Staff-Sergeant Harry A. J. Gibbons
Unit : No.8 Flight, "D" Squadron, No.1 Wing, The Glider Pilot Regiment
Army No. : 6481491
The following is an incomplete newspaper article, possibly local to the Buckinghamshire area, which was written about Staff-Sergeant Gibbons on his return from Arnhem.
Last week we mentioned Staff-Sergeant Harry A. J. Gibbons, of Iver, was among the men who returned from Arnhem. It is now possible to tell the story of this 22-years-old glider pilot who brought his glider safely to earth through heavy flak on the second day of the landings.
Several gliders caught fire as they went earthwards but his was lucky. Gibbons said that when he looks back on "the whole show," there is one amusing incident which will always stick in his memory.
They had scarcely put their feet on Dutch soil when they heard an explosion and a hissing sound. Someone yelled "duck" and they all went flat on the ground for 30 seconds or so expecting disaster each second. Nothing happened so one by one they tentatively raised their heads and looked around. To their amazement, and later their amusement, they discovered that their rubber dinghy had fallen out of the glider, hit something sharp and exploded. That was their first "taste of action."
After they had unloaded the glider, they made for a rendezvous point where they stayed until the following (Tuesday) morning when they started on their journey to Arnhem. That morning they saw their first German fighters and these strafed and machine-gunned them. During the whole of that afternoon they fought to hold a landing zone for the next party of air troops and then that night, after a fierce battle in which they sustained many casualties they moved back five miles, to the Divisional H.Q. which they had to guard.
Their forces by this time had been cut in two; one half were in Arnhem itself and the other was at H.Q.
Gibbons, with the latter, "dug in" in a garden, where all night he and his companions were under heavy [fire]... mortaring continued all day and the men finished the last of their 24 hour food pack and some supplies which had been dropped by parachute.
Later in the day they cleared some nearby woods of snipers and took up positions in a row of mansions.
Gibbons said that by this time they had lost all sense of time. There were Germans in the houses across the road and all around them in the gardens. The Dutch families had disappeared into the cellars and the fellows "lived in state upstairs" with shells and bullets coming through the windows every few minutes.
In the house which Gibbons and his men occupied were two young Dutch soldiers who had escaped from the Dutch Army when it was routed by the Germans over two years ago and had been in hiding ever since. A Dutch family under great risk, had succeeded in sheltering them all that time. At last they were able to take up arms again.
Here they stayed until the following Monday. In the night they slipped out into the garden and got potatoes, apples and peas. The families gradually cleared out leaving as much foodstuffs as they could spare for our men.
One day a shell burst in the room where Gibbons was sitting with his second pilot [Sergeant Dave Newman] and another of the men from his glider [Staff-Sergeant Alfie Coates]. Gibbons by some fluke, was the only one to escape without injury. [Newman was killed, 23/09/44, Coates wounded].
During the whole of this time they were expecting the Second Army to arrive at any moment but on the Monday afternoon they were told that they were going to withdraw that night.
When it got dark they started on a four mile "blind man's buff" trek through the woods to the river. They were all starving. All there was to eat was stew made of "potatoes and nothing" as Gibbons put it. On this "hearty meal" they lay in fields until four o'clock the following morning with mortars and shells whizzing about to "liven things up a bit." Then, on that Tuesday morning, boats sent by the Second Army took them across the river in small parties - a sort of ferry service, free of charge and a firework display to go with it.
The second half of the journey found them all so tired and weak that the effort of scrambling over the dykes was almost unbearable, in fact they took to sliding down one side and struggling up the opposite slope using their rifles or anything they could lay their hands on as walking sticks.
At last, after what seemed centuries, said Gibbons, they reached heaven in the form of a bath where there were blankets for everyone and hot tea. Later in the day they moved to Nijmegen where a large school had been commandeered for them and there they slept.
Gibbons said it was funny to see the fellows running round in "blanket sarongs" with bearded chins. Their next port of call was Louvain in Belgium, here they dressed as well as they could and went out for the evening. Gibbons, who can speak German, was able to converse with the Belgians and his evening was, therefore, a great success.
Then Friday dawned and...
In the book "Glider Pilots at Arnhem" by Mike Peters and Luuk Buist, Gibbons describes the incident on Saturday 23rd September when a shell fired from an armoured vehicle exploded in the room he was in: "We had made an observation point in the loft of a house overlooking a forward German sand bagged position from which much activity was in evidence and we were able, with Bren-gun fire, to eliminate this activity. Some hours later a German armoured vehicle approached firing a shell which scored a direct hit, killing my second pilot Dave Newman and wounding Staff Sergeant Alfie Coates. I was unharmed."
In a letter to Luuk Buist, Gibbons also described the landing and initial phases of the Battle: "Took off Sept 18th in Horsa PF810. Load was a jeep, trailer and 6 men. Made a perfect landing and unloaded without any problems. I spent the initial hours at the asylum at Wolfheze. We moved off towards Oosterbeek and eventually arrived at Hartenstein Hotel after numerous skirmishes. I spent most of the next few days clearing out houses establishing and holding the perimeter. (I carried a Bren gun and invariably gave covering fire)."
My thanks to Paul Lane and Luuk Buist for this account.
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