Military history

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IN THE AFTERNOON, as the first wave of Major Cook’s paratroopers began to cross the Waal, Captain Eric Mackay gave the order to evacuate the Arnhem schoolhouse his men had held for more than sixty hours—since evening on September 17. From seventy yards away a Tiger tank fired shell after shell into the southern face of the building. “The house was burning now,” Mackay remembers, “and I heard my little stock of explosives, which we had left upstairs, blow up.” Of the thirteen men still able to move about, each was down to just one clip of ammunition. Hobbling about the cellar, Mackay decided that his troopers would break out, fighting to the end.

He had no intention of leaving his wounded behind. With Lieutenant Dennis Simpson leading the way, Mackay and two men acted as rear guard as the paratroopers brought their casualties up from the cellar. While Simpson covered them, the injured were moved into a side garden. “Then just as Simpson moved toward the next house a mortar bombardment began and I heard him shout, ‘Six more wounded.’ I knew,” Mackay recalls, “that we would be massacred—or the wounded would, at any rate—if we tried to escape with them. I yelled to Simpson to surrender.”

Collecting the remaining five men, each armed with a Bren gun, Mackay headed east—the one direction, he believed, the Germans would not expect him to take. His plan was to “lay low for the night and try to make our way back west to join the main force.” Mackay led his men across the road, through ruined houses on the opposite side and onto the next street. There, they came face to face with two tanks accompanied by fifty or sixty soldiers. Quickly moving line abreast, the six paratroopers riddled the mass of startled Germans. “We had time for only a single magazine apiece,” Mackay recalls. “It was all over in two or three seconds. The Germans just dropped like half-filled sacks of grain.” As Mackay shouted to his group to head for a nearby house, another man was killed and a second wounded. Reaching temporary shelter, Mackay told the three remaining men, “This fight is over.” He suggested the troopers move out individually. “With luck,” he said, “we might all meet together again by the bridge tonight.”

One by one the men left. Ducking into a garden, Mackay crawled under a rose bush. There he took off his badges of rank and threw them away. “I figured I would sleep a bit,” he recalls. “I had just shut my eyes and reached that drowsy stage when I heard German voices. I tried to breathe more softly and, with my charred and bloody clothes, I thought I might look convincingly dead.” Suddenly he received “a terrific kick in the ribs.” He took it limply, “like a newly dead corpse.” Then he “felt a bayonet go into my buttocks and lodge with a jar against my pelvis.” Strangely, Mackay recalls, “it didn’t hurt, just shocked me a bit when it hit the pelvis. It was when the bayonet came out that I felt the pain.” It triggered Mackay’s anger. Pulling himself to his feet, he drew his Colt. “What the bloody hell do you mean stabbing a bayonet into a British officer?” he yelled. Unprepared for Mackay’s outburst, the Germans drew back and Mackay realized that he could have “shot some of them if I had had any bullets. They couldn’t shoot back,” he remembers, “because they were ringed all around me. They would have hit one of their own. Their situation was so funny I laughed.” As the Germans stared at him, Mackay contemptuously threw his Colt over a garden wall “so they couldn’t get it as a souvenir.”

Forcing Mackay to lean against a wall, the Germans began to search him. His watch and an empty silver flask that had been his father’s were taken from him, but an escape map in his breast pocket was overlooked. An officer returned the flask. When Mackay asked about his watch he was told, “You won’t need it where you’re going, and we’re rather short on watches.” Hands above his head, he was marched off to a building where other British prisoners of war were being held. Going from group to group Mackay reminded the men that it was their duty to escape. Suddenly Mackay, the only officer present, was taken into another room for interrogation. “I decided to go on the offensive,” he recalls. “There was a German lieutenant who spoke perfect English, and I told him, firmly but politely, that it was all over for the Germans and I was quite prepared to take their surrender.” The lieutenant stared at him in amazement but, Mackay remembers, “that was the end of the interrogation.”

Shortly before dusk the prisoners were herded out to trucks, which took them east toward Germany. “They got a guard on the back, which made it harder to try to get away,” Mackay says, “but I told the lads to scrunch up and crowd him so he couldn’t use his gun.” As the truck in which he was riding slowed down at a bend in the road, Mackay jumped off and tried to make his escape. “Unfortunately I had chosen the worst possible place,” he recalls. “I dropped within three feet of a sentry. I jumped him and was trying to break his neck. Others arrived just then and they beat me senseless.” When he came to, Mackay found himself crowded with other prisoners into a room in a small Dutch inn. He managed to drag himself up to a sitting position against a wall and then, for the first time in ninety hours, the young officer fell sound asleep.*

In the dusk around Colonel Frost’s headquarters’ building and alongside the ramp, nearly a hundred men in small groups were still fighting fiercely to hang on. The headquarters roof was burning and nearly every man was down to his last few rounds of ammunition. Yet the troopers seemed spirited as ever. Major Freddie Gough believed that “even now, if we could just hold out a few hours longer, we would be relieved.”

At around 7 P.M. the 2nd Battalion’s wounded commander awoke, annoyed to find that he had slept at all. Frost heard “the gibbering of some shell-shock cases” in the darkness of the cellar. The Germans were still pounding the building and Frost became aware that the heat in the cellar, now filled with over two hundred casualties, was intense. Attempting to move, he felt a shock of pain run through his legs. He asked that Gough be sent to him. “You’ll have to take over,” Frost told the major, “but don’t make any crucial decisions without first referring them to me.” By now Frost was becoming aware that what he had most feared had begun to happen: the building was burning down and the wounded were in danger “of being roasted alive.” All over the dark room men were coughing from the acrid smoke. Dr. James Logan, the battalion’s chief medical officer, knelt down beside Frost. The time had come, Logan said, to get the casualties out. “We’ve got to arrange a truce with the Germans, sir,” Logan insisted. “We can’t wait any longer.” Turning to Gough, Frost ordered him to make the arrangements, “but to get the fighting soldiers to other buildings and carry on. I felt that even though-the bridge was lost we could still control the approach for a time, perhaps enough time for our tanks to come.”

Gough and Logan left to make arrangements for the truce. Logan proposed to unbolt the heavy front doors of the building and go out under a Red Cross flag. Gough was skeptical of the idea. He did not trust the SS; they might well open fire in spite of the flag. Going back to Frost, Logan received permission to proceed. As the doctor headed toward the doors, Frost removed his badges of rank. He hoped to “fade into the ranks and possibly get away later.” Wicks, his batman, went in search of a stretcher.

Nearby, Private James Sims, one of the wounded, glumly heard the evacuation plans being made. Logically he knew there was no alternative. “Our position was obviously hopeless,” he recalls. “Ammunition was all but exhausted, nearly all the officers andNCO’s were dead or wounded, and the building was well alight; the smoke was nearly choking everyone.” He heard Frost tell the able-bodied and the walking wounded “to get out and make a run for it.” Sims knew it was “the only sensible course, but the news that we were to be left behind was not well received.”

Upstairs Doctor Logan unlocked the front door. Accompanied by two orderlies and carrying a Red Cross flag, Logan walked out to meet the Germans. The noise of battle halted. “I saw some Germans run around to the back where we had our jeeps and carriers parked,” Gough remembers. “They needed them to move the wounded, and I mentally waved goodby to our remaining transport forever.”

In the cellar men heard German voices in the passageways and Sims noticed “the heavy thud of German jackboots on the stairway.” The cellar was suddenly quiet. Looking up Sims saw a German officer appear in the doorway. To his horror, “a badly wounded paratrooper brought up his Sten gun, but he was quickly overpowered. The officer,” Sims remembers, “took stock of the situation and rapped out some orders. German soldiers filed in and began carrying the wounded upstairs.” They were almost too late. As Sims was being moved, “a huge piece of burning timber nearly fell on top of us.” He was acutely aware that the Germans were “nervous, decidedly trigger-happy, and a lot of them were armed with British rifles and Sten guns.”

With the help of a shell-shocked paratrooper, Frost was carried up and laid on the embankment beside the bridge he had so desperately tried to hold. All about him he saw buildings burning fiercely. He watched as Germans and British together “worked at top speed to get us out, while the whole scene was brilliantly lit by the flames.” Only minutes after the last casualty was carried up, there was a sudden roar and the building collapsed into a heap of fiery rubble. Turning to Major Douglas Crawley, lying on a stretcher beside him, Frost said tiredly, “Well, Doug, we didn’t get away with it this time, did we?” Crawley shook his head. “No, sir,” he said, “but we gave them a damn good run for their money.”

As the British wounded watched in wary surprise, the Germans moved among them with extraordinary camaraderie, handing out cigarettes, chocolate and brandy. Bitterly, the paratroopers noticed that most of the supplies were their own, obviously collected from resupply drops that had fallen into German hands. As the hungry, thirsty men began to eat, German soldiers knelt beside them, congratulating them on the battle. Private Sims stared at a line of Mark IV tanks stretching back along the road. Seeing his expression a German nodded. “Yes, Tommy,” he told Sims, “those were for you in the morning if you had not surrendered.”

But Frost’s stubborn able-bodied men had not given up. As the last wounded man was brought out of the cellar the battle began again, as intensely as an hour before. “It was a nightmare,” Gough recalls. “Everywhere you turned there were Germans—in front, in back and on the sides. They had managed to infiltrate a large force into the area during the truce. They now held practically every house. We were literally overrun.”

Gough ordered troopers to disperse and hide out for the night. At dawn he hoped to concentrate the force in a group of half-gutted buildings by the river bank. Even now he expected relief by morning, and “I thought that somehow we could hold till then.” As the men moved off into the darkness, Gough crouched down beside his radio. Bringing the microphone close to his mouth, he said, “This is the First Para Brigade. We cannot hold out much longer. Our position is desperate. Please hurry. Please hurry.”

The Germans knew the fight was over. All that now remained was a mopping-up operation. Ironically, although there were tanks on the bridge, they could not cross. As General Harmel had predicted, the massed wreckage would take hours to remove. Not until early Thursday, September 21, would a single pathway be finally cleared and movement across the bridge begin.

At first light on Thursday Gough and the scattered men remaining in the perimeter emerged from their hiding places. Relief had not come. Systematically the Germans overran positions, forcing men now out of ammunition to surrender. By ones and twos, survivors, undetected, scattered to attempt to make their escape. Slowly, defiantly, the last British resistance came to an end.

Major Gough had headed for the waterworks, hoping to hide and rest for a time and then attempt to make his way west toward the main body of troops under Urquhart’s command. Just outside the waterworks building he heard German voices. Sprinting for a pile of wood, Gough tried to burrow under it. The heel of his boot protruded and a German grasped it and pulled Gough out. “I was so damn tired I just looked up at them and laughed,” Gough says. Hands over his head, he was led away.

In a roomful of other prisoners a German major sent for Gough. He gave the British officer a Hitler salute. “I understand you are in command,” the German said. Gough looked at him warily. “Yes,” he said. “I wish to congratulate you and your men,” the German told him. “You are gallant soldiers. I fought at Stalingrad and it is obvious that you British have had a great deal of experience in street fighting.” Gough stared at the enemy officer. “No,” he said. “This was our first effort. We’ll be much better next time.”

At some moment during these last hours one final message was radioed from someone near the bridge. It was not picked up by either Urquhart’s headquarters or by the British Second Army, but at the 9th SS Hohenstaufen headquarters Lieutenant Colonel Harzer’s listening monitors heard it clearly. Years later Harzer could not recall the complete message, but he was struck by the last two sentences: “Out of ammunition. God Save the King.”

A few miles to the north near Apeldoorn, Private James Sims lay on the grass outside a German military hospital, surrounded by other wounded paratroopers awaiting processing and treatment. The men were quiet, drawn into themselves. “The thought that we had fought for nothing was a natural one,” Sims wrote, “but I couldn’t help but think about the main army, so strong, and yet unable to make those last few miles to us. The hardest thing to bear was the feeling that we had just been written off.”

*The following day Mackay and three others escaped from the German town of Emmerich. One of the men with him was Lieutenant Dennis Simpson, who had led the breakout of the little group from the schoolhouse. The four men made their way across country and reached the Rhine. In a stolen boat they paddled all the way down to the Allied lines at Nijmegen.

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