Staff-Sergeant Ronald Gibson
Unit : "F" Squadron, No.2 Wing, The Glider Pilot Regiment
Army No. : 892351
In 1956, Ronald Gibson published the book "Nine Days", concerning his experiences as a Glider Pilot during the Battle of Arnhem. What follows are extracts from the book, and I am indebted to his daughter, Candace Gibson, for granting me permission to publish them.
In the cabin of the Horsa we carried a six pounder gun and the jeep that would tow it into action. In the rear seats sat two men of the Border Regt., the driver and the gunlayer... "Sim" was my co-pilot. He was a German Jew from Berlin, a refugee who had arrived in England a few months before the declaration of war. I had only known him a few weeks...
After passing the farmyard [at the end of the runway] we flew into some low lying mist... We flew low, at three hundred feet in a wide circle that led us back over the airfield... I began to sweat beneath my clothes: we were dressed in full battle order, with heavy cloth smocks over our tunics. At Cirencester I handed the controls over to "Sim". The Dakota began to climb... At two thousand feet we rose into clear air. For the first time since we set off I could see the entire column of tugs and gliders receding into the distance before me. Those furthest ahead had shrunk to midget size like insects impaled on the blanket of cloud... We saw a second train of tugs and gliders approaching from the Berkshire downs. The air was very still, and inside our cockpit we felt we were hanging motionless, whole nothing moved but the wisps of cloud that flicked past the window.
At this height the air turned colder and our legs grew numb. I asked "Sim" to draw some hot tea from the Thermos flask. This was one of the luxuries of flying, when one could lean back in the seat, sipping at the slippery rim of the cup, and watch the other man sweat at the wheel. A few minutes later we saw one of the leading gliders cast off and turn back beneath us. It circled over a wood and headed for the aerodrome at Hatfield. In a moment it vanished behind the edge of the perspex. We heard later that the tug pilot had ordered it to release when his plane failed in one engine.
It was midday when we reached the coast at Aldeburgh. Sim was sitting at the controls. I crawled back along the fuselage over the gun and trailer to carry a mugful of tea to the Borderers in the rear seats... I passed the mug through a gap between the trailer and the plywood roof: it was grasped by the gunlayer. The two Borderers looked cheerful enough. One was a corporal, short and dark, who lived in Birmingham: the other was a taller, fair north countryman from Tyneside. We had met them on the towpath only twenty minutes before we left: we had shaken hands, chatted for a few minutes and smoked each others cigarettes. From forty minutes after our landing I never saw them again.
We sighted the Dutch coast at a quarter to one... I wondered what "Sim" was thinking. I felt the same coldness, a vacuum of emotion, a sense of fatality that I supposed all people felt in moments of crisis. We heard the thud of exploding flak: two black smudges burst above the cloud... When a couple of shells burst close above the towplane, the pilot wheeled to starboard and towed us into the heart of a dense cumulus. All but a dozen feet of rope was shrouded in vapour. We tried to dive down into the blind flying position, but the rope sagged lower through "Sim" was pushing at the stick. A second later we emerged from the cloud to see the tug a hundred feet below, half hidden beneath our nose. The rope tautened with a jerk. In twenty minutes we reached our first turning point at Hertogenbosch. It looked like a city of the dead, a sprawling town that was too neat and new and pink to be real. We had expected a little fire over a town of this size, but none came.
A pall of smoke drifted over the forest [near Wolfheze] and a red circle flamed among the trees beside the railway. The ploughland was framed within a border of tall pines. In the centre fluttered a plume of purple smoke, a signal from the troops who had already landed. "Are you all right? This is the place." The voice in the earphones trailed off in a crackle. I heard "Sim's" voice answer. "Yes, not so bad. Thanks for the tow. Good-bye." I pulled the release lever and the rope jerked past the window and out of sight. The roar of wind outside the panes died to a gentle hiss. The sky around was filled with floating gliders. We were flying too high and I pushed the flap lever to the "half down". The Horsa tilted forward like a sled on the steepening of a slope and the earth swung up towards us, hiding the sky. We saw a row of trucks one the line, people running, two fires in the wood, and the flash of a bomb bursting on a house... We slewed away to the side of the clearing to lose further height, then turned in towards the furthest field... I pushed the lever to "full flap". We sank like a lift. The field was littered with the leading gliders. We headed for a clearing, screened by the smoke from the flare.
We skidded to a standstill about fifty yards from the edge of the woods. The Borderers banged open the rear door and jumped out. We followed. The sky resounded with the roar of engines; the woods and fields were silent. We each lit a cigarette. Someone picked up an axe handle and hammered at the bolts on the tail. In half an hour the bolts were loose and the tail fell to the earth. We heaved it across the furrows, straining with our backs against the plywood. The corporal started the engine of the jeep, let in the clutch and jerked the gun down the ramp and skidded across the furrows in a cloud of earth. We heaved our rucksacks on the bonnet and sat ourselves beside. The Borderers carried us to a corner of the wood by the railway embankment. We dumped the rucksacks in the ditch, stepped aside, and waved them goodbye.
Our rendezvous had been placed at this corner. A party of about sixty glider pilots were lying under the trees: others were patrolling the path by the railway. It had been planned that we should rendezvous in squadrons and march off separately towards the town park, where we would dig in for the night... A few yards from a level crossing a sniper's bullet whizzed overhead. We jumped off the path and lay flat in the hollow between the ploughed furrows and the turf bank. Two scouts were ordered forward. At this moment the colonel walked up and ordered us to wait. I lay back, pillowed against my rucksack. Sim began talking to a Dutch boy who had appeared from behind the trees... The scouts returned with our first prisoner. He was a grey-faced little man, dressed in a shabby uniform with a peaked cap. He did not seem frightened - only a little dazed from the interruption of his Sunday afternoon.
Throughout the night we staged a patrol of six men, divided into hourly shifts, with two parties patrolling the sides of the wood and meeting at the corners for a whispered conference. Gordon [a fellow glider pilot] and I formed one such party, with another pilot whose name I have forgotten. We paced back and forth down the path listening to the sound of distant firing and the nearby crackle of twigs. At intervals of fifteen minutes we met the other three at the north-east corner. There we squatted in the heather and scanned a broad waste of heath where a line of gorse was blazing. At thirty minutes past the hour we met at the south-west corner, at the intersection of two paths below the railway embankment, one of them a broad track that followed the line of the railway. On the far side of this track we could see a vague white shape like a giant fungus. It was the bared chest of a dead sergeant: his body had been laid ready for the morning burial. He belonged to the Recce party we had met as we entered the wood at dusk.
I heard the morning orders as they were passed to the section commanders. Weapons would be cleaned and our kit packed ready for a quick advance: rations could be opened. I opened my box and lit the hexamine cooker in the hollow in the ground. This cooker was a neat device, a tin tripod that folded into a pocket, holding a tablet of hexamine the size and shape of a can of bootpolish. The ration boxes held a day's portion of oatmeal and biscuit, some sugar, tea, and sweets, and a cube of meat extract that tasted like spiced sawdust.
After breakfast Lieut. W---- told Gordon and me that we were to join his patrol. He had been told to scout eastwards along the embankment path and then to return in a wide circle across the open heath. We assembled at the side of the path, and set off in line, Gordon and myself were placed as leading scouts. A hundred yards down the path we saw a derelict car standing opposite the mouth of a tunnel. As we approached we heard a scuffling sound inside the cab and a low groaning. At this moment a figure in a blue overcoat bobbed up from the tunnel mouth. My right eardrum was almost split by a clanging burst from the bren gun. "It's a civvy," said Lieut. W----. "Hold it. Let him come out." A voice called from the tunnel. In a nervous moment the bren gunner fired another shot. The round spattered against the brick arch and whizzed into the grass. Someone ran back down the tunnel... We watched the entrance, while W---- walked forward and peered into the car... "There's a Recce trooper in the back seat. Badly hit. Got caught in an ambush last night. One of their sergeants was killed." I remembered the body we had seen on the patrol. On the far side of the car stood an abandoned jeep. We pulled the trooper from his seat and laid him in the American truck... The driver backed into the path, turned and vanished up the slope in a cloud of sand and smoke.
Occasionally we saw a patrol cross the skyline. It was hard to distinguish whether they were British or German: later we learnt to detect the German helmet by its polished glitter, devoid of grit, paint, or camouflage. From the sky we heard the continuous hum of distant planes. The gliders landed at three o'clock. They were heralded by long, crackling bursts of flak from some German batteries a few miles to the north... They flew in a long, straggling line, scattered by the shells that burst in their path: we counted them in clusters of two or three. The barrage began to increase in sound. They began to dive at greater speed, striving to gain the shelter of the trees before they levelled out to skim the furrows. For several Horsas this added speed courted disaster. From where I stood the landing zone was concealed by a line of poplars on the far side of an allotment. I saw a glider dive for a gap between the trees and turn to clear a branch with his wing-tip. The wing struck and snapped in two. I heard a heavy thump and the splintering of plywood. Another soared in downwind, its nose struck the field and it bounced fifty feet into the air, stalling on the treetops fifty yards from our position.
I ran northwards through the woods to where I had seen the Horsa fall on the trees. I found it, couched on a bed of splintered trunks, its wings splintered at the root, one splayed back against the trunk of a thick pine. The nose had crumpled inwards as if it were cardboard. I looked for the pilot. He was standing among a group of his passengers, three of them were medical orderlies. He was grazed slightly on the forehead, but appeared unshaken. The second pilot was slightly injured, the remainder had escaped unscathed. A party of them were heaving bundles of medicine and bandages from the rear door of the fuselage. I helped them clear the last bundles before I returned to Gordon.
Tuesday was a quiet day. When light returned I began to dig. It was a relief to move again after huddling against the roots of the tree in a vain attempt to gain shelter from the night wind... The soil was moist and sandy: I had cleared a depth of two feet before I halted for breakfast... By midday I had dug a magnificent pit, as large as a grave; six feet by three by six feet in depth; there was a firing platform at one end and a little niche in one side where I stored by food and ammunition. After lunch we took turns in drawing water from a cottage at the corner of the wood. It was built of brick and pantiles, enclosed in a garden so compact that it was filled by a row of beans, a flower bed and a hutch full of tame rabbits. The woman in the kitchen spoke a few words of English. She asked us to fill our pockets with some pears that lay in a bucket by the door.
The third lift arrived at three o'clock. We saw no gliders land, for we had marched several miles the previous evening and the landing zone was out of sight: but our trench lay beneath the path of the supply planes which dropped the canisters of arms and ammunition. They were heralded by a flight of Spitfires that flashed past a few feet above the trees... Then the flak burst above us in a myriad puffs of black smoke... A straggling column of Stirlings and Dakotas flew into the puffs of smoke, unswerving in their course. In the narrow segment of sky I saw five of them dive below the hill with engines aflame. From their open bellies streamed a trail of coloured parachutes with panniers dangling from the cords. I saw one Dakota, one engine belching a cloud of smoke, circle three times among the flak before it disgorged its load of canisters. The panniers and canisters were dragged into the shelter of the wood. Gordon and I retrieved a basket of mortar shells and carried it to a group of Service Corps who waited by a jeep. Some of the canisters had to be dragged down from the upper branches of trees where they had been dropped wide of the field. One case exploded before it was touched, luckily no one was standing nearby.
At five o'clock we moved position. I left my pit with some regret, as though I were a pauper tenant evicted from his ancestral home. It had been fashioned with labour and not a little love. I had to dig four or five of these foxholes before our stay was ended: for them all I felt a sneaking form of attachment... We filed out from the wood past the cottage with the rabbit hutch, across a road and down another road, westwards into Oosterbeek... The sound of firing had faded into a low rumble, drowned by the tramp of feet from the column in front and the laughing voices of the children on the pavement.
We turned at the next corner and headed northwards towards the park. The park was a square of beechwood, enclosed by streets on three sides. It was encircled by a line of iron railings, the only "parklike" feature; a cluster of stable buildings stood half hidden by trees. We pushed through a side gate and trudged across a carpet of damp leaves and twigs and nutshells that cracked underfoot. A civilian by the gate warned us that there were snipers in the houses: the leading section filed round to the flank of the stables and fired a few shots into the empty windows. Nothing stirred. They waited for a minute: then two riflemen crawled through an upper window. They returned after a brief search to report that the place was empty.
We extended in a line across the wood and advanced slowly towards the far side, scanning the trees for snipers... Our section crawled across a fence and patrolled down a line of gardens to the railing in the north side. We met a young Dutch boy who ran up to our party, grabbed W---- by the shoulder and pointed towards the street. He gabbled some Dutch, which no one could understand, but from his gestures we understood that a sniper was hiding on one of the roofs. It was too late to patrol further. We turned back into the darkness of the trees. When we rejoined the squadron they had already dispersed and each man was digging a separate pit under cover of a bank, a few yards within the railing. Our position lay along the northern side. I found myself stationed beside Gordon in a shallow depression of the ground. We both began to dig.
Wednesday was not a quiet day. Throughout the night Gordon and I kept watch, each for a two hour shift at a time. During my periods of rest I made a vain attempt to sleep, huddled in a gas cape. The cold and the noise of firing kept me awake. At short intervals a five barrel German mortar fired salvoes overhead from a position further to the north... Every few minutes a line of tracers would sprout from a window on the right of the allotment and span the open ground in a shallow curve, spattering against the roof of a house on the left. I heard the rumble of tanks along a distant street: whether they were British or German I could not tell. The two hour shifts seemed endless. I felt very tired, yet very awake, with a pain burning behind the eyes.
At five minutes to ten I had cleared my hole to a depth of four feet. I took a swig from the water bottle and sat down for a rest. I heard a sound of running feet in the road and the sudden burst of a machine gun close above my head. The strewn earth beside the trench was spattered into the air. The footsteps passed on: a second burst sounded from higher up the pavement. I called to Gordon. I heard his spade clinking in the gravel a few minutes before. No one answered. I cocked my rifle and peered over the top of the bank across the road. I pulled the grenades from my pocket and placed them in a row on the edge of the trench... Two figures dashed across a gap between the rows of peas. Someone fired. Three more figures followed the first. We all fired and two of them dropped out of sight. I heard one of them groan. A peak capped head rose from where they had fallen. I fired again and the head vanished.
The enemy's intention was obvious. They were starting a flanking movement, designed to break through in the orchard on our right... I heard a motorcycle approaching down the side street to our right. It halted at a house where the door was slammed. Steps sounded on the pavement. Two voices were shouting in German. I began to hate the sound. No order came from [Lieut] L----, so I thought it was best to lie quiet and wait. The next moment a smoke canister landed in the centre of the orchard: one of the trees suddenly crackled into flame and the smoke blew across above our heads. A grenade burst yards down the railing. There were more shouts in German. One of us fired from his hole by the orchard fence. I heard a scream and a grenade burst in the orchard. The bullet had struck a German in the stomach as he was swinging his arm to throw: the grenade was lobbed vertically into the air and fell back at his feet. I saw a figure kneeling by the house door. I fired and the figure vanished.
There was another pause. I refilled my magazine and dragged a bandolier from the bottom of the trench and laid it beside the grenades. A volley of shots sounded from up the street on our left. They were attacking there too... Five or six grenades burst on the orchard fence. I glanced round and saw a man running from the direction of squadron H.Q. He fell face forward over a bursting grenade. A voice in the orchard was shouting in broken English. "Coom out. Coom out. Surrender." I heard them breaking through the fence and enter the park. From the other flank on our left I heard a babel of shouting and rifle shots and falling grenades. The road echoed with running feet. They were breaking through the trenches of the other flight.
I looked round to see what L---- was doing. All I saw was a green-clad body sprawling at the foot of a tree: who it was I could not tell. I called to the bren group by the fence, but no one moved or spoke. A party of Germans scrambled through the fence and ran behind me into the wood. I stood up for a second and called to Gordon and Sim. No one answered. There was only one thing left to do. I grabbed two of my grenades, the bandolier, and the rifle, and dashed across an open glade into the stacks of wood. I ran on, zigzagging among the trees and the fallen logs. Once I stumbled and nearly fell. The noise of shouting faded as I passed further into the wood... I wandered southwards through the gardens, looking for a British uniform. A minute later I came back to the main road. At the far side stood a tall shuttered house with a broken slate roof and gaping windows. The walls were pitted with splinter marks: against one was nailed a Red Cross flag. A few yards from the front door stood a battered jeep. I dashed across the tramlines and round the back of the jeep. Here I nearly tripped over a corpse with his back leaning against the rear wheel, clothes on fire, and lying huddled up like a scarecrow of straw. The air stank of explosive.
At one of the front windows sat a medical orderly, leaning against the broken sill and staring into the road. I ran up and asked him if he had seen any troops. He nodded and pointed up the street. I saw Major M----'s face staring over a pile of rubble about fifty yards distant. Some one began firing down the street. I dashed across and sprawled down between him and Johnny A----, who was the section staff-sergeant of the other flight. "What's the news?" "Our section's wiped out, sir." "Didn't you get my runner? I sent him over to say we were pulling back." "I saw someone run up. He ran smack into a grenade."
We lay flat for two or three minutes until the firing ceased. Major M---- gave me another grenade and a bandolier. We scrambled up and ran for cover behind the Field Hospital in the shuttered house... We ran across the back garden and down a path beside a row of yew trees. On our right lay a thicket: behind it stood a tall, grey house with a terreted roof. "That's Div. H.Q."... By the pavilion we met four survivors of our own flight, including Sergeant H----, the man who had shot the grenade thrower in the stomach. We lay in a line in a dry ditch by the side of the path and each one recounted his story of the attack. When we had finished Major M---- made a list of the known casualties.
Enemy mortar shells were landing on the allotment. We began to dig... While we were working an officer came down the path and gave us some news. It was rather serious. The paratroopers at the bridge had been isolated from the rest of the Division. We were hard pressed by large German reinforcements that had been mustered from a wide area during the last three days. The Division was falling back and concentrating in a horseshoe shaped perimeter surrounding the headquarters, with its base on the river a mile south of where we were standing.
In the afternoon we began to hunger and thirst as a result of the frantic digging of the morning. I entered the pavilion and searched the empty rooms: they were littered with broken glasses and bottles and straw. Behind the changing room was a little kitchen with an electric cooker standing against one wall. By some stroke of good fortune it was still working, and two of the squadron pilots were making some coffee... I found some cups lying among the straw and carried the coffee back to our trenches. We sat on the slope of the bank and sipped a cup in turn, while we watched the prisoners pacing up and down inside the tennis court. The coffee did not slake our thirst, so H---- collected some bottles from the pavilion and walked down to a well at the end of the path. Jimmy T----, who occupied the next trench to mine, produced a glass jar filled with preserved carrots... The carrots were floating in sweetened water, which increased our thirst... Before it grew dark I collected the glass bottles and made a visit to the well. It was built at the side of a farmhouse.
After dark the mortar fire became more intense. One shell struck the concrete foundation of the pavilion and shattered the remaining window. At midnight it grew very cold: I dragged a tarpaulin from the kitchen and sat in the trench with the folds wrapped round my shoulders. At two o'clock I had my first hour of sleep.
At dawn they expected an attack. A patrol was sent out across the allotment to search the gardens on the far side of the street. We lay in wait, peering over the crest of the bank... The morning sun rose, but the attack never came... At ten o'clock we heard news that our squadron had returned to the wood where we had waited on Tuesday, beside the cottage with the rabbit hutch and the rows of cabbages. We crammed the remainder of the biscuit ration in our pockets. We filched some empty bottles from the pavilion kitchen and filled them from the well. Then we moved off down the path towards Division H.Q. As we passed the building a heavy mortar barrage fell on the roof and in the garden. We flattened ourselves in the trough of a flower-bed and waited until it had subsided. When the barrage had lifted I saw the Div. commander walk down the steps and survey the damage. He looked like an outraged householder whose roses had been ravaged by a gang of street dogs.
When we arrived at the cottage we saw that its roof had been badly shattered and the walls chipped by splinters. The garden was strewn with furniture belonging to the family: they had all disappeared. Major M---- was sitting in the garden beside a cooking fire, talking to the sergeant major. We reported to him and were dispatched to fill some empty trenches that had been dug beneath the hedge. I chose a deep hole that required no further digging. After dumping my kit I looked round to see if there was anyone I knew. The squadron had lost nearly half its men: out of our section only H---- and myself remained... The sergeant major told us to report to Captain P---- at a position a hundred yards westwards along the edge of the wood. We were given some new entrenching tools to replace those we had lost in our flight the day before.
When we met Captain P---- he told us to dig a defensive position among the roots of a group of beeches, facing down a path that led towards the centre of the wood. It was a hazardous place for a defence: as far as one could see a dense growth of holly and young fir trees screened the trunks of the taller trees. Our kneeling shapes could be seen clearly by anyone approaching from the enemy side. We hacked away at the roots for an hour without rest. We were joined by a paratroop sergeant whose platoon had been wiped out and by two other paratroops who were carrying a Vickers gun... Captain P---- gave us a summary of the course of the battle. Our squadron position formed the northwest corner of a defensive perimeter. The division had fallen back to within this area on the previous day, when the tide of the battle had turned and we were forced on the defensive. For the first time the prospects seemed not too bright.
In the evening the assault came. A few yards to the right, in a thicket of small firs, we heard a whistle and an order shouted in German. Our bren gunner fired a burst. Someone in the thicket screamed at the top of his voice. The sergeant major, who could speak German, stood up behind a tree and called out an order. A grey clad figure stood up in a clump of bushes and raised his hands. Just at that moment one of us fired his rifle at a sudden movement on our left. The German dived back into cover. The sergeant major shouted another order. No one answered. We were joined by Major M----. He and the sergeant major walked up to the edge of the firs and continued shouting: "Coomen zee hier! Rouscommen!" The attackers remained silent. We charged into the trees with fixed bayonets and fired into the screen of branches. There was much shouting and firing; we found ourselves in the centre of two German sections who were retreating hastily into the wood. I crashed through some trees and stumbled full length into a sandpit about ten feet square and two feet deep. There were three wounded Germans lying in the bottom. Our paratroop sergeant was bandaging the leg of one, while Johnny A---- stuffed a cigarette between the German's lips and gave him a light. He was lying beside a machine-gun and several boxes of ammunition. A few paces past the pit were two dead privates and an officer, who still wore a pair of spectacles as thick as burning glass.
At this moment our counter attack was called back. Our foremost file had walked into the line of a Vickers gun firing across our front. Major M---- staggered back with a wound on the neck, leaning on the shoulder of one of our pilots and looking very green in the face. He was taken away to the hospital and Captain P---- took command. We carried back the machine gun, its ammunition, five or six German rifles, and a batch of prisoners. That evening our padre arranged an hour's truce with the enemy, so that both sides could collect their dead and wounded who were lying in the wood. The Borderers had lost many men in the clearing operation and the paths and bushes were littered with dead Germans... At nightfall we were relieved by another section. I went back near the cottage and installed myself in a deep hole that had been dug to protect some ammunition.
Throughout the night we kept watch in turn. During my period of rest I wrapped myself up in the silk of a parachute in an attempt to keep warm. Although I had remained almost continuously awake during the previous five days, I slept only fitfully...
In the action of the previous day I had taken a water-bottle from the belt of a dead German to replace the one I lost on Wednesday. After breakfast of biscuits and some boiled sweets we needed some water for the tea. I made a journey to a house across the street from the cottage, where the main had not been cut... As I crossed the street some shells whizzed overhead on the way to Div. H.Q. I ran to the door and knocked loudly, eager to enter in case the next salvo fell short. A face peered round the door and I recognized Bill R----, whom I had known in training days. He looked pale and unshaven and shaken. His squadron had suffered a grim setback two days before when they had been surrounded and forced to fight their way through a ring of Germans, losing half their men. He led me upstairs to the bathroom where I drew the water from a chipped bath with a thick layer of sand along the bottom. This sand impregnated our tea and remained in a thin coating on our tongues and behind our teeth.
In the morning my section were given a rest from active patrolling and told to stand guard in the trenches by the cottage garden... During my rests I read a copy of the Daily Express of the previous day's edition that had been dropped in one of the ammunition containers on that date. The headlines were optimistic. They announced that "Dempsey Does It Again", referring to an armoured column that had survived from Nijmegen into Germany. There were several broad black arrows on the map pointing in our direction, and the relief of our position was prophesised to occur within a few hours, or perhaps a day.
In the afternoon we were worried by snipers, who killed or wounded several men in our outpost trenches... Further damage was incurred by an assault gun that fired from a nearby bridge, aiming at the tree tops; the shells splintered into fragments that were deflected downwards into our foxholes. As six o'clock the enemy staged a further attack. We heard several blasts on a whistle and some machine-gun bullets sprayed the northern hedge. My section was called out from their position by the cottage to man some empty trenches in the sector of the assault. A section of S.S. made a frontal assault through a thicket of young pines. The two foremost men had passed between two of our trenches before they fell with bullets in the stomach. There was some further shouting in the bushes further back, but the attack was pressed with little vigour. We killed three or four more; two came forward with upstretched hands and surrendered. The remainder fell back. We were too busy to think of removing the fallen men, and in the following days the mortar fire grew too intense. They were left to lie on the pine-needles, huddled in grotesque shapes like lay figures in a studio.
Through the night I arranged a turn of watch with the man in the adjoining trench. At twelve o'clock it began to rain: my clothes were soon soaked through and I became too cold to sleep. I remembered that Saturday was my birthday.
We stood to at dawn. I was visited by Captain P----. He stumbled round through the bushes from trench to trench, counting our arms and ammunition and assuring himself that we were all awake. He seemed shaky and excitable and impressed with the notion that our morale was low and required boosting. He told us that if we hung on for two or three days all would be well. As it was, our mood was more stolid and unconcerned than his.
At ten o'clock we were attacked on the northern bridge. This was the site where Gordon and I had built our trenches on the Tuesday. My position now lay several yards within the wood and I took no share of the repulse. Our line at this point was well armed; we had two six pounders at either end of the hedge and a Vickers between. They had a wide field of fire over the ploughed field where the gun battery had once stood - now blown to extinction. The first warning came when the assault guns began blasting a row of fir trees above the heads of the gun crews and riflemen along the hedge. The ground soon became littered with broken boughs and the trunks were seared with white scars. Three or four casualties were taken away to the roadside. Then I heard a series of whistles from across the field. The Vickers opened up with a long burst and one of the six-pounders fired. There was little difference between the deafening crack the charge of our guns and the close-range fire of the S.P. The attack fell back. They made five assaults in the rain and mist of the morning, but all were repulsed. One time an assault gun crawled half-way across the open field before it was smashed by two successive shells from the six-pounders: it stood scorched and derelict, poised on the edge of an old gun pit, with its dead crew sprawled behind the shield.
There had been no re-supply by air for the last two days. We were told that the weather and the size of our perimeter had prevented accurate dropping of the containers. For all this, the sky was filled with British fighters, the Typhoons and Thunderbolts were strafing the enemy lines with salvoes of rocket shells. They would swing down in an almost vertical dive; the rockets were ejected with a harsh, searing sound like a steel-cutting saw. They burst in clumps behind the roof tops, in the streets beyond the field.
At dark we received a hurried visit from the Adjutant. He had assumed command of the squadron when Captain P---- had been wounded in the leg at midday. He reported that he had been nearly struck by a sniper's bullet while he was ambling up the path towards our trenches, and asked [Lieut.] C---- to send out a patrol of two or three men into the screen of the undergrowth on the west of the path. Three of us were told to scour the bushes in this direction. I had only taken a few paces past the track when I nearly stumbled over the body of Lieut. A----, our intelligence officer who had been shot on the previous evening. I decided to crawl for the rest of the way. It was lucky that I did.
A few seconds later I saw a section of Germans stalking round the wreckage of a container, attached by its tangled cords to a red parachute entangled in the trees. They were armed only with rifles, so I hid behind the trunk of an oak and took a shot at the leader. He shouted, grabbed his upper arm and crouched behind the container. The remainder scattered. I reloaded, but the bolt jammed and I crawled away hastily to another tree trunk. I waited for two or three minutes, but the Germans did not reappear. I crawled back to the section by a circular route and discovered the body of Sergeant B----, whom I had known at home, lying face downwards in the leaves.
At one o'clock I was startled by a rustle in the trees across the path. I remembered the German patrols of the evening and the danger of snipers: it was probable that their activities had continued throughout the night. Cocking the rifle, I placed a Mills bomb ready and listened. The rustling renewed and I began to visualise the presence of several men, perhaps forming up for an attack. A few yards distant a twig cracked. I gave the first half of the password, but no one answered. I saw a vague grey movement in the blackness of a fir, aimed - and fired. The trigger clicked, but there was no report. The round was a dud. As I re-cocked, a voice asked: "What the hell's the matter?" It was Sergeant ----, who had been holding a forward foxhole to our front on the edge of the ditch. He had been relieved two minutes before and had lost his direction in the wood, while he stumbled back to H.Q. My voice had sounded further away than it actually was: some acoustic freak caused by the screen of damp leaves and trunks. He had assumed I challenged another man and failed to answer until he heard the click of the pin. Back at camp he still accused me of attempted murder!
As a fighting unit the squadron was a most conglomerate force. It was formed from the remnants of ---- and ---- squadrons. There were two six-pounders and their crews from the Border regiment, in the hedge was a Vickers gun manned by two parachutists and in the slit trenches by the mound, were several men from the other squadrons.
Late in the morning we experienced a sudden surprise. There was a rumble of tracked wheels down the drive on the further side of the mausoleum and the "toc-toc-toc" of a heavy machine gun. I heard our flank section return fire. A moment later I saw a series of flashes through the leaves, or rather the blurred reflection, like sheet lightning hidden by a heavy screen of cloud... From my position I could not realize what had happened, but on the following day I learnt that the southern section, entrenched in the position where we captured the two Spandaus, had been attacked by a flame-throwing tank. The section had been pushed back, leaving two of my friends sprawling in their holes, burned to death. For some inexplicable reason the tank had turned back at the end of the line, and had trundled off into the wood... These and the assault guns were the most formidable threat to our defences, for the infantry attacks by the S.S. were ill-timed and undetermined and always announced beforehand by the usual whistles and guttural shouting.
At five o'clock we gathered rations at the "Pirate's" trench. He seemed in a cheerful mood and we began exchanging jokes about our present situation. Someone with a rather saturnine sense of humour, compared it with a game of musical chairs. When I returned to my foxhole with the rations, I stacked them on the side and jumped down into the bottom to reach for the cooking stove. As my feet touched the sand there was a sudden tremendous report. I felt a sharp jab at my side and was flung to my knees. The rations were blown into the trench on top of my back. The air was filled with flying sand and smoke. A branch and some wood splinters tumbled down from the trunk of a pine. Then, seconds later there was another report, followed by more sand and splinters and smoke. I ducked down and squatted in the corner of the trench. There was a trickle of water running down my hip. I looked down and saw that the top half of the German water bottle I had been wearing had been shattered by a piece of shrapnel from the first explosion. It lay in the sand at my foot, still warm from the burst.
The explosions continued for nine or ten second intervals. I realized that some gun at very close range was firing shells at the crest of the trees and the splinters were deflected vertically downwards. I also realized how victims contract shell-shock. When a third splinter had smacked into the sand beside me, I reckoned it was time to shift my station to another trench. The German gun-layer had too strong a fancy for the trees above my particular head. I waited for the next shell to burst, then grabbed my rifle and sling and made a hop, skip, and jump into another trench about ten yards away. It was occupied by a sergeant from the other squadron whose face I did not recognize. He mumbled some conventional epithet about the temperature of our surroundings. The next burst brought a splinter that tore a great hole in his back. I could see the jagged vent in his smock. He gave a scream and slumped into the corner of the pit. I shook him by the shoulder. He mumbled a few words and then died.
I moved into another trench a little to the left. The shelling ceased after two or three more rounds. After a few minutes we were ordered to withdraw to the command post, where Captain P---- was in charge. The casualties were counted and proved very heavy. As we were standing in the garden, sorting the bandoliers and remaining brens, the shelling began again. Captain P---- ordered a withdrawal to the row of houses across the street. We dashed across in turn by small groups. I found myself in the back room of a little thatched house, with bricked walls and latticed windows. It was very trim, like a week-end cottage at Selsey Bill. The room presented a tangle chaos of curtains, sofas, armchairs, chintz-covered cushions, ammunition boxes, rifles, webbing equipment, and the remains of a meal scattered over the pile carpet. It was already occupied by four members of another flight, who had commandeered it two days before... I recognized old Tim M----, whom I had last seen on the further side of a table in a Leicester café during a week-end leave. He looked very white, but still managed to grin. He was killed on the following day.
We expected an attack from our old position in the wood, but the enemy had not moved. For all we knew he had not learned of our withdrawal. He may have feared our two six-pounders. One of them lay shattered in its pit, the other had been moved to the garden at the corner of the street. In a short while the sun had set... I lay down in a corner and wrapped myself in a curtain and a rug, with a fur mat for a pillow. I felt cold and very tired after seven nights of almost ceaseless watch.
In the early morning I went into the kitchen to make some tea. The gas and water supply had been cut, but I found a few gallons of water in the bath, that had a gritty taste, and I used the last of my fuel tablets on the toasting tray beneath the gas ring. The hot tea soon warmed our limbs and cheered our spirits. In the hall I found a discarded rucksack that no one claimed. It contained soap and a towel. I explored the upper floor and found a washbowl and a mirror. The first sight of my own face after seven days was a little disconcerting. I had grown a heavy stubble of beard, stained yellow from the sand of my trench. The remainder of my skin was a sickly grey colour, probably caused by lack of sleep and a mixed diet of condensed rations and preserved fruit. I washed off a large proportion of the sand and made a brave attempt to comb my hair.
We sat down to lunch in the middle of the afternoon. Some biscuits were found in the discarded rucksack and some boiled sweets. We mixed them with the boiled potatoes and ate from the earthenware dishes that had been left in the kitchen cupboard. The room was suddenly shaken by a tremendous blast. The remaining glass blew in from the french window, and for a moment we were blinded by a cloud of black smoke that filled the room with fumes... The German mortars had returned. During the following hour several bombs fell within the street, and one hit the corner wall of the neighbouring house. We returned to our stations at the window ledges and watched the street. There seemed a more than usual bustle among the houses on the further side.
We were visited by Tommy M----, who had been appointed as Lieutenant to Captain P----. He asked Nellie B---- to accompany him to Wing H.Q. When Nellie returned, he wore a very secretive expression. He asked us whether the Dutch family were all downstairs and nosed around the staircase door to assure himself they were. Then he closed the door of the room upon us, crouched down in a corner and spoke in a low murmur. "I don't want anyone else to hear this. We're pulling out tonight, over the river. The Second Army can't cross. We lost the bridge several days ago and our tanks can't pass their guns to reach it..." There were more details than he gave us. We were to assembled on a little patch of grass behind the garden at nine-fifteen; we were to bring any surplus kit; we were to cover our boots with strips of blanket and rug cut from those in the room; we were to follow white tapes down to the river; we were to retain our arms at any price; we should keep together.
Our first reaction to this news was one of dazed surprise, almost shock. For nine days we had held one belief; the Second Army was coming through. We had heard rumours and more rumours of their steady advance to the river bank, of vast lines of tanks on the Nijmegen road, of lines of guns firing a barrage over our heads... At four o'clock we had watched a sortie of Typhoons swooping down on the German lines to the north, heard the rasping and booming of their rocket fusillade and seen them return above the street unopposed. The enemy had made no attack, and the situation we thought, relieved.
One of the K.O.S.B.s came from across the street. He brought a message from the colonel of his battalion, whose H.Q. lay in a house near the corner, asking for a patrol of four men to report to him at once. Nellie sent Stan T----, and two Borderers men and myself. We ran across the road and through the front gardens to the side door of the H.Q. The colonel was standing in the kitchen. He was a short, plump person with a hooked nose and sand moustache... He told Stan to take charge of a patrol of twelve men, comprised of K.O.S.B., paratroops, Borderers, and glider pilots, and to reconnoitre the gardens of the houses in the street to the north - a section of no-man's-land that we presumed the Germans had left unoccupied. We were ordered to fire on sight or sound of any suspicious movement, but should avoid any stand up fight. The purpose of the patrol was to inform the Germans that we were still active and to conceal our intention that we would withdraw that evening.
We filed out along the fence of the back garden and climbed some railings at the further end. Before us lay the ruins of the cottage that had been burning during the night... We passed along the side of the wall and scanned the houses to the front. They were a row of semi-detached villas of the same design as those in our own streets. There was no sign of movement from the windows or doors... Then we saw a movement there. A sergeant from the Recce corps stepped clear, rather blunderingly, his smock torn and his face black with wood ash. "Have you seen my boys?" he asked. "I left them on guard in the cellar." He walked past us and lumbered over the brick wall into the embers. He moved to one corner and stirred a hole in the ash with the butt of his sten gun. He whistled and called in a low voice: "Hey, Ted! Ted!" Then he moved to another corner and called again. For several minutes he stumbled around the inner walls. Finally he stepped back over the outer wall and was hidden again in the bushes. We moved on to the next garden, then turned to the right and crept through a shrubbery of currant bushes. We crouched there for a few minutes and watched the row of houses. Then Stan beckoned us to follow and we returned to H.Q. From the H.Q. garden we all dispersed our different ways.
From the kitchen cupboard I unearthed the last clean saucepan and emptied into it the remainder of our tea ration for a final brew. By the time this had boiled, the sun had set; I stumbled down a darkened passage into the dim confusion of the back room. We sat, huddled in separate corners and sipped the tea. Final orders were whispered round the room. Dusk turned total darkness... At nine o'clock Nellie stood up before the white square of window and beckoned us to follow. Our blanket-shod feet made a dull crunch on the gravel. Apart from a few kicks against the window frame we made little sound. From the gardens on either side we could see dim lines of figures advancing in the same direction. Two hundred yards in front we saw the black mass of beech trees that lined the road we had to pass. The blackness was laced with scarlet arcs of tracer bullets, and the "toc-toc-toc" of machine guns echoed from all around. Far away to the south the lower sky glowed with a pale yellow light, and the heavy guns went on rumbling endlessly.
As we reached the open ground of the clearing, I heard a sudden dull "pop" from a verey pistol in the wood, and a second later a flare burst into light in the sky above our heads. I sprawled onto my face. Looking to one side, I saw the clearing littered with a line of prostrate bodies, like fishes stranded on a beach... Some mortar shells burst on the right edge of the clearing. The light dimmed and vanished. The line of bodies before me began to crawl forward on hands and knees. At the far side of the clearing we entered some bushes, and we could venture to stand up. The groups of soldiers broke and mingled in such confusion that I was soon lost from our little party... Together we shambled along behind a file of smock-clad figures into what appeared a path in a thick wood. Our only direction pointer was the dull glow from the south, where the river lay. Wherever the trees grew dense enough to screen the view, we had to move by instinct: the sound of guns was impossible to locate, for the woods echoed with the crash of shells and rattle of volleys.
Presently we passed a white strip of cloth on the side of the path; another appeared, and then another. We had chosen the right path... We shuffled forward in groups of two or three. Two officers were standing astride the path, scanning the face and clothes of each man before they allowed him to pass. "For Christ's sake don't bunch," someone whispered. Stan and I were jostled into a bunch of several others. We turned left through a hole in the wire and groped our way along a fence that ran southwards into the meadows by the river bank. I could see a dark strip of oily water and the outline of a dyke on the further bank. Beyond the dyke lay a stretch of sky that seemed ablaze. It was lit by the flashes of a barrage from the Second Army guns. I could not gauge their distance from us, but the whole ground seemed to shake... The field that lay between the water and our feet was half lit by the moon; across it stretched a sinuous queue of men. One or two were standing at the river bank, but most were sitting or lying on the grass, quiet as ghosts.
Beneath the rumble of field guns on the far side and the rattle of fire in the woods at our back, I heard a faint undertone of sound, the chugging of an outboard motor on the river; the ferrying had begun. While I stood in the cover of a ditch, waiting among a long file for the order to move; I watched the moonlit queue and wondered that they should stand there unseen, when the enemy were so near. It seemed miraculous that two thousand men could cross unobserved. I did not wonder long. There came a succession of "plop, plop, plops" from a mortar battery in the wood, and the next moment a string of shells burst in the centre of the queue... There were screams and shouts for help. Several voices shouted "Scatter". Bodies crawled in all directions... The shells began to hail down in scores. Luckily they were of small calibre and in the damp ground they burst like big squibs and those only were hit who lay within a yard or so of their fall. The queue was moved a second time, and thinned to a narrower line.
The men were passed forward in little groups. I must have wallowed in the ditch an hour or more before our turn came. Someone called from across the field. We ran across the slope of grass and clattered on to the shelving stones of the bank. A boat was swinging against a groin of stones that sloped into the water. We waded out and heaved ourselves over the side. It was a canvas assault boat, about twenty feet long, with an outboard motor screwed to the stern. It was manned by two Canadian sappers. When the boat had filled, one of them staved off the groin with a pole and we swung into the river. The other sapper jerked the engine-starter with a rope. The engine kicked and misfired. He jerked again. The engine spluttered, chugged a few turns, then stopped. The boat swirled downstream in a fast current. We began to drift back towards the bank. The sapper cursed and began fumbling with a spare screw wrapped in paper. He bit the wrapping with his teeth. We grounded on the bank, the one we had started from.
Then a voice shouted: "Why in hell's name don't you paddle with your rifles?" The other sapper poled us into deeper water and we dipped our rifle butts in the river. An officer in the bows called the time: "In-out. In-out." The boat's head began to swing upstream. "Go slow on the port side. In-out. In-out." We checked our downstream drift and passed mid-current. The engine started with a jolt that flung us off our balance. The bows lifted and we raced across the final reach into the shadow of the dyke. The bows grated against a stone.
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