Graeme Warrack

Headquarters, Royal Army Medical Corps, 1944

Colonel Graeme Matthew Warrack


Unit : Headquarters RAMC, 1st Airborne Division

Army No. : 57723

Awards : Officer of the British Empire, Distinguished Service Order


Graeme Warrack was the 1st Airborne Division's senior medical officer. Departing with the First Lift on Sunday 17th, his first duty was to come to the aid of a glider pilot, whose Hamilcar had dug into soft ground upon landing and had been flipped onto its back as a result. His fellow pilot had been crushed to death in the crash, while he himself was severely injured, trapped beneath the weight of the towing vehicle for a 17-pounder anti-tank gun; also carried in the glider. The Division's senior engineer, Colonel Eddie Myers, was on the scene and was quite frustrated that he had not brought a block and tackle with him; the ideal equipment for such a situation. Instead it took several hours to free the pilot, who sadly later died.


During the fighting in the Oosterbeek Perimeter, Warrack had been at the Main Dressing Station at the Schoonoord Hotel when a case was brought to his attention of a soldier of the 21st Independent Company who had been caught having sex with a Dutch auxiliary, while they thought everyone else had been distracted by a bout of mortar fire. The girl was dismissed by a Dutch doctor, but Warrack took no action against the soldier, concluding that it was an "emotional release".


It was not long after the Perimeter was formed that the medical staff of the Division quickly found themselves grossly overstretched. Only 5 of the Division's 14 Regimental Aid Posts (first aid), and only two of their three Main Dressing Stations were present. Though this is roughly proportionate to the number of men still able to fight within the Division, casualties were far in excess of what was normal, medical supplies were desperately short, and furthermore, many of the surgeons and orderlies had been taken prisoner on Wednesday when the Germans temporarily occupied the Main Dressing Station on the Utrechtseweg-Stationsweg cross-roads.


On Sunday 24th, one of the dressing stations had been targeted several times by mortars, which prompted Warrack to storm out into the middle of the street and shout at the Germans "You bloody bastards! Can't anybody recognise a Red Cross?". Later on in that day, and in light of the Perimeter now bursting with 1,200 British and German wounded, while some of the medical teams being forced to work without correct surgical implements, it was clear to Graeme Warrack that the battle could not continue in this manner. The dressing stations were being inadvertently drawn into the line of fire, and earlier in the day, one of them had been set ablaze and its wounded had to be evacuated. Warrack travelled to the Hartenstein to meet with Major-General Urquhart and put these points to him. He recommended that a truce should be arranged to remove the wounded from the Perimeter and place them into German hands, where they could at least be sure of receiving proper medical attention. Urquhart agreed, though on condition that the Germans be left in no doubt that this was being done purely on humanitarian grounds, and that Warrack was speaking to them as a doctor looking after the best interests of his patients, rather than as a representative of Divisional HQ. 


Commander Arnoldus Wolters, a Dutch naval officer attached to the 1st Airborne who was to have served as Arnhem's assistant Town Commandant in the event of a successful conclusion to the battle, drove Warrack to meet General Bittrich and also act as his interpreter. As Wolters was a Dutch officer and was therefore risking a great deal presenting himself at a German headquarters, it was agreed that he would adopt the pseudonym of Johnson, and pretend to be a Canadian. By coincidence, Major Egon Skalka, the German senior medical officer, had come to exactly the same conclusion that Warrack had drawn, and he was also on his way to meet him and suggest a truce to remove the wounded. Skalka met Warrack, who he later described him as "a tall, lanky, dark-haired fellow, phlegmatic like all Englishmen. He seemed terribly tired but otherwise not in bad shape". Together they agreed a plan, but first had to confer with General Bittrich and obtain his consent. Skalka, at speed and occasionally under fire, drove them in a captured British jeep towards Arnhem; the route lined with debris, ruined houses, wrecked vehicles, and dead bodies. They eventually met with Bittrich who, greatly impressing Warrack with his courtesy, agreed to the plan without hesitation. Warrack was offered a drink, but created much amusement when he declined on account that it would make him drunk on an empty stomach. A plate of sandwiches and a bottle of brandy was produced for them, which Warrack regarded as being like a fairy tale compared with the nightmare of Oosterbeek. Bittrich handed him another bottle of brandy to pass on to Urquhart, and, before they left to return to their lines, he and Wolters were allowed to fill their pockets with as much morphia and other medical supplies as they could carry - captured from British resupply drops. They were invited to visit the wounded at the St Elizabeth Hospital who had been captured in the previous days of fighting, and Warrack noted that they all had beds with sheets, and were generally being very well cared for. The truce began in the afternoon and 250 stretcher-bound men and 200 walking wounded were taken to various hospitals in the Arnhem area.


While the 1st Airborne evacuated on Sunday 25th, all the medical staff remained behind and Colonel Warrack was captured. He was taken 15 miles north of Arnhem to a Dutch Army barracks at Apeldoorn that had been converted into a hospital specifically for 1,700 airborne casualties. The hospital was entirely under the control of the British, and consisted of four surgeons, four chaplains, and 250 medical staff. Lt-Colonel Martin Herford, commander of XXX Corps 163 Field Ambulance who now served as Warrack's deputy, managed to convince the Germans into treating the barracks as a hospital and not as a POW camp, on the understanding that there would be no attempts to escape. The hospital closed on the 26th October, but shortly before it did, Warrack, Herford, and some other medical staff escaped, though technically without breaking the agreement they had reached with the Germans. Warrack hid himself in a cupboard in his room for 14 days until he was able to leave the deserted camp. He was soon offered sheltered by a Dutch family, and was then put in contact with the Dutch Resistance, who, after the failure of the Pegasus II crossing, had been asked to bring men across the river in small groups, with the order of priority for passage being: doctors, glider pilots, soldiers, and airmen. In February 1945, Warrack crossed the Rhine, along with Brigadier Hackett, and safely returned to the Allied lines.


For his conduct, Warrack was awarded the Distinguished Service Order:


At ARNHEM this officer was ADMS of the Division. On 20th September the Dressing Station, which he had organised, became involved in the fighting area and eventually fell into German hands. The battle continued to rage on either side of the buildings used until the final evacuation of our own troops.


During this time the treatment of casualties became increasingly difficult. There were large numbers to be dealt with and the area was at time under fire from both sides. The firm attitude adopted by Colonel WARRACK towards the Germans and his insistence that our casualties and the medical personnel received proper treatment was instrumental in saving many lives.


There was considerable shortage of food and water in the hospital and Colonel WARRACK after interview with the German Commander managed to arrange for our jeeps, during the battle, to draw water from German held sources. In spite of the constant shelling and mortaring he many times passed to and fro from the hospital through the German positions to the Divisional HQ and kept both places informed of the general situation.


After the withdrawal of our forces south of the Rhine, Colonel WARRACK was put in charge of the hospital at Apeldoorn which was receiving our casualties from Arnhem. The initiative and organising ability shown by him was quite first class. By his tactful handling of the German authorities, and his insistence of the terms of the Geneva Convention, he was able to arrange that the treatment in the hospital and the subsequent evacuations were carried out as comfortably as possible.


When the final evacuation to German was ordered, Colonel WARRACK arranged for the necessary doctors and medical orderlies to accompany the parties of casualties, then he himself by various means managed to hide from the German authorities and eventually to escape into Dutch hands.


He remained in hiding for a period until the necessary arrangements could be made for him to be passed over the River Rhine and rejoin our own troops.


The initiative displayed by this officer at all times and the courage with which he carried out his task is worthy of the highest praise.


He was also made an Officer of the British Empire as a consequence of his attempts to escape:


Colonel Warrack, after remaining behind to care for the wounded at Osterbeek, was taken prisoner on 26th September 1944, and was the same day transferred to Apeldoorn. As senior medical officer he did everything possible to ameliorate the conditions of the Prisoners of War, and to assist escapers. At the same time he planned his own escape, which he proposed to put into effect immediately prior to the closing of the hospital. During the confusion of the main evacuation of Prisoners of War on 18th October 1944, he climbed into a previous prepared hideout, a hollow space 10 feet x 3 feet x 18 inches, situated above two cupboards in his own room.


A small section of the medical staff were allowed to remain in the hospital for a further 4 days, and at Colonel Warrack's suggestion, his room was used as the Dental Centre. He was thus able to leave his hideout for a few hours each evening until the departure of the rear party on 26th October 1944.


Whilst the Germans were removing all equipment, Colonel Warrack had to remain hidden for a continuous stretch of 48 hours. When he emerged to explore the possibilities of leaving the building he was seen from outside, and, unable to reach his room before the search party arrived, he hid under a bed in one of the wards. He was not discovered and was able to return to the cupboard. Except for half an hour each day, he stayed there until all sounds of activity had ceased on 1st November 1944.


Before he could effect his escape, the building was occupied as a barracks, the Commanding Officer of this unit acquiring the room in which Colonel Warrack was hidden. It was not until the evening of 3rd November 1944 that he was able to move from the cupboard. Although the moon was full and there was a guard on duty below, Colonel Warrack climbed out of the window and crawling beside the perimeter fence, found a break in the wire. He made his way South West until he was driven by thirst to approach an isolated house near Otterloo. Help was offered immediately. On 18th November 1944 Colonel Warrack was a member of a large party of Allied personnel who were dispersed when being guided through the German lines. Although he and three others tried to complete the journey alone, ultimately they were compelled to retrace their steps to Otterloo. A month later Colonel Warrack was taken to Barneveld.


About the middle of January a second attempt to cross the lines was begun; when this had to be abandoned because of the ice-bound rivers, the small party was hidden in the Maarn area. Colonel Warrack participated in yet a third unsuccessful scheme before he finally reached safety on 5th February 1945.


In 1963, Graeme Warrack published a book; Travel by Dark: After Arnhem.


See also: Obersturmbannführer Harzer.


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