Military history

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MAJOR ANTHONY DEANE-DRUMMOND, second in command of the British 1st Airborne Division Signals, could not understand what was wrong. At one moment his radio sets were getting perfect reception from Brigadier Lathbury’s brigade as it headed for its objectives, including the Arnhem bridge. But now, as Lathbury’s battalions moved closer to Arnhem, radio signals were fading by the minute. From Deane-Drummond’s signalmen came a constant stream of reports that disturbed and puzzled him. They were unable to contact some jeep-borne sets at all, and the signals they received from others were so weak as to be barely audible. Yet the various battalions of Lathbury’s brigade and Major Freddie Gough’s reconnaissance units could scarcely be more than two to three miles away.

Of particular concern to Deane-Drummond was Lathbury’s messages. They were vital to General Urquhart in his direction of the battle. Deane-Drummond decided to send out a jeep with a radio and operator to pick up Lathbury’s signals and relay them back to Division. He instructed the team to set up at a point midway between Division and Lathbury’s mobile communications. A short time later, Deane-Drummond heard signals from the relay team. The range of their set seemed drastically reduced—at minimum, the “22’s” should have operated efficiently at least up to five miles—and the signal was faint. Either the set was not functioning properly, he reasoned, or the operator was poorly located to send. Even as he listened, the signal faded completely. Deane-Drummond was unable to raise anybody. Nor could a special team of American communications operators with two radio jeeps. Hastily assembled and rushed to British Airborne Division headquarters only a few hours before takeoff on the seventeenth, the Americans were to operate ground-to-air “very high frequency” sets to call in fighters for close support. In the first few hours of the battle, these radio jeeps might have made all the difference. Instead, they were found to be useless. Neither jeep’s set had been adjusted to the frequencies necessary to call in planes. At this moment, with the battle barely begun, British radio communications had totally broken down.*

*In Christopher Hibbert’s The Battle of Arnhem, p. 96, dealing specifically with the British at Arnhem and equally critical of British communications, he claims that “American air-support parties were insufficiently trained … the disastrous consequence was that not until the last day of the operation … was any effective close air support given to the airborne troops.” There appears to be no information on who erred in the allocation of the frequencies, nor are the names of the Americans known. The two teams, who found themselves in the middle of the battle with the means of perhaps changing the entire course of history on that vital day, have never been found. Yet these two combat units are the only American ones known to have been in the Arnhem battle.

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