Ch5 Pt1 Betrayal

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!”. 

“Eh?” 

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?” 

“Ja. Vestanden.”

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.                                                      

“Eine Zigarette?”

“DankeschÖn.”                                                                       

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.

CH4 Pt7 Deep Sorrow on Anzac Day

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.  

Ch4 Pt6 The Hartenstein Hotel

Beneath us the green, square fields suddenly became sandy beaches. Then the beaches dipped into the water, and we were out over the sparkling sea. Cheerio, England. How often I’ve dreamt of leaving you. But I never thought that it would be in such a strange fashion. Opposite me the company sergeant major, lean, blue-jowled and black-moustached laughs gratingly.                                                        

“You’ll have something to tell your grandchildren about now, Foxon”. 

I smile automatically, thinking …….”If I ever have any grandchildren……..” 

Today approaching danger makes us all friends. Even with the sergeant major. I cannot help wondering how many of us in a few hours will still be alive and able to think of any sort of posterity at all.

As we near the coast of Holland, an American major who is in charge of the aircrew comes in from the forward compartment. He is stepping into some sort of an armoured suit that protects his genitals and lower part of his body. 

“To protect my crown jewels against shrapnel,” he explains cheerfully.

“Don’t worry. We won’t get much.” Absentmindedly he chews gum.                                                                                                        

“Waal, I hope we’ve given you fellows a good ride. We’ll drop you plumb where you’re wanted. We’ve got it all teed up. Any of you fellows airsick? Never mind. You’ll soon be getting off.” 

He turns to rejoin the crew in the front compartment. 

“So long, boys.”

 Soon we were flying over Holland, and for a long time see nothing below but flooded fields. The Dutch have opened the dykes and let in the sea, spoiling their land to harass the Germans. The watery desolation is unrelieved except for an occasional tree or a house sticking up here and there. Later, when we are flying over land again there is a tremendous rattling, which finishes almost as soon as it has commenced. It sounds as if a team of carpenters made a brief and sudden attack on the fuselage with hammers. The American major comes in from the crew’s compartment. 

“Everybody O.K. here?” 

“Yes. What was that noise?”                                                                                            

“Flak.” He points out of the windows. “Look”. 

In each of the neatly riveted wings of the aircraft there are now several smallish, irregular holes. 

“We shan’t get any more of that,” says the American, reassuringly and surprisingly enough, he is right.

 Shortly afterwards the engines are throttled down, a red light flashes near the door, and we stand up. Then the green light glows, and the first man is away, his parachute whistling out behind him. Come on, boys. Faster, faster. Try and step on the head of the man in front of you as he falls into space. I swing my right foot out of the door – I have a rifle strapped to it in a felt, shock-absorbing case. The slipstream tears at my body, robs me of my breath, flings me about the sky. Then I am floating down towards a stubby, recently harvested field. I let my rifle down on a piece of cord so that it shall reach the earth first and not impede my own landing. The ground rushes up at me, like a boxer’s fist gathering speed for a knock-out punch. A jolt. All the breath is knocked out of my body. Then I am struggling to divest myself of my parachute harness. The sky is filled with a thousand descending parachutes, and the dropping zone is crawling with men who have already reached the ground.

Thank God the enemy have not yet woken up to what is going on. It seems we shall get off the DZ without facing hostile fire. Following the general direction of exodus I make my way towards a small wood. Further along the dropping zone the ploughed ground has become the graveyard of dozens of gliders which have crash-landed everywhere with their cargoes of men, jeeps, and small artillery pieces. 

Scores of paratroopers are passing through the wood. One or two parachute harnesses are hanging up in the trees, but their owners seem to have gotten down all right. We pass a lunatic asylum. The inmates watch us through a gate. Some are bandaged and appear to have been wounded, I don’t know how or why. One poor, unfortunate crazy woman lifted her skirts and exposes herself to us as we pass by. We find ourselves crossing open fields. A couple of Dutch farm labourers greet us gruffly, and then pass on, as if this kind of thing happened every day of the week.

We reach a bitumen road, and climb aboard a slowly moving convoy of jeeps. I do not know it, but we are now on the road leading from our dropping zone at Wolfheze to the town of Arnhem.                                                                          

After a quarter of an hour of slow progress we come to an intersection. Here a heavily camouflaged German staff car has been shot up and is slewed across the road. A German officer lies half out of the open door, his feet still inside the car, his head and the lower part of his body resting on the road. He has been riddled with bullets and the dried blood from his wounds has congealed on his face. It is obvious from his uniform that he is of high rank. However, we pass on without comment. It is not until many years later when reading about the campaign that I learn that his name was Major-General Kussin, in command of the town of Arnhem, who had been caught in Sten gun cross fire, while reconnoitering the extent of the British parachute landings north of Arnhem.            

A little further down the road a solitary German jackboot stands upright by the side of the road against a background of bright green grass, sunlit bushes and blue sky. The fleshy blood-stained remains of a leg project from the top of the jackboot. The rest of the body has disappeared, apparently blown to the four corners of the compass, leaving the jackboot and its bloody residue standing freakishly upright.

We come to an inhabited area with clean high-gabled Dutch houses by the roadside. Local people are waiting in small groups, waving and cheering. Perched nonchalantly on our slow moving jeeps, we smile and wave back. Somewhere in the back of my head a profound uneasiness starts to scratch at my mind. This is too simple. We are in the heart of enemy occupied territory. The Germans are first class soldiers. Somewhere we shall strike resistance, and when we do it will be difficult to overcome.

Finally we pull off the road, our jeeps cross a patch of green sward, and we park in front of a large building with the name “Restaurant Park Hotel Hartenstein” printed in large letters across the frontage. The building has a large glassed-in verandah and other protuberant extensions with high windows and rounded architraves breaking up the basically square design. Other windows of the white two-storeyed edifice are oblong and Georgian in character. A wide flight of stone steps leads up to the front entrance. It is a typical luxury hotel of the 1920’s era for the reception of wealthy tourists.

We are now on the very outskirts of the town of Arnhem, but the road and houses are a few hundred yards from our view, and most of us believe ourselves still to be in open country. The Lower Rhine lies several hundred yards to the south of the Hartenstein Hotel, but none of us have the slightest idea of this. We only know that we are somewhere in the Dutch countryside and that the Hartenstein Hotel is to be the Divisional HQ of the 1stAirborne Division. This lack of understanding of the overall picture was to prove an enormous handicap to many of us and to have a profound effect on our futures before the Arnhem incident was concluded.

For the moment, we began to set up a perimeter and to dig slit trenches. Within the hotel a switchboard and various telephone paraphernalia were installed. That evening I slept soundly in a slit trench which I had dug for myself just outside the hotel, determined to get as much sleep as possible before the battle which I felt sure was to come. I wore my uniform and jumping smock, and had wrapped myself in my oilskin gas cape. I was surprisingly warm and comfortable.                                                                                                           

The initial calm at the Hartenstein Hotel was of short duration. The Germans rapidly realised that the object of our attack was the Arnhem Bridge over the Lower Rhine. The small force that eventually reached the bridge was isolated from reinforcement by the concentration of enemy troops in the town itself. The urban nature of the field of battle and the superior strength of the enemy effectively cut the British 1st Airborne Division into small units of limited strength.

By a fortuitous circumstance, from the German point of view, there were two German Panzer Divisions in the immediate area with large numbers of fearsome Tiger tanks. The English Divisional Headquarters at the Hartenstein Hotel itself became rapidly isolated and was subject to heavy and continuous mortar fire over a number of days. A major help to the Germans and a major hindrance to the British was a complete breakdown in wireless communication between the British brigades and headquarters. I personally experienced this breakdown and I have never read a satisfactory explanation anywhere to this day. This caused General Urquhart, the Officer Commanding, to become lost for two days while making a personal visit to outlying brigades. His headquarters staff at the Hartenstein Hotel thought that he had been killed, and the following loss of control was not helped by a quarrel between Brigadier Hicks and Brigadier Hackett, as to who was to command the division.

At the Hartenstein Hotel the relatively quiet period, first experienced while everybody dug slit trenches, rapidly came to an end as the battle came closer and a few shells were sent over with devastating effect. Then the mortar stonks came down on our increasingly contracting perimeter, and they lasted every day from daybreak to evening virtually without cease.   

Of course, the overall strategic picture was a complete mystery to all of us. We had no idea where we were or what was happening, only that Jerry was mortaring the hell out of us, and causing an enormous number of casualties.

The best way to avoid fear in a battle is to have some task to accomplish. You cannot avoid fear entirely, but if your mind is occupied with a job that must be done, then fear is lessened because it can threaten only a part of you.

 I lay on my belly under the exterior verandah of the Hartenstein Hotel trying with complete lack of success to get into radio contact with somebody – with anybody. But communication by wireless was a complete failure everywhere. Underneath the verandah a small hummock of sandbags protected me from the open ground where mortars howled and exploded from dawn to dusk almost without pause. The flimsy timber flooring above my head was a protection only against spent falling shrapnel. However, the bulk of the hotel about four feet away on my left side was protection against anything except direct shellfire, so I had little concern from that quarter. But the mortar bombs fell so close that they were deafening, and I felt terribly exposed from above and right next to the sandbags. During the occasional lulls I lifted my head and risked a peep through the slit between the top of the sandbags and the bottom of the verandah. In the sudden respite men’s heads would slowly appear out of slit trenches.                                                        

I remember that in some of these lulls some enthusiastic artilleryman from the opposing side decided to send a high explosive shell over. It landed on two jeeps on the other side of the clearing with a scream of air and a terrible explosion, killing a couple of men and turning the jeeps into a mass of twisted, burning rubble. We fortunately received very little shellfire which otherwise would quickly have reduced the whole enclosure to devastation. However, the mortar stonks were heavy and virtually lasted all day. They did the job of killing and destruction less quickly than shellfire, but they were noisy and consistent, and over a period of days their effectiveness, from the enemy point of view, was excellent.

Ch4 pt5. False starts to the armada.

Then overnight came a development. The Allied forces attacking the Normandy town of Caen had been unable to make much headway, and it was proposed to drop airborne forces behind the town to demoralise resisting German troops. We were confined to camp, maps were studied, and detailed plans were made as to what each company, even each platoon, had to do. Although I spoke French with ease, I had never been to France. Now that I was going, I felt that I would be a very useful fellow to have around. We were all of us keyed up to a fine tension when word came that the whole scheme was cancelled and we could all stand down.

We cursed, and large quantities of wallop were consumed to calm jangled nerves. Subsequently we learned that German anti-aircraft defences around Caen were considerable, and had we gone, the chances were that our slow-moving transport aircraft and ponderous, heavily loaded gliders towed two or three in a line would have been blown out of the sky.

The next place we were to attack was Rambouillet, a small town south west of Paris, but once again the operation was called off. American armor, racing forward, reached the town the evening before we were due to drop.

Plans for operations now came thick and fast. Every other day we were due somewhere else, every other day the project was cancelled. One day we were issued with French money, the next it was withdrawn. One day a party would go out and load jeeps into gliders, the next they would sally forth and take them out again. Now we could go into the village, now we were confined to camp. All the time aircraft were waiting at aerodromes, ready to take off, and the parachutes with which we were to jump over occupied Europe were packed for us to put on. What the hell were our smart-alec brigadiers and generals playing at? It really began to get rather nerve wracking.

Then one morning at about ten o’clock, three RASC lorries whined down the drive, and instead of carrying out our usual task of cleaning the camp, we found ourselves packing up spare boots, shirts, battledress into sleeping bags and loading them on to the lorries. The lorries coughed and moaned away. Jeeps were stacked with equipment. The next morning, at 4 a.m., we were queuing up for breakfast, the cookhouse serving-hatch throwing a cheerful light into the cold, chatter-filled yard where the troops jostled each other. Then the parachute party boarded three trucks, bound for a transit camp some hundred and thirty miles away. The support force would follow later. We were bent double beneath our equipment. We carried lifebelts (in case our plane crashed into the sea), rations (two twenty-four hour packs), small valises (on the hip), rifles, grenades, Bren magazines, bandoliers, and all the accoutrements to delight the heart of a Chicago gangster. Additionally the trucks, which were bulging with sweat-uncomfortable men, carried containers of cable, parachute kit-bags, and a light weight para-motor cycle in a protective frame. Our journey was to last nine hours, and we were most uncomfortable.

The glider party was travelling to a different airfield later, in jeeps, and we rather envied them. Still, in spite of our discomfort, we of the parachute party were glad to crowd to the back of trucks and wave to the townspeople as we passed through populated areas. I guess, when they saw us in our green smocks and great heavy ammo pouches, and noticed the sinister, well-scrimmed steel helmets swinging from the lorry framework they thought (especially the old ladies): “Ah, our boys. Our boys off to France.” And they weren’t so far wrong.

The talk was unusually animated, excited and silly. Everyone felt it was his duty to grin. Corporal K related how he had been winning pounds at cards in the NAAFI, and would now be unable to spend them. Someone else was bemoaning the fact that he had missed out on the issue of his cigarette ration coupon. 

“What do you want that for?” queries the sergeant. “You won’t see the canteen for a long time now.” 

“We haven’t got any French money yet,” murmurs someone. 

“No,” says the sergeant. “Still, you’ve got some francs left from the last scare, ain’t you, Bill? We can sponge on you.”                                                                                            

“Francs?” says Bill. “No, francs very much.” The sally is greeted with gales of laughter. 

”Kill that man,” a voice is heard to demand somewhere from the jumble of blue and white cylindrical “Signals” parachute equipment containers and a heap of camouflage netting. 

“I shall defend myself,” warns Bill. 

“Christ,” ejaculates the sergeant. “You ain’t got no bayonet.” 

“Never mind about my bayonet, says Bill. “I’ll tie me table knife on the end of me gun and look daggers at everybody.” 

Eventually we reached the transit camp, a huge field littered with tents and marquees. Stocks of blankets and paillasses awaited us on the grass. We each drew our share, staggered away to our respective tents, and dumped our stuff in a suitable spot before anyone else got there. I slept next to the door of a big marquee. I liked the open air, with just a bit of canvass to keep off the rain and the dew.

Meal times were a problem at the transit camp. There were three serving tables outside the cookhouse, and food was prepared in bulk by the bathtubful. Breakfast consisted of porridge, bacon and bread which was already partially stale, because it had been cut in such large quantities. For dinner we invariably had gritty potatoes boiled in their jackets, greens and meat, all soggy and becoming rapidly cold in the open air. The sweet consisted of rice and dough masquerading as pudding and soaked in a suspicious yellow liquid called “custard”. The queues for meals were often a hundred yards long and several persons deep. There were many thousands of men in the camp, and it took two hours to serve dinner, which for us was the midday meal and the biggest one of the day.      

The worst meal was tea. This invariably consisted of bread and jam – cheese if you were lucky. The tea was brewed in huge tin canisters half the size of a man, which were normally used as swill bins in the army. We had this drink with every meal of the day, and if one sank one’s scruples it was not too bad. It was welcome, anyway, for the weather was torrid.  

Despite the lack of frills, and remembering that it was wartime, and our seaborne supply routes were constantly under threat, we were fed well in the British army, and I suspect that we did considerably better than the strictly rationed civilian population.

On the day after our arrival at the camp, the lorries took us to an airfield some miles away, where we drew parachutes from a store, fitted them, sweating afresh beneath the weight of our equipment, and then drove to the runway, where our aircraft “P” for Peter was waiting. She was a Stirling, with a hole in the floor like a Whitley’s aperture, only bigger and rectangular instead of circular. Furthermore, you could stand up in a Stirling, so when the time came to get the hell out of there, you just did a conga towards the tail and fell into space, one after the other. We had a lightweight motorbike with us, but it was rather troublesome to throw it through the hole, so we decided to leave it. We could get a bike from other sources if necessary.

The Stirling was what in those days was considered to be a huge kite, and had four engines. Indeed, it seemed to be all body and engines with just a couple of stubby wings added as an afterthought. It always amazed me how Stirlings flew at all, and I never failed to be astonished when I saw one leap into the air at take-off. Actually, Stirlings could not fly at speeds much less than a hundred and thirty miles an hour, so parachutists had to waste no time getting out of them when the green light flashed. Stirlings carried twenty men, and with an interval of a hundred yards between each one, the final result would have been a stick spread out over two thousand yards. On the ground they might have been strung out across fields, rivers, roads and woods, but for mutual safety and effectiveness would have had to get together in very short order. Speed of exit became the essence of the exercise.

We loaded equipment containers into bomb racks, took out our bike, and stacked our ‘chutes in readiness. We did a little “synthetic”, for none of us had jumped from a Stirling before. Then we returned to the transit camp.

This was the moment we had awaited so long. We had subjugated our fears. We were all keyed up to go. Tomorrow we proposed to clamber into the kites, roar into the air, and leap out over German occupied France. As the lorries made their way back, we sang raucously and profanely. This is it, boys. 

On va en finir! Hooray!  

The OC called us together after we had dismounted and spoke to us. Laughing faces suddenly changed. Savage ejaculations broke out and argument was general.                                                                                        

The operation was cancelled. But it can’t be. After all this preparation it can’t be. It is not amusing to be put on and off the rack like this. 

No argument, boys. The thing is definitely cancelled. This evening we go back home.  Oh, hell. Hell, hell, hell!

That night we piled our kit on to the lorries and they took us back to our own camp. This was just one of the sixteen operations which were planned and cancelled between the invasion of Europe and the time, just over three months later, when we finally took off for the continent.

One day in September 1944, we were told that we were to drop in Holland. There seemed to be some doubt as to whether the operation would come off or not, and in the long run we were given four days leave, with strict injunctions to keep our tongues between our teeth about military matters.

The security seemed to be lousy, but four days leave was not to be sneezed at, and I was out of camp the moment I received my pass and hitch hiking to London.

I wanted to see my family, and I wanted to see my girl friend of that moment in time. Unfortunately the meeting was not a particularly happy one. She told me that she had just got herself engaged to a merchant seaman and that in these circumstances the passionate sonata for two which we had been playing would have to wind itself down to pianissimo, with me on a solo instrument. I was somewhat shattered. Chagrin d’amour! I took gloomy leave of my family and returned to the First Airborne Divisional Signals unit.

Back in camp we learned that the operation to Holland was still to take place and that we were to drop to the north of a town called Arnhem, on the lower Rhine. At that time the British Second Army, pushing up through Belgium, had invaded Holland. It was now proposed that the American 101st Airborne Division was to make a corridor north of the advancing Second Army between the Dutch towns of Eindhoven and Grave. The 82nd American Airborne Division should continue this corridor still further north from Grave to Nijmegen between the River Maas and the River Waal, while the British First Airborne Division was to drop north of the American 82nd Division and seize the bridge to Arnhem across the Dutch part of the River Rhine. The Second Army would then be able to advance rapidly, crossing the rivers Maas, Waal and Lower Rhine without difficulty, swerve east and pour into Germany.

It was a daring plan which would shorten the war by many months if it succeeded, but it was perfectly obvious to us of the First Airborne Division that unless we were relieved quickly we should be in a hell of a mess. We were to be the extreme tip of a finger, pointing north up through Belgium and Holland, and we were given two days to hold out. Unless the advancing allied forces reached us in that time we should be cut off, surrounded by Germans and annihilated. Yet nobody worried.

We were issued with Dutch money, twenty-four hour ration packs, bombs and ammunition, but still nobody worried. It had all happened before and nothing had come of it. This would be another false alarm – another cancelled operation. At any moment now we would receive the order to take everything off and return to camp. It was only when aero engines thundered into life and the ground sped away that we realised that this time we were flying to meet our destiny.

As our aeroplane roared onwards through the sky, I could see opposite one of the C47’s keeping us company. It rolled a little like an obese and slightly drunk goldfish. I found it hard to believe that it was racing neck and neck with us through space at nearly two hundred miles an hour. By twisting my head I could look over the parachute strapped to my back and out of the window behind me. There I could see part of the wing of our own kite. How fragile it seemed; how incapable of lifting our immense weight. Beyond that was the tail of another aircraft in our formation. This was all that was visible to me of the armada, which was carrying thousands of men to Holland.