Corporal Leslie A. McCreesh
Unit : Assault Platoon, Support Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 1139775
Les McCreesh enlisted in the Royal Artillery in February 1942, and after a brief period of basic training was assigned duty as a driving instructor. He had been driving since he was 16, somewhat a rarity in those days, with his father's plumbing business in Manchester.
He soon volunteered for the Parachute Regiment, however, and participated in Courses 61B and 62 at Ringway from the 26th March to the 3rd April 1943. The course was cut short as reinforcements for the 1st Parachute Brigade were urgently required in North Africa. After receiving his parachute wings, Les immediately went on embarkation leave and was shipped out to the Mediterranean where he was posted to the Assault/Anti-Tank Platoon of Headquarters Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, with whom he remained throughout his service with the Regiment. His Platoon Officer was Lt. "Loopy" Levien, and some of his first contacts when he joined the Battalion were Sgts. Leslie, Welsh, Buchanan, Cpl. Bradshaw, and Pte. Higgins.
Hostilities had ended in North Africa by the time he arrived, but preparations and training were already underway for the Regiment's next action. The 1st Parachute Brigade (1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions) were assigned a key role in the invasion of Sicily. On July 13th, 1943, the night before the seaborne invasion, their target was the "Primosole Bridge" near Catania. The plane carrying Les and members of his Platoon took heavy anti-aircraft fire just as they were jumping over the dropping zone. Before the final four could jump (Les included) the plane flipped quite dramatically from an anti-aircraft blast and all four were knocked around the cabin so were unable to drop with the rest of the "stick". By the time they got reorganized and were able to jump, their aircraft had traveled some distance. When Les and the three others , Sgts. Leslie, Buchanan, and Pte Hindmarsh found each other in the dark they realized that they were nowhere close to the rest of the Platoon, in fact they were very close to a German airfield. They quickly, and quietly, decided to spend the following daylight hours "hugging the ground trying to be invisible". The next night they moved back towards the planned dropping zone and the bridge.
After being relieved, the 1st Brigade withdrew to Syracuse and from there back to Sousse in North Africa. In August reinforcements arrived to bring the Battalion up to full strength, due to losses suffered in Sicily. At this time the Platoon received several P.I.A.T's. (Projectile Infantry Anti-Tank weapons). Les and his friend Arthur Rattray were sent into the dunes outside the camp and told to "go figure out how they work" with an old Sherman tank as the target. Between the two of them they did "figure out" the P.I.A.T. without any injuries to themselves, although no doubt the old Sherman was somewhat the worse for wear. During this period Les was promoted to L/Cpl.
The Battalion participated in the invasion of Italy in September 1943 landing and taking up positions around Taranto, eventually moving up to Castellaneta, and then to Altamura, before withdrawing to Barletta, on the Adriatic coast. While in Barletta the Battalion was assembled in full battle gear, and marched en masse to the docks and boarded several troop landing craft. Late in the evening all the craft left the harbour and sailed into the Adriatic heading north up the coast. No briefing had been given so Les and his buddies had no idea what was going on. They spent all that night being tossed around at sea and finally at dawn sailed back into Barletta harbour. On disembarking, the air was blue and faces were green. It was evidently a "red herring" to think a landing was to take place up the coast.
The 1st Brigade subsequently returned
to the U.K. arriving back in December 1943, to prepare for the invasion of
In January, 1944 Les attended a course on mines, booby traps, and tank recognition at Catterick. After returning from this course, Les found that some officers had been reassigned, and his Platoon Officer was now Lt. Douglass, and his Platoon Sergeant was Sgt. Carter. Soon after this, in June 1944, Les was promoted to full corporal.
After D Day, and all through the summer of 1944, the Battalion (now part of the 1st Airborne Division), was held in reserve in the U.K. in the event the invasion force was in need of an airborne operation. Les can remember the unit being briefed and readied a number of times for various operations, all of which were scrubbed. Finally in September came the call for the Division to drop into Holland, take and hold the bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem..."A Bridge Too Far".
At Arnhem, Les jumped in the first wave of the attack, landing around 1400 hrs, Sunday, September 17th, 1944. He formed up with the rest of the 2nd Para and began their 8 mile trek from the drop zone into Arnhem. Along the way there were a number of skirmishes that held them up briefly, but they made it to the north end of the bridge in Arnhem just before dark, at approximately 8 pm. As they arrived there was a brief battle with enemy forces, and two of Les's comrades were fatally wounded in this exchange of fire. Pete Murray died of his wounds the following day in the Battalion aid station, and Charlie Waddilove died two days later. Les was also wounded that first night, but much less seriously, and after receiving first aid for grenade shrapnel in his shoulder continued to fight with his arm in and out of a sling for the rest of the battle. Later Sunday, his platoon and others, tried to take the south end of the bridge but the attempt failed. In the movie “A Bridge Too Far”, one of Les's officers, Major Tatham-Warter, is pictured leading this attack with his umbrella in hand. Les attests to the fact that this officer did in fact take his umbrella with him. Also on Sunday night Lt. Douglass collected the small mines that had been carried by each platoon member. He primed them and carefully carried them up the embankment, placing them across the ramp approaching the bridge. Between Sunday night, and Monday morning, Les heard a plan being hatched for his platoon to lead a charge across the bridge the following Monday. They were somewhat relieved to hear that the plan was scrubbed.
The Battalion quickly adjusted to their task of just holding the north end of the bridge. Les spent the rest of the battle fighting out of the top floor of the offices of the Dept. of Public Works, a large building just to the west of the bridge. This building contained Lt/Col Frost's HQ along with the Battalion casualty station in the basement.
As far as he knows, he and Arthur Rattray had the only P.I.A.T, on the west side of the bridge, and it fell to them to ensure that no enemy vehicles could pass over the bridge. Their hours of training in the dunes of North Africa a few months earlier paid off on Monday, as they were able to help stop enemy armoured vehicles from crossing from the south end of the bridge. The leading armoured car hit one of the mines placed by Lt. Douglass, partially blocking the roadway. Their positions were under constant mortar attack and on Tuesday one mortar bomb crashed into the room where Les was located, but fortunately for him it failed to explode.
On Wednesday night they fired their last P.I.A.T. bomb at a Tiger tank coming up the north ramp of the bridge from the city centre. The return fire made them both dive for cover and in the confusion Les never saw Arthur again. He has always assumed that Arthur was either killed in that exchange, or in the fighting immediately afterward. It would be several months later before Les could indeed confirm that his friend had died that day. Les was again wounded later that day while helping a wounded comrade to shelter. He continued helping defend the building housing the Battalion HQ and casualty station, until the officers surrendered, and all were taken prisoner in the late hours of Wednesday night, early Thursday morning
After being captured he was sent to the cathedral in the centre of Arnhem, along with all the other wounded. After two or three days, he arrived at Stalag 12A in Limberg just over the border in Germany, and then a week or so later was shipped out by train to Stalag 8C in southeast Germany. He spent the fall and early winter in that camp until Russian artillery could be heard in the distance, and then the entire POW population of the camp was marched across Germany to a location near Frankfurt. During this winter march they slept in farmers' barns and due to a lack of food the prisoners were forced to scavenge for turnips left in the fields for cattle.
They arrived at Stalag 9B (near Frankfurt) and in April 1945 the camp was liberated by an American infantry unit and Les was immediately sent to an American MASH unit for medical care. Although the wounds he suffered at Arnhem were healed by this time, he was suffering from bronchitis, malnutrition, gastric stomach and a badly damaged Achilles tendon resulting from his march across Germany. His body weight was down to 120 lbs. At well over 6 feet tall he normally weighed 180 lbs.
After 3 days in the MASH unit he was flown back to Warwick in the UK, where he was placed on a liquid diet to help stabilize his condition. It was during his transfer to the Warwick hospital that he was spotted by Lt Col Frost (who also was being transferred back to the UK from another POW camp) he offered Les some words of encouragement and commented on his loss of weight. After approximately 3 weeks Les's condition was improved enough to enable him to be moved to Bolton Royal Infirmary, closer to his home. His rehabilitation took some time, probably "complicated" by the fact that his nurse was rather attractive and took a liking to him.
On the 16th May 1945, he wrote the following letter to his Platoon Commander, Lieutenant Douglass: "Dear Mr Douglass, Very many thanks for your welcome letter Sir, and I am very glad to hear you arrived back in 'Blighty'. I sincerely hope you're in the best of health, and thoroughly enjoying your leave. It isn't recent wounds that has put me in hospital Sir, (although I did stop a second packet late on that fateful Wednesday night), but maybe Sgt Carter didn't tell you of the march we had from Sagan 8c to Frankfurt 9b….quite a trek Sir. I was taken straight in the camp hospital with bronchitis, and was still there when the Yanks arrived on Easter Monday. All the sick were taken to American Hospitals in the area. I found myself having the first hot bath in months. When the Dr examined me he added Malnutrition and a gastric stomach on my Medical card. Yes, I guess I was a physical wreck Sir. Naturally I was put on a diet, and for a few days I was just having milk. From that I went on to fish etc. and it's only this last fortnight that I have been on a full diet and have been able to have meat. Honestly Sir, I'm eating like a horse now, no bronchial trouble, no gastric, and I have put on three stone in the last month, from 9st 71lbs to 12st 61lbs. I've still got to take it easy though, when the Dr sounded me last week, he told me I'd strained my heart. I hope to be out of 'dock' soon and be able to make the best of my six weeks. I think I've spent enough time telling you about myself, so I'll give you what news I can about the lads. Ellwood's blindness was only temporary Sir, as I saw him at Linberg. Higgins, I believe Sir, was killed as L/CPL Higginbottom was with him at the time and he informed me of this. Smith was wounded Sir, in the leg. It happened when we were trying to escape form the Brigade Building. Crane I believe was also wounded in the arm. I heard about CPL Rattray, but I couldn't bring myself to believe it….I kept hoping he would turn up. I had a visit from his folks last Wednesday, all they had heard was that he was reported 'missing', and they wanted to know if I could give them some definite news. I told them I couldn't, but that I would write to SGT Carter and try to find out anything definite. I was expecting them to come up either tomorrow, but I see that you Sir, that you have already broken the news to Mrs Rattray. Another little bit of news I have Sir is that I saw Colonel Frost the day we landed back in England. It was at an American Transit Hospital near Swindon. He looked very fit Sir, but still limped a little. I too Sir hope to be able to meet you and the rest of the Platoon in the near future, we can perhaps have a small reunion of our own. I heard that the 1st Division had done the job in Norway, so I took it that the Division had been made up to strength. I don't know whether this is correct or not Sir. I think that's all the news for now Sir, so cheerio, and all the best to you Sir and to your folks. Yours Sincerely CPL L McCreesh"
After his discharge from hospital he was terribly disappointed to be graded B2, due to his poor medical condition, and therefore was deemed not fit enough to return to the Parachute Regiment and spent the rest of his army service assigned to an administrative position in Transit Camps in Peterborough and Harwich Quay which supported troops arriving home from Italy and Germany. He was demobilized in October 1946.
Following the war, Les, his wife (Joyce Townsend, his nurse from his days in Bolton Infirmary) and their two sons immigrated to Canada and made a new start in the Toronto area. Les recovered fully from all his war injuries and lives a full and healthy life.
Les did not return to Arnhem until 2004 - the 60th anniversary of the battle. He returned with his wife, two sons and two of his three grandsons to visit not only the graves of his friends who died in the battle, but also to see if he could link up with any old comrades, and to see how Arnhem and its citizens were faring after such a horrific battle. They were amazed at the warm welcome and kindness shown by the Dutch people (most of them were not even born in 1944). Les spent some wonderful time connecting with the families of the two officers, Major Tatham-Warter and Lt. Douglass both of whom had also left England following the war. In Arnhem he was able to meet with Jane Tatham-Warter, her two daughters and Margaret Douglass and her two daughters.
While preparing for the trip to Arnhem he had received a surprise letter from the family of his former platoon leader, Lt. Don Douglass. Les had not heard from Don in over 50 years. Although the two of them had exchanged letters and a brief visit when Les was recuperating in hospital they lost touch in the months following the war. Don, he learned, had returned to his family home in Australia and become an Anglican minister, marrying a local girl and serving parishes in the Sydney area and remote outback areas. He was saddened to learn that Don had died just the year before, but his widow and family were planning to make the trip to Arnhem. Arrangements were made for us all to meet at the Bridge on the first evening. It seems Don and Margaret Douglass had been trying to locate Les for a number of years as they had decided to include two of his letters written to Don in the months following the war, in a book that Margaret was writing about their ministry in the remote parts of Australia.
Digby Tatham-Warter had also died in the intervening years, after emigrating to Kenya where he had taken up farming.
After one of the wonderful commemorative services in Arnhem, Les was approached by two young men who were looking for 2nd Para veterans who might have known their grandfather Arthur Tennet. Their grandfather had died a few years earlier and, like Les had not talked very much about his wartime experiences with anyone, let alone their families. They were trying to find any information on what their grandfather had done during the war and in particular, at the battle of Arnhem. Les was able to tell them that Arthur had been in his platoon and through their conversation and in e-mails over the intervening months has been able to fill in some of the blanks for two proud grandsons of another Arnhem vet.
For the McCreesh family this trip was also a celebration, as they were able to see Les proudly march over the bridge with the other vets, to the applause of the citizens of Arnhem. Needless to say, it was only during this trip to Arnhem in 2004 that Les finally recounted to his sons and grandsons his story and experiences as a proud Para.
Leslie McCreesh's eldest son, Don, has contributed most of the above account.
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