Captain Eric Mackay near Nigmegen Bridge

Captain Eric Mackay near Nijmegen Bridge

Captain Eric Mackay at Nijmegen bridge

Captain Eric Mackay

Captain Eric Maclachan Mackay


Unit : "A" Troop, 1st Parachute Squadron

Army No. : 210907

Awards : Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Distinguished Service Cross


Captain Eric Mackay commanded "A" Troop, 1st Parachute Squadron, during the Battle of Arnhem. He had misgivings about the Operation Market Garden plan, particularly the location of the drop zones as he felt that the 1st Airborne Division may as well have landed one hundred miles away from the bridge instead of just eight. Sceptical about their chances of success, he ordered the men of his Troop to take double the ammunition they would normally carry, and even briefed them on escape techniques.


After landing, "A" Troop followed the 2nd Parachute Battalion along the "Lion" route. Their journey was largely uneventful, though Mackay was a little worried about the jubilant civilians who rushed out to greet them, as not only were they unintentionally impeding the advance and distracting the men with food and drink, but they also made a lot of noise which would alert any enemy troops in the area.


It was not until after dark that they approached the bridge, where they were fired on by a German machine gun, which detonated the explosives in one of the trolleys they had brought with them; with the area illuminated, they ran the final distance to the British positions and reached them without loss. Mackay briefly surveyed the area and decided to establish his men in some buildings on the embankment at the north-eastern side of the perimeter; an area that he felt was critical to the defence of the Bridge. "A" Troop entered the northern-most of these, and had only just begun to prepare them, by smashing windows and piling furniture against them, when German infantry attacked. They were beaten off, but Mackay realised that this building was overly exposed to enemy fire, and so he withdrew his men to the neighbouring Van Limburg Stirum School. This building was already occupied by a part of "B" Troop, who did not make their colleagues welcome, telling them to "Bugger off; go find your own place", but when Mackay entered the building he overruled them in his customarily uncompromising manner. They were later joined by a small number of men from the 3rd Parachute Battalion under Major Lewis. Although Lewis was the senior officer, it is believed that Mackay retained command of the engineers, and that both groups acted independently of each other.


As a building which dominated the bridge and was crucial to the viability of the British positions east of it, the School was subjected to many heavy attacks over the following days, but the defenders clung on doggedly and refused to yield. On one occasion, enemy troops stormed the building but the Engineers drove them out with bayonets and knives, and when these retreated to some nearby bushes, Mackay and several others chased them out. During this action he received light mortar wounds to both of his legs, and narrowly escaped death when a bullet pierced his helmet and grazed his head.


During the night of Monday 18th September, the building was subjected to heavy mortar and machine-gun fire. Men ducked for cover wherever they could as the bullets tore through the building and splinters shot out of floorboards, causing many injuries. A flame-thrower was then used to set the building alight, which was finally put out after three hours, using their Denison smocks and the school's fire extinguishers to smother the flames. Shortly after an anti-tank round demolished the south-west corner of the School; the explosion momentarily knocking Mackay unconscious. Dead and wounded were everywhere in the building, and the rooms were showered with broken glass, debris, and blood. Mackay subsequently realised that the building was surrounded, not by troops forming up for an attack, but by about 60 Germans who were relaxed and quietly talking amongst themselves, unaware that the building was occupied. Major Lewis and Captain Mackay organised a synchronised grenade attack which caused many casualties and left approximately 20 dead.


On Tuesday 19th September, at about the same time that Lieutenant-Colonel Frost was called upon to surrender, a German soldier, with a dirty white handkerchief tied around his rifle, approached the school and shouted "Surrender!". As the British regarded their position as by no means desperate at this point, they were unsure whether he was calling on them to surrender or whether he was trying to give himself up. Mackay assumed the latter, and as they had no facilities for POWs in the School, he waved his arms at the man and shouted "Get the hell out of here. We're taking no prisoners". At this point a chorus of jeers arose from the defenders of the School, with the odd "Raus!" and "Bugger off!" thrown in. The German gradually understood and moved away.


On Wednesday 20th September, when resistance was starting to fail, the troublesome School was systematically demolished by the combined efforts of a Tiger Tank, a 105mm self-propelled gun, and heavy mortar fire. Mackay ordered the building's 45 remaining defenders, 31 of whom were wounded, to evacuate, several of whom were killed or wounded as they tried to carry their injured comrades to safety. Concluding that the situation was quite hopeless, Mackay told the wounded to surrender whilst himself and the 10 who were still able to fight tried to make their way across to the British positions west of the bridge. Five of these were wounded by a mortar explosion as they were about to leave, and so Mackay with the remaining five, each armed with a Bren gun, decided to break out in an easterly direction, away from the bridge, reasoning that the enemy would not expect them to head that way. Moving through the ruined buildings, they surprised a party of 50 Germans and two Tiger tanks; running across the road in a line, they fired their Brens into this group until they had run out of ammunition, causing many casualties but suffering one dead and another wounded themselves.


Mackay then ordered his group to split up and try to make their way back to the bridge. He found his way into a garden and took the opportunity to sleep beneath a rose bush until it was dark, and was barely asleep when he was rudely awoken by a group of Germans who were unsure if he was alive or dead. One kicked Mackay hard in the ribs, which he did his best to shrug off, but he was unable to maintain the posture of a convincing corpse when another German decided to stab him with a bayonet in his buttocks and down to the pelvis. Outraged, Mackay leapt to his feet and drew his Colt pistol, though it was out of ammunition, and demanded "What the bloody hell do you mean stabbing a bayonet into a British Officer?". He probably would have been shot, but it took Mackay a moment to realise that they had encircled him and could not open fire without risking injury to each other. Amused by their predicament, he laughed, then threw his pistol over a wall so they could not have it as a souvenir. His watch and his father's silver flask were confiscated from him, but the latter was later returned.


A German lieutenant attempted to interrogate Mackay, but he was in no mood to oblige him and was determined to put an end to it at the first opportunity. Before the officer could say a word, Mackay said that it was futile for the Germans to resist any further and so he was prepared to accept their surrender. Taken completely unawares and with nothing to say in reply, the interrogation ended. During the following hours, Mackay visited groups of British prisoners and reminded them that it was their duty to escape or cause the enemy as much trouble as possible. When they were loaded onto trucks and driven away, Mackay told the men in his vehicle to bunch up close to their guard so he could not wield his gun, then he jumped out of the truck but landed right on top of a sentry, and was in the process of trying to break the man's neck when his comrades arrived and beat Mackay unconscious.  He awoke with other prisoners in a Dutch inn several hours later, and dragging himself against a wall had his first proper sleep in 90 hours.


On the following day, Mackay escaped once more, but this time was successful, as is related in his M.I.9 report:


Captured : Arnhem, 20 Sep 44.

Escaped : Emmerich, 21 Sep 44.

Left : France, 29 Sep 44.

Arrived : U.K., 29 Sep 44.


Date of Birth : 26 Dec 21.

Army Service : Since 16 Jan 40.

Peacetime Profession : Student.

Private Address : The Holt, Camberley, Surrey.


I was dropped on 17 Sep 44 at about 1400 hrs at Arnhem (Holland) and was captured on 20 Sep 44 at 1600 hrs by S.S. troops. I had removed all rank badges and therefore the Germans thought I was a private. I was taken the same night to Zevenaar (N.W. Europe, 1:250,000, Sheet 2a and 3a, E 87), about 8 kms from Arnhem.


On 21 Sep at about 0730 hrs I was taken by lorry to a transit camp in Emmerich (Germany) (E 96), where I met Lt. Simpson (S/P.G.(G) 2759), L/Sgt. Humphreys (S/P.G.(G) 2760) and Cpl Weir (S/P.G.(G) 2761).


The S.S. troops who had captured me did not search me, and I was able to retain a hacksaw-blade and an escape map. I gave the hacksaw blade to Cpl Weir and Sgt Humphreys and told them to remove the bars in the cookhouse that evening. At about 2100 hrs on 21 Sep we dropped through the window onto the street and walked through the town to open fields. We kept on moving West and crossed the frontier into Holland near Elten (E 96) at about 0300 hrs on 22 Sep. We came to the Rhine near Tolkamer (E 86). We kept observation on the Rhine until morning and remained in the bushes nearby all day on 22 Sep.


At night we burgled a barge, which was tied up on the shore, thus obtaining food, and stole a small boat. We went down the Rhine until we reached Nijmegen at about 0300 hrs on 23 Sep. Here we made contact with some British troops.


We returned to the U.K. with our division on 29 Sep.



Of all the men of "A" Troop who had gone to the bridge, only five, including Mackay, had returned. He was appalled, and disillusioned with those who had sent the Division to Arnhem.


Mackay was awarded the American Distinguished Service Cross, and made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire as a consequence of his exploits at Arnhem. His citation for the latter reads:


Captain Mackay and Lieutenant Simpson were captured on 20th September 1944 after fighting for three days at Arnhem. When they were sent to a transit camp at Emmerich (Germany) the following day, they were not searched; Captain Mackay was thus able to retain a hacksaw blade and a map. Under his instruction two N.C.Os. filed through the bars in the cookhouse and through this aperture the party, accompanied by Lieutenant Simpson, escaped the same evening. Walking through the town they gained the open fields and proceeded west to cross the frontier into Holland near Elten. The Rhine was reached near Tolkamer. After keeping the river under observation throughout the day, they stole food and a small boat; in this they travelled down the Rhine to Nijmegen, where they encountered British troops.


In October 1945, Eric Mackay wrote a piece about the defence of Arnhem Bridge in Blackwood's Magazine. He remained in military service after the war, and having become Chief Engineer of the British Army of the Rhine during the 1970's, retired at the rank of Major-General. While a Brigadier in the early 1970's, he was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire:


Brigadier Mackay has been Chief Engineer of Headquarters Army Strategic Command since January 1970. This appointment involves him in engineer planning and supervision of subsequent engineering operations and exercises all over the world. He attends quarterly meetings in London to decide in conjunction with senior officers of the Foreign and Commonwealth offices and the Ministry of Defence, on the allocation of engineering resources on a worldwide basis, which frequently have involved the taking of difficult decisions which could well have political repercussions. His advice and expert knowledge have been instrumental to a considerable degree in the successful outcome of a large number of these projects.


He is not only a highly efficient engineer who has made it his business to be completely "au fait" with all projects for which he is ultimately responsible, which has meant many hours of overtime studying voluminous documents; it has also necessitated visits in the last twelve months to: Antigua, Barbuda, Anguilla, Turks & Caicos Islands, Bahamas, British Honduras, Salalah, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Malta and Kenya.


In Antigua and Barbuda his advice to the Governor and Prime Minister resulted in a development programme for Barbuda which enabled the local officials to forestall a "plot" to have UDI on the islands on the lines of that in Anguilla. In Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos Islands he gave much useful advice to HM Commissioner and HM Administrator respectively on various engineering construction programmes which were highly cost effective. In British Honduras he produced for the Governor and Prime Minister a programme for the development of roads and the training of local workers in the construction of pre-stressed concrete bridges.


In Salalah he was faced with the physical abandonment of the airfield by the MP[?] and had to produce an immediate solution for urgent medical action needed which included the maintenance of essential services. In several places, notably in Kenya, by his timely presence and drive, determination and influence he has produced solutions to construction problems which were unforeseen and could easily have meant the complete failure of the project.


In addition to those tasks he has taken part in many NATO seminars where his advice and judgement have been highly valued and acted upon. He has also maintained the impetus of training in damage control of airfields, rapid runway repair and engineer support for the Harrier VTOL aircraft.


It is very largely through his efforts that the Engineer Units of Army Strategic Command have played a key role in MACC type operations in many countries which have resulted in the improvement of conditions there and in the strengthening of bonds of friendship with the United Kingdom.


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