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