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The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek

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The Exploits of Major-General Hakewill-Smith and the 52nd Scottish (Lowland) Division (1941-1945)
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The Exploits of Major-General Hakewill-Smith and the 52nd Scottish (Lowland) Division (1941-1945)

By Ross Dix-Peek

Edmund Hakewill-Smith was the son of George Cecil Smith and Mildred Currey.
He was born in Kimberley, South Africa, on the 17 March 1896 and received his education at one of the finest schools South Africa has ever produced, the Diocesan College, in Cape Town, known as "Bishop's".
In 1914 Hakewill-Smith entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, with the First World War imminent.
He was commissioned a second-lieutenant in the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1915, and was wounded twice during the war, also being awarded the military Cross (MC).


Following the cessation of hostilities, Hakewill-Smith then served as aide-de-camp to the Governor of Bengal (1921-1922).
He thereafter served as adjutant to the regiment (1927-1930), before he was married, in 1928, to Edith, the daughter of Brigadier-General H. Nelson, DSO.
It was then that he attended the staff college at Quetta, in India, whereupon he subsequently fulfilled the duties of staff captain at the war office.
Employed on air staff duties with the RAF from 1936-1937, Hakewill-Smith found himself appointed Deputy Assistant Adjutant General at the war office, a position he held until 1940, the Second World War having begun in September 1939.

During the early part of the war, Hakewill-Smith commanded the 5th battalion, Devonshire Regiment, as well as the 4/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers.
Promoted brigadier, he was given command of the 157th Infantry Brigade (1941-1942), subsequently serving as Director of Organization at the War Office, with the acting rank of Major-General.
Again given command of a brigade, this time the 155th Infantry Brigade, Hakewill-Smith was then promoted substantive Major-General and it was in November 1943, that he took over command of the 52nd Scottish (Lowland) Division.

The 52nd Division was the sister division of the legendary 51st (Highland) Division, which had so distinguished itself during the First World War.
Hakewill-Smith was not new to the division as his previous commands, the 155th and 157th Brigades had formed part of the 52nd Division.
The 52nd (Lowland) Division was also known as the 52nd Mountain Division, due to its intended role and specialized training in that capacity, and the division underwent intensive training in mountain warfare in the highlands of Scotland from 1941-1944, expert skiing-instructors having been attached to the division for the purpose of training the men accordingly, and many of the division's men actually became quite skilled in the art of skiing.


The hardest training the 52nd Division undertook was in 1943 in Cairngorms, above Braemar, in Scotland.
The men, issued with special clothing and equipment became used to sleeping in the extremely icy conditions prevalent in that part of Scotland.
It is indeed ironic, that although the division underwent severe and thorough training in mountain warfare, it would instead find itself mired in the lowlands of North West Europe, sometimes fighting below sea level.


It had already become evident at the time of the Normandy Landings in June 1944, that the 52nd Division would have to abandon its intended role, and it soon became apparent that the division's new specialized role would take on the form of an Air-Mobile Division. This, in effect, meant that the 52nd (Lowland) Division would be transported by air to a designated landing zone (LZ), promptly debouching its soldiers and equipment, and ready for combat.
The division was, however, to keep its original strength, that of a standard division, and was therefore stronger than an Airborne Division.
Again, the 52nd was not to be used in this capacity either, but were rather earmarked for use in assault landings on fortified coastlines.


The 52nd did not take part in the D-Day Landings, at Normandy, which took place on the 6 June 1944, and only landed on the European continent proper, in September of that year, having been suddenly dispatched by sea to Belgium.
The Division, neither tried nor tested, and essentially "green" then came under command of the Canadian 1st Army.
The Canadian 1st Army (together, of course, with the 52nd Lowland Division) were to be used to secure the approaches to Antwerp.
Antwerp had in fact already been captured, but was not secure due to the fact that the German's still controlled the West Scheldt Estuary, the gateway to the port of Antwerp, and would therefore remain untenable until the allies had cleared the estuary of all axis troop concentrations.


It was then that the South African-born Hakewill-Smith, who had by this time spent almost thirty-years in the British army, was given command of the operation, not only commanding his division (the 52nd), but also the 4th Commando Brigade and elements of the 79th Armoured Division.
The 79th Division was known as "Hobart's funnies" after its eccentric, yet brilliant commander, and used a variety of innovative and war-winning technology, including the mine-clearance tank and the "crocodiles" or flame-throwing tanks.
In the interim, the Canadians had forced their way into south Beveland, along the flooded, winding isthmus that connected south Beveland, together with other small islands, with the mainland.
It was agreed, however, not to confine the assault to a frontal attack on such a narrow front, as this would surely have been suicidal and end in disaster.
Rather, it was thought wiser to mount an outflanking manoeuvre which envisaged crossing the estuary.


The assault commenced in the small hours of the 25 October 1944, with two flotillas of amphibious troop carriers (known as "Buffaloes") and amphibious tanks of the 1st assault Brigade, Royal Engineers, 79th Armoured Division.
The leading infantry were the 4/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers (Hakewill-Smith's old battalion) and the 6th Cameronians of the 156th Infantry Brigade.
Although the mud immobilized the tanks, the infantry assault on the south east corner of South Beveland was entirely successful.
The Germans then made haste, withdrawing to the neighbouring island of Walcheren. However, the long causeway connecting the two islands, and thus vital to any attack on the part of the allies, was firmly in German hands.
It is not surprising that, although the Canadians and then the Cameronians attacked the German positions along the causeway, it held.
The Cameronians then decided on a night attack. The subsequent assault was launched across the tidal channel, approximately 1200 yards farther south, and the Cameronians, although battling through deep mud, managed to secure a bridgehead, a most commendable feat on their part.
Yet, sadly, this was not enough and it soon became apparent that an amphibious assault was necessary to finally wrest Walcheren from the German stranglehold.


What followed was that the commandos subsequently carried out an attack on Westkappele (situated on the west side of Walcheren), working their way along the coast, the Germans having flooded the island.
Only the high-lying town, Middelburg (Walcheren's capital), had not been affected by the flooding.
The 155th brigade of the 52nd Division subsequently landed at Flushing on the 1 November, having crossed from Breskens.
Fierce street fighting ensued, Flushing forming part of the German coastal defences on the island of Walcheren.
Many concrete bunkers, or casemates, had been constructed and on street corners the Germans had ingeniously fitted tank turrets over manholes, thus, although the axis were everywhere, they were ostensibly invisible to the attacking British and Canadian troops. However, after some tough fighting, the town was cleared.
It is interesting to relate that the German headquarters was situated in concrete shelters under the hotel "Britannia", and the Germans thought it prudent during the allied assault on the 3 November, to surrender rather than burn to death, the hotel having been turned into an inferno during the allied attack.
The town of Middelburg still remained to be conquered, as well as the eastern port of Veere, and gun-batteries situated in the northern sand-dunes.

Middelburg proved to be a "tough nut to crack", the town engulfed by flood water and the water from the Flushing-Veere canal.
After little progress had been made attacking from the causeway, it was decided to launch an assault from the south-west, aided, it was hoped, by the element of surprise.
The force chosen to implement the attack comprised the 11th Royal tank Regiment and troops of the 52nd Division, the latter transported in the "Buffaloes" of the tank regiment. the assault proved a resounding success, the German commander, Lieutenant-General Daser choosing to surrender even though at the time only elements of the attacking force had actually landed.
No-less than 2000 German prisoners were captured.
The gun-batteries in the northern dunes and Veere were subsequently taken, Veere being captured after a short sharp fight, by the 52nd Division, more specifically the 6th Cameronians.
It now became possible for the allied minesweepers to clear the water-way to Antwerp and for the allied forward troops to be supplied in expeditious fashion.
The 52nd Division and all the other troops under Hakewill-Smith's command had pulled-off one of the most difficult operations imaginable.
Unfortunately, it was inevitable that they would also suffer heavy casualties.


Hakewill-Smith and his division were then tasked with holding portions of the western front, between S'Hertogenbosch and Tilburg, as well as the area between Geilenkirchen and Sittard.
Although not as trying as their "baptism of fire", the extremely cold weather prevalent that time of the year, nonetheless made life rather difficult.
In January 1945, the 52nd took part in operations to drive the Germans from the triangle, Roermond-Sittard-Geilenkirchen, and it was Hakewill-Smith's 52nd Division that became the first British division to establish its headquarters on German soil.


Late in February 1945, Hakewill-Smith and his men again came under command of the Canadian 1st Army, taking part in operations aimed at clearing the country between the Maas and Rhine rivers, the 52nd Division first fighting its way south-eastwards from Gennep through Afferden and Kevelaer, and then north-eastwards to the Rhine in the vicinity of Wesel.
The 52nd Division did not take part in the actual crossing of the Rhine, but instead followed in the wake of the 15th Scottish Division.
The Germans were to put up their strongest resistance east of the Rhine river, in the area north east of the Dortmund-Ems canal and it was here that the 52nd Division again experienced fierce fighting.
In April 1945 the 52nd overcame extremely hostile and determined resistance north-east of Ibbenburen (their enemy on this occasion was generally men from training establishments), and the division had also to cross at least six water-obstacles in just a few days.
The advance on Bremen was the last operation of the war for Hakewill-Smith's tried-and-tested 52nd (Lowland) Division.
The division advanced along the east bank of the river Weser and by the 27 April 1945, all of Bremen, save a portion of the dock area as well as various strongholds in the town's park, was entirely in allied hands, the recalcitrant defence eventually being overcome by flamethrowers.
Hakewill-Smith and the 52nd Division had come to the end of road, as far as combat was concerned, and although the division had only been at the front for six months, they and their astute commander, Hakewill-Smith, had acquitted themselves with the drive, fortitude and courage of hard-bitten veterans.


The 52nd remained in Germany after the war, becoming part of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), and remained under the leadership of its old commander until the division was disbanded in 1946, returning to Britain.
For his services as Commanding Officer of the 52nd (Lowland) Division, Hakewill-Smith was awarded the C.B in 1944 and the C.B.E. in 1945.
This redoubtable soldier was appointed honorary-colonel of his old regiment, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, an appointment he held from 1946 until 1957, and was also made Deputy-Constable and later Lieutenant-Governor of Windsor Castle, being knighted in 1967.
The magnificent exploits of the 52nd Scottish (Lowland) Division during world war two, especially the division's endeavours in North West Europe (1944-1945), under the command of its South African-born Commander, Major-General Sir Edmund Hakewill-Smith, should always be remembered with pride, by Scotsmen and South Africans' alike.