- Contributed by
- Bob Scrivener
- People in story:
- Edmund F. Scrivener
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- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 July 2004
At last on the 17th September 1944, I went into action. The wicked Hun was about to get his comeuppance. All that summer we had been sitting in a piggery, (yes a piggery, but we were the only pigs) waiting for orders to take off for somewhere in France to assist in the final destruction of the Nazi state. We were on the verge of setting off two or three times, but on all the occasions, the speed of the Allied advance had made our presence unnecessary, and the operations were aborted. The code word Fabian was the order to cancel, and we expected that our latest briefing, the attack on Arnhem, would be stopped by the ubiquitous Fabian.
This time it wasn’t. We took off from one of the many airfields in southern England that we had visited at one time of another, in Horsa gliders towed by Albemarle’s and Halifax’s. After forty-five years the memory of it all is very hazy, but there are one or two things that are still very clear in my mind. I remember being very calm, without any of the fears and apprehensions that one would expect, and it would be flattering to ascribe it to my valiant and courageous character, but, in truth, it was because I didn’t really believe that it was all happening. After kicking my heels for nearly five years I was certain I would end my service career with out firing a shot in anger.
When, however, I looked down and saw the North Sea beneath us, and the fighters buzzing around us ready to beat off any enemy attacks, it began to sink in that very soon action was going to be the name of the game. Even then I wasn’t really worried, for had we not been told that we would meet no opposition to speak of. All we had to do was to secure the landing zones for the paras, and then belt off to Arnhem and the bridge and keep an eye on it till the Guards Armoured Division arrived to take over. Piece of cake. Better take a field dressing with you in case somebody scratched themselves on a bush.
What a load of bull**** that was! In reality we were flying into the biggest shambles of the war, for which 17,000 men would pay the price for the stupid incompetence of those in authority.
A railway line bisected the field, which was to be out landing zone; the track was electrified so be careful in case Jerry hadn’t turned the power off. We arrived to find that the power was in an overhead cable, and the poor glider pilots coming in to land had suddenly to zoom up to get over it, and many of them couldn’t get down again before they crashed at sixty miles an hour into the trees lining the edge of the field, killing of badly wounding most of them. Much of the intelligence we were given at the briefing was equally wrong. No opposition? Within hours we were pinned down by vicious machine-gun fire, and when at last we were able to start out march to the bridge, we were stopped by non-existent Tiger tanks and never got past them. As a consequence we were never able to secure the landing zones for the paras, and they landed right on top of the German infantry who must have thought that the Glorious Twelfth had come again.
We never reached the bridge, and were pushed into the woods at Oosterbeek and kept there. But worst of all, we were totally unprepared both mentally and physically for what we were to face. It’s quite a shock to be ensconced in the comfort and security of a billet in England one moment, and then, a few hours later, find yourself in a foreign country where nasty men are shooting bullets at you. For some the shock was too great and they took refuge in a half-mad world of their own where they just sat and shivered.
For six months prior to going to Arnhem we prepared for various operations, but never once did we have any training or exercises to give us some idea, at least, of what we might expect. And how to deal with it!
We thought we were going on a picnic. Moreover, our Regimental Commander, Colonel Haddon, crashed in the North Sea, was rescued, set off to get to Arnhem by road, and was captured. The second in command took over.
The memory of my ten days in Arnhem is mostly like a half-remembered dream, with an occasional emergence into wakefulness. I had no idea what to expect, and how I managed to avoid the consequences of my ignorance I’ll never know. Once I was sitting in a ditch when I heard a dull thud close by; I looked around trying to work out what it was, and then heard it again, only closer. Then the penny dropped, and not a moment too soon; some goon somewhere could see me and was shooting at me! I found a more desirable residence. Later I was trying to get my platoon into some kind of defensive position when I heard what sounded like a thousand tin cans being rattled. Curious, I strolled to the end of an avenue of trees and looked along it. Coming towards me were two Tiger tanks and their supporting infantry.
My sergeant and I dashed behind a coal shed just in time. The tank fired a couple of shells into the other end, but it must have been full of coal. Unfortunately my sergeant made a run for it. They shot him down before he had gone five paces.
I managed to get back to my Company HQ along a hedge, only to learn that my company commander, Major Montgomery, the Officer in the regiment for whom I had the most respect, was dead. I felt sick at heart, and began to feel for the first time that we were on a hiding to nothing. Out of food, out of ammunition, we were getting a bit desperate. The relief troops should have been here days ago, and as we weren’t where we should have been, supplies dropped from the air, dropped into the laps of the foe.
I was on my way back from battalion HQ, where I had been given orders to take my platoon to C Company who were having a pretty thin time, and it was then that I met the young soldier of my poem ‘Death in Oosterbeek’. We were both hiding under the same tree trunk, yet he received a fatal wound while I got up and walked away, not realising until later that he was dying. I wondered at the time why it was he didn’t answer me when I spoke to him; He couldn’t, he had a chunk of shrapnel in his neck.
But of course it couldn’t last. Sooner or later my luck must run out. I came to a long gully, and met a glider pilot in a bit of a state. He asked me if I could fire an anti-tank gun, and when I said yes he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to the end of the gully. There was a six-pounder, its crew dead around it, and one round of ammunition left. What a scenario for Errol Flynn! I’ve never moved so fast in all my life.
I clambered up to the gun, shoved in the round of ammo and looked around for the tank. I couldn’t find it! They found me though. A hail of bullets hit the metal shield and white-hot bits of metal flew off, some of them into my leg. I aimed my shot at the Tank — God knows where it landed. It wouldn’t have done any damage even if it had hit the tank. I slid down into the gully and limped away to the First Aid Post, where I saw again that young soldier. He needn’t worry anymore.
The MO wrapped my leg up; it wasn’t very serious, just a bit awkward to walk, and made for the door to try and find my way back to my platoon. The MO stopped me. He had received information that we were surrounded, and it was only a matter of hours before we were captured. He would appreciate it if I would stay and help him with the walking wounded. We got a bed sheet, pinned a red cross on it with some red curtains, and hung it outside in a prominent a place as we could. Then we just sat and waited.
As dawn broke there was a hammering on the door, and when I opened it there stood two Germans with guns at the ready. The MO and I gathered together all the wounded who could walk, and lined them up outside. We straggled off to captivity.
Long forgotten memories sometimes drift back through my mind. Sounds as well as sights. Why does a man’s scream sound so much worse than a woman’s?
A jeep that had been hit by a flamethrower the driver sitting there like a pile of grey ash shaped in the figure of a man. A puff of wind would blow it away.
Three Germans laying on the ground their heads disappearing into a hole in the ground.
Its forty-five years since we set off for Arnhem, and still we have learned nothing. Still we kill and torture and starve. What is the matter with us? Perhaps when the last tree has died in a poisoned atmosphere; when the last fish has died in a poisoned sea; when the last cattle have died in a poisoned field, man will have learned his lesson. But by then, of course, it will be too late.
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