Operation Market Garden was already a much worse battle than expected. Although the men of the Parachute Regiment had captured the centre of Arnhem they faced much stronger German resistance than anticipated. Two German Panzer Divisions had been regrouping nearby and they were formidable opposition for the relatively lightly armoured paratroopers.
Twenty year old Len Moss of the 11th Parachute Batallion, 4th Parachute Brigade was part of the second wave of reinforcements to arrive by parachute on the second day. They were expected … by the Germans, who had already captured maps with the drop zones marked out. His experiences were later recorded by his son, who wrote a detailed account of the whole battle from his father’s perspective:
Somehow, he managed to untangle the lines and get the parachute canopy deployed, just in time, but…
…he landed very awkwardly, stiff legged on the ground.
That really, really hurt!
Paratroopers were landing all around. It was chaos as heavy machine gun fire raked the area from concealed German positions in the woods. Men were being hit, wounded, killed.
Gunfire exploded nearby, ripping into the ground, throwing up puffs of dirt. The air was alive with flying lead.
The wind caught Moss’ parachute and took it while he was trying to struggle up and release himself. He was thrown off balance.
His leg was weighed down by the heavy pack — he was suddenly being pulled in two directions at once as bullets tore through the canopy material.
Bill Kent landed nearby…in an awkward heap.
Moss called for help but Kent had his own problems. Kent was trying to get up. Engulfed in his parachute like a ghost, he flapped around as the material had holes ripped in it by stray bullets.
In desperation, Moss hit the upper body release buckle on his parachute harness. This was the wrong way to do it, but who cares?
From a nearby copse, a German Spandau MG41 machine gun unloaded. Belt fed.1600 rounds per minute. It sounds like tearing paper and cuts neat lines through the heather.
Moss wriggled out of the top chute harness and sat up as the heather is cut away in a line behind him. Just inches away. With added incentive he rolled forwards, escaped the rest of the chute and disengaged the heavy pack from his leg.
Moss and Kent ran away as best they could, hauling the heavy equipment bags. Moss was clearly troubled by his leg and back injury.
Smoke and flames billowed up all around them from the landing zone. Mortar shells whooshed overhead and exploded nearby, plus there was heavy enemy machine gun and rifle fire.
The two young Paratroopers scurried past the crashed fuselage of a British Horsa glider which had dug a deep furrow, nose down in the earth. Several dead soldiers lay face down in the heather, killed when they tried to disembark.
Pausing the gather their breath both men doubled up in the foetal position when a huge chunk was cut out of the fuselage by a concentrated burst of machine gun fire.
Hauling the PIAT and ammunition bags, the two men ran in a low semi-crouch, forced to zig-zag because of the numerous mortar and shell holes in the ground. Other men were running with them, veering off on their own paths, disappearing in and out of the smoke.
Under an intense barrage of mortar fire, Moss and Kent took cover in a large shell crater which was still smoking. They looked around. This was no man’s land. Wreckage lay strewn all over the place and men continue to run in all directions. Yellow smoke rises on one side of the heath Drop Zone, near some woods.
Yellow marker smoke from some nearby woods marked their intended destination.
WOODS – GINKEL HEATH DROP ZONE
In the woods soldiers gathered, reforming into ordered groups. Yellow smoke drifted through the woods from the DZ. Distantly they could hear the cough of mortars, chattering machine guns and the occasional explosion of a German 88mm shell.
Already the medics were overworked tending to the wounded whose cries were mournful and desperate. Lieutenant Vickers walked through the woods followed by several paratroopers. He was holding a walkie-talkie tightly to his face and trying unsuccessfully to contact someone but none of the radio sets seemed to work.
Through the trees comes PFC RA Smith, looking as if he’s hot off the Drop Zone. His face is covered in blood — someone elses. During the drop a Para was shredded by shellfire covering Smith with various body parts.
At a briefing the soldiers are told that the 4th Parachute Brigade, has been dropped farthest away from Arnhem. They’re some seven or eight miles away from the in Arnhem. The 11th Battalion been ordered up to re-inforce Col Frost – his 2nd Battalion already in possession of the North end of the Arnhem bridge.
The 11th Paras are ordered along a country road.
Distantly a few farmhouses burn, smoke rising from the ruins. The men can hear explosions and artillery, sporadic mortar fire and the occasional crack of a rifle.
Along the length of the road, Paratroopers from the 4th Parachute Battalion are strung out in a forced marching column. Every so often a Jeep or a truck roars along the road, parting the column of soldiers like a boat’s bow wave.
Moss is lagging behind, clearly having problems keeping up with the pace. He’s still hauling the 33 pound PIAT and bombs and is in agony from his back injury.
After a while the column ahead stops dead, causing a knock on effect that slows the traffic up all the way to the tail. Breathing hard, Moss gratefully accepts the rest, slumping down on the roadside bank.
Some sporadic machine gun fire goes off up ahead and then there’s a distant whistling. Getting louder. It becomes a whoosh.
Everyone takes cover, diving this way and that behind trees, into bushes, down banks.
For a split second the wooshing stops and then KERBOOM!
The mortar shell explodes nearby, followed by several more incoming shells. Dirt and smoke are thrown up into the air but, as suddenly as it started, the firing ceases.
Through the falling dirt and choking smoke, A lone soldier can be heard screaming for help. Moss looks up from his hiding place and sees the soldier covered in blood, screaming in agony. A couple of Medics run to his aid.
Slowly, the rest of the soldiers emerge and resume their places in the static column. It’s as if nothing happened.
A Jeep then parts the way, heading back down the road from the head of the column. Sitting in the passenger seat is Lt Vickers. He orders that all the PIATs and bombs to be loaded into the jeep and sent up to the front line as they’re encountering German armour. This suits Moss fine. Moss and Kent load the PIAT and bombs into the back of the vehicle.
(It’s later learned that the jeep full of PIATs and bombs was commandered by a Padre who wanted to attend a funeral. Neither he nor the jeep were heard of again. It’s assumed he was killed and the jeep destroyed, thus depriving the Para’s of greatly needed anti-tank weapons)
Moss and a group of soldiers were ordered to investigate a farmhouse nearby in a field where a German mortar crew have been spotted. They approach the farmhouse which seems deserted. Some chickens cluck and strut near the main farmhouse building. It’s a surreal scene. Eerily quiet.
The troop start to make their way towards the buildings, using whatever cover comes to hand and making ready to offer covering fire should it be needed.
Moss and Kent reach the main farmhouse. He peers around a low wall into the yard.
A German mortar has been set up nearby, sandbagged and camouflaged. It’s quiet. Discarded empty boxes of mortar shells lie nearby.
Moving to the farmhouse doorway. Wooden, old. Moss pushes it open and peers inside. Checking those corners.
The inside of the farmhouse has been wrecked.
Moss and Kent move inside, cautiously.
Glass crunches underfoot. Furniture, broken, smashed. There’s not a whole plate or bowl anywhere.
Sat, in the corner, on a wooden stool is a Dutchman. Middle-aged, he’s balding, dirty and small. He looks up, face stained with tears, eyes red.
He shakes his head as if to ask ‘why?’ and then puts his head into his hands in desperation. His whole life, all he’s worked for, has been destroyed.
Outside they hear some machinegun fire. They run outside and see a Paratrooper emptying the whole magazine from his Sten gun into a leafy tree — branches, twigs and leaves are flying in all directions. The soldier runs out of bullets.
Then, a German voice calls out timidly from within the tree.
The branches rustle as a pair of booted German legs swing down. The heel of one of them has been shot off.
A young bespectacled GERMAN SOLDIER, maybe in his late teens, drops down to the ground, face white with fear and his hands up in the air in a gesture of surrender.
Some of the Paratroopers start giggling and joking that Kent couldn’t hit a barn door. Kent just looks at his Sten gun in amazement. The German Soldier starts laughing too and points to his boot, raising it to show that the heel is barely hanging on by a thread.
The Paratroopers lead their German prisoner across the field towards the now moving column of men as they march up the road.
Read the whole of Eight Days In Arnhem at BBC Peoples War