Cellar casualties hit by grenade in final stand

The bodies of two Germans who tried to infiltrate through the lines of ‘C’ Company, 1st Battalion Border Regiment in Oosterbeek, but were killed on the night of 20/21 September 1944.

An incident in the evening of the 21st September vividly illustrates how civilians had been thrust into the middle of the battle.

The 10th Parachute Battalion force, with no friendly troops in the houses adjacent to them, must have felt somewhat vulnerable and isolated. The night of 20 September 1944, however, passed reasonably quietly, but the following day the Germans stepped up their efforts to re-take Oosterbeek — which had now degenerated into a terrifying, devastated urban landscape — even known by the Gennans as the Hexenkessel (‘Witch’s Cauldron’).

There still being no sign of relief from XXX Corps, with the paratroopers increasingly, desperately, short of food, sleep and ammunition, it was inevitable that eventually the well-armed and supported enemy would prevail. At 2000 hrs, a strong attack by infantry and armour was unleashed on 10th Parachute Battalion, from its rear, the south, and east. StuGs, unmolested, liberally shelled the houses gloriously defended by Smyth’s men, who had no means of resisting such a determined armoured attack.

Each house was systematically destroyed. Falling back from house-to-house, Major Warr led a spirited defence until 2 Annastraat was the only building not yet overrun. HQ Company had no option but to get out as the Germans concentrated their attack on their position. Major Warr was badly wounded whilst attempting to leave, so was taken down into the darkness of 2 Annastraat’s cellar. Lieutenant Colonel Smyth was likewise hit whilst trying to cross the narrow road, and joined Major Warr.

It is likely that Private Willingham was involved with carrying one or both of these fine officers down to the cellar’s comparative safety, for he too found himself in that dark, damp, overcrowded place as a self-propelled gun began pumping shells into the building.

Then, German infantry attacked, engaging those 10th Parachute Battalion survivors still alive and above ground in hand-to-hand fighting.

In 2 Annastraat’s cellar, Mrs Bertje Voskuil was amongst the twenty Dutch civilians who had taken refuge there. An English-speaker, Mrs Voskuil had interpreted for the badly-wounded Lieutenant Colonel Smyth and Major Warr; she described the almost unimaginable scene and unfolding drama:

Major William “Jock” Neill [left] commanding ‘C’ Company, 5th Battalion Border Regiment, and Lieutenant John McCartney, commanding No. 28 Medium Machine Gun Platoon, Oosterbeek, 21 September 1944.

They brought Peter Warr down and laid him on the ground in front of me; I was sitting with my son [Henri] on a bench. Peter Warr had been hit in the thigh; it was very painful. Sometimes he was unconscious and at others he was awake, grumbling and swearing — he had every reason to. I remember him saying ‘Oh for a pint of beer’. Then they brought Lieutenant Colonel Smythe down, badly injured. He was also unconscious some of the time, but when awake kept repeating ‘Where am I?’ I tried to explain, that he was in Holland, at Oosterbeek, and that it was in the war, but he didn’t understand. I think he had been shot in the stomach. There was a lot of blood, but it was so dark, with only one candle in the cellar, that you couldn’t see properly.

Then I heard them fighting in the house above us — shots and screams; they made all kinds of noises when they were fighting, just like animals. Then the door burst open and the Germans came in. A British soldier jumped in front of Peter Warr and I, with his back to the Germans. Then there were two terric explosions — German grenades. The British soldier was hit in the back and fell forward, over me: he was dead.

Many of the people in the cellar were wounded. I was hit in both legs and my hearing was affected – and still is. The candle was blown out by the explosions. I felt down for my nine-year old son; I felt his body; he didn’t move, and there was a lot of blood. I thought he was dead, but he was still alive, hit by splinters in his stomach and face. He regained consciousness the next morning and made a full recovery. My husband was hit in the hand and knee. Major Warr was badly hurt again, in the shoulder. He had been hit when he raised himself up on his elbow when the Germans came in and called out to them that he and his men were surrendering.

There was a tumult. You have no idea how much people scream in such circumstances. Then a German ofcer called out to me ‘Do you speak English?’ I said I did, and he told me to translate quickly, to tell the English that they had fought gallantly and behaved like gentlemen, but they must surrender now and hand over their weapons, helmets and ammunition, also their watches and identication papers.

I asked someone to take the soldier’s body off me, because he was bleeding all over me. I had some suede shoes on, and his ‘life blood’ on the floor was so thick that the shoes were stained so badly that I threw them away. One of the British soldiers near me had his rifle and was so nervous that the butt was rattling on the floor. You get beyond fear when things get so bad; I was icily cold when I was translating for that German, although I believed my son was dead. Perhaps it was utter despair, because a year before I had lost my younger son from a blood disease.

Colonel Smyth regained consciousness and asked to see the German commander. He came down — a dreadful looking man with a monocle on a ribbon and with his hair parted in the middle. He asked me what ‘that man’ wanted. I was so furious that I said the Colonel, stressing the Colonel, needed a doctor. The German officer went away, but a good doctor came, so probably it was only the appearance and manner of the German officer that was so unpleasant.

Private Albert Willingham of the 10th Battalion, Parachute Regiment

The British soldier who had selflessly given his life to save others was Private Albert Willingham — whose prophecy that he would ‘not be coming back’ had sadly been fulfilled.

It was not until 24th September that the decision was made to attempt to evacuate a proportion of airborne forces surrounded in Arnhem. Of the 582 men in the 10th Battalion who had landed on 18 September, 92 were killed, 404 became Prisoners of War (including many wounded) and 96 were evacuated. The Battalion was never reformed and was formally disbanded in November 1945.

The noted independent WWII researcher Dilip Sakar turned his attention to the Arnhem in Arnhem 1944: The Human Tragedy of the Bridge Too Far first published on the 75th anniversary in 2019. His research focuses on the individual stories of men who became casualties in the battle, tracing their relatives, to build a picture of individuals pre war histories and earlier wartime service.

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