Lieutenant Robert Stoddart Preston
Unit : No.18 Platoon, "B" Company, 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry
Lieutenant Bob Preston was attached to the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry from the King's (Liverpool) Regiment as a reinforcement officer, joining the Battalion at Breville in Normandy on 3rd July 1944.
6th Airlanding Brigade War Diary, 6th July 1944, mentions:
"Patrol report 2 OXF BUCKS. A patrol was sent out at 2300 hrs to find out if there still an enemy post at hedge junc 144744 and to destroy it if it were there. Lt PRESTON took his men within 50 yds of the suspected posn, then himself went forward to within 10 yds where he observed for 30 mins. Hearing no sound he moved into the post but still encountered no enemy although there were three likely posns from which MMG could fire. The patrol then returned at 0355 hrs."
Lieutenant Preston spent the next eight weeks with the battalion at various locations from Chateau de St Come, Breville, Le Mensil, Gonnville and Merville through to Tourgeville encountering regular shelling and mortaring from a formidable and still highly motivated enemy. The variable weather resulted in the slit trenches frequently becoming very wet.
The Battalion remained in Normandy until the 2nd September 1944 when they marched down to Arromanches and embarked on board HMS Empire Crossbow, bound for Southampton en route to Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain. On the 7th September, the whole Regiment was granted leave to report back on the 16th September which was later extended until the 20th. On returning from leave there followed a period of intense training in order to condition the remaining troops and induct the replacements for the many that had fallen in Normandy.
The training routine carried on throughout October and November and personnel were preparing to spend Christmas at home with their families when, due to events in the Ardennes, all leave was cancelled and the Regiment was transported by lorry to Dover before crossing the Channel and continuing by road to Givet on the river Maas. In severe winter weather with a considerable amount of snow, the regiment arrived in Belgium on Christmas Day 1944 with the objective of supporting the American troops and holding the river Maas. Fortunately the Germans ran out of fuel about twenty miles short of this location and their Ardennes offensive was soon to peter out. There was much patrolling in extremely cold weather over the next month chasing retreating Germans before moving into Holland on the 17 January 1945 staying close to the River Maas until 3rd week in February when the battalion returned to England to prepare for the next airborne assault which was to be the Rhine Crossing.
In preparing for Operation Varsity at Birch Airfield in Essex from 20 March, "B" Company learned that they had been assigned a coup de main task to capture and hold a level crossing and a nearby road bridge over the River Issel in Hamminkeln which was approximately five miles from the east bank of the Rhine. Nos. 17, 18 and 19 Platoons were to land on the east side of the River Issel in gliders CN1, CN2, and CN3 respectively. Lieutenant Preston, as commander of No.18 Platoon, was to travel in glider CN2, piloted by Staff Sergeants Bill Rowland and Geoff Collins (KIA) of "E" Squadron, The Glider Pilot Regiment. The Tug pilot was Squadron Leader Mostyn-Brown of 512 Squadron with take-off to be from Gosfield Aerodrome, A/B Block number 17.
Having retired to bed early on the eve of the operation, it was still dark on a fine, cold morning when the battalion was woken at 02:00 before consuming a hearty breakfast of bacon eggs and beans prior leaving for Gosfield at 04:00 prompt. The battalion gliders which were being towed by Dakotas took off at one minute intervals from 06:00 heading north before turning around in the area of the Wash. Glider CN2 in which Lieutenant Preston was travelling with No.18 platoon, which included Lance-Corporal Godfrey Yardley, missed the turning point but was able to retake its position second from the front of the air train behind glider CN1, which was carrying No.17 platoon, as they crossed the French coast.
Flying at 2,500 ft, it was a beautiful, clear morning with blue sky and bright sunshine. All was calm but as they crossed the Rhine, concentrated flak and accurate 20mm Anti-Aircraft fire was directed on each of the slow moving gliders in turn, with CN1 taking a direct hit with all on board lost. CN2 fared little better and as Lance-Corporal Godfrey Yardley wrote:
"As I sat on the starboard side forward I watched [Private] Ginger Belsham pull the forward door upwards and at that precise moment flak burst under the port wing banking the aircraft over to starboard almost throwing Ginger out of the door - only to be pulled back by the Platoon Commander [Lieutenant Bob Preston] and Sergeant. This took perhaps two seconds and allowed this man to live for another few minutes - for he and sixty per cent of the Platoon were soon to die. The enemy was waiting for us with a prepared concentration of ack ack guns and being the first gliders in our regiment we took the full weight of the defences, as historical records were later to show. With some of the controls damaged and no compressed air to operate the landing flaps, we flew across the landing zone, over the railway and the River Issel to crash head on into a wood at ground level. At a speed of over 70 knots a fully loaded glider - the size of a heavy bomber - becomes a pile of matchwood in about one second flat. I was one of the lucky ones being the centre one of five men still sitting on one piece of seat with harness on. With the exception of a few cuts and bruises we five were OK. Several other chaps were alive but wounded, but most were dead including the Platoon Commander, Sergeant and two Corporals, leaving a Corporal, myself and another Lance Corporal and seven others unhurt."
The time of landing was 10:21. Lieutenant Robert Preston, along with many of his comrades, is buried at the Reichwald Forest Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery.
My thanks to John Preston for this account.
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