Military history


IN THEIR CAMOUFLAGE BATTLE SMOCKS and distinctive crash helmets, laden with weapons and ammunition, the men of Brigadier Lathbury’s 1st Parachute Brigade were on the way to Arnhem. Interspersed among the columns of marching troopers were jeeps pulling artillery pieces and four-wheeled carts loaded with guns and stores. As General Roy Urquhart watched them pass, he remembered a compliment paid him some months before by General Horrocks. “Your men are killers,” Horrocks had said admiringly. At the time, Urquhart had considered the remark an overstatement. On this Sunday, he was not so sure. As the 1st Brigade had moved off, Urquhart had felt a surge of pride.

The plan called for the three battalions of Lathbury’s brigade to converge on Arnhem, each from a different direction. Lieutenant Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Battalion was given the prime objective: marching along a secondary road running close to the north bank of the Rhine, Frost’s men were to capture the main highway bridge. En route, they were to take the railway and pontoon bridges west of the great highway crossing. The 3rd Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel J. A. C. Fitch, would move along the Utrecht-Arnhem road and approach the bridge from the north, reinforcing Frost. Once these two battalions had been successfully launched, Lieutenant Colonel D. Dobie’s 1st Battalion was to advance along the main Ede-Arnhem highway—the most northerly route—and occupy the high ground north of the city. Lathbury had given each route a code name. Dobie’s, farthest north, was designated “Leopard”; Fitch’s, in the middle, was “Tiger”; and Frost’s, the most crucial route, was “Lion.” Speeding ahead of the entire brigade, the jeeps of Major Freddie Gough’s reconnaissance squadron were expected to reach the bridge, seize it in a coup de main, and hold until Frost arrived.

So far, Urquhart thought, the initial phase was going well. He was not unduly alarmed by the breakdown of communications within the division at this time. He had experienced temporary signals disruption often in the North African desert campaigns. Since he could not raise Brigadier Hicks’s 1st Airlanding Brigade, whose job it was to hold the landing and drop zones for the air lifts on the following two days, Urquhart drove to Hicks’s headquarters. The Airlanding Brigade, he learned, was in position, and Hicks was for the moment away directing the disposition of his battalions. However, at Hicks’s headquarters, Urquhart received news that one vital part of the plan to take the Arnhem bridge had gone wrong. He was told—erroneously—that most of Major Freddie Gough’s reconnaissance vehicles had been lost in glider crashes; no one at Hicks’s headquarters knew where Gough had gone. Without waiting for Hicks to return, Urquhart drove back to his own headquarters. He had to find Gough quickly and devise some alternative plan, but his greatest concern now was to warn Lathbury and, in particular, Frost, that the 2nd Battalion was on its own. Frost would have to take the main Arnhem bridge without the aid of Gough’s planned surprise attack.

At Division, further bad news awaited Urquhart. “Not only was there no word of Gough,” Urquhart recalls, “but apart from some short-range radio signals, headquarters communications had completely failed. The 1st Parachute Brigade and, indeed, the outside world, could not be contacted.” Colonel Charles Mackenzie, Urquhart’s chief of staff, watched the General pace up and down, “restive and anxious for news.” Urquhart ordered his signals officer, Major Anthony Deane-Drummond, to investigate the “communications foul-up, see what had happened to the radio equipment and then set it right.” Messengers were also sent out in search of Gough. As time passed without any new information, the worried Urquhart decided to wait no longer. Normally, he would have directed the battle from Division headquarters; but now, as each moment passed without communications, he was beginning to feel that this battle was anything but normal. Turning to Mackenzie, he said, “I think I’ll go and have a look myself, Charles.” Mackenzie did not try to stop him. “At the time,” Mackenzie recalls, “since we were getting practically no information, it didn’t seem a particularly bad thing to do.” Taking only his driver and a signalman in his jeep, Urquhart set out after Lathbury. The time was 4:30 P.M.

Moving along the northern, Leopard route—the Ede-Arnhem road—Major Freddie Gough of the 1st Airlanding reconnaissance unit was making good time. Although the vehicles of A troop had failed to arrive, Gough had started off from the landing zone with the rest of the squadrons at 3:30 P.M. He was confident that he had sufficient jeeps for the coup de main attempt on the bridge. “In fact,” he remembered, “I left several jeeps behind on the landing zone in reserve. We had more than enough to get to Arnhem.” Gough had even detached twelve men from his unit to make their way south to join the 2nd Battalion, moving on the Lion route to the bridge. He was unaware that the loss of A troop’s jeeps had raised a flurry of rumors and misinformation.*

From the beginning, Gough had had reservations about his recco unit’s role in the Arnhem plan. Instead of a coup de main, Gough had urged that a screen of reconnaissance jeeps be sent ahead of each of the three battalions. “In that way,” he says, “we would have quickly discovered the best and easiest way to reach the bridge.” Failing that, he had asked that a troop of light tanks be brought in by glider to escort the coup de main force. Both requests had been turned down. Yet Gough had remained optimistic. “I wasn’t the least bit concerned. There were supposed to be only a few old, gray Germans in Arnhem and some ancient tanks and guns. I expected it to be a pushover.”

Now, as they moved swiftly along Leopard, the lead jeeps of the unit were suddenly ambushed by German armored cars and 20 mm. guns. Gough’s second in command, Captain David Allsop, happened to note the time. It was exactly 4 P.M. Gough pulled out to drive to the head of the column and investigate. “Just as I was on the point of going forward, I got a message saying that Urquhart wanted to see me immediately. I didn’t know what the hell to do,” Gough says. “I was under Lathbury, and I thought I should at least tell him I was going, but I had no idea where he was. The unit was now in a heavy fire fight and pinned down in defensive positions near the railroad tracks on the outskirts of Wolfheze. I reckoned they would be all right for a time, so I turned around and headed back to Division headquarters on the landing zone. That was at 4:30.”

At the precise moment that General Urquhart set out to find Lathbury, Gough was speeding back to Division to report to Urquhart.

All along the three strategic lines of march, the men of the 1st Parachute Brigade were encountering jubilant, hysterical throngs of Dutch. Many civilians from farms and outlying hamlets had followed the paratroopers from the time they left the landing zones, and as the crowds grew, the welcome seemed almost to overwhelm the march itself. Captain Eric Mackay, traveling the southernmost, Lion route with Colonel Frost’s 2nd Battalion, was disturbed by the holiday atmosphere. “We were hampered by Dutch civilians,” he says. “Waving, cheering and clapping their hands, they offered us apples, pears, something to drink. But they interfered with our progress and filled me with dread that they would give our positions away.” Lieutenant Robin Vlasto remembers that “the first part of our march was in the nature of a victory parade, and the civilians were quite delirious with joy. It all seemed so unbelievable that we almost expected to see Hor-rocks’ XXX Corps tanks coming out of Arnhem to meet us. People lined the road and great trays of beer, milk and fruit were offered. We had the greatest difficulty forcing the men to keep alive to the possibility of a German attack.”

Young Anje van Maanen, whose father was a doctor in Oosterbeek, recalls receiving an exuberant call from the Tromp family in Heelsum, just south of the British landing zone on Renkum Heath. “We are free. Free!” the Tromps told her. “The Tommies dropped behind our house and they are on their way to Ooster-beek. They are so nice! We are smoking Players and eating chocolate.” Anje put the phone down, “crazy with joy. We all jumped and danced around. This is it! An invasion! Lovely!” Seventeen-year-old Anje could hardly wait for her father to come home. Dr. van Maanen was delivering a baby at a patient’s home, and Anje thought it “very annoying, particularly now, because the husband of the woman was a Dutch Nazi.” Mrs. Ida Clous, the wife of an Oosterbeek dentist and a friend of the Van Maanens, also heard that the airborne troops were on their way. She worked feverishly, hunting through boxes and sewing scraps to find every bit of orange cloth she possessed. When the British got to Oosterbeek, she intended to rush outside with her three small children and greet the deliverers with small handmade orange flags.

Jan Voskuil, hiding out in the home of his wife’s parents in Oosterbeek, was torn between his own desire to head up the Utrecht road to greet the paratroopers and the need to prevent his father-in-law from coming with him. The elder man was adamant. “I’m seventy-eight years old and I’ve never been in a war before and I want to see it.” Voskuil’s father-in-law was finally persuaded to stay in the garden and Voskuil, joining streams of other civilians heading out to meet the British, was turned back by a policeman on the outskirts of Oosterbeek. “It’s too dangerous,” the officer told the crowds. “Go back.” Voskuil walked slowly home. There he ran into the same German soldier who had asked for shelter when the bombing had begun during the morning. Now the soldier was in full uniform, with camouflage jacket, helmet and rifle. He offered Voskuil some chocolates and cigarettes. “I am going away now,” he said. “The Tommies will come.” Voskuil smiled. “Now, you will go back to Germany,” he said. The soldier studied Voskuil for several seconds. Then he shook his head slowly. “No, sir,” he told Voskuil. “We will fight.” The Dutchman watched the German walk away. “It begins now,” Voskuil thought, “but what can I do?” Impatiently he paced the yard. There was nothing to do but wait.

Unhampered by police restraints or warnings to stay indoors, Dutch farmers and their families lined each route of march in throngs. Sergeant Major Harry Callaghan, on the middle, Tiger route, remembers a farm woman breaking through the crowds and running toward him with a pitcher of milk. He thanked her and the woman smiled and said, “Good, Tommy. Good.” But, like Eric Mackay on the lower road, Callaghan, a Dunkirk veteran, was bothered by the number of civilians surrounding the troops. “They ran along beside us wearing armbands, aprons, and little pieces of ribbon, all orange,” he remembers. “Children, with little snippets of orange cloth pinned to their skirts or blouses, skipped along, shrieking with delight. Most of the men were reaching in their packs to hand them chocolate. It was such a different atmosphere that the men were behaving as if they were on an exercise. I began to be concerned about snipers.”

As Callaghan had feared, the victory parade came to a sudden halt. “It all happened so quickly,” he says. “One moment we were marching steadily toward Arnhem; the next, we were scattered in the ditches. Snipers had opened fire, and three dead airborne soldiers lay across the road.” The veteran sergeant major wasted no time. He had spotted a burst of flame from trees about fifty yards ahead. As the Dutch scattered, Callaghan took a party of twelve men forward. He stopped short of one tree and looked up. Something flashed. Raising his Sten gun, he fired directly into the tree. A Schmeisser automatic pistol clattered to the ground and, as Callaghan sighted up along the trunk of the tree, he saw a German dangling limply from a rope.

Now, too, on the middle route, other men from Lieutenant Colonel Fitch’s 3rd Battalion were suddenly engaged in an unexpected encounter. Private Frederick Bennett had just passed around some apples to other troopers when a German staff car came speeding down the road. Bennett opened up with his Sten gun. The car screeched to a stop and tried to back up. But it was too late. Everyone near Bennett began firing and the car came to an abrupt halt, riddled with bullets. As the troopers cautiously approached, they saw that the driver was hanging halfway out of the car. The body of a senior German officer had been thrown partly out another door. To Bennett “he looked like some high-ranking Jerry officer,” as indeed he was. Major General Kussin, the Arnhem town commander, had disregarded the warning of SS Major Sepp Krafft to avoid the main Utrecht-Arnhem road.*

Many men recall that the first serious German opposition began after the first hour of march—around 4:30 P.M. Then two of the three battalions—Dobie’s, on the northern route, and Fitch’s, in the center—were unexpectedly engaged in fierce enemy hit-and-run attacks. Major Gough’s reconnaissance unit, now commanded by Captain Allsop, was desperately trying to find a way to outflank the German forces and clear a path for Dobie’s 1st Battalion. But, according to Allsop, “each movement we made was blunted by an enemy force in front of us.” Trooper William Chandler of the reconnaissance unit remembers that as his C Troop explored the terrain, “German bullets came so close and so thick that they almost stung as they went by.”

As the battalion approached Wolfheze, it was almost completely stopped. “We halted,” Private Walter Boldock recalls. “Then we started off again. Then we halted and dug in. Next, we moved on again, changing direction. Our progress was dictated by the success of the lead companies. Mortar bombs and bullets harassed us all the way.” Beside a hedge, Boldock saw a sergeant he knew, lying seriously wounded. Farther ahead, he came upon the smoldering body of a lieutenant. He had been hit by a phosphorus bomb. To another soldier, Private Roy Edwards, “it just seemed we kept making a detour of the countryside and getting into running battles all afternoon.”

The paratroopers were stunned by the ferociousness of the unanticipated enemy attacks. Private Andrew Milbourne, on the northern route, heard firing in the distance off to the south and was momentarily glad that the 1st Battalion had been given the assignment to hold the high ground north of Arnhem. Then, nearing Wolfheze, Milbourne realized that the column had swung south off the main road. He saw the railway station and, close to it, a tank. His first reaction was one of elation. “My God!” he thought, “Monty was right. The Second Army’s here already!” Then, as the turret swung slowly around, Milbourne saw that a black cross was painted on the tank. Suddenly, he seemed to see Germans everywhere. He dived into a ditch and, raising his head cautiously, began looking for a good spot to position his Vickers machine gun.

Sergeant Reginald Isherwood saw the same tank. A jeep towing a light artillery piece drove up and started to turn around in order to engage it. “One of their sergeants yelled, ‘We’d better fire before they do. Otherwise we’ve had it,’ ” Isherwood recalls. “The gun was swung around like lightning, but as our man yelled Tire!’ I heard the German commander do the same. The Jerries must have got their shell off one tenth of a second sooner than us.” The tank scored a direct hit. The jeep exploded and the gun crew were killed.

In the mounting confusion and the intense fire from all sides, it was now clear to Colonel Dobie that the opposition in front of him was heavier than anyone had expected. Nor did he believe it was still possible to occupy the high ground north of Arnhem. He was unable to raise Brigadier Lathbury by radio, and his casualties were mounting by the minute. Dobie decided to side-slip the battalion still farther south and attempt to join up with Frost going for the main Arnhem bridge.

The breakdown of communications and subsequent lack of direction was making it impossible for battalion commanders to know with any clarity what was happening now. In the unfamiliar countryside, with maps that often proved highly inaccurate, companies and platoons were frequently out of touch with one another. At a crossroads near the stretch of highway where men of Colonel Fitch’s 3rd Battalion had killed General Kussin, the British caught the full brunt of SS Major Krafft’s rocket-propelled mortars and machine guns. The marching columns broke as men scattered into the woods. The screeching mortars, exploding in air bursts above their heads, hurled deadly fragments in every direction.

Signalman Stanley Heyes remembers the intense enemy harassment vividly. He sprinted for some woods and dropped a spare radio transmitter; bending to recover it he was struck in the ankle. Heyes managed to crawl into the woods. As he sank down in the underbrush, he realized that the man alongside him was German. “He was young and as frightened as I was,” Heyes says, “but he used my field dressing on my ankle. A short time later we both were wounded again by the mortar fire and we just lay there waiting for someone to pick us up.” Heyes and the young German would remain together until well after dark, when British stretcher-bearers found and evacuated them.

Like the 1st Battalion, the 3rd too was pinned down. After two hours on the road, both battalions had covered a bare two and a half miles. Now, Colonel Fitch reached the same conclusion as Dobie on the upper road; he too would have to find an alternate route to the Arnhem bridge. Time was precious, and the bridge was still a good four miles away.

In the woods around Wolfheze SS Major Sepp Krafft was convinced he was surrounded. He estimated that the British outnumbered his understrength battalion by twenty to one. But, although he considered his defense “insane,” he could hardly believe the success of his blocking action. The rocket-propelled mortars had created havoc among the British, and his men now reported that paratroopers moving along the Utrecht-Arnhem road were halted in some places, and at others appeared to be abandoning the main road entirely. Krafft still believed that his was the only German unit in the area, and he had no illusions about stopping the British for long. He was running out of mortar ammunition and suffering heavy casualties, and one of his lieutenants had deserted. Still, Krafft was ebullient about “the courageous impetuosity of my young lads.” The ambitious Krafft, who would later write a fulsome self-serving report to Himmler on his Grenadier Training and Reserve Battalion’s actions, had no idea that his “young lads” were now being bolstered by the tanks, artillery and armored cars of Lieutenant Colonel Walter Harzer’s Hohenstaufen Division only a mile or two east of Krafft’s own headquarters.

Major Freddie Gough was totally baffled. Urquhart’s message summoning him back to Division had carried no hint of what the General had in mind. When he left the Leopard route of the 1st Battalion, Gough brought back with him four escort jeeps and troops of his reconnaissance unit. Now, at Division headquarters, Urquhart’s chief of staff, Colonel Charles Mackenzie, could not enlighten him either. The General, Mackenzie said, had gone off in search of Brigadier Lathbury, whose headquarters was following Colonel Frost’s battalion along the southern, Lion route. Taking his escort, Gough set out once more. Surely, someplace along the route, he would find either one officer or the other.

*Some accounts of the Arnhem battle claim that Gough’s unit could not operate because so many of his vehicles failed to arrive by glider. “The failure, if it can be called that,” Gough says, “was not due to a lack of jeeps, but to the fact that no one had warned us that the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions were in the area.”

*Kussin, on Model’s orders issued as the Field Marshal fled east that morning, had informed Hitler’s headquarters of the landings and of Model’s narrow escape. The Allied assault had caused Hitler hysterical concern. “If such a mess happens here,” he conjectured, “here I sit with my own Supreme Command—Goering, Himmler, Ribbentrop. Well, then, this is a most worthwhile catch. That’s obvious. I would not hesitate to risk two parachute divisions here if with one blow I could get my hands on the whole German command.”

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