Darkness and silence grip the ruined, shrapnel-pitted building which only a few days ago was a luxury hotel. Sometimes the silence is shattered by the crash of a mortar bomb, or the sudden wicked rattle of a machine gun in the distance. Occasionally, the blackness of the surrounding woods is streaked by lines of brilliant tracer bullets, and the trees are thrown into sudden silhouette.
The basement of the hotel is lit by uncertain candles. On the stone floors of the various rooms lie wounded men done up in bloodstained bandages. Some are sleeping, but many are awake and stare up at the ceiling with wide-open eyes. There is no panic, but suffering and death are abroad in this building. The inevitable question many must be asking themselves is, “Has my time come?” None of them wants to die. Their bright eyes, their strained expressions tell eloquently how much they cling to suddenly precious life. To live, to live. Dear God, please let me live.
The smell of blood, nauseating and faintly sweet, fills the basement. The wounded men’s faces are grey with that faintly greenish tinge which characterises the flesh of a corpse. Sometimes there is a snore, sometimes the soft footsteps of a medical orderly. The sounds of battle beyond the sandbagged windows are muted. The action seems to have moved away from the Hartenstein Hotel and we are all infinitely pleased about that.
We have been in the Arnhem district for nine days. The attempt to seize the bridge has been unsuccessful. The second lift of airborne troops was delayed, and when they arrived they were machine gunned as they descended on the dropping zone. The German resistance proved far stronger than ever anticipated, principally because of the unexpected presence of two Panzer Divisions in the area. We, at Headquarters just outside the town, have been surrounded for a week. We have been mortared, shelled and sniped at within a perimeter not much bigger than a couple of large playing fields. We have been unable to reply because we have run out of ammunition, and in any event our airborne pea-shooters are no match for the heavy armament directed against us. So we have just cowered in our slit trenches watching each other be killed.
I have seen quite a few people killed, but the ones who make the most impression on me are personal friends. I am told that Scotty, small, noncommittal and never betraying his emotions, was scalped by a piece of shrapnel, and that a tall dark haired corporal who looked after the driving section and was an accomplished dancer had one leg blown off.
I was incredibly lucky. I received not so much as a scratch, although like all of us, I had some narrow escapes.
Why were we at Arnhem? We did not know. Half the “Signals” personnel could have been at home and nobody would have missed them. I could get in touch with nobody on the wireless set – neither could any of the other operators. The instrument mechanics and electricians who had virtually nothing to do except charge radio batteries need not even have bothered to do that since the radios weren’t working. The dispatch riders, after we were surrounded, sat in their slit trenches itching to get their legs astride a motorbike and praying like the rest of us that the Second Army would roll over the bridges and relieve us in spite of everything. We were very short of water, the Germans having cut the mains supply, neither had we any food. It began to rain one day, and we gratefully put out our mess tins to collect the welcome moisture. I caught some rain from the roof, but although it was fairly clean it tasted unpleasantly bitter.
It was a few days after we had been surrounded that a flight of slow moving Dakotas came in to drop supplies to us. I shall never forget the bravery of those pilots and the crewmen who threw the hampers out of the aircraft doors. One of the pilots who was killed in this action received a posthumous Victoria Cross, and I do believe that I actually saw the aircraft in question.
The aircraft came in incredibly low – I would have put it at about five or six hundred feet. They flew slowly over us in perfect formation, spawning coloured parachutes with supply hampers dangling beneath them. Cheers came from the dirty, weary soldiers on the ground. Yellow cloths were waved from our slit trenches to show our positions, and someone fired a Verey light. A hundred yards or so away – it could not have been any more – German anti-aircraft guns exploded into vicious action. The noise was ear-splitting. I saw the tails of two Dakotas burst into flame, and they swooped down in a long, flat dive until they disappeared beyond the trees that surrounded us. Another aircraft was hit, but limped off homewards, leaving a thin trail of smoke behind it. A second wave of transport aeroplanes approached, slowly, deliberately, holding absolutely unshakably and steadfastly to their course. They were flying so low and so slowly that they offered sitting targets to the anti-aircraft batteries, now firing as rapidly as possible, but the planes never deviated from their course.
More cheers from our beleaguered group for these brave and gallant gentlemen of the air. More waving of yellow cloths. A praiseworthy and most gallant act, you pilots and crews. Your courage inspires us. But for the love of Mike watch where you’re dropping those hampers. Our perimeter is so small, and most of that first lot fell into the enemy positions.
Suddenly the roaring Dakotas are gone, the anti-aircraft fire stops, and the air is silent. Three quarters of the supplies dropped that day must surely have fallen into the enemy lines. Still, we have one or two hampers of much needed food. Now we shall be able to hold out until units of the Second Army arrive. For even although the bridge has been lost and we are isolated, we still believe that the Second Army will somehow arrive.
It was on the night of the twenty-sixth of September 1944, that it was decided to withdraw what remained of the Division. We had held on for nine days instead of two, and still no help had arrived. All available forces were now concentrated in our perimeter and mortar fire which rarely ceased was decimating us. No good could be done by holding out any longer. We were to creep through the woods in small parties to the river, where boats would be waiting to ferry us across to the other side. Then we should make our way south to Nijmegen as best we could. We of the “Signals” sections were split up into platoons and then took refuge in a coal cellar to snatch a couple of hours rest.
Of course, not every soldier knew where the river lay or the route to be taken to get there. This was known only to the platoon sergeants who were to lead us. In this ignorance was to lie my downfall.
I suppose there must have been about eighteen of us in the cellar. It was pitch black. I was absolutely exhausted. I was close to the door, and stretched out my legs. I could not see the man next to me. The talk between us dies into silence. Coal black ……as black as coal……wake up……
“Wake up! Wake up!”.
Someone is shaking me by the shoulder. I cannot see who it is. Ah. The cellar door is open. A thin stream of light from the next room stabs through the darkness. I stand up. I step forward carefully in order not to slip on the rubbish in the cellar – I think it must be coal, and enter the room where the telephone exchange is installed. The person who has awoken me follows behind. He is a tall, lean young man, and his nickname is Choss. Choss is our pet name for chaos, immortalised by a sergeant major who was better at teaching a squad to form fours than he was at speaking good English. Choss has earned his name by getting himself into awkward situations.
“Hello, Choss,” I yawn. “Where is everybody? What’s the time?”
“They’ve gone,” says Choss. “It’s nearly morning, and they’ve all gone. There’s nobody here except the medical orderlies and the wounded.”
His small eyes glisten in the candlelight. His hooked nose seems like a piece of putty stuck incongruously on his bewildered face. His obvious anxiety suddenly becomes mine also.
“You mean to say they’ve left us here?”
“Yes. We’ve both been asleep. The others must have been gone at least an hour, probably more. It was pitch black in the cellar. They wouldn’t have known they had left anyone behind.”
“I had my feet stuck out in front of the door. They must have known.”
“You might have pulled them back. Or you didn’t feel anything because you were so tired. Or they didn’t notice because they were in such a hurry.”
“But there should have been a check up of personnel in the platoons to see that everyone was present.”
“True. But the situation was very sticky. They had to get out as quickly as they could.”
“Then they’ve really left us. The rotten swine.”
“Who cares if someone is missing when it’s a case of every man for himself?”
The realisation of the base, unbelievable treachery of so-called comrades who could not even be bothered to strike a light in the in the cellar to see if a missing person was there catches at my heart. No! I refuse to believe it. Choss is wrong. They must be somewhere else waiting for us. I go through the basement, among the wounded, looking for familiar faces. I explore the ruined upstairs rooms of the hotel and find them empty. I speak to a couple of medical orderlies, who display little interest in our problem. They are tending the wounded, and have volunteered to wait for the Germans. But they think that all military personnel have long since gone.
It’s true, then. They’ve left us. We’re on our own.
Downstairs again, Choss and I debate what to do. Deciding to make a dash for the river, we muffle our boots with pieces of cloth as we had been previously instructed. Stealthily we leave the front entrance and make our way towards a belt of trees. Suddenly – accident or design? – we hear the crump of mortars in close proximity.
Those things are dangerous. We hightail it back to the hotel where we wait for a while. Everything seems to be quiet again, so we steal outside once more and try to get our bearings. The night is dark. The only illumination is from an arc of red tracer bullets seen at some distance through the trees. Well, we certainly won’t be going in that direction. Having established that, we try to work out where the river is and which way we should go in order to avoid the Germans who surround us and strike that narrow segment where we believe there to be a thin, restricted path to escape – always provided, of course, that it has not yet been overrun by the enemy.
But we have absolutely no idea which direction is north, south, east or west, and consequently we cannot even begin to work out where the river might be. The British soldier, as we have so often been told, is not paid to think, only to obey orders. Now we are paying the penalty for not having the first idea about the tactical situation.
We try to work out the odds of hitting the right segment in a circle of three hundred and sixty degrees, and it seems that the odds in favour of stumbling into the German lines and copping a burst of machine gun fire are very good indeed.
We are getting nowhere. We re-enter the hotel and buttonhole a medical orderly. But these fellows are in the same position as us. For days they have been inundated with the wounded. They neither know nor care about anything except trying to save lives within their improvised hospital. Our orderly merely offers the opinion that the place is swarming with Germans, and anybody who ventures very far outside without knowing exactly what he is doing is asking for trouble.
Time is getting short. Surely somebody must be able to give us a lead. Three Dorsetshire Regiment infantrymen are sitting on the stone floor. They are representatives of an insignificant trickle of men who reached us somehow from the Second Army, and are now cut off with the rest of us. They tell us that to attempt to make one’s way through the woods at this late hour is suicidal. They themselves have tried it. Now one of their number is wounded, and they have left a fourth man in the wood. So what do they intend to do? What can they do except to sit down and wait?
I still cannot believe that this is happening to me. My mind is in a terrible, crazy, unbelieving turmoil. But Choss and I finally agree with a rage and bitterness, which I find hard to express in words, that we have no alternative but to sit down and wait for the dawn. From that day was planted within me a cynicism and distrust of other people, which has never left me. We all learn this sooner or later. My moment of truth was the 26th of September 1944, at Arnhem.
Whilst the decision was undoubtedly the right one, however unpalatable it might have been, I had for a very long time great difficulty in accepting that there was no other way out. It was not in fact until many years later that I learned where the river actually lay. The river – and our escape – lay in fact in the direction of the red arcs of tracer bullets that we saw distantly through the trees. These tracers were fired at intervals to guide our fellows who might have been lost in the woods and bring them to the river. But Choss and I had never been told this. As a result we placed the opposite interpretation on it. Had we made a break for it, we would have gone in a quite different direction, and I think the chances are very strong that we should have been shot and killed. So once again, although we did not appreciate it at the time, we made a correct decision more by luck than judgement, and fortune once more smiled upon us
In the short time left before dawn, we smash any equipment or weaponry which we can find which might be of the slightest use to the Germans. As the dawn comes up, I slip outside the hotel to a slit trench, where I can see a couple of emergency ration packs peeping out of a haversack which somebody has left behind. I am occupied possibly thirty seconds at this task. I then stand up and turn around. A German is standing about five yards away, holding me covered with a Sten gun with a bayonet attached to the end of it.
“Good morning,” he says to me in English. It is about the only English he does know, because thereafter he speaks to me in German. All of a sudden I am grateful for the six months of German that I did at Parmiter’s Secondary School and the private study I carried out later, for I find that I understand him and can communicate.
He tells me to put up my hands, and orders me cautiously to the shelter of the hotel wall. He then motions half a dozen soldiers who have appeared amongst the empty slit trenches on the periphery to come closer. When we are all together, and with his gun still levelled, he questions me in German, and I answer in the same language, making an occasional paraphrase when I cannot find the exact word.
“Are there soldiers in the hotel?”
“No, there are only doctors and wounded people.”
“They have no weapons?”
“No. The building is now a hospital.”
He makes a threatening gesture with the Sten gun.
“You understand that if you are lying and the people in the hospital put up a fight, I shall immediately shoot you. Verstanden?”
Whilst he holds me covered his companions dash to the door, stand poised for a moment, then enter quickly, one covering the other in best Hollywood war film fashion. I hold my breath and hope that no nut case inside lets off a rifle. It is most unlikely, but there is always the possibility, and I shall be the first one to cop the consequences. However, in a few moments the Germans come out with some of our medical fellows. They are all talking together – satisfactory communication has been established in a mixture of fractured German and fractured English, and they are making some arrangements about the care of the wounded.
My captor puts the safety catch on his Sten gun, slings it over his shoulder, grins at me, and sits on a small pony wall outside the hotel. He indicates the place next to him.
“Here, Mensch. Have a seat.”
I take a seat beside him, and he pulls out a cigarette tin. There is one cigarette left. He extracts it, measures it carefully, and divides it in two equal portions with his thumbnail, handing one portion to me.
He produces a box of matches and gives me a light. He starts to discuss the battle, and I answer him in fractured German. We are like two fellows discussing a football match, rather than two men who, a few hours before, would have murdered each other without a second thought. Such is the nature of warfare, and such is the nature of men. And I personally have long since given up trying to work out where this dichotomy in our psyche will ultimately lead humankind.
They eventually round up a bunch of us whom they have found crouched in slit trenches and hiding in the woods and march us towards the town of Arnhem. A German officer starts us off. Theatrically he points up the road and says with a mocking grin, “Nach Deutschland! To Berlin!”
The Dutch inhabitants, coming back with blankets and other belongings from the fields where they have taken refuge, wave surreptitiously to us. We meet groups of bearded, battle-weary German soldiers, their grey-green uniforms plastered with dried mud. The few houses we see are smashed and ruined. A couple of Tiger tanks rattle past us, their monstrous tracks shaking the concrete road like a mini-earthquake, their huge top-heavy guns nosing questingly forward. In the turret of each tank a German officer stands triumphantly erect. These are the victors. We are the defeated. The pill is bitter indeed to swallow. Our lesson is beginning.
As our bedraggled column, guarded on either side by German soldiers, marches in the early morning sunlight towards the town of Arnhem, a conversation springs up between our captors and us. A German corporal in front of us speaks excellent English. Has he ever been to England? No. He learnt the language in Germany. Out of books. He voices the opinion that the war will be over in six weeks. Then the allies will pour into Germany, and Hitler will be forced to sue for peace.
“You have far more material than we. We can’t compete with you.”
I am talking French to a German marching next to me who was stationed in Paris for two years. An etymological discussion springs up between us. By one of those weird coincidences that you wouldn’t read about, we find that we have a common interest in the niceties of French grammar. Yesterday we were trying to kill each other. Today we are chatting on the friendliest of terms. Yet if any of us prisoners try to make a break for it, the Germans’ short-barrelled rifles will be raised immediately to their shoulders, and they will unhesitatingly shoot us dead, just as we should do if our positions were reversed. C’est la guerre!
We rapidly leave behind the Hartenstein perimeter with its sickening array of swollen dead bodies, but we must be approaching Oosterbek, for more carnage is in evidence. The shattered houses standing in green fields remind me of dilapidated graves in a churchyard which will soon be covered by the strong, devouring grass. At the roadside I see burnt-out jeeps, bluish and rusty red, like tin cans burnt in a red-hot fire. We pass knocked out German armoured cars, mottled with the zigzag grey-brown camouflage favoured by the Wehrmacht, and the bodies of English and German soldiers still lie by bush and ditch. At one spot I see the corpses of four English soldiers, damp from the recent rain and all slightly swollen. Each corpse has had its head blown off, and there is a blackish, jagged cavity where the neck joined the body. I do not examine the sight too closely. A glimpse is enough. Man is his own greatest enemy, and man’s inhumanity to his fellows is simply beyond belief.
We reach the town centre. More smashed houses. Little single decker trams, windowless and forlorn in the cobbled streets. Half-curious, half-sympathetic stares from the Dutch inhabitants. We must look a shocking sight, muddy, ragged and bearded. We are herded into a garden behind a large hotel where we mingle with several hundred other paratroopers, and where I meet one or two people from our own Signals section. Odd German film cameramen stand around, taking moving pictures of us while we are not looking. When we see them we give the thumbs up sign. Then they switch off their machines immediately and go elsewhere. Suitably cut, I can imagine what good propaganda these pictures will make for their people back home.
We are questioned in excellent English by interpreters in untidy blue uniforms. What aircraft did we jump from? What brigade do we belong to? Are we tradesmen, and if so, what kind?
“My name is James Arthur Foxon. My number is …”
Just give them your name, rank and number, so we have been told. Which of us would ever have thought that we should be doing just that?
The interpreters smile, “You jumped from Dakotas, didn’t you? You needn’t answer – we know already. You there; you are from the First Brigade, aren’t you? We can tell by the colour of your lanyard. You, next to him, by your shoulder flashes you belong to the Royal Corps of Signals. You are not wearing a dispatch rider’s boots, but you don’t look the right type for a driver or a lineman. You must be an instrument mechanic, an electrician, or a wireless operator. Which are you?” Another smile. “Don’t worry. It’s not really important.” They dismiss us. There’s no doubt that these Germans have an excellent intelligence service. They can tell us more than we know ourselves.
We remain in the back garden until late in the afternoon. From various people I meet, I gather information about friends of mine. Tony got across the river. Up to the last moment he was asking people where I was. Thanks, Tony. But if you’d spared a moment to look in that cellar, you’d have found me. I can’t elicit any information about Dusty, the small, black haired Scotsman who was one of the Chindits in India and had jumped behind the Japanese lines in Burma. Dusty had never ceased to mourn his wife, who had died while he was overseas. Then I met someone who, the day before the retreat, saw Dusty marching with a Sten gun at the ready towards the German lines, “Properly asking for it.” Poor Dusty. Good luck, old fellow. My mate Blondie, tall, lanky and flaxen haired who played such a good tune on the piano, purely by instinct and not by music, has been caught up in the net, and he and I commiserate with each other and exchange experiences.
At about four o’clock we are taken outside, a few at a time, and under close guard. Quickly we are herded into a convoy of trucks. Ours is a small truck – it contains only eight prisoners, a young German driver, fair haired and bespectacled, and a small middle aged guard. The guard lights a cigarette, showing us his empty case and apologising in German for not having any more. He takes a puff, passes the cigarette to the first prisoner, and it circulates several times as we all of us – including the guard – inhale lungfuls of smoke. The conversation is not very bright. A reaction has set in and we are all feeling downcast. The guard obviously has no English. None of us except possibly myself, speaks enough German to say anything sensible to him, and I certainly don’t feel up to it. The road is lined with tall elms and filled mostly with German military transport. Sometimes we see a charcoal burning lorry with a cylindrical container and tall funnel fitted to its side slowly chugging along. The fair-haired bespectacled driver presses his boot on the accelerator and the cobblestones speed away from the back wheels in a grey blur.