Our battle began about 10 minutes after we got the 20 minute 'Prepare for action' call from our American crew chief. I guess we were flying at 600 ft, in tightish formation, somewhere over the Rhine estuary. As always most of us were ready in about 10 minutes. We consisted of batman, CSM Gatland and a section of the 3in Mortar Platoon. We had 3 doorloads (folding trolleys) and I expected the crew chief to be busy checking these, but he was lounging in his seat apparently asleep. I moved into a good kicking position, but then noticed a large and growing pool of blood under his seat. A second glance convinced me that he was probably dead.
I then moved to the jump door and was astonished to find that we had left the formation and were flying very steadily well below it. A glance at the ground, perhaps 4 cricket pitches distant, confirmed this, but as the jump light was firmly at red and time was obviously getting short, I shouted to my CSM, near the end of the stick, to open the crew compartment door. As soon as he did so a great gout of smoke poured down the plane, and we saw some impressive looking flames. This caused some comment from the soldiers. Many of them were carrying 60lb of sensitive high explosive (6 mortar bombs) and they seemed anxious to leave, but none of them knew how very close the ground was. I gave the order to jump and as No 1 led the way. Despite the heavy loads it was a very quick stick. There was no time to release our weapon containers, but despite the heavy and awkward loads (mortar barrels, bipods etc) by a miracle there were no casualties. I was two light. The Section Sgt had been in the plane and was presumed dead. Pte McNaught had fallen over on his way to the door.
Meanwhile we came under fire from a ground patrol, which was serious as apart from two Stens, all others were armed with pistols. However, the patrol was luckily small and very cautious. After about a mile we merged with Ding Bell (also shot down) of C Coy,11th Bn, which not only doubled our numbers, but gave us real firepower - two LMGs and rifles. We were then able permanently to discourage the patrol; and I mean permanently.
I had taken a bearing on the planes before they disappeared, so knew which way to go; but I guessed we must be at least 15 miles short of the, DZ: a long carry for 3in mortars without trolleys. It took us almost 18 hours. We acquired during the afternoon three guides - 2 Dutch and a Belgian, with whom I could converse in bad French. After dark, possibly at 9pm, they stopped at a farm where we got a splendid meal of milk, hard boiled eggs, bread, cheese and onions, and had a well deserved rest and a heated conference. The news was already that the battle, for the British, was going badly. The Germans had surrounded Arnhem in force, and if we went on we would be captured. The Dutch advised us to split and hide in safe houses. The two Dutch guides said that they must anyhow withdraw as the curfew was in force, and if caught they would be shot. After suitable thanks and good wishes we proceeded with the Belgian.
During the night we met several German patrols. They were mostly large (about 20); not well trained ie noisy, and in each case we got prior warning and merely went to ground. Eventually we got to the railway where German troops were digging-in, and in by-passing them we ran into a sentry who left his challenge too late, so we had to shoot him. Surprisingly, nothing untoward followed, and some time after dawn we reached the DZ.
Our Belgian guide had disappeared somewhere en route, but from the DZ on no guides were needed as we merely followed the litter trail of sweet wrappings and various other rubbish, which brought us to Brigade HQ.
That evening I was ordered by Lonsdale to the Kate ter Horst house RAP, where I spent the next 3-4 days. I left her house on the morning of the 8th day, and I was lucky to go. I eventually found refuge in a house, perhaps,400 yards NW from the Vicarage, occupied by glider pilots, where I got my first real meal and beverage for 3 days. It seemed like heaven, but they departed in the night without waking and telling me, and I was a little aggrieved. I doubt that I could have made it to the river, but it would have been good to have the chance.
One other echo from the past occurred just before I led the 1991 pilgrimage. A man called Joop Siepermann got in touch with me. He too was researching the planes shot down and not only had a list of all my soldiers, and how they fared; but my own address and telephone number which is not in any book; and more important the name of the pilot. When we parted I mentally wrote off the plane, and indeed, we found no trace of it on our route. We had a splendid pilot. Whilst we were busy in the back he lost his starboard engine, and the undercarriage crashed down; the navigator and radio operator were killed, and the co-pilot wounded. In the back it all seemed as peaceful and steady as a training jump. Meanwhile George Merz, the pilot, was blinded by smoke but opened the roof hatch and got some visibility. He could not land - polder country with deep ditches running to the Rhine, but presumably on the port side he spotted two ditches running away to the North, and with a sharp turn steered between them to make a perfect landing next to a farm. He escaped through the roof and rushed to the rear, where he and Pte McNaught extricated the crew chief and co-pilot. They left the crew chief at the farm, where he would have died anyhow, but 20 minutes later an SS patrol, led by a Dutchman appeared. They took his watch, money and cigarettes and boots; then shot him, with the excuse that he would have died if left. The Dutchman was identified after the war and executed as a war criminal.
Meanwhile the other three pressed on, and luckily met up with a contact to the Resistance. The co-pilot was taken away for medical treatment and his future is unknown. Merz and McNaught went together to various safe houses and escaped a month later, with Tony Hibbert on Pegasus I.
See also George Merz's reply under 'letters'.