Sunday 17th September 1944:
Floating down after an uneventful flight I landed in some trees. Unbelievably the tranquility of the event was disturbed only by the monotonous drone of incoming planes and the sound of breaking tree branches. The stark contrast of this and the memory of the fiercely opposed night time landing to capture Primasole Bridge, in Sicily, which had occupied my thoughts since take off, seemed to confirm the expectations that this operation was a formality. I established contact with my section, part of the machine-gun platoon and awaited orders to move off. Screened from view by a canopy of trees we munched chocolate, smoked cigarettes and debated the possibility of spending the next weekend at home!
We waited impatiently for the order to move as the sound of distant gunfire intruded on our diminishing feelings of elation. Finally with the rifle companies leading the way we started our advance. Threading our way through discarded parachute and civilians busy collecting souvenirs we left the landing zone. Suddenly we heard the crack of a rifle shot somewhere ahead and took cover. There were sounds of a brief fire fight and after a short period we passed the body of a dead German at the base of a tree. The sounds of battle, both near and far, grew more insistent as we moved forward in fits and starts with no clear conception of what was happening ahead. We did know however, that we needed to press ahead urgently to our objective, the Bridge at Arnhem and that our forward platoons were incurring casualties! As darkness descended we left the road and took cover. There was a general feeling of disquiet........this was not going according to plan! By now we should have been advancing rapidly through the outskirts of the town, with the 2nd and 3rd Battalions on our right flank. Instead we were a depleted Battalion, isolated from the other Battalions, having made little progress!
Monday 18th September:
Sometime before dawn a jeep arrived and took us to an area on the outskirts of Arnhem. The Battalion was assembling for a determined thrust towards the bridge. We learned that the 2nd Battalion had reached their objective and controlled the north end of the bridge. Less welcome was the news that the rifle companies had suffered heavy losses through the night. Shortly after advancing we came to a residential area with a few houses and gardens. We halted and the residents emerged waving and cheering, with offerings of fruit and drink, overjoyed that they had been liberated. The euphoria was short lived as bursts of machine-gun fire raked the area. An old lady near us was hit in the back and we took cover as the leading elements dealt with this threat. As the open countryside gave way to built up areas we progressed in fits and starts, coming increasingly under fire from groups of enemy snipers. Progress became even slower as the forward companies encountered mounting resistance. We now realised that we had lost the element of surprise and any time wasted was to the enemy's advantage. It dawned on us that before we could reach our objective we faced a bloody battle through a built up area against defended positions. We settled down for the night in houses nearby, getting what rest we could. We heard movement in the houses above and to the rear of our position and assumed they were enemy. We made as little noise as possible! The guy next to me kept falling asleep and snoring loudly. I prodded him awake, lightly at first, but more and more forcibly as the night went on.
Tuesday 19th September:
Having survived the night, rested and fed, we emerged from our quarters in good spirits ready to do whatever was necessary to cover the two miles to our objective. With two hours of darkness to cover our advance our orders were to proceed with all speed. The enemy commanded the high ground to our left, so much of the progress was along the rear of buildings, which revealed an uninterrupted approach to the river. As daylight approached we found to our alarm that our position was totally dominated by an enemy strong point on the other side of the river. Armed with heavy canons they raked our exposed flank with a concentrated barrage and as light increased this took a heavy toll. We had nowhere to hide and the MMG and Mortar sections were deployed to counter this menace. I was number 3 on the left of the gunner as he commenced firing across the river. Suddenly the number 2 slumped sideways and remained still. Moving over I took his position and hoped that he had been hit with an indiscriminate shot and not a targeted one. A shout from the rear signalled us to pull out and stopping only to retrieve the ID discs of our comrade, we beat a hasty retreat. We were but a mile from the bridge!
Rejoining the main body we were confronted with a state of total confusion. Our line of advance was now blocked by armour and the Battalion, to all intents and purposes, ceased to exist. Just up the road we came across Andy Milbourne, his hands shattered and his face covered with blood, being attended by a medical orderly. He had been manning a machine gun post to cover our retreat and had taken a direct hit. No one seemed to be in command as we retraced our steps, a mixed group of units with no clear destination or purpose, bar to rejoin the main Divisional troops, now reinforced and somewhere to our rear.
At this point I was overtaken by an old friend, Jerry Curtis. Jerry had been my section Lance Corporal back in 1941 when we were designated 11 SAS and in Knutsford. We has become good friends and remained together until North Africa when he was promoted in the field to 2nd Lieutenant. He informed me that his runner had been killed and we agreed that I should take his place. On reaching a road junction all officers present were gathered to create a plan. On his return we were informed that there was a lot of German tanks in the area. We were to evacuate the area as soon as possible, making our way back to Oosterbeck where a defensive perimeter was being formed. I was not altogether thrilled with his next words though! He and I, plus an anti-tank gunner were to remain behind for 15 minutes to give cover. I mentally counted each minute until Jerry declared that our task was complete.At yet another road junction we took up a position among buildings. Fifty yards or so ahead were two gunners manning a solitary anti-tank gun. The sound of tanks approaching was the signal for the gunners to prepare for action and as a huge monster poked its snout over the crest of a hill they fired. The tank, damaged, came to a halt sideways across the road. A second tank, following the first, fired of its main armament killing both the anti-tank team but not before they had fired off another shell hitting the target and destroying the tank. As the fading light heralded the beginning of another night of doubt and confusion we rounded a bend to find a number of houses which offered a defensible position with a temporary advantage. We occupied the houses and dug slit trenches in the gardens at strategic points.
Wednesday 20th September:
As dawn approached we dispersed among the houses and gardens waiting for the inevitable onslaught. We also listened in vain for some indication of the promised breakthrough of the British 2nd Army. We sighted the remaining Vickers on a low wall giving us an unrestricted view of the demolished railway bridge over the lower Rhine. The attack, when it came, was heralded by the characteristic clunk of heavy armour. Round a bend came a tank and after halting, it systematically began demolishing all the buildings we occupied. The supporting Infantry were engaged by our force and both they and the tank were driven off, with casualties on both sides. Twice more the tank attacked, destroying more of the houses and denying us vital cover. The enemy Infantry had infiltrated our defences and posted snipers in commanding positions. The area was devastated, with many houses burning. We were forced to take refuge in the few remaining still intact. We barricaded windows with any furniture we could find and prepared for a last stand.
From across the road a figure appeared wearing a maroon beret. Halfway across he collapsed, hit by sniper fire. He was followed by another Airborne soldier, who stopping to help, was hit himself. With two bodies lying in the road I heard Jerry Curtis instruct everyone to remain in position, the front door opened and he was gone. Before he could reach the other two he himself was gunned down and died instantly. The house next door was on fire and death or captivity seemed the only possible alternatives.
It was decided that we would attempt to escape via the back door. I was to cover the breakout by mounting the Vickers in the the lane covering the rear of the intended route. In the house I had found a cigar, this seemed an appropriate time to savour its fragrance. The survivors were quickly assembled and we moved off. One member of our mixed group, composing of 1st, 3rd and 11th Para Battalions along with some South Staffs. was a padre. On noting that I was still in possession of the machine-gun, which now seemed to get heavier with every step, he stopped to offer some words of encouragement. The noise of battle was evident somewhere on our right flank. Rifle fire, mortars and occasional heavy artillery but incredibly our progress was unimpeded. We reached the end of a track revealing a large meadow. The lead elements of the group were halfway across when when a burst of machine -gun fire from the right cut them down. It was essential that we crossed this obstacle with the utmost speed in order to join up with our main force at the far side. It was decided to cross individually, each man waiting till the guy in front was halfway across before commencing his run. We reached the outer defences of our perimeter safely and I was ordered to surrendered my Vickers for a rifle. We were directed to the church and were addressed by Major "Dicky" Lonsdale of the 11th Battalion. He informed us that we were now under his command and designated "Lonsdale Force".
Thursday 21st September:
Dawn found us dug in overlooking a road junction to our front. Before long two self propelled guns with infantry support approached. We opened fire causing the attack to falter and comparative peace reigned once more. A new sound intruded on the sound of battle, the throb of approaching aircraft and then the sky was suddenly filled with Dakotas. They started dropping desperately needed supplies but too far away from us. We stood up waving our yellow triangles, arms, anything to attract attention but all to no avail. We watched in horror as planes were hit, caught fire and spiralled earthwards to destruction. Before long our position was being pounded with mortar shells. We withdrew to a tree lined ditch to the rear of our position till the barrage ceased. A salvo straddled our position, two shells exploded, one to our front and another to our rear, a third which landed between a Sergeant and another guy, unbelievably failed to detonate. As night fell and rain added to our discomfort we moved our position nearer to a mortar group, with houses in the vicinity. There was little enemy activity and we were able to snatch brief periods of sleep.
Friday 22nd September:
We now knew that the Germans had overrun the defences at Arnhem Bridge and could now concentrate all their available forces against us. The perimeter was now subjected to intense mortar fire and snipers were inflicting heavy casualties. We remained in a defensive position in the morning but with a lull in the intensity in the late afternoon a small detachment of us were sent out on a scouting mission. We noted the utter devastation around us, with bodies and debris from previous engagements lying everywhere. Without warning we were subjected to a barrage of shellfire. A soldier near to me dropped and although he was dead there was no sign of injury. We presumed he must have been killed by the blast. Having established that the area was clear at that time we returned to our lines to report. The Germans seemed to have a strange reluctance to fight during the hours of darkness. So as the light began to fade our hopes of surviving another day, maybe even rescue, were rekindled.
Saturday 23rd September:
We, a small detachment under the command of a Sergeant, were before first light tasked to relieve a similar group occupying a house overlooking a road junction. The garden at the back was separated from next door by a hedge, now flattened. The other house was one of a cluster on a road running parallel with the road we controlled. The group we were relieving had been involved in a number of desperate enemy assaults with tanks supported by Infantry. Once we had taken up our positions in the rooms the Sergeant asked me to liaise with other troops in the area including a group of glider pilots somewhere along the road to our front. After accomplishing this mission I was then told to to make our presence known to to a group of South Staffords located on our left.
I traversed the two gardens, noting with alarm the carnage and destruction which signified the importance of the position we were holding. I proceeded down a road, which was long and straight, coming across a destroyed Tiger tank. I looked inside and found the driver slumped forward with his head shattered. I had gone about 200 yards with no sign of other forces so I shouted, 'Any South Staffs around?' no reply. I continued another 50 yards or so when I heard some digging on the opposite side of the road. I located the sound on the other side of low brick wall and jumped over the wall asking 'are you the .....??? SHIT ......the enemy!!'
I kicked his machine-gun into the trench, jumped back over the wall and ran back zigzagging for all I was worth. Describing my experience to the Sergeant he sent me with one other to the forward garden to keep watch and meanwhile called down some light artillery on the position of the enemy. In the afternoon a line of Germans were observed approaching down the rear gardens. We opened fire and they quickly withdrew occupying one of the houses. As the light deteriorated it was obvious that we could not let them remain in that location whilst we could not abandon ours. We were ordered to storm the house and eliminate this threat to our rear.
In the fading light we moved in single file and reached the objective without detection. I was left at the rear to guard the closed back door whilst the rest moved to the side of the house. The officer in charge shouted out in German a command to surrender. There was no reply or sign of movement so I fired through the back door. This brought an immediate response and the occupants came out with no sign of opposition and surrendered. The officer said to me 'go into the house and make sure there are no enemy still in the house!' 'Not me again' I thought, but proceeded to go through the rooms with the speed of light, happy to report that it was empty. We marched our captives to the enclosed tennis court, reserved for enemy prisoners and proceeded to search them. I was about to search one of them when there was an explosion. I found myself on the floor and my immediate reaction was "Is this it....am I about to die?" There was no pain and I found that I was the only one hit, in the arm, leg and hand. My luck had ran out. Bleeding profusely I was taken to a temporary refuge in the cellar of a nearby house where my wounds were bandaged with shell dressings. Later in the evening I was moved to the house of Mrs. Kate ter Horst, a few yards from Oosterbeek church.
Sunday 24th and Monday 25th September:
The church was now a target of prime importance. From its high tower commanding an aerial view of the surrounding district, it was being used as an OP for the light artillery and also the heavy guns of the 2nd Army, now in range. Defended by anti-tank guns and mortars it was to be the scene of continual and intense fighting. Oblivious of this Mrs ter Horst and her children, confined to the cellar, moved among the wounded with words of comfort and compassion; helping with their dressings and last thing at night reading passages from the bible. Throughout Saturday and Sunday I lay on the floor along with badly wounded men occupying every available space, listening to the sounds of immediate battle which raged to the front and rear of the house. Twice during the two days the house was shaken by tremendous explosions in the immediate vicinity, with broken glass and plaster falling around us. We wondered where it was all going to end. On Sunday night we were addressed by a medical orderly, sent from Divisional HQ, who informed us that the bridge was now in the hands of the British 2nd Army and that the Guards Armoured Division was expected to relieve us in the morning. Throughout the night we heard spasmodic bursts of machine gun and rifle fire from near and far.
Tuesday 26th September:
No longer was the sound of battle in evidence as daylight filtered through the shattered windows. We waited and wondered, then Mrs ter Horst came in through the door. "I'm afraid that I have bad news for you", she said, "your comrades were evacuated across the river last night and the house is surrounded by Germans. An officer is waiting outside to speak to someone who is able to walk". I volunteered and on emerging from the front door was confronted by this officer who saluted and said in impeccable English, "Your people have withdrawn back to their own lines. I congratulate you on your efforts but you are now our prisoners, Please distribute these gifts". He gave me tins of cigarettes and bars of chocolate, obviously from the containers dropped outside our lines. Soon afterwards transport arrived and we were taken to the hospital at Apeldoorn. From there, two days later, those of us who were fit to travel were driven to the railway station en route to Stalag 11b at Fallingbostal.
Editor: Fred spent the rest of the war in Stalag 11B where his wounds became infected and he suffered from pneumonia. After liberation he spent 18 months on the long road to recovery before being pronounced fit. He now lives in Australia with his family.
Fred died in May 2009