Arnhem: civilians caught up in the middle of the battle

A British staff captain fires his Enfield No. 2 revolver from 1st Airborne Division's headquarters in the Hartenstein hotel at Oosterbeek, 23 September 1944.

A British staff captain fires his Enfield No. 2 revolver from 1st Airborne Division’s headquarters in the Hartenstein hotel at Oosterbeek, 23 September 1944.

British airborne troops moving through a shell-damaged house in Oosterbeek near Arnhem during Operation 'Market Garden', 23 September 1944.

British airborne troops moving through a shell-damaged house in Oosterbeek near Arnhem during Operation ‘Market Garden’, 23 September 1944.

It had been nearly a week since the battle had begun but still the British airborne troops hung on in their isolated pocket in Oosterbeek. They were very short on food and water but they had enough ammunition to continue the fight.

One man who found himself in some demand for his abilities as an interpreter was Louis Hagen, a Glider Pilot. As a German Jew he had fled to Britain before the war. When the war broke out he had been classified as a ‘foreign alien’ before finally being allowed to join the Royal Army Service Corps. After applying to a variety of different branches of the British Army he had eventually been accepted by the Glider Pilot Regiment. He was now fighting under an assumed identity – ‘Lewis Haig’ – necessary in case of capture by the Germans.

For Hagen this was his first time in combat, like so many other men at Arnhem, and he found himself in the middle of one of the most intense battles of the war. Days had gone by before they realised there were also civilians sheltering in the cellars of the houses that they were fighting in:

People from the other houses were looking for me, as some civilians had come and they needed an interpreter. I went to the top house, where they told me that there was a Dutch woman badly injured in one of the unoccupied houses. There seemed to be no sign of life there.

I found the cellar door, knocked and someone opened it. There was one candle shedding a very faint light, and at first I could make out nothing, but as my eyes got accustomed to the gloom, I saw that there were eight people in the cellar. There was a jar of water, some odd chairs, a small food supply and some cushions and blankets on the floor.

A very pale young woman lay on an improvised bed, and I knew that this must be the injured one. The men were surprisingly neat, in good suits, they were very quiet and courteous, and there was no excitement or fuss when they explained what had happened.

They pulled back the blankets from the woman’s feet, and showed me a mess of blood and bandages. She had been shot three days ago, but they had not been able to come out to get help because of the continuous firing. I promised to go over to the hospital and see the M.O. about her.

I left my Sten gun at the lower house, and made a dash across the road to one of our hospital buildings. The entire floor space was covered with stretchers, on which lay the casualties. They were all fully dressed and just covered with army blankets.

I found an officer in the passage, his arm in a sling and his head bandaged, carrying water to the rooms, and asked him for the M.O. He told me that the only man who could help me was the R.A.M.C. corporal, who was in charge here. The officer found him for me, but the corporal said they were so short-staffed that they couldn’t even let me have a medical orderly. He advised me to find the M.O., so I had to sprint across the other cross-roads to a different building.

It was sheer hell for the wounded; they were right in the front line. The German mortar barrage was hitting our perimeter just across the road, twenty-four hours aday. The streets were always swept by our own and German fire, and, until they were knocked out, our six-pounders fired along this road at approaching German armour.

Those men must have felt so terribly helpless lying there, packed like sardines, on every available inch of floor space. The vibration of each explosion made them catch their breath and groan with pain, yet when I went into one of the rooms, they all asked me how we were doing and if there was any news of the Second Army.

Obviously, the M.O. couldn’t come himself, but he chose an experienced Medical Orderly to go with me.

I showed him down the dark stairs, and he went to work immediately. The first thing he did, after seeing the injury, was to give the woman a morphia injection. Then he began the tedious and revolting process of removing the bandages. The blood had seeped through them and dried; now the dressing was a solid crust all mixed up with what was left of her toes. It took the orderly over an hour.

Then he covered her mutilated feet with Penicillin powder, and left a bottle of this, fresh dressings and morphia with the people, in case he could not get back the next day.

During the long and ghastly procedure, the inhabitants of the cellar remained calm and quiet. The immediate effect of the morphia put the woman out of pain for the first time for three days.

They were all touchingly grateful, though they couldn’t say very much. I was glad to be able to tell them that we were only too pleased to do what we could for them, and reminded them that the Dutch were doing wonderful work, helping at the hospital.

See Louis Hagen: Arnhem Lift: A German Jew in the Glider Pilot Regiment

German anti aircraft gun at Arnhem, 23rd September

German anti aircraft gun at Arnhem, 23 September 1944.

A German picture of an Allied airstrike against a German column near Arnhem, 23rd September

A German picture of an Allied airstrike against a German column near Arnhem, 23 September 1944.

A German casualty of an Allied  air strike.

A German casualty of an Allied air strike, 23 September 1944.

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