The casualties mount inside Oosterbeek

German reinforcements arrive in the Oosterbeek area.
German reinforcements arrive in the Oosterbeek area.
A paratrooper takes cover as a jeep burns during a German mortar attack on 1st Airborne Division's HQ at the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, 24 September 1944.
A paratrooper takes cover as a jeep burns during a German mortar attack on 1st Airborne Division’s HQ at the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, 24 September 1944.

Both British and German casualties were piling up inside the Oosterbeek area. On the 23rd Dr. Egon Skalka of the 9th SS Panzer Division had approached the front line under a white flag and negotiated for a ceasefire to allow for the evacuation of casualties. Over the following two days cease fires were organised at different times – and around 1200 men were evacuated to Dutch hospitals under these arrangements. These were only temporary breaks in the fighting however.

Brigadier John Hackett commanded one half of the British occupied part of Oosterbeek. According to a number of different accounts he had been tirelessly visiting every part of his sector, keeping a close eye on every aspect of their situation. It was probably only luck that had prevented him becoming a casualty earlier:

The blow came before the sound of the burst. I dropped on my knees, sick, bewildered and unhappy. It had not been a tree-burst like so many of them, detonating in the branches over-head. This violent thing had happened there on the ground, a few yards in front of me. Was it a mortar bomb or a shell? Had there been a whine before it? Had there been one of them, or two?

Anyway, whatever it had been there were probably more on the way. I crawled on my hands and knees to a shallow slit trench a few feet from me. I had taken refuge in this before and now tumbled into it once again, flattening myself against its side and thrusting a grateful face into cool sandy earth. The ground rang and shook as the rest of the concentration came down, spasmodic bursts in quick untidy groups. Then it was over.

I felt sick and shaken. I told myself not to worry: that would only be shock. What I had to find out was what was really wrong. There seemed to be a good deal of blood about, apparently coming from somewhere above my left knee. I carefully bent the leg: it was not broken.

This was almost a disappointment, since I felt so confused and sick. I shouted. There was another cry from the next pit. That would be the trooper from the Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron, Fred Gough’s people, the man who had come back with me after my own visit to the Squadron, to guide the newly arrived party of Poles to where I wanted them, which was in that part of the Brigade sector.

‘How is it with you ?’ I shouted. He shouted back ‘My leg is broken.’ I wriggled my own injured leg about. It worked. Something would now have to be done about his. There was a dull, singing little pain in my middle, as perhaps the nose cap of whatever it was that had burst had bounced up and hit me there.

I looked around the safe and friendly little trench, reluctant to leave it for the chill, hostile world outside.

Against one corner stood a branch, roughly trimmed as a stick with a forked top. I took it up.

Outside the trench the concentration, which had seemed to I be directed especially at our two selves, was over. The shells were still falling somewhere, as usual. I knew from the last few days of moving about the remnants of my brigade, which was holding the Eastern half of the Oosterbeek perimeter, how they seemed to follow you around wherever you went.

Divisional Headquarters in the Hotel Hartenstein was less than a hundred yards away. There was some sort of a medical aid post, I knew, in the cellars. I took the stick I had found and crawled wearily out of the trench. ‘All right I shouted to the man. ‘I’ll get help.’

It was queer to be walking again under the sad grey sky, over the well-known turf, with the torn limbs of the trees upon it, the wrecked jeeps and the occasional blood-soaked blanket. Bits of equipment were scattered around and here and there were men, some walking about, some digging, some just lying.

This was only a resumption of my journey, interrupted a few minutes back, but there was now a dreamlike quality upon it, as though I had passed out of one world into another. I felt very odd and was irritated that the feeling was not passing off. Perhaps it would soon. We were all rather tired.

See Sir John Hackett: I Was A Stranger

Infantry ride on Sherman tanks in Holland, 24 September 1944.
Infantry ride on Sherman tanks in Holland, 24 September 1944.

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