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MY MEMORIES OF ARNHEM 1944

Name: Leo Hall
Rank: Bombardier
Unit: 3 battery - E troop
Regiment: 1st Airlanding Light Regiment

 

Task of 3 Battery, comprising E Troop (4 guns) and F Troop (4 guns) was to support with artillery fire the 1st Para Brigade in its control of the Bridge (the primary objective). To this end the E troop Observation Party ("eyes of the guns") advanced along the Southerly Lion Route 6 miles to the Bridge with 2nd Battalion (Lt Col John Frost) and some Brigade HQ and attached Paras. E Troop Parachute Observation Party: Capt. Tony Harrison, Gnr Jock Morrison (humping a 68 back-pack wireless) and the present writer, (I/C Troop Signals). The three of us soon met Harrison's glider-borne jeep, driven by Bdr Mick Ogle (Harrison's observation assistant = OP Ack) and fitted with a 22 set operated by Gnr Jock Chrystal. The 22 set was in radio contact with the guns, now in readiness near the glider Landing Zone 3+ miles back from where we met. I told Chrystal not to transmit unless ordered to, this to preserve both security and battery - the power-pack, 'Dags' for short.

We had had the very minimum of briefing (Harrison's annoying style) but one glance at the map had shown that transmissions from the Bridge were going to suffer from screening by the buildings between the Bridge and the Oosterbeek proposed gun position, this unless we operated from a height - highly likely for an Observation Post (OP). I had been tempted to suggest a relay point on the top of a high building on the river road (a kind of 1 mile Strand leading to the Bridge) but chickened out - suggestions were rarely sought; they had a whiff of rocking the boat, anyway, when ventured; we signallers often felt like pieces of equipment, never like consultants!

Harrison went ahead in the jeep with Ogle and Chrystal: Morrison and I continued on foot. It was almost the Autumn equinox; that and the 2 hours Double Summer Time put dusk at about 8.00 pm (20.00 hours) when we reached the jeep at the Bridge. The D-day dusk appeared as black night as a German Arms Magazine on the north end of the Bridge lit the whole area with a series of explosions having been 'brewed up' by our troops. A rush of the leading 2nd Bn Paras to take the other end of the Bridge had been beaten back. Harrison was now in conference with the Battalion officers somewhere when two more pieces of bad news reached us, first that the Brigadier (Lathbury) was missing; radio contact with his jeep was lost; second, that the E Troop 22 set in our jeep was choked with interference making communications unworkable. There would be no artillery support unless we could communicate with the guns, scheduled to advance to an open-country position near the Old Church at Oosterbeek. The interference has been widely reported (now part of the lore) as emanating from a powerful British transmitter on a near frequency. But I recognised it, and remember it, as the sort of machine-gun crackle that unsuppressed electrical devices emit, particularly from unsuppressed vehicle engines. All Army vehicles were suppressed, as must have been all German army vehicles. An old Dutch lorry, brought out by the Oranje resistance to help us was a possibility. I realised the difficulties of all Para wireless sets working at ground level, particularly with the screening by the tall River Road buildings, and I felt we might have a chance when we took the 22 to some high OP.

Harrison reappeared; we were to go back down the River road! The five of us piled in the jeep and into the blackness of the night - well, almost black: you have to have lived in black-out conditions to gain a sensitivity of perception, aided by the light of the stars, to 'see' where you are going. We ran over a dead body as we went. Harrison didn't tell us the reason for the patrol/journey, and we didn't ask him. I assumed he was looking for traces of the missing Brigadier who had been last seen going down that way. The River road, the 'Strand', runs straight for a mile or more. It ends when the River sweeps left on its downstream course. Straight ahead, disappearing into close country is a minor continuation, the Lion Route, which we had come through some hours before. But branching somewhat to the right was a major road, the continuation of the River road diverging right slightly from the bent left sweep of the River. At this junction we stopped and switched off the engine. Harrison appeared puzzled, undecided. The opposite bank of the Rhine was quiet. Back at the Bridge the magazine was still giving off minor explosions. Over the main road, to the West was the light of activity: small arms and a good deal of tracer. A little way from us, near the River it seemed a weak voice cried out: "Tommy, help!" I had heard the same voice, much stronger, as, in daylight, we had emerged from the close country to take the River Road to the Bridge. Perhaps at that time I was so overcome by the sight of the Bridge in the far distance that I - but, no: this person needed help: but you don't mess about; you just mutter "Poor sod!". It was expedient that we get to the Bridge. He was ignored then and we ignored him again, an act that has bothered me from time to time, simply because, much later on, I realised that the Dutch as well as the Germans called us 'Tommy's'.

We headed back and unloaded the 22 set from the jeep into the 2nd Battalion HQ, overlooking the embankment of the high-rise ramp leading up to the main span of the Bridge. Back came Harrison to tell us that we were joining the OC's party in Brigade HQ, next door. This was the first I knew of Major Munford and his team of four or five being at the Bridge. So we lugged the 22 set, the 68 set and all our gear into the high Attic of Brigade HQ. There we saw the group from Munford's Battery HQ jeep working on their 22 Set; apparently the set was playing up, ('Dis') possibly damaged during Munford's daylight dash to the Bridge - see below. (Munford's 3 Battery HQ team comprised L/Bdr Crook (driver); L/Bdr (?) Bowles, MM - Italy, Gnrs Chubb Lowe, and Perkins) I rigged up our E troop 22 set at the top of the Attic steps under a skylight; the rod aerial I poked through the skylight as high as I could, worried that I might be risking trouble if the Germans spotted it at daylight. I switched on the set: still the crackle of interference making communications impossible. In order to check, I think, that the 22 wasn't faulty ('Dis'), I rigged up the 68 Back-Pack set that Morrison had humped the 6 miles-plus from our Dropping Zone. The aerial reached almost to the apex of the pitched timber-lined roof. Switching on, I found Interference still evident, but much less so than that on the 22. I called up Control (the Battery Command Post} on my 22 set asking ". . .report my signals, over. " (You don't say: 'Are you receiving me?'!) Through the 68 Set came the clear reply, "O.K. over" So that was it, cracked: transmit on the reasonably powerful 22 with outdoor aerial and receive on the less powerful 68 with indoor aerial. Don't ask me for technical explanations; I know of none, but I can still feel the glow of satisfaction at overcoming a difficulty vital to Artillery support for the Paras and this, I discovered years later, was when all other 22 Sets in the area were beset not only by interference but also by screening.

I catnapped during the night occasionally calling up Control to be sure of contact. I could not ask Control for information, or give them any; for security my contact had to be brevity itself. But I did slip up: I failed to send a message down to Munford and Harrison that we were through to the Battery. Neither officer had been up to the Attic, anyway; they may have been influenced by the general difficulty experienced by the ground troops and ourselves when jeep-bound. However, a message came up from Munford, by one of his crew, that Harrison was going to make his way back to the Battery and that Munford was coming up to the Attic to register the area at first light. (Registration involves the use of one gun to drop one or two H.E. shells on targets judged to be of importance to the enemy, e.g. a crossroad. Once the range etc has been adjusted using the single gun, an order would be sent - as was done for the Southern approach to the Bridge - "Record as Target Mike One". This order would ensure that the gun data would be ready to direct the fire of all 24 guns in the Regiment (with adjustments) on the Southern approach to the Bridge with the minimum delay, when the order "Target Mike One, one round gun fire, fire." was given. ( i.e. one round from each of the 24 guns) There were no other Mike targets in the Bridge area; there may have been some in the Divisional area. But Mike Targets are expensive on ammunition that had to be dropped from supply aircraft - a single shell weighing 15 pounds, plus the weight of the propellant and brass case. Normally an officer would call for a Troop Target (4 guns) or Battery Target (8 guns). To call for a Mike is a serious matter and must be justified, one round from each of 24 guns using half a ton of a Dakota payload.

I was still operating the sets until after Munford had registered his targets when other officers came up to view the area. They wanted to ask for air support, but their operator (Brigade set?) nearby, was out of touch. At this, Munford offered the use of my/our 22. I transmitted a request for bombing support over a square mile at the southern approach. Air traffic was busy with messages, officer to officer requests and gunfire, but perhaps an hour later I received a message from the Battery Command Post that the request for air support had been passed on to the CRA at Division HQ. (CRA = Commander Royal Artillery, a colonel who, I discovered, was also responsible for requests for air support). I recognised instantly the Birmingham voice of L/Bdr Gordon Willis over the radio: we had supped together in the posh room in the Swan, Salisbury, among Brigadiers and suchlike, earlier in the Summer! The air-support request was the start of the general use of our 22 for communications with the Oosterbeek area: I thought at the time that it was being used because it was convenient; in fact it was used because it was the only set with fair reliability. (See PART 2) I think that on that first full day of action (D+1) I may have been able to dispense with the use of the 68 for receiving; daylight would have attenuated much interference. (Daylight - Darkness affect wireless reception greatly)

On the Tuesday, the third day, D+2, Munford wanted a relay to be run from the 22 to the floor below. Chrystal and the Battery team worked that end, sometimes relieving me as I stayed in the Attic monitoring the behaviour and safety of the set with the remote control point below. Some damage had been caused to the North-East corner of the Attic by shelling, and Bowles and Chubb had suffered from fairly minor bullet wounds. Bdr Ogle, I discovered recently(!) had driven Harrison back to Oosterbeek at first-light on D+1. Morrison I had had to detail to join a suicide dash across the Bridge in an armoured carrier flown in, presumably, by Hamilcar glider. Such a vehicle offers protection only from small arms fire. The last I saw of Morrison was as he crouched behind cover, wearing body armour, rifle in hand. I was relieved when the venture was cancelled, Morrison staying, I guess, with the Paras. To his great credit, truculent bugger though he could be, Morrison had accepted the near suicide detail without a murmur.

It would be on that Tuesday when security on the air counted for little. Another 22 set in the Attic (Possibly that of Munford's group) had been searching the frequencies when contact was made with an advancing XXX Corps Tank. The Brigade Major spoke to the tank commander ignoring all security: "This is the First Airborne Division at the Bridge at Arnhem. When can we expect you?" (Or something similar) The hesitant reply gave a time for their attack, but none of us believed it. Munford, having to go down from the Attic on one occasion had given me permission to call for a round on Mike One if requested by a Para Officer. I was sorely tempted to do so anyway, just for the hell of it! Not many Bombardiers get the chance to fire a regiment of field guns! This account does not include much of the goings-on; we all knew the position was serious, that we must hang on, waiting for the relieving XXX Corps troops advancing from Nijmegen, and that we could expect no help from the rest of our Division being slowly strangled around Oosterbeek. But looking through the bashed-out windows of Brigade HQ, giving south, east and west views I saw to the west the nearby church of St Eusebius completely on fire. We were in the centre of a circle of blazing buildings, Our turn must soon come, The relieving XXX Corps of the 2nd Army had better put a move on - there was never any doubt that we should be relieved soon.

Wednesday, D+3, the fourth day saw, for some reason, a weakening of signals between our 22 and Oosterbeek. Perhaps some of my poked-out aerial had been shot off - it didn't occur to me to look: I was receiving them, with a little difficulty, but my transmissions went unnoticed. I learnt, recently, that the 3 Battery Command Post had moved from its own attic position near the Old Church at Oosterbeek into a cellar - could this account for the failure of communications from my 22 from that time? I decided to try Morse, with its greater range. There is a buff card containing the 'RA Code' which reduces any gun-control order to a 2-letter group, Signallers were permitted to remember only the code for 'fire', which was 'WA'. I remember asking the Sergeant I/C Battery signals to lay on Morse practice for us all during the Summer when we were stationed at Boston. He (Sgt D Newton) said that it wouldn't be necessary as during training in Tunisia in 1943 and when in action in Italy we had operated R/T (Radio Telephony - speech) from the weaker 21 Sets without any difficulties, which was true: we should never need to resort to W/T (Wireless Telegraphy - Morse) with this better 22 Set. Morse does rely on all the Battery operators on the Net (perhaps about eight 22 Sets) to have some proficiency.

I left the Attic and went below to the back of the two (Bde and Bn) buildings where about 10 jeeps were parked. I searched the glove compartments of what I remember as two Jeeps - *Munford's and Harrison's* for copies of the RA Code, without success. I was told that no one ordered them to be brought, and I cursed at my being with 1st Para Brigade, near Grantham, prior to the many briefings for cancelled operations, when the rest of the Battery were miles away at a Glider Airfield. [NOTE: If Harrison had returned to Oosterbeek in his jeep, driven by Ogle on D+1, how could I have searched it at the Bridge on D+3!] I returned to the Attic, switched to MCW (a Morse note) and tapped out the Call Sign. No response. The air was filled with mild interference of other faint R/T and W/T. I realised my fears, that my Morse was just another element of interference in the headphones of the Net. It was a tragedy of unpracticed perception. Artillery signallers were trained to a very poor W/T standard and the officers had their minds only, it seemed, on the many technical difficulties of providing speedy and accurate response from the guns. We had had no Battery exercises in training using solely W/T.

Alone in the Attic I lay beside my set with little to do except take in the continuous sound of Battle. No gun orders were being attempted; the two sides locked too close for Artillery support. Suddenly Munford appeared in the Attic; it would be late afternoon, Wednesday, D+3. "Come on!" he said; "We're evacuating the building." I got up. "What about the set?" I asked. His reply was terse and unmistakable: "Fuck the set!" But I turned back to switch it off to save the battery; faith that we were to be relieved by the advancing XXX Corps had never wavered; we could possibly reoccupy the building, later, so I did not spin the dials. On the floor below the RA team stood waiting for us. the noise of battle occupied every second; outside a German Tiger tank roamed up and down the road outside, unchallenged, firing at will at any likely resistance. Suddenly, everything happening within a second, a shell-burst fragment caught my hip, flinging me into the down-well of the stairs. My right leg and buttock were paralysed, useless; warm blood trickled down the lower sensitive parts. Munford and two others carried me down into the cellar for a dressing and eventual placing alongside the other wounded.

Eventually I heard calls above for the walking wounded, and, I think, for an English-speaking German prisoner. Then there was a silence; we knew that the Germans were coming in the building. A medical orderly, tending one of our wounded, kept calling "Kamerad" until a wounded officer told him to shut up. They came in, the Waffen SS, to help us out. They laid me on the embankment opposite our HQ, now ablaze and suffering the same fate that all the surrounding buildings had had. I was glad of the blaze; it was dusk, a chilly evening. A young SS came to me, gave me a lighted cigarette and a swig of cold ersatz coffee from his water bottle. They put me with others without serious wounds in a half-track and lurched us through the dark ghostly streets to St Elizabeth Hospital. Next day I was transferred to St Joseph's Lazaret in Enschede, a small town on the German border. Here I realised that the supreme faith I had of XXX Corps relieving us was misplaced. But I had no regrets; I had done my job and a bit more. I was thankful that I had kept my balance when both officers and men at the Bridge had lost theirs - but then, I was concentrating on the earphones; the din of Battle (its most unnerving feature) was attenuated; and I had the false safety of the Attic. I viewed my future as a Kriegie philosophically; I wasn't angry at the outcome: it had been a gamble, anyway, and in a sense, for me, but not for others, certainly not for the Dutch, for whom I grieved and felt my shame, an adventure. Being a POW was an experience, not an adventure; it shaped in seven months, my whole future being. [In my dealings with my German captors in the battle area I must emphasise that they behaved most honourably to me. A comrade in arms; I was, so to speak, one of them. I do not wish to deny atrocities - and there were undoubtedly some - but what I have just said about the German front-line soldier had to be said.

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