had a pack of 200 cigarettes. There was no way I could carry them and I threw them away.


“We thought the war was moving towards the end. We clambered into these buffalos operated by the Northamptonshire Yeomanry.


“I think we were all apprehensive, especially as we had all been issued with inflatable rubber tubes. We wondered what they were for, but they were for in case you went over the side. You were meant to throw them away when you got to the other side.


“They had a thing called ‘Monty’s Moonlight’ which were searchlights that went up into the air and bounced off the clouds to try and give some light. There was a lot of smoke.


“The nearest town was a place called Rees. The fighting there was much harder and it was ablaze when we crossed. We could see what was happening, but we were really concentrated on where we were going, which was hopefully to the other side.


“I thought I was in the leading buffalo, but in actual fact of course there were hundreds at the same time.


“Then the track of the buffalo I was in locked solid and didn’t move. As a result, we went round in a circle in the middle of the Rhine, which was not a happy situation. The flow of the water was carrying us towards Rees.


“We were all thinking, ‘What do we do now? Do we jump overboard? What do we do?’


“There were spouts of water where the shells were dropping, and there was small arms fire and mortars on the other side. 


“Suddenly both tracks roared into action and the next thing we knew was that we hit the cobbled bank of the German side.”


The Gordon Highlanders infantryman had already been stationed in France, Belgium and Holland since he had been conscripted into the army on April 6, 1944, aged 18, before he came to be involved in the milestone operation.


Bill continued: “I don’t think any of us were into the idea of achievement. We were very glad we were still alive. 


“We advanced towards the Nether Rhine, that’s a tributary of the Rhine, towards a farm house. We were shelled there. There were a few casualties. One is too many.


“Then we were ordered to dig in trenches to hold the position and when dawn came we found we were somewhat exposed and subject to sniper fire.


“After that, we crossed the bridge at the Nether Rhine and the whole thing went quiet. We didn’t know whether something was going to happen, a counter attack. It was very eerie.


“One of the terrible things that happened was that we heard that Major-General Thomas Gordon Rennie CB, DSO, MBE was killed two days after the crossing. He was a highly respected man. I  


“It was like a dark cloud came down on top of us as the news filtered through. I think some of us thought, ‘Well, if a General can get killed…’ They don’t usually kill Generals.”


As Bill moved up through Northern Germany with his battalion, he recalls the moment they passed the gates of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which had just been liberated.


“We went past it quickly,” he said. “I could smell it. It was terrible.”


Arriving at Bremerhaven on May 6, which was occupied by German marines, Bill says an “uneasy peace” had been declared.


He explained: “There were five or six marines to one of us, so we had to tread very carefully. The tension was palpable.


“Gradually arms were handed in and we took over. You realised that nobody was going to shoot you anymore, thinking, ‘I don’t have to have a pack on my back. I don’t have to watch out for people shooting me. Ah! It felt real.


“We handed over eventually to the Americans, who used Bremerhaven as a port of entry for their goods.”


Bill then moved to working in ‘intelligence’ in Germany before he was demobbed in 1947.


He joined the Dunlop Group and progressed to be Director of the Dunlop Rhodesian Group, living in Rhodesia for 25 years. On his return to Scotland, he has lived in North Berwick, Scotland, for 32 years.


The veteran, who has two daughters with his wife Eleanor, who passed away five years ago, recently started receiving support from charity Scottish War Blinded due to his sight loss as a result of macular degeneration.


Now, as a grandfather-of-four and great-grandfather-of-three, he says he wishes for the events of March 23, 1945, not to be forgotten, though he does not blame younger generations for a ‘lack of awareness’ about the assault on the Rhine.


“It’s partly a generational thing. I accept that,” said Bill.


“The strange thing is that I have been to Holland, and you find that the children are very knowledgeable about the war - even small children.


“There are certain things that happened during the war, the invasion of France, the Ardennes, the crossing of the Rhine - these were major things. I feel very personal about the crossing of the Rhine because it was a big thing. March 23 sticks with me. 


“It breeched the last natural barrier leading to the German Reich. It seemed to mean something. We knew it was a turning point.”


And though he remembers his overall wartime experience as “the great adventure”, the veteran says he does now question what was asked of him at such a young age.


Bill said: “One of the things I look on now is when I see 18-year-old-boys, I think we’ve got a fine youth in this country despite what everyone says, but they are still only 18. You haven’t really grown up by 18. You don’t really know what’s going on.


“I think back on some of the young men, that’s all they had. I’m on bonus time, very much so.


“I just think there was something very wrong that we were asked to do what we had to do at 18 years of age.


“You can’t impose memories on people, but I’d like to think that somewhere there is an appreciation of these main events.”


Scottish War Blinded supports former servicemen and women in Scotland with sight loss, no matter, how or when they lost their sight.


To find out more about the support on offer or to refer a veteran to the charity, call free on 0800 035 6409.