The paratroopers who had dropped into Arnhem were now surrounded and fighting a desperate battle for survival against a force of Panzers and armoured vehicles that significantly outgunned them.
Private James Sims was with the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment. They were dug in on a lightly wooded traffic island on the road leading to Arnhem Bridge. For nineteen year old Sims it had been a baptism of fire, his first time in battle. He had seen the ambush of Major General Friedrich Kussin – it was the first time he had seen a German soldier and the first time he seen a dead body.
Early on the 19th the Germans attempted to ‘rush’ their positions with a rapid advance of armoured cars. It had been beaten of with direct fire from one the 6 pounder guns. It was just the beginning of the German assaults that day:
After the failure of the ‘Grand Prix’ attack the Germans withdrew a short distance and began to mortar and shell our positions systematically for the first time. The very air seemed to wail and sigh with the number of projectiles passing through it.
The enemy had also brought up some self-propelled artillery, heavy stuff, and against this we were virtually helpless. One by one the houses held by the paratroopers were set alight. There was nothing to fight the fires with, even if we had been able to.
The airborne soldiers kept on firing from the blazing buildings even with the roof fallen in; then they moved to the second floor, then to the first, and finally to the basement. Only when this was alight did they evacuate the building and take over another. As each hour passed we were driven into a smaller and smaller area.
Casualties began to mount rapidly. Our food and water were practically gone, but worst of all the ammunition was running short.
Soon we heard tank engines and thought at first they were ours; but they were German panzers cautiously probing their way into the bloody arena to add the sharp crack of their 75 and 88mm guns to the already overwhelming bombardment.
It seemed impossible that the shelling and mortaring could get any worse, but they did. The separate explosions now merged into one almost-continuous rolling detonation and the earth shook as if it was alive. My head sang and I was numb to any feeling beyond, the basic instinct to survive. I began to realise the full significance of the phrase ‘bomb-happy’.
Yet even in this terrific concentration of fire not one bomb or shell splinter landed in a slit-trench or mortar pit: it was unbelievable, little short of miraculous. It is only when one has been through this sort of experience that one can understand how soldiers in the past stood in lines facing each other and fired by numbers.
With each successive salvo of mortar bombs I screwed my steel helmet further into the comforting earth and clawed at the silty soil at the bottom of the trench. I kept repeating to myself over and over again, ‘Hold on . . . hold on . . . you must hold on.’
To be alone at the bottom of that trench was like lying in a newly dug grave waiting to be buried alive. Each fresh explosion sent rivulets of earth crumbling around my helmet and into the sides of my mouth. After another avalanche of explosions I started praying, and really meaning it, for the first time in my life.
Overhead a lone Messerschmitt fighter plane circled lazily. If the pilot was spotting for the enemy artillery he had an almost impossible task as the Germans and ourselves were so close together, even sharing the same houses in some cases. Perhaps he was just curious — it was certainly the only aircraft I saw throughout the battle. What had happened to the mighty Allied air forces God only knew.
Something whistled down into the slit-trench and hit my boot. In one split second I suffered agonies visualising extinction, but as nothing happened I gingerly reached towards my ankle and retrieved the tail fin of a German mortar bomb, still warm from flight. It must have been blown into my trench from an exploding missile nearby.
The bombardment suddenly ceased and there was an uncanny quiet, which was abruptly shattered by the eruption of an enemy infantry attack from underneath the bridge directly in front of our positions. This desperate assault came to nothing and those not cut down fled in disorder.
There was no shortage of heroism this day and two men were particularly recognised by the award of the Victoria Cross, both citations illustrate the intensity of different aspects of the fighting:
At Arnhem on 19th September 1944 Captain Queripel was acting as company commander of a composite company composed of men of three parachute battalions. At 14.00 hours on that day his company were advancing along a main road which runs on an embankment towards Arnhem. The advance was conducted under continuous machine-gun fire, which at one period became so heavy that the company became split up on either side of the road and suffered considerable loss.
Captain Queripel at once proceeded to reorganise his forces, crossing and recrossing the road whilst doing so under extremely heavy and accurate fire. During this period he carried a wounded sergeant to the Regimental Aid Post under fire and was himself wounded in the face. Having reorganised his force, Captain Queripel personally led a party of men against a strong point holding up the advance. This strong point consisted of a captured British anti-tank gun and two machine guns. Despite the extremely heavy fire directed at him, Captain Queripel succeeded in killing the crews of the machine guns and recapturing the anti-tank gun. As a result of this the advance was able to continue.
Later in the same day Captain Queripel found himself cut off with a small party of men and took up a position in a ditch. By this time he had received further wounds in both arms. Regardless of his wounds and the very heavy mortar and Spandau fire, he continued to inspire his men to resist with hand grenades, pistols and the few remaining rifles.
On at least one occasion he picked up and threw back at the enemy a stick grenade which had landed in the ditch. As, however, the enemy pressure increased, Captain Queripel decided that it was impossible to hold the position longer and ordered his men to withdraw.
Despite their protests, he insisted on remaining behind to cover their withdrawal with his automatic pistol and a few remaining hand grenades. This is the last occasion on which he was seen.
During the whole of a period of nine hours of confused and bitter fighting Captain Queripel displayed the highest standard of gallantry under most difficult and trying circumstances. His courage, leadership and devotion to duty were an inspiration to all. He was 24 years old.
The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery:—
Flight Lieutenant David Samuel Anthony LORD, D.F.C. (49149), R.A.F., 271 Sqn. (deceased).
Flight Lieutenant Lord was pilot and captain of a Dakota aircraft detailed to drop supplies at Arnhem on the afternoon of the 19th September, 1944. Our airborne troops had been surrounded and were being pressed into a small area defended by a large number of anti-aircraft guns. Air crews were warned that intense opposition would be met over the dropping zone. To ensure accuracy they were ordered to fly at 900 feet when dropping their containers.
While flying at 1,500 feet near Arnhem the starboard wing of Flight Lieutenant Lord’s aircraft was twice hit by anti-aircraft fire. The starboard engine was set on fire. He would have been justified in leaving the main stream of supply aircraft and continuing at the same height or even abandoning his aircraft. But on learning that his crew were uninjured and that the dropping zone would be reached in three minutes he said he would complete his mission, as the troops were in dire need of supplies.
By now the starboard engine was burning furiously. Flight Lieutenant Lord came down to 900 feet, where he was singled out for the concentrated fire of all the anti-aircraft guns. On reaching the dropping zone he kept the aircraft on a straight, and level course while supplies were dropped. At the end of the run, he was told that two containers remained.
Although he must have known that the collapse of the starboard wing could not be long delayed, Flight Lieutenant Lord circled, rejoined the stream of aircraft and made a second run to drop the remaining supplies. These manoeuvres took eight minutes in all, the aircraft being continuously under heavy anti-aircraft fire.
His task completed, Flight Lieutenant Lord ordered his crew to abandon the Dakota, making no attempt himself to leave the aircraft, which was down to 500 feet. A few seconds later, the starboard wing collapsed and the aircraft fell in flames. There was only one survivor, who was flung out while assisting other members of the crew to put on their parachutes.
By continuing his mission in a damaged and burning aircraft, descending to drop the supplies accurately, returning to the dropping zone a second time and, finally, remaining at the controls to give his crew a chance of escape, Flight Lieutenant Lord displayed supreme valour and self-sacrifice.