Private Fred Moore
Unit : Medium Machine Gun Platoon, HQ Company, 1st Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 2619993
Monday, June 24th 1940 was a glorious summer's day, the sort of day one spent swimming or fishing or strolling through country lanes; for me however, it was the day I went to war.
I volunteered to become a regular soldier with the Grenadier Guards and after the normal basic training period at Caterham Barracks, found myself, during those autumn and early winter days, when the London Blitz was at it’s height, seemingly interminably entrapped, ill equipped for combat, at Wellington Barracks with the Holding Battalion, in a perpetual routine of guard duty, either at Buckingham Palace or at one of the numerous posts surrounding the City of London, known as ‘Whitehall Defences’. When a call for volunteers for a newly formed Parachute Unit appeared on the Battalion Notice Board, a number of us with a shared feeling of inadequate preparation, for the almost certain fury of the imminent invasion by German forces and spurred by the rumour of extra pay and the luxury of exchanging life in army barracks for the comfort of ‘civvy billets’, submitted our names for consideration. Within a few weeks, those of us who were accepted, found ourselves en-route to Achnacarry, a regular Commando training area, set in the rugged highlands of Scotland. The winter of 1940 was bitterly cold and the training area perpetually wet and bleak. Under canvas, in a hollow surrounded by steep hills, our clothes, once wet, stayed wet. The prelude for every parade was the ascent of a steep hill, but the variety of activities taught compensated for the lack of amenities. Over a period of weeks we absorbed an understanding of signalling (semaphore), explosives, map reading, weapon training, unarmed combat and cliff climbing techniques. Interspersed with these activities were long, physically demanding route marches in rugged terrain. On one such march, we were required to cross a swift flowing stream between two trees. We pulled ourselves hand over hand beneath the rope, but unfortunately one colleague, with a bren gun strapped to his back, lost his grip and fell face up into the water beneath, with fatal consequences. At the end of this training, those of us who were still around were supremely fit and eagerly awaiting the next stage. This involved a stint of several days at a rifle range near Liverpool, to hone our skills at marksmanship. It was at this time that we learned that a detachment from the Battalion we would be joining, had been dropped at Tragino, in Southern Italy, where they breached a vital aqueduct carrying a main water supply.
After an expansive period of advanced physical training and then, finally, some preliminary training at Ringway Aerodrome, Manchester, came the long awaited culmination of our efforts, a series of parachute jumps in Tatton Park, Knutsford, near Manchester. The day before our first jump, we were taken to the landing site to observe a demonstration drop, by a group of Polish parachutists. On a cold, sombre morning we stood and listened to the steady drone of a distant Whitley, as it approached the dropping zone. As it came into sight above the tree-tops, we could see the hole at the bottom of the fuselage, from which the paratroops would emerge. One after the other, they came out, in textbook fashion and then, to our horror, two came out locked together. Jumping from opposite sides of the whole, instead of jumping alternatively they had emerged simultaneously, with the consequence that although their chutes initially opened, the rigging lines wrapped around each other, the chutes collapsed and the two bodies hitting the ground at a high velocity were killed instantly. This incident was not the most encouraging of introductions to our chosen means of arrival at some future battleground. However, the following day, a much warmer and sunnier occasion, saw us determined and purposeful, gathered at the base of a balloon for our initiation into the still evolving art of parachuting. Lying underneath the balloon, I watched them descend, fast and straight down at first and then, as their chutes opened, drifting with the wind clear of the balloon cable. It seemed so idyllic and carefree, until suddenly there were only four of us left and as we ascended in the balloon I found that I was to be the last to jump. Sitting alone perched on the edge of the hole, I waited for the command to go, then after a free fall lasting only brief seconds, my chute opened and joyfully I contemplated the scenery below, as I descended gently to earth. Wham! Suddenly my chute collapsed and my speed of descent increased. Fortunately my chute quickly stabilised and I hit the ground according to the methods instilled in us during practice sessions in the hangar. As I had disappeared through the hole in the floor, the Sergeant Instructor, parachute at the ready throughout the exercise, had jumped over the side and landed on top of my own chute! After a series of night and day plane jumps, seven in all, we were presented with our coveted parachute badge and pronounced fit to take our place with the Unit, 11 Special Air Service Battalion, which was split into two separate bodies, both in civvy billets, but one at Congleton and the other, to which I was assigned, at Knutsford. I could not, however, but admire the guy, who despite an overwhelming fear of heights, had forced himself to complete the whole sequence of jumps before requesting to be ‘Returned to Unit (RTU)’.
It was about this time that Guardsman ‘Frankie’ Garlick, having exited through the hole of a Whitley in the prescribed manner, then finding himself suspended beneath the belly of the plane, was reluctantly compelled to survey the panorama below, a bird’s eye view of the landscape near Edinburgh, in Scotland. The Whitley continued its journey back to Manchester, with it’s unscheduled passenger still dangling beneath the fuselage. The plane landed slowly with the tail lifted higher than normal and Frank survived almost free of injury, to continue his participation in the affairs of the battalion.
Although almost every other member of the unit seemed to be a Guardsman, in fact most Regiments of the British Army were represented. Also it consisted of the most cosmopolitan collection of individuals it was possible to imagine. There were Irish, both Northern and Southern, Scots, Welsh, a Spaniard, a Jew and a Pole. One guy was a committed Communist who had seen action in the Spanish Civil War and another who professed admiration for the Fascist philosophy, elements which would normally create ethnic and political tensions, but, overriding all these various considerations were two overwhelming common bonds, a fierce pride in the Unit, which we designated, "THE Battalion’ and a common fear of failing to measure up to the high standards required, with the resultant ultimate punishment (RTU).
Although we were a highly trained and viable Unit, we were not uniformly attired, for we continued to wear the cap badges of our original Regiments, but with the addition of a parachute badge worn on our right arm; this created many an exploitable situation in the local pub whilst relaxing in remote areas. The eventual deeds performed by the Battalion were as nothing, compared to the vivid exploits recounted over many a free glass of brown ale.
The threat of invasion was now no longer imminent, but still a possibility, so from time to time large or small groups would be missing from the normal activities. They would be dropped in some vulnerable area of England, with a specific target, which would be defended by troops, stationed in that area, who were familiar with the terrain. The specific exercise could be a brief encounter lasting a few hours or a more complex affair spread over a number of days. These schemes served to keep morale high and also gave attackers and defenders much needed practice in deployment and tactics. The downside of the coin was the inevitable list of casualties and the expense involved. We were dropped with only meagre food supplies and instructions to fend for ourselves, just as we would in actual combat and any vehicle which was considered a source of danger was to be immobilised by removing the distributor. This distributor was to be placed in a bag, suitable identified, and handed in to the authorities at the conclusion of the exercise. The bags however were frequently lost in the heat of the moment, which was inevitably a source of some embarrassment.
All aspects of Parachute Operations were at this stage subject to experiment and frequent change of direction. This applied particularly to the aircraft, which were to deliver us. The hole in the floor exit of our main carriers, the Whitley, was a cumbersome and slow method of disgorging troops, so that they were spread too far apart on the dropping zone. It was obvious that a better means of exit would be through an open door in the side of the aircraft, as was common practice in troop transport aircraft and we looked forward to the time when this method could be implemented. The evolution of the various methods of dropping weapons and the changes in fighting apparel are well documented. A most welcome innovation was a light, but very warm sleeping bag, which made cold nights spent in the open a much more endurable experience.
Life at this time had a touch of the bizarre, not only for conventional members of the three Services and the general population but even more so for we ‘Special Forces’. It was inconceivable, given that, an invasion force, consisting of the might of the victorious German Wehrmacht, was poised on the beaches of France, awaiting favourable conditions and with our shipping carrying vital supplies of food and materials, being sunk at an alarming rate; with our cities and centres of production being devastated and with Britain alone in a position to resist the, seemingly inevitable, subjugation of Europe, that the reason for continuing the conflict, the eventual defeat of the Axis forces could be seriously considered. Yet here we were, training to be dropped into enemy territory !!
The fact that we spent a great deal of our off duty hours in the company of our civilian hosts, resulting in a serious problem with security, could only be sustained as a temporary solution to the overall need for a suitable Regimental base. Another embarrassing dilemma was evidenced when the need arose to discipline a soldier for a transgression of the rules. The offender was confined in an empty house, requisitioned by the Military for the purpose, for a specified period. One of the guards detailed to ensure his captivity, was detailed to march him to and from his normal ‘civvy billet’, at each mealtime. The evening ceremony would invariably take much longer than the earlier ritual, because the route back, involved passing a pub during the hours of opening, a custom which was seldom observed by this elite body of men.
Suddenly the whole war situation changed. On June 22 1941, Germany embarked on a campaign, code-named ‘Barbarossa’, against the Soviet Union. This switched the German priorities, both in man power and resources to the confrontation on the Eastern Front. Now, for England to speculate about a victorious outcome, was no longer an idle concept and the psychological effect of this turn of events lifted the spirits of all elements of British society.
And so 11 SAS, originally 2 Commando, again changed its identity. Moving to Hardwick, in September 1941, under the command of our new CO, a martinet by the name of Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Down, we became 1st Parachute Battalion. It was then that the persistent rumours we had been hearing of newly formed Airborne Units became a confirmed fact. However we, as long established pioneers, regarded ourselves as somewhat superior to these other ‘Johnny-come-lately’s’, so it came as an immense shock to our self-image and was the cause of much inter-battalion friction, when C Company, 2nd Battalion, was chosen to make what resulted in an archetype Airborne assault, on a German radar installation at Bruneval, on the coast of France, in January 1942.
The shock of the drastic change in life-style, now that we were accommodated in more conventional quarters, was exacerbated by the strict disciplinary regime imposed by Lieutenant-Colonel Down, with the emphasis being placed on physical fitness, endurance and efficiency in all known aspects of guerilla warfare. From time to time, a familiar face would disappear, as the person in particular failed to measure up to the standards required. With the passing of time, life became routine, a common Army problem during periods spent preparing for possible combat, on some future battlefield, at some distant date. Incessant combat training, route marches and physical feats of endurance were the order of the day.
The days and months of late 1941 and early 1942 drifted by until, in March 1942 we departed Hardwick for the less rugged and warmer territory around Bulford, on Salisbury Plain. Now it was that we came into contact with other standard units of the British Army and our new and most welcome allies, the American Forces. Inevitably our off duty energies were dissipated in physical confrontations at the local dance hall, either with other Battalions, other Regiments or more usually our allies and quite often, opponents at one instance, suddenly became allies against a common, natural opponent, at some later stage in the proceedings.
In August 1942 we were officially transferred from our original Regiments, to become founding members of the ‘Parachute Regiment’, a wing of the 1st Airborne Division, Army Air Corps, and some time later were issued with our new Regimental badge and a ‘Maroon Beret’, the colour of which was viewed with misgivings by a large majority.
This event marked the beginning of a period of battle readiness by the 1st Battalion, now under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Hill. During the month of August, we were confined to barracks and briefed for a major role in a Commando raid on the French coast, at Dieppe. A German gun emplacement dominated the assault landing area and it was considered that a prior parachute landing, in the rear of the emplacement, was needed to neutralise the battery before the main assault from the sea. We emplaned for this exercise in some trepidation, it certainly looked easy on the scale model we had studied, but the French coast was heavily fortified and manned by troops who had yet to taste the bitterness of defeat in battle. Suddenly we received the order to disembark, because the project had been cancelled. In actual fact, the Canadian Commandos, becoming aware of the raid, has insisted on their involvement. They were assigned to our task and when the raid took place, they attempted to assault the gun emplacement from the front, were massacred and the whole exercise was a tragic failure.
Shortly afterwards after a training exercise at Exford, we marched back, with full pack, to Bulford, a distance of 110 miles, in just over three days. Each night when we stopped, we were some distance from the nearest pub, to which most everyone journeyed, so that the actual distance covered was much more than the registered length.
Later we were again briefed for a raid on the island of Ashant, near Brest, to assault and capture a German garrison. Again this was cancelled.
November 1942 saw the 1st Parachute Brigade, as part of a huge escorted convoy, on a long and tortuous voyage, heading for the port of Algiers, as a component part of Operation ‘Torch’, tasked to seize and occupy Northern Tunisia and cut off Rommel’s escape route to occupied Europe. The three battalions of the Brigade were each given a specific and typical Airborne objective, to deny the enemy vital airfields in the vicinity of Tunis. The 1st Battalion dropped unopposed on an airfield at Souk el Arba. Leaving the airfield in the hands of the friendly French Garrison, we proceeded in commandeered French vehicles to Beja, a primary objective situated at a vital road junction. It was a requirement to persuade the French Garrison to support the Allies. To convince them that we were a considerable force, we marched through the town twice, at intervals, each time dressed differently, once with steel helmets and again with red berets, well spread out and in different formations on both occasions.
The weather over the next two months deteriorated rapidly, freezing cold with incessant rain, so the Battalion was reluctantly forced to adopt a defensive role; occasionally moving to a fresh area, the monotony relieved only by the numerous fighting patrols, to reconnoitre the enemy position. Several such patrols became legendary, unfortunately resulting in casualties, depriving the battalion of the services of outstanding soldiers; one such casualty being the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Hill; command of the battalion being taken over by Major Alastair Pearson, who was to become the most famous Battalion legend of them all. It was during this period that I acquired my only war souvenir, a German cut-throat razor, the expert use of which I mastered, very slowly and very bloodily.
Sometime in early January, we were withdrawn from the front line and returned to our base in Algiers. On arrival I reported sick and was despatched to the hospital. On the original voyage from England, I contracted an ear infection which, being untreated for two months, got progressively worse. It was diagnosed at that stage as quite serious and possibly contagious, so I was confined there for the duration of the campaign. After a period of convalescence I returned to the battalion to find to my horror, that it had virtually ceased to exist as I remembered it. Familiar faces were very few and far between. I had missed a long period of intense training and my physical fitness would obviously have been suspect, so I was assigned to a platoon commander, one of the new replacements, as his batman, a career move to which I was singularly unsuited.
The evening of 13th July 1943 saw us winging our way across the Mediterranean, en route for Sicily, to capture a vital bridge at Primasole in Catania. The journey was uneventful until the pilot took evasive action, to counter an attack by a German plane, then as we approached the coast of Sicily, we were fired at by the Allied invasion fleet, because we had strayed into a forbidden zone. The pilot again took violent evasive action, pitching us forward to the floor of the aircraft, an ominous sign for the course of the coming battle. As we crossed the coast we stood up in formation and hooked up our static lines. I was jumping number two, after the 2nd Lieutenant, and so had a perfect view through the doorway. Although it was around 10 pm and would normally be dark, the landscape seemed ablaze with what seemed like burning undergrowth and haystacks and I could clearly hear the noise of anti-aircraft gunfire above the roar of the engines. First, a red light and then the green and we were clear of the aircraft and although descending quite rapidly, we seemed to be drifting apart. I hit the deck in regulation fashion, but quite hard and as I looked up I could see the telltale trail of tracer bullets, curving upwards toward the remainder of the stick, who were still suspended in mid-air. As I gathered in my parachute I realised that two of my rigging lines had been severed, presumably by these selfsame tracer bullets. Standing up, I looked for my 2nd Lieutenant, but in vain and I never saw him again. Together with the remainder of the Platoon, under the leadership of our platoon sergeant, we set a course for our objective. On the way we encountered a number of Italian troops, some with suitcases and all eager to surrender. Leaving them protesting bitterly, we proceeded on our bearing, with the sounds of battle growing every more acute as we neared our objective. Our strength, once we assembled ready for the assault on the bridge, was far below the planned total, consequently the objectives and composition of forces to accomplish them, were urgently revised. I found myself in one of the groups assigned to the assault and seizure of the bridge.
We proceeded in single file, myself in the rear, along an embankment, sloping down from the road, the other side of the road consisting of a long row of high factory type buildings, which we understood were occupied by our own troops. Suddenly a speeding vehicle passed us; almost before we could appreciate this threat to our plan, the vehicle, following a loud explosion, burst into flames, accompanied by the screams of pain as the occupants perished. A little further along a figure, standing in the middle of the road above, proved to be an Italian soldier, who was ignored by those in front of me. My instinctive reaction was that it would be dangerous to leave him behind us, with him knowing the strength of our force and our direction of advance, so I climbed the embankment and motioned him to come with me. Without warning, a grenade landed between us and exploded; blood from my facial wounds saturating my smock. A figure in familiar garb approached; "Where’s S company mate?" he said. "Sod S company, I’m bleeding to death!, where’s the MO?", I replied. When the MO had bandaged my wounds and given me a shot of morphine, I was directed to join the growing band of wounded, some distance along the riverbank, amid the tall, abundant reeds. We remained there the rest of that night, all the next day and the following night, periods of constant torment from the ceaseless bites of mosquitoes, interspersed with frequent sounds of enemy activity, sometimes nearby, sometimes in the near distance. We received word that the relieving force of British troops was close at hand. Sometime later we hear the familiar sound of battle in the vicinity of the bridge, then on the opposite bank there emerged the welcome sight of a British armoured vehicle.
En route to Alexandria, on a Red Cross ship, one of the badly wounded soldiers was informed that a blood transfusion was imperative, if he was to live. The fact that he was a German SS soldier and that the blood he was to receive was British, was unacceptable to him, so he rejected totally that proposition, consequently he became the only burial at sea that I have witnessed.
The ward to which I was assigned in the hospital at Alexandria was totally American, except for myself, so when General Eisenhower toured the ward handing out ‘Purple Hearts’, it is not surprising that I was included as a recipient. The mistake however was noticed and in a very short time my award was rescinded.
Because the battalion was again understrength and destined to play a leading role in the invasion of Italy, my stay at the hospital ended very abruptly, happily recovered from a serious bout of malaria, resulting from the mosquito bites sustained in Sicily, but before any major surgery could take place, I rejoined the battalion in good time to play my part. After the victory in North Africa, we had been joined by the 2nd Parachute Brigade and among the members of the 6th Royal Welsh Battalion was a young near neighbour of mine, from my home town of Birmingham. Knowing from his parents that I was with the 1st Battalion, he came looking for me and we shared a number of agreeable evenings together, before we embarked on the next adventure.
As we approached Taranto harbour on the southern cost of Italy, the dark of evening was illuminated by the brilliant flash of a ship, mortally struck by a mine. It was a British minelayer, HMS Abdiel, on board which was the 6th Royal Welsh Battalion, amongst whom was my friend from Birmingham. We disembarked in the dark and as we marched through the streets of Taranto, the devastation and sickly smell of burnt flesh, caused by the intense pre-invasion bombing, pervaded the atmosphere, a condition that lasted for several days. The days that followed, were devoted to the gruesome task of searching the harbour for the dead bodies of our comrades, as they floated inshore with the tide. Once located, we pulled them ashore and prepared them for burial, first removing an identity disc, so that their fate could be recorded. I searched in vain for news of my friend, who was not among the few survivors of the disaster.
After a short period in reserve at Taranto, the battalion moved off, first to Castellaneta and then, after a brief stay, to a small village, called Altamura, which was surrounded by a myriad of olive trees. As we entered the village, at dusk, the lights of all the houses switched on and the local residents came rushing out bearing offerings of fruit, drinks and flowers; this despite the fact that the Germans had departed only very shortly before our arrival. Some anti-personnel mines, left among the vines caused a number of casualties, some fatal, otherwise this concluded our active involvement in the Italian campaign. We moved eventually to barracks at Bari and from there back to Britain for Christmas and a very welcome spot of leave.
We now engaged in a training schedule ready for action on the battlefields of Europe. First though, I had a most disagreeable task to perform, to visit my late friends’ parents and confirm the War Office statement that their son was almost certainly dead. The Battalion, composed of some battle hardened veterans and the remainder, re-inforcement’s with little or no combat experience, were split into three groups, stationed at Grimsthorpe Castle, Bulby Hall, and Bourne, in Lincolnshire, now under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dobie. The period up to June 1944 was a period of intense training, both tactical and physical, interspersed with regular long week-end leave passes. The beginning of June saw me back in hospital with a recurrence of malaria. So it was, that I became aware of the Airborne landings on D-day, June 6th, through the medium of the radio, convinced that my Division was involved and that I had missed out. My return to the battalion very shortly after coincided with the start of a period of intense frustration.
The next sixteen weeks saw us briefed for as many airborne operations, a number of which saw us emplaned in full battle kit, complete with maps and escape kits and all cancelled because of the speed of Montgomery’s advance. Weekend leaves during this period were frequent and remarks such as, "What! You again?", became an embarrassment. Then it all changed! We, the 1st Airborne Division, were presented with a plan, code-named ‘Operation Comet’, to seize three bridges at Grave, Nijmegen and Arnhem in Holland. Cancelled as usual, we were granted a weekend pass, with instructions to be back by Monday morning. Once back we were confined to barracks and instructed that the plan, now enhanced, with the same objectives, but now including two American Airborne Divisions and code-named ‘Operation Market’, in conjunction with 30 Corps, the ‘Operation Garden’ element, combining to constitute "Operation Market Garden’, would take effect the following Sunday, September 17th.
Floating down, after an uneventful flight, on a serene and sunny afternoon, but heading helplessly toward a clump of trees, I braced myself for the inevitable impact, then found myself suspended about three feet from the ground. Having suffered only minor scratches, I released my harness and dropped gently to earth. Unbelievably, the tranquility of my immediate horizon, was disturbed only by the monotonous drone of incoming planes and the sounds of breaking tree branches in the near vicinity. The stark contrast between this exercise and the memory of the fiercely opposed night-time landing to capture the Primosole Bridge in Sicily, which had occupied my thoughts since take-off, seemed to confirm the expectations that this operation was merely a formality; a quick advance over the eight miles to the town of Arnhem, overcoming any slight resistance from demoralised groups of second class enemy soldiers, secure the bridge over the river, then just wait for the British armoured divisions to relieve us within 48 hours. My thoughts were suddenly disturbed by the sound of running footsteps and through the undergrowth burst the figure of a small Dutch boy carrying a silk parachute. I established contact with my section, part of HQ company machine gun platoon and we awaited orders to move off. Screened from view by a canopy of trees, we munched chocolate, smoked cigarettes and debated the possibility of spending the next weekend at home.
We waited, impatiently, for the order to move off, as the sounds of distant gunfire intruded on our diminishing feelings of elation. Finally with the rifle companies leading the way, we started to advance in single file. Threading our way through discarded parachutes and past the civilians busy collecting souvenirs, we left the landing zone and emerged onto a narrow road, bordered on both sides by an avenue of trees. Suddenly, we heard the crack of a rifle somewhere ahead and on the urgent command, took cover. There were sounds of a brief exchange of gunfire and after a short period, resumed our progress, passing on the way the body of a dead German laying at the base of a tree. The sounds of battle, both near and far, grew more insistent as we moved forward in fits and starts, with no clear conception of what was happening ahead. We did know however, that we needed to press ahead urgently to our objective, the bridge at Arnhem and also that our forward platoons were incurring casualties.
As darkness descended, we left the road and took cover in the welcome refuge of a wooded area. There was a general feeling of disquiet; this was not according to plan. We should by now be advancing rapidly through the outskirts of the town, with the 2nd and 3rd Battalions on our right flank, on separate routes but converging as we neared the objective. Instead, we were a depleted battalion, having made little progress, with the main body of troops, Airlanding Brigade, in our rear, preparing defensive positions to protect the landing zones for the second airlift, which would arrive the following day and we were isolated from the other two parachute battalions, who were somewhere, on their separate routes, between us and the bridge. A whispered order was relayed from man to man, "Freeze". We heard movement in the vicinity, a group was moving through the undergrowth on our left flank, who had been identified as enemy. Our task was to arrive in force at our destination, so it was important that we did not engage in unnecessary combat, sacrificing precious time and possibly sustaining further casualties. The sound of the enemy approaching grew louder, so that we could hear them talking and then gradually faded as they passed, unsuspecting, across our front.
Monday, September 18th
Sometime before dawn, a jeep arrived, which transported us to an area at the outskirts of Arnhem, on a major road where the battalion was assembling for a determined thrust towards the bridge. We learned that the 2nd battalion had reached their objective and controlled the north bank of the bridge. Less welcome was the news that the rifle companies of our own battalion had suffered heavy losses during the night. Shortly after the start of our advance, we came to a residential area, a few houses with small front gardens. We halted and the residents emerged, waving and cheering, with offerings of fruit, drinks and flowers, obviously overjoyed that they were now liberated. The euphoria was short-lived, cut short by bursts of machine gun fire from the wooded area, a few hundred yards in front of us, on the opposite side of the road. An elderly lady, near to us, was hit in the back and was carried screaming into the house; meantime we took cover in the front garden, while forward elements of the battalion dealt with this threat to our progress.
As the open countryside gave way to built up areas, we progressed in fits and starts, coming increasingly under fire from groups of enemy snipers, hidden among the buildings in the higher ground of our left flank and I remember particularly a long open gap where we ran singly, at intervals, under fire, to reach the comparative safety of the buildings at the other end. Progress became slower as the forward companies encountered mounting resistance until, as darkness fell, we received orders to occupy the houses to our left. We now realised that we had lost the element of surprise, that any time wasted was to the enemy’s advantage and ominously, that before we could form a defensive cordon around the north end of the bridge, we faced a bloody battle through a built up area against defended positions. We settled down in a back room, on the ground floor to get whatever rest we could before the next phase. We could hear movement in the houses above and at the rear of our position, which we assumed were enemy, so we made as little noise as possible. The guy next to me kept falling asleep and snoring loudly; I prodded him awake, lightly at first, but more and more forcibly as the night wore on.
Tuesday, September 19th
Having survived the night, rested and our need for food satisfied, we emerged from our temporary quarters in good spirits, ready to do whatever was necessary to cover the remaining two miles or so to our objective. With two hours of darkness to cover our advance, our orders were to keep to the right hand side of the road and proceed with all speed. The enemy commanded the heights on our left hand side, so much of our progress was along the rear of buildings, which revealed an uninterrupted approach to the river. As the darkness gradually gave way to daylight, we found to our alarm that our position was totally dominated by an enemy strong point located in a large factory on the other side of the river. Armed with heavy cannons, they raked our exposed flank with a concentrated barrage. As the light increased this concentrated fire began to take a heavy toll. We had nowhere to hide and the machine gun and mortar sections were deployed to counter this menace. My crew of three was positioned at the forefront of our advance, in an open position in full view of the enemy gunners. I was number 3 on the left hand side of the gunner and he commenced firing across the river in the direction of the enemy force. Suddenly the number 2, on his right hand side slumped sideways and remained motionless. Moving to his position, I pushed his body aside and hoped that he had been hit by an indiscriminate shot rather than a targeted one. A shout from the rear signalled us to pull out and stopping only to collect the identity disk from our dead comrade, we beat a hasty retreat from our exposed position. We were but 1 mile from the bridge !
Rejoining the main body we discovered a state of total confusion. Our line of advance was now blocked by armour, the battalion had, to all intents and purposes, ceased to exist and we were to fall back to a more tenable position. Just up the road we came across Andy Milbourne, his hands shattered and his face covered in blood, being attended to by a medical orderly. He had been manning a machine gun post, left in position to cover our retreat and had taken a direct hit.
No-one seemed to be in command as we retraced our steps, back towards our starting point, not as a defined unit, but as a mixed group from different units and battalions with no clear destination or purpose, bar to rejoin the main divisional troops, now re-inforced by the second lift and located somewhere in our rear.
It was at this point that I was overtaken by an old friend. Jerry Curtis had been my section Lance Corporal way back in 1941, when we were designated 11 SAS and housed in civvy billets in Knutsford. We had become good friends and remained together until the North African campaign, when he had been promoted in the field to 2nd Lieutenant. Now he informed me that his runner had been killed and we agreed that I would take his place. We reached a road junction where everyone was halted and those officers that still survived were summoned to formulate a coherent plan. The conference was in the grounds of a large building on the corner of the road junction and Jerry instructed me to wait inside the building. Left to explore the various rooms in the building, I looked for and found a large kitchen with a stove, a frypan, a supply of eggs and some butter. Not one to pass up an opportunity, I threw four eggs into the frypan and was soon rewarded with the characteristic sound and sight of eggs popping and crackling. I thought to myself how pleased Jerry would be when he rejoined me, but just as the yolks were firming and the outside turning white, I heard Jerry calling out to me from the front door. "I’m just cooking some eggs for us"; I said. "Never mind the eggs", he replied, "we have a job to do !" He explained that there were German tanks in the vicinity and the assembled troops were to evacuate the area as quickly as possible, making their way back to Oosterbeek, where a perimeter was to be defended and that he, me and a gunner from the Anti-tank Brigade were to remain behind for fifteen minutes to cover their rear. I was not altogether thrilled with this prospect and as the last of the column disappeared around the bend in the road leaving us in isolation, we scanned the two approaches to our position and listened for any sound of approaching armour. I mentally counted each interminably long passing second until Jerry declared our mission completed and we set off to catch up with the main body.
We came to another road junction, a main open road on our right, sloping upwards and diagonally backwards to the horizon and found the retreating column halted. After a brief fact finding conference Jerry returned and we took up a position among the buildings on this right hand road. Fifty yards or so ahead, on the opposite side of the road were two gunners, manning a solitary anti-tank gun. Without warning a low flying Messerschmidt roared overhead, interrupting the now familiar sounds of battle. The sound of tanks approaching the crest of the hill in front of us was the signal for the anti-tank crew to prepare for action and as a huge monster poked it’s snout over the top they fired. The tank, mortally wounded, came to a halt sideways across the road and a second tank, following the first, although scoring a direct hit on the gun crew, killing them both, was too late to stop them firing off another shell, hitting its target, which came to an abrupt halt and burst into flames.
As the fading light heralded the beginning of another night of doubt and confusion, we rounded a bend in the road to find a number of houses on each side; at last a defensible position which offered us a temporary advantage. We occupied the houses and dug slit trenches in the gardens at strategic points. During the long night of fitful sleep, we heard evidence of enemy troops in the vicinity and occasionally the rumble of distant heavy armour.
Wednesday, September 20th
As dawn approached we dispersed amongst the houses and gardens waiting for the inevitable onslaught and listened in vain for some indication of the promised breakthrough by the British 2nd Army on the far side of the river. We sighted the only available Vickers machine gun on a low wall, at the rear of the houses on the left hand side, giving us an unobstructed view of the demolished railway bridge over the lower Rhine, about 1,000 yards to our left, then waited.
The attack, when it came, was heralded by the characteristic clunk of heavy armour. Round the bend came a tank, which, coming to a halt began to systematically demolish the buildings which we occupied. The supporting infantry were engaged by the defence force and they and the tank were driven off with casualties on both sides. In the meantime we had observed a group of Germans approaching across the open land from the direction of the bridge. We opened fire with the machine gun, supported by riflemen and the attack came to an abrupt halt. Twice more, in the course of the morning, the tank attacked, each time destroying more houses and denying us vital cover. The enemy infantry had now infiltrated our defences and posted snipers, unseen, in commanding positions. The area was devastated, houses were burning and we were forced to take refuge inside the few houses still intact. We barricaded the windows with whatever furniture was available and prepared to make a last stand. A load groan came from the front bedroom upstairs, followed by a heavy thud. It was the guy posted at the window, obviously the victim of a sniper. Jerry ordered me to take his place. I thought "Shit !!". Creeping upstairs I ran across the room to the wall by the window and tentatively pushed my rifle into position, careful not to expose myself, then I quickly moved behind the rifle with my hand on the trigger. To my immense relief this did not draw the expected rifle fire and at least I had a theoretical advantage.
From the other side of the road came a figure with a maroon beret. Halfway across he collapsed in the road, hit by enemy fire. He was followed by another Airborne soldier, who stopping to help, was hit himself and there were then two bodies lying in the road. I heard Jerry Curtis downstairs instruct everybody to stay in position, the front door opened and he was gone. Before he could reach the other two he was himself gunned down and died instantly. The house next door was on fire and death or captivity now seemed the only possible alternatives!
The light was fading and we still survived. It was decided that we should attempt to escape via the back door. I was instructed to mount the Vickers in a position to cover the break out. There was no choice but to set it up in the middle of the narrow lane which ran along the back of the houses, facing the rear of the intended route. In the house we had occupied I had found a cigar and this seemed an appropriate time to savour its fragrance.
The survivors were quickly assembled and we moved off. One member of our mixed group, composed of remnants of the 1st, 3rd and 11th Para Battalions and some South Staffs, was a Padre who, noting that I was still in possession of the machine gun, which seemed to grow heavier with every step, stopped to offer words of encouragement.
The noise of battle was evident, somewhere on our right flank, rifle fire, mortars and occasionally heavy artillery, but incredibly our progress was unimpeded. We reached the end of the track we were following, revealing a large expanse of grassy meadow. The leading elements of our group were part way across, completely exposed when a burst of machine gun fire from the woods on our right, cut them down. It was essential that we crossed this obstacle with the utmost speed, in order to join up with our main force at the far side. It was decided to cross individually, each man waiting until the guy in front was halfway across before commencing his run. Halfway across, running as fast as I could, hampered by the weight of the machine gun on my shoulder, and under fire, I stumbled and fell forward. The fellow behind me had fortunately commenced his run and I was able to get to my feet and reach the other side unharmed. We had now reached the outer defences of the designated defensive perimeter and I was ordered to surrender my machine gun in exchange for a rifle; not however, before discovering that no-one had thought to bring the ammunition !
We were directed to the church, a small square structure, where we assembled and were addressed by Major ‘Dicky’ Lonsdale of the 11th Battalion. He informed us that we were now under his command and designated the ‘Lonsdale Force’. We also learned that the 2nd Battalion at the bridge were still holding out, though seriously depleted, surrounded and isolated; also that the Guards Armoured Division had reached the Nijmegen area.
Thursday, September 21st
Dawn on Thursday morning found us occupying a position on open ground, to the north of the Arnhem-Oosterbeek Road. Dug in behind a slight rise we had a clear view of the road junction immediately in front of us. Before long we observed two self propelling guns approaching the junction, supported by infantry. We opened fire, together with forward units on our left flank, causing the enemy attack to halt and we were then engaged by the heavy guns firing across open sights. This attack was aborted and comparative peace reigned once more.
A new sound intruded on the sound of battle, the throb of approaching aircraft and then the sky was suddenly filled with Dakotas. They started dropping desperately needed supplies, but too far away from us. We stood up, waved our yellow triangles, our arms, anything to attract their attention, but all to no avail. We watched, in horror, as planes were hit, caught fire and spiralled downwards to destruction. Then they were gone.
Before long our position was being pounded with mortar shells, from dreaded Nebelwerfers, which were multiple barrelled. We withdrew to the tree lined ditch at the rear of our position to wait for the barrage to cease. I was one of a close group of three, with a 1st Battalion Sergeant in the middle. A salvo straddled our position, two live shells bursting, one to our front, the other to the rear and another landing between the Sergeant and the other guy, which unbelievably failed to detonate.
As night fell and the rain added to our discomfort, we moved to a position near a mortar group, with houses in the vicinity. The night passed with very little activity on the part of the enemy and we were able to snatch brief periods of sleep.
Friday, September 22nd
We knew now that the Germans had overrun the defences at the Arnhem bridge and could now concentrate all their available forces against us. The perimeter was now subject to intense mortar fire and snipers were inflicting heavy casualties. We remained in a defensive position during the morning, but with a lull in the intensity during the early afternoon, a small detachment of us were sent out on a scouting mission. We searched a group of houses and noted the total devastation around us, with bodies and debris from previous battles lying everywhere. There were still a number of Dutch civilians occupying buildings, mostly living in the cellars. Without warning we were subjected to a barrage of shellfire. A soldier near to me dropped and although he was dead, there was no sign of an injury, so we presumed that he had been killed by the blast. Having established that the area at that time was clear of enemy, we returned to our lines to report. The Germans seem to have a strange reluctance to fight during the hours of darkness, so as the light began to fade our hopes of surviving to another day and maybe rescue by the British Army, were rekindled.
Saturday, September 23rd
We, a small detachment, under the command of a Sergeant, were, before first light, instructed to relieve a similar group, who were defending a house on a road overlooking a T junction. The garden at the back of the house was separated from a similar house and garden by a hedge, which by now had been flattened. The other house was one of a cluster of houses, on a road running parallel to the road which we controlled. The force which we were relieving had been involved in a number of desperate enemy assaults by tanks, supported by infantry. Once we had taken up strategic positions in the various rooms of the house, the Sergeant instructed me to liaise with the forward Airborne units and then the group of pilots of the Glider Pilot Regiment, somewhere along the junction road facing the front of the house. Having accomplished this mission, I was then told to make our presence known to a group of South Staffs, located on our left flank, along the parallel road. I traversed the two gardens, noting with alarm the carnage and destruction, which signified the significance to both sides of the position we were holding. Emerging from the left side of the house, I found an Airborne soldier, the solitary occupant of the small front garden.
Vaulting over the low wire fence, I proceeded down the road, which was long and straight. A few yards further on was a stationary Tiger tank, obviously no longer serviceable. Stopping to look inside, I saw the driver slumped forward with his head shattered. I had gone about 200 yards, but no sign of defence forces, so I shouted, "Any South Staffs around?’ No reply ! Another 50 yards or so, then I heard the sound of digging on the opposite side of the road. Crossing the road I located the source of the sound behind a low brick wall at the front of a house. Jumping over the wall I said; "Are you the .....? ‘Shit,.........the enemy’ !!! I kicked his machine gun into his trench, jumped back over the wall and starting running back, not straight but zig-zagging. A hail of bullets escorted me down the road and reaching the wire fence, I literally dived over it. Running down the garden, I was passed by a figure; the guy from the other garden !
Describing my experience to the Sergeant, he instructed the two of us to return to the forward garden and watch for any movement from the German position, while he called for a salvo from our Light Artillery Battery to shell the position they occupied. We saw a German standing in the road shouting. He sounded very angry. Then a few minutes later shells started exploding around the area. Returning to my original position, I took up a position in the roof, taking advantage of one of the numerous tile-less areas, behind a chimney, as cover, from where I had a vantage point, with a clear view in all directions. The sound of caterpillar tracks approaching down the road, presaged a determined attack by a Tiger tank, supported by infantry. The troops dug in forward of our position opened fire, supported by limited covering fire from us. After a skirmish with casualties on both sides, the opposing force withdrew.
In the afternoon a line of Germans, presumably the unit I had found earlier, were observed approaching down the rear garden. We opened fire and they quickly withdrew, occupying the house in the rear. One of them had obviously been hit because we could hear him moaning.
As the light deteriorated, it was obvious that we could not leave them occupying their present position, yet we also could not abandon our post without notifying headquarters. The Sergeant left to report the situation and shortly after returned with an Officer. We were to storm the position and eliminate the threat to our rear. As instructed I left my rifle behind, replacing it with a hand gun. In the fading light, we moved in single file through the gardens adjacent to our position and having reached the rear of our objective, without detection, I was left in the rear to guard the closed back door, while the rest moved to the side of the house. When in position, the officer shouted, in German, a command to surrender. There was no reply or sign of movement, so I fired my revolver through the panels of the back door. This brought an immediate response and the occupants came out and surrendered with no sign of opposition. We started to march them down the garden, when the Officer turned to me and said, "Go back and make sure there are no enemy still in the house !". Not me again ! I thought, and reluctantly proceeded to obey his instruction. Moving through the various rooms, with the speed of light, I was happy to report that the house was now unoccupied.
We marched our captives to the enclosed tennis court, reserved specifically for enemy prisoners and proceeded to search them, prior to locking them away. I was about to search one of them when suddenly there was an explosion. I found myself on the floor and my immediate reaction was, "Is this it ? Am I about to die ?" There was no pain and I found that I was the only one hit and yet in three places, my hand, arm and leg. My luck had run out.
Bleeding profusely, I was taken to a temporary refuge in the cellar of a nearby house, where my wounds were bandaged with shell dressings. Later in the evening I was moved to the house of Mrs Kate ter Horst, a few yards removed from Oosterbeek church.
Sunday, 24th and Monday, 25th September
The church was now an enemy target of prime importance. From it’s high tower, commanding an aerial view of the surrounding district, it was being used as an OP to establish targets for the gun batteries of the Light Artillery Regiment and the distant heavy guns of the 2nd Army, which were now within range. Defended by anti-tank guns and mortars, it was to be the scene of continual and intense enemy assault. Oblivious of this, Mrs ter Horst and her children, confined to the cellar, moved among the wounded, with words of comfort and compassion, helping with their dressings and last thing at night, reading a passage from the bible, moving from room to room. Throughout Saturday and Sunday, I lay on the floor, against the wall, in an upstairs room, with badly wounded men occupying every available space, listening to the sounds of immediate battle, which raged at the front and rear of the house. Twice during the two days, the house was shaken by tremendous explosions in the immediate vicinity, with broken glass and plaster falling around us. We wondered how all this was going to end.
On Sunday night we were addressed by a Medical Orderly, sent from Divisional Headquarters, who informed us that the bridge at Arnhem was now in the hands of the British 2nd Army and that the Guards Armoured Division was expected to relieve us early the following morning. Throughout the night we heard spasmodic bursts of machine gun and rifle fire from near and further away.
Tuesday, 26th September
There was no longer the sound of battle in evidence, as daylight filtered through the shattered windows. We waited and wondered, then Mrs ter Horst came in through the door. "I’m afraid that I have news for you", she said, "your comrades were evacuated across the river last night and the house is surrounded by Germans. An officer is waiting outside to speak to someone who is able to walk. I volunteered and emerging from the front door, was confronted by this Officer, who saluted and said in impeccable English, "Your people have withdrawn back to their lines. I congratulate you on your efforts, but you are now our prisoners. Please distribute these gifts". He gave me tins of cigarettes and bars of chocolate, obviously from the containers dropped outside our lines.
Soon afterwards transport arrived and we were taken to the hospital at Apeldoorn. From there, two days later, those who were fit to travel were driven to the railway station en route to Stalag 11B at Fallingbostal.
The End of the Road
Stalag 11B was an unprepossessing collection of wooden huts in a series of compounds, all surrounded by high barbed wire fences, with high towers at each entrance, the armed guards having a clear view of the whole compound area. It was a dark, depressing, autumn night when we arrived and the introduction to our living and sleeping area did nothing to allay our forebodings, that the period leading up to our eventual liberation would be a test of our resolve and fortitude. The camp, not too far removed from Belsen, was already occupied by inmates of various nationalities, Russians, Poles, French and Italians, all in their own separate compounds, all displaying signs of diet deficiency, but none more so that the Russians who, in many cases, seemed little more than living skeletons. Shortly after our arrival, we were visited by representatives of the International Red Cross, who interrogated us taking note of essential details. As time went by we began to send, and receive, a trickle of censored mail and towards Christmas, a limited supply of Red Cross Parcels, shared, one parcel between two people, to supplement our meagre rations of acorn coffee, substitute vegetable soup and black bread. The general air of gloom in the oppressive circumstances was from time to time, relieved by some comic circumstance; such as the instance when a British soldier, not an Airborne type, walked into our hut and asked the question, "Which is the more dangerous? Landing by glider or dropping by parachute?" He departed very fast, having caused a heated altercation that simmered all afternoon.
Medical facilities were almost non-existent, just a limited supply of drugs and bandages made from crepe paper, a consequence being that my wounds became infected and through an inability to exercise, my arm and hand became rigidly fixed in one position. Our humdrum existence was enlivened at Christmas by a camp concert, the highlight of which was a monologue by RSM Lord, a renowned former Grenadier Guard... [sentence ends] ... identity, made famous by Stanley Holloway, ‘Sam, pick up thy musket’. After Christmas the British compound was swelled by the addition of American soldiers, captured during the battle for the Ardennes.
The period after Christmas became incredibly cold and one night, after enduring the ordeal of standing in sub-zero temperature, to be counted by the prison guards, I became violently sick, with a high temperature, was diagnosed as having pneumonia and was transferred to the quarters set aside for the sick and seriously wounded.
As winter gave way to spring, more and more prisoners arrived, swelling the available space to the limit of it’s capacity. There were former inmates of East European camps, force marched, ahead of the advancing Russian troops, in dreadful conditions, across Europe, to camps in Western Germany.
Then, one day we heard sounds of distant gunfire and Allied planes began to appear in the sky overhead. Every day from that day on, the sounds of battle became louder. One unforgettable afternoon, a lone fighter plane appeared overhead and did a victory roll. The following morning found the camp abandoned by the German guards and it remained only for our British liberators to arrive to complete our overwhelming sense of freedom.
Fred Moore moved to Australia, where he maintained the website of the British Airborne Forces Association (Vic). I am grateful to him for passing on these details about his experiences. Fred Moore died on the 16th May 2009.
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