For three months the 11th Battalion lived at almost constant alert, with no leave, continual planning and restricted access to nearby towns. We had a great fear that the war would be over before our assistance was called for and the girls of Melton Mowbray were already beginning to label us 'Home Guards'.
Market Garden changed all that. Our objective was the far bridge at Arnhem, and as soon as the soldiers were briefed the camp was sealed by military police. Contact was broken with the outside world and the telephone lines cut, so there could be no spoken goodbyes — soldiers wrote their farewell letters, but knew that they would not be posted until they had landed in Holland. It was always annoying for married men not to have that last word with their wives but once briefing had taken place, security had to be paramount.
The overall plan left a few unanswered questions. We were pleased to have the far bridge; that seemed the place of honour. But it was a long way from 21st Army Group's present positions and although Monty had promised likely relief within 48 hours, it was clear that many things might upset this forecast. There were only enough planes to carry a third of our division. Because of the distance this meant that our arrival would be spread over at least three days. And because Air Force intelligence indicated that the bridge area was probably covered by anti-aircraft defences, drop zones were agreed reluctantly well to the west of the town. 1st Brigade, Divisional HQ and much of the Airlanding Brigade in gliders were to have the honour of the first day, whilst we would follow early the next morning.
Our brigade should have left Lincolnshire at dawn on D+ I but the airfield was blanketed with thick fog. When, eventually the red light came on we quickly sorted ourselves out and, as No. 1, I took up my position near the door with my batman close behind.
With five minutes to go the crew chief should have been busy rechecking all our equipment. He was a nice young American encased in nylon body armour, but at that moment he made me angry because he was lounging in his seat, a picture of contented idleness. 'Bloody Air Force,' I thought, and shouted at him. There was no reaction. It was only then that I noticed a large and growing pool of blood beneath his seat. He was dead, shot through the floor of the plane. When I looked out of the door I had a further shock – our port wing was on fire and we seemed 200 feet from the ground!
I shouted to my sergeant major to open the crew cabin door and when he did so all we could see was smoke and flames. I immediately gave the order to jump and we crashed the red light, an indictable offence but it probably saved our lives. I landed very heavily and, nursing my bruises, counted the rest down. We were two light. Our pilot was a conscientious and brave man; although the plane was now a veritable fireball, he flew straight and level until he disappeared low over the horizon.
With our heavy loads and no trolleys we plodded towards our objective. The inevitable small boy joined us and we soon came under fire but only had one casualty – the boy, shot through the stomach. We carried him to a nearby house and left him with the startled occupants.
We were now in an awkward situation; most of my soldiers were mortar-men who only carried a pistol for personal protection. So my large army of 17 men possessed only one rifle and two machine carbines between them. Meanwhile an enemy patrol was snapping at our heels but luckily they were not very bold. We made good progress towards Arnhem and en route came across Lieutenant Keith Bell and his C Company men who'd also been shot down. At dusk we decided to rest in a small copse until dark.
On the edge of this copse a Dutch farmer was milking his cows. Although communicating with him was difficult he did put us in touch with three young men who would act as guides. We had 20 miles to go and just before midnight we rested in a farm house where we had a splendid meal. Never had food tasted so good.
Meanwhile, Lambert Ledoux, a Belgian and the French-speaking member of the guide party, explained that the battle in Arnhem was going badly; the British were completely surrounded and we would have little chance of reaching them. He also told us that they could take us no further – they were in danger of being shot if they were caught out of doors after curfew but he offered to hide us until the situation became more clear. After some thought, we thanked them for their help and food, but we must, we said, go on.
We had not gone far before we realised that the redoubtable Ledoux was still with us. A few miles further on we heard the sound of digging so Lambert and I crept forward to try and identify the diggers, but we couldn't make out what language they were using. Lambert motioned me back and crept forward. Suddenly he shouted, 'Les boches'. There was a burst of firing; a sound of running feet; some angry German shouts and then silence. We said a silent prayer for Lambert and then quietly withdrew. He was a brave man.
Veering north again we struck the railway which would take us directly to Arnhem. Suddenly we came across the welcome sight of dozens of parachutes draped over gorse bushes and lying on the ground. We had reached the drop zone and at once came under fire from our own side – the wounded soldiers who'd been left at the DZ. We found bodies too, of members of 4th Brigade, who'd faced an opposed landing.
From now on neither guides nor map reading were necessary – we merely followed the brigade litter. Parachute soldiers are always grossly overladen and take early opportunity to lighten their loads. Sweet and chocolate wrappers came first and then, as the going got longer and harder, the odd respirator or other item of kit not deemed necessary for killing Germans.
By mid-morning we had almost caught the end of the brigade tail, so we took the opportunity to have a quick breakfast and to tidy ourselves up; we desperately needed the rest and it was important to arrive in good order. I found Brigade HQ, apologized for our late arrival and enquired after our battalion but nobody knew where it was.
Near midnight a cheerful driver arrived in a Bren carrier to collect ammunition for the troops at the sharp end and he professed to know where my battalion was. Quickly I obtained permission to go and look for them. We hurtled through the night without lights until we reached our destination just north-west of the railway bridge at Arnhem. 'Your 11 Para,' said the driver, 'are over there,' and gestured into the darkness.I set off in that direction and struck lucky – I stumbled into C Company and my old platoon sergeant.
Dawn brought a gloomy picture. I expected to find myself in a well-prepared battalion position. But of some 35 officers only two were left. The 700 soldiers had shrunk to less than 100. I learned that in its struggle to reach 2 Para on the bridge the battalion had met heavy opposition on the outskirts of the town. This remnant – mostly C Company – was all that remained.
Later that morning a supply drop came of much-needed food, ammunition and medical stores. We watched helplessly as wave after wave of aircraft flew steadfastly into heavy ack-ack fire, incurring many casualties, and then dropped our desperately needed stores into German hands.
At about lunch time we gained a new commander, Major Dickie Lonsdale. Shortly after his arrival we saw our first tank which began to shell our position. I was told to take some soldiers and shift it. We had no anti-tank weapons in our position except a PIAT, but its crew was dead so I left it behind and took five soldiers who were near to hand. We moved off cautiously and to my relief made the first house undetected, burst in through the back door and made straight for the cellar. We were about to clear it by tossing in a grenade when we noticed a very tearful housewife and some young children.
Upstairs I heard several quick shots which had disposed of two snipers. In the second house we approached the cellar door quietly and threw it open. Inside was a very surprised German soldier who was carrying his rifle carelessly at 'the trail', which is just about the worst possible way of carrying a rifle to allow quick action. I calmly pointed my pistol at his chest and told him to put his hands up. He was a far smarter soldier than I had credited. In one swift movement he tipped up his barrel and fired one-handed. I could feel my breast bone exploding. In a reflex action I also fired twice; with a .45 Colt at point blank range there was no need to inspect him. Blood was now also gushing from a hole in my chest about an inch above the heart.
There was more shooting upstairs. Two more snipers had been accounted for in the front bedroom.We then inspected the rear. About six feet below one of the bedroom windows was our tank – not in fact a tank at all but a large tracked SP gun. Its commander had his head and shoulders above the hatch and was warily observing his front. We hastily withdrew into the room and prepared our secret anti-tank weapon. It consisted of an army sock packed with plastic explosive and detonated with the fusing device of a 69 grenade. We opened the window and dropped our bomb at a point just past the commander's hatch. There was an impressive bang, a great deal of smoke and one very dead-looking commander.
On our way back — for some unaccountable reason — we stumbled into a chicken pen and had to force a way through the wire, just as we started to crawl through, a German stick grenade hurtled through the air. There was a tremendous bang and I received fragments in the leg but one of the soldiers had taken most of the blast on his thigh. We dragged him clear and had what seemed an interminable journey over 300-400 yards back to our position. I was told to repair to the medical centre in a house near Oosterbeek church.
The aid post was a splendidly solid Dutch house belonging to a solicitor who was absent with the 'underground'. His young wife, Kate ter Horst, had willingly agreed that her home be turned into a hospital. My heart went out to her and her young children. What was obviously once a beautiful home was now a shambles. Bodies, alive and dead, filled every room and passageway. Dirt, blood, smells and groans were everywhere. It was reminiscent of the Crimean War and she was a modern Florence Nightingale.
I passed the next few days in a deliberately comatose state. With no resupply there was little food and the Germans had turned the water off at the mains. Although there was a pump not far away in a garden, it was constantly monitored by German snipers. After two precious medical orderlies had been killed trying to get to the pump some of the wounded tried but they too paid their toll. The doctors were marvels — they never seemed to stop and never seemed to sleep although they were inundated with patients and short of all supplies. But the heroine of the hour was undoubtedly Kate ter Horst. She had, I believe, five young children yet somehow she not only kept these amused and happy in her dark cellar but read us psalms, chatted and cheered us all whilst her home grew more damaged, soiled and sordid.
Eventually the house was over-full and still the wounded came in. Many were serious cases and inevitably a system of culling took place. Lesser casualties were asked to leave. They left in some sorrow not knowing where to go. My own position was not a particularly happy one. Medical supplies were now at a premium and I could expect no more meaningful treatment. A shot of morphine had brought a tremendous feeling of well-being on each of the first two days but a greater one of depression when the practice ceased. I decided to leave. I found my way to a house on the perimeter where there were some glider pilots. I remained with these new friends for several days until one early morning I was awakened by harsh German voices and discovered to my surprise that I was the sole occupant of the house. I was taken outside and placed in a small open vehicle. I asked a guard who spoke English, 'What happened to my friends?' He said, 'Don't you know? They have gone. They crossed the river last night. They left only the wounded behind!'
I was shattered and angry but on reflection decided that it had been a sensible decision. To break contact at night is a difficult manoeuvre. Stealth, silence and speed are all essential. Wounded passengers would jeopardize the safety of all. But it seemed a poor way to end a great adventure. Taking stock I decided that I had little to be proud about. I had led a company of soldiers to Arnhem and had scarcely fought with them. It was clear that our mission had failed and that the very people whom we had set out to liberate would now pay dearly for our failure.
And at what cost? It was many months before I discovered. Over 10,000 set out. Only 2,163 crossed the river on that final night and more than 1,200 lay dead upon the northern bank, including every officer but one in my own company. However General Eisenhower did write to the divisional commander: ‘In this war there has been no single performance by any unit that has more greatly inspired me than the nine-day action of your division. Your officers and men were magnificent. The Allied forces salute them!’