Sergeant Eric Victor Simpson
Unit : "C" Troop, 1st Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery
Army No. : 906815
Eric Simpson was born in Liverpool on the 23rd June 1921. At the age of 14 he left school, which he had attended only sporadically due to his more pressing interests in swimming and football, and joined the Merchant Navy, sailing upon one of the trade routes running out of Liverpool, taking him all over the World. His father had served in the Royal Navy during the First World War, but shortly before the Second began Eric left the seas in favour of a professional career with Everton Football Club, though he did not have the opportunity to make a first team appearance. On the day that a state of war was declared, Simpson met up with old friends he had met during his days with the Merchant Navy. They offered him a place on their ship, which he declined, and learned sometime later that the ship had been sunk with all hands lost. Eric joined the Royal Artillery and in 1940, whilst serving with the 126th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, he was posted to Chapletown and manned one of the many guns defending the steel works of Sheffield. While here he married Elsie Saxton and was promoted to Sergeant. Inspired by the prospect of a higher wage, Simpson answered the call of volunteers to join the Airborne Forces, accepting the lower rank of Gunner to become a member of the 1st Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery. Promotion to Bombardier and Sergeant quickly followed, though he later temporarily lost his NCO status after going AWOL when he received news of the birth of his daughter. He accompanied the Battery to North Africa in preparation for the assaults upon Sicily and Italy, in which he participated. The Division was camped in the olive groves near Sousse, Tunisia, and it was here that Eric befriended a dog and trained it to follow people. Having obtained extra blankets from Battery Quartermaster Rolfe, a fellow Liverpudlian, friend, and after the war to become the Simpson family's postman, Eric sold the blankets to the local Arabs, the dog followed them home, and retracing the route Eric, with his face blackened, would steal the blankets back again. He was caught in the act one night and chased for several miles by the angry locals, whom he eventually lost. It came as a crushing blow when the Division left Africa and he had to leave the dog behind. Back in England, shortly before Market Garden, Simpson was arrested for being improperly dressed as a consequence of not wearing his beret. He was taken before Lieutenant Whittaker, one of the Battery's Liaison Officers and he was killed at Arnhem, who dismissed the charge on the basis of Simpson's explanation that he was not wearing his beret on account of just having left someone's house and it would have been impolite to wear a hat indoors, but was about to put it on when he had been arrested. However what he failed to point out was that the house in question was a pub.
Shortly before Market Garden, Sergeant Eric Simpson had been absent from the Battery, helping to train other gunners, but returned in time to his position within C Troop, who on the first day were assigned to follow the 3rd Battalion along the Utrechtseweg. His gun was based some way down the marching column and his overriding memory of the period was the constant pauses in the advance as fighting went in front. It is unknown how this came about, but for whatever reason Simpson was called upon to leave his gun and was able to reach Arnhem bridge, while most of the force on the 'Tiger' Route did not. It is likely that he accompanied the 3rd Battalion's C Company when they split from the main line of advance and successfully flanked opposition by making it onto the railway before proceeding towards Arnhem, reaching the bridge before dawn. To begin with Simpson's new gun was positioned on one side of the ramp leading to the bridge, to the north of the defensive perimeter.
On Monday morning Graebner attempted his armoured car assault across the bridge. Simpson remembered that the gunners waited until the Germans were "almost on top of us, before we took out the lead vehicles, the piats took out the back and the rest were then stuck in the middle, before all hell let loose from all sides, including grenades and mills bombs soon silenced them all." On Tuesday afternoon several Tiger tanks entered the perimeter from the north-east and proceeded to fire shells at point blank range into houses occupied by British troops. Several Anti-Tank crews attempted to engage this threat, and Simpson's team managed to fire at least one shell, to little effect, before being forced to take cover. An ambush was set to destroy the tank, but it refused to come any further into British territory and eventually departed of its own accord.
On Wednesday afternoon, shortly before a truce was arranged to evacuate the wounded, Major Gough, now in command, ordered that all men not of the 2nd Battalion were to break out into the town and try to find their way back to the Division at Oosterbeek. Almost everyone was captured in the attempt, however Eric succeeded. For the remainder of the battle he fought near to Divisional HQ at the Hartenstein Hotel, but when the withdrawal across the Rhine began he was positioned too far forward to be evacuated and so became a prisoner of war.
Thereafter he was given the number 75469 and spent at least two months at Stalag XIIA, Limburg, before being transferred to Stalag VIIIC at Sagan. The journey was far from pleasant as the men were loaded into cattle trucks packed so tight that they had to stand for the duration of the long journey. In February Stalag VIIIC was evacuated due to the close proximity of the Russian front line, and the already weak and malnourished prisoners were made to walk 600 kilometres over five weeks in what became known as the Death March, sleeping out in the open, and enduring appalling winter conditions. Though far from fit and suffering from lice infestation, Eric and a few other reasonably fit men broke away from the column to look for any kind of food that they could find to offer to the seriously ill. Technically these men had attempted to escape, and so rejoining the column was frequently tricky as they risked being shot. Eventually the men arrived at their destination, Stalag IXC at Bad Orb. Though the end of the war was near, their fate appeared to be very much in the balance. After a week at this camp, amidst rumours that Germans had executed prisoners and that their present meagre rations may not be enough to keep them alive, Eric and a few colleagues decided to escape over the wire. The attempt was a success, and travelling by night he began to make his way towards the American lines. Desperately short of provisions, Simpson broke into a Burger Meisters house in the hope of finding some food, but instead stole a signed copy of Mein Kampf, which is presently on display at the Airborne Forces Museum, in Aldershot. He succeeded in reaching American troops, but by this time he was very weak, suffering from lack of food, lice, and dysentery. He admitted that he would have been better advised to have remained in the camp rather than to have escaped. When he left for Arnhem on the 17th September 1944, he weighed 10.5 stone, but this was reduced to just 6 by the time of his liberation.
Eric Simpson died on the 6th August 2001. He was father to four daughters and a son, Glenda (Quinlan), Carol (Ruprecht), Christine (Connelly), Erica (Smythson), and Nigel. Many thanks to Nigel for his help with this story.
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