Lance-Corporal John F. Baxter
Unit : Headquarters, 1st Parachute Brigade
Army No. : 6141280
John Baxter was born on the 20th October 1920; the following is his description of his role in the Arnhem battle.
Between D Day on 6th June 1944 and 17th September we were briefed for no fewer than 18 operations, each was cancelled at the last minute due to the rapid advance of the Allies through France and Belgium. Not unnaturally this created a lot of stress and we were over the moon when it was finally decided that the Arnhem operation was on. At our briefing we were told that we were required to hold and defend the bridge for 48 hours, and that we would encounter only second rate German troops, so it was with great optimism that we took off from Barkston Heath near Grantham on Sunday morning 17th September.
I went in with the First Parachute Brigade, and we had the good fortune of being in the first wave, thereby having the element of surprise. The Second Brigade who dropped on the following day, were not so lucky, they had an opposed landing, not without some casualties. It was 1400 hours when we dropped on the dropping zone. We flew over the bridge, which was our objective, our landing area being some eight miles distant. After capturing and holding the bridge it was planned that the Second Army Group would be with us within two days, so we were in high spirits, what could possibly go wrong?
On the march from the drop zone to the centre of Arnhem we were met by civilians who were most happy to see us. "Thank you" said one lady, "we are free at last". I thought a lot about her words later on, for their war was far from over. Our march to the town was delayed at one point for a short while by enemy machine gun fire, but we soon sorted then out and continued on our way. By nightfall we had established our Brigade Headquarters, near to the bridge in a large four story house, still occupied by the civilian inhabitants, who kept us supplied with hot drinks throughout the night.
Come the morning the action became very heated as the enemy deployed heavy tanks against us. We were heavily shelled and mortared all day. When the upper floor was destroyed we moved to the next lower floor and continued the battle from there, which involved firing at enemy troops as they attempted to move along the road that faced the Headquarters building.
For a further two days we fought on, and on the Wednesday afternoon I was handed a situation report which was to be sent to England by carrier pigeon. When I dropped on the Sunday I had a container tied to my chest which contained a pigeon, together with a small bag of grain, its only ration until it got back to England. I then had to rewrite the message on to special thin rice paper and attach it within a small cylinder fixed to the birds leg. In order to launch the bird successfully I had to go to the upper floor of the house, where the roof had been blown away, leaving just broken rafters reaching for the sky. The report gave the situation as it affected us, ending with an optimistic statement "Our morale is high and we can hold out forever". I then launched the bird, but instead of flying off it settled on a broken rafter. This attracted enemy machine gun and rifle fire as they tried to shoot the pigeon. Bullets were coming thick and fast, but I had to get the bird on its way, so I picked up a section of copper aerial, about five foot in length and prodded the bird until it flew off. It was with a feeling of envy that I watched it safely head for England. There was an end to this episode, for when I returned home after having been released from the Prisoner of War camp, my wife related to me a radio broadcast from the BBC about our last ditch stand at Arnhem. It was just about word for word that which I had written. It felt good to know that my pigeon had made it back.
For those of our comrades who were wounded it was becoming desperate. The Germans had cut off electricity and water supplies. The Medical Officer had the badly wounded in the cellar, but without water or sufficient medical supplies he could do little for his patients. His only option was for him to surrender, so that the wounded could be cared for properly. In order for him to do this we had to evacuate the building under cover of darkness. Our orders were to split up into small groups and try to avoid capture and await the arrival of the Second Army. We had been in radio communication with advance units of the Second Army, but they were unable to say when they would be able to join up with us. They had problems which we knew nothing about.
After quitting the Headquarters building, another soldier and myself began to look for somewhere we could take cover from the heavy shellfire, some of which was from the guns of the Second Army. Eventually we found an opening to a cellar, which gave us some cover and a place to catch up on some much needed sleep, for I don't remember sleeping since we landed. We were later joined by an Officer and a number of men. The next thing I remember was this Officer saying, "It's all over chaps, you'll have to come out with your hands up." Before I obeyed this order I had enough time to activate a Gammon Bomb, which when disturbed would erupt in a violent explosion, my final defiant act.
We were led into a square and made to stand facing a wall, with three machine guns trained on us. I honestly thought that we were about to be shot, and I said to the fellow next to me, "What a way to go and we can't do a bloody thing about it." He must have thought as much as I did, he didn't say anything, but he looked very pale. I just felt very angry that it had to end like this. Surprise, surprise, all they wanted to do was search our rear pockets for any weapons. After the search was over, a group of us were standing together when an English speaking German Sergeant Major came up to us and said, "If you would like to give me your number, rank and names I will make it my duty to see that this information reaches the Red Cross." We then began asking him what his different medal ribbons were for. He told us of each campaign the medal was for and finally he said, "And this is for the Russian Front." My Liverpool mate then said, "You dropped a bollock there didn't you?" "A bollock," he said, "What is a bollock?"
The Germans showed us great respect, for we had given them a hard fight, they were not the second class troops we had been told to expect but soldiers of the ninth and tenth SS Panzer Divisions. I subsequently heard that one of their Officers had told one of our own Officers, that we had inflicted casualties on his men at a ratio of six to one.
We were held overnight in a church, so we were able to sleep sitting in the pews. The next morning we were herded into closed wagons, but not before they made us remove our boots, which accompanied the guards, yes you've guessed it, none of us got our own boots back. Our journey into Germany was not the most comfortable that I have known, nor was it the quickest. We were aboard that train for two weeks before reaching our destination, a holding camp. For a few days after our arrival batches of Airborne lads continued to arrive, and when they did we crowded as close to the gates as possible in the hope of catching sight of someone we knew. On this occasion, sticking out like a sore thumb amid the red berets, was a sailor. After he had been interrogated we asked what he was doing here. "It's a long story," he said, "actually I'm still on leave, I had a pal in the RAF and he was dropping supplies to you lads so I went along for the ride, we were shot down and here I am with still three more days of my leave to go."
After a week or so at this camp we were then moved to another camp, deeper into Germany. Here it was a bit of a makeshift camp, no huts, just marquees, however it was here that we received our first Red Cross food parcels, as I recall it was one parcel to be shared between four men. It contained, besides tinned food, coffee (the real McCoy), sugar and powdered milk, but we were without means of making it, i.e. no stove or fires. The camp was patrolled by two guards, each starting off from their sentry box, one marching one way round, the other the opposite way round, meeting up again at the sentry box, only this time, when they met there was no sentry box, but we all had little fires going, brewing up our coffee. Our punishment for this act of vandalism was the withdrawal of German food rations for 24 hours - who cared, we still had our food parcels.
As more men arrived at this camp, more had to be moved out as its accommodation was limited. I was among those to be moved out. Another long and uncomfortable train journey, further into eastern Germany. When we finally arrived it was to find ourselves in a large multinational camp, each national with its own compound. By this time it was winter and a very cold one, but our hut was equipped with a coal burning stove which served as a source of heat and for cooking.
Each evening at around eight o'clock we received the "football results", the code name for the BBC war news. Yes there was a secret radio in the camp. The Germans were aware of this and made many surprise raids to discover it, to no avail. It wasn't until after the war that I heard the story of the hidden radio. The camp Commandant had his office in the camp but his home was outside the camp, so at the end of each day he went home to his wife and family. It was then that a British prisoner had the job of cleaning the office. At the desk of this office was a large, old fashioned stool, with a deep seat which concealed the radio.
It was here that I spent Christmas day and we were given an extra meal of porridge for breakfast. It was a wistful time for most of us as our thoughts turned to home. For the whole of Christmas day we were left to our own devices and were able to visit different huts within our compound to spread our Christmas greetings. During the evening we made our own fun. Anyone who could amuse or entertain did so. I gave my rendering of a poem entitled "Hitler and his Wonderful Dream." It read as follows:-
I'll tell you a story, strange it may seem,
But it's all about Hitler, and his wonderful dream.
He dreamt he was dead, and lying in state,
And his little moustache was frozen with hate,
But he goose stepped proudly to the Golden Gate.
St. Peter cried out in voice loud and clear,
Stay Herr Hitler, you can't come in here.
Hitler replied, "At least you are civil,"
I suppose that means I can go to the devil.
"Now," Satan said, "Boys, I'm giving you warning,"
I'm expecting Herr Hitler, the Nazi this morning,
Now get this straight and get this clear,
We're too bloody good for Hitler down here.
"Oh Satan, Oh Satan," Hitler cried,
I heard what you said whilst waiting outside.
Please give me a corner, for I've no place to go.
Satan replied a thousand times, "No," and
Kicked Hitler's pants and vanished in smoke.
Just at that moment Herr Hitler awoke,
Yelling, "Herr Doctor, Herr Doctor, it's the worst dream yet."
To heaven I won't go, I know that too well,
But it's bloody hard lines to be kicked out of Hell.
Early in the New Year I was moved again, this time to a working camp. It was an open cast coal mine and we were put to work maintaining the railway track which ran around the mine area. It was heavy work in near Arctic conditions, but the food was more substantial and we had unlimited supplies of coal briquettes for the stove within our hut, which was never allowed to go out. I was always on the lookout for ways to bring work to a standstill, apart from the usual "go slow" tactics. I had my chance one day whilst working on the railway. I positioned myself so that I was not visible to the guard. I had spotted a hand change points lever, so I half threw the points and wedged in a lump of steel to keep it in place then waited for the train to come along. Sure enough along it came, hit the half open points and came off the track. I was jubilant that my plan had succeeded, however my joy was short-lived for the Germans brought up a gang of Russian prisoners armed with crowbars. Within four minutes they had lifted the train back on to the track. Still, I had tried which I thought was better than nothing.
The next two months seemed endless, but we knew the end could not be far off. It came one morning in March. We had set out to work at 6:00 am and by 10:00 am shells from the advancing Russians and the Americans began to fall in the area. We were brought back to the camp, as the Germans were preparing to march us westward to meet up with the Americans. The Red Cross store was opened up and the food parcels shared among us, then we hit the road, marching all day and night, until we reached the outskirts of Colditz. The battle for possession of the town was still in progress, but by dawn the Americans had occupied the town.
Another soldier and I were cooking up our breakfast when I saw an American jeep on the roadway. I decided that I would make contact. My mess mate declined, so I left him to eat alone. I met up with this jeep and its occupants, a Major and his driver. He took me back to his Headquarters in the town and asked me to come to his office after I had eaten a breakfast with his men. He was studying a map when I entered his office. He told me that his next objective was Leipzig, and asked what I intended to do. I explained that I was in this war at the very beginning, and that I would like to be in it at the end. He asked me if I spoke any German. I told him only a few words. "That's okay, I'll put you down as my interpreter," ( a crazy idea!). I then joined his patrols in search of pockets of SS troops., though we never found any. About three days later he sent for me and said that he had received a rocket from his Commanding Officer, because I was a British national and his Commanding Officer was not prepared to be responsible for me. That afternoon I was driven to an assembly point for released POW's. I was there for a couple of days, then driven to Brussels where Lancasters were waiting to fly us home. Within twenty four hours I was reunited with my wife in Grantham.
John Baxter died in 2006. My thanks to Tom Manning for this story.
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