Private William George Gibbard
Unit : Mortar Platoon, Support Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 5387525
I was born in Sandford St Martin, Oxfordshire on 1 April 1919, one of 11 children of a family working on the land. When I was 11 years old we moved to Dun Tew and attended the Dr Radcliffe School in Steeple Aston, leaving at the age of 14. I was then employed by Oxfordshire County Council at their Deddington Depot, working on road maintenance.
I was called up into the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry on 16 October 1939. I reported to Cowley Barracks in Oxford and underwent 8 weeks basic training. I was then billeted at Slade Camp in Oxford until mid-January 1940, when my unit went to Branch to join up with the 43rd Regiment as part of the British Expeditionary Force. We were billeted in houses in Rouen for a few weeks until we pushed on into Belgium, engaged in guarding bridges. Again we were billeted in houses and I had the fortune to be in a large house, which we shared with the owners. The wife cooked for us every day and the meals were fantastic (even if we did later discover that the steak was horse!).
Up until the beginning of May 1940 we saw little action, other than hearing guns in the distance. It all changed when the news came through that the Germans had gone around the Maginot Line. We were ordered to retreat to Dunkirk, which we did by fighting a rearguard action by holding the line in turns.
We arrived on the beach at Dunkirk on 22 May. It was already packed with thousands of British troops. We were then about a mile from the pier, where the troops were waiting to get aboard the rescue boats. We were continuously under fire, from machine guns on the ground and dive-bombers from above. All of the surrounding buildings had been flattened and at night we took shelter in the cellars of hotels. In one we found tins of Bartlett pears in syrup and bars of soap marked 'White Lion Hotel, London'.
On the fourth day the Germans hit the pier so that the boats and ships were unable to come close to the shore to pick us up. On 29 May I saw my chance to wade into the sea and get on board the destroyer HMS Anthony. There was tremendous relief to be safe at last but halfway across the channel we were bombed. Fortunately the damage was not serious and we arrived at Dover at about 10pm. After an hour or two, together with some others from my unit, I was put on a train, not knowing where we were going. We ended up at Reading Barracks, where I was given 10 shillings for spending money. We were kited out with new uniforms and sent to Hereford Racecourse, where we stayed under canvas for 6-8 weeks.
We were posted to Ballymena in Northern Ireland, joining the 2nd Bucks Battalion. Whilst there I made several unsuccessful applications to transfer to the Parachute Regiment. We returned to England, based at a camp at Great Missenden, Bucks, where the endless, monotonous training continued. To my great relief, a further application to transfer to the Parachute Regiment was approved.
I was posted to the Parachute Regimental Training School at Hardwick Hall, Manchester in March 1943. We graduated from jumping off a platform to jumping from a hot air balloon. There followed the required seven jumps from an aircraft. After the first two jumps you had the option of deciding that it was not for you. I was more than happy to continue and at the end of training I was proud to receive my Wings and wear the Red Beret.
Having completed my training I was posted to Algeria, together with about 50 other paratroopers, to join the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, as part of the 8th Army. I joined a mortar platoon, commanded by Lt Woods. Also in the platoon were Sgt Joe Hamilton, Sgt Maurice Kalikoff, Sgt Jackson, Sgt Smith, Sgt Bill McCreath and Sgt McGrath. As we moved towards Tunis our role was to guard prisoners of war. We reached Tunis, where we regrouped in preparation for the next operation.
From Tunis we took part in a seaborne landing at Taranto in Italy. We pushed on inland to Foggia, where the 8th Army took over the advance. In October 1943 the 1st Airborne Division commenced its journey back to England and we were dispersed to various parts of Lincolnshire. I was billeted in Grantham, spending the time on various exercises.
On 5 June 1944 we were put on standby for our next operation, which we discovered was to be the D-Day landings. We slept on the tarmac beside the planes at Saltby Airfield, near Grantham that night. The next morning we were returned to billets, having learnt that the 6th Airborne had taken part in the landings on the French coast and that we were not needed.
On 24 July 1944 I married Joyce Duly, a young lady from Welling, Kent who had been evacuated to my home village earlier in the war.
At the end of August we were given a week's leave. On return we were confined to barracks, awaiting our next operation. At around mid-day on 17 September we were taken to Saltby Airfield - Operation Market Garden had begun! At 1pm I boarded a Dakota aircraft, with no idea where we were going, other than it was an operation. When were up in the air I realised it was something pretty big because the sky was full of aircraft, all heading in the same direction.
During the flight the padre, Captain Egan gave us each a copy of the New Testament and I wrote my name and address in it.
As we neared the Dutch coast the order was given to hook up and get ready to go. As I looked out of the open door I could see acres of open ground with gorse bushes. The red light came on, followed by the green and out we went. There was an amazing sight - the sky was completely filled with parachutes!
I landed safely and we gathered ourselves together on a road, guided by our Commanding Officer, Lt Col John Frost blowing his hunting horn. We set off on the lower road towards Arnhem and initially made good progress. Suddenly we came under fire and were held up for a while. As we got nearer to Arnhem the opposition forces became stronger and we suffered casualties. Amongst these were twin brothers, Claud and Thomas Gronert.
At around 7pm we arrived at our objective, Arnhem Bridge. With others, I set up the 3in mortar about 100 metres from the bridge. Our task was to give covering fire to our troops on the bridge, who were engaged in fierce fighting. The mortar platoon was in a shallow trench that gave limited shelter from the shelling. Amongst those in the trench were Sgt Hamilton, Sgt Kalikoff, Sgt McCreath, Ron Mounsel, James Simms, Ron Youngman, 'Geordie' Hutton, Stan Murfin, Bill Crew and Les Gemmell. Lt Woods was in a forward position, relaying the range to us, by word of mouth, of the German positions on the bridge. Charlie Waddilove had the Piat anti-tank gun in a forward position and his job was to knock out the tanks on the bridge.
We held our position throughout the first night. On the second day we received an order to carry out an infantry attack on the German positions. We left out trench to make our way on to the bridge. We found that burning German tanks were blocking the bridge. The air was filled with dense smoke, much of it coming from burning houses. Under heavy shellfire we were unable to make much progress. Our action served to halt the German advance but we took heavy casualties.
We retreated from the bridge into nearby houses and gardens. There was a temporary truce whilst the Germans allowed us to gather in our wounded. They asked to surrender but our officers refused to do so. In the cellar of one of the houses there were 60-70 wounded men being tended by Capt Jack Logan and his team of medics.
We dug ourselves a shallow trench in a garden but we were being heavily shelled. As one shell burst Ron Mousel shouted to, 'Bill, I've been hit'. I could see a small amount of blood but could not tell how serious it was. I took him to the medics at the top of the cellar steps and returned my position. To my amazement he joined me after a few minutes, it having been established that it was just red-hot shrapnel that had burnt through his trousers!
As the day went on we were running short of food and ammunition. It was necessary to continually change position and it became difficult to stay together as a fighting unit. By the second night most buildings around us were on fire and we had suffered heavy casualties.
By the third day we had almost run out of ammunition and were losing contact with our command. At some stage we had lost touch with Sgt McCreath but did not know what happened to him. Our position had become impossible and the order came 'Every man for himself'. Our instructions had been to make our way back across the river, where boats were waiting to join up with other forces. By this time the Germans had over-run our positions. We split into pairs, myself with Ron Mousel. We got as far as the Eusebius church, where 9 of us sheltered for the night. German troops came into the church at around 2am and we were all taken prisoner.
Along with many other prisoners, I was put in a cattle truck and we set off on a three-day journey into Germany. We were continually bombed and machine-gunned by our own aircraft, who clearly had no idea we were on the train. We were taken to Stalag XII, where we were interrogated. Amongst the 2nd Parachute Regiment men with me there were Ron Mousel, Ted Duffle, 'Chinny' Chandler and 'Geordie' Hutton. Whilst there we celebrated Ron's 21st birthday by making him a cake - which was more like a fruitless bread pudding!
Each day we were marched from the camp to the town to board a train. We were taken to areas to repair railway tracks damaged by Allied bombing. It was a regular thing for the trains to be attacked by allied aircraft. The train would stop and the crew and guards would take shelter from the shelling, leaving the prisoners on board. Our pilots would have had no idea that we were on the train and we inevitably suffered casualties.
After about 9 weeks Ted Duffle and I ran away from a working party (which was not difficult!). We stayed in the area for some 48 hours but lack of food was a problem. We went to a house to ask for food but whilst the woman fed us her husband had gone off to raise the alarm. The first thing we knew was an army personnel carrier arriving at the house and we were taken back to Stalag XII. After 2 days of being confined to camp we were transferred to Stalag IV.
Stalag IV was a tougher regime and there were none of our mates there, the prisoners being predominantly Scots. Again we were on working parties, repairing railway lines in the Dresden area. Conditions in the camp were reasonable in as much as we were treated all right by the guards and had regular food, albeit poor quality. This was supplemented by one Red Cross parcel between two, usually only once a month. The worse thing was the accommodation, which was in huts. We had bunk beds with thin, straw mattresses. Lice were a major problem and the routine was that on a Sunday we would strip off and go through a decontamination chamber, where we were sprayed with jets of steam.
Ted Duffield and I made another escape from a working party, this time being free for 5 days. We remained in the same area, living off of raw vegetables that we stole from gardens. It was obvious that we were not going to get away and were becoming weak from hunger. In the end we gave ourselves up to a German patrol and were taken back to the camp.
After the Allied planes bombed Dresden we were taken to the town to help dig into the ruins to find survivors and bodies. This was a bad experience and I have been haunted by what I saw there. When we found a body we were withdrawn from the scene by the guards, as they had to protect us from angry civilians.
In May 1945 American Forces liberated the camp. Prior to their arrival we had been kept in the camp for no apparent reason but it later became clear that the guards had known that the Americans were approaching. We remained in the camp for a few days, before starting our journey back to England. I had lost three stone in weight but otherwise was quite well!
I remained friends with Ron Mousel and, in 1945, he acted as Godfather to my daughter, Margaret. Unfortunately I lost touch with Ron over the years and the only thing I know is that he came from Shoreham-on-Sea.
My wife had no idea that I was being held as a prisoner of war. She had received a letter, dated 6 October 1944, from the Officer in Charge of Records, regretting to inform her that a report had been received from the War Office to the effect that '5387525 Private Gibbard William George was posted as "missing" on 25 September 1944 in north west Europe'. She and her father tried to get further information from the Army and the Red Cross but without success. Eventually, at the end of November 1944, she received a postcard I had sent to her from the camp.
Whilst I was a prisoner of war my wife received a letter, addressed to me at my home address. This was from a young Dutch woman called Willi Hazendonk, from Arnhem. She had found my New Testament in a garden near Arnhem Bridge, where her father had his office. My wife corresponded with Willi during the time that I was a prisoner and we kept up this correspondence for some time after the war, until we eventually lost contact.
I was on Ginkel Heath for the 1998 commemoration when I met Peter Burton and his Dutch wife, Shannie. We spoke about Willi and through some friends of theirs, Adrian and Barte Otte from Eppe, an article was published in the Arnhem newspaper, together with a photograph of Willi, taken when she was 18. By the following day three people had contacted Adrian and Barty, saying they knew where Willi was living and this was followed by a call from Willi herself (her married name was Willi Blokland-Hazendonk). I was thrilled when Willi wrote to me and we were privileged to meet her and her husband when we went to Arnhem in 1999. Unfortunately, Willi died the following year. She had presented my New Testament to the Airborne Museum at Hartenstein, from where I retrieved it as a treasured heirloom.
A legacy of Willi is that Adrian and Barty have become good friends and host my wife and I each year for the Arnhem Commemoration.
Thanks to Bill Gibbard and Nigel Lambert for this story.
Back to 2nd Parachute Battalion
Back to Biographies Menu