Operation Varsity: Glider attack across the Rhine

Operation VARSITY. Handley Page Halifaxes and Short Stirlings tow Airspeed Horsa gliders over the French countryside shortly after crossing the English Channel, en route to the landing zones east of the River Rhine.
Operation VARSITY. Handley Page Halifaxes and Short Stirlings tow Airspeed Horsa gliders over the French countryside shortly after crossing the English Channel, en route to the landing zones east of the River Rhine.
Operation VARSITY. Douglas Dakotas of No. 46 Group fly in formation over Wavre, Belgium, heading for the dropping zones east of the River Rhine. Above them, Dakotas towing Airspeed Horsas fly a divergent course towards their objectives.
Operation VARSITY. Douglas Dakotas of No. 46 Group fly in formation over Wavre, Belgium, heading for the dropping zones east of the River Rhine. Above them, Dakotas towing Airspeed Horsas fly a divergent course towards their objectives.
Crossing the Rhine 24 -31 March 1945: C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine. This was the greatest airborne operation of the war. Some 40,000 paratroops were dropped by 1,500 troop-carrying planes and gliders.
Crossing the Rhine 24 -31 March 1945: C-47 transport planes release hundreds of paratroops and their supplies over the Rees-Wesel area to the east of the Rhine. This was the greatest airborne operation of the war. Some 40,000 paratroops were dropped by 1,500 troop-carrying planes and gliders.

Operation Plunder, the amphibious assault across the Rhine, was already underway. Operation Varsity, the largest airborne assault of the war now followed. The plan was to seize vital territory in the Wesel area, east of the Rhine in preparation for the main thrust of the Allied forces deep into Germany. The German forces were already diverted by the fortuitous seizure of the bridge at Remagan by US forces, and the establishment of a strong bridgehead in that area.

5.5-inch guns firing in support of the Rhine crossing, 24 March 1945.
5.5-inch guns firing in support of the Rhine crossing, 24 March 1945.
Walls of houses of Wesel still stand, as do the churches, but a great part of the town was destroyed when the German commander forced the Allied troops to fight their way street by street through the ruins.  Germany, 1945.
Walls of houses of Wesel still stand, as do the churches, but a great part of the town was destroyed when the German commander forced the Allied troops to fight their way street by street through the ruins. Germany, 1945.

Denis Edwards was with D Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He was not only a veteran of Normandy but had participated in the very first attack of D-Day, the assault on ‘Pegasus Bridge’. Now they were doing it all over again:

The airfield of departure for our battalion was at Birch, in Essex, from where the take-off began at 0630 hours. About sixty aircraft, gliders and tugs, were queued for take-off.

A strange event occurred at this time. One of the corporals who had been with us in the Normandy campaign had by this time been promoted to sergeant of his Platoon. While waiting to enplane he had a premonition that the aircraft was fated and doomed. He ran off, only to be later detained, tried, stripped of his rank and sentenced to military detention.

He might well have received a more severe sentence than a few months’ detention had it not been for the fact that his premonition was justified. The glider in which he would have travelled took a direct hit and was destroyed with no survivors.

Regrettably, the Germans knew only too well that we were on our way and they were ready and waiting. Following the British glider-borne landings in Normandy and Arnhem in 1944 the Germans had certainly realized that the most effective way to deal with the British troop-carrying Horsa, and the equally large and flimsy Hamilcar gliders was to hit them with incendiary bullets.

Perhaps even tracer bullets were sufficient to set these large and slow gliders aflame long before they reached the ground. Bullets zipped through one side of the flimsy plywood fuselage and out of the other as we approached our landing zone, and as we came in to land part of one wing, an aileron, and the tail section were shot to pieces by shellfire.

Listening to the bullets ripping through woodwork around us was none too pleasant, but amazingly none of us was hit by them. Even more miraculously, unlike most of our comrades in other gliders and those paratroops who jumped, we suffered no casualties at all during the actual landing.

The gliders had to land in open ground and the well-positioned German forces equipped with their tanks, artillery, mortars, heavy, medium and light machine guns, accompanied by well-positioned snipers, picked us off at will as we sought what little cover was available. The casualty figures testify to the advantage enjoyed by the defenders as we delivered our cargoes of thirty men at a time, gift-wrapped in plywood Horsas.

My own twenty-six-man platoon was relatively lucky and every one of us got clear of our glider and reached the station yard where we took refuge from the murderous German fire. The yard covered a considerable area, part of it being stacked with neat piles of timber, each approximately the size of a two—storey house.

Unfortunately it turned out that the Germans were using these stacks of timber to cover their approach as they advanced towards us. We spent the first few hours playing hide-and-seek among the wood-piles, dodging the German Mk IV tanks which trundled up and down the rows of stacked timber seeking us out.

We were not equipped to deal with German heavy tanks. Indeed, the anti-tank guns that we did possess, six-pounders which could dispose of even a Tiger at close range, were almost certainly still within the Hamilcar gliders used to transport our heavier equipment. The concentration of enemy fire over the landing zones would have made it virtually impossible for such weapons to be removed. Most men were just thankful if they were able to crawl away from their gliders and find some sort of shelter from the incoming German fire.

If German tanks dared to roam about in daylight they were quickly neutralized by RAF Tempest and Typhoon rocket-firing aircraft. The Luftwaffe was virtually out of action by this time, out of fuel if not quite out of aircraft, and these Allied aerial tank destroyers were unopposed. They could afford to loiter close by until called in whenever tanks posed a threat.

It was a very one- sided match and in the open and in daylight the tank stood little chance. When moving about in close cover, however, such as the timber yard at Hamminkeln, or with smoke cover, or at night or in semi-darkness, then the German tanks became a problem — quite terrifying and lethally dangerous to lightly equipped infantry.

After our nerve-racking game of hide and seek with the German tanks, we were finally forced to vacate the yard. We withdrew to D Company s arranged rendezvous point on the other side of the glider landing zone. We then moved up to take over the river bridge, defending it against repeated enemy attacks and probes with tanks and infantry.

It was some time later — I am unsure of the exact time for reasons that will become clear, but probably in the late afternoon or evening — that my section was sheltering below a high railway or river embankment when the enemy began a powerful bombardment of the area. A lot of heavy stuff was crashing in all around the place and, without well-dug trenches such as we had in Normandy, it was impossible to find anywhere that offered good protection.

There were several of us crouched in the lee of the embankment when apparently a large shell exploded on the top of the bank just above my head, killing many of those in the immediate area, as well as some others who were further away. I neither remember the shellburst nor anything more for a period of thirty-six hours or so.

See Denis Edwards: Devils Own Luck: Pegasus Bridge to the Baltic 1944-45

A Sherman ARV (armoured recovery vehicle) and other specialised armour moving up to cross the Rhine, 24 March 1945.
A Sherman ARV (armoured recovery vehicle) and other specialised armour moving up to cross the Rhine, 24 March 1945.
German prisoners under guard during the Rhine crossing, 24 March 1945.
German prisoners under guard during the Rhine crossing, 24 March 1945.

Battle of the Bulge – the 82nd Airborne attacks

A patrol, growing when Lt. Thomas of a Cavalry reconnaissance squadron started across the snow with rifle grenades, attacks German snipers discovered on the outskirts of the newly captured town of Beffe, Belgium. Lt. Thomas was followed by volunteers consisting of the members of his squadron, an infantry headquarters company and an infantry company. The attack was launched with rifle fire, fragmentation rifle grenades, hand grenades, riflers, BARs and bazooka company armed with machine guns and light mortars. Twelve Germans were killed in the engagement. (A Co., 1st Bn,, 290th inf., 75th div., B troop. 1/7/45)
A patrol, growing when Lt. Thomas of a Cavalry reconnaissance squadron started across the snow with rifle grenades, attacks German snipers discovered on the outskirts of the newly captured town of Beffe, Belgium. Lt. Thomas was followed by volunteers consisting of the members of his squadron, an infantry headquarters company and an infantry company. The attack was launched with rifle fire, fragmentation rifle grenades, hand grenades, riflers, BARs and bazooka company armed with machine guns and light mortars. Twelve Germans were killed in the engagement. (A Co., 1st Bn,, 290th inf., 75th div., B troop. 1/7/45)

Whether or not Hitler had admitted to himself that the gamble of the Ardennes offensive had failed, his Generals were discreetly trying to pull back and save some of their best troops from annihilation. Second tier troops were pushed into the battle to hold the line and cover the withdrawal of the SS, Paratroopers, and others.

These troops were not nearly as committed as those that had launched the offensive, and some were only serving in the Wehrmacht at gunpoint. The same situation had been encountered in Normandy. There was no way out for these men, just the hope that circumstances would allow them to surrender. Often it did not.

James Megellas, an officer with the 82 Airborne Division, describes the situation at this time, and the progress of an attack made on the 7th January:

The enemy we were encountering now offered only sporadic resistance, bearing little resemblance to the elite SS units we had faced earlier. What we saw now were poorly trained and led German soldiers, a hodgepodge of service troops, conscripts from satellite countries, and young and old recruits scraped from the bottom of the manpower barrel. They did little more than slow our advance and certainly posed no serious threat to our reaching our objectives. However, German artillery was having an effect and continued to be a factor to contend with.

In addition to the casualties from German artillery and snipers, the severe Belgian winter was taking a toll on our ranks. Men were being sent to the medics with swollen feet, barely able to walk. Some of the least affected were kept overnight, treated at the aid station, and returned to their units. The more serious cases were hospitalized.

Many men lost toes; in some cases amputation of feet was necessary. If frostbite was not quickly and properly treated, gangrene set in, requiring amputation. During the Battle of the Bulge, about 45,000 U.S. combat soldiers most susceptible to the cold were removed from the line because of trench foot.

On 7 January, we, accompanied by two supporting tank destroyers (TDs) , moved out to seize Petit Halleaux and control of the high ground overlooking the Salm River. Along our entire front line, only a few enemy units made a determined effort to impede our advance.

Sergeant Charles Crowder recalled: “We had walked about four or five miles through two feet of snow and had taken up positions on the high ground overlooking Grand Halleaux. . . . At daybreak, I left with three men — Albert Tarbell, Andy Kendrot, and Joe Ludwig — to return to our starting point and escort a jeep carrying ammunition and rations to our lines. On the way back, we encountered no opposition; but about halfway back to the Company, we ran into small arms fire.

We dispersed and returned fire, and in about 10 minutes, it was over. Five enemy were killed and one who was talking in a language I did not understand was badly wounded. Someone said he was speaking Polish and wanted help, that he was in terrible pain. One of our men said, ‘I’ll help him,’ pulled out his pistol, shot him in the head, and said, ‘Now he’s not in pain.’

Four of these men were wearing American fatigue clothes underneath a German overcoat and cap. I believe now that these were Polish men we found on this patrol with two Germans behind them. They opened fire on us but hit no one. I believe they would have surrendered if they had a chance.”

Technical Sergeant Eddie C. Heibert, H Company, was a rifleeman in Murphy’s platoon. The following is his account of that action: “One of our two supporting TDs struck a Teller mine and was knocked out about 800 yards from the town. Six of our men were killed or wounded. At this point, enemy machine guns opened up on us and we were pinned to the ground. I saw Lieutenant Murphy crawl forward for about 50 yards under a curtain of murderous machine gun fire and call for the remaining TD to come up to him. The TD silenced two of the enemy machine guns.”

Private First Class David E. Ward Jr., a rifleman in Murphy’s platoon, added the following to Heibert’s statement: “Lieutenant Murphy then returned to us and organized us into two squads and led our attack on the town. When we reached the town, Lieutenant Murphy ran from house to house, under heavy enemy fire, firing his Thompson submachine gun and throwing hand grenades, forcing many of the enemy to surrender.”

The Germans sustained heavy casualties before over 200 men surrendered, the remnants retreating over the bridge from Petit Halleaux to Grand Halleaux.

See James Megellas: All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe.

Infantrymen move along a road through Beffe, Belgium, which was hit by Nazi mortars 1/5/45
Infantrymen move along a road through Beffe, Belgium, which was hit by Nazi mortars 1/5/45

Battle of Bure – Paratroopers v Tiger Tanks

A 6th Airborne Division sniper on patrol in the Ardennes, wearing a snow camouflage suit, 14 January 1945.
A 6th Airborne Division sniper on patrol in the Ardennes, wearing a snow camouflage suit, 14 January 1945.
A Bren gunner in the snow on the front line in Holland, 7 January 1945.
A Bren gunner in the snow on the front line in Holland, 7 January 1945.

The British 6th Airborne Division had been recalled to England following Normandy. When the Battle of the Bulge broke out they were amongst the reserve troops swiftly brought up to mount the allied counter-attack. In early January the German forces had reached the village of Bure, Belgium, where the tip of their advance came to a halt. The 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion was ordered to attack Bure on the 3rd January.

Major ‘Jack’ Watson recounts how their attack almost failed before it started when they were subjected to devastating fire as they were forming up, when about a third of the force become casualties:

We marched to a wood which overlooked Bure, our first objective. This was the furthest point in the German offensive to which the German tanks had advanced. Our task was to evict them from Bure.

The forming-up was “A” Company on the left, “B” Company on the right, and “C” Company in reserve. My task was to attack Bure with “B” Company to secure the high ground. We were formed up ready to go in at 13.00 hours on 3rd January. It was a bloody cold day, still snowing heavily, and even going through the wood to the start line was very difficult because the snow was as much as three or four feet deep in some places. We were wearing normal battle equipment, parachute smocks, helmets.

We formed upon the start line and looked down on this silent and peaceful village. The Germans knew we were there; they were waiting for us and as soon as we started to break cover, I looked up and I could see about a foot above my head the branches of trees being shattered by intense machine-gun fire and mortaring. They obviously had the guns on fixed lines and they pinned us down before we even got off the start line. This was the first time I’d led a company attack and within minutes I’d lost about one-third of them.

I could hear the men of my left-hand platoon shouting for our medics. We were held up for about 15 minutes because of the dead and wounded around us but we had to keep moving. We were about 400 yards from Bure and so as quickly as I could, I got my company together and gave the order to move. We had to get under the firing and get in the village as soon as possible. On the way down I lost more men including my batman. One man took a bullet in his body which ignited the phosphorous bombs he was carrying. He was screaming at me to shoot him. He died later.

We secured the first few houses and I got into one with my Company Headquarters. What I did not know was that “B” Company had also suffered badly in the attack. Their company commander, Major ‘Bill’ Grantham, was killed on the start line together with one of his platoon commanders, Lieutenant Tim Winser. His Company Sergeant Major, Moss, was mortally wounded. The remaining officers, apart from Lieutenant Alf Largeren, were wounded. He led the much depleted company to their objective, but was later killed during the day, trying, with hand grenades, to clear a house held by a German machine-gun post.

Once I had got into the village it was difficult finding out just what was going on. I pulled in my platoon commanders to establish that they were secure and to start movement forward. It was eerie. We would be in one house, myself on the ground floor and my signalman telling me that there were Germans upstairs, and at other times they would be downstairs and we upstairs. It was a most unusual battle.

Our numbers were getting very depleted as we moved forward from house to house. I eventually got to the village crossroads by the old church. In the meantime I had informed my C.O. exactly what was going on, and he decided to send in “C” Company, who were in reserve, to support me. By that time their 60 ton Tiger tanks started to come in on us. It was the first time I had seen Tigers, and now here they were taking potshots, demolishing the houses. I moved from one side of the road to the other deliberately drawing fire. A tank fired at me and the next thing I knew the wall behind me was collapsing. But, a PIAT team came running out, got within 50 yards of the tank, opened fire and smashed the tank’s tracks. They were very brave. It went on like this all day – they counter-attacked, but we managed to hold them. They pushed us back – we pushed forward again.

The 'King Tiger', or Panzer VI B , had up to 7inch thick armour at the front.
The ‘King Tiger’, or Panzer VI B , had up to 7inch thick armour at the front.
A soldier from the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, 7th Armoured Division, emerges from his foxhole armed with a PIAT, 28 December 1944. The Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank fired a 2.5 pound charge which was effective up to 100 yards away for armour less than 4" thick, although a skilled user could only accurately hit such a target about 40% of the time.
A soldier from the 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade, 7th Armoured Division, emerges from his foxhole armed with a PIAT, 28 December 1944.
The Projector, Infantry, Anti Tank fired a 2.5 pound charge which was effective up to 100 yards for armour less than 4″ thick, although a skilled user could only accurately hit such a target about 40% of the time. The user usually sustained bruising from the recoil.

It became difficult to keep the men awake – after all they were tired, we had no hot food. All through our first night they were shelling and firing at us and we were firing back. When we told H.Q. we had German tanks in the area they decided to bring in our own tanks in support, but they were no match for the Tigers. We had Sherman, and by the end of the battle 16 of them had been blown up. We were reinforced by a company from the Oxf and Bucks, commanded by Major Granville – by that time I was down to about one platoon in strength. The Oxf and Bucks went forward, but they were not out there very long before they were forced back into our positions.

I will always take off my hat to Color Sergeant ‘Harry’ Watkins. How the hell he found us I do not know, but he did. We were still scattered in the houses along the main road in the center of the village. He brought us a stew which was good and hot, and we were able to get men into small groups to have food and then get to their positions in the houses.

At one point in the battle, Sergeant Scott R.A.M.C. [Royal Army Medical Corps], went forward in an ambulance to pick up casualties. A German Tiger, which had been fighting us all day, rolled forward alongside him, and the commander seeing him unafraid said, “Take the casualties away this time, but don’t come forward again, it is not safe”. Even Sergeant Scott knew when to take a good hint!

This whole of this account and many more individual stories can be read at Henri Rogister’s Battle of the Bulge Memories.

The original recommendation for the MC awarded to Major Watson can be read at Paradata

Lieutenant P Bickepsteth of 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade briefs his men during a counter-booby trap patrol in the village of Nieuwstadt, Holland, 3 January 1945
Lieutenant P Bickepsteth of 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade briefs his men during a counter-booby trap patrol in the village of Nieuwstadt, Holland, 3 January 1945
Troops of the 1st Rifle Brigade take cover as a mortar bomb explodes in a stream in the village of Nieuwstadt, north of Sittard, 3 January 1945.
Troops of the 1st Rifle Brigade take cover as a mortar bomb explodes in a stream in the village of Nieuwstadt, north of Sittard, 3 January 1945.

US Commander in Bastogne : “NUTS” to Surrender

Refugees evacuate the Belgian town of Bastogne while American troops hold the town against the German assaults.
Refugees evacuate the Belgian town of Bastogne while American troops hold the town against the German assaults.

In the town of Bastogne the 101st Airborne Division was dug in fighting a determined stand against an increasingly frustrated German spearhead. The Americans had identified elements of four Panzer Divisions, two Infantry Divisions and two Parachute Divisions amongst the forces surrounding them.

Th Battle for Bastogne had begun with the hasty arrival of the 101st, whose immediate spoiling actions had blunted the German attack. Alongside the 10th Armored Division and the 705th Tank Destroyer Battalion they were now consolidating their positions to hold onto the town.

With their ammunition running short, no air support available because of the low cloud, and no prospect of relief in the the midst of confused fighting across the Ardennes, the 101st’s position might be thought to be becoming vulnerable.

December 22 1944

To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne

The fortune of war is changing. This time the the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units.

There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. Troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.

If this proposal should be rejected the German Artillery Corps and six heavy A.A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the USA troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hour’s term.

All the serious civilian losses caused by this Artillery fire would not correspond with the well known American humanity.

The German Commander

The reply was not long in coming

To the German Commander

NUTS!

The American Commander

22 December 1944

Contemporary newsletter from the 101st Airborne Division describing the surrender offer.
Contemporary newsletter from the 101st Airborne Division describing the surrender offer.

It was fortunate that the US had had a number of experienced battle hardened units to push into the battle for the Ardennes. The two Airborne Divisions were both to make significant contribution.

The centre of Bastogne in the aftermath of German shelling.
The centre of Bastogne in the aftermath of German shelling.

While the 10st Airborne stuck it out in Bastogne, elsewhere, in a less remembered battle the 82nd Airborne, were engaged in the struggle for another critical town – Cheneaux.

Corporal George Graves, the 504th Regimental S1 recorded serious casualties amongst the 1st Battalion, with many men lost in fierce hand to hand fighting with the 1st SS Panzer Division on the 21st December .

On the 22nd he wrote:

About noon the 2nd Bn left their entrenched positions to relieve the 1st Bn in the town of Cheneux, now completely occupied. The shattered remnants of the 1st Bn came straggling listlessly down the road, a terrible contrast to the happy Battalion which had only two days before gone up the same road wisecracking and full of fight.

They were bearded, red—eyed, covered with mud from head to foot, and staring blank-faced straight to the front. No one spoke. What few officers there were in the columns, half of what had started for Cheneux, were indistinguishable from the men except for the markings on their helmets. They carried their rifles any way that seemed comfortable, some in Daniel Boone fashion.

They had written a page in history that few would ever know about. Already there was talk of a Presidential Citation to record for posterity what was plainly written on their faces that morning.

To millions of Americans at home, the name Cheneux was meaningless. In the swirling holocaust of fire and fury which descended on the peaceful valley of the Ambleve River in Belgium, it might not even be mentioned in the newspapers, such was the confusion of places, units, and deeds being churned around in the “witch’s brew” which was the present battle of the Ardennes.

See James Megellas: All the Way to Berlin: A Paratrooper at War in Europe.

On Dec. 22, 1944 the 2nd Bn, 504 Parachute Infantry Reg. is crossing the village of Rahier as to relieve the 1st Bn in Cheneux after the battle.
On Dec. 22, 1944 the 2nd Bn, 504 Parachute Infantry Reg. is crossing the village of Rahier as to relieve the 1st Bn in Cheneux after the battle.

Screaming Eagles of 506th PIR arrive in Bastogne

19th-december-1944-506th

The struggle to contain the German attack in the Ardennes continued. US Army units from all over northern France and Belgium were being urgently summoned and pushed into the front line in haste.

Amongst their number was Easy Company of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, later to become widely known as the ‘Band of Brothers‘.

The regiment were already veterans of parachute drops in Normandy and Eindhoven. The following account of the day comes from the Regimental History, and appears to follow the 1st Battalion. :

On the morning of the 19th we detrucked and went into assigned areas to rest from the long journey. In the early hours of morning it was dark and misty. This did not add to our chances of getting any rest until daybreak.

Not long after, the outfits assembled and struck out for Bastogne – two miles ahead …

Little was known of the situation because of the speed of the German counter-offensive. Few realized even now that we were headed for combat. That was the last thought in any man’s mind because of the scarcity of our equipment, and little if any ammo.

Finally we reached Bastogne, an important city. A deserted city, silent, with deathly atmosphere.

The few people remaining in Bastogne handed us hot coffee as we rounded the corner and headed for a little town called Noville. It lay approximately five miles ahead.

All the countryside had the appearance of sadness, quiet and dangerous. Along the road were ruins of various military vehicles of destruction. Some American, some German.

We passed the villages of Luzery and Foy. These little villages looked like the rest of the countryside, with the same deathly atmosphere about the buildings. All this while the same thought was running through every man’s mind. Where is the ammunition? It was certain, now, we were going right in with the enemy. It had to be that way because there were no roads but the one leading forward.

The long range guns were discharging their power and destruction. In the far distance were the faint bursts of small arms fire.

Armoured vehicles stood along the road. The drivers and crew stood beside them and gave what little ammunitidn they had to the men in the Company. These men had the look of defeat in their eyes. Their faces had the appearance of grave sorrow. They gave us words of encouragement and approval for help in a grave and dangerous situation.

The column moved onward and more cautiously because it was getting closer and closer to the enemy. In the minds of many there was still that repeated question! Where is the ammunition?

The strike of the heavy, long range guns beat louder. The small arms fire echoed through the hills.

Onward the column of concentrated minds pushed. Little conversation was carried on in the column.

But then our question was answered, for there in the middle of the road was the supply of ammunition laying on the ground beside a parked jeep. The men looked more relieved at this sight and thoughts of something to throw back at the enemy.

As the column passed, the ammunition was picked up and distributed sparingly among the men in the Company.

Onward, closer and closer the winding column pressed to the enemy. Like a vicious snake on the move to attack one of its dangerous enemies. Then the order was passed down for the column to halt. The troops lay in the ditches and rested. Some took handsful of snow that lay in small piles all over the countryside. The snow satisfied that dry taste in the mens’ mouths and the want of water.

As the Company lay there spread out the whining of our artillery could be heard as it passed overhead.

Beyond the hill, the last hill, lay the town of Noville, smoking and flaming. A machine gun began its familiar chattering. Mortar rounds could be heard striking the hillside. With all the confusion and noise, the valley, hills, and the village all bore the same atmosphere …. sadness, death and destruction.

The Company Commander went forward to the Battalion Commander’s position to get his orders and the Company’s Mission. At this time the Company was putting together bits of information gathered throughout the day.

The Company Commander came back to the Company and called the Platoon Leaders forward. The C.O. Gave the plans and order of attack to the Platoon Leaders. The Platoon Leaders went back to ther Platoons and gave the troops the information and plans.

Then the signal came for the march forward to meet the enemy. Shells evenly spaced cracked the surface of the earth in the village. The loud challenge of the bursting shells echoed off the hills to either flank. Onward in this volley of shells the company moved, then swung off the road into a field which lay in the valley.

Across the valley into a wooded hill, and there the Company halted. The other Companies of the Battalion went into their respective areas and waited for the order to go into the attack. Mortars went into position and concentrated fire was laid down on various targets. Then the signal …

The forward element of the Company went from the woods into the open field. Across the field and marsh, through a stream, into more woods and up into a hill. On the reverse side the enemy waited.

Machine guns, small arms, and long guns, continuously spread pellets of destruction swishing and whining through the trees. Onward went the Company, now scattered out and tired from the steep climb upward. Up and up! Over rocks, and along crevices, through woods, and finally … the enemy.

The enemy lay there watching, waiting for the men in the company to expose themselves.

The skirmish line was rapidly formed along the edge of the woods facing the enemy. Enemy …. and there it was! Seven heavily armoured Tiger tanks. What an enemy! Tanks of the best of armour against men of courage and small arms weapons. There was a Tiger Royal burning and the smoke swirled up into the heavens in a cone shaped column.

Bullets, shrapnel ripped by. Loud bursts of artillery and mortars vibrated the earth. Machine guns chattered, ours and the Germans. Men of the company were being hit, men groaned, and men shouted orders. But then came the order to withdraw!!

[Note : Such a surprising decision could only come in the face of the unknown, and overwhelming force of the enemy. A decision to organize and hold a strong point in that town to insure contact, relay necessary information, and screen actions of Division.]

The men withdrew in a sort of disorderly, lazy-like manner, wounded were limping and carried by their buddies. Some were left behind dead.

The Company was tramping a weary path in the soft plowed fields as they crossed. Not far was the burning and smell of the village of Noville. The acrid smell stung the nostrils.

In the mind was the hated word of all the Company – defeat -, yes, it was defeat. Defeat of man against steel and the best of armour. But the defeated had more than steel, they had courage. And they had patience.

On the way back to the town of Noville small groups of men began to organize into larger. Artillery began to bark at their heels as they entered the edge of town. Darkness had fallen as the majority of the company reached town.

Men were left at appointed posts to guide any others who might find their way back. Orders came out to hold the village at all costs. Strong points were lined around the northern section of the village. In buildings and good protection the men of the Company built their strong points.

Artillery pounded all night long. Set fire to many of the buildings and vehicles. Armour flamed a dark red against the reflected pink sky.

Men came in in ones and twos. Things didn’t seem so bad when the missing began to return. Many did not – never will.

The whole Regimental History of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment is available to download.

This dead Yank was felled while fighting with fellow soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, to drive Nazis from a heavily wooded area near Bastogne, Belgium, where Germans were entrenched. (original Signal Corps caption)
This dead Yank was felled while fighting with fellow soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, to drive Nazis from a heavily wooded area near Bastogne, Belgium, where Germans were entrenched. (original Signal Corps caption)

Evacuation of the surviving troops from Arnhem

British paratroops being marched away by their German captors. Some 6,400 of the 10,000 British paratroops who landed at Arnhem were taken prisoner, a further 1,100 had been killed. (German photograph).
British paratroops being marched away by their German captors. Some 6,400 of the 10,000 British paratroops who landed at Arnhem were taken prisoner, a further 1,100 had been killed. (German photograph).
A group of survivors from the Arnhem Operation arriving at Nijmegen after the evacuation and having their first drink. One of them, Captain Jan Linzel (second from left) is a member of the Dutch Royal Navy attached to No 10 Commando.
A group of survivors from the Arnhem Operation arriving at Nijmegen after the evacuation and having their first drink. One of them, Captain Jan Linzel (second from left) is a member of the Dutch Royal Navy attached to No 10 Commando.

After over a week of intense fighting it was finally decided to withdraw the remaining men of the 1st Airborne Division from their isolated position on the outskirts of Arnhem. They were pulled out in small groups from the defence line in Oosterbeek so that the Germans would not guess what was happening. Of the 10,000 who had arrived by parachute and glider, about 2,500 got away across the Rhine during the night of the 25th/26th. Many of those left behind could not be extricated because they were wounded.

Glider Pilot Louis Hagen had narrowly avoided becoming a casualty and describes the final stages of their escape:

All along the path there were mortar pits and the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers. We reached the banks of the Rhine and joined a long queue of men waiting to be ferried across. Someone came up to us and told us to spread out as the mortaring might be resumed any minute.

There were at least 100 men in front of us and no sign of a boat.There were other parties like ours all along the river, waiting. The splash of oars could be heard now and then. I suppose this was how they felt at Dunkirk. A small canvas boat was approaching at last. It took ten men across. Then we realised our desperate position.Any moment the mortaring might start again.There was no cover at all and we crouched in the deep squelchy mud. We were frozen with cold and soaked from the rain.

The mortaring started up again, not directly where we were, but near enough to be frightening. After trenches and street fighting, and even the cover of the woods, we felt helplessly exposed.The thought of those ghastly bodies and the groans of the wounded, lying in the meadows, was in everyone’s mind, but no one said anything. We just crouched there shivering.

I began surveying our position in my mind. Of course this had nothing in common with Dunkirk, and those who ordered us to wait in line patiently until we were taken off by those ridiculous little canvas assault boats did not know what they were doing.The Rhine was only 250 yards wide and quite narrow at certain spots near us.

Why was not the order given for those of us who could swim to dump their arms and make for the other side? Surely it would have been possible to organise a rope and stretch it across for those who were not strong swimmers? But instead we were being heroic, playing at Dunkirk, and a great many men who could have escaped to safety would be casualties or else be taken prisoner at dawn.

I had to get out of this. I told Captain Z that I couldn’t stand this any longer and that I was going to try and swim for it. Now we had got this far I didn’t intend to take any more risks than were necessary. The boat system was obviously hopelessly inadequate and, apart from relieving some of-this awful congestion on the bank and leaving the boats, such as they were to the non—swimmers, I honestly thought it was the best way out. He agreed with me and shouted to the rest of our glider pilot section that we were going on to a promontory where the river narrowed a bit.

A large crowd followed us, but I doubt if any of them realised where we were going or what we intended to do.They just came after us because at least we seemed to have some kind of plan. Had they been told that the river was only 250 yards wide, though it looked rather more in the dark, many would have followed us, orders or no orders.

We had to climb some large boulders on our way to the promontory. At the end, it went steeply down into the water and would have made a far better landing stage for the rescue boats than the mud flats, as at least the bank gave a little cover.

From here the opposite bank didn’t look too far and the prospect of doing something after the misery of queuing up on all fours in the mud made Captain Z, and me feel quite cheerful. ‘Well do it again, you and me!’ he said.

We proceeded to take our boots off and hung them round our necks. Captain Z gave his rifle to Lieutenant X, who unfortunately couldn’t swim, and remarked that he must keep his haversack with him as the Company ‘Office’ etc., was in it. I kept all my arms and ammo as we couldn’t be sure what would greet us on the other side.

Hagen was to discover that he couldn’t quite manage the swim with his gun and ammunition – and had to dump them half way across – but he got to the other bank safely. See Louis Hagen: Arnhem Lift: A German Jew in the Glider Pilot Regiment

Also amongst those who escaped across the river was Stanley Moss:

I have nothing but admiration for those Canadian Engineers as they ferried soldiers across the river all night. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t swim and I felt a little guilty at having jumped the queue, but what the hell…

For the first time in eight days I felt relatively safe. If any of the Canadian Engineers who were in that boat that carried me across the river remember the incident and happen to see this, I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart.

As I looked around I saw tired faces everywhere, grimy, proud, undefeated faces and I wanted to cry. I didn’t recognise anybody and I had no idea how many others had made it. We had all been through so much together. Everywhere I looked I saw the eyes of men who had seen too much, given too much. Everywhere I looked I saw a hero.

But for every man that had escaped many more had died, been wounded or captured and they had no one to tell their story. My experiences in those eight days would remain with me for the rest of my life.

Read the whole of Eight Days In Arnhem at BBC Peoples War

 Four British paratroops clamber ashore from a small rowing boat at Nijmegen. They were captured at the Van Limburg Stirum School alongside Arnhem Bridge and taken to a transit camp at Emmerich in Germany, but escaped and found a rowing boat, in which they made their way down the Rhine and into the Waal to Nijmegen and freedom. Left to right: Cpl John Humphreys, Cpl Charles Weir, Lt Dennis Simpson, and Captain Eric Mackay, all of the 1st Para Squadron, Royal Engineers; they are shown here recreating the moment of their arrival at Nijmegen for the camera.
Four British paratroops clamber ashore from a small rowing boat at Nijmegen. They were captured at the Van Limburg Stirum School alongside Arnhem Bridge and taken to a transit camp at Emmerich in Germany, but escaped and found a rowing boat, in which they made their way down the Rhine and into the Waal to Nijmegen and freedom. Left to right: Cpl John Humphreys, Cpl Charles Weir, Lt Dennis Simpson, and Captain Eric Mackay, all of the 1st Para Squadron, Royal Engineers; they are shown here recreating the moment of their arrival at Nijmegen for the camera.
Airborne troops taken prisoner at Arnhem.
Airborne troops taken prisoner at Arnhem.
A German picture of men captured at Arnhem.
A German picture of men captured at Arnhem.

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.

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.

British airborne troops fight on in Oosterbeek

Major-General Robert E Urquhart, commanding 1st British Airborne Division, with the Pegasus airborne pennant in the grounds outside his headquarters at the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, 22 September 1944.
Major-General Robert E Urquhart, commanding 1st British Airborne Division, with the Pegasus airborne pennant in the grounds outside his headquarters at the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, 22 September 1944.
A carrier crew of 8th Rifle Brigade hands out chocolate to Dutch civilians during the advance of 11th Armoured Division in Holland, 22 September 1944.
A carrier crew of 8th Rifle Brigade hands out chocolate to Dutch civilians during the advance of 11th Armoured Division in Holland, 22 September 1944.

Still the British Airborne forces clung on, fighting an intense battle against mounting German forces. They still hoped that the tanks of the 2nd Army might yet break through to them.

Stuart Mawson was a Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He describes the situation in the British Dressing Station within the Oosterbeek area on the outskirts of Arnhem. Established in the Schoonoord hotel-restaurant it was on a crossroads that much of the fighting was centred on. On the 22nd he was called to attend to a man whose condition appeared to be getting worse:

The wounded man was one of those unfortunates lying near the window. The mattress Simmons and I had thrust into the lower part of it still gave a certain amount of protection, but the stuffing was coming out in places where it had absorbed metal fragments, and it did nothing to mitigate the noise which battered at the nerves with a threat of sudden injury or disaster.

An increase in the relation of whistles to crashes indicated that a target rather more distant than the Hartenstein area was receiving the brunt of the enemy softening-up process. Shells were passing overhead in an unending stream while, compared with yesterday, the explosions in the immediate vicinity were reduced; but this was an academic consideration.

Many of the wounded had been lying in this room for the best part of five days, their resistance and vitality gradually being sapped by pain, toxaemia and semi—starvation. Colour had drained from their faces from which, owing to the difficulties, it had not recently been possible to remove the stubble.

Their eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, and there were few now who could summon a complete show of indifference to the bombardment. They stared at the ceiling as if trying to follow the track of each missile, and with every crump they twitched and started. They were beyond defeat beca-use they could not run away, and though they might not be able to control their bodies they did control their tongues: no complaints, no accu- sations, no squeals, just grim, silent endurance, save from those who could not suppress an involuntary groan when I had to handle their wounds.

I examined the man’s thigh above the upper rim of the plaster of Paris splint that encircled his leg down to the foot, and with careful fingers palpated a puffy swelling under the skin. It had a curious feel like well-aerated dough. I began to worry as my fingers sank with almost a crackle into what should have been the firm flesh of the thigh. It evoked some text-book memory which I sought intently to recall. Some instinct implanted by past medical training prompted me to put my nose closer to the plaster, and then the diagnosis leapt into my mind, gas gangrene. This was serious; as far as I had heard, the first case we had had.

At two o’clock in the afternoon the sky was mightily rent by the sound of numerous aircraft, and Dakotas of the supply drop again roared overhead, threading their way like wraiths through the rain clouds. They were flying so low it looked as if one could touch them, and the proximity of these comrades-in-arms gave a fresh fillip to the prevailing optimism that was not, except among the more thoughtful, dashed by the defiant and enormous clatter of anti-aircraft fire that sprang up from the Arnhem-ward side of the hospital.

Whatever might be the preoccupation of the Germans they were not too busy, or on the defensive, to be debarred from putting up a terrific barrage that took painful toll of the lumbering planes. Unfortunately, in spite of the tenacious courage of the airmen, the greater part of the supplies again failed to fall within the perimeter, and the many spectators from the hospital who rushed out to watch had the chagrin of seeing coloured parachutes opening in huge clusters over the enemy-held territory nearer the town.

When the last flight had passed over and the anti-aircraft fire had died away forage parties once more went out to recover what they could.

See Stuart Mawson: Arnhem Doctor

A German picture of some of the supplies dropped by parachute that fell within their area.
A German picture of some of the supplies dropped by parachute that fell within their area.
A German assault gun in the Oosterbeek battle.
A German assault gun in the Oosterbeek battle.

Arnhem: British paratroopers continue to hold out

'Gallipoli II', a 6-pdr anti-tank gun of No. 26 Anti-Tank Platoon, 1st Border Regiment, 1st Airborne Division, in action in Oosterbeek, 20 September 1944. The gun was at this moment engaging a German PzKpfw B2 (f) Flammpanzer tank of Panzer-Kompanie 224 and successfully knocked it out.
‘Gallipoli II’, a 6-pdr anti-tank gun of No. 26 Anti-Tank Platoon, 1st Border Regiment, 1st Airborne Division, in action in Oosterbeek, 20 September 1944. The gun was at this moment engaging a German PzKpfw B2 (f) Flammpanzer tank of Panzer-Kompanie 224 and successfully knocked it out.
No. 1 Gun (a 75mm howitzer) of 'D' Troop, 2nd Battery, 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, 1st Airborne Division in the Oosterbeek perimeter, 21 September 1944.
No. 1 Gun (a 75mm howitzer) of ‘D’ Troop, 2nd Battery, 1st Airlanding Light Regiment, 1st Airborne Division in the Oosterbeek perimeter, 21 September 1944.
3-inch mortar team of No.23 Mortar (Handcarts) Platoon of Support Company, 1st Border Regiment, 1st Airborne Division, in action in the Oosterbeek perimeter, 21 September 1944.
3-inch mortar team of No.23 Mortar (Handcarts) Platoon of Support Company, 1st Border Regiment, 1st Airborne Division, in action in the Oosterbeek perimeter, 21 September 1944.
Men from Nos. 15 & 16 Platoons, 'C' Company, 1st Battalion Border Regiment, waiting in roadside ditches along the Van Lennepweg to repulse an attack by the enemy, who were barely a hundred yards away, Oosterbeek, 21 September.
Men from Nos. 15 & 16 Platoons, ‘C’ Company, 1st Battalion Border Regiment, waiting in roadside ditches along the Van Lennepweg to repulse an attack by the enemy, who were barely a hundred yards away, Oosterbeek, 21 September.

Late on the 20th the men of the Parachute Regiment who held the positions closest to Arnhem Bridge were overrun. Out of ammunition, with the buildings burning around them and a majority of men injured, their position had been untenable for some time before they were forced to surrender. The Germans were still picking up pockets of them early on the 21st. Among the injured taken prisoner were Colonel John Frost and Private James Sims.

Further away in the suburbs of Arnhem, in Oosterbeek, another contingent of the Airborne troops continued to hold out. They had been surrounded early in the battle and unable to break through to the Arnhem bridge as planned.

Sergeants Lewis and Walker, two Army Film and Photographic Unit cameramen who landed with the first troops, share a quick meal with a Dutch girl on the bonnet of their Jeep at Oosterbeek.
Sergeants Lewis and Walker, two Army Film and Photographic Unit cameramen who landed with the first troops, share a quick meal with a Dutch girl on the bonnet of their Jeep at Oosterbeek.
Sgt Jock Walker, AFPU, pictured outside the Hartenstein Hotel, Oosterbeek, September 1944
Sgt Jock Walker, AFPU, pictured outside the Hartenstein Hotel, Oosterbeek, September 1944

With them was Sgt Jock Walker of the Army Film and Photographic Unit. He had long since run out of cine film, none of them had expected to be engaged for so long:

On the 21st it was impossible to leave the Hartenstein Hotel area, due to the fact that the enemy made a very determined attempt to break into the perimeter. What with this and the recommencement of the heavy mortaring and shelling it was a wonder any of us lived through it, but we did. Defending the perimeter, in addition to the Para and the South Staffs, there were elements of REs, RAs, Royal Signals, Glider Pilots, Pathfinders, RASC who fought as hard and viciously as the rest. It was a case of their life or yours and although airborne troops do not require to have their back to the wall in order to fight, this was literally a case of give an inch and we were all done.

The R.A.F. supply planes and their dispatchers were giants among brave men; whenever they came over with supplies (which unfortunately usually fell to the enemy) all the fury of the enemy was directed against them, but steadfastly they flew straight and level through the most fearful ‘flak’ – the dispatchers at the doors, chucking out the containers, even when repeatedly hit and set on fire, flying on, blazing torches in the sky, until they eventually crashed in flames. What devotion to duty and so sorrowful to watch. There wasn’t a man on the ground that wasn’t moved by this display of courage and, in the main, with no benefit to us.

That day, in an attempt to reinforce us, the Polish Para were dropped on the other side of the Rhine, opposite our perimeter but due apparently to lack of boats etc. they had to stay there until the next night, when they joined us, a very small batch of about 200; they too had been cut to ribbons.

Food and water was a definite problem, we managed to collect some apples and vegetables from time to time and at the end of the open space behind the Hartenstein there was a well but collecting water was very ‘dodgy’ due to these pestilential snipers. One of the Sergeants and his men, faked up a dummy soldier with a stick, pillow and tin hat, and exposed it every so often. It never failed to draw fire, thus showing where the sniper was and then he would get his ‘come-uppance.’ He knocked out an awful lot of snipers this way and enabled us to get water from time to time.

If you were wounded it was certain captivity, as the British and German Red Cross agreed to work side by side, but the Germans controlled the hospital, so if you were taken there, into captivity you went. In fact the only jeep that was still running was the one that ferried the wounded to hospital, the enemy respected it and it was back and forth all day long, carrying the wounded to succour, safety and behind barbed wire.

It wasn’t all grim, square-jawed stuff, we had some laughs like when a German Psychological unit in a van came up and bellowed through the loud-hailer that we were good blokes and marvellous fighters, and that if we would surrender we would be treated as heroes and all this guff.
The answer of course was cat calls, “Up yours from Wigan.” “Get knotted,” and other military replies and when it came next day somebody fired a P.I.A.T. bomb right into it. They didn’t send another one!

And if you were caught in the open during an enemy ‘stonk’ and dived into a slit trench you had usually to battle with squirrels for possession of it; they couldn’t live in the woods and very sensibly occupied slit trenches and were not at all keen on a human being there too. Sharp little teeth they’ve got.

Read the whole of Sergeant Walkers account on BBC People’s War.

John R. Towle, Medal of Honor
John R. Towle, Medal of Honor

Further back in Nijmegan the US forces that had captured the bridge were now facing German counter-attacks. Here too there was exceptional gallantry. Private John R. Towle was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for taking the initiative:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty on 21 September 1944, near Oosterhout, Holland.

The rifle company in which Pvt. Towle served as rocket launcher gunner was occupying a defensive position in the west sector of the recently established Nijmegen bridgehead when a strong enemy force of approximately 100 infantry supported by 2 tanks and a half-track formed for a counterattack. With full knowledge of the disastrous consequences resulting not only to his company but to the entire bridgehead by an enemy breakthrough, Pvt. Towle immediately and without orders left his foxhole and moved 200 yards in the face of intense small-arms fire to a position on an exposed dike roadbed.

From this precarious position Pvt. Towle fired his rocket launcher at and hit both tanks to his immediate front. Armored skirting on both tanks prevented penetration by the projectiles, but both vehicles withdrew slightly damaged. Still under intense fire and fully exposed to the enemy, Pvt. Towle then engaged a nearby house which 9 Germans had entered and were using as a strongpoint and with 1 round killed all 9.

Hurriedly replenishing his supply of ammunition, Pvt. Towle, motivated only by his high conception of duty which called for the destruction of the enemy at any cost, then rushed approximately 125 yards through grazing enemy fire to an exposed position from which he could engage the enemy half-track with his rocket launcher.

While in a kneeling position preparatory to firing on the enemy vehicle, Pvt. Towle was mortally wounded by a mortar shell. By his heroic tenacity, at the price of his life, Pvt. Towle saved the lives of many of his comrades and was directly instrumental in breaking up the enemy counterattack.

Sergeants J Whawell and J Turl of the Glider Pilot Regiment search for snipers in the ULO (Uitgebreid Lager Onderwijs) school in Kneppelhoutweg, Oosterbeek, 21 September 1944.
Sergeants J Whawell and J Turl of the Glider Pilot Regiment search for snipers in the ULO (Uitgebreid Lager Onderwijs) school in Kneppelhoutweg, Oosterbeek, 21 September 1944.
A wounded man being carried away from the Divisional Administration Area by stretcher (note the stocks of ammunition and fuel dumped in the background) at Oosterbeek.
A wounded man being carried away from the Divisional Administration Area by stretcher (note the stocks of ammunition and fuel dumped in the background) at Oosterbeek.