John Fitch in May 1944

Lieutenant-Colonel John A. C. Fitch


Unit : Headquarters, 3rd Parachute Battalion

Army No. : 58834


John Fitch commanded the 3rd Battalion, having previously served with the Manchester Regiment, and commanding a company of the 2nd Battalion in Sicily and Italy.


As the Battalion moved along the "Tiger" Route and began to encounter heavy German opposition, it was clear to Fitch that his men would continue to suffer delaying attacks of this nature all the way to the Bridge. He conferred with Brigadier Lathbury, who had recently arrived at Fitch's Headquarters, and they agreed that Major Lewis's C Company should be detached from the column and sent north to the railway line, in the hopes that they could flank the German defences. This proved to be a wise decision as C Company very successfully negotiated German patrols and became the only troops to arrive at the Bridge who had not been a part of the 2nd Battalion's column on the "Lion" Route.


Fitch's ability to have free command of the 3rd Battalion was highly restricted by the presence of both Lathbury and Major-General Urquhart, who had both been visiting him when the German attacks had begun, and it was subsequently decided that it would be safest if both men remained with the battalion for the time being. As a consequence of having both the Brigade Commander and the Divisional Commander watching his every move, Fitch's authority was naturally undermined and he had to consult these officers on every move he made. An instance of when this was a particular problem is when the 3rd Battalion arrived at the Hartenstein Hotel outside of Oosterbeek as darkness fell on Sunday 17th, and Lathbury and Urquhart ordered a halt. Fitch was keen to keep moving, however it was sensible to come to a rest for a few hours because the Battalion, at this time, effectively consisted of just B Company. C Company had been detached, while A Company were having difficulties with enemy interference to the rear of the column, and so it was prudent to allow them time to catch up before pressing on. Fitch set up Battalion HQ in a plush house on northern side the Utrechtseweg, No.269, while his men encircled the immediate area and dug themselves into slit trenches.


This delay cost the 3rd Battalion dearly as opposition was relatively light at this time, but when the march began at approximately 04:30 on Monday 18th, it became clear that the "Tiger" Route ahead was now heavily defended. However, patrols informed Fitch that side roads south of his position appeared to be clear. Having asked permission from Urquhart and Lathbury, he began to steer the Battalion off the Utrechtseweg and towards the "Lion" Route, which John Frost and his men had made superior use of on the previous day. This alteration of course proved to be very fruitful in the darkness. The men moved quickly through Oosterbeek, and Major Peter Waddy's B Company, with some accompanying sappers, passed safely under the Oosterbeek Laag railway bridge and entered the outskirts of Arnhem by 07:00, just over a mile away from Arnhem Bridge. However it was here that the advance stopped. Fitch, Urquhart, and Lathbury were all up with B Company, but they had outpaced HQ, A, and Support companies who had been held up by several snipers. The larger part of the 3rd Battalion had lost sight of Fitch and B Company, who in turn could not resume their advance in daylight until these strayed units had caught up. German units in the area spotted Fitch's men and held B Company in a stalemate that they would not be able to break until darkness fell.


Free from the burden of entertaining Major-General Urquhart and Brigadier Lathbury, who had both decided to throw caution to the wind and make their way back to Divisional HQ, Fitch was able to begin moving again. Two of A Company's Bren carriers had arrived during the afternoon, loaded with ammunition, and with the support of these, Fitch decided he would move his men north and try to get them into Arnhem along the railway line. However the German presence in the area was too strong for B Company to overcome alone, and they were forced to move through back gardens, the high fences of which proved difficult to negotiate. As they approached the railway they came under increasingly heavy machinegun fire and it became clear that they could make no headway here. Fitch decided to turn his men away and take them along a more direct route to the Bridge. His men became split into two groups and were forced to shelter once more in some houses, west of the St. Elisabeth Hospital. Nevertheless they were able to move out soon after and Fitch ordered that they do so in complete silence and make their way to the Rhine Pavilion, south of the Hospital. The arrived safely and began to move along the river road towards the Bridge, but after passing the Hospital and the Museum, they came under heavy fire from a determined German defence. Fitch could see no way through and had to withdraw his men, having suffered approximately a dozen casualties with only 50 men left to lead. However as they pulled back, they encountered the remnants of the 1st Battalion coming forward. Fitch informed Lt-Colonel David Dobie of what lay ahead, and offered to fully support his attack.


Initially the advance went well, but once again it came up against an impassible German defence. Fitch had moved his men onto a bushy bank between the Utrechtseweg and the Onderlangs, and he hoped to put them in a position where they could lend the 1st Battalion support fire. However before they were able to do so, German units spotted the 3rd Battalion coming forward and heavily mortared the area and swept it with machinegun fire. Fitch called for an O-Group of the few officers that remained. Sitting with his back to the mortar barrage that was creeping ever closer to them, Fitch agreed that they had to get out of the area, and ordered his men to run back in two's and three's to the Pavilion, approximately 250 yards away. Many of these men arrived safely, but Lt-Colonel Fitch was killed by a mortar. The same mortar explosion also badly wounded his Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Vedeniapine.


See also: Maj Bush.


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