Category Archives: Arnhem

The Germans who fought Hitler

I’ve just been reading a very interesting article on the BBC’s online Magazine about German citizens who fought for Britain against Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

Its not the first time I have come across this story. In my research into the Battle of Arnhem, it transpires that a number of exiled German and Austrian Jews took part in the battle. Having fled Germany and settled in Britain, on the outbreak of war they were interned as enemy aliens – even Jews.

Gradually though, the assumption that all enemy nationals were hostile was re-evaluated. Many of those of Military service age were allowed to join the Pioneer Corps – the part of the Army that performs hard physical labour – easily the least glamorous Corps in the entire British Army.

Remarkably, many of the German and Austrian Pioneers were champing at the bit to get back at Hitler, and they soon realised that digging trenches and building roads was not enough. Some of them not only volunteered for the Parachute Regiment, but for the 21st Independent Company – the elite unit that landed first and marked out the Drop Zones for the rest of the Division.

According to Mark Hickman’s Pegasus Archive, around 25 Germans and Austrians joined the Company. They were thought to be particularly useful due to their bilingual abilities and tenacious fighting skills. All of them fought under assumed names, to try and avoid the dire consequences if their true identities were discovered by the Germans.

Two of them died at Arnhem. Corporal Hans Rosenfeld, 29, was killed on 23 September. Rosenfeld fought under the assumed name of John Rodley, and is buried in Oosterbeek War Cemetery. Private Timothy Bleichroeder, 22, was killed on 25 September, the last day. He fought under the name of Bleach. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Groesbeek Memorial.

These men were incredibly brave. Whilst it is often said that the average soldier is fighting for himself and his comrades, the German and Austrian anti-Nazis had an added motivation for wanting to see the end of the Nazi regime – most of them had suffered under their persecution. And for each of them, the consquences of being captured were acute. Not only would they have been shot out of hand as traitors, given their nationality, their status as Jews would have led them on a one-way journey to the concentration camps.

They more than anyone must have known why the Allies were fighting.

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Escape from Arnhem by Godfrey Freeman

Godfrey Freeman attempted to join the RAF several times, but was turned down for having a depressed sternum. Instead he enlisted in the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, and then fulfiled his flying ambition by volunteering for the Glider Pilot Regiment. The Glider Pilot Regiment gained a strong reputation, for not only were they fully trained pilots, but upon landing they also went into action as infantry.

Escape from Arnhem begins shortly after the fall of Arnhem Bridge, and follows Freeman into captivity. He feigned shell-shock, figuring that he would therefore be kept in Hospital rather than sent to a Stalag, and thus would have a much better chance of escape. He was initially sent to a makeshift hospital at the Royal Palace of Het Loo near Apeldoorn. My own Grandfather, who was also wounded and captured at Arnhem, may well have been in the same place. He eventually escaped, and took part in the daring Pegasus escape across the Rhine, along with 120 other refugees. The Pegasus Operation was featured in Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. One of the men who originally escaped with Freeman, Major John Coke, was killed in a later escape attempt.

Freeman’s account gives us a very good impression of the experience of the Airborne soldiers who were captured at Arnhem. On a personal level I find this very interesting, as my Granddad talked very little about what happened to him. To read about the conditions, the relations with their German Guards, the medical care and the rations, helps fill some gaps in my understanding. It is the crystal clear memories that Freeman imparts that make a book like this. Like his recollections of Major-General Urquhart being airsick in the back of his glider, and the hospitality afforded by Dutch people who sheltered the escapees.

I find it quite telling that Freeman had to be talked into compiling his memories by his friends and family – he feared sounding like a ‘big-I-am’. His style of writing is very humble and matter of fact, which is important – these stories need no embellishing or glossing, indeed to do so would discredit them. So many books have been written about Arnhem, but none with such humility.

Escape from Arnhem is published by Pen and Sword

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The British Army’s supporting arms in the Second World War

Sappers erecting a Bailey Bridge under fire over the River Rapido in Italy, May 1944

Sappers erecting a Bailey Bridge under fire over the River Rapido in Italy, May 1944

One thing that is really striking about my Portsmouth World War Two dead research is just how many soldiers were members of the various supporting arms, who maybe don’t get the credit that they deserve.

In Wellington’s day, the Army consisted in the main of Infantry and Cavalry, with Artillery in support. These three might be termed the ‘teeth’ arms, and due to their low-technology status they only required support in the field from services such as the Royal Engineers, the Commassariat and the Army Wagon Corps.

With the Industrial Revolution, and the increased mechanisation of warfare, the Army required many more men and services to support it in wartime. Winston Churchill might have scoffed the amount of cooks and bottle washers in the Eighth Army in the Desert, but it took a lot of manpower to keep hundreds of tanks running. Churchill simply divided the total strength of the Eighth Army by the amount of men in the ‘teeth arms’, and concluded that the remainder must be superfluous. An example of how out of touch Churchill could be regarding military matters. Warfare had advanced since Wellington’s day – the Generals of 1914-1918 had struggled getting to grips with technological change. A smaller proportion might have been ‘ront-line’ troops, but those that were better armed than their ancestors, and needed support arms to maintain them.

The Royal Artillery seems to have had a first class reputation during the Second World War, and was frequently one of the reasons that the British Army was able to fight battles without too heavy losses – particularly important given the dearth of replacements available by 1944. Many men served in the Royal Artillery, from the various Light, Medium and Heavy Field Regiments, Anti-Aircraft units, Searchlight Batteries and Coastal Artillery. They served in every theatre, as shown by the Gunner’s motto, Ubique – everywhere. Wherever the British Army fought, its guns went with it. Almost as many Portsmouth men died serving in the Artillery as did serving with the local Hampshire Regiment.

The Royal Engineers also gained a first class reputation for their sterling work in many theatres, from the Desert to the Jungle. There were a wide range of Sapper units – Field Companies and Regiments, Dock operating companies, General Construction units, Fortress Companies, Railway Companies, Advancied Field Companies and Assault units. They operated frequently under enemy fire, for example throwing up Bailey Bridges in remarkable time. Often they put down their tools and also fought as infantry, particulary at Arnhem Bridge. So far I have found at least 32 Portsmouth men who died serving with the Royal Engineers in the Second World War.

One innovation in the Second World War was the formation of REME, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. This new Corps specialised in working on vehicles and machinery, and many men were transferred from other Corps upon its formation. 4 Portsmouth men died serving with REME.

The Royal Corps of Signals was another unit that went everywhere that the Army did. Maintaining communications was a vital part of warfare in the Second World War, in particular in the highly mobile fighting that frequently occured. At least 10 Portsmouth men died serving with the Royal Signals between 1939 and 1947.

Other Corps such as the Royal Army Service Corps, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, the Royal Army Medical Corps, down to the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Royal Army Chaplains Department, along with the Gunners, Sappers, REME and Scaleybacks provided strong support to the Infantry and Armour. The men who died serving in these units are proof, if any is needed, that the Infantry Private or the Armoured Trooper needed the Gunner to lay down fire support, the Sapper to build his bridges, the REME to fix his engine or his rifle, the Signals to keep up communications, and the medics to treat him.

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Pompey’s WW2 Paras

The Parachute Regiment

The Parachute Regiment

Many Portsmouth men served in the Parachute Regiment during the Second World War.

The Parachute Regiment was formed during the Second World War, after the Germans had used Airborne forces to great effect in the invasion of Holland and Belgium in 1940. Although initially Britian’s Airborne forces operated as small raiding parties, by the time it came to invade Europe in June 1944 the Airborne forces had expanded into 2 full Divisions, each of over 10,000 men. Each contained 2 Brigades of Parachute troops, and there was also an independent Parachute Battalion in the Mediterranean. The Parachute Regiment had expanded enormously to more than 10 Battalions.

During the war men could only volunteer for the Para’s from another unit, not directly from civilian life. They underwent strenuous physical training, and in addition had to complete a number of parachute jumps to obtain their parachute wings and additional pay. Naturally, they soon earned a reputation as among Britain’s toughest troops. The Germans nicknamed them ‘Der Roten Tefuel’ – the Red Devils. Field Marshal Montgomery paid the paras perhaps their most timeless tribute when he described them thus:

‘They are in fact, men apart. Every man an Emperor’

More Pompey paras are bound to emerge from the records as I carry on analysing the list of war dead, but here are some names and stories from among the first 600 names I have researched.

Private John Byng, 21, was killed in action in Tunisia on 11 March 1943, during the invasion of French North Africa. He was serving with the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, and had originally been a member of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. After serving in North Africa the Paras then went on to Italy, where Private George Bayton, 34 and from Southsea, was killed on 8 December 1943, fighting with the 4th Battalion. He joined the Paras from the East Surrey Regiment.

The Regiment suffered heavy losses on D-Day and in the subsequent battle of Normandy. Private Ronald Kent, 24, and from the 8th Battalion, was killed on D-Day. He had originally joined the Royal Artillery. In the heavy fighting after D-Day the 6th Airborne Division was in action right through until August 1944. Sergeant Frank Kempster, 30, was killed on 19 August 1944. He had previously been a member of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.

The famous battle at Arnhem also saw heavy losses. Corporal Thomas Bedford, age 22 and from Paulsgrove, was killed on 18 September 1944, the day that the 11th Battalion landed at Ginkel Heath. Bedford had previously been in the Royal Artillery. He was serving in the same battalion as my Grandad, Private Henry Miller, also from Portsmouth, who interestingly lived in Paulsgrove for almost 50 years after the war.

Finally, the 6th Airborne Division later saw service in action supporting the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945 and subsequently on until VE Day. Sergeant Sidney Cornell, 31, was killed on 7 April 1945, just over a month before the end of the war. He is buried at Becklingen in Germany, not far from the site where the Germans surrendered to Field Marshal Montgomery at Luneberg Heath. Although we do not know what unit he had served in prior to the Paras, he had been called up after September 1943, and thus was very new to the Army.

Sergeant Cornell was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery in action during the Battle of Normandy, when he was a Private and serving as his company runner in the 7th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. The DCM was second only to the Victoria Cross for bravery shown by non-officers. The recommendation for his DCM is available to download from the National Archives website, and I’ll quote from it here:

‘This soldier was one of the parachutists to land behind the German lines in Normandy on the night 5/6 June 1944. During the next five weeks he was in almost continuous action of a most trying and difficult nature. Cornell was a Company runner and has repeatedly carried messages through the most heavy and accurate enemy mortar and Machine Gun fire. Four times wounded in action this soldier has never been evacuated and carries on with his job cheerfully and efficiently. Very many acts of gallantry have been performed by members of the Battalion but for sustained courage nothing surpasses Cornell’s effort. His courage and many wounds have made him a well known and admired character throughout not only his own Battalion but the whole Brigade. Space does not permit a record of all his feats as he distinguished himself in practically every action and fighting took place daily. On 18th June 1944 his company carried out a raid on a strong enemy position in the Bois de Bavent area. The position was stronger than expected and the company was hard pressed and the wireless set destroyed. Cornell was sent back with a verbal message, he was wounded during the journey but carried on and delivered his message correctly and set off with the reply. He was wounded a second time on the return journey but again carried on and again delivered the message correctly. During the remained of this raid, and despite his two wounds, he was outstanding for his courage and dash. The courage and devotion to duty displayed by Cornell on this occasion was an inspiration to all who witnessed it. He has performed similar runs on countless occasions and, as has been pointed out before, has been wounded twice more but is still the runner for his company and is as cheerful as before. On 10 July 1944 his company again carried out a raid on the same area and again, as usual, Cornell’s complete disregard for his own safety became the chief topic of conversation amongst his fellow soldiers. He has never failed to deliver a message correctly despite the fact that he has carried through a perfect hail of enemy mortar bombs and shells and very frequently aimed Machine Gun fire as well. He is a truly magnificent parachutist and I cannot recommend him too highly for a decoration’.

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Scott Church Creations

C-47 Dakota by Scott Church

C-47 Dakota by Scott Church

I thought it might be interesting to show you all this amazing image that I’ve received recently, of a Douglas C-47 Dakota. This is the plane that my Grandad and thousands of his comrades jumped out of at Arnhem in September 1944. Although I might be biased, I think its also one of the most stunning aircraft in history.

Scott Church graduated from the University of Portsmouth, and is an environmental and visualisation artist. He’s also got a keen interest in history, as you can see from his work.

Have a look at his website for more fascinating arwork:

www.scottchurchcreations.co.uk

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Victoria Cross Heroes – David Lord VC

David Lord VC

David Lord VC

David Lord joined the RAF in 1939, training to fly biplanes on the Indian North West Frontier. In 1941 he Squadron were the first in the RAF to received the Douglas Dakota, an aircraft that would become synonymous with Lord. Early in the war he flew on resupply missions in the Middle East, India and Burma, being commissioned as Flight Lieutenant in 1942 awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1943.

By early 1944 he had returned to the UK with 217 Squadron, based at RAF Down Ampney, training to drop paratroops, supplies and to tow gliders. He took part in the D-Day operations of June 1944.

In September Lord also took part in the massive airlift operations that were part of Operation Market Garden. Having already flown as a glider tug on the first two days of the battle, by the 19th he and his crew were tasked to drop desparately needed supplies to the British Airborne Soldiers fighting in Arnhem.

“On September 19th, 1944, Flt. Lieut. Lord was pilot and captain of an aircraft detailed to drop supplies to our troops, who were closely surrounded at Arnhem. For accuracy this had to be done at 900 feet. While approaching the target at 1,500 feet the aircraft was severely damaged and set on fire. Flt. Lieut. Lord would have been justified in withdrawing or even in abandoning his aircraft but, knowing that supplies were desperately needed, he continued on his course. Twice going down to 900 feet under very intense fire, he successfully dropped his containers. His task completed he ordered his crew to abandon the aircraft, making no attempt himself to leave. A few seconds later the aircraft fell in flames, only one of the crew surviving. By continuing his mission in a damaged and burning plane, twice descending to 900 feet to ensure accuracy, and finally by remaining at the controls to give his crew a chance of escape, Flt. Lieut. Lord displayed supreme valour and self-sacrifice. “

For a total of eight minutes after his plane was hit, Lord remained at the controls. Only once all of the supplies had been dropped did he order his crew to bail out, while making no attempt to do so himself. This valiant effort was observed by the men surrounded at Arnhem and provided a brilliant boost to morale, particularly in such a bitter struggle. Stanley Maxted, a BBC Radio reported who was at Arnhem, made a memorable broadcast on the effect it had on the men of Arnhem to watch planes trying to get supplies to them. Many men were said to have been so mesmerized that they stood up out of their trenches to watch Lord’s plain flying overhead.

Sadly only Lord’s Navigator survived, and became a POW. The story of Lord’s supreme sacrifice was only known when he was released in 1945, and resulted in Lord’s nomination for the Victoria Cross.

Lord and those of his crew who were killed are buried in Arnhem-Oosterbeek War Cemetery in Holland. Lord’s VC is part of the Ashcroft VC collection.

His headstone bears the fitting and moving epitaph:

“Greather love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends”

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Victoria Cross Heroes – Major Robert Cain VC

Major Robert Cain VC

Major Robert Cain VC

I must confess to having a particular admiration for this Victoria Cross winner. Not only is he Jeremy Clarkson’s father-in-law, and not only did Major Robert Cain win his Victoria Cross during the battle of Arnhem, but there is something so completely normal and modest about his life before and after the VC, that it shatters the myth that all VC winners are supermen. Theres something of a VC winner in all of us.

A pre-war worker for Shell, Major Robert Cain was commanding B Company of the 2nd Battalion of the South Staffordshire Regiment when they landed in Gliders at Arnhem. After leading his company in the attack into Arnhem, he was the only senior officer to survive. Major Gilchrist, of the 11th Parachute Battalion, met Cain, who told him that “The tanks are coming, give me a PIAT”. It was not exactly the job of a company commander to take on tanks with a PIAT, but that he was determined to have a go speaks volumes of the man.

After the remnants of the attack fell back to Oosterbeek to hang on for dear life, Cain was determined to take on as much Germany armour as possible. On the afternoon of 21 September 1944 two tanks approached his position. Standing in the open and guided by a spotter high in a building, he destroyed the first tank, but was wounded when a PIAT shell exploded in his face. In his own words he was “shouting like a hooligan. I shouted to somebody to get onto the PIAT because there was another tank behind. I blubbered and yelled and used some very colourful language. They dragged me off to the aid post.”
However within half an hour, against medical advice, he had returned to the front line. Later in the battle he and another man took over using a 6 pounder anti-tank gun until it was destroyed, and then with no PIAT rounds remaining he used a 2 inch mortar, firing from the hip. Before withdrawing across the Rhine, he even found time to shave.

Cain’s Victoria Cross was announced on 2 November 1944:

“Throughout the whole course of the Battle of Arnhem, Major Cain showed superb gallantry. His powers of endurance and leadership were the admiration of all his fellow officers and stories of his valour were being constantly exchanged amongst the troops. His coolness and courage under incessant fire could not be surpassed”

Upon leaving the Army after the war Cain returned to his job working for Shell, before retiring to the Isle of Man. When he died in 1974 his family were astounded to find a Victoria Cross among his belongings – apparently he hadn’t thought to mention it.

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