Tag Archives: Arnhem

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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Portsmouth’s Glider Pilots

The Second World War saw the development of Gliders to transport airborne troops into battle. Alongside Parachute troops, Gliders enabled Armies to develop airborne forces on a substantial scale. The first decisive use of Gliders was in 1940 during the spectacular German coup-de-main seizure of Eben Emael, a border fortress in Belgium. By September 1944 the allies were able to launch 35,000 airborne troops during Operation Market.

One of the biggest problems with Gliders was their manning – just who was to fly them? The RAF was unwilling to waste precious aircrew on what it saw a peripheral task to its main roles or strategic bombing and air defence. Bomber Harris even scoffed at the thought of army troops flying Gliders.

But fly them they did. The Glider Pilot was formed from volunteers throughout the Army. Volunteers were given basic flying training to enable them to fly Gliders while being towed by a transport plane, and then to land them with a degree of accuracy and safety. Senior commanders in the Regiment flew Gliders on operations, including the CO, but the standard Glider aircrew consisted of a Staff Sergeant as Pilot and Sergeant as co-pilot. Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning qualified as a Glider Pilot after his attempts at Parachuting resulted in injury.

When they landed Glider Pilots formed up into infantry units, and provided a useful manpower reserve. In contrast, the American Glider Pilots were not combatants, and actually required troops to protect them. Flying Gliders was indeed a dangerous business: many paratroops remarked that they would rather parachute into battle than fly in an ‘oversize coffin’.

The Glider Pilot Regiment served with distinction at D-Day, Arnhem and the Rhine Crossing. Several of those who were killed on operations. Staff Sergeant Roy Luff, 23 and from Buckland, was a member of the 1st Wing of the Glider Pilot Regiment. He was killed on 6 June 1944 – D-Day – and is buried in Ranville War Cemetery, Normandy. Staff Sergeant Leonard Gardner was also a member of 1st Wing. A native of Portsmouth and 27, he was killed on 17 September 1944: the first day of Operation Market. His Glider, carrying Royal Engineers, disintegrated in the sky over England. He is buried in Weston-super-Mare Cemetery.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about Portsmouth Glider Pilots is that one of the Gliders they flew in action was designed in Portsmouth – the Airspeed Horsa. The Airspeed Company had a factory at Portsmouth Airport. You can see Horsa Gliders at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, Airborne Assault at Duxford, the Army Air Corps Museum at Middle Wallop and the Assault Glider Trust at RAF Shawbury.

A Horsa Glider taking off

A Horsa Glider taking off

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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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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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Arnhem Airborne Museum opens new extension

The new Airborne Museum extension, Arnhem

The new Airborne Museum extension, Arnhem

The Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek, Arnhem opened its brand new multi-million extension during this years 60th anniversary commemorations.

A museum about the battle was first opened in 1949 in Doorwerth Castle near the Rhine. In 1980 it moved to the Hotel Hartenstein in Oosterbeek. This large white hotel had been the headquarters of Feldmarschall Walter Model before the battle and was the HQ of Major General Roy Urquhart during the siege of Oosterbeek. I’ve visitied the museum three times now and every time I have been struck by the loving care with which it has obviously been put together, and how it is looked after so well.

An ambitious renovation programme has brought the museum right into the 21st century, with dramatic and evocative dioramas, new multimedia displays and a thoughtful emphasis on the future. It involved closing the museum for 9 months, digging an underground basement next to the museum and turning this into a new extension, leaving the original museum intact. This should make what is a grand and famous museum more accessible and enjoyable for younger visitors.

It looks like the legacy of the Battle of Arnhem is in safe hands for years to come. I can’t wait to go and see the new extension.

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65 years ago today – Arnhem: The Aftermath

Oosterbeek War Cemetery

Oosterbeek War Cemetery

The end of Operation Market Garden left the allies in possession of a 60 male salient into Holland. While a large part of Dutch territory had been liberated, the corridor led to nowhere, the aims of Market Garden had not been achieved.

For the Allied soldiers left fighting in Holland, the coming winter would be cold and miserable. The US Airborne Divisions were only withdrawn into reserve in time to take part in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes. Meanwhile to the west the British and Canadians were involved in a bitter struggle to clear the approaches to Antwerp, a priority that had been overlooked in the dash to outflank the Rhine.

The Dutch civilians left in Arnhem and Oosterbeek were cleared from their houses after the battle. They suffered a terrible winter, during which much of the Dutch population starved, being left to eat tulip bulbs. They paid a terrible price for an operation that Monty described as ’90% succesful’.

The wounded and captured faced months of hardship and anguish until they were liberated at the end of the war. Many of the wounded were taken to a Hospital in Apeldoorn, and then on to POW Camps in Germany. Many were held at Stalag XIB near Fallingbostel, on the North German Plain. One of them was my Granddad, who was later moved to Stalag IIIA near Berlin before being liberated by the Russians.

Strategically, the British Second Army had been driven northwards by its advance. This in turn led to the US First Army moving northwards to stay in touch with it, opening up a dangerous gap with Patton’s US Third Army further South. In typical Patton fashion his Army had been advancing eastwards of his own accord. This gap was exploited by the Germans in December 1944.

Could Monty’s plan have worked? If Eisenhower had backed it fully with resources, and halted Patton, it is likely that the plan would have had more success, despite the failures at Arnhem. Whether the Allies could have carried on into Germany is difficult to assess. The Battle at Arnhem would have been very different had the Dropping Zones been selected closer to the Bridge, if the whole Division had been landed in two drops on one day, if Browning had stayed at home and if XXX Corps had driven with more haste at critical moments. Concerns about flak were unfounded, and Browning played little part in the battle.

Market Garden has often been cited as a blot on Monty’s reputation. It would be hard to argue that it was indeed a daring plan, and very nearly worked. But as much as it is true to say that the allies needed to capture all of the Bridges or the operation was not worth it, it is also accurate to state that unless the operation was made a complete priority and given the appropriate resources, it was not worth the risk. While Eisenhower did not want to upset American public opinion, winning the war quickly should have been more important.

Arnhem was eventually liberated in April 1945, by the 49th (West Riding) Division. The town has been rebuilt, and every year in September Veterans and grateful Dutch people gather to commemorate the Battle, which has passed into legend as one of the bravest yet most spectacular failures in military history. Nevertheless, Heroic stories abound. The story of Flight Lieutenant David Lord VC, who kept piloting his burning Dakota so his crew could escape. Major Robert Cain VC, who repeatedly fought off German tanks. Of Lance Sergeant Baskeyfield VC, who manned an anti-tank gun on his own, destroying tank after tank until killed. But most of all, the ordinary men who fought at Arnhem, and maybe didnt win medals, but did their best. We should be very proud of them.

1,514 men are buried in Arnhem-Oosterbeek War Cemetery. Nearby the Hartenstein Hotel Airborne Museum tells the story of the battle, and has just undergone a multi-million refurbishment. All of the sights and places of the battle are still there to look at, from the Drop Zone at Ginkel Heath to Arnhem Bridge.

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65 years ago today – the end at Arnhem

walking wounded being marched away from Arnhem

walking wounded being marched away from Arnhem

Early on the 25th September 1944 Generals Urquhart and Thomas agreed to evacuate the Airborne Division from Oosterbeek that night. The evacuation had to take place that night, as Urquhart feared that they were being attacked so heavily that it might be their last chance before they were overwhelmed completely.

Urquhart put together a plan that he hoped would enable as many of the surviving airborne troops to escape as possible. He modelled it on the evacuation of the Galipoli peninsula during the first world war, compared to a ‘collapsing bag’. The medical staff and chaplains agreed to stay and take care of the wounded, and wireless operators volunteered to remain behind and man the radios, giving the Germans something to listen to and keep them occupied.

On the night of the operation, sardonically code-named Operation Berlin, XXX Corps laid on a full scale artillery fire plan from the south bank of the Rhine. This gave the Germans the impression that the British were attempting to cross the Rhine and reinforce the bridgehead, and not to evacuate it.

Glider Pilots manned evacuation routes down to the River, marked by white tape. Men wrapped their boots in cloth so as to not make too much noise. Once they reached the riverbank most waited patiently for te boats. Engineers crossed the Rhine in assault boats, powered by outboard engines. Many of them ferried across again and again all through the night, finally stopping at down. More than a few airborne men decided to swim the river instead, and sadly several drowned in the Rhine’s turbulent waters.

By dawn most of the men had escaped, leaving the wounded and their helpers facing captivity. The Germans had been completely taken by surprise, and had no inkling that a withdrawal was taking place until it was completed. In the film Bridge too far the wounded sit at the Hartenstein Hotel, awaiting the Germans, and sing Abide with me. Although this probably didnt happen quite as in the film, the scence captures what the mood must have been like.

The survivors were taken back to Nijmegen, where they received food and shelter. Although they had undergone significant hardship, one party of men marched smartly from the Rhine down to Arnhem. Major Cain, who had just won a VC, even found time to shave before crossing. General Browning, waiting at Nijmegen, found it almost impossible to talk to the survivors, so startled was he by their experiences.

Over 10,000 men had landed at Arnhem. Only 2398 men returned. 1500 had been killed, and the remainder were captured and became Prisoners of War, many of them were taken to Stalag XIB POW camp in Northern Germany. They endured even more hardship until they were liberated in April and May 1945. One of them was my grandfather, Private Henry Miller. A smaller number of men evaded capture and succesfully made it back to British lines, including the seriously wounded Brigadier John Hackett.

Meanwhile, further down the corridor the two American Airborne Divisions would carry on fighting almost into November, suffering more casualties in this period than they did during the battle itself. XXX Corps remained in its positions in a cold, wet Holland throughout the winter of 1944 and 1945.

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65 years ago – The battle slips away

Sosabowski and Thomas at Driel on the 23rd

Sosabowski and Thomas at Driel on the 23rd

After the Poles landed south of the Rhine, the Germans carried on mortaring and shelling the British positions in the Oosterbeek perimeter. By now the British were severely lacking in ammunition, food and other supplies. They faced a number of determined attacks that threatened to overwhelm them completely.

After the Irish Guards began their advance from Nijmegen, it became clear that the high, exposed road leading to Arnhem was completely unsuitable for tanks. As a result, the 43rd (Wessex) Division took over the attack, choosing to swing left away from the road and attempt to link up with the Poles at Driel.

Given the grievous losses suffered at Arnhem and Nimegen by the airborne soldiers, it is not difficult to escape the conclusion that Thomas and his Division could have tried harder. When they eventually reached Driel and came into radio contact with Urquhart, Thomas asked Urquhart why he did not counter shell the Germans. “with what?”, was Urquharts infuriated reply.

On the night of 24 September the 4th Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment attempted to cross the River. Like the Poles before them they were met with heavy fire, and only a few men got across. Many of the Dorsets were taken prisoner, including their Commanding Officer.

It was becoming clear that the German opposition to Operation Market Garden had been much stronger than anticipated. All along the corridor, from the Belgian border, Eindhoven and up to Nijmegen and beyond XXX Corps and the US 82nd and 101st Division were fighting tooth and nail to hold their ground. A bridgehead over the Rhine near Arnhem could possibly have been accomplished, but it was apparent that the Ground Forces did not have the resources to carry on the advance and outflank the Ruhr, thus rendering the whole Operation a failure.

At a conference back down the corridor Horrocks and Browning met with Miles Dempsey, the commander of the British Second Army. This was the first time that Dempsey had played any meaningful part in the battle. The naturally ebullient Horrocks wanted to carry out a left hook and cross the Rhine to the west, but Dempsey ordered that this was not possible, and that the survivors of the 1st British Airborne Division were to be evacuated as soon as possible. This was done with Browning’s approval, the only real contribution Browning had made to the whole operation since landing.

Sadly, the recriminations were already beginning. Sosabowski’s abrasive character had made him few friends, and rapidly senior British officers began to treat him most shamefully. He received no backing from Browning, technically his commanding officer. The Poles were placed under the command of Thomas, an officer junior to Sosabowski, who told the experienced Pole that if he did not carry out his orders, he would find someone who would.

Even though the fighting at Arnhem was drawing to a close, the shameful episode over who was at fault was only just beginning.

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