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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, Twice Mentioned in Despatches.

 

Born in 1917, "Tony" Hibbert was the son of a Royal Flying Corps pilot, who had been decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Bars to the Military Cross. After leaving school at 16, Hibbert worked as an apprentice in the family business of wine and spirits merchants. Part of his training took him to Germany, where, in 1935, having become quite alarmed at the remilitarisation which was taking place, he abandoned his apprenticeship, much to the displeasure of his father, and returned to England where he applied to the Royal Military Academy. He was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in January 1938, and accompanied the British Expeditionary Force to France at the outbreak of hostilities. He participated in the defence of Dunkirk in May 1940, leading his men to the boats once their ammunition had run out and they had destroyed their guns. Eager to return to the front, Hibbert applied to join No.2 Commando, and served with the Parachute Regiment in North Africa and Italy. In June 1944, he was appointed Brigade Major of the 1st Parachute Brigade.

 

During the planning stages prior to Operation Market Garden, Hibbert had come into contact with his friend and chief opponent of the plan, Major Brian Urquhart. "He 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." Hibbert also commented that Urquhart was "highly strung but intelligent, and his fear for the 1st Airborne's safety were justified."

 

"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 sceptical, 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."

 

Brigade Headquarters marched to Arnhem along the southernmost "Lion" Route, in the wake of the 2nd Parachute Battalion. After a few hours, Major-General Urquhart arrived in search of Brigadier Lathbury, who had only recently left in the direction of the 2nd Battalion's Headquarters. Urquhart pressed on after him, and shouted out as he did so, "Hibbert, for God's sake get your brigade moving or the bloody Germans will get to the bridge before us." Not long after, Major Gough of the Reconnaissance Squadron arrived, who in turn was trying to find Urquhart, but due to the communications failure Hibbert was only able to inform him that he was last known to be heading towards the 2nd Battalion. Gough followed him without success and eventually fell in with the Brigade column.

 

Hibbert arrived at Arnhem Bridge at about 20:45, and after conferring with Lieutenant-Colonel Frost it was decided that Brigade Headquarters would be established in the large three storey office building neighbouring Frost's own headquarters. This building had at one time been a hospital, but was now the headquarters of the Provincial Roads and Waterways Department. Only a small portion of the 2nd Battalion had reached the Bridge at this time, and as the arrival of Brigade Headquarters had more than doubled their strength, Hibbert split his men into groups and posted them to a number of buildings which extended the perimeter as far as possible and increased the effectiveness of the defensive positions.

 

Radio communications were established to the 3rd Parachute Battalion, and it was found that both Brigadier Lathbury and Major-General Urquhart were with them. Hibbert informed Lathbury that the Lion Route was largely free of opposition and suggested that it might be wise to advance the 3rd Battalion along it during the night, but Lathbury did not agree and, with Urquhart's consent, decided to rest the Battalion overnight before pushing along the Tiger Route the next day. The opposition in front of the 3rd Battalion at this time was light, but with one company detached on a flanking manoeuvre to the Brigade and another fully engaged with fighting off German attacks in the rear, the effective offensive strength of the Battalion was small and so it was prudent to wait for the troops in the rear to catch up before pushing 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." In any case there was no prospect of Lathbury's imminent arrival at the Bridge, so Hibbert visited Frost and gave him command of all of the troops in the vicinity.

 

At first light on the morning of Wednesday 20th September, German artillery south of the river began to demolish every church steeple protruding above the Arnhem landscape, suspecting that the British were using the 18th Century towers as observation posts. Hibbert had believed that the Germans were using them for the same purpose, and so it was a relief to see them go, but at the same time he was sad that such beautiful buildings should be destroyed.

 

The signallers and staff of Brigade Headquarters made constant attempts to establish radio contact with anyone outside of their area. Lieutenant-Colonel 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." Frost was badly wounded on Wednesday afternoon, and with his approval, Hibbert passed control of the Brigade to Major Gough.

 

Hibbert updated his diary every hour; 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." Contact had been made with the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment at Oosterbeek, but the radio set with Brigade Headquarters chose the worst possible moment to lose the link and so they were unable to request the support of their guns. Hibbert moved his men out of the attic, which was struck several minutes later by three armour piercing shells fired from the south. One of the 2nd Battalion's mortars, attached to "A" Company, attacked the gun shortly after and put it out of action when they hit the ammunition dump beside it, leaving a large crater where it had been.

 

"The tactic [of the German guns] 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 and set that one up for defence."

 

Using the Type 22 radio set in the attic, Hibbert managed to establish contact with XXX Corps and informed them that the bridge was still passable but would not remain so for much longer. He asked when they could expect their arrival at the bridge, and was told that an attempt to take Nijmegen Bridge was imminent and they hoped to be there soon.

 

Hibbert also managed to reach Divisional Headquarters on Wednesday morning and informed them that they were desperately short of supplies. Unaware of the intensity of the fighting around the Bridge, Major-General Urquhart suggested organising groups of Dutch civilians to scour the area for supply canisters dropped on the resupply flights and bring back as much food and ammunition as they could. Hibbert quickly put this idea from his mind as it was impossible at this time for his men to move from one building to another without drawing heavy fire, and so the civilians, sheltering in the cellars, would stand no chance at all of success. Contact was made with Divisional Headquarters again in the afternoon, and Urquhart delivered the grim news that XXX Corps had become stuck to the north of Nijmegen. With this report, Hibbert believed that resistance at the Bridge would soon cease. 

 

"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."

 

When resistance finally collapsed, Hibbert planned to break-out of the perimeter and get as many men as possible back to Oosterbeek. He made a reconnaissance of the northern end of the perimeter in preparation for this, and in the process was almost run over by a British Jeep being driven by Germans. The remaining 120 men who could break-out were divided into two platoons, each of five sections under the command of an officer. Although exhausted and woefully short of ammunition, almost all of them made the first bound to the convent school 100 to the north of the perimeter. One by one, the sections then set out for Oosterbeek, but most everyone involved was taken prisoner before making much progress. Hibbert led the last section out several hours before dawn, but it quickly became clear that the Germans had a stranglehold on the surrounding area and so, having advanced no further than the Cathedral, 300 yards to the north-west of the Bridge, he told his men to hide in the back garden of a house. Most were barricaded inside a bedroom by Hibbert, two more hid in a tool shed, Major Munford of the Light Regiment shut himself inside a wooden crate, whilst Hibbert and the War Correspondent Anthony Cotterell installed themselves in a coal bin, but they were quickly discovered and dragged out.

 

Major Hibbert's experience as a prisoner of war was brief. Having been held at the temporary POW cage at Velp, he and other captured officers were transported in an open lorry to Munich at 17:30 on Saturday 23rd September. As they were about to pass through Brummen, Hibbert gave Major Munford a pronounced wink and, when the lorry reduced its speed considerably, the pair jumped off. Hibbert landed hard on the road, his knees absorbing most of the shock of the landing and his face and eye receiving cuts during the resulting tumble, yet he quickly got to his feet and made for the nearest side street. Munford ran in the opposite direction but was soon recaptured. A tragedy occurred as a result of this escape attempt; when they jumped, one of the German guards panicked and turned his Schmeisser on the other men in the lorry. A German soldier and four airborne men were killed outright, and a further two were mortally wounded. Anthony Cotterell was amongst the dead.

 

Knowing nothing of this, Hibbert evaded capture by rapidly weaving a random path down alleyways, over fences and through gardens. He was assisted in no small way by an unknown Dutchman who discreetly followed him and twice warned him of the imminent arrival of German soldiers by whistling "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." The first sound of this completely unexpected tune made Hibbert stop dead in his tracks and hide. The appearance of a German staff car several minutes later made him aware that if he had carried on in the direction that he was going, he would have stumbled into a Headquarters.

 

He obtained a pair of rubber gym shoes in Velp to replace his army boots, which made too much noise. With German troops patrolling the countryside, Hibbert sheltered in woodland, and with some apples he had taken from an orchard, moved on until he came to a small farmhouse, where he burrowed his way into the earth beneath a log pile and slept until the morning. His undermining left the pile unstable, however, and it collapsed during the night, leaving him bruised, cut and dazed. All in all his adventure had left him in a state of disrepair, as he had also acquired a back pain which made walking difficult, his knees were weak after the leap from the lorry, his face was bloody from the landing on the road, and one of his eyes was bruised and shut.

 

Hibbert rested more during the day but after dusk decided to knock on the door of the farmhouse. The farmer was suspicious, but was eventually convinced that he was really a British officer after several attempts to describe his identity, including drawing a Union Flag and Swastika on a piece of paper before crossing out the latter. Leaving his wife to prepare sandwiches and a large pot of coffee for their guest, the farmer left to find someone who could speak English. A succession of curious locals visited the farm during the next day, until finally Dick Tjeenk Willink of the Dutch Resistance came, verified Hibbert's identity after a brief but thorough interrogation, at the conclusion of which he offered him shelter at his house in Brummen. There were plenty of hiding places here, including a fake floor in the attic where a man could lie on a mattress, and a double partitioned wall behind a cupboard, in either of which Hibbert could conceal himself at a moments notice. He remained here for three weeks.

 

Brigadier Lathbury was also in hiding at this time, and thanks to the Dutch Resistance he was in contact with almost all of the numerous airborne personnel who had evaded capture. He was delighted to learn that his Brigade Major was alive and in a house no more than half a mile from himself, in Ede, 15 miles to the west of Arnhem. Reunited, they worked alongside Major Tatham-Warter and Lieutenant-Colonel Dobie to organise the men. Hibbert had acquired some replacement clothing by this time, but no thought had been spared to the ensemble, and he struck a most unusual figure in green plus-fours which hung below his calves, white stockings, gymshoes, and a grey and white chequered coat. Yet to move openly through the streets in this manner drew little attention as the local population, at this stage in the war, were making do with whatever clothes they had.

 

It was the original plan for the evaders to be used as a coup-de-main cum commando force to assist a further Allied attempt to force a crossing of the Rhine, but once it became clear that no such operation was coming it was decided that the men, now numbering in the hundreds, would carry out a mass escape to the British lines. Operation Pegasus, as the plan became known, was put into effect on the 22nd October 1944. Major Tatham-Warter was its mastermind, and he instructed Hibbert on the day before that he would have command of the rearmost party, comprising those men in hiding around Velp. From here, he and his sixty men would be taken to Oud Reemst, where they would be taken in two trucks, each of which was only designed to accommodate ten men, to Renkum and then proceed on foot to the riverbank. Like most men, Hibbert's nature was a good deal more cautious than that of Tatham-Warter, and although he knew that there was no alternative, he feared that to attempt to move 120 men through the heavily defended German front line would likely fail. Nevertheless, he was sufficiently optimistic to hollow out the heel of his boot and conceal inside a list of all those who had been taken prisoner at Arnhem Bridge, as well as plans of German gun emplacements in the area.

 

Hibbert established his headquarters inside a hut in a wooded clearing on the outskirts of Oud Reemst. Evaders arrived throughout the day, a number of whom were armed, and all were wearing at least parts of a British uniform. After dark, two Chevrolet trucks arrived, though both had been so heavily repaired and patched up over the years that they bore very little resemblance to their original condition. Hibbert believed that the only way he could fit thirty men into each vehicle was for half of them to lie on the floor and act as a manner of cushion for those carrying arms. There were no volunteers for the "underdogs", and a degree of argument followed but was abruptly ended when, for no known reason, several bursts of nearby machine-gun fire were heard.

 

It took three hours for the trucks to reach their destination, by which time those who were lying down were quite fed up and bruised. The group assembled on a track at 19:30, and were preparing to move off when two German soldiers, each carrying Schmeissers, approached on bicycles. Fortunately they took the men for Germans and, claiming right of way, furiously rang their bells to clear the British from the road which, somewhat taken aback, they were quite happy to do, and then watched the two Germans ride by and disappear into the woods beyond. The men were organised into single file sections each led by a guide, and proceeded towards the riverbank. Hibbert was surprised that they had got this far and expected to be ambushed by a German patrol at any moment, but Operation Pegasus was a complete success, and all of the men involved were evacuated across the Rhine without the enemy being alerted. Hibbert, however, became the only casualty of the operation when, riding to Nijmegen on the bumper of a grossly overcrowded Jeep, he fell off and broke both of his legs. For his involvement in Operation Pegasus, he was awarded the Military Cross.

 

Hibbert spent many months in hospital and was finally discharged in April 1945. Still on crutches, he was posted to "T" Force in Bremen and ordered to capture Kiel to prevent the Russians from entering Denmark. The duty officer in Hamburg would not allow his men to pass as he had been ordered to prevent anyone from crossing the frontline, but Hibbert persuaded him otherwise and the group moved through. Entering Kiel, Hibbert managed to speak with Admiral Doenitz who agreed to an immediate ceasefire of all German forces in Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark. Despite this achievement, Hibbert returned to find himself under arrest for deliberately disobeying the orders of the corps commander. This was perhaps a fitting end to a wartime career which had started with him being in trouble for crashing into the car of a superior officer. Nevertheless, 65 years later Hibbert was presented with the Great Seal of the City of Kiel, and received a commendation from the British Chief of the General Staff.

 

Hibbert was invalided out of the Army in 1947, and returned to the family business of wine and spirit merchants, and the career he had abandoned before the War. The company was struggling in the post-war era, but Hibbert, who ultimately took over the running of CG Hibberts, used his initiative and drive to restore its fortunes, opening a chain of off-licences, moving into the canned soft drink market, and even introducing the humble ring-pull can to the UK. He retired in 1970, having been given the Queens Award for Industry.

 

He became vigorously involved with numerous projects thereafter, including the founding of the Salterns Sailing Club which, to this day, continues to introduce youngsters to dinghy sailing. With the Cold War at its height, Hibbert campaigned for the establishment of local emergency volunteer forces for the purposes of assisting during natural disasters and indeed possible invasions of the mainland. It was an unpopular idea which led to him being accused in some quarters of running his own private army, yet a plan did emerge for Devon County Council to raise local volunteer groups to supply food and water in the event of a natural disaster. During the 1980's, he moved to Cornwall and purchased one of the original gardens created by the Fox family, which the Hibbert family beautifully restored and, in 1987, opened to the public, attracting some 50,000 visitors over the next three years. He donated the property to the Trebah Garden Trust, and it continues to thrive. Hibbert was awarded the MBE in 2006 for his contributions to sailing and tourism. In 2001, he appeared on the BBC's Battlefields programme and spoke about his memories of Arnhem.

 

Tony Hibbert passed away peacefully at home on Sunday, 12th October 2014, aged 96. He had five children; one from his first marriage and the remainder with Eira, his wife of 60 years, who passed away in 2009.

 

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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