On our return to the UK from Italy at the end of 1943, we trained hard for the coming invasion of Europe and it was, therefore, a blow to all of us in 1st Airborne Division that we did not take part in the D Day landings, but merely stood to on the airfields as an immediate reserve in case there was trouble in the bridgehead. During these long summer months we became increasingly frustrated as we waited for action. We planned and prepared for a number of likely operations which were cancelled. One near Caen was highly dangerous, with the DZs littered with Panzers, and there were other targets – Brest, Le Havre, the forests south-west of Paris, canal bridges on the Belgian border; and in early September, Operation Comet (later to develop into Market Garden) to be carried out by the 1st Division and the Polish Brigade.
On the morning of 17 September we were all thrilled to see large formations of Dakotas wheeling over our base at Melton Mowbray; it was the first lift of the operation flying in, and we knew the operation was, at last, on. Even then during the night there was a postponement in time of take-off. It was strange early next morning as we drove to Saltby airfield seeing the townspeople of Melton Mowbray going to work as we went to war. Even then at the airfield there was further delay due to the low mist. Our American aircrew finally came out, and I checked the aircraft with the pilot, who was dressed immaculately in service dress and cap, but he wasn’t sure if he had to fly in north to south or south to north! I told him to sort it out but he said, ‘Shit, I’ll just follow the rest’. At last we were off; flying in huge circles to get into the formation of nine aircraft in Vs- what the Americans call the ‘nine ship elements’. We crossed the Dutch coast when there was a little flak, and flew on over the fields flooded by the Germans, waving back at the Dutch families huddled on the roofs of their farmhouses. The aircraft formations tightened up as we flew about 50 miles inland, bearing north east over S’Hertogenbosch on to the final heading for our DZs 30 miles away. Here the fighter escort, 1200 aircraft in all, closed up expecting attack from the Luftwaffe; we started to fly through light flak and small arms fire; puffs of black smoke could be seen bursting among the aircraft ahead and there were a few near us, but we were hit only once with no damage. Flying as low as 700 feet, I could see the white upturned faces of the German flak gunners. An aircraft just to starboard received a direct hit and, on fire from nose to tail, passed just under my aircraft and crashed in a huge ball of white and red flame below, just missing two terrified carthorses. RAF Typhoons were also diving below our aircraft and strafing the German guns.
Finally we crossed the last river, the Rhine, hooked up and ready. I had a RAF Flight Sergeant from Ringway in my aircraft to help (several had come with the 4th Brigade as a result of a private arrangement between our Brigadier, Shan Hackett, and the PTS. They were ordered by the RAF not to ‘fall out’ of the aircraft). This sergeant was great, and he might have been dispatching over Tatton Park, dressed in a shapeless RAF battledress and scuffed shoes. At last, with a huge shout of ‘GO’ from the whole stick, I jumped, to be followed down the slipstream by a call from our RAF friend, ‘Give ‘em hell from Ringway’.
I did my usual untidy landing, getting entangled in my Schmeisser carried in the harness. I had landed just north of the new autobahn under construction and so had a good half mile walk to our battalion RV on the north-west corner of Ginkel Heide in the woods. I trotted slowly towards it, collecting some of my soldiers; I passed my company 2ic strolling up a track, saying ‘Hurry up Monty there’s a war on’. He replied, ‘So I see’. The aircraft formations continued to roar overhead and the air seemed to be full of parachutes – over 2,000 men were dropped in a little over ten minutes. The American aircrews were superb and, despite the flak and now the small arms fire, they flew on in perfect formation but I could see at the end of the DZ, where there was a considerable belt of fire (and where the 10th Battalion had to fight for their RV) that as each ‘V’ of nine aircraft completed their drop, they poured on extra power to climb out of the danger and into a more dispersed formation.
At the battalion RV the ordered drill of rallying the battalion was working well. My company had to push out patrols to the north to protect the RV from enemy reported in the nearby Ede barracks. One was captured but when interrogated in German, answered in perfect English; he was a Pole. After about an hour the battalion was ready to move, less about 90 men missing, either from aircraft shot down, or killed, wounded by enemy fire or injured from the drop; one of my platoon commanders was missing, later found shot on the DZ. Just short of the Wolfheze crossing and as dusk was falling we joined up with the glider lift of the battalion: HQ and support company jeeps and carriers and anti-tank guns, which had landed on an LZ south of the railway. Soon after we were strafed by some German ME 109s. We continued to move forward slowly in the dark and the first fatigue was starting to set in, despite our fitness; it had been a long day with an exciting flight and drop, and a march forwards with everyone carrying heavy loads of 80-120 pounds.
Our leading C Company met strong opposition as it approached the railway cutting at Oosterbeek and the night was full of orange and mauve tracers, and soon burning houses lit the sky. Our battalion was ordered to halt and to move again at first light; fresh orders were issued. C Company were to push on again to take the high point ( high for Holland!) in a wood just north of the railway station. It was a slow job moving through the hedges and fenced suburban garden of the neat houses, where surprisingly we met some Dutch families calmly sitting down to breakfast. Soon a firefight ensued, including tank fire against our houses, but our supporting fire role had been completed and we had to withdraw all the way back again along and over the railway into the Johanna Hoeve woods.
I reported to my CO on the edge of the wood to be briefed. He had just been visited by Brigadier Shan Hackett, who had left with him saying, ‘There are a lot of English faces down at the bridge eagerly awaiting us…’ which in his words meant that we had to get a move on. I was told of C Company’s position and that A Company had attacked past their left onto the road running south to Oosterbeek, and I was ordered to pass through and move on to the Lichtenbeek feature in the woods 300-400 yards beyond the road. I was told that there were only a few snipers.
Later, I found out that A Company had been held up by heavy fire from the road and that John Pott (who had won an MC in 1943 leading his company in a gallant attack against a strong position of German parachutists), had made a left flanking attack to reach the road to fight a desperate battle among the houses beyond the German armour and infantry. He with a group of his men then got onto the Lichtenbeek feature, and held it for several hours under repeated attack, until finally he and most of his men were either wounded or killed, and finally overrun.
I advanced with two platoons forward either side of a main ride in the woods. After a short while we encountered very heavy Spandau fire and bullets were ricocheting off the trees in all directions. I came to a clearing of felled timber, and by a pile of logs there was a Platoon HQ of A Company, all dead. Ahead a quick firing gun was slamming HE shells into the scrub where my left hand platoon was trying to edge forward, and they were taking heavy casualties. I then saw the gun at the end of the ride about 150 yards ahead on the road – it appeared to be a twin barrelled 20 mm flak gun on a half track chassis. As it was opposite my line of advance, I decided to move forward myself to try to knock it out, with some of my soldiers and with Tom Wainwright, OC Support Company (what was he doing up there?!).
Hearing the noise of fighter aircraft Tom suggested a dash across the clearing while enemy’s heads were down but the aircraft, as they passed very low overhead, had that prominent black cross on their sides – they were ME 109s and not Spitfires or Typhoons. God knows we could have done with the latter there! Nevertheless we pushed on through the scrub until we were within 15 yards of the gun; the Germans were all shouting at one another and I could hear the empty shell cases rattling down on the deck; one could now sense that there were a lot of other armoured vehicles on that road.
Just then the soldier on my right was hit smack in the forehead by a bullet, and I saw that there was a sniper in the tree above the gun. I had only my .45 Colt and no Schmeisser so I fired five rounds at him and he, or someone else, shot me in the lower stomach. When I came to, and started to crawl away he fired another shot, hitting the ground near my hand. I collapsed and lay doggo, until I heard a crashing through the bushes and a large Rhodesian private, Ben Diedricks (we had about 20 Rhodesians serving in our battalion since our stay in the Middle East), picked me up in his arms and carried me back some 200 yards to Company HQ. At the battalion RAP our doctor, John Buck, must have thought that I had had it for all he did was to chuck me his silver whisky flask! At the Field Ambulance casualty post half a mile back I was given a plasma transfusion which was better than the whisky, and then, wrapped in a billowing parachute, I was taken on a stretcher jeep to Oosterbeek to the Tafelberg Hotel where 181 Airlanding Brigade Field Ambulance had set up a main dressing station. The billiard room was used as the operating theatre, and after I was operated on, I was moved out into the dining room. After about a day, as more wounded came flooding in even faster, I was moved out to a nearby house.
As no resupply had been received, the initial quantities of food and medical stores were fast running out. The Germans shelled and mortared the perimeter throughout the day and of course the dressing stations, being in the front line, were being repeatedly hit and the wounded were being wounded again or killed. The nights were cold and it had started to rain, a dismal drizzle; there were very few blankets and most of us were lying half naked on the floor having (had our clothes cut off by the medics) or sharing mattresses from the hotel. Smells are usually held to be one’s most evocative memory, and I can still smell today that mixture of wet earth, burnt cordite, brick and plaster dust, and pus that permeated those days. Towards the end of the battle there must have been over 3,000 casualties in this situation on the perimeter. A large proportion were evacuated to German hospitals towards the end during a short cease-fire organised by the ADMS, our head doctor, Colonel Graeme Warrack and a German medical officer. Graeme Warrack was truly a tower of strength and a source of encouragement to all of us lying helplessly in these battered houses. He was one of the greatest unsung heroes of the battle, as were his medical orderlies, who carried on without rest for over a week in their task of caring for the wounded, despite the fact that the dressing stations were under fire from snipers and from mortar and tank fire. On one day the room in which I was in received a direct hit, killing about six men and wounding others including myself, and this was followed by a rush of steel-helmeted Germans through the house. A counter-attack was launched and the airborne troops drove them out, and this was repeated several times until finally we were in German hands. Two Germans came in and set up a fire position in the wrecked bay window, but soon one of them was hit by an airborne sniper firing from a house across the road. A huge German feldwebel came in and lectured us on the evils of our soldiers firing at a house flying the Red Cross flag, and then he proceeded to shout at the wounded German, who was moaning pitifully. The next day in the morning the whole area around us was subjected to an even heavier concentration of fire, but this time it came from our own medium artillery (5.5 inch) which had been providing superb close fire support around the perimeter over the last few days; this was a very unfortunate lapse. Our room again got a direct hit and particularly the wounded German. I woke up, wounded again, under a pile of rubble but most of the others were killed except for a glider pilot officer, who had both legs smashed when his glider crash landed, lying screaming underneath a large piano across his shattered legs. Our house soon caught fire and the medical orderlies carried us out. I found myself on a house verandah behind, and close to, a gruesome sight of some 30 bodies stacked in a pile; they must have been those who had died of wounds or had been killed by mortar or shell fire in the dressing station.
A jeep suddenly drove up and out jumped a Sergeant Chivers, not only from our own 156 Battalion, but also from my original regiment, the Somerset Light Infantry. He said, ‘Good God, Major Waddy, what are you doing here?’ and I said, ‘Just get me out of here.’ I was, with some other casualties, loaded onto his jeep and driven down a road strewn with wrecked vehicles and fallen tree branches. I thought that we had been relieved by Second Army, but too soon the jeep turned a corner, and drove into a space behind what I now know to be a fire station, and there in a huge semi-circle were some 100 SS soldiers with machine guns on tripods. The wounded and the stragglers were being rounded up by the Germans, in company with airborne medical staff and the padres, all of whom had stayed behind to carry on their care for the wounded. If battle honours could be awarded to the RAMC, then Arnhem & Oosterbeek should be one of its finest feats.
All the wounded, and there must have been over 3,000, were taken to a large empty barracks of the pre-war Dutch Army at Apeldoorn where the division’s medical staff were establishing a British hospital nearby. I was taken to a German hospital full of their wounded, mainly from the SS Panzer Division that we had been fighting, but one might have thought that they were on our side by the way they helped our soldiers as they came in and were put into their wards. A lightly wounded SS corporal helped me onto a bed, took off what was left of my blood-soaked and dusty clothes and, seeing that I was hit in the jaw, then carefully peeled and cut up an apple to feed me. I asked him to find out what had happened to a young soldier of the 1st Battalion with a badly smashed face who had been with me; next day the SS man came and sadly told me that ‘der Junge’ had died.
The German doctors and staff were very correct and attentive throughout my six weeks’ stay in that hospital, although their medical resources were limited, consisting mainly of paper bandages and lashings of acriflavine; anaesthetics especially were in short supply for anything other than major surgery. Colonel Graeme Warrack visited twice on his rounds of other hospitals and he said that the German Army were ten years behind in battlefield surgery. One day two German surgeons at the end of my bed discussed whether they would amputate my foot (amputations were apparently an all too common remedy in the German Army and an elderly German orderly gave me an example of heavy German humour – ‘never report sick with a headache’). The two doctors abruptly broke off their discussion when one said, ‘ The major speaks German’; anyway the matter was solved by a large blonde German nursing sister who later pulled out a two inch long mortar splinter in one excruciating moment, complete with some sock knitted by Ann (who was at that time my fiancée and later became my wife).
There were one or two dramas: once after a RAF Spitfire had put a burst of cannon fire through the operating theatre, killing a German nurse and a British soldier, I got a bollocking form the hospital matron about the British disregard for the Red Cross on the roof; she was a formidable lady like so many of our military matrons. On another occasion, a soldier from our own battalion, Private Greer, the battalion humorist, climbed out of his bed one, walked across the ward and turned a picture of Hitler face to the wall, saying, ‘I can’t stand looking at that bastard any longer’. At first, the Germans laughed. ‘He’s mad’, they said meaning Hitler of course, but the arrival of a German nursing sister changed the situation and we all got another rollicking. Eventually sometime in November the last of the airborne wounded were shipped or rather railed out of Holland into Germany – the inevitable ‘das Transport’ had come. Colonel Warrack’s hospital in Apeldoorn had been emptied, and he himself with a number of his doctors had at the end slipped away into the efficient and caring hands of the Dutch underground, and most would finally make their way home to safety.
We left Apeldoorn station in a German hospital train, the centre two coaches of which contained British wounded. The journey through the shattered railway system of Germany down into Graz in Austria to offload the Germans (‘nichts fur Tommy’ we were told) and back up to a Stalag hospital took over six days. The painful tedium of the journey was relieved by the usual irrepressible humour of the British soldier. The panels on the outside of the coaches were soon chalked with huge Victory ‘V’s which caused consternation as the train pulled into platforms crowded with German military and civilians. At one station, some of our soldiers had blown up condoms and drawn on the end Hitler’s well-known features, and when these were displayed to the waiting throng on the platform they at first evoked some merriment until the arrival of an officious Nazi official.
Stalag VIIa, Moosburg, was a mixed camp for Russians, French, Polish and British soldiers, but it had a hospital (or what passed for one), and here I spent another three months before being passed fit enough to go out into the compound, where some 120 officers were held, mainly airborne forces and from special forces taken in south-east Europe. Food was almost non- existent in the whole camp but much more so in the Russian compounds which were at starvation level, and this enabled the Germans to recruit Russians into their army as late as April 1945.
As the spring of that year blossomed, the sounds and sights of the approaching fronts became more evident. We had a superb grandstand view, almost daily, of the massed daylight bombing raids by the US Air Force on targets all around us; and for several hours each night we could hear and feel the RAF heavies doing their stuff. After the war the Allied bombing offensive has been denigrated as having achieved little in the strategic field, but certainly from what we saw and heard from the Germans in our camp, it had a significant effect on their morale.
Finally, at the end of April, artillery fire was heard during the night a few miles off and in the morning tanks could be seen several miles from the camp; before long they swept past and through the thick pinewoods in a headlong advance to Munich and beyond. It was George Patton’s army on the move and highly efficient it looked. About noon a huge Stars and Stripes flag was seen on the church tower of the hill top village of Moosburg: in front of me was the figure of a broad based American Air Force officer, who remarked, ‘Well kiss my naked ass, it’s the flag.’ We were liberated. A few days later, we were flown out to Rheims, courtesy of the USAAF, and from there back to England, after a day’s delay, by RAF Bomber Command, after they had recovered from their VE Day celebrations. At an airfield in Buckinghamshire we were met by the charming ladies of the WVS with a cup of tea and a packet of ten Gold Flake cigarettes: we were home, almost.