Military history

Part Three



THE THUNDER OF THE HUGE FORMATIONS was earsplitting. Around British glider bases in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, horses and cattle panicked and bolted in the fields. In southern and eastern England thousands of people watched in amazement. In some villages and towns road traffic jammed and came to a halt. Passengers in speeding trains crowded one another to stare out of windows. Everywhere people gaped, dumfounded, at a spectacle no one had ever seen before. The mightiest airborne fo???ce in history was off the ground and heading for its targets.

By coincidence on this bright Sunday morning, September 17, 1944, special services were being held all over England to commemorate “the valiant few,” the handful of R.A.F. pilots who had boldly challenged Hitler’s Luftwaffe four years before and fought them to a standstill. As worshipers knelt in prayer, the steady, overpowering drone of propellers completely drowned out some services. In London’s great Westminster Cathedral the soaring organ tones of the solemn Magnificat could not be heard. In twos and threes, people left their pews to join the crowds already gathered in the streets. There, Londoners stared upward, overwhelmed by the din as formation after formation of aircraft passed overhead at low altitude. In north London, a Salvation Army band overpowered by the noise gave up, but the bass drummer, his eyes on the sky, thumped out a symbolic beat: three dots and a dash—in Morse code, V for victory.

To the onlookers, the nature of the attack was clearly revealed by the great streams of planes towing gliders. But it would be six more hours before the British people learned that they had witnessed the opening phase of the most momentous airborne offensive ever conceived. A Red Cross worker, Angela Hawkings, may have best summed up the reactions of those who saw the vast armada pass. From the window of a train, she stared up, astonished, as wave after wave of planes flew over like “droves of starlings.” She was convinced that “this attack, wherever bound, must surely bring about the end of the war.”

The men of the First Allied Airborne Army were as unprepared as the civilians on the ground for the awesome spectacle of their own departure. The paratroopers, glider-borne infantry and pilots who set out for Holland were staggered by the size and majesty of the air fleets. Captain Arie D. Bestebreurtje, a Dutch officer attached to the 82nd Airborne, thought the sight was “unbelievable. Every plane the Allies possessed must have been engaged in this single scheme.” In fact, some 4,700 aircraft were involved—the greatest number ever used on a single airborne mission.

The operation had begun in the predawn hours and continued on throughout the morning. First, more than 1,400 Allied bombers had taken off from British airfields and had pounded German antiaircraft positions and troop concentrations in the Market-Garden area. Then, at 9:45 A.M. and for two and one quarter hours more, 2,023 troop-carrying planes, gliders and their tugs swarmed into the air from twenty-four U.S. and British bases.* C-47’s carrying paratroopers flew in long 45-plane formations. More C-47’s and British bombers—Halifaxes, Stirlings and Albemarles—pulled 478 gliders. In seemingly endless sky trains, these huge equipment- and troop-carrying gliders bounced behind their tow planes at the end of 300-foot-long ropes. Swaying among the smaller Horsa and Waco gliders were massive slabsided Hamilcars, each with a cargo capacity of eight tons; they could hold a small tank or two 3-ton trucks with artillery or ammunition. Above, below and on the flanks, protecting these huge formations, were almost 1,500 Allied fighters and fighter-bombers—British Spitfires, rocket-firing Typhoons, Tempests and Mosquitoes; U.S. Thunderbolts, Lightnings, Mustangs and low-level dive bombers. There were so many planes in the air that Captain Neil Sweeney of the 101st Airborne Division remembered that “it looked like we could get out on the wings and walk all the way to Holland.”

The British glider forces were the first to take off. Farther north on the Market-Garden corridor than the Americans and with different requirements, General Urquhart needed the maximum in men, equipment and artillery—especially antitank guns—in the first lift, to capture and hold his objectives until the land forces could link up. Therefore, the bulk of his division was glider-borne; 320 gliders carried the men, transport and artillery of Brigadier Philip “Pips” Hicks’s 1st Airlanding Brigade. They would reach landing zones west of Arnhem a little after 1 P.M. Thirty minutes later, Brigadier Gerald Lathbury’s 1st Parachute Brigade, in 145 troop-carrying planes, would begin dropping. Because the unwieldy gliders and tugs were slower—120 miles per hour versus 140 for the paratroop-carrier planes—these immense “sky trains”—or serials, as the airborne called them—had to be launched first. From eight bases in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, gliders and tugs rolled down runways and rose in the air at a launch rate never before attempted: one combination per minute. Forming up was especially intricate and dangerous. Climbing slowly to altitude, the planes headed west over the Bristol Channel. Then, speeds synchronized, the tugs and gliders echeloned to the right in pairs, turned back, flew over the takeoff bases and headed for a marshaling point above the town of Hatfield, north of London.

Even as the first British glider serials were forming up above the Bristol Channel, twelve British Stirling bombers and six U.S. C-47S began taking off at 10:25 A.M. for Holland. In them were U.S. and British pathfinders—the men who would land first to mark landing and drop zones for the Market forces.

Simultaneously, the men of the U.S. 82nd Airborne and the paratroop elements of the British First Division took off from bases around Grantham, Lincolnshire, in 625 troop-carrier planes and 50 C-47’s towing gliders. With astonishing precision, the planes of the IX Troop Carrier Command left the ground at five-to twenty-second intervals. In wave after wave they rendezvoused above the town of March, Cambridgeshire, and from there set out in three parallel streams to cross the coast at Aldeburgh.

At the same time, from southern airfields around Greenham Common, the 101st Airborne took to the air, in 424 C-47’s plus 70 gliders and tugs. Forming up, they too passed over the traffic control point at Hatfield and flew east to cross the coast at Bradwell Bay.

In immense triple columns, together at least ten miles across and approximately a hundred miles long, the vast armada swept over the English countryside. The 82nd Airborne and British 1st Division, enroute to Nijmegen and Arnhem, flew along the northern track. A special serial of 38 gliders carrying General Browning’s Corps headquarters, bound for Nijmegen, traveled with them. On the southern route, passing over Bradwell Bay, the 101st Airborne headed for its drop zones slightly north of Eindhoven. By 11:55A.M., the entire force—more than 20,000 troops, 511 vehicles, 330 artillery pieces and 590 tons of equipment—was off the ground. First Lieutenant James J. Coyle of the 82nd Airborne, looking down on the English countryside from an altitude of only 1,500 feet, saw nuns waving from the courtyard of a convent. He thought “the beautiful day and the nuns made a picture that had the quality of an oil painting.” Waving back, he wondered “if they could possibly know who we were and where we were going.”

For the majority of the airborne troops, the mood of the initial part of the journey, across England, was lighthearted. To Private Roy Edwards of the 1st Parachute Brigade, “everything was so serene it was like going on a bus outing to the seaside.” Private A. G. Warrender remembers that “this was a perfect Sunday; a morning for a walk down a country lane and a pint at the local.”

The commanding officer of the Glider Pilot Regiment, Colonel George S. Chatter ton, piloting the glider carrying General Browning, described the Sunday as “an extremely fine day. It did not seem possible that we were taking off for one of the greatest battles in history.” Chatterton was struck by Browning’s entourage and equipment. With the General were his batman, headquarters’ medical officer, cook, as well as his tent and personal jeep. Browning sat on an empty Worthington Beer crate between the pilot and copilot, and Chatterton noted that he was “immaculately dressed in a Barathea battle dress, with a highly polished Sam Browne belt, knife-edge-creased trousers, leather holster gleaming like glass, a swagger stick and spotless gray kid gloves.” The General, says Chatterton, “was in tremendous form, because he realized he had reached one of the climaxes of his career. There was an air of immense gaiety.”

In another glider serial, the quiet Scot with the most difficult Market-Garden assignment, the 1st Airborne Division’s General Roy Urquhart, thought it was “difficult not to feel excited that we were off at last.” Yet the popular officer’s mind, as always, was on his men and the job that lay ahead. Like Browning, he had an entourage. Now, looking down the length of the Horsa glider—which was carrying his aide Roberts, batman Hancock, the Reverend G. A. Pare, padre of the Glider Pilot Regiment, a signaler, two military police, their motorcycles and the General’s jeep—Urquhart felt a pang of conscience. He thought of his paratroopers, laden down with packs, guns and equipment, crowded into heavy transport planes. Urquhart carried only a small shoulder pack, two hand grenades, a map case and a notebook. He was bothered by his own comfort.

Almost up to the moment of takeoff Urquhart had been called on to make difficult decisions. Some hours before leaving, his chief of staff, Colonel Charles Mackenzie, had received a telephone call from a senior American air force officer. Was the mental asylum at Wolfheze to be bombed? The American, Mackenzie had reported, “wanted a personal assurance from Urquhart that there were Germans in it and not lunatics; otherwise the Americans could not accept responsibility.” The asylum was dangerously close to the division’s assembly point, and Urquhart’s staff believed it to be held by the Germans. Mackenzie had accepted responsibility. “On your head be it,” the American had replied. Urquhart had approved his chief of staffs action. “I meant to be as prepared as possible and that’s all there was to it,” he remembered.

As Mackenzie was about to leave for his own glider, Urquhart had taken him privately aside. “Look, Charles,” he had told Mackenzie, “if anything happens to me the succession of command should be as follows: first, Lathbury, then Hicks and Hackett in that order.” Urquhart’s choice was based on experience. “Everyone knew that Lathbury was my deputy,” he later recalled. “Hackett was senior in rank to Hicks, but he was much younger and I was quite convinced that Hicks had more experience in handling infantry. My decision was no reflection on Hackett’s ability to command.” Perhaps, Urquhart reflected, he should have informed each of his brigadiers of his decision earlier, but he had “frankly considered the whole question quite academic.” The chance of the division losing both Urquhart and Lathbury was remote.

Now, all decisions made, Urquhart idly watched “squadrons of fighters flashing past the glider trains.” This was his first operational trip in a glider, and earlier he had taken a couple of airsickness pills. His throat was dry and he had difficulty swallowing. He was conscious, too, that “Hancock, my batman, was watching me, a look of concern on his face. Like everyone else, he expected me to be airsick.” Urquhart did not oblige. “We were in a huge stream of aircraft and I concentrated on impressions. We were committed. We had made a good plan. I still wished we could have gotten closer to the bridge, but I did not brood on it.”


In spite of the operational efficiency displayed in launching the giant armada, mishaps occurred almost immediately. Just before takeoff, the port wing of one glider was chewed off by the propeller of a Stirling bomber. No one was hurt. As the glider carrying Lieutenant Alan Harvey Cox of the Airlanding Brigade lumbered into the air, it ran into trouble. Low clouds obstructed the glider pilot’s view and he was unable to line up with the tail of his tug. The glider went in one direction, the plane in another, the tow rope threatening to loop the glider’s wing and overturn it. Unable to realign with his tug, the glider pilot grabbed for the red-topped release lever and cast off. Cox’s glider landed without damage in a hay field at Sandford-on-Thames. A more bizarre incident occurred in a C-47 carrying the men of the 82nd Airborne, who sat facing each other on opposite sides of the plane. Five minutes after takeoff, Corporal Jack Bommer saw “the cargo hatch directly behind the men facing me spring open.” The force of air almost sucked the men through the hatchway into space. As they desperately hung on, recalls Bommer, “the pilot did a beautiful tail flip and the hatch slammed shut.”

Lance Corporal Sydney Nunn, who was so anxious to leave his base near Keevil and the activities of the mole in his mattress, now felt lucky to be alive. After more than an hour of uneventful flight, his glider ran into cloud. Emerging from the cloud bank, the glider pilot saw that the tow rope had twisted itself around the port wing. Over the intercom to his tug, Nunn heard the glider pilot say, “I’m in trouble! I’m in trouble!” The next instant, he cast off. “We seemed to come to a dead stop in the air,” Nunn remembers. “Then the glider’s nose dropped and we careened earthward with the tow rope streaming alongside like a broken kite string.” Nunn sat “petrified,” listening to the wind screaming along the fuselage, “hoping that the chains holding a jeep in the glider would take the strain.” Then he heard the pilot warn them to “Brace up, blokes. Here we come.” The glider hit the ground, bounced, hit once more, and came slowly to a stop. In the sudden silence, Nunn heard the pilot ask, “Are you blokes all right?” Everyone was, and the men were returned to Keevil to fly out in the second lift on September 18.

Others were not so fortunate. Tragedy struck one glider serial over Wiltshire. R.A.F. Sergeant Walter Simpson, sitting in the plexiglass turret of a Stirling bomber, was watching the Horsa glider trailing along behind. Suddenly, “The glider just seemed to part in the middle; it looked as if the back end just dropped off the front.” Horrified, Simpson shouted to the captain, “My God, the glider’s coming apart!” The tow rope broke and the front of the glider sank “like a rock falling to earth.” The Stirling left formation, gradually lost height, and turned back to locate the wreckage. The front half was spotted in a field. The tail was nowhere to be seen. Marking the spot, the crew returned to Keevil and drove by jeep to the crash location. There, Simpson saw what appeared “like a match box that had been stepped on.” The bodies of the men had remained inside. Simpson had no way of estimating how many dead there were—“it was just a mass of arms, legs and bodies.”

By the time the last serials reached the English coast—the northern streams passing over the checkpoint at Aldeburgh, the southern columns flying over Bradwell Bay—thirty troop- and equipment-carrying gliders were down. Tug engine failure, broken tow ropes, and, in places, heavy clouds had caused the abortions. Although by military standards the operation had begun with eminent success—casualties were light, and many of the men and most of the downed cargo would be flown in on later lifts—the losses were sure to hurt. On this vital day when every man, vehicle and piece of equipment was important to General Urquhart, twenty-three of his glider loads were already lost. Not until the Arnhem force reached its drop and landing zones would commanders discover just how crucial these losses would be.

Now, as the long sky trains swarmed out over the English Channel and the land fell behind, a new kind of expectancy began to permeate the armada. The “Sunday outing” mood was fast disappearing. As American serials passed over the seaside resort of Margate, Private Melvin Isenekev of the 101st Airborne saw the white cliffs of Dover off to the right. From the distance, they looked like the wintry hillsides of the Adirondacks near his home in upper New York State. Corporal D. Thomas of the 1st British Airborne, staring out through an open plane door until his country’s coastline disappeared, felt his eyes fill with tears.

From the marshaling points at March and Hatfield, the airborne columns had been aided by various navigational devices: radar beacons, special hooded lights and radio direction-finding signals. Now, beacons on ships in the North Sea began to guide the planes. Additionally, strings of launches—17 along the northern route; 10 below the southern flight path—stretched away across the water. To Flight Sergeant William Tompson, at the controls of a plane towing a four-ton Horsa glider, “there wasn’t much navigating to do. The launches below us were set out like stepping stones across the Channel.” But these fast naval vessels were much more than directional aids. They were part of a vast air-sea rescue operation, and they were already busy.

In the thirty-minute trip across the North Sea, men saw gliders bobbing on the gray waters as low-flying amphibious planes circled to mark their positions until rescue launches could reach the spot. Lieutenant Neville Hay, of the Phantom fact-gathering liaison unit, watched “with complete detachment two downed gliders and another ditching.” He tapped his corporal on the shoulder. “Have a look down there, Hobkirk,” Hay shouted. The corporal glanced down and, as Hay remembers, “I could almost see him turn green.” Hay hurriedly reassured the man. “There’s nothing to worry about. Look at the boats already picking them up.

Staff Sergeant Joseph Kitchener, piloting a glider, was equally impressed by the speed of the air-sea rescue launch that came alongside a floating glider he had spotted. “They picked up the men so fast I don’t even think they got their feet wet,” he recalls. Men in a glider piloted by Staff Sergeant Cyril Line were less fortunate—but lucky to be alive. In an aerial train of swaying black Horsas, Line observed one combination drop slowly out of position. Mesmerized, he watched the Horsa cut loose and descend almost leisurely toward the sea. A ring of white foam appeared as it hit the water. He wondered “who the poor devils were.” At that moment, the starboard propellers on the Stirling pulling his glider slowed, and stopped. As the plane’s speed was reduced Line found himself “in the embarrassing position of overtaking my own tug.” He immediately released the tow line and his copilot called out, “Stand by for ditching!” From behind in the cabin, they could hear rifle butts crashing against the side of the glider’s plywood fuselage as the frantic passengers tried to open up an escape route. Rapidly losing altitude, Line looked back and was horrified to see that the desperate troopers had “cut through the top of the glider and the sides were just beginning to go.” Line screamed out, “Stop that! Strap yourselves in!” Then, with a heavy thud, the glider hit the water. When Line surfaced, he saw the wreckage floating some thirty feet away. There was no sign whatever of the cabin, but every one of his passengers was accounted for. Within minutes, all were picked up.

In all, eight gliders ditched safely during this first lift; once they were on the water, the air-sea rescue service, in a spectacular performance, saved nearly all crews and passengers. Once again, however, it was Urquhart’s force that was whittled down. Of the eight gliders, five were Arnhem-bound.

Apart from some long-range inaccurate shelling of a downed glider, there was no serious enemy opposition during the Channel crossing. The 101st Airborne Division, following the southern route, which would bring it over Allied-held Belgium, was experiencing an almost perfect flight. But as the Dutch coastline appeared in the distance, the 82nd and the British troopers in the northern columns began to see the ominous telltale gray and black puffs of flak—German antiaircraft fire. As they flew on, at an altitude of only 1,500 feet, enemy guns firing from the outer Dutch isles of Walcheren, North Beveland and Schouwen were clearly visible. So were flak ships and barges around the mouth of the Schelde.

Escorting fighters began peeling out of formation, engaging the gun positions. In the planes men could hear spent shrapnel scraping against the metal sides of the C-47’s. Veteran paratrooper Private Leo Hart of the 82nd heard a rookie aboard his plane ask, “Are these bucket seats bullet proof?” Hart just glowered at him; the light metal seats wouldn’t have offered protection against a well-thrown stone. Private Harold Brockley, in another C-47, remembers one replacement wondering, “Hey, what are all those little black and gray puffs below?” Before anyone could answer, a piece of shrapnel came through the bottom of the ship and pinged harmlessly against a mess kit.

Veteran troopers hid their fears in different ways. When Staff Sergeant Paul Nunan saw the “familiar golf balls of red tracer bullets weaving up toward us” he pretended to doze off. Tracers barely missed Private Kenneth Truax’s plane. “No one said anything,” he recalls. “There was only a weak smile or two.” Sergeant Bill Tucker, who had gone through antiaircraft fire in Normandy, was haunted by a “horrible fear of getting hit from underneath.” He felt “less naked” sitting on three air-force flak jackets. And Private Rudolph Kos remembers that he felt “like sitting on my helmet, but I knew I would need it on my head.”

One man was more concerned with the danger within than that without. Copilot Sergeant Bill Oakes, struggling to hold his Horsa glider steady in the air, looked back to see how his passengers were faring. To his horror, three troopers were “calmly sitting on the floor brewing up a mess tin of tea over a small cooker. Five others were standing around with their mugs, waiting to be served.” Oakes was galvanized into action. He handed the controls over to the pilot and hurried aft, expecting the glider’s plywood floor to catch fire at any minute. “Or, worse still, the mortar bombs in the trailer we were carrying could explode. The heat from that little field stove was terrific.” He was livid with anger. “We’re just having a little brew up,” one of the troopers told him soothingly. Oakes hurried back to the cockpit and reported the matter to the pilot, Staff Sergeant Bert Watkins. The pilot smiled. “Tell ‘em not to forget us when the tea’s ready,” he said. Oakes sank into his seat and buried his head in his hands.

Although the escort fighters silenced most of the coastal flak positions, some planes were damaged and one tug, its glider and a troop-carrier C-47 were shot down over Schouwen Island. The tug crash-landed, and its crew was killed. The glider, an 82nd Airborne Waco, broke up in mid-air and may have been seen by Major Dennis Munford, flying in a British column nearby. He watched, aghast, as the Waco disintegrated and “men and equipment spilt out of it like toys from a Christmas cracker.” Others saw the troop-carrier go down. Equipment bundles attached beneath the C-47 were set on fire by tracer bullets. “Yellow and red streamers of flame appeared in the black smoke,” recalls Captain Arthur Ferguson, who was flying in a nearby plane. Within minutes the C-47 was blazing. First Lieutenant Virgil Carmichael, standing in the door of his plane, watched as paratroopers jumped from the stricken aircraft. “As our men were using camouflaged chutes, I was able to count them as they left and saw that all had escaped safely.”

The pilot, although the aircraft was engulfed in flames, somehow kept the plane steady until the paratroopers jumped. Then Carmichael saw one more figure leave. “The Air Corps used white parachutes, so I figured he had to be the crew chief.” He was the last man out. Almost immediately the blazing plane nosedived and, at full throttle, plowed into a flooded area of Schouwen Island below. Carmichael remembers that, “on impact, a white chute billowed out in front of the plane, probably ejected by the force of the crash.” To First Lieutenant James Megellas the sight of the downed C-47 had a “terrible effect.” As jumpmaster in his plane, he had previously told his men that he would give the command “to stand up and hook up five minutes before reaching the drop zone.” Now, he immediately gave the order. In many other planes, jumpmasters reacted as Megellas had and gave similar commands. To them, the battle was already joined—and, in fact, the drop and landing zones for the airborne men were now only thirty to forty minutes away.

*Many official accounts give 10:25 A.M. as the time when the first Market aircraft left the ground. Perhaps they had in mind the departure of the pathfinders, who arrived first. From an examination of log books and air controllers’ time schedules, it is clear that the airlift began at 9:45 A.M.

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