Military history


ON THE BRITISH LANDING and drop zones, the officer with perhaps the least glamorous job of all was going about it with his usual capability. All through the night the men of Brigadier Philip “Pip” Hicks’s 1st Airlanding Brigade had staved off a series of vicious enemy attacks, as the motley groups under Von Tettau’s command harassed the brigade. Hicks’s men were dug in around the perimeters to hold the zones for the expected 10 A.M. drop of Brigadier Shan Hackett’s 4th Parachute Brigade, and the resupply missions that would follow. The zones under Hicks’s protection were also the supply dumps for the British airborne.

Neither Hicks nor his men had managed more than an hour or two of sleep. The Germans, attacking from the woods, had set the forest on fire in some areas in the hope of burning out the British defenders. The Red Devils promptly responded. Slipping behind the enemy, they charged with fixed bayonets and forced the Germans into their own fire. Signalman Graham Marples remembers the bitter nighttime battles vividly. He and a few others came upon a platoon of dead British troopers who had been overrun and completely wiped out. “No one said anything,” Marples remembers. “We just fixed bayonets and went right on into the woods. We came out, but the Jerries didn’t.” Private Robert Edwards, who had seen action in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, recalls that “I had managed to come through all those actions more or less unscathed, but in one day in Holland I had been in more fire fights than all else put together.”

The unending skirmishes had taken their toll. Several times during the night Hicks had called upon Lieutenant Colonel W. F. K. “Sheriff” Thompson for artillery support to force back the persistent enemy attacks. His real fear was that German armor, which he now knew was holding up the battalions going for the bridge, would break through his meager defenses and drive him off the landing and drop zones. “I went through some of the worst few hours I have ever spent in my life,” Hicks recalls. “Two things were clear: although we did not know it at the time we had landed virtually on top of two panzer divisions—which weren’t supposed to be there—and the Germans had reacted with extraordinary speed.” Under attack from Von Tettau’s groups from the west and Harzer’s armor from the east, Hicks’s lightly armed paratroopers had no option but to hold until relieved, or until reinforcements and supplies were safely down.

Colonel Charles Mackenzie, General Urquhart’s chief of staff, had spent the night on the Renkum Heath landing zone, about three miles away from Hicks’s command post. The intense fighting had caused Division to move out of the woods and back onto the field. There the headquarters staff took shelter in gliders for the rest of the night. Mackenzie was concerned about the absence of any word from Urquhart. “For more than nine hours, we had heard nothing whatsoever from the General,” he recalls. “I assumed that he was with Lathbury’s 1st Brigade, but communications were out and we had heard nothing from either officer. I knew that a decision would soon have to be made about the command of the division. There always existed the possibility that Urquhart had been captured or killed.”

Early Monday, still without news, Mackenzie decided to confer with two senior staff officers, Lieutenant Colonel R. G. Loder-Symonds and Lieutenant Colonel P. H. Preston. Mackenzie informed them of Urquhart’s conversation with him prior to takeoff in England: the succession of command, in case anything happened to Urquhart, should be Lathbury, Hicks, then Hackett. Now, with Lathbury missing as well, Mackenzie felt that Brigadier Hicks should be contacted. The other officers agreed. Immediately they drove to Hicks’s headquarters. There, in a house close by the Heelsum-Arnhem road, Mackenzie told Hicks what he knew. “We had a scanty report that Frost had taken the bridge, but that the First and Third battalions were caught up in street fighting and had not as yet been able to reinforce him,” Mackenzie remembers.

The best course of action now, Mackenzie believed, was for Hicks to release one of his Airlanding battalions and send it to the bridge. It could be reinforced later by elements of Hackett’s 4th Paratroop Brigade when it arrived later in the morning. At the same time, Hicks was asked to take command of the division immediately.

Hicks seemed stunned. His forces were already understrength and he did not have a full battalion to send to the bridge. Yet it appeared the British battle plan was faltering. If Frost failed to get help immediately, the bridge might be lost; and if the landing areas were overrun, Hackett’s 4th Brigade could be destroyed before it was even assembled.

Additionally, there seemed to be a tacit acknowledgment that Hicks was being asked to assume command of a division already in the process of disintegration through a total breakdown of communications and the absence of the commanding officer. Reluctantly, Hicks released half of one battalion—all he could spare—for defense of the bridge.* Obviously, that decision was most urgent. The bridge had to be held. Then, as Mackenzie remembers, “We finally convinced Hicks that he must take command of the division.”

Few men had ever been asked to accept battleground responsibility for an entire division under such a complexity of circumstances. Hicks quickly discovered how critically the communications breakdown was affecting all operations. The few messages from Frost at the bridge were being received via Lieutenant Colonel Sheriff Thompson, commanding the Airlanding Light Regiment artillery. From an observation post in the steeple of the Oosterbeek Laag church, two and one-half miles from the bridge, Thompson had established a radio link with Major D. S. Mun-ford’s artillery command post at Brigade headquarters in a waterworks building near the bridge. The Thompson-Munford link afforded the only dependable radio communications at Hicks’s disposal.

Equally critical, Division had no communications with General Browning’s Corps headquarters near Nijmegen, or with the special “Phantom Net” sets at Montgomery’s headquarters. Of the few vital messages that did reach England, most were sent over a BBC set, which had been specially flown in for British war correspondents. Its signal was weak and distorted. A high-powered German station and the British set were operating on the same frequency. Ironically, Division could pick up signals from rear Corps headquarters back in England, but were unable to transmit messages back. What sparse communications did get through via the BBC set were picked up at Browning’s rear Corps headquarters at Moor Park and then relayed to the Continent. The transmission took hours and when the messages arrived they were outdated and often virtually meaningless.

Frustrated and worried, Hicks had three immediate concerns: the weather over England; the inability to confirm the planned arrival time of the second lift; and his lack of a means of informing anyone of the true situation in the Arnhem area. Additionally he could not warn Hackett of the perilous hold the British had on the landing areas where the 4th Brigade would expect to drop in cleared and protected zones.

Less crucial, but nonetheless troublesome, was the forthcoming encounter with Brigadier Shan Hackett. The volatile Hackett, Mackenzie told Hicks, would be informed of Urquhart’s decision regarding the chain of command the moment he landed. “I knew Hackett’s temperament,” Mackenzie recalls, “and I was not looking forward to the meeting. But telling him was my job and I was following General Urquhart’s orders. I could no longer take the chance that something had not happened to both the General and Lathbury.”

At least Hicks was relieved of that delicate confrontation. The new division commander had enough on his mind. “The situation was more than just confusing,” he remembers. “It was a bloody mess.”

*He ordered half of the South Staffords to start off for Arnhem. The other half of this battalion would not arrive until the second lift, when, supplementing the advance of Hackett’s 11th Battalion, these units would also move out.

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