Sergeant Robert Syme
Unit : 89th (Parachute) Field Security Section
Army No. : 959372
Sergeant Robert Syme served with the 89th (Parachute) Field Security Section, and at Arnhem was the Detachment Commander attached to the 4th Parachute Brigade. In 1945, he wrote the following extensive account of his experiences for the Intelligence Corps Journal, page 10, Volume 8. Thanks to Bob Hilton and Hans Timmerman at Arnhem Library.
WITH THE AIRBORNE AT ARNHEM
It was a fine, sunny morning in September 1944. We were in an old farmhouse in the Midlands, billet of Parachute Bde, Signal Section. After an early breakfast, three of us, the Bde F.S. Detachment for the op, got together and re-checked our int and briefing, examined our Stens, pistols, grenades, plastic, detonators, 24 hour ration packs, maps, and our other kit for the last time. 'Chutes had been fitted previously. At Bde H.Q. we joined the trucks marked with our plane numbers (each F.S. N.C.O. travelled in a different plane, in case of accidents). I joined the G.3's stick, made up of clerks, batmen, 'I' Staff, C.M.P., and other strays. After an hour's pause we moved off and were soon on the 'drome, joining our planes. A cup of tea and a bun, a snapshot taken by the American pilot, and then we got down to business. 'Chutes were fitted, men fitted with their various attachments, and we emplaned.
We took off in formation, and in a short time the sky seemed full of Dakotas and gliders as we flew southward over the English countryside. The sun was strong and our kit was bulky, the inside of the plane was like a hothouse. Most people were looking with interest out of the windows, one or two were reading "Lilliput" or the morning paper. Our faces were red, but cheerful and confident in the bright morning sun. As we left the English coastline, someone shouted "You've had it this time, chums", as if he had just realised this op would not be cancelled like so many in the previous months.
We hooked up to our static lines, each man checking his neighbour. Fighter cover appeared all round us. Flak bursts appeared on the starboard side, our fighters dived. We saw no more flak till we reached the D.Z. (dropping zone). We had cleared the flooded part of Holland, and were trying to study the ground when the five minutes warning came up. It seemed no time before we heard 'action stations' and saw the red light. Captain T [Reginald Robert Temple, G.S.O. III (Air), 4th Parachute Brigade H.Q.] was in the doorway studying the ground carefully, as usual. He was not excited, though he looked hot. He was too busy.
The green light popped on. We went out with a rush almost in a heap; a glance took in the sky full of flak, aircraft, and parachutes. My chin took in the sky full of flak, aircraft and parachutes. My chin took a crack from a badly fitted Sten as my chute jerked open. I heard the rattle of weapons down below and the soft hum of lead in the air around me. But I was busy watching my landing. I landed gently, but had to wrestle to get out of my para harness. I shoved a magazine on my Sten. Then being centre of the stick, waved the yellow signal to get the others together.
The First Prisoners
One of the battalions was hammering at Germans in a wood about sixty yards off, and plenty of stray slugs were floating around, so we kept well down and made our way to Bde. H.Q. We found this in a large hollow, getting organised. The two other F.S. men turned up and we set about interrogating prisoners, directing the searching, and sorting out captured documents. Most of them were ersatz S.S., clerks, batmen, Dutch S.S, with a few real live S.S. men to stiffen them. We sorted out some of the units facing us, though they were mostly composite bodies, rushed together for the emergency. We moved half a mile on our way to a new position, as the battalions such as they were (very much below strength) were ready to advance and our anti-tank guns had joined us.
We carried on with our duties till late afternoon, dealing with P.W. and civilians. Following our instructions we left Bde. H.Q. at 17.30 for Div H.Q., accompanying and advising some R.A.S.C. guarding a large batch of German P.W.
We moved slowly along battle scarred roads and railway tracks. As darkness was coming on, I joined a passing jeep, reached Div. H.Q. half an hour later. I sought out the G.2 (I) and the Interrogation Sgt., and game them details about the prisoners and information from Bde. Then I joined the main body of our Section who were snatching a short two hours' sleep behind the 'I' tent. When we rose, we immediately set about digging deep slit trenches for cover. In the morning the other two came in with bicycles and more material, having foraged around. They also had counter - intelligence information. The Sgt. Major allotted us jobs in pairs. Some went out to Bdes., some checked Div. H.Q. perimeter, as there were a lot of Dutch civilians floating around. I was given the job of sorting out all the documents, maps, etc., that came in from units and as a result of our own house searches. A German general had been shot up near his H.Q. and we got a lot of useful documents. From house searches we had a pile of material covering collaboration movements throughout Holland with names and evidence.
During the first two days things seemed to go well. We had mortar barrages, airbursts from 88mm guns, and visits from German aircraft when our own aircraft were not supply dropping, but not on a large scale.
We heard nothing from the F.S.O. and his party. We heard that the Bde. and advanced elements they were with, had gone straight into Arnhem and taken the vital bridge. We knew that they were still holding the bridge, but the Germans had brought in heavy forces and cut them off from us. People did get through to them a couple of times but their news was not good. There was no news of the advanced corps of the Second Army, though the B.B.C news stated they had reached Nijmegen. Our own forces were pushing to get into Arnhem, but the Germans were superior in numbers, armament and supplies and looked like pushing us backwards instead.
We carried on with our task, each day the going was rougher. Long mortar barrages came down on us, destroying most of our transport, blowing up ammunition and supplies. Movement was restricted.
Daily we had supply drops, daily the Germans increased their flak. Aircraft losses must have been heavy. We cheered the courage of the pilots who waved their way through the wall of fire in their slow, heavy-laden aircraft. We were heartened by their bravery. Our perimeter was now very small and the Germans captured a great part of our supplies.
After four days we moved off about one hundred yards and dug in in defensive positions. We used corrugated metal sheets as cover from shrapnel. A German patrol broke through to within 150 yards of Div. H.Q. before being mopped up.
Snipers were never very far off. As soon as one was dealt with, another would appear. We did infantry patrols, went out at night to help depleted anti-tank gun crews move their guns into different positions.
We stayed here until the end. The whole area around our slit trenches was flattened, houses became mere shells, trees scarred and leafless. The mortar barrages now carried on all day and all night long. German fighters buzzed around when our own planes were not there. Snipers picked us off as we moved around. Eight out of ten F.S. had wounds. Other units had so many casualties that the dead could not receive proper burial and were covered over in slit trenches.
We heard vaguely that a British Div. was fighting just South of the Lower Rhine (we could hear the roll of 25-poinder barrages) and we were always hopeful of seeing British tanks roll up to our relief. Our artillery started shelling the Germans from the other side of the river. They overlapped slightly when shelling the wood we were facing, and in ten minutes drove us out, more effectively than the Germans had done with their eight days of mortaring. We moved nearer to the house of Div H.Q. the basement of which was overcrowded with wounded.
At 19.00 hours we were told that the Div. was about to evacuate. A British battalion was holding a strip of land south of the Lower Rhine, which we were to cross in boats. Fit men from each Div. party were to act as guides along the evacuation channel, a narrow corridor leading down to the river. I was the first guide on the way out of Div. H.Q. The password was "John Bull"
Covered by German M.G's.
I took up my position during a heavy barrage, feeling very much alone under a tree by a narrow lane, with the flashes and sounds of battle all round, and figures rushing about in the woods. I passed on all my parties to the next guide, also an F.S. man, on a crossroads covered by German M.G's.
When the last party, the Div. Defence platoon, had moved on, I waited for several minutes, then, joined up with the next guide. We moved on, overtaking and passing several parties from other units, but saw no more of the H.Q. parties till we were near the river. The journey down was slow, it rained heavily and we were drenched before we got very far.
Arcs of coloured tracer indicated the ferry point. Those who were seriously wounded on the road had little hope of attention and it was heartrending to leave them, knowing that we could do nothing for them.
With three quarters of a mile to go we joined a huge, nightmarish sort of queue. The men huddled together for warmth and were silent. We moved along terribly slowly, but patiently, five deep. At times we lay down on the sodden ground. We were soaked through anyhow. With 400 yards to go to the river, we could hear the engines of the boats, but dawn was only about two hours off and there were hundreds behind us.
Down to the Beach
We got down near the beach, still moving along patiently. Something was going wrong with the boats. There were three only and they had been working all night long. One got shot up by German M.G. fire from both sides. After a time the two boats went off in the half-light and did not come back.
I thought of swimming across and went upstream with others so that I should not be carried too far down by the current I was dog-tired and hungry but took off some of my clothing. I watched others swimming. Daylight had come suddenly and the swimmers were being shot up in the water and on the far bank.
I saw one man go over the crest, but the others made excellent targets for German M.G and rifle fire from both sides. The Germans were now less than 200 yards off to the east.
I dressed again and helped to build some sort of defensive position in our hollow with stones from the jetty. To leave the hollow we were in meant be shot up. We had one Bren there with one magazine. The Germans started mopping up from the east, popping mortar bombs into each dip in the ground. There were at least 400 men on the beach. Some had gone back towards the woods, but most were completely surrounded.
We were so closely packed that when those on the outskirts started to surrender, there was nothing for it but general surrender. I started to bury all my extra money, etc., and chucked my useless Sten into the river.
Prisoner of War
On surrendering, we were taken, about one hundred of us together, along the banks of the Rhine, still under fire from the west. Inside the nearest defensive positions, we were asked to dump all remaining arms and ammunition.
We were marched off towards Arnhem through a badly hit residential area, strewn with unburied British and German dead, their faces blackened; past burnt-out panzers and S.P. guns, broken down anti-tank guns.
German soldiers popped up out of the ruins of smart villas, threw us apples and Players taken from stray supply cannisters. As we neared Arnhem, we passed many civilians with prams and carts loaded up with belongings. They carried white flags. A smartly dressed German press photographer rolled up in a staff car; his face wreathed in smiles, he started to take propaganda shots of us.
Until then we had been feeling depressed, dazed. We had most of us expected death, wounds, but never thought of capture; but at the sight of this Nazi we came out of our dejection with a bump. We shook him with V signs and grins, which made him dance and gesticulate in a mad burst of temper. He contented himself with shots of the wounded.
We marched eastwards through Arnhem for 2 and half hours and were put into a garden near a div. H.Q. Fires were lit immediately with stray papers and maps that some people still had; last cups of tea were brewed. They took our names, rank and number and we were searched, but not very thoroughly. They seemed keener to get field dressings and medical supplies than to get information. I retained my A.B.64 and someone else's fountain pen (not a good one - I swopped it soon after for two German cigarettes.
Our next stop was at Lutfen where we were confined to a large disused warehouse with a thin layer of dust on the floor. A German medical orderly came in, but gave up after about ten minutes, having no dressings left; most of the wounds were too serious for him to deal with. My friend the chief clerk, A/Q from Div. H. Q. who had been shot through the nose, got a bit of sticking plaster; his wound had to heal up without treatment.
During our second day in captivity we had our first meal, some bread and sausage and some vile tasting ersatz coffee. After another day we were given one third of a German loaf and a small piece of sausage, rations for three days. We were packed into box cars. We had 57 in ours, too many for all of us to sit down at once; the doors were locked on us.
They were not unlocked for ten days, it took so long for us to reach Frankfurt-am-Main. Our water supply consisted of rain caught from the roof in steel helmets or water brought for us by slave workers and passed through a narrow slot in the end of the box car.
We stretched our cramped limbs at Frankfurt, received more ersatz coffee, bread and sausage. Our seven days of starvation had made several people very ill but the only medical treatment they had was aspirin tablets. The Stalag we were to go to was full up, so we were locked up again for two days until we reached Limburg, near Coblenz.
The Stalag there, a sort of transit camp, was overcrowded. We were packed in like sardines, British and American troops. The food was not good, there was not much of it, but we enjoyed it after being without. A small piece of bread, a square of margarine, some soup and two potatoes was about the best daily ration we had. The soup we called "Whispering Grass" and "Green Mamba" because of the doubtful vegetables used.
The Bartering Begins
Here we saw for the first time the bartering of cigarettes, rings, watches and other goods for food. The Russian prisoners brought in bread from their work-parties and sold it at a profit in the camp. This was one of the "rackets" which were a feature of Stalag life.
During three weeks there we, we received one Red Cross parcel (American) between three men. This meant a smoke and a taste of some decent food. Soon after receiving it, I was sent off in a party of 500 N.C.O's to Stalag 8C at Sagan, in Upper Silesia.
We again travelled in box-cars but less uncomfortably; we went without food only for two days out of the five.
Barbed wire was placed across the centre of the box-car and our guards were on the other side. They were quite friendly and made sure we got water when we wanted it. In a siding somewhere in Central Germany, a carriage full of British officers pulled in beside us. Amongst them was our F.S.O., who had made vain attempts to escape. He came across and chatted and left some German newspapers with us.
At Sagan, I became interpreter to the R.S.M. in charge of our block of huts. We were kept in a compound apart from other British prisoners in the camp. Only a few of us were allowed to go and find the Red Cross trustee and the Camp Leader. We lived in dirty, smelly huts with stone floors, but we had beds (three tier) and in time received a palliasse and two blankets. The food here was better than in Limburg bit there was not a lot of it.
Red Cross supplies were not plentiful, because of German transport difficulties. We received various fractions of parcels at intervals of a fortnight or three weeks. The Germans made life as difficult as possible for us. All parcels and tins had to be opened under German supervision. If they wished to withhold Red Cross parcels they simply sent the party of Abwehr N.C.O's responsible for this job elsewhere.
Our compound was controlled by a stout, ill-natured and loud-mouthed Nazi Hauptmann, called Hahn who did little to help us. Barrack repairs of the material to do them were not available, and no fuel was supplied until November, and then it was not much. In return, our chaps took no notice of Hauptmann Hahn or his N.C.O's which drove him to fits of temper; after the first time I ceased to trouble about his shouting and gesticulations. Beds, doors, shutters and even roofing were used as firewood in spite of all he tried to do to stop it.
We established a system of control of barracks and roll calls for our own benefit, kept the place as clean as possible. The Stalag was mainly for French prisoners and there was no organised escape channel that we could find; some people escaped on their own initiative, but none got very far. It was easy to cover up for them on roll-calls, as the Germans were never thorough.
We organised things to get some sort of system into the bartering. A communal supply of cigarettes was necessary to bribe Germans for various camp necessities. What the Hauptman would not do for us, the cigarettes did.
Electric lighting, drain clearing, coal supply, provision of brushes and shovels, all sorts of things had to be obtained by bribery or not at all.
We organised concerts on platforms made of tables pushed together. There was plenty of talent and these were very entertaining. Later we were allowed to visit shows in the camp theatre in the other compound.
One Sunday early in January, a lot of Germans entered the compound. They made us bring out our palliasses, tables and forms and they then took them elsewhere. We were told afterwards by loud speaker that the Stalag had become a 'Straf camp' because of 'British ill-treatment of German prisoners in Egypt'.
The Russians Draw Near
We slept on hard wood and had less food during our last month at Sagan. We got the B.B.C. news most of the time we were in the camp. Some prisoners from the N. African campaign had made a small wireless set. The "Jimmie Higgins" as the news was called, came round every evening, unless the Germans had interrupted the day's listening by conducting a search.
When the Russians started their final assault in the East, we followed their line of advance on maps which were easily obtainable. At the beginning of February, we knew the Red Army was near by the hundreds of trekking refugee civilians on the road outside our compound. We could hear the noise of the battle in the distance, we knew the Russians were fighting at Breslau, twenty-odd kilometres away. There seemed to be no signs of our moving. We saw officers from Stalag Luft 3 go past and found out that the Germans had looted the Red Cross Store there.
On the night of 7/8th February this year, one of our cooks came and woke us. He told us that all the cookhouse workers had been hauled out of bed to prepare a meal for us, we were to march off early in the morning.
We had prepared our stuff just in case of a march, obtained R.A.F. greatcoats from Stalag Luft 3. The M.O. had asked people who did not think they could march far to come forward and had examined them. The unfit were to be left behind.
Marched for 30 Days
We set off about ten o'clock the next morning after a great amount of disorganisation by German Officers and N.C.O's. Snow was on the ground though the sun was shining. We carried a little kit with us; most of us had our blankets taken off us by the Germans before leaving.
From then we marched thirty days, continuously except for two days towards the end. We did not know where we were going, or how long we should have to keep on marching. We tackled the Major commanding the march, but he said he did not know anything, he got his orders by telephone.
The first five or six days we slept outside in the open. We made fires where possible, but lay soaked to the skin and frozen stiff. It was a pleasure to march off in the morning and get some heat in our limbs. We did not have any hot meals at all, except on the fifth day, a drop of lukewarm ersatz coffee. Our rations consisted of bread and a small piece of meat from tins.
After the first week the policy was changed. We were lodged in stables in towns and in barns when we halted in country villages. Many people had been forced to fall out through sickness.
We marched on and on, day after day, rising at 6.30 in the morning, on the road by 7.30 and arriving at billets between six and eight o'clock in the evening. We saw the disorder that was increasingly evident in Germany; passing through Spremberg, Riesa, Gotha, Weimer, Fulda and other well-known towns and places. We cheered on our bombers when we were in the areas of air raids, and were heartened by the devastation we saw in German towns, large and small. We reached Steinau early in March, rested for one day and did our last march to Bad Orb near Hanau and Frankfurt-am-Main.
When we had been there for two days in the Stalag, a reaction set in and we were nearly all completely exhausted. The Germans wished to march us off again, but could not do so. Thirty men had died on the march and twenty died in this Stalag. Others have died since repatriation.
Americans were dying daily in the camp when we reached it, there was little food. We were nearly all lice-ridden and required a complete change of clothing.
We had brought our wireless with us, and heard about the Rhine crossing and the Allied advance. Towards the end of March we could hear the sounds of battle coming closer. On Easter Monday, the 2nd April, tanks of the American Third Army rolled into our camp, flattening the barbed wire.
The Americans looked after us well, and we were home 14 days later.
Prisoner of war life was very hard especially on the march, but good spirits saw us through. The Germans did not all treat us badly. Many of them suffered the same hardships as ourselves because of the circumstances. A number of German civilians helped us by giving us what food they could spare.
Many lasting friendships were born in the squalor and rigour of Stalag life, memories of which give one a fuller appreciation of those things at home which one was apt to take for granted.
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