Brigadier Gerald William Lathbury
Unit : Headquarters, 1st Parachute Brigade
Army No. : 34834
Awards : Knight Grand Cross, Member of the British Empire, Distinguished Service Order, Distinguished Service Cross
Gerald "Legs" Lathbury, formerly of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, had spent nearly two decades in the Army and was one of the most experienced British airborne officers of the Second World War. As a Captain, serving as G.S.O. 2 in the 48th Division, he was made a Member of the British Empire:
As G.S.O. II organized and controlled the work of the General Staff so that it functioned with high efficiency at all times. He was resolute and clear in his reconnaissances; cheerful and accurate in his liaison work with forward Brigades and unsparing of himself at all times.
In 1941, he had been the founding commander of the 3rd Parachute Battalion. He did not have the opportunity to lead them into action, however, because shortly before the 1st Parachute Brigade departed for North Africa in late 1942, he took up a staff posting at the Air Directorate of the War Office; a position that made him privy to the latest theories concerning Airborne warfare. On the 5th November 1942, Lathbury was promoted to Brigadier and given the task of forming the 3rd Parachute Brigade, then a part of the 1st Airborne Division, and consisting of the 7th, 8th and 9th Parachute Battalions. He parted company with them on the 28th April 1943, and left for North Africa to take command of the 1st Parachute Brigade.
On the 13th July 1943, the Brigade was flown to Primosole Bridge in Sicily, but were badly scattered as a consequence of flak, poor visibility and inexperienced aircrews. Lathbury came down on the slopes of the "Johnny III" hill feature, some miles from where he should have been, and he was most fortunate to escape serious injury as his aircraft had accidentally descended to just 200 feet; the soft, ploughed soil beneath his feet absorbed much of the impact. Lathbury made his way to Primosole Bridge, gathering in a small party en route, and arrived under the impression that it had not been captured by the 1st Battalion's coup-de-main force. He was making preparations to launch his own attack when it became clear that the Bridge had, in fact, already been secured by Captain Rann and his improvised force. As he moved on to the Bridge, Lathbury was wounded in the back and thighs by a grenade thrown by an Italian soldier, who had hidden himself when the Bridge was taken and so avoided capture. His batman dressed his wounds, and, though limping somewhat, Lathbury felt able to carry on in command.
In the following hours it became clear that the Brigade had been badly scattered on the drop, as the 1st and 3rd Battalions were only able to gather 164 of their men around the Bridge. The 2nd Battalion, in the hills to the south, had fared little better, but Lathbury was quite oblivious to their condition as he had no radio contact with them, though signs of battle in their direction indicated that they were present in some form or other. Primosole Bridge remained relatively quiet until midday on the 14th July (Lathbury's birthday), but thereafter counter-attacks, shelling and strafing gradually turned the screw on the weak British defences, yet in spite of this deficiency, and a very notable lack of heavy support weaponry, they consistently threw back each attack as it came. Their stocks of ammunition, however, began to wear thin, and at 17:05, Lathbury ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson to withdraw his men to the southern bank in the hope of prolonging their resistance. Such a withdrawal, under close observation, was perilous to say the least, yet, remarkably, it was accomplished without a single casualty. The 8th Army had been expected to relieve the Brigade after dawn, but as the evening drew on there was still no sign of their approach to the south. There were, however, signs that the Germans were crossing the River Simeto some 400 yards to the east of the Bridge. Lathbury's force had neither the strength nor ammunition to repel a determined attack from this direction, and so, at 19:15, he ordered his men to abandon the Bridge and fall back to the 2nd Battalion's positions in the hills to the south. Lathbury, however, did not know that the 2nd Battalion were still there, indeed it may have occurred to him that they might have been overrun, as heavy enemy fire was being directed at the Bridge from this direction. In the event, the 2nd Battalion were found to be still holding firm, and half an hour after their withdrawal began, the vanguard of the 4th Armoured Brigade arrived on the scene.
At 08:00, the Bridge was heavily shelled and the 9th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry of the 151st Infantry Brigade advanced to retake the bridge, but they carried out a simple frontal assault which left them perilously exposed to enemy fire, and they were repelled with heavy casualties. Their Brigade Commander summoned Lathbury and Pearson to a conference later in the day, for they knew the terrain well, but when he proposed to undertake a similar assault by another of his Battalions, Pearson, a man notorious for having little respect for rank, said "Well if you want to lose another bloody battalion that's the right way to do it." Lathbury encouraged Pearson to submit his own proposal, and he advised crossing the river unopposed some distance upstream during the night, before taking the bridge defences in the flank at dawn. This was agreed upon and Pearson personally guided the Battalion over the River, their subsequent attack was a success and the Bridge was back in British hands.
For his conduct during the Sicily operation, Brigadier Lathbury was awarded the Distinguished Service Order:
This officer organised and led the attack by the 1st Parachute Brigade on a vital river crossing South of Catania in Sicily on the night 13th/14th July 1943. Although dropped by parachute 1.5 miles away, from a height of only 100 feet Brigadier Lathbury reached the objective, took part in its capture and directed the consolidation, during which he was wounded. Later, during a heavy counterattack by German parachutists, he remained at the bridge where he fought alongside his troops and provided an example and inspiration which contributed in no small degree to the success of the operation.
Following their return to North Africa, Lieutenant-Colonel Frost assumed temporary command of the Brigade whilst Lathbury was sent away to recover from his injuries, but six weeks later he returned in time to lead the Brigade in Italy.
In September 1944, the 1st Airborne Division was committed to Operation Market Garden and ordered to secure the town of Arnhem, particularly the main road bridge. The Division and its attached units were to land in three lifts over three days; the 1st Parachute Brigade were to arrive in the first wave and were charged with capturing the Bridge in advance of the remainder of the Division, which would follow up 24 hours later. The Brigade's drop zone was 8 miles from the Bridge, a fact which placed its safe capture in some peril as it would take hours for them to arrive on foot. It was possible to land the Brigade much closer to the Bridge, but the RAF refused to consider it as to do so would bring them within range of a large concentration of flak guns, which in the event were not present, at Deelen Airfield, nor would they consider to drop even a small force alongside the Bridge to seize it by coup-de-main. Lathbury, therefore, was compelled to improvise. He asked that the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron was placed under his command, and they, with their heavily armed Jeeps, were to race to the Bridge immediately after landing and hold the Bridge until the Brigade arrived to relieve them. It was a role for which the Squadron was wholly ill-suited, yet all the briefings had assured the Division that initial opposition in Arnhem would be derisory, and so it was not expected that the Squadron would have any difficulty in forcing their way through.
Unknown to the 1st Airborne Division, however, the remnants of two SS Panzer Divisions had been sent to the Arnhem area to rest and re-equip. Had he been aware of this, Lathbury would not have felt at all safe in committing the Reconnaissance Squadron to the coup-de-main, nor would he, in the interests of speed and avoiding congestion on the roads, ordered his three battalions to advance into Arnhem along separate routes. In the face of heavy opposition, it would have been more sensible to maintain a tighter formation, so that the battalions would be well placed to lend support to each other if either became stuck. Although he could not have foreseen what would happen, it was something that Lathbury deeply regretted after the war. In particular he regretted not having used the 1st Battalion as a strategic reserve, following closely behind the 2nd and 3rd Battalions to lend support if needed. Instead they were ordered to an objective of secondary importance, an area high ground to the north of Arnhem, although, conscious of the need for a reserve, Lathbury ordered them to delay their advance off the drop zone for an hour, so that they would be behind the other battalions and so able to act as a sort of reserve.
After landing in Arnhem, Brigadier Lathbury and his Headquarters followed on behind the 2nd Battalion as planned. As they made their way forward, news arrived that the Reconnaissance Squadron had encountered a strong defensive line off the drop zones and had immediately been halted. Due to a breakdown in radio communications, Lathbury could not inform his battalions that the Bridge had not been taken, so he left in his Jeep to inform them himself and urge them to all possible speed. As a further consequence of the radio blackout, Major-General Urquhart, at Divisional Headquarters, did not know that Lathbury had already heard this news, so he set out in his Jeep to find him. He finally met him at 3rd Battalion Headquarters, but shortly after their vanguard ran into heavy opposition, and thereafter it was deemed unsafe for either Lathbury or Urquhart to risk leaving the Battalion for their respective headquarters. This most unfortunate situation deprived of the Division, at this most critical of moments, of both its commander and Lathbury, his acknowledged deputy.
The 3rd Battalion reached the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek as it was getting dark, and it was here that Lathbury and Urquhart agreed to halt overnight before resuming the advance in the morning. For a time this was a sensible decision, for "C" Company had been detached to attempt an independent flanking manoeuvre along the railway line and down to the Bridge, and so the Battalion consisted of just two rifle companies, one of which, "A", was held up in the rear by enemy skirmishers. "A" Company caught up by 21:00, but why the Battalion did not advance until 04:00 is a mystery. The men of the 3rd Battalion were quite unhappy with the decision as they felt that they could make good progress during the night.
Indeed, when they did resume the advance before dawn, excellent progress was made. "B" Company, with which Lathbury and Urquhart were travelling, had penetrated into the suburbs of Arnhem by first light, but here they were compelled to halt, as they had outrun the remainder of the Battalion, who were being attacked and delayed by minor actions further back, while they themselves were locked in an awkward stalemate with German patrols in the narrow streets of Arnhem. Major-General Urquhart could see quite plainly that things were not going according to plan, and it was imperative that he return to his Headquarters as soon as possible. He therefore resolved to make his own way back through the German-infested streets, accompanied by Lathbury, Captain Willie Taylor (the Brigade Intelligence Officer) and Lieutenant Cleminson of the 3rd Battalion. Their break-out from the house in which they sheltered was commenced by Lathbury, who threw a smoke grenade into the garden to cover their departure. As he was climbing over the fence, however, his Sten gun was accidentally triggered and a bullet narrowly missed Urquhart's right foot. Embarrassed, Lathbury apologised on behalf of the notoriously temperamental weapon. Shortly after they came under fire from a German MG 42, and Lathbury was hit in the leg and a bullet had chipped his spine. His three comrades dragged him into a nearby house, No.135 Alexanderstraat, where they feared that the back injury had left him paralysed. Lathbury urged the General to leave him and press on, which, reluctantly, he did, while he himself was left in the care of the Dutch occupants, who promised to take him to the St. Elizabeth Hospital as soon as the fighting had died down in the area. Urquhart, although forced to spend the following 24 hours hiding in an attic, eventually returned to Divisional HQ. Lathbury was taken to hospital and became a Prisoner of War.
Fortunately, his wounds were not as severe as they had first appeared, and the temporary state of paralysis soon wore off. Lathbury concealed his rank and pretended to be a Lance-Corporal, hoping that he would have a better chance to escape this way. Various wounded paratroopers were in the same room as Lathbury, and naturally they recognised their commander, but none of them gave his identity away. On the night of Monday 25th September, Lathbury heard the massive bombardment of the German positions by British artillery, and he believed that the 2nd Army must be preparing to cross the Rhine, unaware that it was, instead, intended to disguise the withdrawal of the 1st Airborne Division. Lathbury, however, thought that if the British crossed the Rhine then the Germans would surely remove the prisoners from the area, so he decided that he had to leave immediately.
As far as daring escapes go, Lathbury's was certainly amongst the more uncomplicated; he simply got up and walked out of the Hospital's front door. From here he made his way to the Johannahoeve Farm, bordering LZ-L, and here he met other Airborne troops who were being sheltered by the local Dutch people. The Resistance were duly informed of his presence, and they quickly put him in touch with Major Tatham-Warter of the 2nd Battalion, and later Lieutenant-Colonel Dobie of the 1st. These three men, especially Tatham-Warter, did much to administer the several hundred British evaders who were hiding in the area. Having established contact with Britain and received a supply of arms, the group intended to use themselves as a coup-de-main force in the event of the 2nd British Army attempting another crossing of the Rhine. In the event this did not happen and so they prepared Operation Pegasus; the mass-escape of these personnel back to the Allied lines, launched on the 22nd October 1944. Lathbury and Tatham-Warter proceeded to the embarkation area on bicycles, passing as many as two hundred German soldiers on the way. Despite his fears that they would be caught, they were not challenged and so both of them made it across the Rhine to the Allied lines, taking with them one hundred and thirty-six other men. While he had been in the St. Elizabeth Hospital, Lathbury had met his badly wounded colleague, Brigadier Hackett, who gave him a detailed report on the battle, including recommendations for valour awards, and these Lathbury took with him across the Rhine.
Brigadier Lathbury was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during and after the Battle of Arnhem. His citation reads:
On 17th September at Arnhem, Brigadier Lathbury commanded the 1st Parachute Brigade whose task was to seize the main road bridge in the town.
He conducted the advance of his Brigade from the Drop Zone, some 8 miles away, with great vigour until he was cut off from his Headquarters. He then took part in street fighting with one of his Battalions until he was wounded on 18th September and taken to hospital.
During the night 24/25th September, seeing that those who were wounded and fit to move, were being evacuated from the hospital to Germany, Brigadier Lathbury although not fully recovered left the hospital and tried to rejoin the Division. He was unable to do this as the latter had been withdrawn to the south bank of the river that night. With the aid of the Dutch Resistance Movement he evaded capture and remained in hiding until he escaped across the river with the party which reached our lines on the 23rd October.
The leadership which this officer displayed during the advance and his determination to escape capture is worthy of the highest praise.
After the war, in 1945, Lathbury returned to the Airborne Forces and resumed command of his old unit, the 3rd Parachute Brigade, now a part of the 6th Airborne Division. He commanded them for a year in Palestine, and was later awarded a knighthood and promoted to General. He was also the Colonel Commandant of the Parachute Regiment from 1961-65.
See also: Operation Pegasus: Evasion Report, Maj-Gen Urquhart, Maj Hibbert, Lt Heaps.
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