Military history

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GENERAL URQUHART’S JEEP sped down the Utrecht-Arnhem highway and turned south off the main artery onto a side road that led him to Frost’s Lion route. Within a few minutes he caught up with the rear elements of the 2nd Battalion. They were moving single file, along both sides of the road. Urquhart could hear firing in the distance, but it seemed to him “there was a lack of urgency. Everyone appeared to be moving slowly.” Driving swiftly along the cobbled road, Urquhart reached Frost’s headquarters company only to discover that Frost was up with the leading units, which had run into German opposition. “I tried to impart a sense of urgency that I hoped would be conveyed to Frost,” Urquhart writes, “and told them about the ill-fortune of the Recco Squadron.” Learning that Lathbury had gone up to the middle road to see how the 3rd Battalion was doing, Urquhart retraced his route. Once again, he and Gough would miss each other by minutes.

Reaching the rear elements of the 3rd Battalion on the Tiger route, the General was told that Lathbury had gone forward. He followed. At a crossroads on the Utrecht-Arnhem road, Urquhart found the Brigadier. The area was under devastating mortar fire. “Some of these bombs were falling with unsettling accuracy on the crossroads and in the woodland where many of the Third Battalion were under cover,” Urquhart was later to write. “This was the first real evidence to come my way of the speed and determination of the German reaction.”*

Taking cover in a slit trench, Urquhart and Lathbury discussed the situation. Both officers were worried about the slow progress of the brigade, and now the critical lack of communications was paralyzing their own efforts to command. Lathbury was completely out of touch with the 1st Battalion and had only intermittent communication with Frost. It was apparent that both were able to direct operations only in the area where they physically happened to be. For the moment, Lathbury’s concern was to get the 3rd Battalion off the crossroads, out of the surrounding woods and on the move again. Urquhart decided to try to contact Division headquarters on his jeep’s radio. As he neared the vehicle, he saw it had been struck by a mortar and his signalman was badly wounded. Although the radio set seemed undamaged, Urquhart could not raise Division. “I cursed the appalling communications,” Urquhart later wrote. “Lathbury dissuaded me from attempting to go back to my own headquarters. The enemy was now thick between us and the landing zones … I decided he was right … and I stayed. But it was at this point that I realized I was losing control of the situation.”

The men of the 1st and 3rd battalions were engaging in constant, bitter skirmishes. Hardened and desperate Waffen SS troopers, inferior in numbers but bolstered by half-tracks, artillery and tanks, were reducing the British advance on the two upper roads to a crawl. In the confusion, men were separated from their officers and from one another as companies scattered into the woods or fought along side roads and in the back gardens of houses. The Red Devils had recovered from the initial surprise of the German armored strength and, though taking heavy casualties, individually and in small groups they were striking back tenaciously. Still, there was little chance that the 1st and 3rd battalions could reach their Arnhem objectives as planned. Now everything depended upon Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Battalion, moving steadily along the lower Rhine road, the secondary route that the Germans had largely dismissed.

Although Frost’s battalion had been held up briefly several times by enemy fire, he had refused to allow his men to scatter or deploy. His spearheading A Company, commanded by Major Digby Tatham-Warter, pressed forward, leaving stragglers to join the companies coming up behind. From prisoners taken by the advance parties, Frost learned that an SS company was believed to be covering the western approaches of Arnhem. Using some captured transport as well as their own jeeps to scout ahead and to the sides, the battalion moved steadily on. A little after 6 P.M., the first of Frost’s objectives, the railway bridge over the Lower Rhine slightly southeast of Oosterbeek, came into view. According to plan, Major Victor Dover’s C Company peeled off and headed for the river. The bridge looked empty and undefended as they approached. Lieutenant Peter Barry, twenty-one, was ordered to take his platoon across. “It was quiet when we started out,” Barry recalls. “As we ran across the fields I noticed that there were dead cattle everywhere.” Barry’s platoon was within 300 yards of the bridge when he saw “a German run onto the bridge from the other side. He reached the middle, knelt down, and started doing something. Immediately, I told one section to open fire and a second section to rush the bridge. By this time, the German had disappeared.”

Barry recalls that they “got onto the bridge and began racing across at full speed. Suddenly, there was a tremendous explosion and the bridge went up in our faces.” Captain Eric Mackay of the Royal Engineers felt the ground shake under the impact. “A yellow-orange flame punched up and then black smoke rose over the bridge. I think the second span from the south bank was blown,” Mackay says. On the bridge, under cover of smoke bombs, Lieutenant Barry ordered his men off the wreckage and back to the northern bank. As the platoon began to move, Germans hidden across the river opened fire. Barry was hit in the leg and arm and two other men were wounded. Watching the troopers return through the smoke and fire, Mackay, who had been uneasy about the operation from the beginning, remembers thinking, “Well, there goes number one.” Colonel Frost was more philosophical. “I knew one of the three bridges was gone, but it was the least important. I didn’t realize then what a disadvantage it would be.” It was now 6:30 P.M. and there were two more bridges to go.

*Major General R. E. Urquhart, C.B., D.S.O. (with Wilfred Greatorex), Arnhem, p. 40.

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