3rd Parachute Battalion Officers Mess

Captain Wilfred H. F. Robinson


Unit : "C" Company, 3rd Parachute Battalion

Army No. : 117940


The following is an obituary which appeared in the Cape Times and was written by Peter Elliott, to whom I am grateful for his permission to publish it.


Sir Wilfred "Chippy" Robinson Bt (1917-2002) who died in London on December 3, taught at Bishops from 1950 to 1977, and was known to a generation of Bishops schoolboys. At school we had always speculated about his war experiences and we knew he had been a parachutist. He was a peaceable, reflective person, and it was difficult to imagine him engaged in war. He had always been reluctant to discuss the war, but towards the end he did tell his family about his escape from behind enemy lines after the Battle of Arnhem (memorialised in film by Lord Richard Attenborough's A Bridge Too Far).


I have now done some digging to unearth his story, and have pieced this tale together from the wealth of accounts of the battle itself, as well as from Chippy's own Escape Report, made to MI9.


Immediately before the war, Chippy had been at Cambridge University, but when war was declared, he cut short his studies, and volunteered to join the British Army.


He gained a commission in the Devonshire Regiment in early 1940. While with the Devonshires he guarded Gibraltar and was briefly the territory's middleweight boxing champion. In late 1943 he transferred into the crack Parachute Regiment, and as a captain, became second-in-command of C Company, 3rd Parachute Battalion.


General Bernard Montgomery, British Forces Commander in Europe, had developed a bold plan known as Operation Market Garden. The plan was to drop airborne troops behind enemy lines to secure the bridges that spanned the rivers on the Dutch-German border. The aim was to provide an "airborne carpet" along which ground forces could then break into the Ruhr and end the war.


As part of this operation, Chippy was dropped with his battalion, to the west of Arnhem, at about 2pm on Sunday, September 17, 1944. They marched from the drop zone to Arnhem along the Utrechtseweg, known as the "Tiger" route, but progress was slow as the leading company was held up constantly by enemy fire. The lightly equipped parachutists soon encountered heavy resistance from the Germans.


Because of the delayed advance, Major "Pongo" Lewis (commander of C Company) was ordered to continue towards Arnhem via the railway line (further to the north). The idea was that the rest of the battalion could follow if the single company was able to find an open route. However, due to the fierce German resistance, this never happened. By taking this more northerly route, C Company managed to penetrate into Arnhem station, and from there they moved towards the Rhine Bridge, which they reached at about 11pm.


One platoon took up position in a factory, which they defended in a noble manner well into the next day. The other platoon (and half of the third) clashed with a much strong troop of German soldiers that night, and were captured by the Germans. So Major Lewis retained with him a much reduced group, consisting of only two officers (including Chippy) and 13 other men.


The 2nd Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost, had managed to avoid confrontation with the enemy and had reached the bridge along the lower "Lion" route (along the river). So this meant that there were about 750 men in position on and around the bridge. The British defended a relatively small perimeter of about a half a kilometre round its northern ramp, and became isolated in separate buildings. The part of C Company that had penetrated into this area had contributed an important 45 men to the defence of the bridge area.


That night the small C Company group joined a band of Royal Engineers, who were already in occupation of the Limburg van Stirum school. Together there were about 60 men in the building, which consisted of a basement, two storeys and an attic. They only had a limited number of Bren guns, ammunition, hand grenades and explosives. They had no anti-tank guns, very little food and just the water in their canteens. They also had no medicines, except morphine, and some dressings.


Throughout the next couple of days the British perimeter came under progressively heavy attack. Initially this was from German machine-gunners, but later heavy mortars bombarded the building. The defenders reinforced windows with tables, and mattresses propped against their frames. On the evening of the Monday the defenders carried out a successful, but brutal, ambush of German soldiers on the grass strip near the school.


Chippy and the other officer took turns in the observation post in the attic of the building. On Wednesday, September 20 a German tank began a systematic shelling of the building. The increasing losses forced Major Lewis to surrender, but he urged those who were still able, to attempt to escape. Chippy was the last to leave the building as he had to ensure the wounded were brought out on stretchers.


Five men, including Chippy, managed to hide in a nearby shrubbery but were soon discovered, and captured by the Germans. On that same day the gallant defence on the bridge was over. The rest of the 1st British Airborne Division had fallen back to Oosterbeek, to the west of Arnhem, where the division was all but destroyed.


The division's task had been to hold the area for 48 hours until relieved by ground forces. They had held it for three days and four nights. The Parachute Division left behind nearly 1,500 dead, and more than 6,400 prisoners. The ground forces had failed to link up, and so the bid to end the war in 1944 had failed. But that does not detract from the heroism of those who defended the bridge, and perimeter, against enormous odds.


The day following their capture, Chippy and the others were taken to a prisoner of war transit camp just north of Emmerich, on the German side of the border with the Netherlands. That night he and two American soldiers managed to climb through a window into a roadway alongside the camp. They proceeded to walk across country in a north-westerly direction towards safety in the Netherlands. They had to separate and hide in a wood, and one of them got lost. So Chippy went on with the one remaining American parachutist, a Private Esparza.


They were on the run for 19 days and nights. For the first seven days they were on the move every night, hiding in farm buildings by day. Along the way they were given sanctuary by farming families. One farmer made contact with the Dutch Underground on their behalf. Eventually they reached the River Lijssel, where they were taken across to safety.


Chippy was able to return to his regiment towards the end of October 1944. His fellow escapee, Private Esparza, was not so lucky. He was killed in action in the Ardennes only a couple of months after their successful escape.


Chippy remained a lifelong friend of one of the brave Dutch farmers who sheltered him. Twelve members of the next generation of one of those families, the Spaans, turned up to meet him at a recent 10-yearly parade that he attended, and were overcome with emotion at meeting him. Chippy too had not forgotten the family who had helped him: He sent them a Fortnum's hamper each Christmas.


* Elliott grew up in South Africa, and went to school at Bishops in the 1960s. He graduated in law from Cambridge University, and became a corporate lawyer in the City of London. He is now retired, and living with his wife in the Languedoc, in south-west France. He has returned to his first love, history, as taught to him at Bishops by Chippy, focusing on the history of Languedoc, but with a tangential interest in World War II.


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