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Sergeant Harold "Dick" Whittingham

Sergeant Harold Whittingham

 

Unit : Mortar Platoon, HQ & Support Company, 1st Parachute Battalion

 

"Dick" Whittingham commanded the 1st Battalion's 3" Mortar Section at Arnhem. The following has been taken from a report compiled by David Clarke, which traces the Arnhem exploits of his father, Private Nobby Clarke.

 

Thursday 21st

 

In Lonsdale force, my orders were to cover the gardens (now Zuiderbeekweg and Ploegseweg) and the field beyond. This field was on the Arnhem side of the Van Hofwegen Laundry. A part of the gardens belonged to Mr Breman's house and forge (this is now 117-119 Benedendorpsweg) our riflemen were digging trenches in this part of the gardens which faced the open farmfield. At this point I left Nobby Clarke here to dig our o.p. trench (the garden soil was too sandy to dig deep). In my search I came across a small backyard, size approx 3 by 9 yards. There was only a small 6 foot entrance to this yard. It was surrounded by the side of a large house, a high brick wall and several barns. The height of the buildings was about 20 feet, so here was my perfect mortar pit, one at least 20 feet deep!

 

In the meantime Sgt Geekie had found a few more of our battalion platoon at the old church. This now brought our strength to 12.

 

Living in the house were Mr and Mrs Breman, their two daughters aged 15 and 11 years, plus two elderly ladies. Mr Breman was most helpful to us. He not only agreed to my mortar being placed within one yard of his backdoor, he also agreed to having my men in his house which had two cellars. In one of the attic toprooms were their winter storage of fruit, vegetables and tobacco. Outside, in one of the barns were some chickens. We had not eaten for several days and Mrs Breman not only prepared a hot meal for us then, but in the following days they shared all their food until nothing was left.

 

Little then did we realise the fierce fighting there was going to be, leading to the complete destruction of this part of the village. When we were firing our first bombs it was reported to me that Mr Breman had said to my crew: "That is music to my ears". Very soon we heard the German orchestra, they played "the thunder and lightning polka!"

 

During the period thursday 21st to sunday 24th Sgt Geekie, daily, dawn to dusk took his team of men out searching for mortar bombs and food. Due to his effort on his part our mortar was never out of action for want of bombs.

 

Daily at frequent intervals we used to bomb the woods between the laundry area and the town hall. This bombing must have caused enemy casualties! They must have been very cross with us, because their reply fire was a six barrel crescendo. All hell used to be let loose against us, yet only once did they get into our pit and according to Frank McCormick that one was a dud. Mark you all the other shells got no further than the roofs of the barns and houses surrounding us.

 

I think it was about Saturday 23rd some Germans got into the dead ground about 80 yards from our o.p. This distance was much too short for normal 3" bombing. We reduced the number of main secondary charges to two, then to one. Still the bombs were overs! In desperation I ordered "primary charge only". This small charge was meant only to ignite the main charges and our infantry, Nobby and myself saw the bomb in the air! It was hardly moving. It was obtaining no height and I was fearful it was going to fall amongst us at the o.p.! Then the bomb slowly turned in the air and landed smack on target. Two other bombs followed and by this time the rubbish was coming back as they tried to silence us, once again! All hell was being let loose as shells landed amongst us - not even our riflemen loved us as the german fire played havoc in their trench area.

 

On this day also a sniper bullet just grazed my head, drawing blood, but no brains! Sunday 24th Nobby found me wounded in the garden and with the aid of Mr Breman, who made a pair of crutches for me, they got me to the house and cellar.

 

Tuesday 26th

 

In the early daylight hours a furious row was going on upstairs. Again it was Mr Breman looking after the interest of the wounded. He was arguing with the German SS not to throw grenades into the cellars as only women and wounded were in them.

 

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Nowadays many ex-soldiers returning to visit Oosterbeek remember not the house and the forge, but the room that had a piano in it being played by an 11 year old girl. As for myself, 15 years after September '44, Frank and I met on a pilgrimage. After visiting the cemetery and the old church we started to explore. We found the yard with its waterpump - this is the place, Frank said, and he knocked on the back door of 117; who should open it - none other than Mrs Bertha Breman! It is good to recall that the Breman family and my mortar crew all came through and that the piano girl had married Chris van Roekel and lived at 119. For myself, my reward for having been responsible in having their home smashed up when I visited them in September '44, and instead of sleeping in the cellar I have since "the guest of honour bedroom".

 

See also: Miss Breman.

 

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