Somebody told me that my comrade Lofty had just been killed. Lofty was a regular army man who had served several years in India. He came from the English Midlands, and had a strong regional accent. After a mortar stonk, he lifted himself out of his slit trench to stretch his legs and look around. But the mortar stonk came on again unexpectedly, and Lofty could not get back quickly enough. He received the exploding metal from one of the first mortar bombs full in the stomach and died face down at the edge of the slit trench. This had actually been close by, though I had not realised it at the time. Thereafter, on every occasion that I peeped over the top of my sandbags, I saw Lofty, grey faced, whiskery and lifeless about twenty feet away.
How is it possible to explain the deep sorrow that those who have witnessed these things feel when they are remembered on Anzac Day?
Poor Lofty had injured his ankle in England just prior to our parachute drop, and was not obliged to accompany us. However, he volunteered notwithstanding. Although a regular, he failed to observe the most fundamental of all British Army credos: “A good soldier never volunteers for nothing!”
We were surrounded as far as we knew on all sides by German forces. (This was not quite true, but it was our belief at the time). There seemed to be little danger of a mortar landing on me from my left side, with the hotel in the way of such a trajectory. The main danger was from my right hand side where the thin pile of sandbags protected me from flying shrapnel. With some misgiving, therefore, I edged over closer to these sandbags, reasoning that I would be better protected from any shrapnel flying diagonally over the top and piercing the thin woodwork of the verandah above me. In between times I tried to get something on the radio sitting on the ground in front of me, but with conspicuous lack of success.
During the hours and days that the explosions continued, I buried my face in the earth and hoped that in the event of a direct hit my round paratrooper’s steel helmet would protect my head. However, I was painfully aware of the lack of protection to the length of my spine, and a hundred times and more I was shiveringly grateful when a deafening explosion announced that someone else had copped it and not I.
I later learned that the Germans called our painfully small perimeter “Der Hexenkessel”- “The Witches’ Cauldron”. I can only say that the name was extremely apt, and they certainly kept the cauldron on the boil.
A couple of days prior to the end of the action a young dark haired signalman whom I did not know crawled under the verandah beside me. He had no equipment, but I was not surprised. It was clear by now that our wireless sets had some defect and were useless. We were simply waiting there, slowly being wiped out until some military genius told us how to extricate ourselves from the slaughter.
My companion lay next to me and politely asked if I minded the fact that he was next to the hotel wall, which from one direction appeared to give more shelter, and did I want to change places? As I had been there first, it was my choice. I said, “Thank you, no. I would take my chances where I was.” All this time the usual mortar stonk was going on, the explosions seeming only a few feet away – which in fact they were. Thus we lay side-by-side, our bodies almost touching, each praying silently for survival as all hell screamed and roared around us.
After about an hour it happened. There was an explosion of enormous intensity, which absolutely scared the wits out of me. Simultaneously the whole area was filled with dust so that I could hardly see or breathe. Right next to me I heard a blood-chilling yelping such as an injured dog gives when he has been run over by a motor car. It was my companion. He articulated no recognisable human word – just a series of high-pitched animal yelps. A mortar bomb had crashed through the verandah, and my companion had taken the contents in the back. By some miracle, which I have never been able to comprehend, I was completely unscathed.
Within a minute or two stretcher bearers were crawling under the verandah and taking him away. He was still yelping as they carried him into the hotel and down to the basement. This had now become an overcrowded, makeshift hospital, bursting at the seams with bloodied, grey faced British and German wounded. I knew that my companion was very seriously injured. But I never learned whether he lived or died.
A little later I descended into the basement myself to report the incident to the signals officer in charge of local operations. This was a baby-faced lieutenant with a petulant lip. In England he had been very much an expert at teaching us bayonet drill and putting people on charges for minor misdemeanours. He also liked to shoot crows from about twelve feet with a three-0-three rifle.
I told him what had happened. He was nicely ensconced in the deepest shelter – one couldn’t even hear the mortar stonk. I was shaken and no doubt looked it. After I had spoken he fixed me with his eyes for a moment and said, “Get back to your bloody post, Foxon, at once.” I turned and went, without saluting, up to the symphony of explosions on the top deck.
When the retreat from Arnhem was signalled, that officer left his men and was one of the first ones across the river. I heard that he was severely reprimanded for dereliction of duty, but was never able to confirm the rumour. I was glad I never met him in civvy street. In England he was a bully who took advantage of his position. In action he was a first rate bastard who sent other men out to die while making sure that he lived.
I swore that if ever I met him after the war, I would punch him in the nose. Fortunately for both of us it was a promise that I was not able to keep. But I learned a lot about human nature and survival during that brief action at Arnhem.