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Private Daniel Wright

Private Daniel Wright

 

Unit : No.9 Platoon, "C" Company, 11th Parachute Battalion

Army No. : 904400

 

The following was written by Dan Wright in 1996 under the title of "Memories of World War 2 and the Battle of Arnhem."

 

I was born in Fleetwood, Lancashire, in 1921 and joined the territorials in April 1939, when I was 17. There was quite a 'push' on for recruits at that time, so I joined the 137 Field Artillery Regiment in Blackpool. Called up on 25 August 1939, as part of an advance party.

 

War began, of course, on 3 September and the remainder of the regiment was called up and moved to an old cotton mill at Kirkham. The regiment was earmarked for overseas service, and so all men under 19 years of age were removed.

 

In November of 1939 we were sent down to Clapham Common, London, to an anti-aircraft battery of four 4.5 inch guns. In the Spring of 1940 there was a request on Battery Orders for volunteers to go to France, so I volunteered but was refused, as I was still under 19.

 

Shortly after this I was made the battery PT Instructor - I was the only junior NCO (one stripe) who didn't stand up to the battery Sergeant - all the others said "No" to going on the necessary courses! Still, I learned to clamber around assault courses, did a little boxing, and made the battery pay for it when I rejoined them!

 

The battery then moved to near Woolwich Arsenal and we served there for the whole of the blitz. We helped on odd occasions as required by our Captain, with removal of civilian wounded from bombed buildings in the area. The battery claimed a few planes shot down, but I am sure the RAF had been at them first!

 

One day we shot down a barrage balloon! (Our Captain thought its trailing cable would affect our guns). The RAF crew came to our site in a very hostile mood and threatened to damage some of us! I think they finally had to class it as enemy action!

 

I moved with the battery to other sites - Isle of Wight, Croydon, Wakefield, Wales and Leeds. Eventually, in May 1942, we sailed from Liverpool to the Clyde, and then in convoy to West Africa, Capetown, Bombay, and finally Colombo, Ceylon. At the quayside [in Colombo] and loaded with my kit, I was climbing up a vertical iron ladder when my rifle slipped off my shoulder and disappeared into the depths of the harbour. I felt I should have gone down with it! After I had left the quay, however, a Sinhalese (native) policeman, dived down for it, and it was returned to me later that day.

 

The battery moved up to Trincomalee (North East Ceylon); thought to be the largest natural harbour in the world. Our gunsite had been bulldozed out of the jungle - snakes, monkeys, mosquitos etc. still around. I caught Jaundice and Malaria. I overslept one morning, but the wrong charge was read out, so I escaped punishment - good job, as I would have lost the only stripe I had! (I should probably say at this stage that I believe I was a somewhat timid soldier - but who's perfect?)

 

Some months later, the battery sailed from Colombo to Suez and was stationed in tents somewhere north of Suez in Egypt.

 

An Australian Jew called Shafto, had built a series of canvas cinemas in the area. One night I remember seeing a large tear in the canvas at the side of the screen which showed a full moon - then the native projectionist mixed up the reels and a Mountie who had been struggling in a fast-flowing river was, next second talking to his lady-love in a drawing room! (The cinemas were frequently wrecked, and I did hear that some Australian soldiers burnt one to the ground!)

 

The battery then moved to Bhenghazi, in Libya. There, three of us volunteered for the Parachute Regiment (July 1943). We took the train from Benghazi to Palestine (where the 11th Battalion were being formed at Ramat David, near Haifa).

 

I was given a prisoner to deliver to Cairo, and so we had a goods van to ourselves on the train. In Cairo, I told my two mates to wait at the station while I took the prisoner to the barracks. They nearly arrested me for having no escort, but I slipped out while the prisoner was being attended to!

 

In Palestine, I relinquished my stripe and joined 'C' Company of the 11th Battalion and did my five parachute drops on the Plain of Esdralon (see your Bibles) from Lockheed Hudson aircraft.

 

On one training drop near the Golan Heights at about 10pm, the man in front of me refused to jump, and four of us piled up against him. We unhitched him, and the pilot ran us round again - I saw the Golan Heights by moonlight from the door of the Douglas Dakota. We were near the Sea of Galilee (keep Bibles handy); we were dropped, and after a couple of days, returned to Ramad David.

 

Entertainment at camp was: 'Destry Rides Again' with James Stewart (for about the 100th time in my army life); the great world-class pianist, Soloman (for the only time in my life); and an Ensa concert party, (which shall be passed by!).

 

The battalion was now shipped back to England (Port Said to Liverpool in December, 1943).

 

After home leave, 'C' Company was sent to a big house called Glen Parva Grange at Wigston in Leicestershire (the remainder of battalion was at Melton Mowbray). Lieutenant Frank King joined us a Platoon Commander - now of course, General Sir Frank King. In my seven years in the army, he was the finest soldier I ever met. 'C' Company then moved to Melton Mowbray to join the rest of the battalion, with Frank King promoted to Captain.

 

During our stay at Melton Mowbray we went to a field near Rutland and were inspected by King George VI (who looked, much to our disgust, to be wearing powder and paint), and, at the same place on a different day, by General Montgomery, who gave us a lot of blether about seeing the men he would be going into battle with.

 

We did a couple of drops from a balloon basket at Ringway, Manchester, and a couple of drops from Whitley aircraft (I landed in a tree at the end of the DZ [drop zone], but was unhurt).

 

In one exercise in Gloucestershire, the Yanks dropped us about eight or ten miles from the DZ! I landed in trees near a quarry, and damaged my leg so I missed the extra march to the correct rendezvous.

 

The Second Front then opened in June 1944 with the 11th Battalion very disappointed not to be used. Absenteeism was very high, due in my opinion, to the fact that we were mostly long-serving soldiers, and also that the battalion wanted to be used in a fighting capacity. The Colonel was demoted to Major and died a few weeks later, fighting in France.

 

My memories of the Battle of Arnhem are very disjointed, due, no doubt, to the occasion itself and the lapse of time - but here goes!

 

On the 17th September 1944, the 1st Brigade Paratroops dropped at Arnhem, and the next day ours, the 4th Brigade, also dropped. [Note by Peter, Daniel's son: My Dad thought the first drop had been unopposed: "apparently peaceful" are the words he used to me, but this of course was quite wrong. They found out how wrong the next day.]

 

Literally at the last moment on the airfield, I was told to join a different aircraft - I don't know why. As we flew over Holland I heard a rattling noise outside and thought a wire had broken loose. Looking out of the window at my back, I saw tracer bullets going through the wing about seven or eight feet away! The man on that machine-gun was a damn good shot. Anti-aircraft shells were bursting some distance away. Some time later we jumped over the DZ and as I hung from my chute, I realized from the noise how bad the gunfire was, so I released my snipers rifle at my leg - I expected to be shot any second! Then I realized that most, if not all the shooting was at the aircraft - not little me. Men were landing all over the DZ from Dakotas, with gliders not far off - some on end, on the side, and in trees.

 

I arrived at the platoon RV [rendezvous point] in a corner of the DZ in the trees, to find I was the only one of my section (seven men if I remember) to get there. I didn't know then, but later learned, that the plane they were in was shot down about 22 miles from Arnhem. Captain King, who was in charge, got all the men out safely, except the last five or six - the port engine was on fire and burned their chutes as they left the plane. I have hoped that someone on that plane is still alive and may tell me exactly what happened. The men that died were my close friends. [Note by Peter: In fact Frank King did describe what happened on that plane and the subsequent effort to reach the DZ on foot (where he found the bodies of some 4th Brigade men (Daniel's Brigade) who did make it to the DZ but had been killed as they landed. This is in King's "Personal Account of Arnhem," which can be found at: http://www.paradata.org.uk/article/546/related/25752. However, my Dad never read it, as we were not aware of it before he died.]

 

Our section Bren gunner Jim Barlow, did not arrive at the platoon RV, so the platoon Sergeant, Sgt. Shortland, took away my sniper's rifle and gave me the Bren gun. I learned later that Captain King, with the help of the Dutch underground people got his surviving men to Arnhem, and in fact on one occasion I saw him across the street from me. I remember thinking "What a dirty face you've got Kingy!" This was two or three days into the battle. He saw me, jerked his head and winked! I was not used to winking back at Captains, so I think I gave him a bit of a salute! [Note by Peter: King says in his account, that when he finally caught up with 'C' Company (about the time of his "winking" at Dad, although he doesn't report that!), the battalion was down to about one seventh of its original strength, having been trying to break through to the bridge and suffering heavy casualties as a result.]

 

A while after landing at the DZ, the platoon moved off and was sent to hold a big house on a junction of a main road. We held it until the following day, when our platoon officer led us out. We were fired on by enemy guns, but I don't think anybody was hit. The bullets did more damage to the road surface that to us. Later, the platoon Sergeant and I went through a house on the bank of the Rhine, looking for a position for the Bren, but the back balcony overlooking the river was a small iron grill affair, and of no use.

 

Later, tanks came at us and knocked out a nearby anti-tank gun and we withdrew.

 

Later again, I was still with my own platoon when a Captain (not known to me), saw my Bren, and told me to go to a big three story house nearby and assist a South Staffordshire Captain (Pistol) and his Sergeant (Rifle). The house looked over fields, and the enemy infantry were trying to cross them. We up-ended a table at the first floor French windows, to give my Bren a firing position. One tank tried to get at us from a side street. We had an anti-tank gun in the street below our side window, but in the time I needed to alert the crew, the tank withdrew. The enemy then used Nebelwerfer (multi-gang mortar shells), to set fire to the roof of 'our' house. The Captain kept his eye on the roof, leaving the Sergeant and me to take care of Jerry, but after a while, the smoke and flames got down to us and we had to leave. I passed that house the next day - just a gutted shell.

 

The Sergeant and I were next sent along a row of houses to assist another platoon who had no Bren (a Lieutenant, a Sergeant, a Corporal, and about four men). They were the 11th Battalion, but not my platoon. I fired from the back bedroom window by resting the Bren on the windowsill. The South Staff Sergeant hauled himself onto a box at the side of the window. I told him he was too exposed in that position, but he said he had a good view! Shortly after that, he received a bullet to the shoulder that knocked him to the floor.

 

Later, a runner came along the street shouting that we were "killing our own men!" We all felt very rough about that, but then another runner came shouting that the report was wrong - they were the enemy! Battle re-commenced. Another runner came along the street - "The British Army were crossing the Bridge." - another load of rubbish.

 

During a lull in the fighting, I went downstairs and was standing talking to the Lieutenant and the Sergeant, when the Lieutenant got a bullet straight through the heart. (We had assumed that all the enemy were at the back of the house over the fields, but thinking about it later, maybe a sniper had been left in the houses on the opposite side of the road from us.) The Sergeant and his men went out of the house, and down the street to where more of our men were. I went back upstairs to where my Bren was sitting on the bedroom floor, feeling a bit down. A short time later, I heard the sound of boots on the broken glass and bricks at the back, and the Captain who had sent me to the house, shouted up to me to check the Lieutenant's body again. He was quite dead and lying across the passage where he had fallen through the door of the downstairs room. I took his wrist and felt a pulse going like mad! Then I realized it was mine!

 

The Captain shouted to me to come to the end of the street, and after collecting my Bren, I decided to follow him along the back. I couldn't open the back door fully for broken glass and bricks, and in squeezing through what opening there was, my wire cutters (in a webbing carrier) caught in the door handle, and I could neither go in nor out. Panic set in. I ripped at that door as if my life depended on it - I thought it did! I told myself to calm down, forced the door open a fraction more, and then went to the end of the block of houses.

 

Some time later, I found myself helping an MO [Medical Orderly] to tend some wounded men. He asked me if I had been hit. At that point I hadn't. He said, "Well your face is white." It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him, so was his, but he was a Captain!

 

Later again, I found myself alongside our Colonel when a German tank came down the road at us. We were in bushes - not dug in - at the side of the road, and I remember thinking, "If that tank changes direction, he will run straight over us." But the tank saw one of our anti-tank guns (only one crew member) and retreated in a panic. The Colonel decided to charge over the road. He waved his pistol and shouted, "Charge!", and we did, but I can't remember what at!

 

Some time after that, I was sent with a Lieutenant, and Sergeant, and a couple of other men, to hold the junction of two streets (that Bren!). But two tanks came at us and we withdrew.

 

At one point in the battle - I don't know exactly when - I was in a partly dug slit trench, and I remember thinking, "Well I'm not going to come through this. I'm only 23 and I haven't seen anything of life yet, but I will surely die here." I was not terrified or even frightened, but just facing up to what I felt was reality.

 

Part of the time, by the way, I'd had a number two on the Bren [an assistant], but somewhere along, I had lost him. He was a tough man and known in 'C' Company as "Big Wilkie".

 

Later again, I was in a partly dug slit trench in a gap between houses, and with a row of houses on the other side of the street at the back of us, and we were being shelled by two or three tanks or SP [Self Propelled] guns. They assumed there were men in the houses at the back of us. The brick dust in the air was so thick, we could see the whirling passage of the shells through it - about six feet overhead. At this point I felt my right arm vibrate like a piece of elastic, and looking down, saw the tears in my sleeve - obviously shrapnel. I said to the man who was near me, "I think I've been hit." He said, "No you haven't. Itís just your imagination." I felt the wetness at my wrist, and knew it wasn't imagination. I remembered seeing a dressing station in a bungalow at the end of the street, so I ran to it and got my arm bandaged.

 

During that night, with German tanks passing slowly outside, the enemy overran our position, and in the morning, about six of us who were wounded, were taken prisoner, along with two medical orderlies, one of whom was also wounded (a very brave man).

 

We were taken in a captured jeep driven by an S.S. officer, to Queen Elizabeth Hospital - it seemed about one or two miles - where my arm was operated on by a British MO. Some days later I was taken with others to Apeldoorn, [a small town some miles away] and guarded by Polish soldiers. [Note by Peter: There were Polish Paratroops dropped on the third day (19th September) as part of the allied offensive, so I assume this means there were some Poles on the other side - or perhaps my Dad was mistaken.]

 

We were searched by an English speaking German officer, who removed a pamphlet that I had bought in Woolworths, Haifa, from my top pocket. It had an advert on the back: 'Steimatsky's Guide to Palestine.' His eyes widened and he said, "You are a Jew?" I took the pamphlet from his fingers and turned it round so that he could read its title: 'German for a Shilling.' He laughed and said, "When you get to England in five years time, you will speak German." I laughed and said, "Iíll be home by Christmas!" We were both wrong, but I was nearer than him (April 1945).

 

This was followed by a five day trip by railway goods wagon to Stalag 11B near Hanover. The toilets were a difficulty; we had very little food and next to no water. One of our men who was cutting at the door with his pen-knife, and was seen by one of the guards, caused us to be taken out, stripped and searched. All knives, razor blades, etc. were taken away. Then we were allowed to relieve ourselves in a nearby field, surrounded by German soldiers. We arrived at Stalag 11B and were put in big wooden huts in a large compound with German sentries outside the nearby wire fences. The German rule was, "Do not go outside during an air raid." The sentry warned groups of us once or twice, and then shot one man in the lower back. He lived for about four hours.

 

Shortly afterwards I was transferred, with about one hundred others, to a lead mine at Bad Grund, in the Harz area. We worked in shifts in the mine for thirteen days, following which we were to get one day off. On our 'off' day, the Germans marched us some miles to dig drainage trenches, but there was next to no work done, even under threat, so it didn't happen again.

 

Work in the mine consisted of laying rails and filling in tunnels when all the ore was extracted - it probably did my arm good! During one shift a German miner shouted at me for not working hard enough. I told him I did not understand his language. He said that I understood "pauzer" (break time), but did not understand "arbeit" (work). I then said that I was an Englishman and not a German (Or words to that effect - I should never have bought 'German for a Shilling'!) He grabbed a long handled axe - I had my long handled shovel. Fortunately, some of the other German and Dutch miners nearby heard the row and separated us.

 

On one shift in the mine, after going to the toilet I took a wrong turn and then my carbide lamp went out. I fell about forty feet down a supply shaft, but fortunately the bottom was covered in pit prop bark. However, I damaged my ribs. I saw a German doctor the next day - who said only, "Arbeit." Fortunately, I was put with two Italians who told me to take it easy - which I had to do for several days. I also learned to swear in Italian!

 

I was always looking and thinking of escape, but winter was very cold in those hills and several inches of snow lay on the ground. However in early Spring, the Germans decided to march us eastwards, sleeping in fields at night, where we were guarded by soldiers. My idea to escape was to hide and let the allied armies roll over and past me, as I knew they couldn't be far away. We had very little food - turnips and such from the fields, and in my pocket, the remains of a Red Cross parcel.

 

After about a week the first chance of escape came, but a Corporal acted quicker than me, and as I didn't want to jeopardize his chances, I didn't follow (a number of others did - there is a certain sheep-like attitude that exists in many people). About a day later another chance came, but the man beside me put me off by saying, "One of the guards is watching." (At this time, I believe we were about twenty miles from Magdeburg.) We hadn't gone 200 yards along the road, when another chance came: The road we were on was approaching a railway line, which ran over the road on an embankment. I realized there would be a ditch at the foot of the embankment and maybe some access under the road. When we came to the tunnel under the railway, I looked about, ran quickly down to the ditch, found a pipe under the road and crawled in. Four others followed, urging me to get further up the pipe. I remember thinking, "If any more follow, I'll be out the other side!" The last man to follow was an Egyptian with malaria.

 

After some time waiting for the area to clear, we noticed a party of German soldiers, about six or seven, coming along the ditch towards us, so we moved to the far end of the pipe. Then the Germans sat down at the entrance to the pipe! The Egyptian was groaning, and still lying near the entrance. This attracted the attention of the Germans. However, I had noticed that some were bandaged, while all of them appeared to be unarmed, and after some time they simply left.

 

Later, I went to the top of the embankment and could see armour - tanks! - going through a crossroad about a mile away. Were they enemy retreating or allies advancing? There was only one way to find out, so I decided to get close to the crossroad. The youngest one of us wanted to go with me, so I took him. Getting closer to the tanks I saw to my relief and delight, a big white single star on their sides. I then sent the youngster [Peter here: My Dad was almost 24 by this time!] back to the others and went up to the big American MP [Military Police] directing the tanks through the crossing.

 

He looked about six and a half feet tall, and I told him I was an escaped prisoner with some others nearby. He didn't say a word - just went on directing the tanks. The Yank then reached inside his blouse, drew out a large bottle and said, "Take a pull at that." I must have looked a sight; worn out boots, no socks (but a square of cloth on each foot), a pair of German issue black trousers with a large white 'K' stamped on one thigh and a 'G' on the other (for Prisoner of War). The right sleeve was missing from my battle dress blouse; I had no hat, and about a week's growth of beard. I don't remember when I'd last had a wash either. I took a pull and nearly lost the back of my throat! He then stopped a Jeep with some officers in it who were obviously a bit nettled at dealing with escaped prisoners when they were directing tanks in a battle!

 

A truck took us back down the line to a town occupied by the Yanks, called I think, Halbestadt. We were given K rations and blankets, and just put in an empty school. The town Major said he would get back to us as soon as he could. (It was then we heard that Roosevelt had died - 20th April.)

 

We tried to find a car in the town to make our way to any port on the English Channel, but all the cars we saw had flat tyres or were broken in some way. We met two Yank soldiers who said that they would get us a car. They did - a large saloon called an Adler. They also painted a big white star on the top, on the sides, and the front, and filled it with food and extra petrol. The five of us set off in it. The Yank motorcycle MPs checking the roads would begin to stop us, but when they saw the white stars, waved us on again!

 

That evening we stopped at an American forward - tented - hospital near Cassell with a small airstrip. I spoke to the Captain in charge and he gave us beds and food; I tasted peanut butter for the first time in my life! The next morning I spoke to the Yank Lieutenant in charge of the airstrip about getting on a flight to the UK. He didn't know about anything to the UK, but there was a plane going back to Paris that afternoon after unloading tyres. We decided to go to Paris. The pilot of the aircraft must have been worried about having five unknown ragamuffins in his plane, so when we landed he kept us locked in until he'd notified the MPs. Each of us was interrogated and then sent to an American occupied hotel and given American uniforms.

 

We were in Paris for a week (where Lady Moore of the WVS took us by taxi on an afternoon tour of the city). Then it was the train to Le Havre and a plane to the UK - where we were given British uniforms, leave passes and money, and sent on several weeks leave. Home in Britain! April 1945.

 

END

 

Dan Wright died in May 2004.

 

My thanks to Peter Wright for this account.

 

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