THE PROSPEROUS VILLAGE OF OOSTERBEEK seemed infused with a strange mixture of gaiety and uneasiness. Like an island in the middle of the battle, the village was assaulted by the noise of fighting on three sides. From the drop zones to the west came the nearly constant thunder of guns. To the northwest the chattering of machine guns and the steady cough of mortars could be clearly heard in the flower-lined streets, and to the east, two and a half miles away in Arnhem, black smoke hung over the horizon, a somber backdrop to the unceasing timpani of heavy artillery.
The bombing and strafing preceding the troop and glider landings on the previous day had produced casualties among the villagers and some damage to shops and houses, as had infiltrating snipers and ill-directed mortar bursts, but the war had not so far made serious inroads into Oosterbeek. The neat resort hotels, landscaped villas and tree-lined streets were still largely untouched. Yet it was becoming obvious with every hour that the fighting was coming closer. Here and there, concussion from distant explosions splintered panes of glass with startling suddenness. Charred particles of paper, cloth and wood, carried like confetti by the wind, rained down into the streets, and the air was acrid with the smell of cordite.
On Sunday Oosterbeek had been filled with troops as the British arrived almost on the heels of a frantic German departure. No one had slept during the night. A nervous excitement, heightened by the low whine of jeeps, the clatter of Bren gun carriers and the tramp of marching men, made rest impossible. Throughout most of the eighteenth the movement had continued. The villagers, joyous and yet apprehensive, had decked the streets and houses with Dutch flags and plied their liberators with food, fruit and drink as the British Tommies hurried through. To almost everyone the war seemed all but over. Now, subtly, the atmosphere was changing. Some British units were apparently firmly established in the village, and Lieutenant Colonel Sheriff Thompson’s artillery spotters occupied the tower of the tenth-century Dutch Reformed church near the Rhine in lower Oosterbeek, but troop movement had noticeably slowed. By late afternoon most thoroughfares were disquietingly empty, and the Dutch noted that antitank and Bren gun positions were now sited at strategic points on the main road. Seeing them, villagers had a sense of foreboding.
As he walked through Oosterbeek trying to discover exactly what was happening, Jan Voskuil recalls seeing a British officer ordering civilians to take in their flags. “This is war,” he heard the officer tell one villager, “and you are in the middle of it.” Throughout his walk, Voskuil noted that the mood of the people was changing. From Jaap Koning, a local baker, Voskuil learned that many Dutch were pessimistic. There were rumors, Koning said, that “things are not going well.” Apprehension was replacing the heady sense of liberation. “The British,” Koning said, “are being pushed back everywhere.” Voskuil was profoundly concerned. Koning was always well informed, and although his was the first bad news Voskuil had heard, it confirmed his own fears. As each hour passed, Voskuil thought that the canopy of shells screaming over the town toward Arnhem was growing heavier. Remembering anew the terrible destruction of the Normandy villages, Voskuil could not rid himself of an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.
A second tradesman, baker Dirk van Beek, was as depressed as Koning and Voskuil. The news he had heard on his delivery rounds had dampened his first excited reaction to the Allied drop. “What if the war comes here—what will we do?” he asked his wife, Riek. But he already knew the answer: he would remain in Oosterbeek and keep on baking. “People have to eat,” he told Riek. “Anyway, where would we go if we left the shop?” Absorbing himself in work, Van Beek tried to reassure himself that everything would work out for the best. He had received his monthly allotment of wheat and yeast a few days earlier. Now, determined to stay and to keep his shop open, he remembered that an old baker had once told him of a method of making bread that required less than half the usual amount of yeast. He decided to stretch his supplies to the limit. He would continue to bake until everything was gone.
At the Tafelberg, Schoonoord and Vreewijk Hotels it was obvious that the battle had taken a serious turn: the airy, comfortable resorts were being turned into casualty stations. At the Schoonoord British medics and Dutch civilians began a full-scale house cleaning to make ready to receive the wounded. Jan Eijkelhoflf, of the underground, saw that the Germans, in their hasty departure, had left the hotel “looking like a pig pen. Food was all over the place. Tables had been overturned, plates broken, clothing and equipment were scattered around. Papers and rubbish littered every room.” From surrounding houses extra mattresses were brought in and placed on the ground floor. Rows of beds were set up in the main reception rooms and stretchers were placed along the glassed-in veranda. Every room, including the cellars, would be needed by nightfall, the Dutch were told. Eijkelhoff learned that St. Elisabeth’s Hospital in Arnhem was already filled to capacity. Yet the British medics with whom he worked remained optimistic. “Don’t worry,” one of them told him, “Monty will be here soon.”
At the Tafelberg Hotel, where Dr. Gerrit van Maanen was setting up a hospital, seventeen-year-old Anje van Maanen, who had come to help her father, noted the startling change in other volunteers. “We are afraid,” she wrote in her diary, “but we don’t know why. We have a queer feeling that weeks have passed between yesterday and today.” As at the Schoonoord, there were rumors at the Tafelberg that Montgomery’s forces were on the way. On the lookout for their quick arrival, Anje wrote, “We stare constantly out of the upstairs windows. The shooting is stronger. There are lights and fires, but the great army is not here yet.”
A few blocks away, the ornate twelve-room Hartenstein Hotel, sited amid its parklike surroundings, wore a gaunt, deserted look. In Daliesque disarray, tables and chairs were scattered across the fine green lawn and among them, the result of a sharp fire fight the day before, lay the crumpled bodies of several Germans.
As he cycled up to the building, twenty-seven-year-old William Giebing was sickened by the appearance of the once elegant hotel. A few months after he took possession of the building, leasing it from the town of Oosterbeek in 1942, the Germans had moved into the village and requisitioned the hotel. From that time on, Giebing and his wife, Truus, were relegated to the position of servants. The Germans allowed them to clean the Hartenstein and to oversee the cuisine, but the management of the hotel was in German hands. Finally, on September 6, Giebing was summarily ordered to leave, but his wife and two maids were allowed to return each day to keep the place clean.
On the seventeenth, “crazy with joy at the landings,” Giebing jumped on a bicycle and set out for the Hartenstein from Wester-bouwing, where his father-in-law, Johan van Kalkschoten, operated the hilltop restaurant overlooking the Heveadorp-Driel ferry. He was just in time to see the last of the Germans departing. Running into the building, he felt for the first time that “the hotel was finally mine.” But the air of desertion was unnerving. In the dining room two long tables covered with white damask tablecloths were set for twenty. There were soup bowls, silver, napkins and wine glasses and, in the center of each table, a large tureen of vermicelli soup. Touching it, Giebing found it still warm. In silver servers on the sideboard was the main course: fried sole.
Giebing wandered from room to room looking at the rich, gold-covered damask walls, the ornate plaster angels and garlands, the bridal suite where gold stars speckled the sky-blue ceiling. The Germans, he was relieved to find, had not looted the hotel. Not aspoon was missing and the refrigerators were still full of food. Making the rounds, Giebing heard voices coming from the veranda. Rushing out he found several British soldiers drinking his sherry. Eight empty bottles lay on the floor. Unaccountably, after all the days of occupation, Giebing lost his temper. The Germans had, at least, left his beloved hotel clean. “So this is the first thing you do,” he yelled at the troopers. “Break open my cellar and steal my sherry.” The British were embarrassed and apologetic, and Giebing was mollified, but once again he was told he could not remain. However, the British assured him that his property would be respected.
Now, a day later, hoping that the British had passed through and left his hotel, Giebing returned. His heart sank as he approached the building. Jeeps were parked in the rear of the building and, behind the wire netting of the tennis courts, he saw German prisoners. Slit trenches and gun positions had been dug in around the perimeter of the grounds and staff officers seemed to be everywhere. Disheartened, Giebing returned to Wester-bouwing. In the afternoon his wife visited the Hartenstein and explained who she was. “I was treated very politely,” she recalls, “but we were not permitted to move back. The British, like the Germans, had requisitioned the hotel.” There was one consolation, she thought: the war would soon be over and then the Giebings could truly operate what they considered the best hotel in Oosterbeek. The courteous English officers with whom she talked did not inform her that the Hartenstein, as of 5 P.M. on September 18, was now the headquarters of the 1st British Airborne Division.
In the strange mixture of anxiety and joy that permeated Oosterbeek, one incident terrified many of the inhabitants more than the thought of the encroaching battle. During the day prisoners had been released from the Arnhem jail. Many were resistance fighters, but others were dangerous convicts. In their striped prison garb, they flooded out of Arnhem, and more than fifty ended up in Oosterbeek. “They added a final touch of madness,” recalls Jan ter Horst, a former Dutch army artillery captain, a lawyer and a leading member of the Oosterbeek resistance. “We rounded the convicts up and put them temporarily in the concert hall. But the question was, what to do with them? They seemed harmless enough at the moment, but many of these felons had been imprisoned for years. We feared the worst—especially for our women folk—when they finally realized that they were free.”
Talking with the convicts Ter Horst found that they wanted only to get out of the immediate combat zone. The sole route across the Rhine was by the Heveadorp-Driel ferry. Pieter, the ferryman, flatly refused to cooperate. He did not want fifty convicts running loose on the southern bank. Further, the ferry was now moored on the north side and Pieter wanted it to remain there. After several hours of testy negotiations, Ter Horst was finally able to get Pieter to take the prisoners across. “We were glad to see them go,” he remembers. “The women were more scared of the convicts than they had been of the Germans.” Prudently Ter Horst insisted that the ferry be returned to the northern bank, where it could be used by the British.
As a former army officer, Ter Horst was puzzled as to why the Heveadorp-Driel ferry had not been immediately seized by the British. When the troopers entered Oosterbeek he had questioned them about the ferry. To his amazement, he discovered they knew nothing about it. A former artilleryman, he was astounded that the British had not occupied nearby Westerbouwing, the only high ground overlooking the Rhine. Whoever held these heights with artillery controlled the ferry. Further, the choice of the Hartenstein as British headquarters disturbed him. Surely, he thought, the restaurant and its buildings on the heights at Westerbouwing were a far preferable site. “Hold the ferry and Westerbouwing,” he urged several British staff officers. They were polite, but uninterested. One officer told Ter Horst, “We don’t intend to stay here. With the bridge in our hands and the arrival of Horrocks’ tanks, we don’t need the ferry.” Ter Horst hoped the man was right. If the Germans reached Westerbouwing, less than two miles away, their guns not only could command the ferry but could totally demolish British headquarters at the Hartenstein. The British now knew about the ferry and they had been briefed about Westerbouwing. There was little else Ter Horst could do. The former Dutch officer had, in fact, pointed out one of the most crucial oversights in the entire operation—the failure of the British to realize the strategic importance of the ferry and the Westerbouwing heights. Had General Urquhart stayed at his headquarters and in control of the battle the situation might have been rectified in time.*
Brigadier Hicks, commanding the division in Urquhart’s absence, was facing almost hourly the bewildering problem of orienting himself to the complex, constantly shifting moves of the hard-pressed airborne unit. With the breakdown of radio communications between headquarters and the battalions, there was little precise information about what was happening, nor could Hicks gauge the strength and potential of the enemy forces opposing him. What scant news reached him was brought by spent, dirt-streaked messengers, who risked their lives to bring him information, which was often hopelessly out of date by the time they arrived at headquarters, or by the various members of the Dutch underground, whose reports were often disregarded or viewed as suspect. Hicks found himself depending strongly on one slender channel of communication—the tenuous Thompson-to-Munford artillery radio link existing between Oosterbeek and Frost’s forces at the bridge.
Mauled and battered, the 2nd Battalion and the valiant stragglers who had reached it were still holding, but Frost’s situation had been desperate for hours and was deteriorating rapidly. “We were getting constant messages from the bridge asking for relief and ammunition,” Hicks recalled. “Enemy pressure and the steadily increasing strength of German armor was building everywhere, and there was absolutely no contact with Urquhart, Lath-bury, Dobie or Fitch. We could not raise Browning at Corps headquarters to explain the gravity of the situation, and we were desperate for help.” From prisoner interrogations Hicks now knew that the troopers were up against battle-hardened SS men of the 9th Hohenstaufen and 10th Frundsberg divisions. No one had been able to tell him how strong these units were or to estimate the number of tanks that were being thrown against him. Worse, Hicks did not know whether the original preattack plan could withstand the present German pressure. If the enemy was heavily reinforced the entire mission might founder.
Help, he knew, was coming. On the nineteenth, Major General Stanislaw Sosabowski’s Polish Brigade would arrive in the third lift. Horrocks’ tanks should also be arriving and were, indeed, already late. How close were they to Arnhem and could they arrive in time to relieve and balance the situation? “In spite of everything,” Hicks recalls, “I believed Frost would hold the northern end of the bridge until Monty’s tanks got to it. The bridge was still our objective, after all, and my decisions and actions were centered solely on seizing and holding that objective.” Balancing all the factors, Hicks felt he must stick to the original plan, and so did Brigadier Hackett at this time.
The original task of Hackett’s 4th Parachute Brigade was to occupy the high ground north of Arnhem to prevent German reinforcements from reaching the bridge. But at the time that plan was conceived it was thought that enemy strength would prove negligible and, at worst, manageable. In fact, enemy reaction had been so fast, concentrated and effective that Hicks could not assess the true situation. Bittrich’s corps held the north of Arnhem; his troops had bottled up Frost at the bridge and successfully prevented Dobie and Fitch’s battalions from relieving them. The advance of these two units was now virtually sheared off. In the built-up areas around St. Elisabeth’s Hospital barely a mile or so from the bridge, the battalions were stopped in their tracks. The South Staffordshires, already en route to help, and the 11th Battalion from Hackett’s brigade were faring no better. “We now came to the wide-open, exposed riverside stretch of road in front of St. Elisabeth’s Hospital, and then everything suddenly let loose,” remembers Private Robert C. Edwards of the South Staffordshires. “We must have looked like targets in a shooting gallery. All Jerry had to do was line up his guns and mortars on this one gap—about a quarter of a mile wide—and fire. He couldn’t miss.” Edwards saw Captain Edward Weiss, second in command of his company, running tirelessly up and down the column “totally ignoring all the metal flying about him, his voice growing ever hoarser as he yelled out ‘On, on, on, D Company, on.’”
Weiss seemed to be everywhere. Men were falling all around. If troopers halted or hesitated, Weiss was “immediately beside them urging them on. You just couldn’t crawl and watch him stand upright. You had to follow his lead through that hell of fire.” Edwards threw some smoke bombs to try to hide their advance and “then put my head down and ran like a hare.” He stumbled over “heaps of dead, slithered in pools of blood, until I reached the partial shelter afforded by houses and buildings on the far side of the road.” There he discovered that Captain Weiss had been hit as he ran across. “Major Phillips had been badly wounded. No one seemed to have much idea of what was going on or what we should do next.” As for D Company, when a count was made, “only 20 percent remained, and quite obviously we couldn’t continue against such overwhelming German strength. Hopefully we waited for the dawn.”
It was as if a solid wall had been built between the division and Frost’s pitiful few at the bridge.
In exchange for his 11th Battalion, Hackett had been given the 7th Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB’s). They had guarded the drop zones since landing on the seventeenth. Now they moved out with Hackett’s 10th and 156th battalions via Wolfheze northwest of Oosterbeek. In that area the KOSB’s would guard Johannahoeve Farm, a landing zone where transport and artillery of the Polish Brigade were due to arrive by glider in the third lift.
After the initial fighting on the zones, Hackett’s brigade moved off without incident, and by nightfall the KOSB’s had taken up positions around Johannahoeve Farm. There, suddenly, the battalions ran into heavy German opposition from strongly held machine-gun positions. A pitched battle began. In the growing darkness, commands went out to hold positions and then attempt to rout the enemy at dawn. It was vitally important to secure the area. Sosabowski’s paratroopers were scheduled to land on the nineteenth on the southern side of the Arnhem bridge, in the polder land that Urquhart and the R.A.F. had deemed unsuitable—because of antiaircraft considerations—for the large-scale initial landings. By the time the Poles were to arrive, it had been expected that the bridge would be in British hands. If it was not, the Poles had been assigned to take it. At Browning’s rear Corps headquarters in England, where no one was aware of the compounding setbacks developing at Arnhem, the Polish drop was still scheduled to take place as planned. If Frost could hold out and the Polish drop was successful, there was still a chance even now that Market-Garden could succeed.
Everywhere men were still struggling toward the bridge. On the lower road that Frost had taken on what now seemed to many a long-ago day, Private Andrew Milbourne and a small group of stragglers from other battalions passed stealthily near the ruins of the railway bridge that Frost’s men had tried to capture on their march to the prime objective. In fields to his left, Milbourne saw white mounds gleaming in the darkness. “They were dozens of dead bodies, and the Dutch were moving quietly around the area, covering our comrades with white sheets,” he recalls. Up ahead, fires reddened the sky and an occasional flash of guns outlined the great bridge. All afternoon the little band had been held up by superior German forces. Now, once more, they were pinned down. As they took refuge in a boathouse on the edge of the river, Milbourne began to despair of ever reaching the bridge. A lone signalman in the group began to work his radio set and, as the men gathered around, he suddenly picked up the BBC from London. Milbourne listened as the clear, precise voice of the announcer recounted the day’s happenings on the western front. “British troops in Holland,” he reported, “are meeting only slight opposition.” In the gloomy boathouse someone laughed derisively. “Bloody liar,” Milbourne said.
Now, as the courageous men of the 1st British Airborne Division fought for their very existence, two of His Majesty’s brigadiers chose to have a heated argument over which of them should command the division. The dispute was triggered by a smolderingly angry Brigadier Shan Hackett who, by evening of the eighteenth, saw the situation as not only disquieting but “grossly untidy.” The enemy seemed to have the upper hand everywhere. British battalions were scattered and fighting uncohesively, without knowledge of one another’s whereabouts. Lacking communications, pinned down in built-up areas, many units came upon one another quite by chance. It appeared to Hackett that there was no over-all command or coordination of effort. Late in the evening, still smarting over the startling announcement by Mackenzie concerning the command of the division, the temperamental Hackett drove to the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek to have it out with Hicks. “He arrived about midnight,” Hicks recalls. “I was in the operations room, and from the very beginning it was perfectly clear that, as he was senior in grade to me, he was less than happy that I had been given command. He was young, with firm ideas and rather argumentative.”
Initially, Hackett’s displeasure focused on the fact that Hicks had detached the nth Battalion from him. He demanded to know what orders it had been given and who was in command of the sector. “He thought,” recalls Hicks, “that the situation was too fluid, and obviously disagreed with the decisions I had made.” Patiently the older Hicks explained that because of strong German resistance, the present battle situation had been totally unforeseen. Each battalion, therefore, was now fighting individually to reach the bridge and, although instructed to follow specific routes, battalions had been warned that due to the unusual conditions some overlapping might occur. Two or more units might well find themselves forced into the same vicinity. Hackett brusquely commented that “the command setup was clearly unsatisfactory.”
Hicks agreed, but the object, he told Hackett, “was to help Frost at the bridge in whatever way we can and as fast as possible.” While agreeing that Frost had to be reinforced quickly, Hackett sarcastically suggested that this might be done in a “more coordinated manner with more drive and cohesion.” There was much to be said for Hackett’s argument: a coordinated drive might indeed succeed in breaking through the German ring and reaching Frost; but, lacking communications and kept off balance by constant German attacks, Hicks had had little time to organize such an all-out attack.
The two men then turned to the role that Hackett’s brigade would play the next day. In Hicks’s view, Hackett should not attempt to occupy the high ground north of Arnhem. “I felt he could aid Frost better by driving into Arnhem and helping to hold the northern end of the bridge.” Hackett objected strongly. He wanted a definite objective, and he appeared to know what it should be. He would take the high ground east of Johannahoeve first, he announced, and then “see what I can do to assist the operations in Arnhem.” In the quiet, understated but bitter verbal fencing, Hackett insisted that he be given a time schedule so that he could relate “my actions to everyone else.” He wanted “a sensible plan.” Otherwise, Hackett said, he would be compelled “to raise the question of command of the division.”
Lieutenant Colonel P. H. Preston, the headquarters administrative officer, was present at what Hicks has since tactfully called “our discussion.” Preston remembers that Hicks, “his face tightly drawn,” turned to him and said, “Brigadier Hackett thinks he ought to be in command of the division.” Hackett protested the choice of words. Preston, sensing that the conversation was becoming overly tense, immediately left the room and sent the duty officer, Gordon Grieve, in search of the chief of staff, Colonel Mackenzie.
In a room upstairs Mackenzie was resting, unable to sleep. “I had been there about half an hour when Gordon Grieve came in. He told me that I should come downstairs immediately, that the two Brigadiers, Hicks and Hackett, ‘were having a flaming row.’ I was already dressed. On the way down I tried to think quickly. I knew what the row was about and that it might be necessary for me to take decisive action. I had no intention of going into the operations room and exchanging pleasantries. I felt at this point that General Urquhart’s orders were being questioned and I intended to back Hicks in everything.”
As Mackenzie entered the room the conversation between the two brigadiers abruptly ceased. “Both men had begun to compose themselves,” recalls Mackenzie, “and it was immediately clear that the worst was over.” Hicks, glancing up at Mackenzie, was almost casual. “Oh, hello, Charles,” Mackenzie remembers him saying, “Brigadier Hackett and I have had a bit of a row, but it is all right now.” Hicks was certain that “things had settled back to normal. I was rather firm with Hackett and when he left I knew he would follow my orders.” However much he may have appeared to accept Hicks’s new role, Hackett’s view was largely unchanged. “I intended to take orders from Pip if they made sense,” he remembers. “What I was told to do was far from that. Therefore, I was inclined to assert my position as senior brigadier of the two and issue the sort of orders for my brigade’s operation which did make sense.”*
Under any other circumstances, the confrontation between the brigadiers would have been merely an historical footnote. Two courageous, dedicated men, under intense strain and with identical aims, lost their tempers for a moment. In the balance sheet of Market-Garden when the plan was in such jeopardy and every soldier was needed if a coordinated effort to seize the Arnhem bridge was to succeed, cooperation among commanders and cohesion in the ranks were vital. Particularly so, since the fate of the First Allied Airborne Army had taken yet another turn: throughout the Market-Garden area, Field Marshal Von Rundstedt’s promised reinforcements were arriving from all over the western front in a steady, unceasing flow.
Nicolaas de Bode, the highly skilled technician who had made the first secret telephone connection for the underground between north and south Holland, had remained in his room all day. On instructions from the regional resistance chief Pieter Kruyff, De Bode sat by a small side window which looked out on the Vel-per Weg, the wide street leading from the eastern side of Arnhem to Zutphen in the north. Although he had not strayed from his post, calls had reached him from outlying areas to the west and had deeply disturbed him. In the Wolfheze and Oosterbeek areas, underground members reported trouble. The excited talk of liberation had stopped. For some hours now, all he had heard was that the situation was worsening. De Bode was asked to keep a constant watch for any sign of heavy German movement from the north and east. So far he had seen nothing. His messages, phoned to underground headquarters hourly, contained the same terse information. “The road is empty,” he had reported again and again.
In the late evening, some twenty minutes before his next call, he heard “the sound of armored cars running on rubber tires and the clanking of armor.” Wearily he walked to the window, and gazed up the Velper Weg. The road seemed empty as before. Then in the distance, visible in the fiery glow that hung over the city, he saw two massive tanks coming into view. Moving side by side along the wide street, they were heading straight down the road leading into the old part of the city. As De Bode watched wide-eyed, besides the tanks he saw trucks “carrying clean-looking soldiers, sitting straight up on the seats with their rifles in front of them. Then, more tanks and more soldiers in rows on trucks.” Promptly he called Kruyff and said, “It looks like an entire German army complete with tanks and other weapons is heading straight into Arnhem.”
The man who had warned London on September 14 about the presence of Bittrich’s II SS Panzer Corps, Henri Knap, Arnhem’s underground intelligence chief, was now receiving a steady stream of reports of German reinforcements from his network. Knap abandoned caution. He telephoned British headquarters at the Hartenstein directly and spoke to a duty officer. Without preamble Knap told him that “a column of tanks, among them some Tigers, is moving into Arnhem and some are heading toward Oosterbeek.” The officer politely asked Knap to hold on. A few minutes later he came back on the line. Thanking Knap, he explained that “the Captain is doubtful about the report. After all, he’s heard a lot of fairy tales.” But the skepticism at British headquarters quickly disappeared when Pieter Kruyff confirmed through Lieutenant Commander Arnoldus Wolters, of the Royal Dutch Navy, acting as an intelligence liaison officer for the division, that at least “fifty tanks are heading into Arnhem from the northeast.”
The stench of battle permeated the inner city. On the bridge, wreckage jutted high above the concrete shoulders and littered streets along the Rhine. Heavy smoke smeared buildings and yards with a greasy film. All along the waterfront hundreds of fires burned unattended, and men remember that the ground shook constantly from the concussion of heavy explosives as the Germans, in the final hours of this second day of battle, battered British strongholds along the northern ramp in the bitter contest for possession of Montgomery’s prime objective.
Around midnight Lieutenant Colonel John Frost left his headquarters on the western side of the ramp and made his way around the perimeter, checking his men. Although the battle had continued almost without letup since Gräbner’s armored attack during the morning, morale was still high. Frost was proud of his tired, dirty troopers. All day long they had doggedly repelled attack after attack. Not a single German or vehicle had reached the north end of the bridge.
During the afternoon the Germans had changed their tactics. With phosphorous ammunition, they attempted to burn the British out of their strong points. A long-barreled 150 mm. gun hurled 100-pound shells directly against Frost’s headquarters building, forcing the men to the cellar. Then British mortars got the range and scored a direct hit, killing the gun crew. As the troopers cheered and hooted derisively, other Germans rushed out under fire and towed the gun away. Houses around the perimeter were burning fiercely, but the British held out in them until the very last minute before moving to other positions. Damage was awesome. Burning trucks and vehicles, wrecked halftracks and smoking piles of debris cluttered every street. Sergeant Robert H. Jones remembers the sight as “a Sargasso sea of blazing collapsed buildings, half-tracks, trucks and jeeps.” The battle had become an endurance contest, one that Frost knew his men could not win without help.
Cellars and basements were filled with wounded. One of the battalion chaplains, the Reverend Father Bernard Egan, and the battalion medical officer, Captain James Logan—who had been friends since the North African campaign—tended the casualties from a rapidly dwindling stock of medical supplies. There was almost no morphia left and even field dressings were almost gone. The men had set out for the bridge with only enough light rations for forty-eight hours. Now, these were almost exhausted, and the Germans had cut off the water. Forced to scrounge for food, the troopers were existing on apples and a few pears stored in the cellars and basements of the houses they occupied. Private G. W. Jukes remembers his sergeant telling the men, “You don’t need water if you eat lots of apples.” Jukes had a vision of “being eventually relieved, standing back-to-back defiantly in bloodstained bandages, surrounded by dead Germans, spent cartridge cases and apple cores.”
Hour after hour Frost waited vainly for Dobie’s or Fitch’s relieving battalions to break through the German ring and reach the bridge. Although sounds of battle came from the direction of western Arnhem, there was no sign of large-scale troop movements. All through the day Frost had expected some further word from Horrocks’ XXX Corps. Nothing had been heard from them since the single strong radio signal picked up during the morning. Stragglers from the 3rd Battalion who had managed to get through to Frost brought news that Horrocks’ tanks were still far down the corridor. Some had even heard from Dutch underground sources that the column had not reached Nijmegen as yet. Worried and uncertain, Frost decided to keep this information to himself. He had already begun to believe that the men of his proud 2nd Battalion, which he had commanded since its inception, would be alone far longer than he believed it possible to hold.
In the last hours of Monday, Frost’s hopes hinged on the third lift and the expected arrival of Major General Stanislaw Sosabow-ski’s 1st Polish Parachute Brigade. “They were to drop south of the bridge,” Frost later wrote, “and I dreaded the reception they would have … but it was important that they find a handful of friends to meet them.” To prepare for the Poles’ arrival, Frost organized a “mobile storming party.” Using two of Major Freddie Gough’s armored reconnaissance jeeps and a Bren-gun carrier, Frost hoped to rush across the bridge and, in the surprise and confusion of the assault, open a passage and bring the Poles through. Major Gough, who was to lead the group, was “thoroughly miserable and quite unenthusiastic about the idea.” He had celebrated his forty-third birthday on September 16. If Frost’s plan was carried out, Gough felt quite certain he would not see his forty-fourth.*
The Poles were not expected to land before 10 A.M., on the nineteenth. Now, making his rounds of men in slit trenches, machine-gun emplacements, basements and cellars, Frost warned them to save precious ammunition. They were to fire only at close quarters, to make every shot count. Signalman James Haysom was sighting his rifle on a German when the Colonel’s order was passed along. “Stand still, you sod,” Haysom shouted. “These bullets cost money.”
While Frost knew that reducing the rate of fire would help the enemy improve his positions, he also believed that the Germans would be misled into thinking the British had lost heart as well as numbers. This attitude, Frost was certain, would cost the Germans dearly.
On the opposite side of the ramp, the little band of men with Captain Eric Mackay was already proving Frost’s theory.
In the scarred and pitted schoolhouse under the ramp, Mackay had compressed his small force into two rooms and posted a handful of men in the hall outside to ward off any enemy attempt at infiltration. Mackay had barely positioned his men when the Germans launched a murderous machine-gun and mortar attack. Lance Corporal Arthur Hendy remembers the firing was so intense that bullets “whizzed through the shattered windows, chopped up the floorboards and we dodged as many flying splinters as we did actual bullets.”
As men ducked for cover, Mackay discovered that the Germans had brought up a flamethrower, and within minutes a demolished half-track near the school was set afire. Then, Mackay recalls, “the Germans set fire to the house to our north and it burned merrily, sending down showers of sparks on our wooden roof which promptly caught fire.” In the pandemonium, men sprinted for the roof, where for over three hours, using fire extinguishers from the school and their own camouflage smocks, they worked frantically to extinguish the flames. To Lance Corporal Hendy the stench was “like burning cheese and burning flesh. The whole area was lit up. The heat in the attic was intense and all the time the Germans were sniping away at us. Finally the fire was put out.”
As the exhausted troopers collected once again in the two rooms, Mackay ordered his soldiers to bind their feet with their smocks and shirts. “The stone floors were thick with glass, plaster and metal fragments and the stairs were slippery with blood. Everything scrunched under our feet and made a terrific racket.” As Mackay was about to go to the cellar to check on his wounded, he remembers “a blinding flash and a terrific explosion. The next thing I knew, someone was slapping my face.” During the fire the Germans had brought up antitank Panzerfäuste in an effort to demolish the little force once and for all. With dazed disbelief Mackay saw that the entire southwest corner of the school and part of the still-smoldering roof had been blown away. Worse, the classrooms now resembled a charnel house with dead and wounded everywhere. “Only a few minutes later,” Mackay recalls, “someone came over and said he thought we were surrounded. I looked out one of the windows. Down below was a mass of Germans. Funnily enough, they weren’t doing anything, just standing around on the grass. They were on all sides of us except the west. They must have thought the Panzerfäuste had finished us off, because we had stopped firing.”
Making his way carefully around the bodies on the floor, Mackay ordered his men to take up grenades. “When I yell Fire!’ open up with everything you have,” he said. Back at the southeast window, Mackay gave the order. “The boys dropped grenades on the heads below and we instantly followed up with all we had left: six Brens and fourteen Sten guns, firing at maximum rate.” In the din, paratroopers stood silhouetted in the windows, firing their machine guns from the hip and yelling their war cry, “Whoa Mohammed.” Within minutes the counterattack was over. As Mackay recalls, “when I looked out again, all I could see below was a carpet of gray. We must have wiped out between thirty and fifty Germans.”
Now his men went about collecting the dead and wounded. One man was dying with fifteen bullets in the chest. Five other men were critically injured and almost all the troopers had sustained burns trying to save the blazing roof. Mackay had also been hit again by shrapnel and he discovered that his foot was pinned to his boot. Neither Mackay nor Sapper Pinky White, the acting medical orderly, could remove the metal and Mackay laced his boot tighter to keep the swelling down. Out of fifty men, Mackay now had only twenty-one in good shape; four were dead, and twenty-five wounded. Although he had no food and only a little water, he had collected a plentiful supply of morphia and was able to ease the pains of the injured. “Almost everybody was suffering from shock and fatigue,” he remembers, “but we had gotten ourselves another temporary breathing space. I just didn’t think things looked too bright, but we’d heard the BBC and they told us that everything was going according to plan. I got on the wireless to the Colonel, gave in our strength return and said we were all happy and holding our own.”
As Lance Corporal Hendy tried to catch a few minutes’ sleep he heard a church bell off in the distance. At first he thought that it was ringing to announce the approach of Horrocks’ tanks, but the sound was not measured and consistent. Hendy realized that bullets or shell fragments must be hitting the bell. He thought of the men around Colonel Frost’s headquarters on the other side of the ramp and wondered if they were holding safe. He heard the bell again and felt himself shivering. He could not rid himself of an eerie, doomed feeling.
The help that Frost so urgently needed was agonizingly close—barely more than a mile away. Four battalions spread between St. Elisabeth’s Hospital and the Rhine were desperately trying to reach him. Lieutenant Colonel J. A. C. Fitch’s 3rd Battalion had been attempting to force its way along the Lion route—the Rhine river road that Frost had used in reaching the bridge two days before. In darkness, without communications, Fitch was unaware that three other battalions were also on the move—Lieutenant Colonel David Dobie’s 1st, Lieutenant Colonel G. H. Lea’s 11th, and Lieutenant Colonel W. D. H. McCardie’s 2nd South Stafford-shires; Dobie’s men were separated from him by only a few hundred yards.
At 4 A.M. on Tuesday, September 19, the 11th Battalion and the 2nd South Staffs began to move through the heavily built-up area between St. Elisabeth’s Hospital and the Arnhem Town Museum. South of them, on the Lion route, where Fitch had already encountered devastating opposition, the 1st Battalion was now attempting to push its way through. Initially the three battalions, coordinating their movements, gained ground. Then, with dawn, their cover disappeared. German opposition, uneven throughout the night, was suddenly fiercely concentrated. The advance ground to a halt as the battalions found themselves in a tight net, trapped on three sides by an enemy who seemed almost to have waited for them to arrive at a preplanned position. And the Germans were prepared for a massacre.
Forward elements were hit and stopped in their tracks by German tanks and half-tracks blocking the streets ahead. From the windows of houses on the high escarpment of the railway marshaling yards to the north, waiting machine-gun crews opened up. And from the brickworks across the Rhine multibarreled flak guns, firing horizontally, ripped into Dobie’s battalion and flayed Fitch’s men as they tried to move along the lower Rhine road. Fitch’s battalion, already badly mauled in the fighting since landing two days before, was now so cut to pieces by the unremitting flak fire that it could no longer exist as an effective unit. Men broke in confusion. They could go neither forward nor back. With virtually no protection on the open road, they were methodically mowed down. “It was painfully obvious,” says Captain Ernest Seccombe, “that the Jerries had much more ammunition than we did. We tried to move in spurts, from cover to cover. I had just begun one dash when I was caught in a murderous crossfire. I fell like a sack of potatoes. I couldn’t even crawl.” Seccombe, who had been hit in both legs, watched helplessly as two Germans approached him. The British captain, who spoke fluent German, asked them to look at his legs. They bent down and examined his wounds. Then one of the Germans straightened up. “I’m sorry, Herr Hauptmann,” he told Seccombe. “I’m afraid for you the war is over.” The Germans called their own medics and Seccombe was taken to St. Elisabeth’s Hospital.*
By chance one of Fitch’s officers discovered the presence of Dobie’s forces on the lower road, and the men of the 1st Battalion, despite their own heavy casualties, hurried forward, toward the pitiable remnants of Fitch’s group. Dobie was now hell bent on reaching the bridge, but the odds were enormous. As he moved up into the intense fire and leapfrogged over Fitch’s men, Dobie himself was wounded and captured (he later succeeded in making his escape); by the end of the day it was estimated that only forty men of his battalion remained. Private Walter Boldock was one of them. “We kept trying to make it, but it was a disaster. We were constantly mortared, and German tanks whirled right up to us. I tried to get one with my Bren gun and then we seemed to be going backwards. I passed a broken water main. A dead civilian in blue overalls lay in the gutter, the water lapping gently around his body. As we left the outskirts of Arnhem, I knew somehow we wouldn’t be going back.”
Fitch’s men, attempting to follow Dobie’s battalion, were shredded once again. The march had lost all meaning; after-action reports indicate the total confusion within the battalion at this point. “Progress was satisfactory until we reached the area of the dismantled pontoon bridge,” reads the 3rd Battalion’s report. “Then casualties from the 1st Battalion began passing through us. Heavy machine guns, 20 mm. and intense mortar fire began … casualties were being suffered at an ever-increasing rate, and the wounded were being rushed back in small groups every minute.”
With his force in danger of total destruction, Fitch ordered his men back to the Rhine Pavilion, a large restaurant-building complex on the bank of the river, where the remnants of the battalion could regroup and take up positions. “Every officer and man must make his way back as best he can,” Fitch told his troopers. “The whole area seems covered by fire, and the only hope of getting out safely is individually.” Private Robert Edwards remembers a sergeant “whose boots were squelching blood from his wounds, telling us to get out and make our way back to the first organized unit we came to.” Colonel Fitch did not reach the Rhine Pavilion. On the deadly road back, he was killed by mortar fire.
By an odd set of circumstances, two men who should never have been there actually made their way into Arnhem. Major Anthony Deane-Drummond, the second in command of Division signals, had become so alarmed over the breakdown of communications that, with his batman-driver, Lance Corporal Arthur Turner, he had gone forward to discover the trouble. Deane-Drummond and Turner had been on the road since early Monday. First they had located Dobie’s battalion, where they had learned that Frost was on the bridge and Dobie was preparing an attack to get through to him. Setting off on the river road, Deane-Drummond caught up with elements of the 3rd Battalion struggling toward Arnhem and traveled with them. Heavy fire engulfed the group and in the fighting that ensued Deane-Drummond found himself leading the remnants of a company whose officer had been killed.
Under constant small-arms fire and so surrounded that Deane-Drummond remembers the Germans were tossing stick grenades at the men, he led the group along the road to some houses near a small inlet. Ahead, he could see the bridge. “The last couple of hundred yards to the houses I had decided on, the men were literally dropping like flies,” he recalls. “We were down to about twenty men, and I realized the rest of the battalion was now far to the rear and not likely to reach us.” Dividing the men into three parties, Deane-Drummond decided to wait until darkness, move down to the river, swim across it, then try to recross and join Division to the west. In a small corner house with the Germans all around, he settled down to wait. A banging began on the front door. Deane-Drummond and the three men with him raced to the back of the house and locked themselves in a small lavatory. From the noise from outside the little room, it was clear that the Germans were busy converting the house into a strong point. Deane-Drummond was trapped. He and the others would remain in the tiny room for the better part of three more days.*
Meanwhile, the nth Battalion and the South Staffordshires, after several hours of relentless street fighting, had also come to a standstill. Counterattacking German tanks hammered the battalions, forcing them to pull slowly back.
Private Maurice Faulkner remembers that elements of the battalions reached the museum with heavy casualties, only to encounter the tanks. “I saw one man jump out of a window on top of a tank and try to put a grenade in,” Faulkner recalls. “He was killed by a sniper, but I think he was probably trapped anyway, and he may have figured that was the only way out.” Private William O’Brien says that the situation was “suddenly chaotic. Nobody knew what to do. The Germans had brought up those Nebelwerfer mortar throwers and we were scared out of our minds at the screaming sound. It began to seem to me that the generals had gotten us into something they had no business doing. I kept wondering where the hell was the goddam Second Army.”
Private Andrew Milbourne, near the church at Oosterbeek, heard the call go out for machine-gunners. Milbourne stepped forward and was told to take his gun and a crew to the juncture of the road near St. Elisabeth’s Hospital to help cover and protect the two battalions as they disengaged. Putting his Vickers machine gun in a jeep, Milbourne set off with three others. Milbourne positioned his gun in the garden of a house at the crossroads. Almost immediately he seemed to be engulfed in his own private battle. Mortar bursts and shells appeared to be aimed directly at him. As troopers began to fall back around him, Milbourne sent a constant arc of bullets out in front of them. He remembers hearing a rushing sound, like wind, and then a flash. Seconds later he knew that something was wrong with his eyes and hands. He remembers someone saying, “Lord, he’s copped it.”
Private Thomas Pritchard heard the voice and ran to where men were now standing over Milbourne. “He was lying over the twisted Vickers with both hands hanging by a thread of skin and an eye out of its socket. We started yelling for a medic.” Not far away Milbourne’s best friend, Corporal Terry “Taffy” Brace of the 16th Field Ambulance, heard someone shout. Leaving a shrapnel case he had treated, Brace sprinted forward. “Quick,” a man called out to him, “the Vickers has caught it.” As he ran, Brace remembers, he could hear an almost steady sound of machine-gun fire, and shells and mortars seemed to be dropping everywhere. Approaching a cluster of men, he pushed his way through and, to his horror, saw Milbourne lying on the ground. Working frantically, Brace wrapped Milbourne’s arms and put a dressing just below the injured man’s cheekbone to cushion his left eye. Brace remembers talking constantly as he worked. “It’s just a scratch, Andy,” he kept saying. “It’s just a scratch.” Picking up his friend, Brace carried Milbourne to a nearby dressing station where a Dutch doctor immediately set to work. Then he went back to battle.*
Brace passed what seemed to be hundreds of men lying in the fields and along the road. “I stopped at every one,” he recalls. “The only thing I could do for most of them was take off their smocks and cover their faces.” Brace treated one injured sergeant as best he could and then as he prepared to set out again, the man reached out to him. “I’m not going to make it,” he told Brace. “Please hold my hand.” Brace sat down and cupped the sergeant’s hand in both of his. He thought of Milbourne, his best friend, and of the many men who had come streaming back through the lines this day. A few minutes later, Brace felt a slight pull. Looking down, he saw that the sergeant was dead.
By now the British were in confusion, without antitank guns, out of Piat ammunition and suffering heavy casualties. The attack had become a shambles. The two battalions could not drive beyond the built-up areas around St. Elisabeth’s Hospital. But in that maze of streets one action was both positive and successful. The attack had overrun a terrace house at Zwarteweg 14, the building from which General Roy Urquhart had been unable to escape.
“We heard the wheeze of the self-propelled gun outside and the rattle of its track,” Urquhart later wrote. “It was moving off.” Antoon Derksen then appeared and “announced excitedly that the British were at the end of the road. We ran down the street and I thanked God we had made contact again.”
Urquhart, learning from an officer of the South Staffordshires that his headquarters was now in a hotel called the Hartenstein in Oosterbeek, commandeered a jeep and, driving at full speed through a constant hail of sniper fire, at last reached Division.
The time was 7:25 A.M. He had been absent and lacking control of the battle in its most crucial period, for almost thirty-nine hours.
At the Hartenstein, one of the first men to see Urquhart was Chaplain G. A. Pare. “The news had not been so good,” he recalls. “The General had been reported a prisoner and there was no sign of the Second Army.” As Pare came down the steps of the hotel “who should be ascending but the General. Several of us saw him, but nobody said a word. We just stared—completely taken aback.” Dirty and with “two days’ beard on my face I must have been something to see,” Urquhart says. At that moment Colonel Charles Mackenzie, the chief of staff, came rushing out. Staring at Urquhart, Mackenzie told him, “We had assumed, sir, that you had gone for good.”
Quickly Mackenzie briefed the anxious Urquhart on the events that had occurred during his absence and gave him the situation—as Division knew it—at the moment. The picture was appalling. Bitterly, Urquhart saw that his proud division was being scattered and cut to ribbons. He thought of all the setbacks that had dogged his Market forces: the distance from the drop zones to the bridge; the near-total breakdown of communications; the weather delay of Hackett’s 4th Brigade plus the loss of precious resupply cargo; and the slow progress of Horrocks’ tanks. Urquhart was stunned to learn that XXX Corps was not reported to have reached even Nijmegen as yet. The command dispute between Hackett and Hicks was upsetting, particularly as it stemmed from Urquhart’s and Lathbury’s own unforeseeable absence in the crucial hours when precise direction was required in the battle. Above all, Urquhart rued the incredible overoptimism of the initial planning stages that had failed to give due importance to the presence of Bittrich’s Panzer Corps.
All these factors, one compounding another, had brought the division close to catastrophe. Only superb discipline and unbelievable courage were holding the battered Red Devils together. Urquhart was determined to somehow instill new hope, to coordinate the efforts of his men down even to company level. In doing so, he knew that he must demand more of his weary and wounded men than any airborne commander ever had demanded. He had no choices. With the steady inflow of German reinforcements, the dedicated, soft-spoken Scotsman saw that unless he acted immediately “my division would be utterly destroyed.” Even now, it might be too late to save his beloved command from annihilation.
A look at the map told its own desperate story. Quite simply, there was no front line. Now that all his troopers but the Polish Brigade had arrived, the main dropping zones to the west had been abandoned and, apart from resupply areas, the lines around them held by Hicks’s men had been shortened and pulled in. Hackett was going for the high ground northeast of Wolfheze and Johannahoeve Farm, he saw. The 11th Battalion and the South Staffordshires were fighting near St. Elisabeth’s Hospital. There was no news of the progress of the 1st and 3rd battalions on the lower Rhine road. Yet Frost, Urquhart learned with pride, still held at the bridge. Everywhere on the situation map red arrows indicated newly reported concentrations of enemy tanks and troops; some actually appeared to be positioned behind the British units. Urquhart did not know if there was time enough remaining to reorganize and coordinate the advance of his dwindling forces and send them toward the bridge in one last desperate drive. Ignorant for now of the cruel damage done to the 1st and 3rd battalions, Urquhart believed there might still be a chance.
“The thing that hit me was this,” he remembers. “Who was running the battle in the town? Who was coordinating it? Lathbury was wounded and no longer there. No one had been nominated to make a plan.” As he began to work on the problem Brigadier Hicks arrived. He was extremely happy to see Urquhart and to return the division to his care. “I told him,” Urquhart says, “that we would have to get somebody into town immediately. A senior officer, to coordinate Lea and McCardie’s attack. I realized that they had been only a few hundred yards away from me, and it would have been better if I had remained in town to direct. Now, I sent Colonel Hilary Barlow, Hicks’s deputy. He was the man for the job. I told him to get into town and tie up the loose ends. I explained exactly where Lea and McCardie were and sent him off with a jeep and wireless set and ordered him to produce a properly coordinated attack.”
Barlow never reached the battalions. Somewhere en route he was killed. “He simply vanished,” Urquhart recalls, and the body was never found.
The arrival of the Poles in the third lift was of almost equal urgency. They would now land directly on a prepared enemy on the southern approaches of the bridge, as Frost knew only too well; and by now, Urquhart reasoned, the Germans were obviously reinforced by armor. The drop could be a slaughter. In an effort to stop them and even though communications were uncertain—no one knew whether messages were getting through—Urquhart sent a warning message and requested a new drop zone. At rear Corps headquarters the signal was never received. But it was irrelevant. In yet another setback, fog covered many of the airfields in England where the planes and gliders of the vital third lift were readying to go.
The corridor through which Horrocks’ tanks had to drive was open once again. At Son, forty-six miles south of Arnhem, engineers watched the first British armor thud across the temporary Bailey bridge they had erected. The Guards Armored Division was once more on its way, the drive now led by the Grenadiers. Now, at 6:45 A.M. on September 19, the Garden forces were behind schedule by thirty-six hours.
No one in this sector of the corridor could guess as yet what that time loss would mean in the final reckoning—and worse was to come. The great Waal bridge at Nijmegen, thirty-five miles north, was still in German hands. If it was not taken intact and soon, airborne commanders feared the Germans would blow it up.
That fear gave urgency to the armored drive. To General Gavin, General Browning, the Corps commander, and to Horrocks, the Nijmegen bridge was now the most critical piece in the plan. As yet the commanders did not know the true plight of the 1st British Airborne Division. German propaganda broadcasts had boasted that General Urquhart was dead* and his division smashed, but there had been no news at all from Division itself. In the tank columns men believed that Market-Garden was going well. So did General Taylor’s Screaming Eagles. “To the individual 101st trooper, the sound of the tanks, the sight of their guns was both an assurance and a promise,” General S. L. A. Marshall was later to write—“an assurance that there was a plan and a promise that the plan might work.”
As the tanks rumbled by, the watching troopers of General Taylor’s 101st took just pride in their own achievements. Against unexpectedly strong resistance they had taken and held the fifteen-mile stretch of road from Eindhoven up to Veghel. Along the route men waved and cheered as armored cars of the Household Cavalry, the tanks of the Grenadiers and the mighty mass of XXX Corps swept by. In minutes the column moved from Son to Veghel. Then, with the kind of dash that Montgomery had envisioned for the entire drive, the armored spearhead, flanked by cheering, flag-waving Dutch crowds, sped on, reaching its first destination at Grave at 8:30 A.M. There, the tanks linked up with Gavin’s 82nd. “I knew we had reached them,” recalls Corporal William Chennell, who was in one of the lead armored cars, “because the Americans, taking no chances, halted us with warning fire.”
Moving quickly on, the first tanks reached the Nijmegen suburbs at midday. Now two thirds of the vital Market-Garden corridor had been traversed. The single road, jammed with vehicles, could have been severed at any time had it not been for the vigilant, tenacious paratroopers who had fought and died to keep it open. If Montgomery’s bold strategy was to succeed, the corridor was the lifeline which alone could sustain it. Men felt the heady excitement of success. According to official pronouncements, including those from Eisenhower’s headquarters, everything was going according to plan. There was not even a hint of the dire predicament that was slowly engulfing the men at Arnhem.
Yet, General Frederick Browning was uneasy. During the afternoon of the eighteenth he met with General Gavin. The Corps commander had received no news from Arnhem. Other than scant Dutch underground information, Browning’s communications men had not received a single situation report. Despite official announcements that the operation was proceeding satisfactorily, messages relayed to Browning from his own rear headquarters and from General Dempsey’s Second Army had roused in him a gnawing concern. Browning could not rid himself of the feeling that Urquhart might be in grievous trouble.
Two reports in particular fed his anxiety. German strength and reaction in Arnhem had unquestionably proved heavier and faster than the planners had ever anticipated. And R.A.F. photo-reconnaissance information indicated that only the northern end of the Arnhem bridge was held by the British. But even now, Browning was unaware that two panzer divisions were in Urquhart’s sector. Disturbed by the lack of communications and nagged by his suspicions, Browning warned Gavin that the “Nijmegen bridge must be taken today. At the latest, tomorrow.” From the moment he had first learned of Market-Garden, the bridge at Arnhem had worried Browning. Montgomery had confidently expected Hor-rocks to reach it within forty-eight hours. At the time, Browning’s view was that Urquhart’s paratroopers could hold for four days. Now, on D plus two—one day short of Browning’s estimate of the division’s ability to function alone—although unaware of the grave condition of the 1st British Airborne Division, Browning told Gavin, “we must get to Arnhem as quickly as possible.”*
Immediately after the link-up in the 82nd’s sector, Browning called a conference. The Guards’ lead armored cars were sent back to pick up the XXX Corps commander, General Horrocks, and the commander of the Guards Armored Division, General Allan Adair. With Browning, the two officers drove to a site northeast of Nijmegen, overlooking the river. From there Corporal William Chennell, whose vehicle had picked up one of the two officers, stood with the little group observing the bridge. “To my amazement,” Chennell remembers, “we could see German troops and vehicles moving back and forth across it, apparently completely unconcerned. Not a shot was fired, yet we were hardly more than a few hundred yards away.”
Back at Browning’s headquarters, Horrocks and Adair learned for the first time of the fierce German opposition in the 82nd’s area. “I was surprised to discover upon arrival that we did not have the Nijmegen bridge,” Adair says. “I assumed it would be in airborne hands by the time we reached it and we’d simply sweep on through.” Gavin’s troopers, the generals now learned, had been so hard-pressed to hold the airhead that companies had been recalled from Nijmegen to protect the landing zones from massed enemy assaults. Elements of the 508th Battalion had been unable to make any headway against the strong SS units holding the bridge approaches. The only way to take the bridge quickly, Browning believed, was by a combined tank and infantry assault. “We’re going to have to winkle these Germans out with more than airborne troops,” Browning told Adair.
The Nijmegen bridge was the last crucial link in the Market-Garden plan. With the time limit that Browning had placed on the British paratroopers’ ability to hold out about to expire, the pace of the operation must be accelerated. Eleven miles of corridor remained to be forced open. The Nijmegen bridge, Browning stressed, had to be captured in record time.
Major General Heinz Harmel, the Frundsberg Division commander, was irritable and more than a little frustrated. Despite constant pressure from General Bittrich, he had still been unable to bludgeon Frost and his men from the Arnhem bridge. “I was beginning to feel damn foolish,” Harmel recalls.
By now he knew that the paratroopers were nearing the end of their supplies and ammunition. Also their casualties, if his own were an example, were extremely high. “I had determined to bring tanks and artillery fire to bear and level every single building they held,” Harmel says, “but in view of the fight they were putting up, I felt I should first ask for their surrender.” Harmel ordered his staff to arrange for a temporary truce. They were to pick a British prisoner of war to go to Frost with Harmel’s ultimatum. The soldier selected was a newly captured engineer, twenty-five-year-old Sergeant Stanley Halliwell, one of Captain Mackay’s sappers.
Halliwell was told to enter the British perimeter under a flag of truce. There he was to tell Frost that a German officer would arrive to confer with him about surrender terms. If Frost agreed, Halliwell would once more return to the bridge to stand unarmed with Frost until the German officer joined them. “As a P.O.W. I was supposed to return to the Jerries as soon as I delivered the message and got the Colonel’s answer and I didn’t like that part of the business at all,” Halliwell says. The Germans brought Halliwell close to the British perimeter, where, carrying the truce flag, he crossed into the British-held sector and arrived at Frost’s headquarters. Nervously, Halliwell explained the situation to Frost. The Germans, he said, believed it pointless for the fight to continue. The British were surrounded with no hope of relief. They had no choice but to die or surrender. Questioning Halliwell, Frost learned that “the enemy seemed to be most disheartened at their own losses.” His own spirits lifted momentarily at the news, and he remembers thinking that “if only more ammunition would arrive, we would soon have our SS opponents in the bag.” As to the German request for negotiations, Frost’s answer to Halliwell was explicit. “Tell them to go to hell,” he said.
Halliwell was in full agreement. As a P.O.W. he was expected to return, but he did not relish the idea of repeating the Colonel’s exact words and, he pointed out to Frost, it might prove difficult to return through the lines. “It is up to you to make that decision,” Frost said. Halliwell had already done so. “If it’s all the same with you, Colonel,” he told Frost, “I’ll stay. Jerry will get the message sooner or later.”
On the far side of the ramp Captain Eric Mackay had just received a similar invitation, but he chose to misinterpret it. “I looked out and saw a Jerry standing with a not-very-white hanky tied to a rifle. He shouted ‘Surrender! ’ I promptly assumed that they wanted to surrender, but perhaps they meant us.” In the now nearly demolished schoolhouse in which his small force was holding out, Mackay, still thinking the German was making a surrender offer, thought the whole idea impractical. “We only had two rooms,” he says. “We would have been a bit cramped with prisoners.”
Waving his arms at the German, Mackay shouted, “Get the hell out of here. We’re taking no prisoners.” The medical orderly, Pinky White, joined Mackay at the window. “Raus!” he shouted. “Beat it!” Amid a series of hoots and catcalls, other troopers took up the cry. “Bugger off! Go back and fight it out, you bastard.” The German seemed to get the point. As Mackay recalls, he turned around and walked quickly back to his own building, “still waving his dirty hanky.”
Harmel’s attempt to seek a surrender from the spirited, beleaguered men on the bridge had failed. The battle began again in all its fury.
*The same point is made in several monographs written by the eminent Dutch military historian, Lieutenant Colonel Theodor A. Boeree. “Had Urquhart been there,” he writes, “he might well have abandoned the defense of the bridge, recalled Frost’s battalion, if possible, concentrated his six original batallions and the three of the 4th Parachute Brigade that had just landed, and established a firm bridgehead somewhere else on the northern side of Lower Rhine … with the high ground at Westerbouwing … as the center of the bridgehead. There they could have awaited the arrival of the British Second Army.”
*I believe the row was far more heated than related above, but understandably Hicks and Hackett, good friends, are reluctant to discuss the matter in greater detail. There are at least four different versions of what transpired, and none of them may be entirely accurate. My reconstruction is based on interviews with Hackett, Hicks and Mackenzie, and on accounts in Urquhart’s Arnhem, pp. 77-90, and Hibbert’s The Battle of Arnhem, pp. 101-3.
*After the war Gough learned that General Horrocks had been thinking about a similar idea. Remembering how a fast reconnaissance unit had gone ahead of the British column and linked up with the 101st, he thought that a similar fast patrol might well take its chances and reach the Arnhem bridge. “Colonel Vincent Dun-kerly was alerted to lead the group,” Gough says, “and, like me, he admitted that he spent the entire day peeing in his knickers at the thought.”
*Throughout most of the Arnhem battle, the hospital was used by both British and German doctors and medics to care for their wounded. Seccombe, as a German prisoner, was moved to the small Dutch town of Enschede, about five miles from the German border. During his stay there, both legs were amputated. He was liberated in April, 1945.
*Deane-Drummond was captured on Friday, September 22, shortly after he left the house near the Arnhem bridge. In an old villa near Velp, used as a P.O.W. compound, he discovered a wall cupboard in which to hide. In these cramped confines, he remained for thirteen days, rationing himself to a few sips of water and a small amount of bread. On October 5 he escaped, contacted the Dutch underground and on the night of October 22, was taken to the 1st Airborne Casualty Clearing Station at Nijmegen. One of the three men with him in Arnhem, Deane-Drummond’s batman, Lance Corporal Arthur Turner, was also captured and taken to the Velp house. Eventually he was shipped to a P.O.W. camp in Germany and was liberated in April, 1945. Deane-Drummond’s own story is told most effectively in his own book, Return Ticket.
*Milbourne was later captured in the cellar of the Ter Horst house in Oosterbeek. He lost his left eye and both hands were amputated by a German surgeon in Apeldoorn. He spent the rest of the war in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.
*According to Bittrich the Germans learned from P.O.W.’s that Urquhart was either dead or missing and also, he claims, “we were monitoring radio messages and listening to phone calls.”
*Many British accounts of Arnhem, including Chester Wilmot’s excellent Struggle for Europe, imply that Browning knew more about Urquhart’s situation at this time than he actually did. A careful check of the scattered and inconclusive information passed on to Corps headquarters shows that the first direct message from the Arnhem sector reached Browning at 8:25 A.M. on the nineteenth. Two others arrived during the course of the day and dealt with the bridge, troop locations and a request for air support. Although many messages giving the true picture had been sent, they had not been received, and these three gave no indication that Urquhart’s division was being methodically destroyed. In some quarters, Montgomery and Browning have been unjustly criticized for not taking more immediate and positive steps. At this time they knew virtually nothing of Urquhart’s critical problems.