Tony was born in Wrexham in October 1924, the son of an Army soldier. His father, a World War I veteran who had fought at the Somme, ended up as a Sgt Major PTI. Tony moved with the family several times until his father left the army when Tony was around 8 years old. Shortly after leaving the army his father became a PT Instructor at Repton Public School in Derbyshire. Tony completed his education at the village school, and then became an apprentice turner and fitter in Burton-on-Trent.
He initially volunteered for RAF aircrew but was told there was a two year waiting list and subsequently enlisted at Colchester in late 1942 joining the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry. After basic training he joined their 1st Battalion. He wasn’t particularly settled in this unit and saw the request for volunteers to join the Paras as an ideal opportunity, attracted by the chance of some excitement and the extra 2 bob a day!
“It was the greatest move I ever made. Joining the 21st Independent Pathfinder Company was a real privilege and it gave me an experience I wouldn’t have missed for the world.”
Tony reported to Hardwick Hall for his basic training course and a few of the lads that joined with him were returned to unit as unsuitable. His basic parachute training course at Ringway ran from 6 December to 20 December 1943. The course syllabus required a total of 8 jumps, 3 balloon descents including one at night and 5 aircraft descents from a converted Whitley bomber. Bad weather on the course prevented jumping for three consecutive days after the first two balloon descents had been made.
“I remember my first jump vividly. It was a balloon jump from 800 feet. You sat on the edge of the hole in a wicker basket below the balloon. As you pushed off you had to arch your back. If you didn’t, the parachute pack would catch on the edge of the hole and pitch you onto the other side and give you a flat nose. They used to call it ‘Ringing the Bell’. The first one I got out alright but it seemed like my chute was never going to open, because you drop about 195 feet. I started looking down but as I did so I pitched forward and then the chute opened. The first one you didn’t know what to expect but on the second one I was a bag of nerves, I couldn’t stop myself from shaking. Then we went onto the Whitley bomber, 5 on one side of the hole, 5 on the other. The first aircraft jump was in slow pairs and I remember the inside of the Whitley stank of fumes, petrol mixed up with something else. It was good but frightening! My last descent was a night jump from the balloon and it was a bit windy with the cage swinging from side to side. I couldn’t help myself and before I knew it I’d gone out the hole. The PJI shouted after me ‘Come back, I haven’t told you to jump yet!’ I got a right whack as I hit the ground in the dark.
There were 377 men on Tony’s intake, 22 of whom failed to complete the course – 11 for refusals to jump and 11 through injuries sustained on the course. Tony describes how some of the injuries were sustained:
“If it was misty and raining we would come down fairly slowly. If it was clear you came down a bit quick. In our day you used to get quite a bit of oscillation, swinging from side to side as you descend. You had to try and stop it but sometimes you could be swinging as you hit the ground and there were quite a few broken bones in training.”
After a spot of Christmas leave Tony returned to the Depot to be interviewed by Major ‘Boy’ Wilson and was selected to join the 21st Independent Pathfinder Company. “Major Wilson was a real gentleman. He would always listen to what you had to say and inspired a lot of loyalty.”
Tony joined the Company at Bardney in Lincolnshire in early 1944, shortly after it had returned to the UK from Italy, and was posted to No 2 Platoon.
“My Platoon Sergeant ‘Val’ Allerton was an amazing bloke, a real charismatic and inspirational figure. He came round our positions every day at Arnhem, after he was wounded he would visit us using a broom as a crutch. Much to our disgust he was commissioned in the field. He led a bit of a chequered life, after the war he killed a man and served a prison sentence.”
On the Landing Zone near Wolfheze
“We were briefed for umpteen operations after D-Day but they all got cancelled. We had already been briefed once for Arnhem and we were briefed again but nobody took much notice, they thought it was going to get cancelled like all the rest. After the briefing they organised a Church service in a tent and I always remember the Parson getting up at the end of the service and saying, ‘A lot of you won’t be coming back’. It really disturbed me and I wish I’d never gone.
Our role as a Pathfinder Company was to drop before the rest of the Airborne Division and lay marker strips to identify the Dropping Zones for the Paras or Landing Zones for the gliders. At Arnhem my group brought the gliders in and we used long nylon strips which we pegged into the ground to form the letter of the LZ and an arrow head. We also set up a Eureka Homing Beacon for our aircraft. We dropped at around twenty to one in the afternoon on a bright sunny day. Across from the LZ there was a lunatic asylum, they had all got out and some of them were coming towards us. We didn’t know who they were as they were all in those long white robes and some of them were in the middle of the field where the gliders were due to land. But somehow they all seemed to vanish before the gliders appeared. I think Jerry shot a few of them.
There was no opposition when we landed. It was just like doing an exercise in England. The gliders came in at one o clock and just before they landed we released coloured smoke to give wind direction. We were on the side in a little wood but across the LZ was another wood where there was a German unit. I could see them through my sniper scope but they didn’t open up until the gliders came in. Some of the glider pilots must have been killed on the approach. They were supposed to come in quite steeply and then pull out of the dive to land but some of the gliders just piled in without pulling out. You could hear the screams of the blokes inside, it was awful. The gliders had a flap which was lowered to help them slow down, like air brakes. One of them must have had his flaps shot off or damaged because he came through the LZ like a fighter bomber! When he hit the ground his front wheel must have dug into the ground and the whole glider flipped over its nose, belly up with all the men trapped inside. Some gliders were on fire when they landed. It was rough because you couldn’t do anything to help them.
Most of the gliders on the 1st lift arrived in the first half an hour. We helped to unload those that were near us but some of the blokes were in a right state. One glider had tipped up on its nose and fallen back but all the front end was buried in the ground. When we got to the glider the pilot was still alive but in a bad way, both his legs had been taken off. He asked, ‘Am I on LZ-Z’ and we said ‘Yes’. He replied ‘Good’ and then just died knowing he had done his job. We got some men out but they were really shaken. They didn’t know if they were on this earth or Fullers. It must have been a horrible experience in those gliders.”
On the first night the Pathfinders stayed at Reijerscamp Farm where Major Wilson had established Company Headquarters. They were given their orders for the 2nd lift and No 2 Platoon were instructed to mark out LZ-X for more gliders to land. This was adjacent to LZ-Z and had been used the previous day as a DZ for the 1st Parachute Brigade.
“The weather was bad in England and they got delayed for 4 hours. By the time they arrived Jerry had brought in anti aircraft guns and was just waiting for them. We laid out our markers and smoke and as they arrived all hell was let loose. The Germans knocked seven bells out of them as they came in. I was lying shoulder to shoulder with my mate Finglas on a little bank. A jeep with twin Vickers, which had been unloaded from a glider, had fired at the Jerries and scooted off leaving a load of cartridge cases on the road. When the Jerries opened up on us a bullet must have hit one of these cartridge cases and gone through Finglas’s right arm, out the other side and through his magazine pouches without setting them off or hitting me.”
After the 2nd lift the platoon moved back to Reijerscamp Farm. On the 3rd day No 2 Platoon diverted to Oosterbeek unable to proceed to mark out their designated Supply Dropping Point because of German resistance. On the Tuesday night the Company dug into defensive positions on the Ommershof estate with Tony’s platoon dug in to the northern side of the estate along Graf van Rechterweg. The Company fought for two days in these positions before being ordered to withdraw to the centre of Oosterbeek. Moving into their new positions under cover of darkness in the early hours of Friday morning, the Company split into small groups and occupied houses around the Utrechtseweg /Pieterbergseweg cross roads (close to the Schoonord Hotel). Tony’s platoon occupied a group of houses south of the crossroads in Pieterbergseweg and the adjacent Paasberg.
“We were split up in small groups in the houses all the way down the street to hold a defensive line. In our house you could see the Germans across the street and hear them talking. It was a strange situation but something you adapt to. Instead of moving around outside we blew holes in connecting walls so that we could move from one house to another.
Looking left out of our house up the road there was a hotel [Tafelberg] which was used as a main dressing station and our lads were taking the wounded up there in jeeps. Coming out early one morning I saw two Germans. I thought, ‘Well they haven’t done anything to me’, so I put a bullet between them on the ground. And they just stood looking around but didn’t move. So that was it – I got them both and after that killing was easy. Those initial doubts in my head were silly really because they would have killed me if given half a chance. With my telescopic sights you could see their faces and see which button you wanted to hit. They couldn’t have felt anything because I got the pair of them with head shots but my hands were shaking when I did it, after all it’s a big thing to end someone’s life.”
Tony began recording his ‘kills’ on the wallpaper in a room on the first floor of 34 Pieterbergseweg. He notched up 16 in two days and wrote a defiant message above the scorecard. After the battle, the owner of the house cut out this section of wall paper for posterity and it is now displayed in the Hartenstein Museum at Oosterbeek.
“We remained in these positions for four days until we were pulled out. There were periods when it was quiet but all of a sudden things would start up and all hell would be let loose. We were living on our nerves all the time. One instance we were sat in the house watching the road and this German ambulance came past our house and stopped. The back doors opened up and 3 Germans got out with a machine gun. The ambulance sped off up to the dressing station. Well, for about 10 to 15 seconds we were all mesmerized. Then somebody opened fire and we all followed suit. There were more holes in those 3 Germans than I don’t know what.
Tanks and self propelled guns periodically attacked the houses. It was a bit hair raising to see a Tiger when all you have got is a rifle. There were no anti tank weapons in our Company only rifles, Brens and Stens. Normally we would occupy the top floor of the house for observation but whenever we saw a tank we scarpered down to the bottom. My little legs would be going like the clappers! Then when the infantry attacked you just tried to hold them back. It was chaotic and after a while the whole street was blazing, but Sgt Allerton kept our spirits up with his visits. Night time could be a bit eerie. Sometimes there was nothing, then a Very light would go up, then you’d hear a burst of machine gun fire or the screams of somebody who had been hit.”
The remnants of the 1st Airborne Division were ordered to withdraw south across the Rhine on Monday 25 September.
“It was raining on the night they said we were pulling out. The glider pilots had laid white tape through the woods to the river. It was early morning as we approached the river and there were two queues of men waiting to get on the boats. As we were coming out of the woods down the slope Jerry opened up with mortars and 3 or 4 landed along the lines of men that were already waiting. Several men must have been killed. The Canadians could only get small numbers of men into the little boats and it was about 2 o’ clock in the morning when I finally got on a boat. I was lucky as the number of boats were dwindling because they were getting sunk. As a result some men tried to swim across: one lad ‘Darkie’ Roberts swam across but he was hit in the back by machine gun fire and died. Another, Reggie Burgess, got back by holding onto a boat which dragged him across. We clambered out of our boat up a slippery river bank and eventually made it back to Nijmegen. From there they put us in trucks to Brussels and flew us back to Grantham. We went back to Newark to all the empty beds…..
Norway, Palestine and Demobilisation.
The 1st Airborne Division’s task in Norway in May 1945 was to maintain law and order, secure airfields, prevent sabotage and oversee the German surrender. This was potentially a dangerous assignment as 6,000 airborne troops were being called upon to disarm and control 350,000 German soldiers. The 21st Pathfinder Company acted as an advance party for the Airborne Division with Tony’s platoon securing the airfield at Stavanger. Later in May, the Company formed up in Honefoss, where they took over the German Garrison. Here they assisted in the recovery of prisoners of war, apprehending war criminals and rounding up enemy personnel who had avoided surrender. Tony remembers his time there fondly: “Norway was like a 6 month holiday camp after Arnhem! It was the best time of my Army career.”
With the disbandment of the 1st Airborne Division the 21st Pathfinder Company became part of the 6th Airborne Division and was posted to Palestine. In stark contrast to the conditions in Norway, there was very little fraternisation with the civilians in Palestine. There were a number of Jewish military or para military organisations intent on establishing a Jewish homeland by the use of violence. As they dressed in civilian clothes it was impossible for the soldiers to distinguish the terrorists from the peaceful populace. “It was chronic, you didn’t know who was who.” In September 1946 the 21st Pathfinder Company was disbanded and Tony opted to join the 3rd King’s Own Hussars which had been selected as the reconnaissance regiment for the 6th Airborne Division and moved out to Palestine. Tony figured that serving in armoured cars would make for a better existence than slogging round on foot as a Para! After about 6 months service with the Hussars Tony received his papers and demobbed in York having served 4 years and 7 months in the army.
In civilian life he returned to engineering, working mainly as a turner. He met his future wife, Beatrice Wright, in Mexborough. They married in 1950 and the rest, as they say, is history!
Profile compiled by Harvey Grenville with the kind assistance of Tony Crane, Don Clark and Word of Mouth Films. (Website www.wordofmouthfilms.co.uk)
Profile compiled by Harvey Grenville with the kind assistance of Tony Crane, Don Clark and Word of Mouth Films. (Website www.wordofmouthfilms.co.uk)
Source: Profile compiled by Harvey Grenville with the kind assistance of Tony Crane, Don Clark and Word of Mouth Films. (Website www.wordofmouthfilms.co.uk)Read More