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 the Royal Engineers of the 1st Parachute Squadron's "A" Troop. With regard to the placement of drop zones, he personally felt that the Division may as well have been dropped a hundred miles from the Bridge as opposed to eight. Mackay was so sceptical about the chances of success that he ordered the men in his Troop to take double ammunition, and he also briefed them on escape techniques. The 1st Para Squadron flew to Arnhem with the First Lift, and fell in line with the 2nd Battalion column on the "Lion" route. Their journey was largely uneventful, but Mackay was worried about the civilians rushing out to greet them. Not only did they unintentionally impede the march with their jubilant celebrations, and distract the men by offering them food and drink, they also made a lot of noise which would draw the attention of any Germans in the area.


Nearing the Bridge in the dark, Mackay and his men were fired upon by a German machinegun, and this detonated the explosives inside one of the trolleys the engineers had with them. With the area illuminated, the men dashed across to the Bridge defences and arrived without losing a single man. Mackay briefly surveyed the area and decided to position 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 arrived in the northern most building, and had only just begun to smash the glass in the windows and pile the furniture up 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 into the neighbouring Van Limburg Stirum School. This building was already occupied by part of "B" Troop, and later joined by a small number of men from the 3rd Battalion. The men of "B" Troop didn't initially make their colleagues welcome, telling them to "Bugger off; go find your own place", but when Mackay entered the building he overruled the objectors in his customary uncompromising manner. Who was in command of the school is a matter for debate. With the commander of "B" Troop badly wounded, Mackay was allowed to assume control of all the engineers in the building. However Major Lewis of the 3rd Battalion outranked him, but despite this it is thought likely that both groups acted independently of each other.


The school was a position that received much attention from the enemy over the days that followed, and the defenders were involved in many vicious fights to maintain control of the building, but they clung on doggedly and refused to yield. On one occasion, enemy infantry stormed the building, but the Engineers brutally beat them back with bayonets and knives. Those Germans who got out alive retreated into nearby bushes, but Mackay and several others gave chase and drove them away. In doing so he received light mortar wounds to both of his legs, and narrowly escaped death when a bullet pierced his helmet but only grazed his head.


Monday night saw a heavy mortar and machinegun attack on the School. Men ducked for cover wherever they could as the bullets tore through the building and splinters shot out of floorboards and caused many injuries. In the same attack, the Germans brought up a flame thrower and set the building on fire. For over 3 hours the men battled the flames from the roof using their Denison smocks and fire extinguishers belonging to the School. Eventually the fire was put out. Shortly after an anti-tank rocket demolished the south-west corner of the School, and the explosion momentarily knocked Mackay unconscious. Dead and wounded were everywhere in the building, and the rooms were smothered with broken glass, debris, and blood. Soon Mackay realised that his building was surrounded, but not by attacking troops, instead the 60 Germans outside were relaxing and quietly chatting amongst themselves. Major Lewis and Captain Mackay ordered these intruders to be driven off by a fearful grenade attack that caused many casualties, approximately 20 dead, amongst these SS troops, while no casualties were registered amongst the defenders.


On Tuesday 19th, at about the same time that Lt-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 situation at the Bridge was by no means desperate by this stage, no one was really sure if individual was calling upon them to surrender or whether he wished to surrender himself. Captain Mackay assumed it was the latter, and as they had no facilities for the containment of POW's, and to accept them would make the school rather cramped, he waved his arms at the man and shouted "Get the hell out of here. We're taking no prisoners". At which point a chorus of jeers arose from the defenders of the school, to the tune of "Raus!" and "Bugger off!". The German gradually understood and moved away.


On Wednesday 20th, when resistance was starting to fail, the school was systematically demolished by a MKVI Tiger Tank, a 105mm Ferdinand self-propelled gun, and heavy mortar fire. Eric Mackay ordered the building's 45 remaining defenders, 31 of whom were wounded to evacuate. Several more men were killed and wounded trying to lift their wounded comrades to safety. Mackay concluded that the situation was hopeless and asked the wounded to surrender, the 11 sappers who were still able to fight, including himself, decided to try to make their way back to what was left of the other units defending the Bridge. The group had not got out the door before five of these men were added to the wounded list when a single mortar exploded amongst them. Captain Mackay and his remaining five men, each armed with a Bren gun, took the dubious decision of breaking out in an easterly direction - away from the Bridge - simply because he thought it was the last direction the enemy thought he would go. Making their way through ruined houses, the group ambushed two Tiger tanks and approximately 50 Germans. Mackay's group caught them completely unawares and slaughtered the enemy as they ran abreast across the street, firing their Brens until their ammunition was exhausted. One of the engineers were killed in this action, and another was wounded. Still not willing to give up, he ordered his men to split up and make their own way back to the Bridge.


Mackay found his way into a garden and took the opportunity to sleep under a rose bush until nightfall when he could try to rejoin friendly troops. He was half asleep when he was rudely awoken by a group of Germans, who were unsure if he was alive or dead. One of them kicked him hard in the ribs, and Mackay did his best to shrug this off, but he was unable to maintain the posture of a convincing corpse when another German decided to stab one of his buttocks with his bayonet, down to the pelvis. Mackay rose to his feet in a fit of rage and drew his Colt pistol, even though it had no ammunition, and demanded "What the bloody hell do you mean stabbing a bayonet into a British Officer?". The surprised Germans would have shot him if they could. It took Mackay a few moments to realise, but they had encircled him, and to open fire on him would likely injure one of their comrades in the process. Captain Mackay found their predicament to be rather amusing and started to laugh. He surrendered, but first threw his pistol over a wall so they couldn't claim 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 Captain Mackay, who was in no mood for such silliness, and so he ended it at the first opportunity. Before the German could speak, Mackay said that it was futile for the Germans to resist any further and that he was prepared to accept their surrender. His shocked interrogator could think of nothing to say in return, and that was the end of the interview. Not being a man to admit defeat, Mackay spent the following hours visiting groups of other British prisoners and reminding them that their war was not over, and that it was now their duty to try to escape or to cause the enemy as much trouble as possible. Mackay himself rather excelled in this duty. While being shipped out of the area in trucks at dusk, he ordered the men in his vehicle to bunch up against their guard so that the man could not wield his gun. Mackay leapt out of the truck, but unluckily landed almost right on top of a sentry. He was in the process of trying to break the neck of this unfortunate man when more Germans appeared on the scene and they beat him unconscious. Mackay awoke with other POW's in a Dutch inn several hours later, he dragged himself against a wall and slept for the first time in 90 hours.


On the following day, Mackay escaped once more, but this time his attempt was successful. Taking with him Lieutenant Denis Simpson, Lance-Sergeant John Humphreys and Corporal Charles Weir, they made their way cross country until they reached the River Waal. They stole a boat and paddled their way to the Allied lines at Nijmegen. When the remainder of the 1st Airborne withdrew over the Rhine, Mackay was on the southern bank to greet them. He was appalled and disillusioned with those that had so hastily sent the 1st Airborne to Arnhem. Out of the all the Engineers of A Troop that accompanied him to the Bridge, only five returned, including himself. However throughout the battle at Arnhem Bridge, this determined officer and his men fought harder than most against the fierce and overwhelming odds thrown at them.


Captain 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 about the defence of Arnhem Bridge in Blackwood's Magazine. He remained in military service and having become Chief Engineer RE of the British Army of the Rhine during the 1970's, he retired at the rank of Major-General.


As a Brigadier, in the early 1970's, he was upgraded to 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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