Maps

Defensive positions around the Bridge

Pictures

The remains of the School

Prisoners of the 3rd Battalion are marched away from the Bridge

Prisoners of the 1st Parachute Squadron and 3rd Battalion, captured at Arnhem Bridge

Sappers and paratroopers captured after the defence of the School collapsed

3rd Battalion POW's

Airborne POW's, one with a head wound

Captured soldiers carry a wounded comrade away from the Bridge

British prisoners taken at Arnhem Bridge

The remains of the 1st Para Brigade HQ

Looking north across the devastated buildings on the western side of Arnhem Bridge

Ruined buildings around Arnhem Bridge

A knocked-out German half-track near the School

Half tracks of Kampfgruppe Brinkmann preparing to cross the bridge on Thursday 21st

British prisoners under guard in the Eusebius Church

Field graves around Arnhem bridge

 

By dawn on Wednesday 20th September, German snipers and machine-gunners had so well covered the entire area that the positions on either side of the Bridge had become isolated from each other. Stretcher-bearers were allowed to go about their work unimpeded, but all other movement was fraught with danger. Relocating troops from one building to another was scarcely possible, and so the men in each building had to defend it until their position became untenable, whereupon they either had to surrender, run the gauntlet of mortars and machine-guns to reach a neighbouring building or, if possible, continue to hold the line by digging themselves into the rubble.

 

Shells and mortars continued to pound the perimeter without pause. Phosphorus ammunition was being increasingly used to set buildings on fire, while armour and infantry continued to attack the British positions from all directions. They were still able to comfortably deal with the enemy infantry, but tanks effectively had free reign as there was very little in the way of anti-tank weaponry to persuade them to maintain a distance. Although desperately tired, the British troops continued to offer fierce resistance and they remained confident that relief was at hand, though it was clear to all that resistance would collapse if it did not arrive soon.

 

During the morning, despite the poor performance of the radio sets, Lieutenant-Colonel Frost received a message from Major-General Urquhart at Divisional HQ in Oosterbeek. Frost insisted that he needed reinforcements and supplies most urgently, but it quickly became clear to him that the rest of the Division was in a similarly desperate state and that there was nothing that they could do to help. Relief, therefore, could only come from the south in the shape of XXX Corps, but looking in that direction, there was no comforting sign of battle eleven miles away at Nijmegen. The outlook was not promising.

 

Shortly after, German infantry heavily attacked the area around one of the archways supporting the ramp leading up to the Bridge, with the intention of laying explosives and destroying it. German engineers fought desperately to place their charges, only for a similarly valiant attempt to be made by British engineers, led by Lieutenant Hindley of the 1st Parachute Squadron with the support of "A" Company, now under the command of Lieutenant Grayburn, to remove the fuses. Later in the day the Germans made another attempt to lay explosives on the archway, and this time the British attempted to remove the charges completely, however their gallant effort ended in failure as they were now terribly exposed to enemy fire and they suffered many casualties in the process. Amongst the dead was the Jack Grayburn, who was killed when he stood up in full view of a tank in order to direct his men safely back to their positions. For his supreme conduct throughout the battle he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

 

During the afternoon, Lieutenant-Colonel Frost was talking with Major Crawley when a mortar exploded beside them and they were both wounded. Unable to actively lead his troops, Frost handed over command to Major Gough of the Reconnaissance Squadron, though he insisted on being consulted on all major decisions.

 

At about the same time, the men of the 1st Parachute Squadron and 3rd Battalion were finally forced to abandon their vital and resolute defence of the School (Map Ref 26). Thirty men were still able to fight, however they had precious little ammunition left, and when a tank began to demolish what remained of their now fiercely burning building they were left with no option but to evacuate. Attempts were made to get the wounded to safety while those who could tried to make their way to friendly positions west of the Bridge, however the area was so well covered by enemy fire that their efforts failed and all were soon captured.

 

By this time, practically every building in the small perimeter was on fire. Due to this, the many wounded and, above all else, a lack of ammunition, the British defence around the Bridge was beginning to crumble, and so the decision was made to gather all the available men in the large garden area behind 1st Parachute Brigade Headquarters (Map Ref 2). Here they could maximise their remaining firepower and still be in a position to fire on the Bridge, and so prevent troops and vehicles of the 10th S.S. Panzer Division moving down to Nijmegen.

 

Those troops who had managed to find their way out of the beleaguered eastern sector and into the more stable western half assembled beneath the Bridge ramp, where they were joined by the 2nd Battalion's "A" Company, who had been forced out of their ruined houses by intense fires. This group then raced the 180 yards to Brigade HQ. It was a short distance to travel, but extremely dangerous due to a mortar bombardment and a lethal German cross-fire. Those who made it dug themselves into slit trenches in the garden and established as firm a defence as was possible under the circumstances. Despite their best efforts, however, they could not prevent German vehicles from crossing over the Bridge. They had, nevertheless, done their work, because as the first German troops began to cross Arnhem Bridge, British armour was beginning to pour across Nijmegen Bridge in the south. If Frost's men had not held out for so long, it is likely that Nijmegen Bridge would never have been captured.

 

Lieutenant-Colonel Frost's men continued to fight, though by now all the remaining buildings being used for the defence were heavily ablaze, and the scores of wounded in the cellars were in serious danger as a result. The medical officers advised Frost that it was essential that a truce be arranged to evacuate the wounded from the area. This was desirable because, not only were the lives of the wounded in jeopardy, but the sparse medical supplies the force had available to it had long been spent and so it was only humane to place the wounded in the hands of the Germans, where they could at least be sure of receiving treatment. Furthermore, the mere presence of so many wounded was inadvertently hampering the ability of the defenders to continue resisting, and they also hindered a possible retreat from the Bridge as wounded men could not be abandoned in burning buildings. Although the truce would also necessitate his evacuation and becoming a prisoner of war, Frost agreed.

 

Shortly before the truce was arranged, Major Gough gathered approximately one hundred and twenty men of non-2nd Battalion origin and ordered them to split up and scatter northwards into the town, in the hope that they could make their way back to the main part of the Division in Oosterbeek. Gough himself remained behind at the Bridge with the 2nd Battalion. The truce lasted for two hours, during which the Germans evacuated approximately two hundred and eighty men from the burning and collapsing buildings, most ending up at the St Elizabeth Hospital. Major Tatham-Warter ordered Captain Hoyer-Millar to protest to a German officer when he noticed that enemy infantry were violating the terms of the truce and were relocating themselves in positions closer to Brigade HQ. Hoyer-Millar threatened to open fire if they did not desist, though he knew all too well that he was in no position to bargain.

 

Following the resumption of hostilities, the Brigade HQ was subjected to a relentless and concentrated mortar bombardment. The remaining paratroopers could not hope to prevail beneath such a barrage, and so Major Tatham-Warter split his force into two groups and ordered them to escape the shelling by scattering into the local area to hide before re-taking their positions before dawn in anticipation of fighting off a final enemy attack. The surrounding area, however, was by now too well held by the Germans for the men to slip away, and the small groups were gradually rounded up. Although out of ammunition, some paratroopers refused to give up the fight. One incident in particular became legend amongst the S.S. troops fighting at the Bridge; an unarmed British soldier ran from his position to draw the fire of a machine-gunner whilst a colleague attempted to take out the gun using only his knife. Both men were wounded and taken prisoner, but the Germans were astonished by their reckless determination.

 

The gallant defence of Arnhem Bridge was over. It had been thought that the entire 1st Airborne Division could have only held the Bridge for four days, yet just seven hundred and forty men had managed to hold it for three days and four nights. Eighty-one of them had died during the action and it is assumed that every man was taken prisoner, though a few of these later managed to escape. The infamous manner in which S.S. troops were known to treat their prisoners was well-known, yet in contrast to this image the British, for the most part, were treated with respect and, despite the fact that they had killed and injured so many of their colleagues during the battle, they were even congratulated by the German soldiers for their spirited defence. Perhaps the most fitting tribute was paid by a German Major who spoke with Major Gough and informed him that he had fought in Stalingrad and that it was therefore obvious to him that the British paratroopers had a great deal of experience in street-fighting. Gough replied that they had never done it before, and that they'd be much better at it next time.

 

The battered and exhausted men who had struggled to hold Arnhem Bridge had done everything that could have possibly been asked of them. They felt terribly let down, and they bitterly wondered what had become of XXX Corps.