Brigadier Gerald William Lathbury
Unit : Headquarters, 1st Parachute Brigade
Army No. : 34834
Awards : Knight Grand Cross, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Distinguished Service Order, Distinguished Service Cross
Gerald "Legs" Lathbury, formerly of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, had spent nearly two decades in the Army and was one of the most experienced British Airborne officers of the Second World War. As a Captain, he had previously served as G.S.O. 2 in the 48th Division, for which he was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. His citation reads:
As G.S.O. II organized and controlled the work of the General Staff so that it functioned with high efficiency at all times. He was resolute and clear in his reconnaissances; cheerful and accurate in his liaison work with forward Brigades and unsparing of himself at all times.
In 1941, he became the founding commander of the 3rd Parachute Battalion, but did not have the opportunity to lead them into action as, shortly before the 1st Parachute Brigade left for North Africa in late 1942, he took up a staff posting at the Air Directorate of the War Office, a position which made him privy to the latest theories of airborne warfare. On the 5th November 1942, Lathbury was promoted to Brigadier and given command of the 3rd Parachute Brigade, then a part of the 1st Airborne Division and consisting of the 7th, 8th, and 9th Parachute Battalion. He parted company with them on the 28th April 1943, to take command of the 1st Parachute Brigade in North Africa.
On the 13th July 1943, the Brigade landed near Primosole Bridge in Sicily, but was badly scattered due to a combination of flak, poor visibility and inexperienced aircrews. Lathbury came down on the slopes of the "Johnny III" hill feature, some miles from where he should have been, and was fortunate to escape serious injury as his aircraft had descended to just 200 feet, but fortunately the soft, ploughed soil absorbed much of the impact. He immediately made his way towards the bridge, gathering a small party on the way, and prepared to attack it as there was no sign that it had been captured by the 1st Battalion's coup-de-main party, but it soon became clear that it had already fallen to an improvised force under Captain Rann. As he moved on to the bridge an Italian soldier, who had avoided being taken prisoner, threw a grenade and wounded Lathbury in the back and thighs. His injuries were dressed by his batman, and though limping somewhat he continued to command the Brigade.
During the following hours it became clear that the Brigade had been very badly scattered, as the 1st and 3rd Battalions had only been able to rally 164 men to defend the bridge, while Lathbury had no contact with the 2nd Battalion who were to occupy the hills further to the South, though signs of battle in that direction indicated that they were present in some form or other. The Primosole Bridge area remained relatively quiet throughout the morning of the 14th July (Lathbury's 38th birthday), but during the afternoon enemy shelling, strafing and counter-attacks began to arrive, yet they held firm despite their lack of numbers and heavy support weapons. Ammunition, however, began to run out and at 17:05, Lathbury ordered his men to withdraw to the southern bank in the hope of prolonging their resistance, and despite being in close contact with the enemy this move was remarkably made without a single casualty.
The relieving troops of the 8th Army had been expected at dawn, but as the evening drew on there was still no sign of their approach. German troops were seen crossing the River Simeto some 400 yards to the east of the bridge, and as Lathbury's force did not have the men or ammunition to repel an attack from this direction, at 19:15 he ordered them to abandon the bridge and fall back to the hills, where he hoped that the 2nd Battalion were still in position. As they had been coming under fire from this direction, it was possible that the Battalion had been overrun, but in the event it was found that they were still there, and half an hour after the withdrawal began, the vanguard of the 4th Armoured Brigade arrived.
At 08:00 on the 15th July, the German positions around the bridge were heavily shelled and the 9th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry advanced to retake it, but their simple frontal assault left them perilously exposed to enemy fire, and they were driven back with heavy casualties. As they knew the terrain well, the commander of the 151st Infantry Brigade summoned Lathbury and Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson of the 1st Parachute Battalion to a conference later in the day, and when he proposed to undertake a similar assault with another of his battalions, Pearson, who had little respect for rank, said "Well if you want to lose another bloody battalion that's the right way to do it." Lathbury encouraged Pearson to submit his own proposal, and he recommended crossing the river unopposed some distance upstream during the night, before taking the bridge defences in the flank at dawn. This was agreed upon and Pearson personally guided the Battalion over the River; their subsequent attack was a success and the bridge was back in British hands.
For his conduct during the Sicily operation, Brigadier Lathbury was awarded the Distinguished Service Order:
This officer organised and led the attack by the 1st Parachute Brigade on a vital river crossing South of Catania in Sicily on the night 13th/14th July 1943. Although dropped by parachute 1.5 miles away, from a height of only 100 feet Brigadier Lathbury reached the objective, took part in its capture and directed the consolidation, during which he was wounded. Later, during a heavy counterattack by German parachutists, he remained at the bridge where he fought alongside his troops and provided an example and inspiration which contributed in no small degree to the success of the operation.
Following their return to North Africa, Lieutenant-Colonel Frost assumed temporary command of the 1st Parachute Brigade whilst Lathbury was sent away to recover from his injuries, but he returned six weeks later in time to lead the Brigade in Italy, in September 1943.
A year later on the 17th September 1944, the 1st Parachute Brigade landed eight miles to the west of Arnhem, with the objective of advancing into the town to secure the main road bridge whilst the remainder of the 1st Airborne Division guarded the drop zones for the Second Lift on the following day. As it would take many hours to reach the bridge on foot, the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron were ordered to race to it immediately after landing and hold it until the 2nd Parachute Battalion arrived. It was not a role for which the Squadron was at all suited, but as they had been briefed to expect only slight opposition it was not anticipated that they would have any difficulty in forcing their way through. In order to avoid congestion on the roads, each of the Brigade's three battalions were to advance on separate routes, with the 2nd and 3rd Battalions heading directly for the bridge, and the 1st Battalion acting very loosely as a reserve force before moving on to secure the high ground to the North of the town. The German presence proved to be much more substantial, and although Lathbury could not have foreseen what would happen, he later regretted using the 1st Battalion in this manner rather than ordering it to follow closely behind the 2nd and 3rd Battalions as a proper strategic reserve.
After landing, Brigadier Lathbury and his Headquarters advanced behind the 2nd Parachute Battalion, and on the way received the news that the Reconnaissance Squadron had encountered a strong defensive line and could not get through to the bridge. Due to a breakdown in radio communications the 1st and 3rd Battalions were unaware of this, and so Lathbury set off in his Jeep to urge them to push on with all possible speed. Major-General Urquhart did not know that Lathbury had already heard this news, and so set out after him, finally catching up with him at the 3rd Battalion's headquarters. Shortly after the Battalion encountered heavy opposition and it was not deemed safe for either Lathbury or Urquhart to return to their respective headquarters, and so it was that the Division was deprived of both its commander and his acknowledged deputy at a most critical time.
The 3rd Battalion reached the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek as it was getting dark, and it was here that Lathbury and Urquhart agreed to halt overnight before resuming the advance in the morning. For a time this was a sensible decision as "C" Company had already been detached to attempt an independent flanking manoeuvre along the railway line and on to the Bridge, leaving just two rifle companies behind, one of which, "A" Company, was held up in the rear by skirmishes with enemy patrols. They caught up with the remainder of the Battalion by 21:00, but it is a mystery when they were not allowed to resume the advance until 04:00 on the following morning; certainly their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Fitch, was unhappy with the decision as it was felt that good progress could have been made during the night.
When the advance finally resumed, excellent progress was made in the darkness with "B" Company in the lead, and with Lathbury and Urquhart in tow they reached the suburbs of Arnhem by first light. But here they were compelled to halt as they had outrun the remainder of the Battalion, who were being delayed by minor engagements at the rear, while they in turn had become locked in an awkward stalemate with enemy patrols in the narrow streets. Major-General Urquhart could see that his plan was descending into chaos and so decided that he had to return to his Headquarters as soon as possible, making own his way through the German-infested streets in the company of just Lathbury, Captain Willie Taylor (the Brigade Intelligence Officer) and Lieutenant Cleminson (No.5 Platoon, 3rd Battalion). To cover their departure from the house they were in, Lathbury threw a smoke grenade into the garden, and as he was climbing over the fence his Sten gun accidentally discharged with a bullet narrowly missing Urquhart's foot; highly embarrassed, he offered his apologies on behalf of the temperamental weapon. Shortly after they came under fire from a German MG 42, and Lathbury was hit in the leg with a bullet chipping his spine. His three comrades dragged him into a nearby house, No.135 Alexanderstraat, where it was feared that he had been paralysed. Lathbury urged the General to press on without him, which he reluctantly did, leaving him in the care of the Dutch occupants who promised to take him to the St Elizabeth Hospital as soon as the fighting nearby had died down. This they were eventually able to do, and he became a prisoner of war.
Fortunately, Lathbury's wounds were not as severe as they had first appeared, and the state of paralysis soon wore off. He concealed his rank and pretended to be a Lance-Corporal, as this would improve his chances of making an escape. Several wounded paratroopers were housed in the same room as Lathbury, and they naturally recognised their commander but none of them gave his identity away. In the final days of the battle, he met the badly wounded Brigadier Hackett, who handed him a detailed report of events, including recommendations for valour awards. On the night of Monday 25th September, Lathbury heard the massive bombardment of the German positions by British artillery, and believed that the 2nd Army must be preparing to cross the Rhine, unaware that it was instead attempting to disguise the withdrawal of the 1st Airborne Division. Suspecting that the prisoners would soon be removed from the area, he decided that he must leave immediately, and as far as daring escapes go, his was certainly amongst the more straightforward as he simply got up and walked out of the back door, as is related in his M.I.9 report below:
Captured : Arnhem, 19 Sep 44.
Escaped : Arnhem, 25 Sep 44.
Left : Holland, 23 Oct 44.
Arrived : U.K., 23 Oct 44.
Date of Birth : 14 Jul 06.
Army Service : Since 1926.
Peacetime Profession : Regular Army.
Private Address : Aston, Somerville Hall, Broadway, Worcs.
During the Airborne operation over Arnhem, whilst in command of the 1st Parachute Brigade, I was wounded on 18 Sep 44 and taken to the Elizabeth Hospital, Arnhem.
The hospital was captured by the enemy on 19 Sep.
One of the Dutch doctors drew a plan of the gardens at the back of the hospital for me, showing full details of how to get out.
I had removed my badges of rank and the Germans did not know that I was the Brigade Commander. They had never checked up our individual details and merely took numbers; I am convinced that they never knew I was there.
I kept my plans very quiet as, should their discovery have resulted in a mass escape, the Germans would undoubtedly have tightened up all regulations, with the inevitable bad effect on the treatment of the remaining wounded. The treatment on the part of the Germans was on the whole excellent.
On the night of 25 Sep I escaped by merely walking out of the back of the hospital. I knew that the lightly wounded cases were about to be evacuated to Germany.
I walked all night in a North-Westerly direction, and at 1100 hrs on 26 Sep I reached a house which appeared to be taking in a number of evacuees. I here spoke to one of the evacuees, and from this point I was helped on my journey.
The house was the Johannahoeve Farm, bordering what had been LZ-L, and here he met other airborne men being sheltered by Dutch civilians. The Resistance were duly made aware of his presence, and they quickly put him in touch with Major Tatham-Warter of the 2nd Battalion and later Lieutenant-Colonel Dobie of the 1st Battalion. These three men, especially Tatham-Warter, did much to administer the several hundred British evaders who were hiding in the area, and having established contact with Britain and receiving a supply of arms, they intended to act as a coup-de-main force in the event of the 2nd British Army attempting another crossing of the Rhine. In the event this did not happen, and so they prepared for Operation Pegasus; the mass-escape of these personnel back to the Allied lines on the 22nd October 1944. Lathbury and Tatham-Warter proceeded to the embarkation area on bicycles, passing as many as two hundred German soldiers on the way, but no one challenged them and they made it to the river and got across to the Allied lines with 136 others.
Brigadier Lathbury was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during and after the Battle of Arnhem. His citation reads:
On 17th September at Arnhem, Brigadier Lathbury commanded the 1st Parachute Brigade whose task was to seize the main road bridge in the town.
He conducted the advance of his Brigade from the Drop Zone, some 8 miles away, with great vigour until he was cut off from his Headquarters. He then took part in street fighting with one of his Battalions until he was wounded on 18th September and taken to hospital.
During the night 24/25th September, seeing that those who were wounded and fit to move, were being evacuated from the hospital to Germany, Brigadier Lathbury although not fully recovered left the hospital and tried to rejoin the Division. He was unable to do this as the latter had been withdrawn to the south bank of the river that night. With the aid of the Dutch Resistance Movement he evaded capture and remained in hiding until he escaped across the river with the party which reached our lines on the 23rd October.
The leadership which this officer displayed during the advance and his determination to escape capture is worthy of the highest praise.
In 1945, Lathbury was given command of his old unit, the 3rd Parachute Brigade which was now a part of the 6th Airborne Division, and led them for a year in Palestine. He was later awarded a knighthood and promoted to General, and was also Colonel Commandant of the Parachute Regiment from 1961-65.
See also: Operation Pegasus: Evasion Report, Maj-Gen Urquhart, Maj Hibbert, Lt Heaps.
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