Ian Wellsted, With the SAS – Across the Rhine (Frontline, 2020)
In his follow-up memoir to With the Maquis, Ian Wellsted narrates his later wartime exploits with the SAS. He notes that this volume is much darker as he fought two struggles; one against the Germans and the other with his disintegrating marriage. It is also an honest tale of courage, determination, and duty.
The SAS’s role in crossing the Rhine, Operation Archway, was to operate in advance of Montgomery’s British army, conducting reconnaissance, and accepting the surrender of German units. Browned off with his war, in 1942 Wellsted volunteered for the Parachute Regiment, and from there to the SAS. He parachuted into the Morvan mountains to support the French Resistance in June 1944. When he returned his wife asked for a divorce. Duty called, however, and Wellsted travelled to France for ski training. He joined Operation Archway, however, but with something of a death-wish, which he preferred to accepting a divorce.
Operation Archway got off to a disorganised start, but Wellsted and the SAS were soon crossing the Rhine in modified jeeps to be met by persistent enemy sniping when they arrived at Wesel. Wellsted’s first serious action of this campaign came in a German ambush at Ostrich, which the SAS cleared with some difficulty. And on they went into Germany, supporting the advancing British army while comically ‘decorating’ their jeeps with various messages and artefacts. The narrative is full of incident from then on; overcoming German ambushes, dodging Luftwaffe fighters, handling prisoners and civilians caught up in the fighting, and dealing with jeep accidents and breakdowns. It was in a particularly large and well-positioned ambush that Wellsted was shot in both legs and he was lucky to escape with his life. It also brought him to reality about the state of his marriage. Wellsted’s war was not over, however, and he travelled to Norway to help bring in the Germans formerly in occupation. He also visited the Morvan, described in his first memoir. On his return to England, he got divorced, then remarried a short while later. The book concludes with an overview of the SAS during the war and some orders of battle for Wellsted’s small but effective force.
Wellsted’s account of his war is plain, without frills, as he appears to have been. He writes in a straightforward manner, aided by the detailed wartime diaries he kept. That only adds to the starkness and terror of the combat situations he encountered fighting at the sharp end of the British advance and which almost got him killed. Memoirs can sometimes gloss over the ugliness of war, but Wellsted includes images that perhaps betray an underlying sense of rancour at what he had to do. But Wellsted’s memoir reveals a hard-fighting man doing his duty, sometimes more, and it is a sobering and thought-provoking read.