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Hibbert before take off on Sunday 17th

Major Tony Hibbert

Tony Hibbert in 1984

Major James Anthony Hibbert

 

Unit : Headquarters, 1st Parachute Brigade

Army No. : 74531

Awards : Military Cross

 

The son of a distinguished Royal Flying Corps pilot (three times winner of the Military Cross and a Distinguished Flying Cross), Tony Hibbert, as Brigade Major, commanded the 1st Para Brigade's Headquarters. He had served with the Army throughout the war and, with the British Expeditionary Force, was evacuated from Dunkirk in May 1940. During the planning stages prior to Market Garden, he had come into contact with his friend and chief opponent of Operation, Major Brian Urquhart. Hibbert regarded Urquhart as being "highly strung but intelligent, and his fear for the 1st Airborne's safety were justified".

 

"He {Brian Urquhart} took me into his office and he showed me photographs of German panzer IV's mainly, I think they were, tucked in underneath woods. And he went to General Browning and said that in his view Operation Market Garden could not succeed. They said that his nerve had broken, of course Browning had every right to make his own judgement, my own view is that Urquhart was a very brilliant chap, he knew what he was suggesting and that was the end of it."

 

"Well my first reaction {to Operation Market Garden} was one of enormous enthusiasm and excitement because this was the first time that anyone on our side had contemplated the proper strategic use of airborne forces en masse. September 17th - an enormous feeling of excitement, and I think a lot of the ones who had fought in North Africa and realised just how tough the Germans could be were a bit skeptical, but in the main the rest were so fed up with being buggered about after 16 cancelled operations that they said "oh for christ's sake let's get on with it. Let's go. Let's do it." The concept was brilliant and it could and should have worked and the war would have been ended six months earlier."

 

On the march to Arnhem Bridge, at the rear of the 2nd Battalion's column on the "Lion" Route, Brigade HQ saw a succession of visitors passing through during the hours when things began to go wrong. First Major-General Urquhart arrived in search of Brigadier Lathbury, who had only recently raced up the column in the direction of the 2nd Battalion's HQ. As Urquhart drove after him he had shouted out, "Hibbert, for God's sake get your brigade moving or the bloody Germans will get to the bridge before us". Major Gough of the Reconnaissance Squadron arrived shortly after, who in turn was trying to find the General, but due to the communications failure Hibbert was only able to inform him that his last known destination had been the 2nd Battalion, and so off Gough departed but was fated not to find the Divisional Commander.

 

Arriving at the Bridge at about 20:45, Hibbert conferred with Lt-Colonel Frost and they agreed to set up Brigade HQ in the large three storey office building neighbouring Frost's HQ. In a former life this building had served as a hospital, but it was now the headquarters of the Provincial Roads and Waterways Department. In these early stages there was so little of the 2nd Battalion at the Bridge that the arrival of Brigade HQ more than doubled their defensive strength, and so Hibbert split his men up and posted them to buildings that would not only make for a more effective defence but would also expand the perimeter out as far as possible.

 

Brigade HQ had managed to establish radio contact with Lathbury, who was with Urquhart and the 3rd Battalion. Hibbert informed him that the "Lion" Route had been largely free of opposition and suggested that it might be wise to move the 3rd Battalion onto it during the night. Lathbury did not agree and instead took the decision, with Urquhart's approval, to rest the 3rd Battalion overnight before resuming the advance along the "Tiger" Route the following morning. With the loss of his Brigadier for the moment, Hibbert immediately visited John Frost and gave him command of the forces at the Bridge. The opposition ahead of the 3rd Battalion at this time was light, but with one company detached on a flanking manoeuvre and another fighting off German patrols in the rear, the effective offensive strength of the Battalion at this time was small and so it was perhaps prudent to wait for those in the rear to catch up before moving on. Hibbert later said:

 

"...they were fully engaged and they regressed for the night. Of course they'd only been fighting for about five hours and that's not the moment to start resting. It was a very unwise decision in my view."

 

At first light on Wednesday morning, the German artillery gunners south of the river began to demolish every church steeple protruding from the Arnhem landscape. Clearly they suspected that the British were using these 18th Century towers as observation posts, though throughout the battle Hibbert had believed that the enemy were using them for just such a purpose, and as such it was a relief to him to see them go, but at the same time sad that such beautiful buildings should have to be destroyed.

 

Frost was badly wounded on Wednesday afternoon, and with his approval Hibbert passed control of the Brigade to Major Gough. Of the Brigade staff and the attempts of their signallers to make contact with anyone, John Frost wrote: "The attic in which they laboured was hit repeatedly, but they never flagged. Tony Hibbert and Rex Byng-Maddock had to sit it out with as much cheerful resignation as they could muster, filling in time by taking turns at sniping whenever they had the chance". Every hour Hibbert updated his diary, and one of his entries for Wednesday reads "Two Mark IV tanks suddenly appeared round the corner and under cover, a 15cm gun was unloaded and pointed directly at Brigade HQ." As contact had been established with the Light Regiment's guns at Oosterbeek it would have been appropriate to request that they put some fire down on this threat, however the radio set in Brigade HQ picked the worst possible moment to break down. Hibbert moved his men out of the attic, which minutes later was struck by three armour piercing shells fired from the south. Shortly after one of the 2nd Battalion's mortars attached to "A" Company attacked the gun and put it out of action when one of their bombs struck the ammunition dump beside it, leaving a large crater where it had been.

 

"The tactic was to fire high explosive into the sides of the building to break the wall down then fire smoke shells through that, and of course the smoke shells have got phosphorus in them, the phosphorus sets light to anything inflammable in the house, and they then burned the perimeter down bit by bit over the period of the next 48 hours. Once the water ran out and the flames became uncontrollable then you had to get out of the building as quickly as you could and get into another one set that one up for defence."

 

Using the Type 22 radio set in the attic of Brigade HQ, Hibbert managed to establish contact with XXX Corps and he informed them that the bridge was still passable but would not be so for much longer. He asked when he could expect a relief force, and received the reply that an attempt to take Nijmegen bridge was imminent and that they hoped to reach Arnhem soon. During the morning contact was made with Divisional HQ, and upon learning of their supply problems Major-General Urquhart, unaware of how intense the fighting was at the bridge, suggested to Hibbert that he organize groups of Dutch civilians to scour the area for supply canisters from the resupply flights and bring back as much food and ammunition as they could. The Brigade Major quickly put this thought from Urquhart's mind as it was impossible for even the paratroopers to move from one building to another without attracting heavy fire, and so the civilians, sensibly sheltering in their cellars, would stand no chance at all. In the afternoon he heard from the General again, who bore the grim news that the vanguard of XXX Corps was stuck north of Nijmegen, and with this report Hibbert felt that an end to resistance at the bridge was close.

 

"We had by this time about 300 wounded in the cellars, but I still believed that 30 Corps would be coming up certainly up to the south bank within a matter of almost hours. And damn it we could hear them! At 8 O'clock I realised that our little battle was finished. We just didn't have the ammunition. When the other side can run tanks right up to your front window with no chance of you retaliating, there comes a moment where you can't go on."

 

It was decided that the remnants of the 2nd Battalion would defend the bridge until they were overwhelmed, meanwhile Hibbert set about making a plan to break out the remainder in the hope of getting as many men as possible back to Oosterbeek. In preparation for this he reconnoitered the northern end of the perimeter, where he was almost run down by a British Jeep driven by Germans. The break out force of approximately 120 was organized into just two platoons, each consisting of five sections, each under the command of an officer. Though exhausted and woefully short of ammunition, almost all of the men made it out and assembled as planned at a convent school 100 yards to the north of the perimeter. One by one the sections set out, but almost everyone involved was captured before making much progress. Hibbert led the last section away a few hours before dawn, but it quickly became apparent that the Germans had a stranglehold on the town and there was no way through. Having advanced no further than the Cathedral, 300 yards north-west of the bridge, Hibbert halted his group and instructed them to hide in the back garden of a house. Most were barricaded by Hibbert inside a bedroom, two more hid inside a tool shed, Major Munford of the Light Regiment shut himself inside a wooden crate, and Hibbert with Anthony Cotterell, the War Correspondent, installed themselves in a coal bin. They were quickly discovered and dragged out.

 

Hibbert's experience as a prisoner of war lasted only days. At 17:30 on Saturday 23rd, having being held at the temporary POW camp at Velp, he and other captured officers were transported in an open lorry towards Munich. As they were about to pass through Brummen, Hibbert gave a pronounced wink to Major Munford and, when the lorry had substantially reduced its speed, the pair jumped off. Hibbert came down hard on the road, his knees absorbing the shock of the landing and his face and eye receiving cuts in the resulting tumble, but in spite of this he got to his feet quickly and ran towards the nearest side street. Munford set off in the opposite direction but was soon recaptured. The tragedy of this escape attempt was that immediately after they had jumped one of the German guards in the truck panicked and turned his Schmeisser on the other men in the lorry. A German soldier and four airborne men were killed outright, while a further two were mortally wounded. Amongst the dead was Anthony Cotterell. Meanwhile, rapidly weaving a random path over fences, through gardens, and down alleyways, Hibbert successfully evaded recapture, partly thanks to an unknown Dutchman who discreetly tracked the Brigade Major's progress and twice alerted him to the imminent presence of German soldiers by whistling "It's a Long Way to Tipperary". The first time Hibbert heard this completely unexpected tune it naturally made him stop dead in his tracks. He hid, and the appearance of a German staff car minutes later revealed to him that if he had carried on in the direction he was heading he would have stumbled into a German Headquarters. Having obtained a pair of rubber gym shoes at Velp in exchange for his 'noisy' army boots, Hibbert was able to move somewhat more covertly, and with German troops searching the surrounding countryside for him, Hibbert took refuge in woodland. With some apples he had stolen from an orchard, he moved on and found a small farmhouse, where he burrowed his way into the earth beneath a log pile and slept until morning. Unfortunately his shelter collapsed during the night, leaving him bruised, cut, and dazed. In addition to these injuries the pain was such in his back that he had difficulty walking, his knees were still weak after his leap from the lorry, his face was bloodied from the resulting landing, and one of his one eyes was bruised and shut.

 

He rested himself further during the day and after dusk decided to knock on the door of the farmhouse. The farmer was suspicious of Hibbert, but he was eventually convinced that he was an escaped British officer after several attempts to convey his identity; once by drawing a Union Jack and a Swastika on a piece of paper and then crossing out the latter. The farmer departed to find someone who could speak English while his wife prepared sandwiches and a large pot of coffee for their guest. During the course of the next day a succession of curious locals visited the farm, and they were finally followed by a representative of the resistance. Dick Tjeenk Willink verified Hibbert's identity by means of a short but thorough interrogation, at the end of which he offered him shelter at his house in Brummen. The house was well equipped with hiding places; a fake floor in the attic where a man could lie on a mattress, and a double partitioned wall behind a cupboard, behind either of which Hibbert could conceal himself at a moment's notice. He stayed here for three weeks.

 

Before long it came to the attention of Brigadier Lathbury, who was also in hiding and with the help of the Dutch Resistance was in touch with most all airborne men on the run, that his Brigade Major was alive and in a house not more than half a mile from where he was based, in Ede, 15 miles west of Arnhem. The pair were delighted to be reunited and they, with the help of Major Tatham-Warter and Lt-Colonel Dobie, began the action of reassembling the evading remnants of the 1st Airborne Division behind enemy lines. By this time Hibbert had acquired some replacement clothing but had spared no thought for the overall ensemble, and so struck an unusual figure in green plus-fours that hung below his calves, white stockings, gym shoes, and a grey and white chequered coat. Yet open movement about the area in such peculiar attire drew little attention as the local population were at the stage where they had to accept what clothes they could find. Originally it had been planned that these airborne men would act as a coup-de-main cum commando force for any further Allied attempt to cross the Rhine, however when it became clear that this was not going to happen there was no option but to plan for the mass escape of these men, now numbering in the hundreds. "Operation Pegasus", as the operation was to become known, was put into action on the 22nd October. Tatham-Warter, the bold ring leader of this plan, spoke with Hibbert the day before to inform him that he was to command the party at the rear of their withdrawal, comprising those men in hiding around Velp. From here, he and his sixty men would be taken to Oud Reemst, from where they would commandeer two trucks, each designed only to accommodate 10 men, and drive them to Renkum, where they would unload and proceed to the river bank on foot. Hibbert being, like most men, more cautious than Tatham-Warter, feared that the idea of moving 120 men to the Rhine through heavy German defences would most likely fail, however he was aware that there was little else to be done. Dutiful as ever, Hibbert hollowed out the heel of his boot and placed inside a list of all those who had been taken prisoner at Arnhem bridge, as well as plans of German gun emplacements in the local area.

 

Hibbert set up his headquarters outside of Oud Reemst, inside a hut in a wooded clearing. Throughout the day his men began to assemble, all wearing at least parts of a British uniform, and a number of them were armed. After dark, two Chevrolet trucks were delivered, though the patchwork surgery that had been carried out on them over the years ensured that they bore little resemblance to the time when they had rolled off the production line. Hibbert decided that there was only one way to fit 30 men into each vehicle, and that was for half of them to lie on the floor and act as a sort of cushion for the officers and other ranks who would carry arms. Needless to say no one volunteered for the static role, there were arguments but these were all forgotten when, for no known reason, several bursts of machine-gun fire were heard nearby. It took three hours for them to reach their destination, by which time those who had lay down in the trucks were both bruised and fed up. At 19:30, as the group assembled on the track and were preparing to move off, two German soldiers approached on bicycles, each carrying a Schmeisser. Claiming right of way, they furiously rang the bells on their bikes for the British to clear the road, which in a state of shock they were happy to do, and the two Germans rode straight passed them and disappeared into the woods beyond. Hibbert organized his group into single file sections and, led by a guide, they proceeded towards the river bank. Surprised that they had gotten as far as they had, Hibbert expected a German patrol to ambush them at any moment, however "Pegasus" was a complete success and all of the men were evacuated without alerting the enemy. Unfortunately, riding home on the bumper of a grossly overcrowded Jeep, Hibbert accidentally fell off and became the operation's only casualty by breaking both of his legs in the fall.

 

As a result of his involvement with "Pegasus", Major Hibbert was awarded the Military Cross. After the war Hibbert became a highly successful businessman. A very keen gardener, he currently resides in Cornwall with Christopher, his eldest son. In 2001, he appeared on the BBC's Battlefields programme, speaking about his memories of Arnhem.

 

Thanks to Tony Hibbert's nephew, Major Rupert Hibbert of the 16 Air Assault Brigade, for his help.

 

See also: Operation Pegasus: Evasion Report, Capt Jacobus Groenewoud

Offsite Links: http://timewitnesses.org/english/~dorlas.html, Anthony Cotterell - A Newspaper Man in Service Harness, http://clydemcdonnell.blogspot.com/2011/03/james-anthony-hibbert.html

 

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