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.