Staff-Sergeant John Smith
Unit : No.21 Flight, "D" Squadron, No.1 Wing, The Glider Pilot Regiment
Army No. : 1871839
September 1944 - personal account of Operation "Market"
This event has been written about so often, and has had at least two films constructed on it, that I am always afraid of doing a repeat. I am thankful to be able to say the sufferings of many of those involved in Operation Market Garden did not impinge upon me, and you need therefore have no fear that you are about to be subjected to another dose of blood and thunder.
After spending a strenuous eighteen months learning all the tricks of the trade on Horsa flying, especially the techniques of landing in very small spaces, we eventually arrived at the 5th of June 1944 - the eve of 'D' Day. Although not ourselves involved in the operation, we were very close to the squadrons which were to cross the Channel. In fact, we went down to the flying field to see them off late on the evening of the 5th. The thrilling announcement on the radio next morning was therefore no surprise, except in so far as the scale of the invasion was concerned. Only when we heard all the sounds of the attacking forces, and listened to the commentators on the spot, did we realise what an awesome project was unfolding.
Three months passed, amid fears that the invaders would not be able to break out of their bridgehead; and then the excitement at the various plans foreshadowed for the Airborne Division. In the event, the advance of the Allied Armies after the break-out took everyone by surprise. Airborne landings planned to help our Armies on their way were all overtaken by speed of movement. By the time a landing had been planned and got ready for action, the places chosen had been overrun. We felt something like horses at the gate when the starter makes an error and the field has to be sent back. On so many evenings we went to bed thinking that the morning would bring action for us, only to hear the message over the Tannoy system that the 'operation for tomorrow is cancelled'. But then, early in September, we were warned for an operation of considerable extent. Briefings were long and painstaking, photographs appeared for study, equipment was checked and finally the gliders were loaded. This we felt sure, was the real thing at last.
Sunday 17th September 1944 dawned clear and bright. A glorious sun came up, filling the air with light and hope. On the runway like a parade of big birds, stood all our gliders in two long columns; while at each side were ranged the tug aircraft which were to tow us across the North Sea to Holland. My glider had been in the leading group, but for some unexplained reason had been changed with the Horsa of my friend Len Gardner, somewhere near the middle of the whole force. Len's passengers were Sappers with explosives and were presumably needed in the leading group. My load consisted of half-a-dozen men of the Royal Artillery, with a jeep and trailer. The trailer contained, among other items, some mortar bombs. Commanding this little detachment was BSM Reed, if that is how his name was spelt.
My co-pilot was that trusty fellow, companion in many a hair-raising incident (I never say 'accident') Len Overton, six feet two of muscular manhood. Since I am only five feet six, we were often referred to as 'pint-and-a-half'. I don't think I have ever met a more unruffled specimen than Len. He got plenty of practice for his imperturbability while flying with me.
Take-off was uneventful, just the normal routine of checking all the checkable items in the Horsa and then watching the man with the bats as he signaled the various moves; 'Take up the slack'; the tug taxies gently until the rope is tight, then stops until the glider is ready. The tug-pilot speaks on the cable telephone:
'Brakes on Matchbox?' 'Brakes on Skipper' 'All set?' 'OK Skipper' 'Right. Brakes off then Matchbox!' 'Brakes off Skipper' and away we go, trundling up the runway behind the Stirling.
Reaching eighty knots, I pull back the stick firmly and get the Horsa off the ground, then level off at about twenty feet. By this time the tug has his tail off the ground and is ready to unstick and fly. We gradually rise above the airfield, keeping our proper places, the tug flies a nice even course so that I have no trouble in keeping at the correct height above his stern, although of course, he is at the other end of a three-hundred-foot cable. His rear gunner keeps a constant friendly watch on the Horsa - just a 'matchbox' to him. We know we are in very good hands.
We had taken off at 9:45 a.m. and were in for a lengthy tow; but the weather was splendid, so we settled down to enjoy the ride. As the 'first lift' of the operation, we thought we might get down before the enemy had woken up. We were partly correct, but it wasn't long before he arrived on the scene. One of the obvious things about active operations which one doesn’t realise at the time is: all that can be known about the minute-by-minute progress of the operation is what one sees and hears, nothing more. So, looking back on the time or reading articles about it, one is half tempted to believe that other people had a wonderful grasp of the whole scene, while you yourself were half-asleep at the time and didn't really know what was going on underneath your nose.
In the sun-drenched cockpit of our Horsa we were alone and cut off from the world. Taking turns at wrestling with the controls, we passed the time by gazing at the vast armada all around us. From small beginnings circling our home base, we had grown to a tremendous spread of tugs and gliders moving steadily North-East towards the coast and the North Sea. Viewed from the ground, as we heard subsequently, it was a breath-taking sight. It broke in upon the quiet Sunday morning of churchgoers and farmers, women and children, giving them something to cheer about. Those were still the days when people went to church on Sundays, those happy days before envy, greed and socialism overwhelmed the nation.
At the moment Len and I weren't philosophising about life and its meaning, we were too busy keeping the Horsa in its proper place behind the Stirling. Warm sunshine developed thermals, so there was a certain amount of turbulence to contend with. By taking turns at the controls, we conserved our energies for the long haul across the North Sea to Holland.
Almost as soon as we crossed the coast, I found myself in a strange situation. For some time, I couldn't tell whether I had the Horsa in its correct position. One moment it would seem to be all right, the next it would look as if the tug was above us instead of below. Probably it had to do with the fact that the horizon had changed character, going from a familiar line at the edge of familiar fields and woods to a distant line of unfamiliar sea merging imperceptibly with the sky. Or it might be that I was just a stupid idiot who had temporarily forgotten whether he was coming or going.
Neither Len nor I could see much in the way of aerial activity, although I think we had both assumed that fighters would be buzzing around us like bees. Silly notion really, if they were guarding the air fleet they'd probably be standing off at some distance. We did see slight activity on the sea below us, as small powerboats occasionally moved over the water. It was pleasant to know that a 'ditching' down there would soon be picked up by these little craft.
Then we crossed the coast, and out came our maps so that we could orient ourselves. We were so busy trying to identify various landmarks that we scarcely thought about what was shortly to happen, viz. a landing on foreign soil at some distance inside enemy territory. Our part of the armada had broken away and was heading for the Landing Zones allocated to us, all clearly imprinted on our memories. But the actuality was not nearly so clear. We both searched the ground for our LZ, which should have been on our port side, but there was quite a haze down below, and we couldn't be sure of anything. In this state of uncertainty, we received a single, steady white light from the rear gunner's cockpit in the Stirling. This meant, ‘'Cast off when you are ready!' My first reaction was, 'Where the Hell are we?' While I was still gazing earnestly to port, the Stirling broke into rapid dots of white light, signifying 'What do you think you're playing at? Get off at once!' At that very moment I saw the LZ, a little hazy but definitely our LZ. I pulled the release.
Now, all should have been straightforward; we should have made an untroubled landing. We turned to port, watching the space below filling rapidly with gliders and seeing our chances of slipping into a space dwindle rapidly. We were floating along at about two-and-a-half thousand feet, but our target was almost beneath our nose because we hadn't pulled off at once. With no time at all to sit and ponder, I made an instant decision, 'We'll go in on full flap, Len. One straight dive onto the LZ.' We could hardly start to circle to lose height, knowing that the air was full of aircraft. We really didn't have a choice.
Len agreed, he always did, and we started our dive with full flap, rapidly building up speed because it was so steep. By the time we got within striking distance of our chosen spot, we could see that the railway line which crossed the far border of the LZ was really too close for comfort. It certainly wouldn't do the glider much good if we landed across that. In another burst of brilliancy I said, 'Let's land with the brakes on, Len! Then we can be sure of stopping inside the field.' Once again, Len said 'OK matey!' - what a chap he was!
Clocking about one hundred knots or more we shot across the first hedge and whizzed up the field, touching down beautifully on level ground. I was surprised to see, out of the corner of my eye, one of our big undercarriage wheels bounding merrily off to starboard, but this wasn't an occasion for surprise because our landing at about a hundred knots on locked wheels had simply torn the main undercarriage, struts and all, from the Horsa. We were now sliding rapidly and smoothly forward on the skid, a very comfortable feeling. Before we were able to enjoy our success and happiness, the fixed nose-wheel hit some kind of hole in the ground and snapped clean off. In a second, the situation changed completely. Our nose rubbed itself hard into the ground and the fabric disintegrated under the pressure, leaving the two pilots in a wreckage of harness and pieces of Perspex.
Into the silence that fell came a hubbub of voices, heralding the appearance of the Royal Artillery team from the body of the Horsa. They dug around at the front of the aircraft and found me, tightly rolled into a ball and quite unharmed. Then we began to search for Len, who couldn't be seen but who announced his presence by a yell each time someone trod on the wreckage of that part of the cockpit where he usually resided. He too, was taken out whole. The RA crew were apparently also quite undamaged, for which I was profoundly thankful. Only their BSM couldn’t be found at first. A faint voice eventually rose from underneath the main fuselage, the metal plates on the floor were lifted, and up from the gloom came the dirt-streaked face of the BSM.
When he was hauled out, complaining of two sprained ankles, I apologised profusely for the landing. He was unperturbed. 'Only too glad to be down safely, boy!' he said. Thank heaven for chaps like BSM Reed.
Amid the excitement of landing, parachutists of the Division were dropping from Dakotas all over the Landing Zone and doubling off to their Companies. Stirlings and Dakotas roared overheard, some trailing cables, all heading for their meeting places to form up for the journey back to the UK. Soon the sky was empty. It was half-past two in the afternoon, and we had well and truly arrived in North Holland.
It was a pity that we hadn't landed in the normal manner, with our undercarriage intact. The drill was to uncouple the tail of the Horsa from the fuselage, simply by undoing four strong bolts and then lifting the tail out of the way; laying down two metal tracks from the rear of the fuselage to the ground and unshackling the Jeep and trailer from the "strong-points" inside the aircraft. All one had to do then was to manhandle the vehicles along until they could be run down to the ground.
Unfortunately, our headlong arrival had left the tail of the Horsa pointing upwards so that only a genius and a large crane could have taken the vehicles out by the prescribed method. As it was, we could only exit via the nose, chopping away the wreckage of wood and perspex and running the Jeep straight out on to the field. I must admit, it was probably not very workmanlike, one doesn't like to see the trailer preceding the Jeep, but it went very easily. The Royal Artillery team loaded up all their goods and chattels, including the BSM, who had to be lifted on board, and drove away with cheerful grins and waving arms. Looking at it all from the best light, we had made a successful landing; nobody had been wounded; and our passengers had driven off with all their equipment intact. So, Len and I felt pretty happy, having completed the first part of the exercise in good shape. We even found a Thermos flask of tea which had survived the landing.
Plodding off together, laden with Bergen rucksacks and personal arms (rifle, bayonet, grenades and fighting knife) we aimed in the general direction of the rendezvous, several fields away. As we went along, we saw the Horsas of the Division scattered about the heath, noses pointing in almost every direction of the compass where they had slewed round on landing. Farther off was a gigantic Hamilcar glider, upside down and abandoned. The two pilots in the Hamilcar were located in a large cockpit on the top of the fuselage, where they had a commanding view of the world. But the heavy ground at Ginkel Heath was the death of more than one machine. Pilots had only one method of stopping the Hamilcar quickly; to rub the nose into the earth. And there was the result, a flying coffin without survivors.
Reunited with 21 Flight and Captain Barclay, we trudged off to our first halting place along the route to Oosterbeek. The site chosen was a pleasant sandy hollow, covered with tussocky heath. It seemed like a picnic area on a summer's day, but half-an-hour spent digging slit-trenches was more than enough to remove any picnic notions. It was infuriating to discover just how little one could dig in that time. It wasn't anything like my first introduction to trenches at Chattenden in 1935, when we had four hours to dig real six-foot ones correctly cut and sloped. That was in firm soil. This ground was quite different, the heath and the sand making trenching a slow affair.
I suppose we had got down about six inches when the mortar attack came. Half-a-dozen weird siren sounds followed by the same number of explosions, and we flew for the safety of these pitiful scratched dents in the ground. Len and I and George Morrow hurled ourselves into the same hollow, but there were no casualties; not this time. The attack spurred us on to do some proper digging, so that by nightfall we had a series of fairly decent slits available. Of course, with our faultless logic, we didn't sleep in them but preferred the open air on top.
Early next morning we made a shivering start on our march to Div. Headquarters, sometimes on roads and sometimes through wooded rides. When we passed little hamlets, people would come out to cheer us and offer gifts of food or drink. It was quite fun, until we came upon the first corpse. In a side turning lay the body of a German soldier, flat on its back; with staring eyes looking up at the sky from under the damaged brim of a steel helmet. There was a ghastly waxen look about the face, not improved by a single round hole drilled in the forehead. Later on, we saw our second casualty; a German officer hanging from the open rear door of a staff car, stone dead.
Several times during the morning we had to halt and take up defensive positions, waiting for an enemy who did not appear. On one of these halts, we saw enemy aircraft swooping low over what we assumed to be some of our forwards troops. Since there was no noise coming to us, we felt that we were watching an old silent movie, unreal and harmless.
Eventually our goal was reached, the Hartenstein Hotel at the top of the "Park", Headquarters of General Urquhart, our Divisional Commander. Marching into the grounds at the rear of the building, we found ourselves looking out over a splendid park dotted with large trees, the ground sloping gently down to a wooded bottom, and all green and fresh.
The "Park" had presumably already been marked out for the various units of Divisional Headquarters, because Captain Barclay immediately took 21 Flight in hand and set about scouring a large part of it for any Germans who might still be there. It would have made the average infantryman blush to see the manner in which we tackled this simple task. Our business-like approach to the first obstacle, a kitchen garden, was so amateur that Captain Barclay was continually exhorting us to get a move on and show some gumption. However, there were no Germans in the cabbage patch, nor did we find any in the copses and rides. Captain Barclay asked me, as we went round the area, what German phrase would be calculated to bring out any enemy lurking in the "Park". I suggested that he should try yelling 'Rauskommen!' (meaning come out). As I said, we didn't find any Germans anyway.
During the afternoon a steady roar of aircraft heralded the 'second lift' of the Division. Insufficient RAF bombers were available as tug aircraft to lift the whole Division at one go, so the operation had to be done in three stages. Lucky for us that we happened to be in the first lift, when opposition was not strong; the enemy did not know that they were about to be cut off by airborne forces, and our arrival was a stunning surprise for them. The poor lads now coming into the zone were sitting ducks for the fire of German troops, who had quickly recovered from the first shock and were now efficiently organised. Some Stirlings glided down beyond the trees, streaming flames and smoke; the rest of the fleet droned steadily onwards as if no-one had noticed. As a display of sheer iron courage and discipline it was unforgettable, an example to all of us of the kind of devotion to duty which the RAF displayed on every occasion.
Now that the second lift had arrived, we began the task of strengthening the Divisional area, spreading our thin forces around the "Park" and digging slit trenches by sections in strategic positions. We could hear the sporadic noise of machine-gun and rifle fire on the outskirts, and occasionally we would bob down as German six-barreled mortars sent their messengers over. It was a busy afternoon, in the course of which we experimented with our 'airborne ration packs' to see what sort of meals they provided. On the whole they were pretty good. Porridge came in solid blocks, as did tea and sugar mixed, and there were cubes of meat which made a decent stew. Water was available from nearby cottages, so we did not lack for this one essential.
Our first day in the "Park" drew to an uneasy close, as we posted look-outs and got down to sleep. It was a chilly night, broken by 'noises off' and the solemn thought that we were well and truly in the pot.
Tuesday wasn't a great improvement on Monday, but at least we were settled and organized. The noise of gunfire and of mortar fire no longer troubled us quite as much, and there was plenty to keep us busy. I remember the adjutant calling a group of us together to attempt an exposition of the operation. We stood around in a half-circle while he flourished a map and gave a commentary; but in the midst of the information, we heard the scream of mortar bombs on their way towards us. Everyone except the adjutant dived for cover, and when all was quiet, we had a sharp lecture about so-called soldiers who panicked at nothing. From his erect position the adjutant was quite scathing.
I suppose I had never really thought about my infirmity until fairly recently, but it is a fact that I am unable to determine the bearing (direction) of sounds. Since they all pour into the one ear which works, the sounds mean nothing until I have swept the surrounding area to pinpoint their origin. I wonder that this never worried me then; it certainly does now.
This day was to be the final one in our landing plan. The third lift was due to arrive early in the afternoon, but it had been very much delayed by fog in the UK. We waited anxiously until the sound of aircraft was heard late in the afternoon but were a little disappointed that not much seemed to be coming our way. In fact, as we later learned, the Polish parachutists were being dropped and Polish glider troops were landing on the South side of the Lower Rhine. They did not appear in our lines until dark, when they passed through in shadowy groups. The Division was now as complete as it would ever be.
I think it must have been on Wednesday that we heard the noise of a loud-speaker, not very distinct at first; careful listening revealed that we were being asked to lay down our arms and surrender. We were surrounded, the voice said, and stood no chance of survival. We had done well, but our struggle was pointless, etc., etc. I heard one chap at some distance from us exclaiming indignantly 'Cheeky bastards!'
Unreality seemed to be the order of the day. Our enemies were hidden outside the "Park" somewhere, not one being visible to us from our trench. Only the occasional burst of mortar fire and the heavy crump of exploding shells told us that they were alive and active. To add to the unreality, I decided that I would look around the "Park" the moment things quietened down, to see what other people were doing. In walking across the open ground, I spotted a live German soldier sitting on a tree-stump just outside the tennis court. Several Airborne men were moving about nearby but seemed not to be bothered at the fact that he was a prisoner and that he was outside the 'cage'; being the tennis court. I went over and tried to engage him in conversation, acting as if my German were second nature to me. It turned out that he came from Marburg, which was lucky for me because I once knew a German student from that city. Trying to be friendly, I said that Marburg was a lovely old city (a safe remark, because all German cities are.) However, one can be too friendly. The young chap looked up to me and burst out: 'It was before you and the Americans smashed it up!' 'Never mind,' I said soothingly, 'it will soon be over!'
This produced another flood of words: 'If you and the Americans fight from now until a twelvemonth Christmas, you'll never win the war!'
That ought to be a lesson to me not to be matey with strangers.
At some point along the line, I can't recall exactly when, we had a brief visit from my old chum, Leslie Smith 008. At one time there were four Smiths assembled in one Flight, but that was a lot later. Sergeant Major Ken Mew would call the roll every morning, using the number of each Smith instead of the name. When he came to the 'S's he would call '008, 417, 839' and so on. Leslie was a bit of a joker, besides being a rattling good infantry sergeant. He came to exchange gossip, of which we had very little. The 2nd Army, he said, were already in Nijmegen. That loud boom and the fainter echo was a 4.5 howitzer they were firing. "Good-oh!" we thought. But he had also some very sad news to impart. Our friend Len Gardner, whose glider had been moved up in the order of flight and replaced mine, which had then been moved back into his place, was dead. During the forming up flight from Keevil to the coast Len's glider blew up in mid-air, the bodies of the RE demolition section spilling out on to the ground two thousand feet below. We felt an immense sadness, for Len was such a likeable chap with everyone; and to make matters worse, he had only recently married a tall red-haired beauty from his home town. Cosham. He was only about twenty years old.
S/Sgt Leslie Smith, who brought us this sad news, was something of a character. I have mentioned some of his escapades elsewhere in my meanderings, or if I haven't, I will do. Perhaps what I shall remember most about Leslie was his catch-phrase (are all English people addicted to this form of wit?): I always reckons to… The first time it came up was when we met him in Trowbridge one day. He was smoking a cigar. 'I always reckons to smoke a cigar about half-past-two on a Saturday afternoon.' Later on, it became: 'I always reckons to post a letter about four o'clock on a Friday afternoon'. On this occasion it was the catch-phrase of the day for Sunday 17th September 1944. 'I always reckons to land in North Holland about half-past-two on a Sunday afternoon'.
He and I were more than once victims of mistaken identity when I successfully landed my Horsa (Exercise DREME) on Brize Norton air-field, on the skid. It was a pretty bit of airmanship, quite unlike my usual style. Captain Morrison started to congratulate Leslie and was very cast down when he realised it was I, 1871839 Smith J. who had done it. Quite the opposite thing happened when we got back to Keevil after the Arnhem operation. At debriefing, I was told by the interrogator: 'I've heard some good reports of you, S/Sgt Smith!' 'Really, sir?' I was taken aback. Then light dawned, and I said, "I think you must be confusing me with Leslie Smith". I had heard something of that fellow's doings and had been impressed, and it was the case that the Adjutant had confused our names.
Getting back to current things, I remember seeing Lt. Col. Murray and Major John Royle walking together near our trenches on the evening of Wednesday 20th. Later, it transpired that they had planned to reconnoitre the enemy lines. Major Royle was killed, and we lost a fine officer, the sort of man who scorned to crawl on the ground whatever the excuse might be. Those of us unused to danger, unless motor-less flight could be described as dangerous, always took the greatest care to shoot for cover whenever danger threatened. It may have been unheroic, but there were enough deaths from the accidents of war without adding to them unnecessarily. Poor Lou Wadhams was one of the first of our chaps to be killed, hit in the back by the fragments of a bursting mortar shell. He never knew it was even coming.
Even I, cautious as I always am, momentarily forgot the rules of common-sense and thereby received my one and only 'wound'. I put it into inverted commas because it was so trivial. We were squatting in our trench one morning when we heard the roar of low-flying aircraft overhead and our first task was to identify them. All I could be certain of was that they were fighters, but then 'aircraft recognition' was never my strong point. Once, during training with my Flight Co., who was in the pilot seat of our Tiger Moth, I identified a Swordfish above us as another Tiger Moth. 'You wouldn't live long with that kind of aircraft recognition' he said. After a second's deliberation, I yelled 'They're Spitfires!' But the explosion of several bombs nearby rather spoiled my theory. Never mind! I had another explanation. 'The fools are bombing us!' I said. As if in confirmation, I received a knock on the biceps of my left arm. 'I've been hit!' I said dramatically. Back in the bottom of the trench, I had time to reflect. But I shall never know whose fighters they were, and the bombs were of course mortar shells coming in bunches of six from a German battery.
Within a few minutes I was being assiduously doctored by one of our sergeants, Green, I think his name was. Carefully cutting away my jacket sleeve and my jersey sleeve, he produced his own Field Service Dressing and slapped it on to the wound. In view of the minor nature of that wound, it would have been better simply to have taken off my jacket and jersey. But he didn't know how bad it was until he had done the cutting. There was a large bruise from biceps down to elbow, rapidly going purple, and in the centre was an ugly graze. A couple of plasters would have done the job admirably. The luck of it was that the bomb fragment had struck the brass crown on my jacket sleeve and skidded off without doing further damage. I would have gone about with one bare arm, but some thoughtful soul observed that by merely reversing the jersey I could cover the bare arm and be comfortable.
Later on, Green remarked that I ought to nip down to the RAP. (Regimental Aid Post) and have a decent dressing put on. When things became a bit quieter, I ran down through the trees and presented myself to the RAMC Sergeant for inspection. He didn't waste much time on trivia, and in no time I was back in my trench. But I was left with an abiding admiration for the RAMC personnel in the RAP. Fancy living in one small house, between two opposing forces, and attending to the wounded without heeding the battle raging round about. They deserve much more than ordinary 'gongs'.
While we are on the subject of medical attention, I remember the case of S/Sgt Stevenson, late of the Ashford (Middlesex) Police. He was in a neighbouring trench, and we heard that he had gone down to the Elizabeth Hospital for treatment. I don't remember the cause of his visit to the Hospital, I only remember that he came back to the trench one afternoon bearing a Red Cross flag, and word spread around that he had been paroled by the Germans to collect what we called 'small kit' and return to the Hospital. It became vaguely known that the enemy had occupied the Hospital, and therefore its administration was German, as well as the medical officers. I imagine that any British doctors would be working under German supervision.
Steve had apparently been diagnosed as requiring special treatment, possibly an operation, and had been taken on as an in-patient. This was just one example of the correct attitude of the troops opposing our 1st Airborne Division. It was noticed that, whenever a medical jeep passed along the street all firing ceased, which seemed to prove that not all Germans were bad.
The general situation was very confusing for us in the "Park". I think we were moved three times, digging a fresh trench when we shifted. The positions were separated by perhaps twenty or thirty yards, and I can't honestly say that anyone knew for certain where the enemy were. Each field of fire that we prepared was rather restricted, but there were hundreds of thick bushes scattered all round which would have required the services of a bulldozer to grub them up. So, every now and then we would take out our clips of cartridges and remove the sand carefully from each round; clean and grease the bolts on our rifles; and generally prepare ourselves for any emergency. Fortunately, nothing emerged, but there was frequent mortaring to keep our minds occupied, and periods when artillery shells crumped and thundered around the area, shaking the ground mightily.
Occasionally there was time to get out of the trench and look around the scene, when one could see parachute troops moving from one threatened place to another. I must say that once there was a great commotion, with large bodies of men running in one direction at the command presumably of their officers. What troubled me at the time was the idea that they didn't appear to be moving in an organised way, but as an amateurish chap, I can't claim to know how infantry work.
I believe they were attacking some German tanks which had somehow got into our perimeter. Later on, I saw the white-hot flash of light artillery shells speeding along the road at the top of the "Park". I supposed that the two incidents were connected, but the mortaring started again and I didn't have time for ruminating on the subject.
During the ten days we spent at Oosterbeek we were supplied from the air by the RAF, whose aircrews displayed immense courage and devotion to duty. Their route to the Divisional area could only be roughly the same each day, and the enemy were able to have a field day with artillery and small-arms. We could see Stirlings and Dakotas being hit and going down with smoke pouring from their engines, but still the others droned onward at very low levels and disgorged their loads. Unluckily for all concerned, the positions occupied by the various sections of the Airborne troops had to be changed frequently as the struggle swayed this way and that. Consequently, the locations known to the RAF were often not correct at the time of dropping supplies, and much of the valuable food and ammunition was delivered into German sectors. We did have recognition signals, sheets which could be laid out to indicate our positions, but how could anyone expect the aircrews to spot them in time? As it was, some of the planes went over the area again to make sure of their target areas.
A few of us ran out into the next field to collect a container one day and were surprised to see an elderly Dutch couple trying to make up their minds about taking the parachute. The woman was very hesitant, and I don't blame her; the field was very open and mortar shells were not infrequent during daylight hours. I heard her say in what sounded to me like Plattdeutsch (low German), 'Ick durf nit!' but she managed to get some of the silk anyway.
At the end of our stay near Oosterbeek, when there was finally no hope that the Division could be rescued by the 2nd Army, and when the parachute men at Arnhem Bridge had been practically wiped out, authority decided that as many of us as could be withdrawn would be guided down to the riverbank and embarked on assault boats for the crossing into comparative safety. Rumours had been flying for a couple of days, but the arrival of a staff sergeant on the last morning still came as a surprise. He told us that we should get ready (unobtrusively) to move out that evening, taking with us only our arms and ammunition. It was a kind of anticlimax.
The rest of that day until evening, we disposed our kit around the trenches as if we were to be in residence permanently, cleaned our arms and ammunition and got ready to move out at dusk. What difference it could have made if we had done everything openly I don't know, because we weren't overlooked, at least I think not. However, those positions actually overlooked by German troops or those from which fire emanated would have to be unobtrusive in their preparations. And many of the artillery sections would have to keep up a desultory fire while the evacuation was in progress.
So, at dusk we were taken by guides out of our trenches and up to the starting point, where we formed a long crocodile of silent men trudging through the woods. It had begun to drizzle, and then to rain in earnest as we moved off and almost immediately someone in front of us had lost contact with the man in front, leaving us without a compass as it were. Every man had been instructed to let down the tailpiece of his smock so that the fellow behind him could keep in touch easily, but if you lost your hold on the next man's smock you snookered everyone. However, this contingency had been foreseen; and guides had been posted at intervals along the route to put right any deviants. It was only a matter of a few minutes before we were once again in motion, plugging along like ducks in the well-known Baron Münchhausen story.
After a short walk, probably not more than a couple of miles, we came to a roadway, and here the rags around our boots stopped us making sparks and giving the game away. I had been rather clever, I thought, and had pulled my spare pair of socks over my boots. It was very neat and tidy, and quite comfortable until we had gone a long way.
We passed a small church as we turned off the road and saw in the gloom some silent figures stretched out alongside the building. We couldn't stop to investigate, so we never knew whether the bodies were German or English. I think they must have been our own troops, as this position was very close to the river. Soon afterwards, the terrain opened out and it was possible to see the distant glint of a river in front of us. Movement was now over rather muddy ground, and we seemed to be heading for a slight 'lump' in it; this turned out to be a low clump of rocks over to our right, and as we drew near we could just make out dark shapes of men nearby. This was the point at which we were to be picked up and ferried across to comparative safety.
Somehow, we found ourselves grouped roughly in tens or twenties; no-one counted heads, we simply sat down as bidden and kept quiet. Occasionally mortar bombs would burst brilliantly on the surface of the water, sometimes so close to the near bank that a surge of heat could be felt. Inevitably casual strollers would get to their feet and begin to search for friends among the groups around them, completely ignoring whispered threats or commands to keep seated. They seemed oblivious to the need for silence and for not showing a silhouette for the enemy to see.
As the assault boats crept into the shore, groups of men moved forward quietly and orderly to take their places when called. It was all very calmly done. One officer reacted sharply when he thought that one group was trying to cheat the queue (they were only moving up to be ready for the next boat in). He sprang to his feet and flourished a revolver, threatening to shoot the first man that moved. Rather a Hollywood scene, I thought.
When our turn came, we filed into a boat and were soon speeding across the Lower Rhine towards Driel. I heard afterwards that a few courageous lads tried to swim the river; whether from sheer dare-devil bravery, or because there were no more boats plying, I don't know. Only a few were sufficiently good to swim against such a current as the Rhine displays. Years after, when I was being interviewed by a local reporter at the end of my service, he misreported me as having said that I swam the Rhine that night. Well, you've only got to look at me to know that such a feat would be quite beyond me. I ought to have written an indignant letter to the Editor, but I reckoned that the reporter was himself nearing retirement, and I shouldn't have liked to queer the pitch for him. I can only hope that people won't remember the article.
The far bank of the river had a network of dykes, or so it seemed to me, up and down which we had to slither and slide, following white tapes thoughtfully left for us. We must have been pretty muddy and bedraggled when we finally reached Driel. The only object at all visible in the darkness was a distant barn-like structure, in front of which was an irregular queue of Airborne men standing in the rain and patiently waiting for food and drink probably being dispensed there. I said 'probably' because by the time Len and I reached the building there was nothing left but some dry bread. We passed through it and on to the road to Nijmegen, several miles distant.
Len and I began our walk in pretty good spirits, but that didn't last long; not with me, anyway. At every step a cold blob of mud came up and slapped me in the face; and being notoriously slow on the uptake, I didn't grasp the reason for this uncomfortable event until it had driven me to profanity. My clever use of Army socks turned out to be not so very clever. Constant movement had caused the socks to slip down until there was a considerable 'flap' of loose sock projecting over the toecaps of my ammunition boots. In walking, the flaps naturally picked up lumps of mud from the roadway and flicked them neatly into my face. It was quite a struggle to pull the wet and muddy socks off my boots, but thereafter we marched forward briskly in the growing daylight towards Nijmegen.
Friendly hands pointed out our destination when we reached the outskirts of the town, and we entered a long building where meals had been prepared for us. Someone, I can't remember who, told us that we had to leave all our arms and ammunition outside, which we duly did. Then, after a feed that we badly needed, we were passed over to the MO for inspection. My wound was inflamed somewhat, but the MO soon put that right with a liberal sprinkling of sulfonamide powder, something new to us, but apparently the American forces had it by the bucketful. My scratch caused no comment, but the MO was concerned at what he thought were my shattered nerves. In the damp and cold of the previous twelve hours I had lowered my body temperature considerably, and was now shivering uncontrollably. He thought I had a nervous trembling, but when I explained that it was simply the cold and wet, he let it go. For a moment there had been a suggestion that I should go into hospital. What a terrible thing that would have been!
Having breakfasted and been inspected by the medical authorities, we looked around for a convenient barber's shop; some of the men had regular thatches on their faces, resembling coir mats. But I do remember one dark chap who had developed a marvellous RN beard. I hadn't developed anything. Where the barber had to have two goes at them, he whistled round my bristles in five-seconds. No wonder my dad used to ask me if I wouldn't prefer a knife and fork to a razor! We had no Dutch money, of course, but one of the barber's customers kindly paid for us all.
So, we were once more clean and respectable, making our way back to the Dutch barracks to be allocated rooms for the night. During this interval, I ran across Denis Odgear again. We had become acquainted because we had learned that both of us were formerly of the Royal Engineers; Dennis had been a Boy Tradesman at the beginning of the war, while I had joined at the age of twenty in 1935. We had been in the same Squadron at Holmesley South, I remember, just before moving on to Stoney Cross aerodrome near Southampton. When I received my 'wound', Dennis happened to come by our trench to keep in touch which us; he told us of the exciting goings-on at the perimeter where there was house-to-house fighting and the occasional encounter with a tank. He had not had a single scratch, and therefore showed no signs of battle in his uniform. When he saw my smock with its one sleeve, he offered to swap with his. He said he'd like to show that he'd been in action. I agreed and was glad to get into a garment which kept me warm.
Dennis and I looked round the room to which we and several other men had been allocated and decided that it wasn't really what we wanted. For one thing, it was on the top floor of the building; for another, the windows were large and well-glazed. If there was an air raid in the night, we could well be in the wrong place entirely. We decided to go downstairs and look around the barrack area, where we had noticed many Nissen-type huts. A crowd of Dutch civilians stood about, chatting, and no doubt waiting for tea-time. We got into conversation with a gentleman called Loyen and his wife and were invited into their hut for refreshment. The hut was very large, and appeared to house several families, but the sleeping quarters were all below ground and well protected by concrete.
Since we had no food and precious little Dutch money, I think Dennis had a small amount, but I hadn't a bean, we felt it would be unfair to accept their invitation unless we could bring something to the meal. We went off into Nijmegen and managed to buy some Pion Toast (whatever that was) and a bottle of wine, our modest offering to the host and hostess. Our afternoon tea lingered on for a long time while we chatted as best we could with Mr and Mrs Loyen. Luckily, they spoke some English, and we all got on well. I was introduced to an elderly gentleman who was, I think, a relative of Mr Loyen, and he could speak no English. However, he did speak German (and much better than ever I could have spoken it), so my evening wasn't wasted.
As time wore on, the prospect of returning to that bare barrack-room became more and more unwelcome. I whispered to Dennis that I'd soon be falling asleep, which I did very convincingly; and then made a professional recovery, looking round in a kind of startled way as if I'd really dropped off. The kind Dutch people immediately offered us a bed down below, where there were plenty of spare blankets, and we accepted gratefully.
With a good night's rest behind us, the first for over a week, we felt much better. At the barracks we were informed that General Browning would be inspecting what remained of the Division within a few hours. We should therefore 'smarten ourselves up' for the parade and be properly dressed and armed. Equipment we had, of course, but our rifles had been left outside the canteen hut, our orders remember, not our personal dereliction of duty. In a fever of expectancy, more a dread of something awful about to happen, we hurried round to the canteen. There, on the ground in utter confusion, was the cache of arms we had left the day before. It seemed that there had been some kind of air-raid during the night, and that a bomb had fallen near the canteen, strewing the ground with our rifles. Rummaging around the heap, we managed to get hold of a recognisable rifle for every man, even though some of the rifles lacked bolts. Those missing bolts were found, after a struggle and we had good reason to be thankful that for these weapons; the bolts were interchangeable. The good old SMLE (Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield) had its own bolt, which could not be used on any other weapon. Just as well we didn't have it.
General Browning had the parade in the form of a square with one side missing. On the blank side was a table on which the General stood to address the assembly. At this moment we realised the full extent of the Division's losses; the total number of survivors amounted to about two thousand, the casualties in dead, wounded and prisoners-of-war, eight-and-a-half-thousand.
After the Division had been called to attention, and a formal report made to General Browning, everyone was beckoned forward to break ranks and get close to the table. General Browning spoke briefly, telling us that we had performed splendidly and had done much more than had been asked of us. What else he said I have long forgotten, except for two important points: first, we were all going back to the UK for leave; second, the Division would not again be required for the remainder of hostilities. Cheering news like this was very welcome, but in fact the Glider Pilot Regiment did not 'belong' to any particular unit and was therefore always available for operations. Although my Squadron wasn't used again, Dennis Odgear went on the March 1945 crossing of the Rhine with another Squadron.
When the Parade was dismissed, we were instructed to assemble outside the barracks later on, ready to be ferried back to Brussels and thence to the coast and UK. It was a time of nail-biting anxiety. How soon should we get away? How long would it take to reach Brussels? As we gathered in knots of chattering men, the sudden scream of an approaching bomb galvanised us into action. Under the startled gaze of the Dutch civilians we flung ourselves in an untidy heap face-down in a corner of the barrack building, straight on to the rough gravel.
The scream died away in the distance, and we scrambled to our feet rather sheepishly. It was quite a few minutes before we realised that the scream emanated from one of these new-fangled jet fighters, we hadn't heard one before. One chap was quite bitter about the whole incident. He had just come through a rough time, he said, and hadn't received so much as a scratch. 'And look at me now!' Yes, he was in a mess. His face looked as if he had been attacked by an enraged woman with long nails.
Finally, we boarded the lorries and were carried to Brussels, the following day emplaning on a fleet of Dakotas for Bradwell, an American base in Essex. From there I was able to send a telegram to my parents to tell them I was safe, in case they had had some inkling of what had happened to me during the previous fortnight. I didn't have to worry about getting to a post office, as some helpful villager asked me if he could deliver any message for me. The American airmen treated us very well for the short time we stayed there, and the next day we set off in lorries for Keevil.
The Nissen huts looked bare and empty when we finally reached home, and there were a lot of vacant bed spaces. It was a sad home-coming and yet in a way joyful; we ourselves were the lucky ones who had survived and would soon be going on leave. I am sure that the fellows lost at Oosterbeek and Arnhem wouldn't have begrudged us our feelings.
Back to The Glider Pilot Regiment
Back to Biographies Menu