Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter
Unit : "A" Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 75060
Awards : Distinguished Service Order
Digby Tatham-Warter was born on the 26th May 1917, and was commissioned into the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in January 1937. He was posted to the 2nd Parachute Battalion on the 12th October 1943, whilst they were based in Italy, and took command of "A" Company. Fiercely independent, slim, over six feet in height, and eager for a taste of war, he was described by Major Dover of "C" Company as "a cool, calm and collected man; he was tall, a little aloof and full of confidence". Lieutenant-Colonel Frost regarded him as "a Prince Rupert of a man; he would have been a great cavalry commander on the King's side in the war with the Roundheads". He was a fine leader but had difficulty handling alcohol, and was well known for getting into wild drunken fist fights in the mess with men whom he regarded as friends at the time, but whose very existence he would be quite oblivious to on the following morning, yet he would always manage to return to his unit fresh and impeccably attired.
At Arnhem, Frost selected "A" Company to spearhead the 2nd Battalion's advance on Arnhem bridge, as they had to move with the utmost speed, and he knew that Tatham-Warter was a thruster and not one to hang around. Due to the unreliability of the radio sets, Tatham-Warter had trained "A" Company in the use of bugle calls used by the British during the Napoleonic Wars, and was delighted to see them being used to excellent effect on the way to the bridge. Over the following days the calls continued to maintain satisfactory communications between the platoons, and could always be heard above incessant noise of the bombardment which was going on around them.
In comparison to the remainder of the 1st Parachute Brigade, the 2nd Battalion had a relatively easy advance, though they were held up several times by enemy infantry and armoured vehicles. "A" Company were remarkably swift in brushing the former aside, though the latter posed a problem in the narrow streets of Arnhem. On one occasion, Tatham-Warter called for an anti-tank gun to be brought forward to help clear the way, but in the end he chose to bypass the vehicle by leading his men through the back gardens of houses rather than down the street. "A" Company arrived at the bridge shortly after dusk, having marched a difficult eight miles in seven hours, killing or capturing over 150 mostly S.S. troops on the way, at a cost of just one man killed and a few wounded.
During the heavy fighting over the following days, Tatham-Warter could often be seen calmly strolling about the defences, seemingly oblivious to the constant threat of mortar and sniper fire. Choosing to wear his red beret in place of a helmet and swinging his trademark umbrella as he went, no matter how desperate the situation became he never failed in his ability to remain unconcerned and continually encouraged those around him. Even old hands like Major Freddie Gough were disheartened when Mark IV Tanks finally crossed the Bridge and all seemed lost, but his gloom was lifted instantly when he caught sight of Tatham-Warter leading a bayonet charge against German infantry who had dared to enter British territory, carrying a pistol in one hand, madly swinging his umbrella over his head with the other, and also sporting a bowler hat which he had found, looking for all the world like Charlie Chaplin. On another occasion he used the rolled up umbrella to effectively disable a German armoured car, when he thrust it through an observation slit and incapacitated the driver.
Tatham-Warter later revealed that he carried the umbrella because he could never remember the password, and it would be quite obvious to anyone that the bloody fool with the umbrella could only be an Englishman. During the battle, Father Egan, the Battalion Padre, was attempting to cross to a building on the other side of the street to visit the wounded in its cellar, but was forced to shelter from the intense mortar fire. He then noticed the shape of Major Tatham-Warter casually approaching, and he opened the old and battered umbrella over Egan's head and said, "Come on, Padre". Egan drew Tatham-Warter's attention to all the mortars exploding everywhere, to which he replied, "Don't worry, I've got an umbrella."
Shortly afterwards Lieutenant Pat Barnett was sprinting across open ground when he caught the sight of Tatham-Warter visiting the men defending the sector, holding his opened umbrella over his head. Barnett was so surprised that he stopped dead in his tracks and said to him, "That thing won't do you much good", and with a look of exaggerated shock he replied, "Oh my goodness Pat, what if it rains?".
Signalman George Lawson was running down a street looking for ammunition to fill the shopping basket he had slung over his arm, when he saw Tatham-Warter casually walking around and directing men to new positions. On noticing Lawson he asked him what he wanted, and on being enlightened he was advised to "Hurry up and get some and get back to your post soldier, there are snipers about", seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was himself a very obvious target. Such untroubled and good humoured gestures doubtlessly contributed greatly to the morale of the defenders, and even when defeat was imminent, spirits remained very high.
Like the majority of the British defending the bridge, Tatham-Warter was wounded several times, but he shrugged off the limp caused by minor shrapnel cuts to his posterior, and hung his umbrella from the sling on his arm. After the death of Major Wallis during the night of Monday 18th September, Lieutenant-Colonel Frost, who had taken command of the 1st Parachute Brigade, placed Tatham-Warter in command of the 2nd Battalion. Throughout, he was a model of leadership and continued to enliven spirits with his eccentric sense of humour, whilst also being tireless in making sure that the defences were as solid as they could be under the circumstances. Not having participated in a battle before, he asked Frost, "I would like to know if this is worse or not so bad as the other things you've been in?" Frost said it was hard to say as some things were worse but others weren't; they still had food and water, but were low on ammunition.
Once it became clear that the defence could not continue for much longer, it was decided that the 2nd Battalion would remain at Brigade Headquarters, where they could still fire on the bridge, while the remainder scattered into the town in an attempt to make their way back to Oosterbeek. The massive bombardment which had pounded the British positions over the previous days was now concentrated on this new small perimeter, making their position quite untenable. Tatham-Warter decided to try to escape the barrage by slipping the entire force away in two's and three's during the night before reoccupying the position in the morning, however they were entirely surrounded and very few men got out. Tatham-Warter was amongst those taken prisoner.
He was taken to the St Elizabeth Hospital on that day, Thursday 21st September, but escaped that night with the Second-in-Command of "A" Company, Captain Tony Frank. The following is his M.I.9 report:
Captured : Arnhem, 21 Sep 44.
Escaped : Arnhem, 21 Sep 44.
Left : Eindhoven, 24 Oct 44.
Arrived : Barkston Heath, 24 Oct 44.
Date of Birth : 26 May 17.
Army Service : Since Jan 37.
Peacetime Profession : Regular Army.
Private Address : Portway House, Kirtlington, Oxfordshire.
I was dropped by parachute with my Battalion at about 1400 hrs on 17 Sep 44 seven miles West of Arnhem (N.W. Europe, 1:250,000, Sheet 2a and 3a, E 7578). We advanced into Arnhem and held the bridge there until 2200 on 20 Sep. During that night (20-21 Sep) the Battalion was split up by enemy action, and on the morning of 21 Sep we were no longer a fighting force. I ordered the remainder of the force to evade capture until help should arrive.
I had been injured by blast and I hid in a deep drain with Captain McLean, of my Division. We were discovered and captured by the Germans at 1000 hrs on 21 Sep. We were taken to a church in Arnhem, where we saw about 90 men of our Division, including Captain Frank (S/P.G.(H) 2780) who was wounded.
At 1800 hrs Captain Frank and I were taken to a hospital in Arnhem, where we met Major Crawley and Captain Logan, M.O., both of my Division. Captain Frank and I discussed escape plans with Captain Logan.
At 2200 hrs on 21 Sep Captain Frank and I climbed through a window of the hospital and crawled N.W. through the hospital gardens to a wood. We then walked West until daylight, when we arrived at a farm. The remainder of my journey was arranged for me.
The escape from the hospital was made once the German nurses were out of sight, then Tatham-Warter and Captain Frank dressed themselves, climbed down from the first floor window, and crawled through the garden below until, exhausted after several days without sleep, they halted nearby. On the following day, Tatham-Warter used his escape compass, assembled from the buttons on his uniform, and headed west until they came to the pine woodland at Mariendaal, immediately north of the railway line and a mile to the west of Arnhem. At dawn on the following day they spotted a farmhouse on the edge of the wood and spent some time watching it for signs of life, of which there appeared to be none. The two men had not eaten since receiving a small helping of potato and a slice of bread in the hospital, so he decided to knock on the door in the hope of finding food and shelter. An old lady answered, and though initially frightened by the scarecrow appearance of these two men, she prepared some cheese and fried eggs, and directed them to the barn where they spent the night in the loft, hidden under a bed of damp straw.
On the afternoon of Monday 25th September they were visited by Menno de Nooy of the Ede Resistance, who assured them that they were now safe. He took them two miles northwards to the dense Warnsborn woods, where they took up residence in the more pleasant surroundings of the home of a farmer named Van der Ven. During the day they hid inside a concealed room in his shed, but would emerge each evening to cut home grown tobacco with their host, and play cards with him.
On the 3rd October, Tatham-Warter was visited by the head of the Ede Resistance, Bill Wildeboer, who revealed that there was now a considerable number of escaped airborne men hiding in the local area, and the task of organising and sheltering them was beginning to overwhelm him. Tatham-Warter agreed to help, and on the next day, dressed in civilian clothes, the two men cycled the 10 miles to Ede and took up residence in Wildeboer's home, or rather in a concealed dugout beneath a log pile which Wildeboer had once used to hide from the Gestapo. It was damp, but contained a cot and other light furnishings, and proved to be adequate accommodation under the circumstances. On the following day, a barber, a tailor, and a photographer arrived to tidy up Tatham-Warter's appearance and provide him with a forged identity card, which named him as Peter Jensen, the conveniently deaf and dumb son of a lawyer from the Hague.
Now that he could masquerade as a Dutch civilian, Tatham-Warter had no qualms about going outdoors, and was as bold in his movements as he had been at Arnhem Bridge, venturing out each day on a bicycle to visit the increasing number of men in hiding. There were many German troops in the area, but his casual manner did not arouse any suspicions, and on one occasion he even stopped to help push a staff car out of a ditch. By a stroke of bad luck a group of German officers took up residence in Wildeboer's home, and when Tatham-Warter would return from his travels shortly before the curfew, he would often find himself entering the house at the same time as the Germans. Initially he gave way to them, but eventually grew tired of politeness and made a point of going in first, which provoked a mild dispute but they backed down at the sight of his scornful gaze. Thereafter these officers were much more well-disposed towards him; they would nod to each other in greeting, and occasionally even patted him on the back.
Tatham-Warter did a magnificent job of managing the hundreds of men in hiding nearby, and with signal links set up at his residence he managed to contact Headquarters, 1st British Airborne Corps in England, and British Intelligence at Nijmegen. Each night he would call Nijmegen and speak with Airey Neave, the first British prisoner of war to escape from Colditz, and who now worked for MI9, whose brief was to help escapers and evaders return to the Allied lines. Neave wrote the following in his memoir, They Have Their Exits:
The power stations in Nijmegen on the Waal and at Ede on the northern bank of the Rhine were linked by private telephone lines which remained intact while the battle raged. The exchanges were controlled by the Resistance and they gave us the information that in the houses and forests of Ede were hidden nearly one hundred and forty men, among them Major Digby Tatham-Warter, D.S.O. This officer, a man of calm ingenuity, conducted the conversations that followed between the two power stations. Despite the risk of capture he came from his hiding place each evening between nine and ten to the terminal house at Ede and there spoke to the rescue organisations in Nijmegen. He passed to those on duty in the power station lists of names of the survivors of the great airborne landing, which included Brigadier Lathbury commanding the First Parachute Brigade. During the first two weeks of October, 1944, I sat every evening in the gaunt power station with Major Hugh Fraser, M.B.E., of the S.A.S. (now M.P. for Stafford) listening for the telephone bell. It seemed that we were waiting for a signal from the other world. The shells from enemy batteries at Arnhem crashed around the Nijmegen Bridge, shaking the power house. Beside us sat technical officials, their staunch Dutch faces betraying no emotion. We would wait with beating hearts for a faint ring on the telephone and Tatham-Warter's voice.
Through these channels, it was arranged for the RAF to drop weapons, ammunition, equipment, food and cigarettes to Tatham-Warter's men. The arms were buried in the countryside until they were needed, with it being envisaged that the men, alongside the Dutch Resistance, would launch coordinated attacks on enemy positions in the event of the 2nd British Army making a second attempt to cross the Rhine. Eventually it became clear that this would not happen, and so it was decided to withdraw the men to the Allied lines.
Operation Pegasus, as it was known, was to take place on the 22nd October, and would involve 138 men making their way to the riverbank, most of whom were armed and ready to fight their way through any opposition they encountered. Tatham-Warter made his way to the rendezvous area, deep in the woods around Renkum, in the company of Brigadier Lathbury, riding abreast on bicycles and passing as many as 200 German troops on the way without being challenged. At 21:00, having made a brief reconnaissance to within a short distance of the river, Tatham-Warter gave the order for the advance. Their boots had been wrapped in rags to dull the noise, yet Tatham-Warter later compared their stealthy approach to that of a herd of stampeding elephants. They left the cover of the woods on to a meadow shrouded by a low lying mist, and at intervals of five yards he ordered every man to crawl the final 200 yards to the Rhine. Fighting patrols were sent out to both flanks to deal with any enemy encountered; a machine-gun opened fire but those manning it fled when they were answered by Sten guns, but other than this there was no opposition. The group reached the Rhine in good order, though a few hundred yards to the east of where they should have been, but fortunately Tatham-Warter's "V" signal on his red torch was seen, and by 01:30 the following morning the entire party was across the river. Major Tatham-Warter's account of Operation Pegasus can be read here.
There is little doubt that Major Tatham-Warter played a great part both in the defence of Arnhem Bridge and also its mythology, and for this and his superb conduct during the events leading up to Operation Pegasus, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. His citation reads:
Major Tatham-Warter commanded a Company of 2 Para Battalion which dropped West of Arnhem in Holland on 17 September. The task of the Battalion was the vital one of capturing the main Rhine Bridge and this officer handled the leading company with such dash and skill that the bridge was in our hands before dark after considerable casualties had been inflicted on the enemy and 30 prisoners captured. Later, when the Commanding Officer took command of all forces on the Bridge Major Tatham-Warter assumed command of the Battalion. He commanded during the next three days when the Battalion without any re-supply of food or ammunition, resisted incessant and determined attacks by vastly superior forces including tanks. Throughout this period, Major Tatham-Warter displayed magnificent qualities of courage, leadership and the utmost determination. He was to be found invariably at the most threatened point in the defence, where his personal example was an inspiration to all. On one occasion he was rendered unconscious by blast from an 88mm Tank Gun firing point blank at the house he was in, but he recovered and resumed command. Later, when captured by the enemy, he escaped and showed great initiative in making contact with the Dutch Resistance organisation. He organised and assembled a force of one hundred escaped airborne troops, so that they could play their part when the Germans should begin to withdraw. Finally, when orders were received to withdraw this party through the German lines, Major Tatham-Warter was largely responsible for the planning of a most brilliant and successful operation in which 130 armed men escaped through the German lines and crossed the Rhine. For a month, behind the German lines, this officer moved about regardless of his personal safety and was an inspiration to all those who saw him.
On his return to the UK, Major Tatham-Warter resumed command of the remnants of "A" Company, and wrote the following report on the defence of Arnhem Bridge, which led to Lieutenant Jack Grayburn being posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, and copies were sent to the families of all those of the 2nd Parachute Battalion who did not return.
ACCOUNT OF THE 2nd BATTALION'S OPERATIONS
ARNHEM 17th SEPTEMBER 1944
The task given to the 2nd Battalion was:-
(1) To seize the three Bridges over the RHINE at ARNHEM.
(2) Later to establish the Western half of the Brigade sector forming a bridgehead North of the main road Bridge, to allow the advanced units of the 2nd Army free passage, and deny use of it to the enemy.
The plan for carrying out those tasks was as follows. The Battalion would advance with all possible speed, with A Company leading, seize the Main Road Bridge West of the town, C Company were to seize the North end, and pass one Platoon to the South bank with the task of linking up, from the South, with A Company on the Main Bridge. C Company were then to establish their part of the Battalion sector for Phase 11.
On reaching the Boat Bridge, B Company were to seize the Bridge, and hold it as the left flank of the Battalion sector in Phase 11.
We were in possession of detailed information of enemy defences and concentrations, and did not expect anything except hurriedly organised resistance in Phase 1. It was clear, however, that the enemy would react strongly, and we expected to withstand heavy counter-attack, with the likelihood of tanks, until the arrival of the 2nd Army who were scheduled to reach us after 48 hours.
The Battalion was dropped at 1445 hours on D. day 17th September, with perfect accuracy on the D.Z. 7 miles West of ARNHEM. There was no opposition on the D.Z. and except for a motor patrol captured by A Company at the R.V. , no opposition was met until we had moved two miles towards the town. Here A Company bumped what proved to be the Southern flank of a strong enemy position, and after a spirited assault by one Platoon, were able to continue the advance. They met no more opposition until the railway West of the town. From then on Armoured cars and hastily organised defences caused only minor delay in the falling light, until A Company reached and seized the North end of the Main Bridge at 8 p.m. . They had taken some 50 prisoners during the advance.
Meanwhile C Company had taken the North end of the Railway Bridges only to see it blown as they began to cross. Similarly the Boat Bridge, which B Company reached after overcoming considerable resistance, was burnt before they could use it. An assault by A Company, across the Main Bridge, was met by devastating fire from tanks and light A.A. on the Bridge, and the attempt was abandoned. Efforts were then made to secure boats for an assault on the South end of the Bridge, but thorough reconnaissance revealed that all boats had been removed from the North bank. In spite of these reverses we were more than satisfied with the course of events. By first light on Monday the position was as follows:-
(1) We had captured our objective with comparatively few casualties.
(2) We were holding a small but strong bridgehead North of the Bridge. The force now consisted of the 2nd Battalion less C Company and one Platoon of B Company with the addition of Brigade Headquarters and attached troops, who had followed us in. We also had four 6 Pdr. A/TK guns. The force was commanded by Lt. Col Frost, D.S.O M.C.
(3) A strong counterattack from the South had been repelled during the night.
(4) We had lost contact with C Company after their episode at the Railway Bridge, and although patrols were sent out to contact them, nothing more was heard of them during the battle. We heard afterwards that they had reached their objective, but owing to the failure of the Brigade to establish the original sector, they were isolated, surrounded and eventually suffered much the same fate as ourselves.
Throughout Monday we were attacked with increasing vigour from the East, and subjected to continuous mortar fire and shelling. A number of tanks and S.P. guns supported the attack, and several attempts were made to bring armoured cars and tanks over the Bridge. Heavy toll was taken by both 6 Pdrs, and P.I.A.Ts. and nothing crossed the Bridge during the three days we held it.
During Monday night another counterattack from the South was repelled with heavy losses. The position East of the Bridge where A Company and part of the Brigade H.Q. force had borne the brunt of the attack, was strengthened by the addition of one Platoon of B Company.
Until Tuesday midday we had no wireless communication with Div. H.Q. or the rest of the Brigade, but we could hear by the noise of the battle that they were having a very sticky time. When contact was finally made, we heard that every effort was being made to reach us. We heard afterwards that they had been unlucky in meeting very heavy opposition soon after leaving the D.Z. and though they fought without a break, they never got more than a footing in the town.
Major Wallis was killed on Monday evening and Major Tatham Warter took over command of the Battalion. Our casualties had been heavy, but were mostly wounded. Tuesday was a repetition of Monday, with no appreciable worsening of the situation, except for an increase in casualties and a growing shortage of ammunition. The most serious deficiency was in P.I.A.T bombs, of which we now had none left, and so had no method of dealing with tanks which shelled our houses at very close range. The 6 Pdrs still kept the Bridge and Western approaches covered, but could not maintain positions East of the Bridge.
By Wednesday midday the situation had worsened considerably. We had been burnt out of all our positions East and immediately West of the Bridge. In spite of the most gallant defence and reported counter attacks by A and B Companies, the remnants of both companies had to be withdrawn to a firm position, still covering the Bridge, but slightly further North, which had previously been held by H.Q. Company. Colonel Frost and Major Crawley M.C. (Commanding A Company) were wounded during the morning, and Capt Frank M.C. (then commanding A Company) had been wounded the previous evening.
It had now become clear that the rest of the Division were very unlikely to reach us but we were cheered by the news that advanced units of the 2nd Army would reach the Bridge by 5 p.m. that evening. This did not happen and by dark the situation had become critical. Soon after dark the few houses still standing were set on fire, and we found ourselves without a position. The wounded were then surrendered, and from reports I received afterwards were well cared for, with our own doctors to look after them.
During the night we tried to re-establish ourselves in other houses, but in doing so suffered heavy casualties and became very split up. By morning we were no longer a fighting force, and the battle was over.
Of the 2nd Battalion approximately 350 had reached the Bridge, of this number 210 were wounded, many of whom had fought on to the end, in spite of their wounds. It is not possible to estimate the number killed, but I know of approximately 100 taken prisoner unwounded.
The Battalion had fought with the utmost gallantry, in inconceivably difficult conditions, and had denied the use of the vital Bridge to the enemy for 80 hours.
Major Tatham Warter Officer Commanding 2nd Parachute Regiment
After the war, on the recommendation of his aunt and uncle, Digby Tatham-Warter moved to Kenya to take up an appointment with the 5th King's African Rifles, and he purchased a farm at Eburru in the Rift Valley. During the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950's, he commanded a mounted section. His family later moved to another farm at Laikipia, where he organised safaris for photography, bird shooting and small game. He died in Nayuki in 1993.
See also: Operation Pegasus: Evasion Report, Maj Crawley, Maj Tony Hibbert, Capt Frank, Lt Grayburn, Sgt Wallace
Offsite links: Operation Market Garden - The Complete Story - Special Reports - Pegasus I
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