- Contributed by
- Neil Walker
- People in story:
- Gordon Johnston Walker (Jock), Dennis Smith, Mike Lewis
- Location of story:
- Arnhem, Holland
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 12 January 2006
Sgt Jock Walker, AFPU, pictured outside the Hartenstein Hotel, Oosterbeek, September 1944
The Unit was about to move out with the remainder of the 2nd Army in the great chase across Europe as, with their defeat at Falaise and the Americans success in the south, the Germans were in full-scale retreat, and were moving towards the Fatherland faster than a suppository in a constipated behind, when my mates and self were recalled to England for an airborne operation that was coming off shortly.
We picked up a U.K. bound aircraft at a nearby landing strip and eventually arrived back at Pinewood, where we joined another one of our lads who was already there. We were just told that an airborne job was coming off, no details known, and would be briefed at the Airborne Forces H.Q. at Moor Park, and when we knew what the score was, we would be fitted out with whatever photographic kit we thought we would require, plus a jeep and trailer.
We were briefed three times, once for Paris and once for Maastrich in Holland, but the enemy was retreating too fast for these operations to be mounted, and eventually we were briefed on ‘Operation Market Garden’ which was the bridge across the Neder Rhine at Arnhem. On paper it was a doddle, maximum of only Brigade opposition and that would be composed of ‘clapped out’ tanks and second-class infantrymen. The plan was far seeing; only three bridges stood between our advanced tanks and infantry and Germany, the first two of which would be taken by the two American Airborne Divisions, the 82nd and the 101st, one on each bridge, and we, the British 1st Airborne Division, were to take the final one - at Arnhem, thus leaving the way clear for the 2nd Army to advance in record time. In fact our part of the operation was to last two days and then we would be relieved. That was the theory!
The lift was planned to take place in three successive days, Sunday first lift, Monday second lift and Tuesday the final one, all being combined Parachute and Glider landings. When we got to our departure airfield we were finally briefed, and shown our exact dropping and landing zones, and I must say that none of us were too happy about the distance these were from the Bridge itself, a matter of seven miles, and in completely unknown territory.
However, ours was not to reason why, so as two of us had to fly in a Glider with the jeep and trailer, plus two Royal Signals wireless operators. These weren’t parachutists or even airborne troops, but were two very newly called up, very young lads, who had never heard a shot fired in anger, and had been posted as wireless operators to the Army Public Relations team, which was also going with us (these lads were magnificent, and did their job in the highest ideals of the Signals and, incidentally, the Public Relations wireless link to the U.K. was the only one working during the whole of the action). One bloke was to accompany the parachutists and this was Sergeant Mike Lewis who was a veteran of the Tunisian campaigns and the most experienced parachutist of the three of us. My mate in the glider was Sergeant Dennis Smith.
At the airfield we filmed some ‘lead-in’ stuff, troops embarking, close-up of graffiti on the gliders and tugs, etc. then we embarked on our Horsa and off we went to see the wizard. For us the journey was uneventful, and mainly boring; we took off at 10.00 hours and it was a beautiful day and my mate and I spent a lot of time taking film and pictures of the flight. Before we reached the coast of Holland there was a couple or so gliders down in the drink, how or why I don’t know, and after we crossed the coast, a number of dummy parachutists were dropped to fox the enemy. I’ll bet a few Jerry soldiers didn’t need their number nine pills when they saw them dropping. There was some anti-aircraft fire, not much, as our escorting fighters soon take care of them and the flight continued on.
I am not a happy person in a military glider, the continuous sight of those two tow ropes, stretching from the glider wings to the tail of the tug, were our umbilical cords, cut them and we were useless as of course we had no power of our own; the silence too, broken only by the swishing of air past the fuselage, was a bit unnerving, but it had a serenity of its own, a feeling of being detached from the rest of the fleet and just sailing along on a mat of fleecy cotton wool.
At approximately 1400 hours we were told to stand by for the landing; the glider cast off the ropes and we went into a steep descent, which levelled out into a beautiful landing; quickly we jumped onto terra firma, and immediately started to film the Para drop, as by a nice bit of luck, we had landed before they arrived and so were able to put the 1st Parachute
Brigade and the 1st Airborne Brigade arriving for the bitter fight that was to follow.
After the landings and drop, we retrieved our jeep and trailer and swanned around to see what was happening and we found out that the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Para had gone, hell for leather, for the bridge in their various directions, with the 2nd Battalion going directly through Osterbeek, the 1st Battalion via Ede and Arnhem Road and the 3rd Battalion via the Utrecht-Arnhem road. The 2nd Battalion, we were to discover later, was the only battalion to get to the Bridge, the other two met with massive opposition in the form of tanks and self-propelled guns and were cut to ribbons en route; without knowing this, we tried to get to the bridge but encountered heavy and accurate fire and hastily retired, and came across
Divisional H.Q. who had set up shop in Hartenstein, and from them we discovered what had happened to the Para Battalions.
We added our bit of information, as every little helps to pinpoint the enemy; we had a bite to eat and drink and went to join the South Staffs for the night, so as to be ready to film the arrival of the second drop the next day, the significance of the cut roads to the bridge not having hit us yet.
We left the trailer at H.Q. only taking with us our arms, cameras, and what film we had left, telling the First Aid Post to take whatever blankets etc. they might need, as we had no real use for them.
The night was comparatively quiet and we managed a few hours sleep until dawn, and we set off for the second drop, which was over the railway line to Arnhem, and joined up with the Border Regiment and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who were holding the landing zones, having been ordered to do so at all costs and with great ferocity had fought a pitched battle with the enemy, ending up by going in with the bayonet and scattering them like a burst bag of peas. They were well pleased with themselves, and rightly so too.
The landing was due at 1000 hours but it came, and went, and no aircraft, gliders or anything appeared, and the situation was decidedly ‘dodgy’ with sporadic shelling, mortaring and sniping. These snipers were the very devil and picked off more of our men than I care to think about. However, we waited and had a number of German fighters ‘strafe’ us also for good measure. By about 1500 hours the planes started to arrive, bang into a hail of anti-aircraft fire and machine gun. The scene was horrible, at least two Dakotas were hit and set on fire, the Paras exiting in a hurry, into a hail of tracer and the planes themselves eventually crashing in fames. The heath was on fire, Paras were being killed and wounded as they descended, and many a glider hit the deck, out of control.
This was the 4th Para with some more South Staffs, and what was left of them formed up and set off for Arnhem, but never got through to the bridge and, in point of fact, the 1st and 4th Para Brigades had almost ceased to exist as a fighting force; this was clear by the third day.
We had rejoined Divisional H.Q. as we had no more film left, and offered our services as required. We found out that the General had been missing for a day but had now turned up, after some hair-raising adventures in which Brigadier Lathbury, the 1st Para Commander had been severely wounded and was out of action.
With the terrible reverses that we had suffered and the enormous casualties the plan was to make a large defensive perimeter around the central point of the Hartenstein Hotel which was the divisional H.Q. and to withdraw what troops could be mustered to this perimeter and make a stand, until the 2nd Army could relieve us. By now we had gone 24 hours over the time we were told we should be relieved and hunger and thirst were beginning to bite very hard. The rations we carried for these capers were in the shape of two 24-hour packs of concentrated food and chocolate, and a water bottle full of water; only a fool would put anything else in it when going ‘dicing’ and as many bars of chocolate and packets of cigarettes you could stuff in your jump jacket; a cigarette is a great comforter in times of stress when the thought of dying from cancer seem very remote. We should be so lucky and also it helps to keep hunger at bay, and nothing comforts a wounded man more if he is capable of smoking it. The three of us pooled what we had got and shared out food and cigarettes, except Mike, who didn’t smoke.
The third day dawned and by this time what was left alive and kicking of 10,000 men were defending the perimeter, the remnants of 1st and 3rd Battalions were down by the river, the 2nd was on the Osterbeek-Arnhem road and the South Staffs by the Church at Osterbeek, who were having a rotten time with snipers. I joined them there early in the morning, and that evening the Germans launched an attack with, I think, three tanks and Sergeant Baskerville of the South Staffs won a V.C. in the view of many of us, by knocking out two of the tanks and then had his gun knocked out. Crawling to another gun which was working, but whose crew were dead, he took on the third tank single-handed, which had withdrawn, but paid the penalty by being killed himself. A very brave man amongst many brave men.
The German infantry were attacking meantime, but we gave them stick; the stupid bastards just ran into Vickers and sub-machine gunfire and wave after wave of them were sent to their particular Valhalla. They were massacred in their scores, the noise of the action was terrific, at such close quarters was it fought, with the ripping sound of Spandau machine-
Guns, the stutter of Sten guns and the heavy thumps of the ‘75’s and the Mills bombs, all making their contribution to a massive Death March but in 6/8 time.
The noise to me that stood out above all others was the very reassuring heavy thump, thump, thump of the Vickers, rising above the clash of the battle and the lads who played that particular instrument of death did it as if on a practice range; no panic, no wild bursts, just a steady burst, then another and so on.
The enemy broke, leaving the ground literally piled up with dead and wounded and the cries of ‘Wa Ho Mahomet’, the airborne battle cry resounded throughout. It was a notable victory but was just a taste of things to come during the following days until we retired. If only I’d had some film for my camera, but expecting only a two-day stand I only had 500 feet, thinking to pick up more when relieved, and that amount had been used up. Ah well, that’s how the cookie crumbles and on the evening of the fourth day, when things quietened down, it was back to H.Q. to discover that they had had a most fearful mortaring all day, reaching, I was informed, a density of forty plus bombs per hour, causing a lot of casualties. Later that afternoon, about 1700 hours or so, we had an accurate supply drop of ammunition; this was on the 20th September.
On the 21st it was impossible to leave the Hartenstein Hotel area, due to the fact that the enemy made a very determined attempt to break into the perimeter. What with this and the recommencement of the heavy mortaring and shelling it was a wonder any of us lived through it, but we did. Defending the perimeter, in addition to the Para and the South Staffs, there were elements of REs, RAs, Royal Signals, Glider Pilots, Pathfinders, RASC who fought as hard and viciously as the rest. It was a case of their life or yours and although airborne troops do not require to have their back to the wall in order to fight, this was literally a case of give an inch and we were all done.
The R.A.F. supply planes and their dispatchers were giants among brave men; whenever they came over with supplies (which unfortunately usually fell to the enemy) all the fury of the enemy was directed against them, but steadfastly they flew straight and level through the most fearful ‘flak’ - the dispatchers at the doors, chucking out the containers, even when repeatedly hit and set on fire, flying on, blazing torches in the sky, until they eventually crashed in flames. What devotion to duty and so sorrowful to watch. There wasn’t a man on the ground that wasn’t moved by this display of courage and, in the main, with no benefit to us.
That day, in an attempt to reinforce us, the Polish Para were dropped on the other side of the Rhine, opposite our perimeter but due apparently to lack of boats etc. they had to stay there until the next night, when they joined us, a very small batch of about 200; they too had been cut to ribbons.
Food and water was a definite problem, we managed to collect some apples and vegetables from time to time and at the end of the open space behind the Hartenstein there was a well but collecting water was very ‘dodgy’ due to these pestilential snipers. One of the Sergeants and his men, faked up a dummy soldier with a stick, pillow and tin hat, and exposed it every so often. It never failed to draw fire, thus showing where the sniper was and then he would get his ‘come-uppance.’ He knocked out an awful lot of snipers this way and enabled us to get water from time to time.
If you were wounded it was certain captivity, as the British and German Red Cross agreed to work side by side, but the Germans controlled the hospital, so if you were taken there, into captivity you went. In fact the only jeep that was still running was the one that ferried the wounded to hospital, the enemy respected it and it was back and forth all day long, carrying the wounded to succour, safety and behind barbed wire.
It wasn’t all grim, square-jawed stuff, we had some laughs like when a German Psychological unit in a van came up and bellowed through the loud-hailer that we were good blokes and marvellous fighters, and that if we would surrender we would be treated as heroes and all this guff.
The answer of course was cat calls,
“Up yours from Wigan.”
“Get knotted,” and other military replies and when it came next day somebody fired a P.I.A.T. bomb right into it. They didn’t send another one! And if you were caught in the open during an enemy ‘stonk’ and dived into a slit trench you had usually to battle with squirrels for possession of it; they couldn’t live in the woods and very sensibly occupied slit trenches and were not at all keen on a human being there too. Sharp little teeth they’ve got.
The 22nd, 23rd and 24th were a repeat of the previous days, non-stop shelling and mortaring, and attack after attack, and every day the perimeter grew a little less until the evening of the 24th we were told we were evacuating as the 2nd Army had at last reached the opposite bank at Driel. We were filthy dirty, beyond tiredness, hunger and sleep were luxuries that belonged to another life, but we weren’t broken not by a long way, and we received the news with gladness that it would soon be all over and with sadness at the loss of pals who wouldn’t be coming back with us.
Late that night it was our turn to go down to the river and with a guide at the front and with all our ‘tails’ undone so that each person could hold on to the bloke in front we went, in single file, It was very overcast and pouring with rain and we had our feet muffled with sacking or other rags, and so we reached the river bank.
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