Determined to ‘do his bit’, Des Evans absconded from a reserved occupation in 1939 and joined the newly formed Reconnaissance Corps. He saw action in North Africa and Italy before being evacuated back to England with pneumonia in early 1944. Once fully recovered, he volunteered as a wireless operator with 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron.
After parachute training, he joined C Troop in time to play his role in Operation MARKET GARDEN, the ill-fated but glorious attempt to seize the Rhine Bridge at Arnhem. In this gripping memoir, Des vividly describes both the intense action and his emotions following the drop. At first there was an unreal sense of calm but this was soon to evaporate.
In the intense action that followed, Des was ambushed twice and badly wounded. Fortunate to survive, he became a POW. After eight long months’ captivity moving between camps, Des escaped to American lines.
Sadly, but inevitably, new first-hand accounts by Second World War veterans are becoming increasingly rare. Covering the author’s frontline action in three theatres and his POW and escape experiences, With Recce at Arnhem is a gem. Some readers may find its brutal honesty disturbing but war has never been for the faint-hearted.
The following excerpt is the opening passage of Des’s gripping account of his experiences at Arnhem:
Departure for Arnhem: Sunday, 17 September 1944
Conditions were perfect if they continued over Holland as they were over England, but there was no early take off planned. We were all due to arrive over the Dropping Zone (DZ) and Landing Zone (LZ) at about 14.30 in the afternoon. This meant that take-off for the glider—borne troops had to be earlier than ours as they would be travelling more slowly.
I recall the time of take-off was around 10.45am, fifteen minutes later than the glider—borne element which had taken off from Tarrant Rushton in Dorset. We were told our flight would last approximately three and a half hours.
The planes towing the gliders were slower so the time difference allowed the air armada to rendezvous and arrive at the same time. I also remember an officer I think, coming around and handing out cups of tea laced with rum or brandy. Most of us drank it but I thought it tasted bloody awful, a waste of good tea or rum or brandy whichever way the individual saw it.
We filed onto our plane at last, twenty to a plane. This was called a ‘Stick’. With all our gear this was dangerously close to the aircraft’s capacity; overloaded in the opinion of some. It was a beautiful day, as I had suggested earlier. Perfect flying weather in fact, so some of the imaginative wondered if the Luftwaffe would turn up to hamper our progress. The Allies now had an almost complete mastery of the air, but we knew that some German fighter planes were still about.
Take-off went without a hitch as far as we could see with our limited view of the proceedings from the small windows of the Dakota.
It was an almost physical impossibility, with all our gear on, to twist around and look out of the windows, but one or two wrestled themselves to their feet when we had stopped climbing and excitedly described the views that no one who was there will ever forget. As far as the eye could see there were planes and gliders all travelling on a dead straight course over the North Sea. Weaving in and out, up and down, were the fighters; there seemed to be hundreds of them.
Down below we could see that the sea was dotted with rescue craft, emphasizing our control of the water as well as the air.
Somehow Sunday seemed to be a strange day for such a trip but most of us felt a great elation now that we were finally committed to an operation. This one would not abort now! We were all raring to go, superbly fit and full of the feeling that we were invincible.
The enemy was on the run and we had been told that, if successful, this operation would end the War by Christmas. Many were going into action for the first time; little did any of us know how well these inexperienced lads would acquit themselves in the days to come. No matter how well a man is known to his comrades there is no way of knowing how he’ll behave under fire.
Crossing the Dutch coast in perfect weather conditions our thoughts and reveries, sitting in the aircraft, were shattered as the German anti~aircraft fire opened up on us. The fighters dipped and dived, took them on and silenced them. Revelling in our complete superiority of the skies, again we felt that nothing could stop us now. The good weather continued all the way to the objective, the landing and dropping zones near the village of Wolfheze.
‘Stand to the door,’ seemed to come quickly, although the journey had in fact taken almost four hours. The dispatcher was standing by the open door.The red light was on, changing so quickly, it seemed, to green. We shuffled towards the door, following the man immediately ahead, fiddling nervously with equipment, hoping that everything was in place and functioning correctly. No time to think now, we really were committed.
Leap into space, the ground seemed close; hold your breath while the static line pays out. The harness snaps around your body and you gasp with relief as that beautiful canopy opens above you. Very little wind, good! Pay out the line on your drop-bag strapped to your leg, it hits the ground, your descent slows and then your feet meet terra firma.
Great! Piece of cake! No problems! Canopy collapses, hit the quick release, and join your mates as soon as possible. Everyone feels alone when making a jump. It’s a strictly personal thing. Open the drop-bag, grab rifle, ammo – oh! Get this bloody over-smock off — always a damn nuisance. Now then where are we? Follow the crowd. Jeeps come into view, familiar faces with a variety of expressions. ‘Come on’, someone shouts, ‘We’ve got to get to that fucking bridge’.
We joined our sections – mine was No 9, under Second Lieutenant Sam Bowles. Our driver was Bill Edmond, a likeable Scot. The Para battalions were forming up around us; they’d have to cover seven miles to the bridge on their flat feet. This, we all knew, was the biggest drawback to the operation; the element of surprise would be lost having to cover the distance between ourselves and the bridge at Arnhem.
It would not require any great tactical genius on the enemy side to realize that the great bridge over the Neder Rijn was our target. The Recce Squadron brief was uncomplicated: ‘Get to the bridge’.
So setting off on our various routes the Troops split up. ‘C’ Troop headed towards the railway crossing at Wolfheze station. Before crossing the line we turned left onto a track which was parallel with the railway. The first German we saw looked as if he was snoozing in the sun, sitting down against a fence post. The hole in his helmet, through which his blood still dripped, shattered the illusion.
There was an ack-ack train of Bofors guns on the railway line that had been hammered by our fighters the day before; it was just so much scrap metal. We were startled when another German, who had been hiding in a ditch nearby, jumped up with his hands in the air. The Dutch Commando attached to our Troop, got hold of him, hustled him into the woods and simply shot him.
Within minutes of this happening firing broke out ahead of us and we heard the order for ‘Dismounted Action’. Leaping off our Jeeps we sought cover. Most of the firing seemed to be coming from the woods at right angles to the track and immediately ahead of us and some of our lads were caught out in the open ground. At least two of our Jeeps were captured and the lads taken prisoner.
At this juncture I was still wearing my steel helmet and lying down facing the enemy. I was surprised to see our Medical Officer Captain Swinscow stand up waving the Red Cross Flag. There was a shot from somewhere on my right and he went down.