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Staff-Sergeant Bill Higgs next to his Horsa glider, shortly before take-off on the 5th June 1944

Staff-Sergeant D. William Higgs

 

Unit : "D" Squadron, No.1 Wing, The Glider Pilot Regiment

Army No. : 5252854

Awards : Mentioned in Despatches

 

Staff-Sergeant Higgs and his co-pilot, Squadron Sergeant Major Oliver, took part in the Normandy landings as part of the first glider lift during the early hours of the 6th June 1944, carrying a Jeep, 6-pounder anti-tank gun and three men of the 4th Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery. The following is their official report on the flight and the subsequent events that took place on the ground.

 

Report on Operation "Tonga"

 

S/Sgt. Higgs, W. (5347593)

SSM. Oliver, W. (3056895)

 

On crossing the French coast we encountered heavy fire from ground defences. The glider was hit several times and in taking evasive action the starboard 'yoke' caught on the starboard wheel whilst in cloud.

 

We lost sight of the tug in what appeared to be thick smoke and flew 'on the rope' for a considerable time. When we came out of cloud the tug pilot did a wide circuit to find a pinpoint. We released in the correct position after he had taken us round again. The landing was uneventful. We were unable to remove the tail so we unloaded from the side which proved quite successful.

 

We moved to the edge of the landing strip and after contacting paratroops made our way to the Bty. R.V. [Battery Rendezvous]. There was no one there to give instructions so we proceeded to the pre-arranged position of the gun in company of another detachment. The four glider pilots acted as scouts on the way up.

 

We then dug in and camouflaged our position leaving a look-out with the Bren gun. During this time we never saw any troops (friendly or otherwise) to our front. We were settled in our position (1 miles S.E. of Ranville) by 0930 hrs.

 

About mid-day we saw four S.P. [Self-Propelled] guns and one Mk IV tank with infantry in support advance over the sky line to warn us. We waited until they were within range and before we could fire the guns on our left flank opened up and hit four of them. We fired on the tank crews and infantry with our small arms. From then on we were fired on by snipers, mortars and machine-guns returning their fire when we could see them, which was not often.

 

About 2100 hrs when the second wave of gliders were landing we were fired on from three sides by machine-guns and mortars. The No.3 of the gun was wounded by a bullet in the head and the No.1 escorted him to the R.A.P. [Regimental Aid Post] leaving the two pilots with the gun. The enemy fire during this time was very heavy and accurate and the gun was hit on several occasions by bullets and mortar casing.

 

We held on until almost dark when we went to a position about 200 x from the gun, where we teamed up with a small party of paratroops who had taken up a position behind us and were awaiting a counter attack. At first light we encountered the No.1 of the gun who had orders to withdraw the gun to Bty. H.Q. By this time the regular gun crew had arrived and we reported to our R.V. in the village and proceeded to the beach-head under command of Lieut. Muir, returning to the U.K. without incident.

 

(Signed) D.W. Higgs, S/Sgt.

              W. Oliver, SSM.

 

 

The following are newspaper articles concerning the experiences of Bill Higgs in Normandy, Arnhem and thereafter as a prisoner of war.

 

Wiltshire at War by Harry Angier

Friday 22nd September 1989

 

In 1942 Bill Higgs volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment. He went to Tilshead for military training and schooling of flying subjects for two months.

 

Early in 1943 he was posted to Booker Flying School which was near Marlow, Bucks. Here he flew in Tiger Moths and Magisters.

 

He passed out from Booker during July 1943 having finished his Elementary Flying Training. His next port of call in July 1943 was at Stoke Orchard near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, where he took glider training in Hotspurs. On December 3 1943 Bill was moved to Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, for Heavy Conversion Training in Horsa gliders and thence to Keevil for operational duty on January 6 1944.

 

Bill has the honour of holding the altitude record in a Horsa glider. He was towed by a Short Stirling tug and released at an altitude of 15,000 feet. It is an all time record which has never been broken in the type of aircraft which was being used.

 

Bill was transferred to Tarrant Rushton well before D-Day to prepare for the Normandy Invasion and the night landing in support of the attack on Pegasus Bridge.

 

Bill recalls: "All the 64 gliders were loaded under the direction of glider pilots. Most were carrying 17pdr and 6pdr anti-tank guns, Jeeps, mortars, infantry, ammunition and gun crews. We were to land just after midnight and get our guns dug in position, pre-arranged before daybreak to protect Pegasus Bridge, which we hoped would have been captured by the gliders and airborne troops gliding over the Caen Canal and the Orne River.

 

"So good was the job that two gliders got within a few feet of the pillboxes each end of the bridge. It took the enemy by complete surprise and after a fierce fight the bridge was taken intact. Our job was to protect the bridges from the German Panzers.

 

"When we cast off our glider tow-rope we could see the Caen Canal and Orne river clearly in the moonlight. We also saw flares which hopefully were the ones that the pathfinder parachutists had laid for us. I was pretty sure I was in the right area and came gliding in through some smoke on to our landing ground, which was a large open space where the Germans had put in trunks of trees in the ground to stop airborne landings. I managed to get my nose between the posts, but had my starboard wing knocked completely off. We slewed about alarmingly but were finally down in one piece.

 

"The lads jumped out and gave all-round protection while I and my second pilot cut the central wires running through the glider and unshackled the bolts that held the tail plane on. The tail end fell away, we put the metal troughs down to the ground and all of us started to get the gun, then the Jeep from the glider.

 

"The so-called 'silent' operation turned into the opposite when the gun sergeant, who was conducting the unloading, was suddenly caught by the hand inside the trough of the gun tyres as it came down. The poor chap let out a yell that ought to have brought out all the Jerries of France to the scene!


"We went through the village of Ranville where there was a bit of shooting and then came to the exact spot our gun should be according to our map. We could hear the other guns being pulled into their positions.


"The idea was to get anti-tank guns covering all around the Pegasus Bridge.

 

"Soon after dawn the German tanks arrived. They came on towards us not quite knowing where we were, straight into the right angle of our six guns. We stayed silent as they grew closer, then, just as if a drill sergeant had shouted out an order, all our guns opened up and within a few moments all the tanks were hit and blazing.

 

"After we'd all given our positions away by firing, the Germans gave us a taste of some very accurate mortar fire, but no more tanks were sent and that was the enemy's biggest blunder as there were only about 24 anti-tank guns defending the bridge, that is, if they ever got there as some of the gliders crashed. We stuck to our positions until we were told to take the firing pieces from our guns and shorten our perimeter which we did under fire. We dug in again by the evening of June 6 when, to our great joy the rest of the 6th Airborne Division started coming in - a real sight for sore eyes!

 

"On the bridge General Gale waited at midday to hand over to Lord Lovat's commandos. As the hour approached there was no sign of him, but as the clock struck noon a piper seemed to appear from nowhere, and through the mists came the sound of bagpipes as Lord Lovat, at the head of his commandos, came to relieve us. The link was completed and we were on our way into France."

 

 

Wiltshire at War - Flying Gliders into Arnhem by Harry Angier

 

Keevil Airfield bustled with activity as we prepared for Arnhem - Operation Market Garden was on.

 

Around 50 or 60 glider combinations (Stirling aircraft towing Horsa Gliders) took off from Keevil on September 17 and 18, 1944, bound for Arnhem.

 

We had an excellent Channel crossing, but once we were over the land the Germans threw some flak at us. We made a good landing on a potato field, and I landed the glider as close to a wood as possible to avoid detection.

 

Light machine gun fire came at us as we disembarked with our Jeeps and mortars, then we ran like hell into the woods.

 

I looked back at the glider and saw that one of the crew was hanging limp out of it. He'd been hit by the machine gun fire. Without thinking I ran back through the fire and picked him up and carried him to the shelter of the woods.

 

He didn't seem to be seriously wounded. He was lifted on to a Jeep which contained a stretcher and taken away. That was the last I saw of him. An officer reported the incident and I was mentioned in despatches for my action.

 

After a while we moved off from the area where we had landed, passing through Wolfheze and Oosterbeek until we reached a railway line which we crossed.

 

We were involved in some action here with the Germans, nothing much, just a skirmish. We then took a route along by the river, which was on the Lower Rhine, and eventually arrived in Arnhem. From our position on the road we could see Arnhem Bridge about a mile away, when suddenly all hell let loose and we were pinned down.

 

Heavy fire from the Germans had stopped us in our tracks and we began to withdraw.

 

After a fighting withdrawal, in which Bill was shot through the lung, he was captured by the Germans while lying wounded in a barn.

 

A German ambulance came up. They threw me in, then we were driven miles across cobblestone roads which, in my condition, was not good at all.

 

At Appledoorn we were put in an annexe to Princess Elizabeth Hospital and given a medical examination by the Germans. Afterwards I was taken into the main building and looked after by nuns who were very kind.

 

A colonel who was in the hospital with us managed to hide in a cupboard and get away - he took a panel out of a room and hid behind it, making his escape when we all moved off to the POW camp. He did in fact make it back to England - a Dutch girl had hid him in an underground dugout on a farm. After the hospital we were put on a cattle train and hauled through Germany, passing through the town of Hamm and the Ruhr. We eventually stopped in Hamburg which, to my amazement, was bombed almost flat.

 

They put us in a hospital which was actually still standing. Not long after we'd settled down there was an air raid; the Germans locked us in and made a run for it, leaving us there to survive on our own.

 

We were then taken to the town of Fallingbostel, and brought up from the station in heaps on horse and cart into the prison camp, Stalag 11B. The Germans had just evicted some Russians to make room for us.

 

The rooms were in a hell of a mess after the Russians had been there so we had a lot of cleaning to do.

 

After Christmas 1944 they sent me down to the main prison camp and put me in charge as a barrack room commander. I was allowed to go from compound to compound so I was involved in a number of things like running concert parties.

 

There was a padre in the camp who's name was Gedge. He was allowed to go to camps which were better off than us, having Red Cross parcels - we only had black bread and three spuds each.

 

The life in the camp was terrible, food was disgusting. We all became lousy as it was running with lice, there was so much filth about. The food was very basic, a piece of black bread and three spuds cooked in their jackets which we lined up for in the freezing snow.

 

As the allies advanced into Germany, the guards disappeared from the camp one night, taking with them all the soldiers who could fight and leaving behind as guards all those Germans who were injured or who had frost bite after serving on the Russian front.

 

We easily disarmed them and took over the camp. We then got some chalk and wrote on the barracks roof 'British POWs' because the Allies were using Typhoons [rocket-carrying aircraft] to shoot up everything they saw.

 

There was an SS barracks in Fallingbostel; when the Cherry Pickers (11th Hussars) came up the Germans were shooting at them. We in the camp were shooting and pointing out where the enemy were positioned.

 

After we were liberated by the 11th Hussars, the Second Army came up and took over the camp, 20 of us volunteered to stay in the camp and were issued with pick helves to police the area and keep the prisoners in until the Second Army was ready to administrate us. I was put in charge of those twenty men, they were a tough bunch.

 

Just before it was my time to go home we were taken by lorry to see Belsen Concentration camp to view the horrors which had taken place. They were still cleaning up the bodies.

 

After being deloused with DDT we were taken to an airfield and flown by Dakotas to England, where on landing we could see a banner saying "Welcome POWs". As we stepped from the 'plane WAAFs came out and took us by the arms and helped with carrying the bags - a lot of the wounded just couldn't carry them.

 

We were then give 40 days' leave, which was a blessing. In all I'd spent 10 months in Stalag 11B prison camp and it was good to be out.

 

When my leave was finished I had to report to Midhurst Sanitorium where I stayed for two years. I was operated on by Sir Thomas Price who was at that time the physician to King George VI. He was an expert on lung aneurism. I was finally demobbed in 1947 as being disabled.

 

On December 17 each year a lone figure can be seen at Keevil, for in the years gone by Bill Higgs, whose injuries left him with only one lung, has often walked the length of the runway in the memory of his dead comrades, memories which Bill will have forever.

 

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