Major J. Anthony Cotterell
Unit : Public Relations Team, attached to 1st Parachute Brigade Headquarters
Anthony Cotterell was 23 years old in March 1940, and was working as a journalist for the Daily Express when he was, rather reluctantly, conscripted into the British Army. Posted to the Royal Fusiliers, he found himself to be wholly unsuited to the life and spent a miserable first year in conventional service. In June 1941, however, all of this changed when he was recruited into what would become known as the Army Bureau of Current Affairs; a new department of the War Office concerned with Army education.
Cotterell began working on a fortnightly booklet, imaginatively entitled WAR, which was sent out to all military units. Within a short time, he had become its chief editor and star reporter, and by 1943 he was allowed complete freedom to report the war as he saw fit. Amongst his self-chosen assignments were flying on operations with the USAAF and RAF.
WAR detailed various aspects of Army life, amongst which were a number of articles on the Airborne Forces. Cotterell had become fascinated with this new wing of the Armed Forces when, in December 1941, a piece appeared in WAR on British parachuting, written by Lieutenant-Colonel Flavell, the then commander of the 2nd Parachute Battalion. In October 1943, he completed a parachute course with the firm intention of taking part in an airborne operation at some point in the future. When the Normandy landings took place in June 1944, he had applied for permission to accompany the 6th Airborne Division but was refused, instead he came ashore with some of the first troops to land on the invasion beaches, and spent almost a month embedded with the 8th Armoured Brigade, travelling as part of a tank crew.
On the 1st September 1944, Cotterell secured an attachment to the 1st Airborne Division, and he accompanied 1st Parachute Brigade Headquarters to Arnhem Bridge on the 17th September. During the early hours of Thursday 21st September, having been compressed into a small perimeter and with ammunition all but expended, the survivors were ordered to break out and attempt to reach the remainder of the 1st Airborne Division at Oosterbeek. The men were organised into two platoons, each of five sections commanded by an officer; Anthony Cotterell was with the section commanded by the Brigade Major, Tony Hibbert. Almost everyone involved succeeded in gaining the assembly point, at a convent school 100 yards to the north of the perimeter, and from here each of the sections moved out one at a time, but almost all were captured before much progress was made. Hibbert led the last section away a few hours before dawn, but it quickly became apparent to him that the Germans had a stranglehold on the town and that there was no way through. Having advanced no further than the cathedral, 300 yards to the north-west of the bridge, he ordered his men to hide in the back garden of a house. He barricaded most of them inside a bedroom, two more men hid in a tool shed, Major Munford of the Light Regiment shut himself in a wooden crate, whilst Hibbert and Cotterell installed themselves in a coal bin. They were quickly discovered and dragged out.
At 17:30 on Saturday 23rd September, having been held at the temporary POW camp at Velp, Cotterell, Hibbert and other captured officers were transported in an open lorry towards Munich. By an extraordinary twist of fate, seated in the same vehicle was Lieutenant Jim Flavell, the 2nd Battalion's Liaison Officer and also the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Flavell, whose 1941 article in WAR had inspired Cotterell's interest in the Airborne Forces. As they were about to pass through Brummen, Hibbert and Major Munford jumped off the lorry as it reduced speed and attempted to escape. Hibbert got away and eventually reached the British lines, but Munford was quickly recaptured. As they had jumped from the lorry, however, one of the German guards had panicked and turned his Schmeisser on the others. A German soldier and four Airborne men were killed outright, and a further two mortally wounded; Anthony Cotterell was one of the latter. He was treated at a German dressing station, but then disappeared from the record. He is thought to have been buried with the other casualties from the incident at the General Cemetery in Enschede, but despite various attempts to identify the remains in the grave he was never positively identified. The inscription on his gravestone, 'Buried near this spot', reflects the continued uncertainty.
My thanks to Jennie Gray for this article. Her book, Major Cotterell and Arnhem: A War Crime and a Mystery, published by Spellmount, may be purchased from Amazon.co.uk.
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