In July 1944 I passed out of Staff College, and was posted to 1st Parachute Brigade as brigade major to General Lathbury. Morale wasn't exactly low, but everyone was getting edgy as they'd had six or seven operations cancelled since D-Day. I soon found myself rocketing down from Grantham to Moor Park once or twice a week to attend briefing sessions by General Browning on a series of operations which were first delayed then cancelled.
On 6 September we were given the details of the fifteenth operation in this series — Operation Comet. This involved 1st British Airborne Division taking on all the tasks which three Divisions failed to complete ten days later. On its own, 1st Parachute Brigade had the task of capturing and holding Arnhem. I wish to God Comet had gone ahead. It could have worked; at that stage the Germans were still demoralized, still on the run and hadn't had time to regroup and reorganize. But Comet was cancelled.
On 10 September, the original D-Day for Comet, we were briefed for Operation Market Garden — a re-hash of Comet — but with three Divisions instead of one, and with the whole of 1st British Airborne Division and Polish Parachute Brigade taking on the task of capturing Arnhem Bridge and holding it for 48 hours. There was a considerable gung-ho spirit and I'm sure that if somebody had offered to drop us in the middle of Berlin we'd have been as happy as sandboys. I believe Browning shared this over optimism and was not as careful as he should have been when planning the Arnhem operation. Brian Urquhart (Browning's intelligence officer) came to see me after the briefing. He'd received confirmed reports that the 9th and 10th Panzer Divisions were in the Arnhem area, but Browning dismissed these and a doctor suggested that Urquhart was under stress and should rest. The operational plan was gravely flawed. Insufficient planes were allocated and of these something like 30 were taken to land the Corps Headquarters with Browning, South-East of Nijmegen, where they failed to influence the battle in any way. By dropping there he succeeded in putting himself out of communication with everyone in the critical first five days, and removing those planes from the 1st Division meant that we had to drop in three separate waves which ensured that the Division could be taken out In bits by the Germans. A fatal flaw. The next disastrous decision was the refusal of the Air Force to drop the 1st Division anywhere near the bridge, on the basis of faulty intelligence which suggested that there were antiaircraft guns on the bridge. Urquhart didn't have the experience needed to overrule both Browning and the Air Force. The only person who could have done that face-to-face was Eric Down, but he was no longer with us. These and other errors were leading to an epic cock-up.
After an uneventful flight we dropped on a lovely day with no opposition. John Frost, commanding 2nd Para Battalion, got off at good speed along the Southerly route next to the river, followed by 1st Brigade HQ. Moderate fire opened up early on 1st and 3rd Battalion fronts. After we'd been marching for two hours up roared General Urquhart. He was a reserved, gentle person but now he was really angry and asked me what the hell we were doing. I said we were advancing on the bridge, and he said, 'I can see you're doing that but you're moving too bloody slowly, get your Brigade moving, Hibbert. Where's your Brigade Commander?' I told him he was back with the 3rd Battalion trying to push them forward faster, and off Urquhart went in a cloud of steam to find him. His parting words were, 'Unless we can get to the bridge before those bloody tanks this is going to be a cock-up.' I passed on the gist of the message to John Frost who was advancing along an unreconnoitred route and was up against more vigorous opposition than we'd been led to expect. We continued to advance behind the 2nd Battalion, and by now it was getting dark. We were in single file and were very strung out; it was our task to slip through to the bridge without getting involved in street fighting and it was important we kept quiet as the Germans were only two streets away. However, every few yards Dutch civilians would come rushing out of their houses shouting 'Good Bye Tommy' at the tops of their voices and offering brandy and apples to the troops.
As we neared the bridge I managed to get radio contact with Brigadier Lathbury and told him that Colonel Frost, with the 2nd Battalion, was on the bridge and we (Brigade Headquarters) were about to join them. The route 2nd Battalion had taken was still clear so I suggested that he should side-step 3rd Battalion along the Southern route and bring them onto the bridge. The first priority was to get to the bridge, and not to get engaged in street fights. But he said 'No', they were too heavily engaged with the enemy and couldn't be disentangled at that time of night; they'd come through in the morning after resting. I believe that the moment that decision was made, our last chance of success was destroyed.
Meanwhile, Frost had captured the North of the bridge and established a perimeter while the Germans held the South very strongly. We set up Headquarters in a house 50 yards from John Frost's command post and took over the attic as it was the only place our wirelesses might work. There were six or seven of them and the place soon became rather conspicuous with aerials sticking out of every window. At that stage we felt pretty cocky as we knew we'd achieved the first part of our operation order in taking the bridge: now all we had to do was hold it for 48 hours.
My first job was to inform Division that we were on the bridge. But that's when our real trouble started because not one of our wirelesses could pick up the faintest whisper from anyone in Northern Europe except John Frost who was all of 50 yards away. What use was I as Brigade Major if we couldn't get a single message through? I might as well take up a rifle, but I had to stay with the sets to be there when and if they started to work; we had to get the vital message through that we needed reinforcements, ammunition and food if we were to hold the bridge. It was also crucial that Division and XXX Corps were informed that we held the bridge. That evening we made two attempts to get a foothold on the South bank but both were repulsed with heavy casualties. Lieutenant Grayburn was wounded leading the attack over the bridge and was again frequently hit during fighting that evening and was finally killed by fire from a tank. He was awarded a posthumous VC.
By setting fire to buildings round the bridge we managed to keep the North end illuminated to prevent German infiltration. During the night Major Murray, commanding a detachment of Engineers, managed to reconnoitre the bridge and reported it was not prepared for demolition. So all we had to do was hold tight for 48 hours when 21 Army Group was due to relieve us from the South.
At 8 am on Monday a heavy barrage opened up on us and there was the sound of many tracked vehicles and revving of engines coming from the South. Most of us thought this must be the leading elements of XXX Corps coming to our relief, 24 hours ahead of schedule. But as the first vehicles became visible over the hump of the bridge the menacing black crosses quickly dampened our enthusiasm. During a brisk fire-fight two armoured cars, ten half-tracks, a tank and half a dozen lorries were knocked out and on fire, completely blocking the North end of the bridge. The remainder of the column withdrew, leaving 70 dead but mortar fire and heavy artillery was now concentrated on us for the remainder of the battle and snipers and machine-guns kept up a steady fire.
At 3 pm one of our sets picked up 1st Para Battalion who reported that they and 3rd Battalion were fighting towards the bridge. They also told me that t hey had no news of Brigadier Lathbury. I therefore asked John Frost to take over command of the Brigade and to move in with me and he handed over command of 2nd Battalion. At 6.30 pm he ordered 1st and 3rd Battalions each to form a flying column with as much food, water and ammunition as they could carry to break through to the bridge by midnight. Our first priority was to hold the bridge.
At 7 am on Tuesday the barrage increased considerably as well as heavy infantry attacks on the perimeter with much hand-to-hand fighting. At 10 am one of our wireless sets got in touch with a Canadian unit in XXX Corps. We were able to report that we held Arnhem Bridge and that we were looking forward to their early arrival. They couldn't say on the air where they were but we got the impression it was still South of Nijmegen. Still a long way to go.
The fighting continued and supplies were getting desperately low, but our hopes were raised when at last, on Wednesday morning, one of our sets got through to General Urquhart. I sent for Colonel Frost to speak to him. The General thanked him for holding the bridge and asked him to convey his congratulations to all ranks. 'We're all proud of you. Just hang on and the Second Army will be through any moment now,' and John Frost said, 'Yes, but we need reinforcements if we're to continue the battle; we need ammunition and it wouldn't be bad if we had some food either.' Then the General suggested we should organize the local civilians to bring in food, ammunition and stores from some of the re-supply containers which had gone astray the day before. Colonel Frost told him that we were fighting in a devastated area, there were no civilians and we were surrounded in a perimeter of only 200 yards by a superior and somewhat aggressive enemy force, so it wouldn't be very sensible to go out on a foraging party. There were no containers nearby in any case. He reported that we had inflicted 300 to 400 casualties on the enemy.
That conversation didn't seem to me to be very productive and meanwhile enemy fire was increasing. I was scanning the road leading North from the bridge with my binoculars. Buildings were exploding with chunks of masonry flying in all directions, bullets were ricocheting from the walls and the road was covered in glass and debris. The noise was deafening. Suddenly from a house about 250 yards up the road emerged a very disheveled looking woman pushing a brand new, immaculate pram, presumably with a baby in it. With her free hand she was waving frantically and I could see she was screaming hysterically as she weaved her way through the rubble. The small arms fire around her stopped instantly but the heavy guns continued. Miraculously she survived and when she got to about 100 yards from our HQ one of our platoons managed to get a Dutch-speaker to call her over and we got her under cover. The poor girl had completely lost her mind.
On Wednesday afternoon the position began to deteriorate rapidly. As the last of our buildings were destroyed or set alight, attempts to re-occupy burned-out ruins failed as the ashes were too hot. John Frost, Doug Crawley, Father Egan, Pat Barnett and Digby Tatham-Warter were wounded and Freddie Gough took over command.
By dusk Brigade HQ was being heavily shelled, the fires were out of control and the medical situation was getting pretty dire. In the basement of Brigade HQ we had by now nearly 300 wounded, many of them very seriously; they were packed like sardines and lying in the dark. They were now in danger of being burned alive as we had no water to tackle the fires eating into the house. We asked the Germans for a 2 hour truce and assistance to get the wounded out of the cellar who included a number of Germans. The Germans agreed but during the cease-fire they infiltrated the perimeter. The area round the bridge was ablaze and we no longer dominated it. We were down to around 100 unwounded and walking wounded, with about five rounds of ammunition per head.
We knew the Division was still fighting five miles to the West and I felt we could be of more use back with them. I formed the survivors into patrols of ten men and an officer, with orders to return to the Divisional perimeter. The first thing we found was that as the streets were covered in glass and rubble it was impossible to walk down them quietly. A patrol would go `crunch, crunching' out; with ten people, you could hear the noise a long way off. In whichever direction the patrols moved, they ran straight into heavy German fire.
I took my section South-West, hoping to hit the river fairly soon, but, being last out, it was getting light and we made little progress before going to ground in a burned-out building. Some tried to bury themselves in the ashes and wait until the next evening, but if you have ever tried to bake a potato, that's what you felt like after about a quarter of an hour – so that didn't work!
The war correspondent Tony Cotterill and I plumped for a coal-shed which was so small that we hoped it would seem an unlikely place to look for two bodies. Unfortunately someone hiding near us fell asleep and started to snore so loudly that the Germans started ferreting around and soon Tony and I were hauled out, covered in coal dust, feeling very angry and foolish. They marched us off to the cathedral square where a depressing sight met our eyes. About 20 officers and 130 other ranks were being guarded by a large number of very unfriendly SS guards. This probably represented most of the survivors from the bridge. It was a great shock; we'd felt sure some of them would have got away.
That evening we were told we would be moved to another location; anyone breaking ranks would be shot. Freddie Gough put us through a quarter of an hour's parade drill before we set off: 'Let's show these bastards what real soldiers look like.' This boosted morale and restored our self-confidence which had been a bit shaken by the events of the last day. We marched very smartly, and as we went along we gave the local Dutch the Victory sign as they looked in need of cheering up too. This infuriated our German guards and they threatened to shoot us if we did it again – which we did whenever possible. We hoped by irritating them that we might get a chance to slip away, but there were too many of them around. They marched us to a small house on the outskirts of Arnhem and shoved us into a tiny room. It was here that Tony Deane-Drummond found a cupboard and we reversed the lock and left him in there with a few bits of bread and a lain-jar of water to keep him going.
A convoy of lorries soon arrived to take us to prisoner-of-war camp in Germany and this was our best chance to escape. I was in the last group to Ieave; our lorry was a three-tonner, open, with sideboards about three feet high and 30 of us, mostly officers, were crammed into it, along with two old Luftwaffe guards armed with pistols and rifles. There was a third guard with a Schmeisser on the front mudguard. The lorry tore off at about 60 miles per hour which was obviously intended to prevent us hopping off in transit. We continued to give the V sign to the Dutch as well as the odd German, and every time we did this the corporal on the mudguard lost his temper and stopped the lorry to tell us he'd shoot us if we did it again. But we carried on playing the fool, because every time we stopped it took some time for the lorry to build up speed again, and this was the opportunity we were waiting for.
We stopped for a third time for the usual tirade and I winked to Denis Mumford that we'd make a jump for it when the lorry got going again. I asked Pat Barnett next to me to keep the nearest guard busy and pulled myself over the side as the lorry started, the guard shouting, ‘Nein, Nein!' I hit the road fairly hard but nothing seemed broken though there seemed to lot of blood flowing. Denis was caught by the corporal's machine-gun as he climbed over a wall while I made a dash for the nearest side-turning, zigzagging to avoid the bullets and crashing straight through the wooden fence at the end, Donald Duck style. Then I zipped through half a dozen gardens and decided to go to ground until it got dark. I covered myself with logs in a small garden hut and listened to the weapons still firing in the streets and the shouts of the search party. The noise eventually died down and, after a long time, I heard the lorry move off. My plan was to get well outside the town and approach a small farmhouse and try to find out where I was, get news of our troops and how to contact the underground.
Just as I was starting out I heard someone whistling, 'It's a long, long way to Tipperary' from a nearby house. I was tempted to go over but decided to stick to my original plan. After I'd gone what I thought was about two or three miles I found a small isolated farmhouse. I pulled hard at the bell and tapped on the window and eventually a small circular window in the wall slid open and a very suspicious man stuck his head out and shone a torch on me. I felt conspicuous in the torchlight and retreated hastily behind a bush while trying to convince him in German, French and English that I was a British soldier and would be very grateful for their help. I was wearing a groundsheet and my face was covered in blood and bruises and dirt so the glimpse he'd had of me can't have been very reassuring. It soon became clear I wasn't getting through and I left. I heard later that he thought I was a German deserter. When he heard the next day that I was a bona fide Englishman he burst into tears and spent the rest of the day bicycling about looking for me.
In the end I managed to contact the underground through another farmer and sheltered for three weeks with the family of Dick Tjeenk-Willink, a young member of the underground. It was here that I began to understand what the Dutch were suffering under occupation. So many of them had to live in hiding and the rest had to put up with the Germans stealing and looting and treating them with the greatest cruelty and arrogance.
During this time I met a local doctor whose daughter had witnessed my escape from the lorry and what happened afterwards. Denis Mumford, wounded by a machine-gun, had run into an orchard but was caught by a German. The corporal with the Schmeisser had completely lost his head and turned his gun on the back of the lorry, killing Tony Cotterill and another, and wounding eight more. He was threatening to kill the others when Freddie Gough stopped a German officer who was passing and got things under control. It's something that's been very much on my conscience ever since.
It wasn't long before the underground were hiding quite a number of escapers in our area, including Brigadier Lathbury. Altogether, there were about half a dozen officers of 1st Brigade, and we formed a new Brigade Headquarters in a butcher's shop in Ede. Every morning, dressed in an odd assortment of civilian clothes, we met in the back of the shop to prepare plans for a mass escape. A wonderful Dutchman, Alex Hartman, worked for a Dutch electricity company which had a private telephone line to Nijmegen that was held by our troops. Every morning he sent messages from our escape headquarters to the Second Army. This was a hazardous business because the calls had to be connected through a company switchboard which was manned at this time of day by a Dutch Nazi, so Hartman was really taking his life in his hands as he had to trust this chap. Fortunately the Nazi's patriotism overcame his political feelings. Through this telephone link we were able to plan an escape route down to the Rhine, and Second Army promised to send boats across to meet us. Altogether there were 130 escapers, of whom all but ten belonged to the 1st Airborne Division.
We were determined that we should go out as a fighting patrol, and arranged over this telephone line to have weapons and uniforms parachuted to us near Ede.
On the night of the escape, I was in charge of a group of 60 who were due to rendezvous in a hut in the middle of the forest. I was delighted, when the last party came in, to find that it was led by Tony Deane-Drummond, safely escaped from his cupboard. We changed into uniform in the hut and collected and cleaned our weapons. A wonderful Dutch Resistance leader called Wolff appeared out of the darkness with two magnificent old charcoal-burning lorries for transport. The lorries were open, with sides about two feet deep, and as we were all in British uniforms, and with our weapons, it seemed unwise to be seen sitting boldly upright in the lorries. We found a great pile of potato sacks in the hut and I ordered everyone to lie face down in the lorries in two layers: the people at the bottom would have a rough old ride as the lorries had few, if any, springs! Then we would lay the potato sacks on the top. There was some reluctance to volunteer for the bottom layer.
The Dutch drivers took us all the way through the woods to Renkum past two German posts where we were stopped and then down to about a mile short of the river. We stopped in a little lay-by, and I went round to the back and said, 'Everybody out, and keep bloody quiet because there are German posts all round here.' Needless to say — you know what British troops are — there was a certain amount of 'Fuck you', 'Christ, watch out…', 'Prison camp would be better than this!' While they were getting out and making too much noise a German cycle patrol came along with a lot of tinkling of bicycle bells and cries of ‘Raus! 'Raus!'. When the troops heard all this tinkling of bicycle bells they politely stood to one side, and allowed them to pass. The patrol didn't seem to notice a thing! We then had to make our way in pitch darkness, led by Dutch guides, to the crossing point of the river about two miles away. This entailed moving between German posts no more than 50 yards apart in places, it was a heavily protected area. Digby Tatham-Warter told the escape party, 'Now, you have got to hold onto the coat, or whatever, of the man in front and don't for God's sake let go. The important thing is to be absolutely silent — the Germans are only a few yards on either side and there are 130 of us to get through.' Well, we were climbing over hedges and dropping down ditches about eight feet deep and climbing up the other side; it was difficult to do it in silence. The Germans must have heard us, probably saw us, but maybe they felt that anyone who was making such an enormous amount of noise must be one of their own patrols. Either that, or there were so many of us that they felt the sensible thing to do was to keep quiet, because if they started shooting they would probably get shot at even harder. However, the moment we got down to the river we ran into a German patrol. This time we fired and they disappeared pretty rapidly.
Exactly at midnight a Bofors went off over the river, we shone our torch back, and the assault boats came and took us over. On the other side we were ferried away by jeeps along a road parallel to the water. I volunteered to sit right on the front bonnet to guide the driver as, of course, there were no lights. We were going fairly fast when the driver went slap into another jeep coming from the opposite direction. I moved my legs and feet or they would have been chopped off at the knee. As it was, I just raised them in time, did a triple somersault, landed in the road and bust my leg, and spent the next five months in hospital. So a thoroughly unsatisfactory battle ended in a thoroughly unsatisfying anticlimax.
This article updated by Tony Hibbert in 2009 is reproduced with kind permission of Max Arthur – author of Men of the Red Beret (1990), Hutchison, ISBN 0-09-173931-4.