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Major Powell in 1944

Geoffrey Powell in later life

Major Geoffrey Stewart Powell

 

Unit : "C" Company, 156th Parachute Battalion

Army No. : 69721

Awards : Military Cross, BA, FRHistS

 

Geoffrey Powell commanded C Company of the 156th Battalion. The robust Yorkshireman had previously been a Regular officer with the Green Howards until joining the Parachute Regiment in 1942, and he was a founder member of the 151st Battalion when it was formed in India; this unit was later renamed the 156th Battalion. During the briefing for Operation Comet, where the Battalion was charged with the capture of the Grave bridge south of Nijmegen, Powell was far from optimistic about the chances of success and whispered to his fellow Company commander, Major John Waddy, "This will get you either a Victoria Cross, or a wooden one."

 

After the drop on Monday 18th, C Company led the 156th Battalion eastwards, and by nightfall their No.10 Platoon had arrived alongside LZ-L, 4.5 miles from Arnhem, when it was halted by enemy fire. Major Powell ordered No.9 Platoon to make a standard left flanking attack to find a way around this opposition, but they too came under fire and were unable to make any progress. He was of the opinion that the opposition was too strong for a night attack, a view that was reinforced by his battalion commander, Lt-Colonel Des Voeux, when he came forward, and so C Company were ordered to retire one mile and resume their advance in the morning. At dawn C Company began its text book attack with two platoons in front and one behind in support, however the positions where they had been halted the previous night had since been abandoned by the enemy and so the ground was taken without a shot being fired. C Company then went into reserve as A and B Companies began their ill-fated attack on the blocking line along the Dreijenseweg.

 

Following these actions C Company was the only effective fighting force that remained in the 156th Battalion, however no further offensive was attempted and the Company held their positions for much of Tuesday. During the afternoon fighter aircraft were seen and a number of Powell's men said "Look, sir, Spitfires!" and they jumped to their feet to wave at the approaching planes, but upon closer inspection they realized that the fighters were Messerschmitt's and these planes strafed the Company for a full 10 minutes. After this episode came a steady mortar barrage of two of the platoons, and later the much feared six-barrelled mortars were used against them. Eventually Powell heard the sound of the day's resupply lift approaching and he witnessed the unpleasant sight of the RAF dropping their loads amidst appalling anti-aircraft fire which took a heavy toll upon them; 20mm guns tearing into the slow, low-flying formations and shooting planes down left and right. Powell saw Flight Lieutenant Lord's aircraft and his desperate attempt to drop his cargo whilst the plane struggled against an engine fire. Powell was "awestruck that he would do this. I couldn't take my eyes off the craft. Suddenly it wasn't a plane anymore, just a big orange ball of fire." When Lord's plane crashed, Powell said to someone by his side, "That bugger got a VC."

 

Later in the afternoon orders were received to withdraw south of the railway line. The order came through in a most peculiar fashion, requesting immediate action upon this, and in the confusion of the hasty though perfectly orderly withdrawal, a large portion of the 156th, including one of C Company's platoons, did not cross the rail line at the agreed place and instead carried on towards Wolfheze and were not seen by the Battalion again. The Brigade, meanwhile, came to a halt overnight south of the railway, and C Company dug themselves into positions but were not granted a peaceful night due to persistent enemy patrols probing the defences. Not a man to be easily put down, Powell admitted to being quite depressed by the current state of the Battalion.

 

On the following morning the Brigade began to make its way towards the Oosterbeek Perimeter. Initially the 156th Battalion led the way and made good but cautious progress until A Company encountered a solid German defence. C Company were ordered to make an attack over their right flank, and coming on to some high ground they were afforded a view of a number of German half tracks on the road below them which they quickly dealt with. However, when the Company pushed forward it was discovered that German infantry were holding a strong position on the opposite side of the road and little more progress was made, and a number of men were killed, including Lieutenant Donaldson, the only remaining officer in the Company besides Powell. Low on ammunition, the Company dug in whilst Geoffrey Powell returned to Battalion HQ to arrange for supplies to be brought forward and also to visit his commander, who ordered him to withdraw as the Battalion was preparing to push in another direction. On the way here he had passed the Regimental Aid Post which had no shortage of casualties to attend, and a solitary doctor was at the centre of them, his forearms coated in blood. Powell carried on to find some ammunition from the RSM, Dennis Gay, a man who would normally leap to his feet whenever an officer approached but on this occasion he was on his back, slumped against a Jeep. Under a degree of pressure at this time Powell demanded "Bloody hell, can't you get to your feet and find us the ammunition we want?", and the RSM replied "I'm very sorry, Sir, I've been shot through both legs." Feeling somewhat embarrassed, Powell collected the ammunition and returned to C Company.

 

German armour continued to harass the paratroopers as they moved along their new route and they eventually succeeded in getting in amongst them, making the position of the Brigade rather perilous. Geoffrey Powell got a message informing him that the Brigadier wanted to see him. Hackett was standing up behind a small tree, and Powell felt obliged to do likewise, though it made him feel a little uneasy due to the enemy fire all around them. Hackett told him that the Brigade Major, Intelligence Officer, Lt-Colonel Des Voeux and his Second-in-Command had all been killed within the last quarter of an hour, and he added that 200 yards ahead of them was a hollow filled with Germans and it lay directly between the Brigade and the Perimeter. Powell was ordered to take it. There would be no covering fire for this charge and though he offered no complaint, Powell was far from overjoyed at the prospect. He informed his force, now amounting to a platoon of about 25-strong, that they may as well die taking the hollow than to stay where they were. Major Page of HQ Company was nearby with the 12 men he had left and he insisted on accompanying C Company. Powell gave the order and the men got to their feet and went forward, firing from the hip. Unfortunately Major Powell's Sten gun jammed instantly, but he was able to acquire a German submachine gun and a magazine of ammunition to use in its place. As they came upon the hollow the German troops who defended it fled, leaving behind a few of their wounded, and once the paratroopers had occupied the position they were quickly reinforced by Hackett's group, following in the rear, and so there were approximately 150 men defending the hollow. German troops immediately counter attacked, but fortunately they were not accompanied by any of the armoured vehicles that were in the area and so the attack was repulsed. Similar attempts to evict the British were mounted but to no effect, and so the Germans decided to keep them pinned down with snipers, a tactic that took a toll upon the defenders. At about 18:00 Hackett called for Powell and informed him that they had to break out of the hollow and get into the Perimeter by means of a bayonet charge, which though desperate was very successful and very few men were lost. The first friendly positions they passed belong to a company of the 1st Border, who had up until this time not been heavily engaged in the fighting and so they appeared fresh and clean. The officer commanding these Borderers told Powell, in fear that the paratrooper's filthy and bloodied appearance could effect the morale of his men, "Please move your filthy lot away from here". Powell had every sympathy with the man and moved on.

 

Geoffrey Powell was given command of the 40-60 men who remained of the 156th Battalion, and once they were equipped with replacement weapons and ammunition, they moved to take their place towards the north-east of the Perimeter, in houses alongside the Stationsweg. Their position was challenged throughout Thursday, though not with any great intent and they were able to comfortably resist any actions against them. In the evening Powell visited Divisional HQ, not knowing where Brigade HQ was, and met Major-General Urquhart in the cellar of the Hartenstein, who told him to take under his command the D Squadron Glider Pilots to the south of the 156th Battalion, and the Reconnaissance Squadron to the north. On Friday morning a heavy artillery barrage was put down near to their position, though out of harms way, and this greatly disheartened the men as up until now the most powerful weapon they had been challenged with were mortars, however it transpired that the barrage originated from the guns of XXX Corps 64th Medium Regiment, and in contrast this greatly boosted their morale as this was their first sign that relief was near. Shortly after German tanks began to make their presence felt, and from a range of 100 yards they were able to fire into the Battalion's buildings, which the defenders were almost powerless to resist. One tank ventured a little too far forward and was disabled with a PIAT. Under cover of phosphorus bombs, two men ran out into the street and entered the house next to the tank, from where they were able to finish the job by dropping a Gammon bomb on top of the tank through a hole in the roof. Inspiring though this action was it was only a short time before the paratroopers were driven out of their buildings by the tanks, Powell giving the order to evacuate moments before one of them collapsed, and they were forced to dig themselves in to the gardens behind them. German infantry occupied the remains of the abandoned houses, but their movements were easily spotted and PIAT bombs were fired into the buildings whenever they were seen, and this ensured that they were kept well at bay throughout Friday.

 

Hackett visited the 156th Battalion later on Friday and explained that this was the first chance he'd had to visit the Battalion. He said "but you've been holding so well, Geoffrey, I wasn't worried about you". In reply Powell observed "The only real mistake I've made so far, sir, is putting the headquarters in a chicken run. We're all alive with fleas."

 

On Monday morning, Major Powell returned to Divisional HQ for orders, but by this time the area was largely under siege by enemy snipers and he had to sprint across the danger area and dive through a window into HQ. He was told that the Division would be withdrawing that night, which came as a shock to him. He described this news as "an appalling blow. I thought of all the men who had died and then I thought the whole effort had been a waste". For the remainder of the day, whilst the enemy concentrated their efforts upon the Lonsdale Force near to the Rhine, there was little in the way of enemy interference to the 156th Battalion's position, bar the customary mortar barrage and snipers. When he told his men of the plans to withdraw, Powell noted that they looked equally as shocked as he had been that Market Garden would not be stuck with to its bitter conclusion. However this feeling quickly gave way to one of relief that after a week of hard fighting they would finally be pulled out. Powell wanted to have a shave and asked whether anyone had a razor. One man did, and after he had finished with it another man asked if he could have lend of it next. More men did likewise, and they cleaned their boots and tried to tidy themselves up somewhat, with the intention of withdrawing like British soldiers. As they were at the extreme north of the Perimeter, Powell's men left their positions at 20:15.

 

When they arrived at the river bank there was little sign of activity and it appeared that the evacuation was already over. Nearby was a sinking boat, riddled with bullet holes with its crew of sappers all dead. As his men began to swim across a boat appeared out of the darkness, and so Powell organized what remained of his group and put half of them into it, whilst he waited for it to return before departing with the remainder. When he reached the opposite bank he stood up and looked back across to Oosterbeek, "All at once I realized I was across. I simply could not believe I had got out alive". With him were 15 men who were all that remained of the 156th Battalion. Powell did not let them down and ordered them to form up in three's, whereupon the Battalion marched in faultless order to the reception centre. "It was all over but, by God, we had come out as we had gone in. Proud."

 

Brigadier Hackett described Powell thus: "This was a great fighting man in a great tradition, that of the company officer in a British county battalion of the line, competent, courageous, and self-effacing. I saw a good deal of Geoffrey Powell in the last stages of that grim battle in the battered houses and sad groves of Oosterbeek, when he was commanding a little mixed force which included the few men still in action of his own battalion. I rather think I irritated him a little once, though he was too courteous to suggest it at the time, when I protracted a conversation conducted in the open rather longer than the enemy's fire made healthy. But we had each other's confidence and that is what makes battle fighting possible. His was a splendid performance which I shall always admire."

 

For his actions at Arnhem, Geoffrey Powell was awarded the Military Cross. His citation reads:

 

At ARNHEM after his Commanding Officer had become a casualty, Major Powell took command of the remnants of the battalion. Up to this time he had conducted himself with the greatest gallantry. For the remaining six days he retained control of his unit and also of men of other units in the area under the most difficult conditions. Heavy fire from mortars, artillery and self-propelled guns never stopped his activity in getting round his section of the perimeter and encouraging his men to greater efforts.

 

Throughout the whole period of the ARNHEM battle, in spite of being wounded, this officer showed himself to be a gallant leader of men and a most capable fighter and one whose bravery was a source of inspiration to the men under his command and to all those around him.

 

He continued to serve in the Army after the war, attending the Staff College, Camberley, the British Joint Services Staff College, and the United States Command and General Staff College. After 25 years service Powell retired in 1964 at the rank of Colonel, and from then on pursued a career in writing. To date he has published a total of eight books. These include The Devil's Birthday, an excellent work detailing the entire Market Garden operation, and the acclaimed Men at Arnhem, a fictional tale, written under the pseudonym of Tom Angus, following the experiences of a Company of men throughout the battle. He has contributed many articles and reviews to both military and historical journals, and he is a BA of the Open University, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

 

Many thanks to Philip Sturtivant for all his help with this biography.

 

See also: Lt St. Aubyn, L/Cpl Rosenberg.

 

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