A Bridge too Far

 

A Bridge Too Far

 

This excursion was only a day break and we were soon back in the Regimental area. For some days we were busy bringing up the reinforcements drafted to us from the 59th Division which had been broken up to supply these reinforcements. By the time we were on the move again to support the armoured attempt at Arnhem, the reinforcements had been drilled and practised and felt themselves a real part of 43rd Division.

During this time of exercises and preparation for further action, the news coming in from all parts of the Front was quite dramatic. We were making the best of our out-of-action time including some pleasure trips on the Seine in Storm boats. However, on 2nd September (my birthday) the exercises came to a conclusion and we were told to prepare to move.

The war was now over 200 miles away and the first signs of movement were when our reconnaissance Regiment of 43rd Division was ordered to move off on the 6th September to provide protection for the technical headquarters of Second Army near Amiens. In the next couple of days we heard how they moved through Arras and Douai, crossed the Belgian frontier and went into harbour about 15 miles from Brussels. An amazing advance! Two days later they passed through Brussels amid crowds of cheering people to a place called Perk a few miles to the north of Brussels.

Now, the whole Division was to go on the move and, up until 10th September, moved through Gisors and Beauvais, across the Somme at Sailly-Laurette entering the zone of the battlefields of the First World War. Moving by way of Albert and Beaucourt, we reached Arras. Then on, over Vimy Ridge past the Canadian war museum to Lille and Roubaix and into Belgium. After a night at Alost we reached Brussels, again to be welcomed by cheering crowds.

On 13th September, verbal orders came through for the Division to move off and to concentrate east of Diest by the evening of 15th September at the latest. It really was quite a thrilling move and as we dashed over the cobbled stone roads of Belgium the sparks were flying from the tracks of vehicles, including my ever faithful “Roger Fox” Carrier.

On the 16th September the Corps Commander, General Horrocks, addressed all the officers of 30 Corps down to and including Lieutenant-Colonels telling them about the coming operation called Market Garden which was to capture the crossing at Arnhem and break out into North Germany. This Order Group was held in the cinema at Bourg Léopold. Graphic descriptions of the O Group have been written and a film “A Bridge Too Far” portrays the O Group and subsequent movements. The Divisional O Group 43rd Division to which Brigadiers, Commanding Officers and Staffs went straight after Bourg Léopold was conducted by Major General Thomas, the Divisional Commander, in a very enthusiastic and optimistic frame of mind. The Division had 8th Armoured Brigade plus 147 Field Regiment, 64 Medium Regiment, a Heavy Battery and the Royal Netherlands Brigade Group all under its command for the forthcoming operation. The intention was that, having crossed the Rhine at Arnhem, 43rd Division were to advance north to Apeldoorn but in the event such optimistic planning was purely academic.

The guns were in position in the area of Hectel and I joined up with 5th DCLI  as usual as an OP Officer and from a rooftop was able to see the actual move off of the Guards Armoured Divisions as they made their way north up the single access road towards Arnhem.

During the initial bombardment by Artillery to soften up the enemy on the access north, the guns were firing continuously. One “amusing” incident occurred when our Battery water wagon was sent back to get water from the Albert canal in order to keep the gun muzzles cool during the constant firing. However, the driver misunderstood his directions and, instead of turning right out of the gun positions towards the Albert canal, went left and arrived at the canal L’Escaut where the water party put their pipes into the canal and started drawing water only to be greeted by hostile machine gun fire: I don’t recall their fate. But I do know that at the end of the campaign in Europe they were both still members of the Regiment.

The battle started on 17th September led by the 5th Guards Armoured Brigade following close behind a Heavy Artillery barrage and a continuous flow of rocket-firing Typhoon aircraft attacking on either side of the road just ahead of the tanks. It seemed to me that there was a continuous flow of aircraft, both British and American, carrying airborne troops to attack the bridges on the route towards Arnhem.

My memory of the next couple of days is one of extreme frustration and impatience because the traffic jams were horrendous. The Divisional column on the route consisted of nearly 5,000 vehicles and one can only imagine the frustration of the senior commanders as progress became increasingly slow because the route was cut several times by German Panzer Grenadier groups. I recall the horrific sight of burnt out lorries and tanks when we eventually passed the breakages in the route caused by this enemy action. I was in contact by radio with the gun positions but by the time we eventually reached the River Waal at Nijmegan the guns were out of firing range, not having been able to move from their original positions at the start of the operation due to the traffic jams. The only support I could call upon was from the 64th Medium Regiment. The country was so flat and the route so congested that close support observed fire was impossible anyway.

I remember waiting anxiously and quite nervously to enter Eindhoven, the headquarters of the Phillips electrical industry, which was strongly held but eventually cleared by a brigade of the Guards Armoured and American Airborne troops. When we were able to pass through Eindhoven as a column, we were received quite excitedly by the local population who waved us on our way as if victory was already assured.

When finally I arrived at Nijmegan, it was to find that the railway bridge west of the main road bridge had been damaged and was not presently crossable though the road bridge was still intact. Accordingly, the road bridge was reserved for the use of the Armoured Brigades of tanks. We crossed via the repaired railway bridge, with Colonel Taylor commanding the DCLI, and were given strict orders to advance with all speed possible to the left flank of the main road via Oosterhout and Elst to the river at Driel, the area where the First Airborne Division had been dropped.

I will try to recall my progress toward Driel which was only about half a mile west of the Arnhem bridge and south of the river. The land between Nijmegan and Arnhem is naturally bog, which the Dutch had transformed into a highly developed area of cultivated fields and gardens, studded with orchards and neat, attractive modern houses. There is only one good road across this country which is a concrete road running via Elst to Arnhem and astride which the Guards Armoured Division advance had been brought to a halt on the 21st September. There are a number of small secondary roads connecting the village of Elst with Oosterhout and Valberg. Oosterhout is quite a large village surrounded by orchards which give complete concealment not only of the houses but also the approaches to Oosterhout. The boggy nature of the ground made it impossible for any tanks or vehicles to move off the roads and the tactical advantage, therefore, lay with the defending enemy.

There are virtually no viewpoints in the country between Nijmegan and Arnhem so observed fire was impossible. In my Carrier, I was moving with Major John Fry commanding D Company of the DCLI while the Battery Commander, Major Tom Brewis, accompanied the Battalion Commander, Colonel Taylor. Late that afternoon, we were over the River Waal on the north bank and it was made clear to us via the Battalion Commander that the situation of the Airborne Division in Arnhem was extremely serious, in fact desperate.

The Welsh Guards of the Guards Armoured Division were held up on the main road between Nijmegan and Arnhem and could make no further progress. Early on the morning of 22nd September, 214 Brigade, of which we were a part, was instructed to go all out on the left of the main road and head for the Nederijn (“Lower Rhine”) to meet up with the Airborne at Arnhem. Troops of the Household Cavalry, followed by D Company of the 7th Somerset Light Infantry under Major Sydney Young, had a fierce battle at Oosterhout with severe casualties including Major Young who was mortally wounded. Colonel Taylor, the Battalion Commander of the DCLI, had been ordered now to clear the western exits of the village of Oosterhout and to thrust forward 10 miles to Driel on the banks of the Nederijn. Here he was to get in touch with the Polish Gliderborne Brigade, which was reported to be on the south bank, and finally to make contact with One Airborne Division delivering to them Dukws loaded with ammunition and medical supplies. This was explained down to the level of Company Commander and I found myself accompanying Major Fry as part of an Armoured Column consisting of Colonel Taylor’s Command Group, a squadron of the Dragoon Guards, our Company of Infantry plus A Company of the DCLI and a Machine Gun Platoon of the Middlesex.

It was late evening and, knowing the desperate situation of the Airborne Division, Colonel Taylor gave the order to advance with all speed. We reached Valburg as the light was fading and the Dutch people went wild with joy as we headed for Driel. Colonel Taylor, anxious to get on as quickly as possible, went straight ahead over the cross-road at Valburg heading for Driel and I accompanied Major Fry on this dash. It turned out that, having left a dispatch rider at the cross-roads to direct the soft vehicle column under the respective Company Commanders of B and C Companies, a mine detonated and destroyed one of the vehicles. A number of German tanks arrived from the direction of Elst and caught the column at Valburg, resulting in a fierce battle with Major Parker in charge, he having turned back from the tail of the Armoured Column when he heard the firing. I believe that, by the use of number 75 mines which were strung across the road and the DCLI men with PIATs, they managed to despatch several German Tiger Tanks and their crews, one of the Tigers blowing up having been hit simultaneously by six PIAT bombs.

I consider myself fortunate that I had gone ahead with Colonel Taylor and Major Fry and was already in the village of Driel, so that this very fierce encounter was not part of my experience. Throughout all this excitement the guns of our Regiment and, indeed, the Divisional Artillery as a whole were unable to give us any support as they were not yet able to cross the bridge at Nijmegan, so were out of range.

It was now 22nd September and the DCLI was established in Driel where, unable to fire our own guns, I found myself in the company of the Polish Paratroop Brigade in a school room in Driel. Actually, I didn’t have an active role and, in truth, the CO Colonel Taylor of the DCLI and a small Headquarters Company were the only DCLI in Driel, the remainder of the Battalion still fighting fiercely in the area of Elst. The Corps Commander, Lieutenant-General Horrocks, and General Thomas’ 43rd Division were able to have a good view across the river to the Airborne position at Arnhem from the church tower in Driel. The next 24 hours was terrible in that the gallantry displayed by the RAF and the Americans in attempting to supply the Airborne was frustrated and awful to witness. The anti-aircraft fire was intense and German aircraft were attacking the Airborne piteously. Many of the supply planes were shot down in flames with lots of the supplies falling into German hands.

By 24th September, the Divisional Artillery had been able to cross the Nederijn at Nijmegan and was now in range but it was too late and they were only able to give covering fire for the eventual evacuation of the Airborne Division. The situation was extremely serious and 214 Brigade, of which 5th DCLI was a part, was still desperately fighting around the Elst area where they were opposed by very efficient Waffen SS troops who fought to the bitter end.

However, along with Colonel Taylor of the 5th DCLI, I was in the little HQ Group of 214 Brigade at Driel and was very much in the picture as to what was going on. The decision by General Horrocks to evacuate the Airborne was made on the morning of 24th September and, in fact, was implemented on the night 25th/26th September with awful weather, rain and mud hampering the operation. Way back on the single access road south of Nijmegan, the Germans had cut the main road north of St Oedenrode and it was not until the morning of the 26th that the road was again opened and supply columns for 30 Corps could again come through. It was in this perilous situation with the Airborne sadly depleted that the decision was taken by General Horrocks to withdraw the Airborne Forces in the night of the 25th and early morning 26th with the operation actually starting at about 10pm on the 25th.

I recollect it was a dreadful night with driving rain. Many vehicles, in attempting to bring up rafts and Dukws, were sliding off the slippery embankments and having to be left where they were in the mud. To act as a diversion, the 4th Battalion of the Dorsets, part of our Division and part of 130 Brigade, had made a crossing west of the Arnhem Airborne crossing and had lost the best part of the Battalion including one of the FOOs. The Divisional Artillery had given this Dorset Battalion crossing a twenty minute barrage and the fighting had been intense with very severe German opposition. One Company Commander and his FOO did eventually succeed in getting through to the Airborne bridgehead and were able to convey to General Urquart the orders and intentions of General Horrocks. I had no part in this extremely dangerous and gallant Battalion battle but I am certain that it did contribute to the eventual success of the evacuation of so many of the Airborne troops.

For the next fortnight, we were engaged in scrappy fighting against quite determined German troops on the “Island”, as we called it. This was the land between the two rivers at Nijmegan and at Arnhem. It was in fact quite intense as the Germans intended now to squeeze us out of the Island and to recapture Nijmegan. They were in some strength with two Panzer Divisions having arrived and they certainly knew how to handle their artillery. While the guns giving support whenever necessary remained static, we forward OPs with the Infantry Battalions were kept very busy. The narrow roads from Driel back towards the reception area for the Airborne were in a dreadful state and only the jeeps with their stretchers equipped on the cross bars were able to negotiate such awful roads. Of course, throughout the night the Germans bombarded the whole evacuation area with intense mortar fire, hundreds of mortar bombs falling within the space of an hour.

Looking back it does seem quite amazing that so many exhausted Airborne troops were successfully brought back across the river and into the reception area, some of them extremely badly wounded. One felt disappointed and humbled to see the fortitude of these chaps when we had all started out on the operation with such very high hopes. The intention to evacuate the chaps of the 4th Dorset Battalion after the Airborne proved to be impossible to carry out and those courageous men were almost all lost.

One of my lasting memories of that fortnight on the “Island” is of the occasion when, with one of the Companies of 214 Brigade, I saw one of their 6-pounder Anti-Tank guns fire at a railway truck standing on an embankment. There was an almighty explosion as the truck was filled with shells and this left a very useful gap in the embankment for our Infantry to exploit.

However, our Divisional role on the Island  had come to an end and responsibility for that area fell to 8th and 12th Corps who also had the role of opening up the port of Antwerp for the necessary supplies to enable the further push eastwards across the Rhine.

 

Next Page 'Resting'