Operation Amherst

This was a British special forces operation by the French 2nd and 3rd Régiments de Chasseurs Parachutistes (3rd and 4th Special Air Service), supported in the ground role by the Belgian 1st Parachute Battalion, to disrupt German rear-area communications in the region of Apeldoorn in the north-eastern Netherlands (8/16 April 1945).

The object of the operation was to gather intelligence on German dispositions and movements in this region, and to ensure the preservation of 18 bridges and other features (especially the two airfields near Steenwijk) deemed essential for the advance of General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army.

It was planned that the operation would be implemented in concert with ‘Keystone’, which was designed to link with the Special Air Service men in 48 hours at the most, and the 700 paratroops were landed with moderate accuracy in a triangle bounded by Coevorden, Groningen and Zwolle although, as a result of poor weather over the drop zone, the planned transport element of 18 Jeep vehicles could not be delivered.

The majority of the French paratroopers were dropped over the north-western part of the province of Drenthe. Here they managed to seize a series of bridges and also undertook a number of hit-and-run attacks on the withdrawing German troops. A small group of paratroopers under Capitaine Henri Sicaud was dropped in the south-eastern part of Friesland close to the border of Drenthe. Under the cover of heavy clouds several sticks each comprising some 10 paratroopers each managed to land without being detected by the Germans. Sicaud landed in a pine tree and his eye was pierced by a branch, seriously limiting his eyesight.

Some of the French paratroopers were discovered by a band of Dutch resistance fighters who had made their shelter in the forest south of the village of Appelscha. Led by an agent of the Dutch government-in-exile in England, the paratroopers were able to regroup and start a series of attacks on German troops retreating through the area to Germany. Sicaud and his paratroopers managed to occupy an important bridge, seriously frustrating German troop movements. A series of running battles between the French, the Germans and Dutch Nazi collaborators was fought near the bridge.

One group of paratroopers was dropped too far from Sicaud’s position and ended in the outskirts of the small village of Haulerwijk, 6 miles (10 km) north of Appelscha. German troops discovered the French early in the morning of 8 April, and a fire fight broke out between the French and the Germans. One French SAS trooper was killed, while some of the French were captured and some managed to flee and catch up with the French fighting in and around Appelscha. Eventually, in disarray, the Germans managed to counterattack. A number of SAS troopers and some civilians were killed, but the remaining SAS troops forced the Germans to withdraw.

The two battalions thus enjoyed considerable success before they were ‘overrun’ by the advancing elements of the Canadian 8th Reconnaissance Regiment, and in overall terms lost 29 dead, 35 wounded and 29 missing in exchange for German losses of 270 killed, 220 wounded and 187 captured.