Military history

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AT EXACTLY 10:40 A.M. ON THURSDAY, September 21, Captain Roland Langton of the Irish Guards was told that his Number 1 Squadron was to dash out of the newly acquired Nijmegen bridgehead and make for Arnhem. H Hour, he was informed by Lieutenant Colonel Joe Vandeleur, would be 11 A.M. Langton was incredulous. He thought Vandeleur must be joking. He was being given just twenty minutes to brief his squadron and prepare them for a major attack. Langton, himself, was quickly briefed on a captured map. “The only other one we had was a road map devoid of details,” he says. Information about enemy gun positions was contained in a single reconnaissance photo showing an antiaircraft site between the villages of Lent and Elst, and “the supposition was that it might no longer be there.”

In Langton’s view, everything about the plan was wrong—in particular, the fact that “they were actually going to launch this thing in twenty minutes.” His squadron was to strike out with a second unit coming up behind. Two tanks would carry infantry; and more troops, Langton was told, would follow. Yet he could expect little artillery support, and the Typhoon “cab rank” air cover, used so successfully in the initial breakout, would not be immediately available: in Belgium the Typhoons were grounded by weather. Nevertheless, Langton was instructed “to go like hell and get on up to Arnhem.”

Although he did not betray his feelings to Langton, Joe Vandeleur was pessimistic about the outcome of the attack. Earlier, he and others, including his cousin Lieutenant Colonel Giles Vandeleur, had crossed the Nijmegen bridge to study the elevated “island” highway running due north to Arnhem. To these officers the road seemed ominous. Joe Vandeleur’s second in command, Major Desmond FitzGerald, was the first to speak. “Sir,” he said, “we’re not going to get a yard up this bloody road.” Giles Vandeleur agreed. “It’s a ridiculous place to try to operate tanks.” Up to this point in the corridor advance, although vehicles had moved on a one-tank front, it had always been possible when necessary to maneuver off the main road. “Here,” Giles Vandeleur recalls, “there was no possibility of getting off the road. A dike embankment with a highway running along its top is excellent for defense but it’s hardly the place for tanks.” Turning to the others, Giles said, “I can just imagine the Germans sitting there, rubbing their hands with glee, as they see us coming.” Joe Vandeleur stared silently at the scene. Then he said, “Nevertheless, we’ve got to try. We’ve got to chance that bloody road.” As Giles remembers, “Our advance was based on a time program. We were to proceed at a speed of fifteen miles in two hours.” Brigadier Gwatkin, the Guards Armored chief of staff, had told them tersely, “Simply get through.”

At exactly 11 A.M., Captain Langton picked up the microphone in his scout car and radioed: “Go! Go! Go! Don’t stop for anything!” His tanks rumbled past the Lent post office and up the main road. Fatalistically, Langton thought, It is now or never. After fifteen or twenty minutes, he began to breathe easier. There was no enemy action, and Langton felt “a little ashamed for being so upset earlier. I began to wonder what I was going to do when I reached the Arnhem bridge. I hadn’t really thought about it before.”

Behind the lead tanks came the Vandeleurs in their scout car and, back of them, Flight Lieutenant Donald Love in his R.A.F. ground-to-air communications tender. With him once more was Squadron Leader Max Sutherland, quiet and anxious. As he climbed aboard the white armored scout car, Sutherland—who had directed the Typhoon strike at the breakout from the Meuse-Escaut Canal—told Love that “the airborne boys in Arnhem are in deep trouble and desperate for help.” Love scanned the skies looking for the Typhoons. He was sure they would need them. Remembering the horrors of the breakout, Love “wasn’t at all anxious to find himself in a similar position to the one I had been in the previous Sunday, when the Germans had stopped us cold.”

The tanks of the Irish Guards moved steadily forward, passing the village of Oosterhout off to the left and the hamlets of Ressen and Bemmel on the right. From his scout car Captain Langton could hear Lieutenant Tony Samuelson, troop commander of the lead tanks, announce the locations. Samuelson called out that the first tank was approaching the outskirts of Elst. The Irish were approximately halfway to Arnhem. As he listened Langton realized that “we were out on our own.” But tension was relaxing throughout the column. Flight Lieutenant Love heard a droning in the sky and saw the first Typhoons appear. The weather had cleared in Belgium, and now the squadrons came into view, one at a time. As they began to circle overhead, Love and Sutherland settled back relieved.

In his scout car, Captain Langton was examining his map. The entire column had passed the secondary Bemmel turning, off to the right. At that moment, Langton heard a violent explosion. Looking up, he saw “a Sherman sprocket wheel lift lazily into the air over some trees up ahead.” He knew immediately that one of the lead tanks had been hit. Lieutenant Samuelson, much farther up the road, quickly confirmed the fact.

In the distance guns began to bark and black smoke boiled up into the sky. Far down the line Lieutenant Rupert Mahaffey knew that something had gone wrong. Abruptly the column halted. There was confusion as to what had happened, and voices on the radio became distorted and jumbled as the battle was joined. “There seemed to be a great deal of shouting,” Giles Vandeleur remembers, “and I told Joe I had better go forward and see what the hell was happening.” The commander of the Irish Guards agreed. “Let me know as quickly as you can,” he told Giles.

Captain Langton was already on his way forward. Inching by the standing armor Langton came to a bend in the road. Ahead he saw that all four lead tanks, including Samuelson’s, had been knocked out and some were ablaze. The shells were coming from a self-propelled gun in the woods to the left, near Elst. Langton ordered his driver to pull into a yard of a house near the bend. A few minutes later Giles Vandeleur joined him. Immediately machine-gun fire forced the men to take cover. Vandeleur was unable to get back to his armored car and report to his cousin Joe. Each time he called out to his driver, Corporal Goldman, to back up the vehicle—a Humber with a top hatch and a door at the side—“Goldman would lift the lid and the Germans would pour a burst of fire over his head, causing him to slam it shut again.” Finally, exasperated, Giles crawled back along a ditch to Joe’s command car.

Joe Vandeleur was already rapping out orders. Over the radio he called for artillery support; then, seeing the Typhoons overhead, he ordered Love to call them in. In the R.A.F. car Sutherland picked up the microphone. “This is Winecup … Winecup …” he said. “Come in please.” The Typhoons continued to circle overhead. Desperate, Sutherland called again. “This is Winecup … Winecup … Come in.” There was no response. Sutherland and Love stared at each other. “The set was dead,” Love says. “We were getting no signal whatsoever. The Typhoons were milling around above us and, on the ground, shelling was going on. It was the most hopeless, frustrating thing I have ever lived through, watching them up there and not being able to do a damn thing about it.” Love knew the pilots of the slowly wheeling Typhoons “had instructions not to attack anything on speculation.” By now Giles Vandeleur had reached his cousin. “Joe,” he said, “if we send any more tanks up along this road it’s going to be a bloody murder.” Together the two men set out for Captain Langton’s position.

Now the infantry of the Irish Guards were off their tanks and moving up into orchards on both sides of the road. Langton had taken over one of the tanks. Unable to find cover or move off the road, he was maneuvering backward and forward, trying to fire at the self-propelled gun in the woods. Each time he fired a round, “the gun responded with five of its own.”

The infantry captain, whose troops were also after the same target but were now huddling in a ditch, was livid with rage. “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” he yelled at Langton. The young officer stayed calm. “I’m trying to knock out a gun so we can get to Arnhem,” he said.

As the Vandeleurs appeared, Langton, unsuccessful in his attempts to knock out the gun, climbed out to meet them. “It was a mess up there,” Joe Vandeleur remembers. “We tried everything. There was no way to move the tanks off the road and down the steep sides of that damn dike. The only artillery support I could get was from one field battery, and it was too slow registering on its targets.” His lone infantry company was pinned down and he was unable to call in the Typhoons. “Surely we can get support somewhere,” Langton said. Vandeleur slowly shook his head, “I’m afraid not.” Langton persisted. “We could get there,” he pleaded. “We can go if we get support.” Vandeleur shook his head again. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You stay where you are until you get further orders.”

To Vandeleur it was clear that the attack could not be resumed until the infantry of Major General G. I. Thomas’ 43rd Wessex Division could reach the Irish Guards. Until then, Vandeleur’s tanks were stranded alone on the high exposed road. A single self-propelled gun trained on the elevated highway had effectively stopped the entire relief column almost exactly six miles from Arnhem.

Farther back in the line of tanks, opposite a greenhouse near Elst, whose windows had miraculously remained almost wholly intact, Lieutenant John Gorman stared angrily up the road. Ever since the column had been halted at Valkenswaard far down the corridor, Gorman had felt driven to move faster. “We had come all the way from Normandy, taken Brussels, fought halfway through Holland and crossed the Nijmegen bridge,” he said. “Arnhem and those paratroopers were just up ahead and, almost within sight of that last bloody bridge, we were stopped. I never felt such morbid despair.”

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