Henry Eric Harden

The winter of 1944-1945 was one of the coldest Europe had ever been through, with serious consequences for the starving people and for the soldiers, who were still fighting each other. The lives lost by the combination of food shortages and cold are in the thousands. The hope many people had cherished of the war being finished before Christmas 1944, had been smashed, partly due to the harsh, early winter, but mainly because of fierce German resistance.

In January 1945, the tide had finally turned. In the west, the Germans had launched their last major offensive in the Ardennes, which the allies had repulsed with a massive effort. British, Americans and Canadians were now finally ready to invade Germany itself from the west, while the Red Army pounded its way towards the eastern borders of the Reich.

23 January 1945 was a typical, cold winters day, of which there had been so many already. During the day, the temperatures rarely came above freezing, while at night, 10 degrees below zero or colder were no exception. In these conditions, the British in Central Limburg were already fighting for ten days to push the Nazis back over the river Rur. Despite the harsh weather, Operation Blackcock was succesful so far, and one village after the other was finally liberated.

On that same Tuesday morning, the marines of 45 Commando found themselves at the eastern extremity of Brachterbeek. Their headquarters had been installed at Stationsweg 74, the westernmost house of the village.

45 Commando. Henry Harden is the sitting man to the right.

That day’s task for the crew was to advance eastwards as far as possible, first toward Brachterstatie, along the Maastricht-Roermond railway line and subsequently to Monfort, which had constantly been shelled for the last few days to chase the enemy out.

Soon after the first marines headed out through the frozen fields, they took heavy fire. German Fallschirmjäger had set up several machine guns at the Linnermolen, a mill located about 500m north of the Stationsweg. In the open field, the marines could hardly find any cover. Their only form protection was provided by a few small stacks of ensiled potatoes. Several marines were wounded.

Because the machine guns covered a large area and because the British were not in the right position to attack the mill, the decision was made to wait for tank support. The tanks would arrive from the south later that day.

One-by-one, the men ran as fast as they could to get back to the cover of the command post. A number of wounded, not able to get themselves to safety, were left behind in the cold, hard field.

One of the medics of 45 Commando was lance corporal Henry Eric Harden. Just like most other medics, he was with the Royal Army Medical Corps, but because the marines didn’t have their own medical training, Harden was one of the army men attached to the marines.

Lance corporal Henry Eric Harden.

When Henry Harden received word of wounded men left behind, he dashed outside. While the bullets struck the ground all around him, he took care of the wounded. One-by-one he provided first aid to the men. After he had finished, he lifted a marine named Wheeler over his shoulder and sprinted all the way back to the headquarters.

The officers had observed Harden’s action. They forbade him to get out again for the other wounded men. Instead of obeying, Henry found himself two voluntary stretcher bearers. 

The marines Haville and Mason were prepared to go with Harden. Soon, they followed him into the field. While the corporal injected marine Wales with a dose of morphine, his two companions strapped him to the stretcher. Meanwhile, the Germans had set up a mortar, with which they also started to shell the field. On his way back, Harden himself was slightly wounded by shrapnel.

At the headquarters, the medic took a short break to patch himself up and to catch a breath, after which he went out a third time, once again accompanied by the two stretcher bearers. Lieutenant Corey, the last of the wounded still outside, had insisted he would be rescued last. Like before, Henri injected his patient with morpine while the others put him on the stretcher.

Years later, lieutenant Corey still remembered what happened on the way back: Harden, who helped to carry the stretcher, ran in front. They were only 40m away from the headquarters, when there was a sound which Corey described as a loud ‘click’. The lance corporal stumbled and fell to the ground, after which lieutenant Corey, strapped to the stretcher, hit the ground quite hard, right next to Harden. Because of the sudden weight shift, Mason and Haville stumbled as well. The latter two got back on their feet and carried the stretcher to safety. Harden’s motionless body was left in the field.

Only after nightfall, the marines were able to get out to recover the corpse of their ‘doc’. He had taken a bullet to the head and was killed on impact.

That same day, short work was made of the Germans at the mill. One well-aimed tank shell damaged the historic building beyond repair.

Lance Corporal Henry Eric Harden would have become 33 years old on 23 February, exactly one month after his death. He left behind a wife and two young children. Harden was buried at Nederweert War Cemetery. For his exceptional valour and for giving his life to save three marines, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest available honour for a British military.

Henry Harden in 1943, together with his wife Maud and his son Bobby. Daughter Julie was not born yet.

In 1947, a commemorative plaque was revealed at the small Vlootbeek bridge, right next to the Linnermolen. Since that time, the bridge is officially named Henry Harden bridge. The street opposite Nederweert War Cemetery was also named after him. 

The bronze plaque at the Henry Harden bridge. In the background, the remains of the mill are visual in the background.

Harden’s graf in Nederweert.

Henry Harden street, close to Nederweert War Cemetery.

In 1965, the bronze plaque was stolen, after which visitors had to make do with an immured white stone.

The white stone plaque, which had the same text as the bronze plaque, but was in bad shape during recent years.

In 2009, when the bridge was renovated, two black granite plaques were immured on either side of the bridge, one in English, the other in Dutch. Lieutenant Corey and Julie Harden were present at the unveiling.

The two granite plaques, one in Dutch, the other in English, on either side of the bridge.

The memorial at the place where Henry Harden died.

On the the stainless steel cross is a saying in local dialect: “This is the place where Henry Eric Harden gave his life for the wounded in the field and for our FREEDOM”.

The small information sign tells the story of Henry Harden’s heroic deed.

After the war, the Linnermolen was never repaired. The wooden mill cap and the blades had crashed down by the tank shell. There was a lot of discussion about what to do with the brick remains, until in 1970, the mill was bought and turned into a residence.

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