The German mortar bomb dropped into the middle of the small landing craft evacuating wounded survivors from the north bank, blowing it to pieces. The badly wounded occupations, and the already dead, were blasted into the dark and fast flowing waters of the Neder Rhine. One of these sad casualties was Arthur Shackleton, earlier wounded in the shoulder and now in the leg. With mouth and ears filling with water the sound of battle receded and he drifted into unconsciousness feeling strangely peaceful. He was brought to consciousness by the sound of a voice from the bank asking someone nearby to help get this “body” out of the river. Arthur felt a tug on his Airborne smock and in a feeble voice said, “I’m not a body I’m alive”. During the few moments that elapsed before he was dragged out of the water after the withdrawal from Arnhem, memories of his earlier life flooded through his mind.
Summoned to Halifax late in 1938 to register for National Service, Arthur Shackleton was among the first young men required to serve in HM Forces under legislation introduced by Leslie Hore Belisha the then Minister of State for War. The same Minister had earlier been responsible for introducing to the British public the eponymous “Beacons” pedestrian crossings and the 30mph speed limit. Arthur and his contemporaries were offered either three years of part-time service in the Territorial Army or six months full time as a Militia Man with the Regular Army. He chose the latter and in June 1939 was ordered to report to the Duke of Wellington’s Regimental Depot in Halifax.
Three weeks after being called-up Arthur learnt from Company Orders that Militia Men with agricultural experience could volunteer to assist farmers with harvesting. Having provided the Military with written proof of his previous experiences, Arthur was sent on leave to help out in the fields. After some time working with the farmers he received a letter from the War Office instructing him not to return to the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, as previously ordered but to await further reporting instructions. Eventually, on October 12th, he received a letter ordering him to report to 24th Training Unit, Royal Horse Artillery at Blackdown in Hampshire.
The new intake were paraded the following morning and detailed for future duties. Because six of the intake had previous experience with horses they were detailed to become mule handlers. Foot and arms drill followed but the new recruits were inhibited because of having to share one rifle between four. In between times they carried our coal delivery and rubbish collection duties for the barracks and adjacent married quarters. After three weeks the mules were transferred out and the six former muleteers joined the M.T. Section and were taught to drive on a 1918 model Crossley. Arthur and the others passed out in December. Now, because he was horse artillery he was required to wear breeches and spurs but excused spurs while driving.
In January 1940 forty recruits who had completed basic training at the Training Regiment, some Reservists called to the Colours, and a draft from a Shoeburyness training Regiment went by troops train from Kings Cross to Derbyshire. In the Hope Valley they formed a new Heavy Artillery Regiment equipped with 9.2 Siege Guns circ 1917. There Arthur learnt to ride a motorbike and became a dispatch rider with a 500cc Civilian Matchless. In April the Regiment moved to an area north of Bristol for final equipping prior to joining the BEF in France. The evacuation from Dunkirk pre-empted the move cross channel and the Regiment was ordered instead to Portsmouth to reinforce the South Coast defences in preparation for the expected German invasion. The Battery was located in the grounds of Southwick House, famous in later history as the Headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower.
During a period of enforced inactivity, in October 1942 he became friendly with a Lieutenant Henry Cole who before the war had become a promising young cricketer with the Sussex Country Cricket Club. Through boredom, the two became restless and volunteers for anything that offered action and contact with the enemy. They volunteered for Commandos, Paratroops and Maritime Anti-Aircraft Gunners on Merchant ships but the battery OC vetoed these. The two applied for the Glider Pilot Regiment and in June 1942 passed the consequence interviews medicals and written examinations.
Expecting to be transferred to the GPR in October, Arthur arranged to get married to his Bournemouth sweetheart, Nell in September. However, Murphy’s Law prevailed and Arthur arrived at Tilshead in August with the knowledge that no leave would be granted until the completion of training. Following an interview with Captain “Billy” Griffith, Company Commander of one of the training squadrons, ‘Shack’ as he was also known, was granted four days compassionate leave to get married. This, however, slowed his progress and on return from leave, found that he was back in X Troop, the primary training element in the graduating process.
His companions at the time in the troop were Maurice Herridge, George Nye and Jock Campbell of the Scots Guards, renowned for his highly polished boots and varnished rifle woodwork. Two days before the scheduled departure to EFTS Derby, and after the tedious process to progress through XY&Z Squadrons again, Arthur suffered a sweat rash caused by yet another run march. Ordered into Westdown isolation Hospital, and treated with permanganate of potash until his body was coloured purple all over, he remained for ten days before the medics were satisfied that his condition was not contagious. Back to Tilshead and return to the initial training unit, X Squadron. Parading with the squadron he was seen by the eagle-eyed RSM Cowley and asked why he was back with the “newly arrived”. Compassionate Jim, as we all knew him, immediately arranged for Arthur to join Jim Hooper, Jim Eardly, Jack Hopkins and the rest of the course due to depart for EFTS Clife Pypard.
Whilst at EFTS Arthur was part of a guard formed to protect the crashed Tiger Moth from which Les Winsper parachuted. He came across a cow heavy with milk, found a bucket, relieved the poor cow of her burden, and provided the rest of the guard with a warm and nourishing drink on a cold winter’s night. Arthur also passed the flying course. His flying career then entered a hiatus.
After a period of leave following their passing out at the end of February, Arthur and the other graduates of 9 Course returned to Tilshead and it was not until June that Arthur and the others resumed flying training, first at Netheravon then at Booker, and at the end of the month off to Stoke Orchard and the Glider Training School.
Summer spent in the Cotswolds with warm sunny weather and beautiful countryside was pure bliss. Many visits were made to nearby Cheltenham and Tewkesbury and local ales and cider were frequently sampled at picturesque roadside inns. Flying from Stoke Orchard and the satellite airfield at North Leach was an absolute pleasure. Arthur and the rest of the course under Captain John Neale completed their glider training at the end of August and were awarded the coveted blue wings. “The most memorable day in my life” according to Arthur.
There followed a period of time spent at the Depot recently moved from Tilshead to Fargo near Larkhill. This time was interspersed with minor military exercises and further flying training on Tiger Mothers and Hotspur gliders at nearby Netheravon. Arthur flew with Roy Howard on these occasions and was most impressed by Howard’s way and his above average ability. He was not surprised by Roy’s selection as one of the chosen elite to participate in the highly successful Coup de Main operation to capture the Orne River and Caen Canal Bridges on D-Day.
Arthur and the other graduates of his flying courses were posted to RAF Stoney Cross near Ringwood in the New Forest. They became the nucleus of No. 3 Squadron later to become ‘B’ Squadron. Following a conversion course on Horsas and qualification as first pilot he was asked by the Squadron Commander, Major Toler, to become his co-pilot. Squadron Commanders had heavy responsibilities militarily and this was not an unusual arrangement. It helped to relieve the pressures imposed upon those in command.
In March 1944 ‘B’ Squadron now comprising of Nos. 3, 4, 19 and 20 Flights together with the Albermarle Tugs and personnel of 296 and 297 Squadrons RAF, moved to Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. After further combined exercises, including “Sailor” and “ Gunner”, ‘B’ Squadron was operationally ready and prepared for its role during the expected invasion of the European mainland. The period before D-Day was a rime of intense planning activity with frequent meetings by Commanders of various level formations and Staff Officers. Arthur’s duties were expanded during this period. He became Staff car driver as well as personal Tiger Moth pilot for the Squadron Commander. Arthur flew Major Toler to meetings and conferences at airfields or drove him for similar purposes to other destinations. The only vehicle available for these journeys was the water-wagon! Much was the curiosity of other NCO Staff car drivers of Humbers and Austins for Generals and Colonels to see a Staff Sergeant Pilot driving a water wagon for a mere, albeit distinguished looking, Major. Arthur explained that it was all part of a cover story to confuse the enemy about the secret movements of a very high ranking officer.
Although believed to have received briefing initially for participation with the Ulsters or Devons in the D-Day landings one whole Flight was left behind at Brize Norton. Arthur and those other disappointed pilots were chagrined as they stood beside the runway waving goodbye to their pals taking off on “Tonga” and “Mallard”.
Successive operations were planned subsequent to D-Day for the Airborne Forces but none materialised until Arnhem. One such operation planned involved the Americans. Arthur and about twenty other pilots from ‘B’ Squadron were posted to the USAF Base at Greenham Common and briefed to land a force of American Airborne troops in the Bois de Boulogne, central Paris. The operation was postponed for seven days and eventually cancelled. During the time they were at Greenham our lads lived high-on-the-hog with American rations, PX candy and free cigarettes.
The last operation planned before Arnhem was “Comet” with the British 1st Airborne Division singly responsible for capturing the crossings over the Rivers Maas, Waal and Lower Rhine. This operation was cancelled but two weeks later Operation Market Garden was launched with the same objectives as “Comet” but with the superior force of an airborne corps comprising of 1st British, 82nd and 101st US Airborne Divisions. 1st Airborne was assigned the furthest and most northern of the targets, Arnhem. The Albemarle tugs of 296 and 297 Squadrons did not have the range capability to fly to the target and return to base at Brize Norton. Because of this inadequacy, the two RAF Squadrons and ‘B’ Squadron GPR were ordered to move to RAF Manston near Margate as it was closer to the target. Here for the first time Arthur and his fellow pilots saw aircraft flying without propellers. Meteor Jets deployed to intercept the V1 flying bombs. Among the jet pilots was an old friend from Clyffe Pypard days, F/Lt Topham, a former instructor at EFTS who had been credited with already destroyed three “doodlebugs”.
Major Toler and his co-pilot were assigned to fly Lt Col. WDH McCardie, the Commanding Officer of the South Staffs, together with five of his men and a jeep and trailer. During the morning of Sunday, 17th September 1944, their glider was the first of ‘B’ Squadron to take off. After an uneventful flight apart from turbulence caused by slipstream and an over-crowded airspace the landed without undue incident. The South Staffs were ordered to reinforce 2 Para at the Arnhem Bridge but although they fought their way well into the town they failed to reach the bridge.
Major Toler and his bodyguard, for this was Arthur’s new role, established a command post in a small cellar close to the tennis court of the Hartenstein Hotel. Shortly after they had set up the command post a Military policeman appeared with a German uniformed female POW and asked them to vacate their newly established hidey hole. Seemingly the cellar had been allocated as her lavatory and the Major and his bodyguard had to find another HQ. Shack and his Major survived the increasing shelling and mortaring but many around them became casualties. Angus Low, 20 Flight Commander, himself covered in blood reported to the Squadron Commander that his second pilot Dennis Andrews, had been killed. Angus was quickly despatched to an aid post where he was later taken prisoner but escaped. After spending many months with the Dutch Underground he rejoined ‘B’ Squadron at Earls Colne in March 1945 in time to wave goodbye as they took off on the Rhine Crossing operation. Brigadier Shan Hackett was badly wounded on Friday 22nd September and Lt Col Ian Murray, a glider pilot and former Guards Officer, was given command of Hackett’s 4th Parachute Brigade. Ian Toler assumed command of the Glider Pilot Regiment.
By Thursday 25th it was obvious that the position was hopeless and order came to make a strategic withdrawal across the river that night. The Major and his bodyguard visited many outposts to give instructions and orders to withdraw. During the final stages of the withdrawal and close to the riverbank the pair came upon a file of airborne troops who were without a leader and knew not what to do. Asserting the authority of his rank the Major put them in charge of his Staff Sergeant with a promise that the NCO would lead them to the river bank. Sadly, within minutes the party were ambushed and caught by an accurate burst of machine gun fire and few survived. Arthur received a bullet wound to his shoulder but he staggered to the river bank where he met up again with Ian Toler and at the Major’s insistence was put aboard a boat for evacuation with the other wounded. In mid-river the German mortar bomb found its target.
After he was dragged from the river more dead than alive he was taken to a Field Dressing Station where the Medics first attempted to remove the bullet and pieces of shrapnel from his shoulder, leg and the rest of his body. From then on he was sent to a succession of hospitals, firstly Nijmegen then Brussels, and by Dakota to an airfield in England then, eventually, by hospital train to St Elizabeth’s Hospital Birmingham.
When he was patched up, and after a burial and basic medical examination consisted of “cough” and say “aah”, he was pronounced fit and returned as a “remount” to Fargo. The permanent staff at the depot had become comfortably entrenched and were callously indifferent to the request from a returned warrior to rejoin the sadly depleted ranks of his comrades of ‘B’ Squadron. He was told that he would be posted in due course to a Squadron according to need and selected by the depot bureaucracy. In the meantime he was to be patient and bide his time at Fargo until ordered to move. This did not suit our Yorkshire Tyke and using the initiative and guile instilled into him since joining the Regiment he unofficially attached himself to a draft of second pilots posted to ‘B’ Squadron now at Earls Colne in Essex. On arrival at the airfield he received a hero’s welcome. A short telephone call from Major Toler to Colonel Chatterton led to action that formalised the move and made it official. Arthur was back on strength with ‘B’ Squadron.
During the winter of 44/45 a demonstration unit was established in London to train recruits in the art of street fighting. The Unit was based at Chelsea Barracks and a widespread bombsite on the opposite side of the Thames in Battersea was chosen as the exercise area. As recently experience street fighters, Arthur and another glider pilot were seconded to the unit as part of the demonstration team. They were equipped with German Army uniforms and taken daily by vehicle to the battle school site. Once there their task was to fire rounds of bullets from a Spandau machine gun into distant sandbags to create a realistic effect whilst the exercise was in progress. Their part in the proceedings finished at 12 noon on one particularly Friday but they had to wait until 4 pm before a vehicle was available to take them to barracks. As they had been granted weekend leave they decided to save time and return to barracks on foot. Incredibly, no one soldier, sailor, policeman or civilian challenged the two apparent uniformed Wehrmacht Unteroffiziers as they marched down Queenstown Road, past Battersea Power Station, over Chelsea Bridge and down Chelsea Bridge Road before entering the barracks. Perhaps the fact that they were carrying a formidable looking Spandau machine gun and belts of ammunition was enough to deter the curious from asking questions. Whilst he was with the Demonstration Unit the Germans tried again to put Arthur out of action. They fired a V2 rocket at him whilst he was clambering aboard a vehicle in the barracks, but fortunately it was a near-miss. The V2 landed in the adjacent Royal Hospital, home of the Chelsea Pensioners. There were casualties but Arthur was not one of them this time.
Breakfast was early on that spring morning of 24th March 1945 for the thousands of troops making final preparations for the biggest airborne assault ever made against an enemy country. Arthur Shackleton was one of those involved. He and the others took off on that peaceful Sunday morning from sunlit airfields in East Anglia on Operation Varsity, the Rhine Crossing. Because of critical shortages of experienced first pilots, Shack was not crewed with Major Toler this time but instead had as his co-pilot an old colleague from early ‘B’ Squadron times, John “Willy” Williamson.
The flight across the North Sea to the target was relatively uneventful but the reception given by the enemy over the Rhine was hostile, noisy and nasty. This hazardous situation was made worse by smoke laid down to cover the river crossing of our land forces. The smoke created a condition of almost nil visibility for the descending airborne soldiers. After release, and on the final approach, enemy anti-craft gunners blew away a large chunk of Arthur’s starboard main plane and shredded his rudder. Despite smoke, shot and shell, fortune favoured the brave and he managed to land his Horsa without serious hurt to members of the six-pounder anti-tank gun team aboard the glider. However, the quick release mechanism used to secure the gun and jeep towing vehicle had become fused after being struck by anti-aircraft fire and rendered inoperable. A nearby REME unit came to the rescue, remedied the damage, and off went gun and crew to engage the enemy and perform their allotted task.
Whilst the gunners were salvaging their six-pounder, Arthur and John Willy joined up with Arnold Baldwin, Joe Mitchie and Jock Glover who had taken up defensive positions with Canadian paratroopers. During this time they enjoyed the services of a young Italian who had been conscripted into the Wehrmacht. The Canadians had taken him POW and left the Glider Pilots to guard their prisoner. Because his life had been spared, he showed his appreciation by brewing-up and performing similar domestic duties for his guards. Arthur and his chums had taken a liking to the young man and were sorry to lose their volunteer batman and to say good-bye to Luigi Marco Antonio when they time came to depart Hamminkeln and return to England.
Following spells at Keevil, Blakehill Farm and a summer interlude at Watermouth Castle near Ilfracombe, the Squadron Rest Camp, Arthur was demobbed. The year 1946, the place Finmere “Age and Service Group 26”.
Whilst at Finmere he had the distinction of being selected as a member of an Honour Guard for the lying-in-state of Admiral Lord Keyes. Lord Keyes was the leader of the rail on the U-boat base at Zeebrugge in 1918 and was the first Director of Combined Operations to be appointed in WW2. The Keyes family home was at Finmere and immediately following the Admiral’s death his daughter, Lady Evelyn Keyes asked the Regiment then stationed in the immediate vicinity to provide an Honour Guard. Twelve six foot tall sergeants were selected and rapidly rehearsed in the drills required. The chosen were formed into three guards of four men with each man stationed at a corner of the catafalque on which the coffin rested. The night guards had the fairly relaxed duty of two hours on and four off but the daytime detail with visiting VIPs in attendance, including Sir Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery, suffered a much stricter regime. Although the duty entailed only one hour and one and two hours off, the guards were required to stand motionless for the entire duty period with heads bowed and arms reversed. Eventually and appropriately, the Commandos assumed responsibility for the Honour Guard and took over from the Glider Pilots.
After demob Arthur settled down to family life in Bournemouth and with his wife Nell raised three children. Sadly soon after his celebrating their Golden Wedding Anniversary Nell died and Arthur was left a widower. He now lives with his second wife Margaret, in Hardy countryside not far from Dorchester. Happily for the GPR Association Margaret has joined Arthur in his very strong and committed support of the Wessex Branch and the Association.
Notes: (i) Lt Hentry Cole referred to was one of the few Glider Pilots to reach the Arnhem Bridge. He was shot and killed whilst trying to escape after capture.
Further Reading: Glider Pilots at Arnhem by Mike Peters & Luuk Buist – published by Pen & Sword Ltd.
Edited by Mike Peters in consultation with Arthur Shackleton. Transcribed by Jo Hook.