Sergeant Keith D. Banwell
Unit : No.4 Platoon, "A" Company, 10th Parachute Battalion
Tex Banwell joined the British Army in 1931, serving with the Coldstream Guards with whom he saw action against the Pathans and Kashmiries in the mountains on the North-West Frontier. His career during the Second World War progressed to most every style of special forces unit in existence, beginning in 1942 when he joined the Long Range Desert Group, a unit which was not intended to commit sabotage like the SAS that it evolved into, but to spy on enemy troop formations extremely deep into enemy territory. Dressed like Arabs, the Group operated from the most inhospitable desert regions, where even the natives did not go. In 1942 Banwell was captured at Tobruk, but soon escaped in a German half-track. Sometime later he joined the Commandos and was again captured in an operation on Crete, but once again he succeeded in escaping, this time with a fishing boat which he sailed to North Africa. He joined the 10th Battalion when the 4th Para Brigade began the process of assembling in the Middle East, and was posted to No.4 Platoon of A Company.
At Arnhem Banwell was standing in the doorway of a C-47, waiting for the order to jump, when his plane was repeatedly hit by enemy ground fire. The port engine fell apart in front of him, then the starboard engine was similarly hit and burst into flame. A German machine-gunner fired a volley across the fuselage of the wounded craft, almost cutting it in two, and in the process killed six of the paratroopers inside the plane. The pilot tried to control the plane but it had now descended to 500 feet, so Banwell gave the order to abandon and jumped out, each man behind him struggling over the top of the bodies of their comrades as they followed suit. When he landed on the heath Banwell saw the commander of No.4 Platoon, Lieutenant George Mackay, charging a German machine-gun position by himself, but the officer was hit repeatedly and killed, spinning several times before he fell. Banwell then became the target of machine-gun fire and he had great difficulty in crawling off the drop zone. The crippled C-47 crashed in the woodland beyond.
On the following day when the 4th Para Brigade attempted to overcome the defensive line on the Dreijenseweg and the 10th Battalion's advance was halted at the pumping station, A Company, now commanded by Captain Queripel who would later win the Victoria Cross, were ordered to make a flanking attack upon this opposition, but it did not succeed. In advance of this move, Sergeant Banwell was ordered to take two men with him and patrol up the road to see what lay ahead of them. They came very close to being seen by a German patrol, but managed to find their way back to report that there were five tanks, two supply trucks, and two fuel tankers in a compound beyond the pumping station.
When the 4th Para Brigade withdrew across the railway line on Wednesday 20th and made haste towards the Oosterbeek Perimeter, the 10th Battalion led the way but Banwell became separated from the remnants of his unit, however he nevertheless managed to find his way to friendly positions and reported to the Hartenstein Hotel, together with Corporal Bill Cuttill and Private Ginger Whadcoat. On Sunday 24th, he and Company Sergeant Major Lashmore (of Support Company) were searching for food in woodland inside the Perimeter when they were fired on by a German machine-gunner and a bullet struck Banwell's right hand, removing the tops of his index and middle fingers. The two men ran to cover, where Banwell did what he could to bandage his hand, and they waited until it was dark when they were able to make their way back to Divisional HQ.
On the following day Banwell and Lashmore were informed by Major Hugh Maguire (GSO2 Intelligence, Div HQ) of the plans to withdraw the Division across the Rhine that night. When the moment of departure came the two men decided to find their own way to the embarkation area, and though they could hear the engines of motor boats passing back and forth and the sound of mortars landing in the water, they failed to locate the crossing point. They stripped themselves and tried to swim the river but, realizing that the current was too strong and would likely drown them, they backed away and resolved to stay in what would soon be German territory. Banwell decided they should return to the Hartenstein, where he hoped to find a supply container filled with food and ammunition which would keep them both alive until they could contact the Dutch Resistance. When daylight came they were in the dense woodland around the area of the Driel-Heveadorp Ferry and had located a food container tangled up in a tree. Banwell climbed the tree to cut it down, but when it fell it hit the ground with a loud crash. As the two men struggled to open the container and get at the food, not having eaten for several days, Banwell felt a machine-gun barrel pressed hard in the small of his back. Surrounded by 10 Germans, they had no choice but surrender.
That afternoon a German doctor examined the wounds to Banwell's fingers, treated them, and applied a clean bandage. The next day Banwell fell in line with a large group of airborne prisoners being marched in the direction of a prisoner-of-war compound, established in a warehouse at Stroe, 15 miles from Arnhem. At the camp he met up with Staff-Sergeant Alan Kettley of the Glider Pilot Regiment, and shortly after Lieutenant Leo Heaps, a Canadian officer attached to the 1st Battalion. Heaps had little success in finding others in the camp who were willing to risk their lives to escape, however he noticed Banwell and Kettley displaying a little more than passing interest in the perimeter fence. By that evening the three men had formed a plan of escape and gathered what equipment they had to hand - an escape map that was too small to be of any use, a button compass, Kettley's nail clippers, a tin of chocolate, a box of matches, and a grey German Army blanket. The men in the camp were to be shipped to POW camps via railway, however officers, NCO's, and other ranks were to be kept apart. Heaps left the officers compound and fell in with Banwell and Kettley, where he pretended to be a Sergeant, and for the moment he was not missed by the German guards. Together, they and other prisoners were marched to a railway siding where they were crammed into cattle cars. Once inside Kettley got out his nail clippers and began to work away at the porthole-shaped window to remove the glass, a task he had completed in a matter of minutes. He then used his clippers to saw through the meshed barbed wire on the other side of the porthole. Once achieved, Heaps put his arm through, grabbed the other side of the porthole, and made several attempts to tear it from its fixings. Eventually he had unhinged a section of wood three feet wide and 18 inches high. The three men jumped off the train and into the clear and moonless night. Only one other man in the cattle car asked if he could go with them, but he had a serious leg wound and so they had to leave him behind.
By morning on the 30th September they had made significant progress but came to a halt at the first sign of daylight to rest beneath the German Army blanket, which offered them some shelter from the biting cold. Later in the morning they could see a small wooden cottage ahead of them with smoke coming from the chimney. The prospect of heat was considerably attractive to them at this time and so they knocked on the door, and after several minutes the door was nervously opened to reveal an elderly lady and two young children. She could not speak any English, but Banwell attempted to convey who they were with some improvised sign language, to which the lady smiled and invited them in where they were served small cups of hot milk before they took their leave a few minutes later. Having travelled several miles further they were beckoned into a farm house by two Dutch women who gave them civilian clothing and prepared a comparative feast, having gone 10 days without a satisfactory meal, of fried eggs, bread, and cheese. As they were finishing their meal in walked Piet Oosterbroek, a member of the Dutch Resistance, who shook them by the hand. He had heard of their presence from the old lady in the wooden cottage, who had misunderstood Banwell's sign language and had been under the impression that they were German soldiers who had deserted. Oosterbroek had no doubt that they were really escaped Airborne soldiers and so tracked them down to offer them shelter in the hay loft of his own farm, close to the village of Putten.
Their stay at Oosterbroek's abode was brief due to German patrols combing the area for escapees, and on the following morning they were driven cross-country on motorcycles, coming to a stop after about an hour's journey next to a chicken coup in the middle of an empty field. Inside were four men of the Dutch Resistance, along with two captive members of the Dutch SS. The RAF had been dropping arms and supplies to the Resistance, and amongst this arsenal was a Bren gun which was placed on the table before the Airborne men. Unfortunately the Dutchmen had no idea how to strip and maintain the gun, and so Banwell, who had been an instructor during his long military career, was only too happy to demonstrate the dismantlement and reassembly drill of the gun within the expected two minutes. The Resistance men were very impressed and asked Banwell if he could postpone his plans of escape to remain with them to give instruction in the use of British weapons. He agreed and said farewell to Lieutenant Heaps and Staff-Sergeant Kettley, who departed on the 1st October.
On the following day Banwell was given command of the Bren and took part in an ambush of a small German convoy with 7 Resistance members, all armed with Stens. Shortly after midnight the vehicles approached the trap, whereupon the headlights of a lorry stolen by the Resistance were switched on in the darkness to blind the driver of the leading vehicle. Banwell calmly pressed his trigger but the Bren jammed, however he was able to clear it and open fire seconds later, killing most of the Germans in the first two vehicles, though in the brief firefight one Resistance man was fatally wounded. Inside the Staff car that was hit lay a badly injured German officer beside an envelope marked "Streng Geheim" (Top Secret). The Dutchmen took the envelope and carried their dying comrade and the wounded German back to their shelter, where his wounds were dressed. The leader of the Resistance and Banwell were both in favour of killing this man, though the other Dutchmen were against this, and so the German was spared and loaded onto a wheelbarrow, which was abandoned in an obvious place close to an army post. This act of mercy did nothing to deter the German desire for revenge, who on the following day put selected buildings near Putten to the torch, 7 men were executed, and the 590 males between the ages of 15 and 50 were sent to concentration camps, where only 44 survived. Banwell had been hiding in the concrete cellar of a building that was burned down, and when it was safe he took shelter in the woods, having almost been suffocated by the smoke. He contacted the Dutch Resistance again and was involved in several more operations with them in Amerongen and Tiel. Though he had the opportunity to return to the Allied lines on several occasions he decided to stay and aid the Resistance, declining a place in Pegasus I - the successful evacuation of 139 escaped Airborne troops across the Rhine. However he did try to escape with Pegasus II on the 18th November, but sadly this mission was a failure and only a few men got away.
In the aftermath of Pegasus II, Banwell hid in a brickyard at Wageningen with an American pilot whose name he never learned. Though he had a long history in the art of escape and remaining undetected, Banwell knew that he was in trouble. It was bitterly cold and the snow covering the ground would betray any attempt he made to move. On the 21st November an SS patrol came to search the brickyard. The American stood up and said "I'm an American pilot. Don't shoot.", but he was gunned down by machine-gun fire and left to die in the snow. Banwell was not harmed and was instead marched to Velp for interrogation, though he was so frozen he could barely move. He seemed to be sure of treatment befitting any normal Prisoner of War, however when he was made to strip and it was observed that he wore clean underwear, it was obvious that he had not merely been on the run but had been aided by the Resistance. The Gestapo were called in, who produced a remarkably accurate dossier on Banwell's military career, and transported him by plane to Berlin where he was repeatedly interrogated at Gestapo HQ. He was ordered to reveal the names of the members of the Dutch Resistance he had been in contact with, and his refusal to talk led to him twice being brought before a firing squad. However the threat of execution was a bluff which he successfully rode out, and so Banwell was sent to sit out the war at Auschwitz concentration camp, where for the next four months he existed on a serving of water and sauerkraut per week. The Red Army reached Auschwitz in March 1945, by which time Banwell's weight was down to 90 pounds, half what it should have been.
Returning home, Banwell continued to serve in the army until during the 1970's, and was likely to have been amongst Britain's most senior parachutists. At the 25th anniversary of Arnhem in 1969, Banwell stood alongside present day paratroopers in a Dakota and jumped once more over Ginkel Heath, formerly DZ-Y. It was his 650th jump, and far from his last because he felt the experience of parachuting kept him "mentally alert". He donated his battle dress jacket to the Airborne Museum Hartenstein, where it is presently on display.
See also: Lt Heaps, Pte Davison.
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