Military history

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IT WAS GROWING DARK as Colonel Frost quickened the battalion’s pace toward the next objective, the pontoon crossing less than a mile west of the Arnhem bridge. Major Digby Tatham-Warter’s A Company, still in the lead, was again momentarily held up on the high ground at the western outskirts of Arnhem. Enemy armored cars and machine guns had forced the company off the road and into the back gardens of nearby houses. Coming up behind, Frost found ten Germans guarded by a lone A Company man and, as he was later to write, surmised that “Digby’s back-garden maneuver had been completely successful and that the company had rushed on again.” Frost returned to the battalion. In the dusk, bursts of fire sporadically swept the road but as the men moved along, they passed damaged vehicles and a number of dead and wounded Germans—clear evidence, Frost thought, of “Digby’s quite satisfactory progress.”

Moving rapidly through the streets of Arnhem, the battalion reached the pontoon bridge and halted, faced with their second setback. The center section of the bridge had been removed and it was useless. As Captain Mackay stood looking at the dismantled crossing, he decided that “it was typical of the whole cocked-up operation. My one thought was, ‘Now we’ve got to get that other bloody bridge.’ ” He stared off in the distance. Barely a mile away, the great concrete-and-steel span was silhouetted against the last light.

On the 3rd Battalion’s Tiger route, moving haltingly toward Arnhem, General Urquhart knew with certainty that he was stranded. In the growing darkness, with enemy forays constantly harassing the march, there was no possibility of his returning to Division headquarters. His mood was bleak. “I wished with every step that I knew what was going on elsewhere.” Just before nightfall, Urquhart learned that the 3rd’s leading companies had reached the outskirts of Oosterbeek “near someplace called the Hartenstein Hotel…. We were making little progress,” Urquhart was later to write, “and Lathbury, after a discussion with Fitch, the battalion commander, called a halt.”

In a large house set well back from the road, Urquhart and Lathbury prepared to spend the night. The owner of the house, a tall, middle-aged Dutchman, brushed aside the General’s apologies for inconveniencing him and his wife, and gave the two officers a downstairs front room overlooking the main road. Urquhart was restless and unable to relax. “I kept checking to see if any contact had been made with either Gough or Frost, but there was nothing from my headquarters or from anyone else.”

The great bridge loomed ahead. The concrete ramps alone were immense complexes unto themselves with roads running beneath them and along the river bank from west to east. On either side the rooftops of houses and factory buildings came up to the level of the ramps. In the twilight, the massive approaches and the high-arched girders spanning the Rhine looked awesome and intimidating. Here finally was the main objective—the pivot of Montgomery’s audacious plan—and to reach it Frost’s men had fought on the march for nearly seven hours.

Now, as lead elements of the 2nd Battalion neared the bridge, Lieutenant Robin Vlasto, in command of one of A Company’s platoons, was amazed by “its incredible great height.” Vlasto noted “pillboxes at each end, and even in the general air of desertion, they looked threatening.” In darkness A Company quietly took up positions beneath the huge supports at the northern end. From above them came the slow rumble of traffic.

Captain Eric Mackay of the Royal Engineers, approaching the bridge through a mosaic of streets, reached a small square leading to the ramp. He remembers that “the quietness as we went through the streets was oppressive, and all around us there seemed to be soft movement. Men were beginning to feel the strain, and I wanted to get that bridge as quickly as we could.” Suddenly the darkness was ripped by German fire from a side street. One of the engineers’ explosives trolleys went up in flames, and the men were clearly illuminated. Instantly, Mackay ordered his men with their equipment across the square. They dashed over, defying the German fire. Within a few minutes, without losing a man, they were at the bridge. Studying the terrain below the northern ramp, Mackay saw four houses on the east side. “One of them was a school and it was on the corner of a crossroads,” he remembers. “I thought that whoever held these houses held the bridge.” Mackay promptly ordered his engineers into the school.

Shortly after 8 P.M., Colonel Frost and the battalion headquarters arrived. Frost had sent Major Douglas Crawley’s B Company to the high ground above the nearby railway embankment with antitank guns to protect the battalion’s left flank, freeing A Company to dash for the bridge.* C Company, under Major Dover, was instructed to follow the forward elements into the city and seize the German commandant’s headquarters. Now, at the bridge, Frost was unable to raise either company by radio. Quickly he dispatched messengers to determine their whereabouts.

Deciding not to wait, Frost ordered A Company platoons onto the bridge. As the men began to move across, the Germans came to life. Troopers were raked with fire from the pillbox at the northern end and by a lone armored car on the southern end of the bridge itself. A platoon, aided by Eric Mackay’s sappers carrying flamethrowers, began to move through the top floors of houses whose roofs and attics were at eye level with the ramp. Simultaneously, Lieutenant Vlasto’s platoon worked its way through basements and cellars, going from house to house until it reached Mackay’s locations. In position, they attacked the pillbox. As the flamethrowers went into action, Frost recalls that “all hell seemed to be let loose. The sky lit up, and there was the noise of machine-gun fire, a succession of explosions, the crackling of burning ammunition and the thump of a cannon. A wooden building nearby was wreathed in flames, and there were screams of agony and fear.”* Now, too, Frost could hear the crash of Vlasto’s Piat* bombs smashing into the pillbox. Suddenly, the brief savage battle was over. The guns in the pillbox fell silent and through the fires, Frost saw German soldiers staggering toward his men. A Company had successfully cleared the north end of the bridge and it was theirs. But now, hampering fires and exploding ammunition made it suicidal to risk a second rush to grab the southern side. Only half an hour earlier, Frost could have succeeded.* But now, on the south bank, a group of SS Panzer Grenadiers had taken up positions.

Frost attempted to contact Major Crawley once more. He wanted to locate boats or barges in which Crawley’s company could cross the river and attack the Germans on the southern side. Again, radio communications were out. Worse, messengers could not even find the company; and, they reported, there were no boats to be seen. As for C Company, the patrol sent out to contact them were pinned down and heavily engaged near the German commandant’s headquarters.

Grimly Frost’s men looked across the Arnhem bridge. How strong were the Germans holding the southern end? Even now, A Company believed there was a chance of seizing the southern end by a surprise attack across the river, if only the men and boats could be found.

But that opportunity had passed. In one of the great ironies of the Arnhem battle, the Lower Rhine could have been crossed within the first hour of landing. Exactly seven miles west, at the village of Heveadorp—through which Frost’s battalion had marched en route to their objectives—a large cable ferry, capable of carrying automobiles and passengers, had operated back and forth all day on its normal passage across the Lower Rhine between Heveadorp on the north bank and Driel on the south. Frost knew nothing about the ferry. Nor was it ever listed as one of Urquhart’s objectives. In the meticulous planning of Market-Garden an important key to the taking of the Arnhem bridge—the ferry at Driel—had been totally overlooked.*

Major Freddie Gough had finally overtaken Lathbury’s brigade headquarters, following Frost’s battalion on the Lion route. Quickly he sought out Major Tony Hibbert, the second in command. “Where’s the General and the Brigadier?” Gough asked. Hibbert didn’t know. “They’re together someplace,” he told Gough, “but they’ve both gone off.” Gough was now totally confused. “I didn’t know what to do,” he recalls. “I tried to contact Division without success, so I just decided to keep on going after Frost.” Leaving Hibbert, Gough set out once more.

It was dark when Gough and his troopers drove into Arnhem and found Frost and his men holding positions near the northern end of the bridge. Immediately Gough asked where Urquhart was. Like Hibbert, Frost had no idea. He assumed Urquhart was back with Division. Once more Gough tried his radio. Now adding to his anxiety was the absence of any news of his own reconnaissance forces near Wolfheze. But again he could make no contact with anyone. Ordering his tired men to a building close by the bridge, Gough climbed to the roof just in time to see the whole southern end of the bridge “go up in flames” as Frost’s men made their first attempt to seize the far end. “I heard this tremendous explosion and the whole end of the bridge seemed to be on fire. I remember somebody saying ‘We’ve come all this way just to have the damn bridge burn down.’ ”Gough himself was momentarily alarmed. Then, through the smoke he saw that only the pillbox and some ammunition shacks were destroyed. Concerned and weary, Gough turned in for a few hours’ rest. He had traveled route after route all day in search of Urquhart. Now, at the bridge, at least one problem was solved. He was where he had set out to be and there he would stay.

There was little more that Lieutenant Colonel Frost could do this night, except to guard the northern end of the bridge from enemy attacks on the southern side. He still had no contact with his missing companies and now, in a house on a corner overlooking the bridge, Frost set up battalion headquarters. Lance Corporal Harold Back of the 2nd Battalion’s cipher section remembers that from the front window of the house, the headquarters personnel could look out on the ramp. “The side window of the room gave us a direct view of the bridge itself,” says Back. “Our signalers stuck their antennas through the roof and moved their sets constantly, but they couldn’t make contact with anybody.”

Shortly after, Brigade headquarters arrived and set up in the attic of a house near Frost’s. After conferring with his officers, Frost thought it was now obvious that the 1st and 3rd battalions had either been held up on the Tiger and Leopard routes or were fighting north of the bridge somewhere in Arnhem. Without communications, it was impossible to tell what had happened. But if the two battalions did not reach Arnhem during the hours of darkness, the Germans would have the precious time necessary to close the area between Frost’s men and the rest of the division. Additionally, Frost was worried that the great bridge might still be blown. In the opinion of the engineers, the heat from fires had already destroyed any fuses laid from the bridge to the town and all visible cables had already been cut by sappers. Still, no one knew exactly where other cables might be hidden. And, as Frost recalls, “the fires prevented even one man from being able to get on to the bridge to remove any charges that might still be there.”

But the northern end of the Arnhem bridge was in Frost’s hands and he and his courageous men had no intention of giving it up. Although he worried about his missing companies and the rest of the division, he did not show his concern. Visiting various sections now billeted in several houses near the ramp, he found his men “in great heart, as they had every reason to be.” As Private James Sims recalls, “We felt quite pleased with ourselves, with the Colonel making jokes and inquiring about our comfort.”

At battalion headquarters, Frost himself now settled down for the first time during the day. Sipping from a large mug of tea, he thought that, all in all, the situation was not too bad. “We had come eight miles through close, difficult country, to capture our objective within seven hours of landing in Holland … a very fine feat of arms indeed.” Although restless, Frost, like his men, was optimistic. He now had a force numbering about five hundred men of various units, and he had every faith that his own missing companies would reach him at the bridge. In any case, he would only have to hold, at most, for another forty-eight hours—until the tanks of General Horrocks’ XXX Corps arrived.

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*Frost recalls that “a map I had taken from a German prisoner … showed the routes of an enemy armored-car patrol unit and I realized that the German strength was to my left.”

*Several accounts state that the flamethrowers’ aim was diverted and instead of hitting the pillbox, the fiery liquid hit several huts containing explosives.

*A short-range, spring-loaded British antitank gun weighing 33 pounds and capable of firing a projectile that could penetrate four inches of tempered armor plate.

*According to Dutch Police Sergeant Johannes van Kuijk the bridge was deserted and without guards when he came on duty at 7:30 that evening. Earlier, according to Van Kuijk, when the airborne landings began, the bridge garrison of twenty-five World War I veterans deserted their post.

*In the official orders issued to Urquhart, no reference to the Driel ferry as an objective seems to exist. R.A.F. reconnaissance photographs, used at briefings, show it clearly and one must assume that at some stage of the planning it was discussed. However, General Urquhart, when I interviewed him on the subject, told me “I can’t recall that the ferry ever came up.” When Urquhart finally learned of the ferry’s existence, it was too late to be of any use. Says Urquhart, “By that time I did not have enough men to put across the river.” In oral orders, however, the engineers were warned that “the seizure of all ferries, barges and tugs becomes of paramount importance to assist the subsequent advance of XXX Corps.” Obviously, however, in the last-minute stages of the planning these orders apparently carried lower priority, for they were never formally issued. “No one told us about the ferry at Driel,” Colonel Frost told the author, “and it could have made all the difference.”

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