SURROUNDED BY GROUND HAZE and the smoke and fire of burning buildings, the mighty British glider fleet was landing. Already the areas marked by orange and crimson nylon strips were beginning to look like vast aircraft parking lots. Blue smoke eddied up from the two landing zones—“Reyers Camp Farm” to the north and “Renkum Heath” to the southwest—near Wolfheze. From these zones, in chain after chain, tugs and gliders stretched back almost twenty miles to their approach point near the town of s’Hertogen-bosch, southwest of Nijmegen. Swarms of fighters protected these ponderous columns. Traffic was so dense that pilots were reminded of the rush-hour congestion around London’s busy Piccadilly Circus.
The serials—each group separated from the next by a four-minute interval—flew slowly over the flat, water-veined Dutch countryside. The landmarks pilots had been briefed to recognize now began to pass beneath them: the great wide rivers Maas and Waal and up ahead, the Lower Rhine. Then, as each formation began its descent, men saw Arnhem off to the right and their vital objectives: the rail and highway bridges. Incredibly, despite the R.A.F. prediction of intense antiaircraft fire, the immense glider cavalcade encountered virtually no resistance. The preassault bombings had been far more effective around Arnhem than in the Eindhoven area. Not a single tug or glider was shot down in making the approach.
With clocklike precision, the skilled pilots of the R.A.F. and the Glider Pilot Regiment came over the zones. As gliders cast off, their tugs made climbing turns to free air space for the combinations coming up behind. These intricate maneuvers and the heavy traffic were causing problems of their own. Sergeant Pilot Bryan Tomblin remembers chaotic congestion over the landing zones. “There were gliders, tugs, ropes and all sorts of things in the sky,” he recalls. “You had to be on the lookout all the time.”
Staff Sergeant Victor Miller, piloting a Horsa, recalls coming in over the Lower Rhine and finding it “unbelievably calm.” Beyond, he suddenly spotted his landing zone, with its “triangular-shaped woods and little farm nestling in the far corner.” Seconds later, Miller heard the voice of his Stirling tug’s navigator. “O.K. Number 2. When you’re ready.” Miller acknowledged. “Good luck, Number 2,” the navigator told him. Miller immediately cast off. His tug disappeared, the tow rope flapping in its wake. It would be dropped, Miller knew, “on the enemy as a parting gift before the Stirling turned onto its homeward course.”
The glider’s air speed fell off and the field loomed nearer. Miller called for half-flaps and his copilot, Sergeant Tom Hollingsworth, instantly pushed a lever. For a moment the glider bucked, “as the great flaps descending from underneath each wing braked against our speed.” The landing zone, Miller estimated, was now less than a mile away. “I reminded Tom to look out for gliders on his side. One slid across and above us less than fifty yards away,” and, to Miller’s amazement, “swung in on the same course. Another glider seemed to be drifting into us from starboard. I don’t think the pilot even saw us, he was so intent on getting down in the field.” To avoid collision, Miller deliberately dived under the incoming glider. “A great black shape flashed over our cockpit, too close for my liking. I was concentrating so hard to set down in one piece that I never wondered if the enemy was firing at us—not that we could have done much about it.”
Miller continued his descent with “tree tops leaping toward our floor boards and past the wings. As the ground rushed up, another glider came alongside. I pulled back on the wheel, leveled, we hit once, bounced about three feet, and came down to stay. Tom had slammed on the brakes and we careened across the plowed field. Then the wheels sank into soft soil and we ground to a halt fifty yards short of a heavy-looking line of trees.” In the silence, after the continuous deafening roar of the slip stream, Miller heard the distant crackle of small-arms fire, “but my one thought was to get out of the glider before another crashed or landed on us. I was the last man out. I didn’t even pause, but jumped straight through the ramp door and hit the ground of Holland, four feet below, rather hard.”
The glider in which Signalman Graham Marples was riding circled and came back over its landing zone because of the congestion. “But, by then, we had run out of wind,” Marples remembers. “I saw trees coming through the glider floor. They just ripped the floor to pieces, and the next thing I knew, we nosed over and came down. I could hear everything breaking, like dry twigs snapping. We landed squarely on our nose but no one was hurt except for a few scratches and bruises.” Later, the pilot told Marples he had pulled up to avoid collision with another glider.
Many gliders, having surmounted all the problems of the long trip, touched down to disaster. Staff Sergeant George Davis stood near his empty Horsa and watched other gliders come in. One of the first to land, Davis had brought in thirty-two men of the 1st Airlanding Brigade. He saw two gliders “almost side by side bump across the landing zone and into the trees. The wings of both were sheared off.” Seconds later, another Horsa rumbled in. Its speed was such that Davis knew it would never be able to stop in time. The glider plowed into the trees. No one got out. With his copilot, Staff Sergeant Williams, Davis ran to the glider and looked into the plexiglass-covered cockpit. Everyone inside was dead. A 75 mm. howitzer had broken from its chain mooring, crushing the gun crew and decapitating the pilot and copilot.
Lieutenant Michael Dauncey had just landed his glider—carrying a jeep, trailer and six gunners from an artillery battery—when he saw a huge eight-ton Hamilcar touch down. “The field was soft,” he recalls, “and I saw the nose of the Hamilcar digging up earth in front of it.” Weight and ground speed drove it deeper until the huge tail rose up in the air and the Hamilcar flipped over on its back. Dauncey knew “it was useless to try to dig them out. A Horsa’s flat on top but a Hamilcar’s got a hump where the pilots sit, and we knew the pilots were finished.”
Making his approach in another Hamilcar, Staff Sergeant Gordon Jenks saw the same crash and immediately deduced that the ground ahead was too soft. Instantly, he decided against landing in the field. “I reckoned if we went into a dive right then,” he remembers, “we would have enough speed for me to hold her off the deck until we had cleared the fence and got safely into the next field.” Jenks pushed the control column forward, dived, then leveled out a few feet above the ground. Easing the huge aircraft gently over the fence, Jenks “put her down in the far field as lightly as a feather.”
All over the landing zones now the tails of gliders were being unbolted and swung back, and artillery pieces, equipment, stores, jeeps and trailers were being unloaded. The men in Lance Corporal Henry Brook’s glider, like many others, found that the unloading maneuver was fine in theory but more difficult in practice. “There were eight pins with a protective wire holding the glider tail on,” Brook explained. “Back in England in practice exercises, you could always get the tail off and jeep and trailer out in two minutes flat. In action, it was different. We cut the wire and got the pins out but the tail wouldn’t budge.” Brook and the other troopers finally chopped it off. Lance Bombardier J. W. Crook was similarly frustrated, but a nearby jeep came to the aid of his men and, with its hawser, yanked off the tail.
All over the two zones men were beginning to salvage cargo from wrecked gliders. The crash of two giant Hamilcars was a serious loss. They contained a pair of 17-pound artillery pieces plus three-ton trucks and ammunition trailers. But all of the fifteen 75 mm. pack howitzers of the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment artillery arrived safely.
Most men who came in by glider recall a strange, almost eerie silence immediately after landing. Then, from the assembly point, men heard the skirl of bagpipes playing “Blue Bonnets.” At about the same time, soldiers on the edge of Renkum Heath saw Dutch civilians wandering aimlessly through the woods or hiding in fright. Lieutenant Neville Hay of the Phantom unit remembers that “it was a sobering sight. Some were in white hospital gowns and seemed to be herded along by attendants. Men and women capered about, waving, laughing and jabbering. They were obviously quite mad.” Glider Pilot Victor Miller was startled by voices in the woods. Then, “groups of weird white-clothed men and women filed past.” It was only later that the troopers learned the strangely behaved civilians were inmates from the bombed Wolfheze Psychiatric Institute.
General Urquhart had landed at Renkum Heath. He too was struck by the stillness. “It was,” he recalls, “incredibly quiet. Unreal.” While his chief of staff, Colonel Charles Mackenzie, set up the division’s tactical headquarters at the edge of the woods, Urquhart headed for the parachute dropping zones, four hundred yards away. It was nearly time for Brigadier Lathbury’s 1st Parachute Brigade to arrive. From the distance .came the drone of approaching aircraft. The bustle and activity all over the glider zones paused as men looked up to see the long lines of C-47’s. Small-arms and antiaircraft fire during the paratroop drop was as limited and spasmodic as during the glider landings. At exactly 1:53 P.M., and for the next fifteen minutes, the sky was filled with brilliant-colored parachutes as the 1st Brigade began jumping. Some 650 parapacks with bright-yellow, red and brown chutes-carrying guns, ammunition and equipment—fell rapidly through the streams of troopers. Other supply chutes, pushed out of the planes before the men jumped, floated down with a variety of cargo, including miniature foldable motorcycles. Many already overburdened paratroopers also jumped with large kitbags. In theory, these were to be lowered by a cord just before the men touched ground. Scores of the packs broke away from troopers and smashed on the zones. Several contained precious radio sets.
British Private Harry Wright jumped from an American C-47. As he fell through the air, he lost both his helmet and kitbag. He hit the ground very hard. Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Robertson came running up. Wright’s forehead was streaming blood. “Were you hit by flak?” Robertson asked. Wright slowly shook his head. “No, sarge,” he said. “It was that bloody Yank. We were going too fast when we jumped.” Robertson applied a dressing and then, to Wright’s surprise, offered the injured man a pork pie from his haversack. “I nearly died right then of the shock,” Wright recalls. “First, Robertson was a Scot, and then, as a quartermaster, he never offered anyone anything.”
Odd things seemed to be happening all over the drop zones. The first person Sergeant Norman Swift saw when he landed was Sergeant Major Les Ellis, who was passing by holding a dead partridge. The amazed Swift asked where the bird had come from. “I landed on it,” Ellis explained. “Who knows? It’ll be a bit of all right later on, in case we’re hungry.”
Sapper Ronald Emery had just slipped out of his chute when an elderly Dutch lady scuttled across the field, grabbed it up and raced away, leaving the startled Emery staring after her. In another part of the field, Corporal Geoffrey Stanners, loaded down with equipment, landed on the top of a glider wing. Like a trampoline, the wing sprang up, flipping Stanners back into the air. He landed with both feet on the ground.
Dazed after a hard fall, Lieutenant Robin Vlasto lay still for a few moments, trying to orient himself. He was conscious of “an incredible number of bodies and containers coming down all around me and planes continued to pour out paratroopers.” Vlasto decided to get off the drop zone quickly. As he struggled to get out of his harness, he heard a weird sound. Looking around, he saw Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, the 2nd Battalion’s commander, walking past, blowing his copper hunting horn.
Frost was also observed by Private James W. Sims. Sims had already gone through quite a day even before he landed. Having always flown with the R.A.F.—whose attitude, Sims recalls, was: “Don’t worry, lads, whatever it’s like, we’ll get you through”—Sims received quite a shock on seeing his American pilot. “He was a lieutenant colonel with one of those soft hats. His flying jacket was hanging open and he was smoking a big cigar. Our lieutenant saluted him quite smartly and asked if the men should move up to the front of the plane on takeoff.” The American grinned. “Why, hell, no, lieutenant,” Sims remembers him saying. “I’ll get this goddam crate off the ground if I have to drag its ass halfway down the runway.” Sims’s officer was too startled to speak. Now, although he was fond of his colonel, Sims, watching Frost go by, had reached the limit of his patience. Surrounded by his equipment, he sat on the ground and muttered, “There goes old Johnny Frost, a .45 in one hand and that bloody horn in the other.”
All over the drop and landing zones, where 5,191 men of the division had arrived safely, units were assembling, forming up and moving out. General Urquhart “couldn’t have been more pleased. Everything appeared to be going splendidly.” The same thought occurred to Sergeant Major John C. Lord. The veteran paratrooper recalls that “this was one of the best exercises I’d ever been on. Everyone was calm and businesslike.” But the reservations he’d had before takeoff still bothered Lord. As he looked about, seeing the men assembling rapidly, with no enemy to contend with, he remembers thinking, “It’s all too good to be true.” Others had the same thought. As one group prepared to move off, Lieutenant Peter Stainforth heard Lieutenant Dennis Simpson say quietly, “Everything is going too well for my liking.”
The man with the most urgent task on landing was forty-three-year-old Major Freddie Gough of the 1st Airborne Division reconnaissance unit. Leading a four-troop squadron in heavily armed jeeps, Gough was to make a dash for the bridge before Colonel John Frost’s marching battalion reached it. Gough and his men parachuted in, and then sought their ground transport, which was being flown in by glider. Quickly Gough located his second in command, Captain David Allsop, on the landing zone and received some bad news. The entire transport for one of the four units—approximately twenty-two vehicles—had failed to arrive, Allsop reported. Thirty-six of the 320 gliders scheduled for Arnhem had been lost, and with them were lost the jeeps of Gough’s A troop. Nevertheless, both Gough and Allsop believed that there were enough vehicles to race for the Arnhem bridge. Gough gave the order to move out. With his force whittled down, everything now depended on the reaction of the Germans.