Ronald Brooker's personal account of his experiences during Op Market Garden

6354463. Trooper. Ron Brooker.

D-Troop, 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron.

Day 1: Sunday, 17 September 1944.

A beautiful day, no clouds in the sky. At the time I was serving with the Recce Squadron, 1st Airborne Division. My position with the squadron: ‘D’ Troop, dvr/mech [driver/mechanic]. My duties: to carry out running repairs and services on the troop jeeps; in any movement, to drive ‘D’ Troop HQ vehicle with troop commander Captain Park.

The glider-borne element of the squadron had moved to R.A.F. Tarrant-Rushton, a few days after the D-Day landings, and we billeted under canvas adjacent to the aerodrome. During the intervening weeks we had been briefed for operations sixteen times. Having spent hectic hours loading Horsa gliders with vehicles and equipment checking and rechecking personal equipment and weapons, writing letters home, it came as an anti-climax to have the operation cancelled at the last moment. The following day, unloading, etc.

This time it was not cancelled, the operation was on. The gliders lined up ready for the take-off, tow ropes neatly coiled ready to be connected to its tow. The towing Halifax aircraft warming up to each side. The troops quite calm and collected, enjoying cups of cocoa laced with rum. RAF and women personnel busy with last-minute tasks. I am certain that many felt like myself that not too difficult a task lay ahead of us. During the briefing, great emphasis had been made regarding the opposition we would face. Just second-rate troops, too old or sickly for frontline action. They would be few in numbers. In any case we would be relieved in two or three days by XXX Corps. Even so, I had taken the precaution of scrounging all the spare ammo and grenades I could lay my hands on!

Came the time for take off. We boarded our gliders and made ourselves as comfortable as we could. In my glider, the two troop HQ jeeps, fully loaded; Corporal George Dixon, the troop’s signals; Trooper ‘Darkie’ Bolton, the second jeep driver; and myself. The pilot and second pilot up front on deck.

It soon became our turn to depart. The glider bumped and rumbled over the ground, the towing aircraft left the ground, soon followed by our glider. We spoke very little during the flight, each of us lost in our own thoughts. Before crossing the coast of England, a glider in front broke its tow and nosed down towards the ground. A second glider just exploded over the sea; equipment, and bodies too, tumbling down among the burning wreckage. I was told at a later date that it was Royal Engineer transport. I never did have it confirmed.

For my part, I was not sorry to see the Dutch coast below us. Admittedly it was now enemy territory below us, but anything was better than all that water! The prospect of having to keep afloat, or trying to swim laden down with equipment and ammo, did not appeal to me at all. We experienced some AA fire from the ground, but it seemed to have little effect.

It was after 1 p.m. when I saw the L.Z. ahead. Already many gliders were on the ground, some of them damaged, and at least one of them I saw upside down. With no warning, our tow rope dropped away, the towing aircraft seemed to leap in the air and everything became very quiet. The nose of the glider went down and it gathered speed as we descended. How I wished then that I was in the party that was parachuting in.

The ground rushed up at us, and George, ‘Dusky’? and I braced ourselves for the landing. We hit hard and seemed to slide through along the ground, coming to s stop in the far corner of the L.Z. The three of us quickly made our way to the tail and we were very soon joined by the two pilots. We soon discovered that the pins that had to be removed to drop the tail would not come free. We struggled for almost half an hour and then Corporal Dixon and one pilot set off for the R.V. to report the [situation]. The other pilot, ‘Dusky’? and myself, took up prone positions away from the glider in a defensive role. The glider made too much of a target to be caught in. A few members of the Division were making their way to the area, and casualties were being attended to. We had landed at 1.32 p.m., the time now was 2.10 p.m. The sound of small arms fire told us that the enemy had met our force not too far away.

It was just before 3 p.m. when two Recce jeeps arrived. They were from Squadron HQ and contained the CO (Major Gough), Captain Platt, Lieutenant McNabb, Trooper Bert Welham and Corporal Dixon. Quickly checking the problem, Major Gough sent off two jeeps with their drivers to report to ‘D’ Troop HQ Section. We would then take squadron HQ. I learned much later that Captain Parks, the ‘D’ Troop CO and his driver, died in the closing stages at Oosterbeek. But for the grace of God!

The tail was at last dropped and we moved off by 3.30 p.m. Major Gough informed us that they had taken the top route and caught up with 1st Parachute Battalion. They had made contact with a strong enemy force and could make little progress.

We now took the centre route, passing on our way the wrecked car of a high ranking German officer. His body lay half in, half out of the vehicle; a pool of blood covered the area around his body. As we made progress, the sound of gunfire, both small arms and heavier weapons, became almost deafening; loudest of all, the scream and explosion of the Nebelwerfers. We passed several bodies, both the enemy and our own. It was quite clear that, like 1st Battalion, 3rd Battalion had also met up with unexpectedly heavy resistance.

At last we came up to [3rd] Battalion HQ, and [the] three officers left the jeeps to confer with other officers present. About half an hour passed, they then returned to the jeeps. They looked quite upset and Captain Platt told us that one of our Recce patrols had run into an ambush, several members had been killed, the remainder taken prisoner. We did not know which troop had been involved, so of course no names. I hoped, rather selfishly, that my own ‘D’ Troop was not on that particular patrol.

Mounting the jeeps, we returned to the shot-up car and then we turned off to our left, heading for the lower route that had been taken by 2nd Battalion. It was a ‘hairy’ ride to say the least. We came under fire from small arms, especially machine guns, several times, returning fire with our mounted Vickers ‘K’ machine gun and any other weapons that came to hand. As driver I had my hands full and was of no help. At one point, we turned a sharp bend in the road, almost running into a group of Germans marching in file down the road, heading in the same direction as ourselves. We just flew past them and not a shot was fired. I do not know who was most surprised. I looked at Major Gough sitting beside me and he honestly looked as if he was enjoying himself. During the days that followed, and in fact our time in the Middle East, I never saw him rattled.

We came at last upon the battalion HQ of 2nd Battalion. From what we were told, they had enjoyed a not too difficult journey, although the advanced party was now in contact with stronger opposition. Off to our right there was an explosion, and we understood our first objective, also a bridge, had been destroyed.

The area around us was now built up, civilians greeted us and they seemed very happy at our arrival. Ahead of us we saw our main objective, the main road bridge. There was a road under the bridge and a grass bank up the ramp that ran off to our left. We turned into the road that ran alongside the verge and entered the large building that was to become Brigade HQ. To the left of the building was a wrought iron gate, giving entry to a large yard. To the left, inside the gate, there was a rather large shed-like building, probably used as a bicycle store. The entrance to the main building was inside this yard.

As my passengers dismounted, I was told to place my vehicle just inside the gate, with the front end protruding enough to give a clear field of fire with the Vickers ‘K’ machine gun. I took up my position manning the gun.

An hour or so later, I was very surprised to see a lorry quite slowly driving down the road. It was a military type, about a three tonner, and painted in a dark colour. Captain Platt had been with me for about ten minutes or so and he gave orders to open fire. This I did and my burst shattered the windscreen. The lorry veered off to the left, mounted the grass bank and came to a stop. There was no movement, so three men went out to investigate while I covered them. They came back, carrying the passenger between them, and told us the driver was dead. This was the first time I had fired a weapon since our arrival.

Once relieved from my post, I made my way to the attic type room at the top of the building. A large room with two dormer type windows that required a chair or similar to stand on and look out over the bridge and ramp. A larger window at normal height gave a clear view to the start of the ramp. I took up a position with my rifle at this window, keeping well back of course. Colonel Frost, the CO of 2nd Battalion, Major Gough and several other officers occupied this room. Also present, Corporal Dixon along with other radio operators. At that point, contact with other parts of the brigade, or further afield, was not made.

It was quite dark when Lieutenant McNabb was ordered to take Recce members on a patrol to locate enemy positions, and perhaps make contact with our other battalions. Troopers Bolton, Welham and myself made up the patrol.

We left the building by the main door, crossed the yard to our right and made our way between the buildings, past the back of the church, and we arrived at a large square with a building built on an island in the centre. There was a group of German infantry in the area of the building, and it looked as if it was being prepared as a strong point. We stayed under cover, but could not make any forward progress. We attempted entering the buildings on our left, but we returned to our building, having achieved nothing.

Back at our positions, we sat on the floor, trying to get some sleep in turn.

Day 2: Monday, 18 September 1944.

Monday morning we stood to at 5.30 a.m. As it became daylight, gunfire and small arms fire was heard from the other side of the ramp. The rattle of tank tracks was also clearly heard. Snipers had taken up position in the church spire, giving them full coverage of the yard and entrance to our building. Several of our men became casualties. At about 09.00 hours, we clearly heard the approach of armour. Our spirits hit a high and we felt excited and relieved at the arrival of XXX Corps. Our hopes were soon dashed when the cry went up that it was a German column. The bridge at our end was already partly blocked by several lorries that had been hit earlier. This slowed the half-tracks and armoured cars, and they came under heavy and accurate fire from our positions. I well remember one particular German; he leapt from the back of a half-track that had been brought to a halt by a P.I.A.T. [portable infantry anti-tank weapon, or ‘bazooka’]. I am certain at least half a dozen of us aimed at him, but he had a charmed life and did not get hit. I was standing on a chair, firing from one of the dormer windows. To fire at targets on the bridge, it was necessary for me to lean out of the window. There was a burst of machine gun fire, glass from the top sash shattered, and a piece of glass sliced through my beret and scalped me, leaving the flap of skin back to expose the scalp. A glass fragment entered my right eye. I fell back off the chair, but remained conscious. It was Major Gough who helped me up and took me down to the M.O. I understood it took thirty stitches to set things straight, and a apd and eye patch over my eye. I then went to the basement and joined many others sitting on the floor of a long passage. The attitude of these men, many quite badly wounded, was truly amazing. They could still manage a laugh and give moral support to each other. The main topic of conversation was ‘Any news of XXX Corps?’

The sounds of the battle outside diminished and quite clearly the enemy had not had much success. We even had a few of their wounded join us. The S.S. insignia on uniforms made it quite clear that we were not facing poor-quality troops as suggested in [the] briefing, but really well trained and experienced formations. Around lunchtime, although there was no lunch, the Sergeant Major came down stairs and asked if any of us would like to go back up and give a hand. No order, no request. There was no hesitation; about a dozen of us followed him. With my right eye covered I was not much use with a rifle or L.M.G., so I was given the task of delivering ammo, etc, to the many positions. My partner had his right arm in a sling so, like myself, was no use with a weapon. On one of our rounds, I was walking down the wide staircase along side a stretcher case. He was quite clearly very badly wounded. I took his hand and spoke a lot of nonsense to him. As we reached the ground floor, his grip tightened and he died. I had seen many men die, but this has always stood out in my memory. Apart from the fact that he was from the 2nd Battalion, I have no idea who he was. I hoped then, and have always hoped since, that I gave him some little comfort.

One of the problems facing us was lack of water. The enemy had made certain early on that we would be deprived at source. Looking back, I cannot remember having food [during] the action, but that was the least of our problems.

During the day, the enemy infiltrated our positions. Several grenades came through windows and snipers in the church steeple ensured we could not safely use the courtyard. The other side of the ramp seemed to be getting most attention, the sound of gunfire and small arms was almost constant.

Daylight was folding when a Corporal [from the] Royal Engineers arrived, requesting ammo. His partner had fallen on the way over. Four of us who had been on this duty, loaded up with bandoliers and carrying boxes between us, accompanied the Corporal back. We had to leave the building and make a dash for the gate; turn right, keeping close to the wall; cross the road and pass under the bridge. There was a distance of some three hundred yards to a building on the corner. Having arrived, we unloaded just in time for the area to come under attack. Some one pushed a Sten into my hands and so I was back on the active list.

The enemy pressed hard, and at one point got to the lower floor of the building. The fight was hard and at times hand-to-hand. Having expended my Sten magazine, I had to pick up a fallen rifle and bayonet. It seemed to go on for ages, but in fact was all over in about ten minutes. My partner was wounded again and when we returned to B.H.Q., he was left behind. I never saw him again. On our way back we came under fire from several directions. Under the bridge we came across four Germans. Three of them were wounded, the fourth looked very young, just a boy. We just looked at each other and then went on our way.

Back in our own building, I tried to locate the other Recce men, but only found Trooper Bolton. In the Ops Room I spoke to Captain Platt and a radioman from the Royal Corps of Signals, who told me he thought Corporal Dixon had been killed. Very rashly, I went out to the shed by the main gate where the bodies had been placed. I just could not look any closer; so many lying there covered in blankets, curtains, anything that would cover them. It was years later that I made contact with George Dixon, who had come through all right.

Throughout the day we were in close contact with the enemy. At no time did more than a few yards separate us. In fading light it was very difficult to engage targets. In the early evening I was told that later in the evening the Recce party would mount jeeps, drive down to the end of the ramp, dash across the bridge and carry on towards XXX Corps. We knew that at the end of the ramp there was a well established strong point. At the far end of the bridge infantry, machine guns, etc., were firing, covering the bridge. The miles beyond the bridge just had to be held in force. At that time, I for one had very little expectation of reaching our relief column. This patrol was cancelled.

There was very little sleep that night, contact with enemy patrols of varying strengths was constant and always very close. From the sounds coming from the other side of the ramp, they were heavily engaged and seemed to be getting more attention than our positions. Still there was no news of XXX Corps.

Day 3: Tuesday, 19th September 1944.

Just before daylight, the sound of heavy gunfire could be heard from the direction we had arrived on Sunday. Our spirits rose, and felt sure some at least of the division would arrive shortly. During the early morning we heard the battle cry of the 1st Battalion, “Whoa Mohamed”, and a cheer went up. We heard later that just a handful of the 3rd Battalion had fought their way through to join us. An hour or so later, a runner arrived from the other side of the ramp with the news that some of the houses and buildings had been lost, among them the building I had briefly been in. I wondered how the men there had fared, especially the wounded partner. Quite early in the day, we again heard the rattle of tank tracks, but they never appeared in our field of fire. The other side of the ramp seemed to be getting a great deal of attention.

A heavy attack with infantry and light armour came in on the route we had arrived on. Again they tried to gain entry to our building through the yard. It took close contact, hard fighting to hold them out. Casualties were heavy on both sides.

We were constantly under fire from snipers; many defenders suffered wounds, a good proportion fatal. A new problem arose, mortars had found our range and explosions on and around our positions never seemed to cease.

One incident that pleased us: a German fighter aircraft, during a strafing run, crashed into the church spire, and that obliterated a sniper position that had given [us] so much trouble.

We did suffer from lack of food, especially the lack of water. Sleep, too, was impossible. At this time we were ordered to fire our weapons only when there was a reasonable chance of hitting a target.

Our basement area was now packed with wounded men, most of them too badly hurt to carry a weapon. All walking wounded had returned to the fight, many of them to be hit again, sometimes with a fatal wound.

The Sergeant Major asked me if I could manage a Bren machine gun. He then gave me a position in the ground floor room facing the bridge. I lay well back from the window, but my field of fire was extremely limited. I took a chance and removed my eye shield. Vision was very blurred, but I knew if anyone tried to enter the window he would be out of luck.

Mid-afternoon there was a very loud rattle of tracks, and a Tiger tank came up the ramp and stopped right opposite our building. The turret turned and the 88mm gun pointed at us. I knew at that moment what it was like to be scared! The gun fired. There was a crash as the shell came through the top right hand corner of the room, a sound like an express train rushing through a railway station and another crash as it exited through the back wall. I was covered in dust and debris, but unharmed. Was it a dud? Was it an armour-piercing projectile? I really do not know, but it was great to be in one piece! The tank fired several more times, but not too close to my position.

Word reached us from the other side of the ramp that many buildings had been lost, and without help soon that part of the defensive perimeter would be lost. Our positions too could not hold on much longer. Our casualties were mounting by the hour. Our shed was now completely full, and the dead in most cases left where they fell.

Day 4: Wednesday, 20 September 1944.

During the night there was little or no respite. The enemy seemed to have unlimited manpower and they were willing and able to take heavy casualties to finish us off.

The tanks arrived on the ramp again, and systematically blew our buildings to pieces. No food, no water, no ammo; unwashed and covered in dust and blood we must have been a sorry sight. Many of the buildings now burned. Some of the defenders from other buildings came into BHQ. At last, our signalers made contact with the division, and it was now certain that there would be no help from that quarter. They too seemed to be fighting a losing battle.

Mid-afternoon, Colonel Frost, CO of the 2nd Battalion, was wounded in both legs by mortar fire, and command was handed over to Major Gough. At this stage, there was very little he could do. The decision was made to just hold on as long as possible, in case XXX Corps arrived.

By late afternoon, most of the buildings had been demolished. Anything left standing was burning. The few remaining defenders took up positions in the rubble, in gardens, anywhere that would give some cover. Considering the wounded still in the basements, etc, Major Gough gave the order to pull out and try to gather in the church. I followed the same route that our recce had taken on Sunday. Entering the back door of the church, I saw about fifty already present. We sat around on the floor, burning embers from the blazing roof fell upon us. On the other side of the large street door, we could hear German voices. In groups of five, we left as we had entered until we reached the same square seen on our patrol. Now the building on the island was a heap of rubble. We entered the square and almost immediately came under fire from a machine gun firing from our right. Almost at once a second gun opened up from our left. We caught in a cross fire. One of our number fell to the ground. The rest of us picked him up, half carried, half dragged him to the ruined building. The debris was quite hot from recent fire. Between us we found a couple of shell dressings from our battledress trousers, and did the best we could to stem the flow of blood from a wound on his thigh. Every movement we made disturbed the rubble, bringing down more fire on our position. We all had weapons, but not one round of ammo between us. It was quite dark and it seemed the enemy was content to leave us until daybreak. We were not going anywhere!

We lay there, not daring to move, and then first one machine gun opened fire, quickly followed by a second. There was a shout, and two figures almost fell on top of us. One was a Lieutenant from the Engineers, the second a Private from the 2nd Battalion. As soon as the firing ceased, the officer took stock of our circumstances, quickly deciding that stuck as we were, completely defenceless and one of our party weak and still losing blood, we must give up. In all honesty, at that point, I for one was past caring. The officer called out in German and, when answered, he got to his feet, arms held high, broke cover and walked toward the first machine gun position. It seemed an age before we heard him order us to drop our arms and carry our wounded comrade between us. We entered a large hallway of a building, we were searched and our equipment and Denison smocks taken from us. We were then told to get some rest. We lay on the tiled floor and just fell asleep.

We were awakened at about 7 am the next morning. I was cold and aching all over from contact with the floor. Where our wounded man had lain, there was just dried blood. I never heard how he fared. One very young German soldier brought us a piece of bread and a hot drink with no milk or sweetening. This was my very first taste of ersatz coffee, made from acorns I believe. It was vile, but nevertheless appreciated. Our benefactor spoke very good English, saying how lucky we were, for us the war had ended. The German soldiers present treated us with respect, even pity, with little to suggest that for the past four days we had been trying to kill each other.

At this time about two dozen of our forces were present. We were taken off in groups of four to be interrogated. Our questioner was a pleasant and middle-aged captain. He told us he had been educated at Oxford, liked England and English people, etc, etc. He also gave us a large glass of colourless liquid that turned out to be schnapps. My limit drinking alcohol to date was a Watney brown ale. After a few very pointless questions, such as did we like Churchill; he asked the usual name, rank and number. Then he got down to other military things. On our refusal to answer, he told us it was of no importance, as he was aware of everything. He took us each in turn, checked our regimental numbers in a book, and told each of us the regiment we had enlisted in, and roughly the date of enlistment. Not very difficult in reality. After that I have no idea what was said. A large quantity of drink on an empty stomach does wonders.

It was midday when we had to fall in outside, and we were marched off. The damage to the buildings we had fought in was unbelievable. Just piles of bricks and rubble. Bodies of the British dead lay where they had fallen, and there were many of them. In some cases the bodies had been covered in ground sheets, blankets, sheets and even coloured curtains. It seemed as if the remaining civilians had done their best. Most of the German dead had already been gathered, and ours I felt sure would soon also be removed.

Hardly a sound came from our group, and I know they all thought of the ones left behind. One of our guards did let us know that the very many wounded had been removed from BHQ before the fire reached them.

I suppose at that point I should have been happy to be alive, pleased that for me the war was over. I felt ashamed that I had given in, even though I knew there was nothing more we could have done.

We reached a railway track, and were loaded fifty to a truck. A dustbin was handed in to us for use as a toilet, the doors closed and secured. Our journey lasted well over two days. There were many stops and being shunted off the track. The dustbin became full and the contents slopped over the floor and on the men close by. There was no room to do more than sit with the knees up close to the body. Many men were sick and in pain from wounds. Only once did we get out of the truck and have a piece of bread and coffee. It also allowed us to empty the bin and with buckets of water slosh out the floor. Our guards were older men and they showed us no respect or consideration.

We arrived at Limburg, unloaded and walked some eight miles to Stalag 12A. we were billeted in two very large tents, clearly recently erected as the earth floor was like a mud bath. We were documented and issued metal tags with our POW numbers stamped on. We had our first hot meal, two potatoes cooked in their jacket, and a small piece of bread, the usual black, unsweetened coffee of course.

There were a variety of other captives, including Americans with whom I started my eight months of captivity.

Article kindly supplied by R Hilton

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