Lance-Bombardier Percy Parkes
Unit : "C" Troop, No.2 Battery, 1st Airlanding Light Regiment
Lance-Bombardier Parkes had served with the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment in North Africa, and during their prolonged action in Italy. At Arnhem, he was Assistant to the Gun Position Officer of "C" Troop, Lieutenant Adrian Donaldson. The following is his account of Operation Market Garden:
"We were told our landing area was about seven miles west of the objective. I thought the area south of the river looked okay and brought it up, but I was told it had been considered and then rejected because there was heavy flak in the area. We were told our Reconnaissance Squadron would be in jeeps and would make a rush for the bridge as soon as we landed. I personally was not worried about the distance to the objective because I would be traveling in a jeep. It was thought that our airborne troops could make the bridge in about an hour because it was estimated that they could push seven miles on foot in about an hour. The recce people were to try and hold the bridge until the rest reached it."
"We were told this operation would cut several months off the war. All of us believed this. I knew it was drawing to an end; you only had to keep one eye on a map to see our forces rolling up the Jerries. I even packed a clean suit of battle dress in my pack for our victory parade through Berlin. As I recall, we were to hold the bridge a minimum of 27 hours and a maximum of four days. By then, XXX Corps would be up to us. The opposition would be light, they said, with a mixed bag of Jerry cooks and clerks. If tanks were mentioned, it was only in passing and to tell us they were practically useless. I remember we were told that our air cover would be so strong that it would darken the sky above us. I also remember being told something like 600 Typhoons would be leaving Manston alone to cover us and if we ever saw a plane overhead once we were there, not to worry, it will be a British one. That certainly proved wrong. The first two I saw come over were both Jerry - and they were both jets, the first I had ever seen in my life. They came over Oosterbeek and we ran out waving yellow triangles until we saw the black crosses on their sides."
Parkes helped to load the Horsa glider that would deliver him, a Jeep, trailer and 75mm Pack Howitzer to Arnhem. The trailer contained forty-five rounds of ammunition but they had added a couple of extra ones "just in case". He calculated that there would be approximately one hundred rounds available for each of the guns in his Troop, and passed a joke that he was worried that the weight of the load would go through the floor of the glider.
"All the way over, one of our gliders - the one carrying our No. 2 gun, with Sgt. H.P. Clarke - was having trouble keeping up. Finally, over the Dutch coast, we saw the tow line fall away and the glider go down. I heard later they got down alright, but that left the troop with only three 75s. I remember just as we were approaching the LZ, German AA [Anti-Aircraft] fire got fairly hot and rather than sit there unprotected on the floor of that matchbox, I climbed up on the jeep bonnet and rode it the rest of the way in."
Having landed near Wolfheze, the Troop eventually made their way to Oosterbeek and set up their guns near the Church. On the way there, "some of the lads drove on the left-hand side of the road and others drove on the right; myself, I drove in the middle, but in the dark there was a great deal of confusion and a lot of near-misses."
"Our observation post was in the church and although it wasn't manned all the time we sent chaps up there from time to time. The Jerries figured we were using it round the clock and they shelled it continually. It became a kind of symbol - I felt that as long as that old tower held out, we could hold out. It fell on the last day after being pounded for a week and when it fell, so did my spirits. It was like we were destined to follow it. There was almost continual mortaring and shelling and the noise of it overwhelmed me. It got so the noise was normal and the silence, which should have been normal, was unreal. I remember having an eerie feeling whenever it stopped."
"Once, I helped carry a gunner by the name of F.H. Taylor across the road to the RAP [Regimental Aid Post] at Mrs. ter Horst's house. We got there and we get in the door; the wounded were covering the floor and there was even a second layer of them over those on the floor, their stretchers propped up on boxes and chairs. We waited a few minutes while they cleared some room for Taylor, who had a horrible wound in his back (he later died), and then we left. I got back and went into a house and down the cellar to see one of the gun crews. They gave me some apple pie or something and I stayed a few minutes and went upstairs and out."
"The shelling and mortaring had stopped and I couldn't see a soul. It was the strangest feeling I've ever had in my life. I swear to you, I thought for a second that I was dead and I wondered, if I might he in heaven. All of a sudden, it broke out again and I honestly felt a sense of relief as if everything bad returned to normal and I was back in business again."
"This house, incidentally, we had been told was built only three months before by a newly-married couple. The whole place was terribly smashed up and I remember we were upstairs in the master bedroom and someone looked at the bed and remarked sadly, 'Well, I suppose they won't be performing on that again.'"
Nearby there was a laundry with a large and well-furnished upstairs flat. Parkes suspected that the occupants, now fled, were collaborators as the flat was not wanting for much, and a lot of expensive clothing, including furs, had been left behind. "We figured they must have cleared out awfully quick to have left that sort of stuff lying about and anybody who moved that fast must have had something to worry about." Gunner Arthur "Timber" Woods had found a dove-grey officers uniform in the laundry, complete with a dress sword; they assumed it was a Dutch uniform. Woods put the uniform on and strolled across to the Gun Position Officer's trench where he found Lieutenant Donaldson, saluted him and said 'General Eisenhower, I presume?' Donaldson was completely taken aback and probably did not recognise Timber as he proceeded to inspect the gun positions before returning to the laundry to change back into his own clothes.
"We watched the RAF re-supply planes come over almost daily and it was a sight that would break your heart. They were shot down like sitting ducks as they came in slowly at a low altitude. Planes were on fire from end to end, with RAF men still throwing supplies out of the door, with no hope for themselves. Hardly any of it got to us. We did get some food containers, which helped, but we also got some Piat ammunition, which was no good to us," Parkes says that he didn't see a single man parachute from the burning planes but, "I saw too many of them come out without them, though."
At 11:00 on Monday 25th September, Parkes was with Lieutenant Donaldson and Lance-Bombardier Robert Christie in a slit trench, furnished with a degree of overhead covering, which served as "C" Troop's Command Post, when "all hell broke loose. The Jerries threw everything at us and before we knew it they had broken through, and were racing around everywhere. Tiger tanks were milling all over and had reached the Cabbage patch. Battery headquarters was completely overrun and there was screaming and shouting and firing coming from every direction."
"I got on the wireless to Dog Troop, north of us, round a corner and near an orchard, and asked them for support. They told me they couldn't help they were being overwhelmed. Whilst this was going on, Lt. Donaldson left the trench, Somewhere, he picked up one of the gun crew members. Lance Bombardier J. H. Dickson. They got on the six pounder in the road and began firing it. There was a tremendous bang and we saw a shell hit the tank. They fired nine times over open sights. I counted them and every time they did I felt as though my head was coming off. I saw the strangest thing happening while this was going on. Every time they fired the gun, the force was sucking up the cabbages in the field, pulling them right out of the ground and hurling, them through the air. They were coming right over the top of our trench."
Parkes and Christie remained at the Command Post, which received a direct hit from a Tiger tank firing just 30 yards away. "Christie was wounded in the head with a splinter that parted his hair and I was hit with shrapnel in the face." Surrender in such a situation would have been a valid option, but Parkes continued to fight. He was worried of what would happen if the Germans took them prisoner, but also he did not know whether any positions other than his own had been overrun, and so he decided it was best to continue fighting in the hope that the battle was going well elsewhere. "It was the blackest night I've ever seen and it had begun to drizzle. A funny thing was happening, though. I could see tracers coming across the river from the south bank and they were being fired in parallel lines. I thought they must be firing in fixed lines at the Jerries to put some pressure on them."
"Anyway we decided to go down to the river. We went back along the road and along the side of the gun position and then cut down beside the ter Horst house. I was still with Evans and we were following a sort of footpath, All at once we came across a long line of people. I asked, 'What's going on? and somebody said, 'The div's being evacuated. Just like that. By this time, it was almost dawn. There were still three or four hundred people on the bank. Somebody said they were waiting to be evacuated, but all the boats had been sunk."
Parkes surveyed the river. "It was very wide, in full flood and the current looked to be about nine knots. It wasn't a very promising sight. I was tired and I was wounded and I didn't think I could make it. I could see, men jumping in fully dressed and being swept downstream. Others made it across only to be shot scrambling out of the water. Finally we watched one chap paddle across on a plank, still carrying his pack. I thought he was pretty heroic and I decided if he could do it , I could." Parkes stripped down to his underwear, disposed of all his possessions, including his much-prize gold Hamilton pocket watch, and then he and Evans attempted to swim the river, angling their strokes against the current. "The water was surprisingly warm, but as soon as I got in my underpants slipped down and I kicked them off. I swam as hard as I could and I eventually got across and hid on the bank under some bushes until I got my breath back. Then I made a dash for the winter dyke over open ground where I had seen the others shot, I was going great until I fell into a 15 foot ditch full of nettles, but the stings didn't register until later."
Parkes made it to a small farm cottage nearby and went inside where, thinking that he was now safe, he stood upright and walked past a window which overlooked the northern bank. Immediately a machine gun opened fire on him and sent splinters of wood flying from the window frame. Parkes was unhurt but decided it would be best to keep his head down thereafter. In the house he found a large pair of an old ladies white linen knickers which could be tied at the knee with tape; he put them on and found them to be very warm. He also found and wore a gentleman's sports shirt, and discovered a quarter of a bottle of brandy, which he quickly finished off. Thus fortified, he headed in the direction of Elst, but after crossing the dike he encountered a private soldier of the Dorset Regiment who directed him to 43rd (Wessex) Division headquarters. When he arrived he was given a copy of the Daily Mirror, in which were details of the planned demobilisation scheme, including a formula for soldiers to work out their number. Parkes worked his out to be 39. "I lost all hope of ever getting out of the army. With that number, it looked like I could expect to be demobbed sometime around 1970."
An ambulance gave him a lift to Nijmegen where he crossed the bridge, which was being shelled at the time, before going on to a hospital where he spent the next two days asleep on a floor. An ambulance then moved him to Borg Leopold, then to Diest, Brussels, and via an ambulance train to Amiens. Parkes was growing somewhat tired of hospital life and so he left Amiens of his own volition and hitch-hiked his way to the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches, Normandy. He got aboard a ship bound for Southampton, where he caught a train back to Regimental Headquarters at Boston, Lincolnshire, where he was given sixteen days leave.
Lance-Bombardier Parkes later joined the Police, and the following is an article he wrote about Arnhem for the Christmas 1945 edition of "Magazine of the Derbyshire Constabulary"
A Story of the First Airborne Division
By a Member of the Derbyshire Constabulary who took part
The Siegfried Line is not impassable, but it is a considerable barrier, extending as it does from the Swiss frontier, just north of Basle, along the German frontier northwards as far as a point in the neighbourhood of Cloves, a few miles east of Arnhem. The Rhine is also a considerable obstacle. This, too, runs from Basle northwards to the German-Dutch frontier just east of Arnhem, and then on to the sea. Beyond it to the north there is no barrier to the road leading into the Ruhr and Central Germany itself. Arnhem is, therefore, a point of considerable importance.
From the Escaut Canal, over which on 16th September, 1944, we had a small bridgehead held by 30 Corps of the Second Army under General Dempsey, to Arnhem is sixty miles, with three stepping stones on the way - Eindhoven, Grave and Nijmegen. Arnhem itself has three bridges, a fine road bridge, a pontoon bridge erected by the Germans, and a railway bridge, all over the wide Lower Rhine. The Waal and the Maas can only be crossed at the bridges in Nijmegen and Grave respectively. If all these bridges could be captured intact a tank could drive direct from Brussels into the Ruhr, the Siegfried Line being turned at its northern end leaving Germany wide open.
Arnhem is something of a spa, of about 95,000 inhabitants. To the west the country resembles the lowlands of Scotland with plantations of firs and open pastures with folds of rough ground covered with broom. The western suburbs are of solid detached houses and hotels standing in their own grounds, the countryside around them being well wooded.
It was decided to attempt an airborne operation designed to capture the three great bridges, with the 101 U.S. Airborne Division at Grave, the 82nd U.S. art Nijmegen and the 1st British at Arnhem. At the same time the 30 Corps would drive out from its Escaut Bridgehead to consolidate the success from the air, joining up the three Airborne Divisions, then splitting in two at Arnhem, one half turning NW for the sea, the other turning East into the Ruhr.
The First Airborne Division consisted of the 1st Parachute Brigade (of Tunisian fame), the 4th Parachute Brigade, the 1st Air Landing Brigade (glider-borne), and the 21st Independent Para. Coy. a Reconnaissance Squadron, 1st and 2nd Anti-Tank Batteries, the 1st Air Landing Light Regt., R.A. (with which this story is mainly concerned), together with Div. troops composed of R.E., Signals, R.A.S.C., R.E.M.E., R.A.O.C. and Raid Security Police. A Polish Para. Bde. was also under temporary command of the Div. for this operation.
Owing to a lack of sufficient aircraft to lift the Div. in one move, it was planned to drop 1 Para. Bde. and 1 Air Idg. Bde. on 17th September, with 4 Para. Bde. coming in the following day. Owing to the enormous number of flak stations on the eastern and southern sides of Arnhem, it was necessary to drop all troops seven miles to the west of the town, the plan being as follows. The Recce Sqn, in jeeps was to race immediately on landing through the town to capture one or more of the bridges, with 2 and 3 Para. Bns. to move on foot behind them - incidentally these 'Bns. were allowed one hour to march the seven miles. 1 Para. Bn. was held in Reserve. 1 Air Ldg. Bde. was to hold the dropping zones (D.Z.) until the para. Bns. had moved off, and then to move themselves to hold the northern edge of a perimeter around the town. It was envisaged that 4 Para. Bde. would hold the western sector, the 1 Para. Bde. The southern and the Polish Bde. the eastern Sector. This then was the plan.
I was a member of the 2nd Battery, 1st,"Air Landing Light Regt., R.A. and stood by from 10 Sept. at Manson 'drome in Kent. The gliders stood loaded for five days awaiting the word, and promptly at 12 noon we became airborne, riding rather unsteadily behind a R.A.F. Albermarle. The trip lasted 2 hours W minutes, and strangely enough we were less excited than if it was just another three day schema, probably because the flight over the North Sea was so boring - things became lively over Holland because of the intense light flak, which soon scored hits because of the altitude of the group - 1000 feet, and I saw several of the gliders carrying our own guns and ammo. trailers going down, some to make a forced landing, some to crash. I found the safest way to travel was on top of the Jeep, with a large sized engine between the ground and my posterior! We came down to a nice landing, in contrast to some of the others, and were in action with three 75-mm. howitzers within 15 mins. of touching down.
Meanwhile let us follow the fortunes of the others. The Recce Sqn. lost the greater part of their man and jeeps on the ride through the town, but the remnants managed to reach the northern end of the great road bridge and started to dispute possession with an 88 mm. Fixed on the southern side firing north. Two companies of 2 Para. Bn. got through to them later on, together with a few odd sappers and some of Bde. H.Q. but 3 Para. Bn. were held up at Oosterbeek and never reached the bridge at all. After that Sunday night no other troops reached the bridge, and consequently there were two separate battles, that of the men at the bridge and that of the rest of the Div., held up east of Arnhem in the suburbs known as Oosterbeek, Hartestein and Ommershol. It is with this latter battle that I was mainly concerned.
The fighting at the bridge was probably the hardest of the war. A total of 350 men reached its northern tip and held it against half a Panzer Div. and a Div. of infantry for nine days, the bridge itself being blocked by wrecked German tanks and vehicles which had attacked from the south, fleeing before the 30 Corps. The British positions were in houses around the northern ramparts, and were attacked by every known German weapon from dive bombers to Tiger tanks, the houses being reduced to shambles, and casualties so great that by the night of the 21st of the 350 men there remained only 70 still able to move - others were placed by windows with their arms and fought thus as best they could. Towards the end it was found impossible to hold those positions, and a final stand was made beneath the bridge itself, but with each hour the situation became more and more hopeless, the ammunition had gone and almost every man was wounded. The very ground on which the defenders crouched was seared by the flames from the burning houses, and in the end the remnants were killed or captured.
Whilst this resolute stand was being made at the bridge, the fighting for the rest of the Division had veered to Oosterbeek, and on Wednesday the 20th a perimeter had been established with the river to the south, Oosterbeek to the east and Ommershol to the north. This was the area which the rest of the Division held under force of circumstance until the order to withdraw was given on the 25th.
My own part of this battle was wrapped up in the fortunes of the 2nd Air Ldg. Battery, equipped with only six of the eight 75 BBI howitzers which started the flight, the other two going down on the way, together with a few odd P.I.A.T.'s, Brens, Stens and rifles, and an awful lot of hope. We first went into action on the landing ground and fired at targets south of the bridge to support our men there, but moved before dark to a position just east of Ommershol in a forest clearing, one end of which being planted with cabbages and the other laid out in grounds around a small mental hospital. Here we rapidly-dug in just before an attack by 36 German 'planes which included two 'jets', and fired steadily at targets all round the compass until darkness intervened and we took up a defensive infantry role.
Next morning an advance party set out to recce a more suitable position where we could join the rest of the Regt. known to be just south of Oosterbeek Church, whilst we remained firing in the clearing. Casualties were being caused by aircraft and mortar fire, but especially by snipers, who were found in the surrounding woods in great numbers - fortunately the majority of them were far from being marksmen. About an hour before darkness we were startled by the sound of very heavy artillery fire directed against the mental hospital, and saw that a number of German tanks had come right through and were engaging troops in the hospital without having seen us. Since our guns were not supposed to be effective against tanks, we made a rapid withdrawal, in which we became entangled with transport of other Units, and darkness found me on the main Arnhem-Utrecht road in my own Jeep, with two pals and a strange officer. Purely by guesswork and plain good luck we eventually found the new position two or three miles away, simply by trying different roads until we met Jerry, turning back and trying others until we could get through.
Our second night in Holland was spent digging, and we were certainly ready for some sleep and some food - all we had had was twelve biscuits and three bars of chocolate since we landed. The new position was disastrous from an artillery point of view, being in a small piece of open ground encircled by houses which interrupted our line of fire. This, however, was to be our home until we were withdrawn. The Germans shelled us almost unceasingly from dawn to dusk, with occasional spells of hate during the night, whilst snipers gradually infiltrated into the surrounding houses and gardens and killed more and more of our men.
Food and water were a very grave problem - foraging was out of the question, and for the last six days all there was for six of us was a tame rabbit which we 'liberated', and some odd jars of apple sauce. On the occasions we ware attacked by tanks we did very well indeed, for our guns proved very successful at close range, and their performance did a lot to raise morale. The continuous casualties became more and more serious, however, and it became impossible to maintain efficient gun crews - the majority consisting of one gunner, with perhaps a signaller or glider pilot as loader, instead of the normal teams of six gunners. The ground was so pockmarked by shell and mortar craters that I wondered several times how these chaps could still man the guns.
Being assistant to the gun position officer, I was mainly concerned with survey and plotting work, and spent most of the time in the Command Post trench. Staff was so short that when the last German armoured attack was put in against us, only a signaller and myself were in the C.P., the Officer being away after some support. Two Tigers rolled right on to the position and polished off all left there except myself and the signaller in the C.P. trench. One of the tanks saw our radio aerial and gave us an 88 mm. shell which wounded us both, then followed it up with cannon shells. Owing to the overhead cover of the trench it was impossible to get out direct and after some very anxious moments, each one of which I thought was my last. We managed to dig a tunnel through the back of the trench into a shell hole nearby and from there a quick dash got us amongst the houses, where we found a Bren gun and six magazines, and feeling a little more formidable retreated rapidly westwards until we met up once again with some of our own troops.
From then until nightfall we fought and ran alternately, and at dusk made a large house into a strong point, with about twelve riflemen, a Bren gunner, a large number of wounded, and some sappers with a few Hawkins grenades. Many of us were again wounded here from 25 pdr. shells fired by the advancing 30 Corps artillery in an endeavour to keep the Germans away from us, and by this time I think, we had all abandoned hope of being relieved by General Dempsey.
The following morning we found that the majority of the Division had been evacuated across the river during the night, and as fast as we could we made for it ourselves. Unfortunately the river here was up to a quarter of a mile wide, with a dangerous current of eight knots, and there was a quarter mile of open country to cross. When we got to the banks it was unfortunately a case of those of us who could not swim staying, behind whilst the rest stripped and jumped in. It took me a long time to make up my mind to risk swimming in the condition I was in, but the Germans made up my mind for me and in I got. Luck was still with me and I reached a farmhouse which stood in ruins on the opposite bank. Here a Good Samaritan gave me a half bottle of whisky, which gave me new life, and turned my thoughts to my appearance. The only garments I could find were some female knickers of ancient vintage and style, being decorated with blue ribbon in all the wrong places. Wearing these, along with an old shirt, I dived through the back window and finally met the Dorsetshire Regiment of the 30 Corps. From then on I travelled south in comfort via Nijmegen, Diest, Brussels and Amiens home.
It seems that the two American Divisions-captured their bridges intact, and were promptly relieved by the 2nd Amy, who got two miles north of Nijmegen (eight from Arnhem and could get no further until the last day when they almost reached the river banks. Those of us who got back were very proud to have taken part in such an operation, which killed 11,000 Germans on their own admission, but the costs were heavy - of the 129 men in my Battery who set out, only 23 came back.
Many people have asked me questions regarding the whole operation and invariably ask, "What was the reason for the failure of the airborne operation." I would like to answer them now by saying that the task given to the 1st Airborne Division was to capture the road bridge and hold it for a maximum period of four days. Nothing more. It was held for nine days. The airborne operation was therefore 100% successful.
Thanks to Charles Parkes for this account.
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