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My Father's Arnhem Experience

In September 1944 we were briefed for the landings at Arnhem in Holland. This must have been about our 30th briefing which had come to nought so I was vaguely surprised to find myself sitting in the cockpit of a glider in Broadwell on 18th September, with Tommy Mann again as my co-pilot, waiting for my turn to take off on this ill-fated expedition. Not that I knew then just how ill-fated it was to be.

These mass take-offs were quite amazing. Gliders are lined up on the runway, staggered two deep and on either side are the tugs. The tugs line up one by one, the 300 foot nylon tow ropes are attached by ground crews and the take-off commences. Before the combination has moved more than a few yards, the next tug lines up, is connected and takes off and so on. In this way 100 or more gliders can be airborne within a very short time after which they formate over the airfield. This will happen from several airfields at the same time and gradually they all join up until there is a vast armada of gliders and tugs in the air together.

This day, on my Horsa, we had a jeep and mortar team of about 6 soldiers with the vehicle and equipment securely tied down. The flight lasted about 3½ hours and was without incident. Once again we arrived at the landing zone and this being the second day of the landings, there was a great deal of flak and I could see some gliders and tugs going down in flames. However, the concentration was all on the landing, which we managed without any problem and the glider rolled safely to a stop, more or less where it should have been.

We had a big struggle to get the tail off the glider, in order to lower the ramps and get the jeep and the mortar gun out. It was pretty chaotic, with a great deal of noise from weaponry and anti-aircraft and gliders were landing all around us, some not so successfully.

Following the unloading, our passengers hitched up their mortar to the jeep and drove off, while Tommy Mann and I made our way to the pilots rendezvous point.

The Battle for Arnhem (so called) has been well documented and there has even been a film. The objective of the airborne landings was to secure, simultaneously, three bridges over the Rhine, well behind enemy lines in Holland, to facilitate the advancement of the British and American armies advancing through Belgium. The bridge at Arnhem was the farthest of the three. The objective of our operation was to secure and hold this bridge for up to 48 hours by which time we would be relieved by the main army.

Intelligence sources showed that the German defence of Arnhem was not likely to be too strong but as events turned out this was not the case and we were in fact to be heavily outnumbered. A German armoured Panzer Division had chosen Arnhem as a suitable place to withdraw to and re-equip and had brought themselves back to full readiness two days before we arrived. Their large self-propelled guns and Tiger tanks were waiting.

My own recollection of the next few days is very confused. There was a great deal of digging of slit trenches, of marching by night to new positions, of foraging for food and ammunition. On the second day there was a further wave of glider landings, with many being shot down and several parachute drops were made of containers which unfortunately landed beyond our held positions.

After the third day, without being relieved, it was clear that things were not going to plan but there was no shortage of rumours. There was an almost continuous rumbling of tanks which the ‘experts’ among us were confident belonged to the British army but, if they were, they seemed to be an awfully long time coming.

The air was full of shrapnel and it was mostly a matter of keeping heads down, with occasional bouts of firing whenever we could see the enemy. My section became split up and after that it was every man for himself. When someone got hit it was impossible to tell whether it was a result of shrapnel or snipers.

Several times, men around me were wounded and if they were able to walk, one of us would help them to a nearby makeshift hospital which had been set up, before scurrying back to our position in the wood.

Our food supplies, which had consisted mainly of self-heating tins of soup or stew, biscuits or chocolate were quickly exhausted. In the end I was in a group which were pinned down in a wood on the outskirts of the village of Oosterbeck, ringed by tanks, pounded by mortars and thoroughly demoralised with no target and no objective.

It was on about the 7th day when I was hit badly in the arm with a large piece of shrapnel and while I was trying to apply a field dressing to this, I was knocked unconscious by another large piece hitting my steel helmet. When I came to it was on a stretcher and I was being taken to a field hospital. My helmet had had the top completely removed and there was a large jagged hole there, which had caused the stretcher bearers to assume that I had an equally serious head injury. My arm was bad but my head was intact, though seriously aching.

I was able to help a bit in the field hospital which was a complete shambles but it was only shortly after I had been admitted that the building became surrounded and taken over by Germans. It was the 8th day after landing and there was not much we could do.

After some time, the walking wounded, myself included, were marched some miles outside the battle zone and admitted to a proper hospital. I had a large piece of shrapnel embedded in my arm and it was very painful but otherwise I was somewhat relieved to be still alive. Uppermost in my mind was the idea, deeply instilled in us all during training, that the best time to escape captivity was as soon as possible, before our captors got organised.

It was already late when we were put in the hospital and the guarding seemed very lax. After a bit I asked to got to the loo and once in there climbed out of a window and walked away! It was so ridiculously easy that I was unprepared what to do next and my actions were purely reflex. Just keep walking and get away as far as possible but in which direction? I had no idea where I was and I was tired, hungry and incredibly demoralised. I was stopped by German soldiers. They looked rather hostile so I tried to make them understand that I was looking for the hospital and pointed to the sling on my arm. They seemed to understand this and produced a small truck which took me back there, where I did not appear even to have been missed.

I can only remember thinking “Well, at least I tried”, but it was not a very gallant escape attempt and in fiction could certainly have been managed much more successfully.

It was only a matter of hours before I was taken out of the hospital, with others, put in a truck and taken to a rail siding where we met many other prisoners, all Airborne soldiers including some glider pilots, waiting and under heavy guard. We were then put into cattle trucks on the railway line and after an interminable wait inside, with much shouting and counting and bumping, moved off to begin our lives as prisoners of war.

During the Arnhem operation, one third of the glider pilots were killed, one third were taken prisoner of war, mostly wounded and the remaining third managed to cross the river, to safety, at night in an organised escape. The order for this evacuation came the day after I was taken prisoner.

The POW camp to which I was taken was Stalag 8c at Sagan close to the Polish border. It was a long way from Holland and I do not know how many hours or days it took us to get there by goods train but it was a miserable journey. At the camp, however, a doctor removed the piece of shrapnel from my arm, which was a relief and the wound healed up after a few days.

I will not dwell too long upon our life in the prison camp, an experience which I would not wish to repeat. We were not actively ill-treated but there was a problem in that at that stage in the war Germany was in a mess. The communication system within the country had deteriorated to the point of collapse and the food supply was bad for everyone. Obviously there was not a lot left for the POW’s. We had two, very basic, meals a day and were perpetually hungry.

It was a degrading life which brought out the worst in some and showed the true worth of others. Probably the most hateful part was the propaganda, fed to us daily by loudspeaker, which told us that Germany would soon be victorious and that our country was being blown to bits with the new secret weapon, the V.2 missile. At first instinct told us it was untrue but after a while it was hard not to be convinced.

Life for us was not much like that portrayed in the films of POW camps. It was probably an inferior one and because all able-bodied soldiers were away fighting on one front or another, our guards were really the dregs, whose attitude to us was more one of disinterest than anything. The aspects of POW life which had made life bearable in other, longer established, camps were absent. There were no working parties, facilities for study, writing or organised entertainments. It was impossible to get paper for even the most basic and necessary purposes, let alone for writing on.

I never received any of the many letters written to me and we received only one supply of Red Cross parcels, which were distributed one between four. These parcels were, I understand, the mainstay of proper camps and one per man suitably husbanded, would be enough to augment the meagre official diet.

Naturally, the question of escape was uppermost in prisoner’s minds, but there were no opportunities that I ever heard of. Certainly there was no escape committee.

There was one occasion, sometime around Christmas when we were taken to another, obviously more organised camp nearby for RAF prisoners, where we were treated to a production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” put on by the inmates. Although undoubtedly corny and cobbled together, I thought it was absolutely marvellous and could hardly believe it.

On the credit side, it was not a terribly lengthy captivity and lasted in total about seven months, which viewed in retrospect, does not seem so bad.

As always, rumours abounded and the grapevine did its best to counteract our daily dose of propaganda. We began to believe that the Russian armies were advancing from the north and would soon overrun the camp, though we were not altogether sanquine as to whether that would be much of a blessing. It might be a question of going out of the frying pan into the fire.

Then came the time when it was clear something momentous was afoot and indeed one morning we were hastily rounded-up and marched out of the camp, carrying our meagre possessions, which were virtually just the clothes on our back. It was early February, 1944.

Where we were going to we had no idea though it seemed clear that the camp had had to be evacuated, to escape the Russian advance. No one ever bothered to explain and after a while we ceased to even care. It was winter-time and very cold; we were at a low ebb from lack of food before we started and the rations allowed us on the march were minimal.

At night we were herded onto open spaces, usually on the outskirts of a little village, sometimes into football grounds, sometimes on farms. Early each morning we were put in rows and counted and then off we would go again. It seemed to me after a few days that we were walking in circles just for the sake of it and because no one knew what to do with us.

A great many of the men were ill with dysentery and it was distressing to see them. If they fell out at the side of the track they would be forced to carry on and often clubbed with rifle butts. There were many deaths, some being shot and some just dying of exhaustion and illness. The guards were decidedly trigger-happy and were probably themselves in a state of nervous exhaustion, as their lot was not much better than ours.

One day merged into another but there came one night when we night-stopped on a farm. I managed to sneak away in the dark and found a big barn where I burrowed deep down into some hay and lay there hoping I would not be missed. At day break I heard the guards rounding everyone up and counting the rows of five as they always did, over and over, until it was obvious that someone was missing. I still lay there, listening to the shouting and then I heard them coming and guessed the game was up. In fact when three guards started prodding the hay around me with pitch-forks, it was time to give myself up.

They handled me pretty roughly back to the line of waiting prisoners but I was not otherwise punished, which was lucky. It was an ignominious end to my second escape attempt and my feelings were of complete mortification and despair. In fact on that march I do not think I have ever felt so miserable. It was the low point of my life.

In the end we came to Bad Orb in Germany, near Frankfurt on Main. It was then the middle of March and we had walked over 600 kilometres in 32 days. Our basic rations at that time were one sixth of a loaf of bread each day supplemented with small amounts of meat or cheese and on one or two occasions only we were given a little soup.

Our destination proved to be another POW camp which was in a desperate state and the food here was as basic as that provided while on the march. We were only in this camp for two weeks or so but it was a time of deep despair. 43 men died on that march and another 15 died in the camp at the end of it.

One day, we awoke and found the guards had just disappeared. It was Easter Monday, 1945. Then came the magic moment when a US Army tank smashed down the gate and we were relieved. It seemed hardly possible and some POW’s simply ran madly out of the camp to forage for food of any sort. I remember seeing one man triumphantly snatching a live pigeon which he tore to pieces and ate raw.

We were sternly advised not to move but to wait for instructions and I certainly did not feel like going anywhere as I had lost any initiative to do so. There was a curious hiatus then for a day or two before we were allowed to leave the camp, because of the fear of spread of disease as there were so many cases of typhus and dysentery. The Red Cross took over, however and life became bearable. It is hard to describe the feeling of utter joy at being released. Our stinking rags of clothes were taken away and burnt and we were given some clean uniforms and some food.

We had to be careful about eating, being in such a debilitated state and some of those who broke out and went on the rampage, grabbing anything they could, became seriously ill and in some cases died.

After another couple of days at a release camp being medically examined and kitted out, we were flown from Le Havre back to England and I was able to send a telegram to Beryl to tell her I would be home in two days. I was terribly anxious for news for it was only just before I went to Arnhem that we knew she was going to have a baby. It was therefore a tremendous relief to be able to telephone later and learn that Ian had been born safely, about a month earlier, while I was still on the march.

On Friday 13th April I travelled to Folkestone by rail, negotiating the London underground carrying my kit-bag and eventually arrived home. I felt on top of the world, but it was only a short time before I collapsed and had to be put to bed suffering from severe weight loss and exhaustion.

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