Steve’s story. 1943 –1945
Pte Stephen George Morgan. Army No. 14436780
During World War II the call up age was 17 years 9 months, as I was not quite that old I volunteered to join the Army and went for a medical and “took the King’s shilling”. You were literally given a shilling after signing up and allowed to go out and enjoy your last night of freedom before the hard training began. After going through all the formalities I officially enlisted on 8th July 1943 – four days before my 18th birthday. After volunteering my mother was pleased and very proud of me – if only she knew what was to come!
In early August 1943 I joined the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry and went to their training centre in Colchester. After sixteen weeks training I volunteered for the Paras and a separate platoon was formed to await joining the Paras. We did hard, physical training with ex-Airborne Staff and many men dropped out. The Platoon Sergeant at that time was Colour Sergeant Rouse.
In early February 1944 we went to Hardwick Hall, near Chesterfield for two weeks physical training, which included cliff climbing in an old stone quarry. At the end of February I was sent to Ringway Airport, which is now Manchester City airport, and lived for two weeks in Nissan huts. For the first week we were in a hanger practising drops. For the second week we went to Tatton Park and did two jumps from a static balloon, five jumps from a Whitley bomber in daylight (my course number was 105) and one jump at night from the balloon and that was it! We were given our red berets and a pair of wings to sew on our right sleeve and we had finished our training! I remember going into the Ringway Hotel one night in my uniform and prominently putting my right arm on the bar to show off my wings, hoping I wouldn’t have to pay for my beer – it didn’t work! After our passing out parade we were sent home on two weeks leave.
After our two weeks leave I went back to Chesterfield and was then sent to Keevil, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, for two to three weeks. It was here that a squadron of Stirling bombers were being converted from bombing duties to glider tugs and parachuting and the aircrew needed experience in dropping men, so for two weeks it seemed like a holiday, sunny, dry and warm with RAF food – better than the Army! I managed to get in twenty-one parachute jumps and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
I then went back to Chesterfield for a few days and was posted to the Second Parachute Battalion and put in the Medium Machine Gun Platoon as I had had MMG experience with the Home Guard. The Second Parachute Battalion were stationed at Stoke Rochford, near Saltby aerodrome and I arrived there on the 5th May, 1944 and although nobody knew we were due to arrive, we were fed but had to sleep on the tennis courts! It was about this time that all of the new reinforcements were driven to a nearby airfield and taken up in a Dakota to do a jump and this was the first time that I had been in a Dakota.
While we were there we were joined by Major Tate, who had previously served in North Africa and although we were trained to fight we were hopeless on the parade ground. Major Tate put a notice up that we were to report to the parade ground at 7.30am one Sunday morning and proceeded to put us through our paces. We then saw the figure of Lt Col Frost coming down the stairs dressed in his pyjamas complete with red beret on his head, suggesting that we make a little less noise and be allowed back to bed!
From 6th June 1944 until 17th September 1944 the First Airborne Division were briefed for at least a dozen operations, all cancelled. During mid-July the Battalion was temporarily split up and sent to various airfields around central England and I found myself at Down Ampney. An operation was being planned to safeguard the treasures in the French President’s Palace at Rambouillet but was cancelled due to the success of the Allied troops pushing through after D-Day. We were given leave and I hitch hiked home on the Saturday morning and walked into the kitchen to see my 14 year old brother David sitting listening to the wireless waiting to hear news of this cancelled operation! My mother told me he had been up all night listening to the wireless – how he knew about the proposed operation I have no idea!
Another soldier I had met in the Oxford and Bucks called Billy Gilder had also joined the Second Parachute Battalion and was put in the Mortar Platoon. When we were briefed for Operation Market Garden, my name went on the jump list – his did not. He was briefed to come across the channel with our kitbags and catch us up – was he mad? He went to see an officer with £5 in his pocket – it worked and Billy joined me on the jump list. We took off from Saltby on Sunday 17th September 1944 in a Dakota, which was part of a vast formation of planes and looking out the window it seemed as if you could touch the wings of the planes either side. All around us were hundreds of British and American fighter aircraft such as Thunderbolts, Spitfires and Hurricanes providing an escort. Weighing me down were not only my Lee Enfield No. 4 rifle but my ration packs, 2 Hawkins anti-tank mines and three sealed boxes containing 250 rounds each for our Vickers machine gun. Underneath our Dakota were strapped five containers of equipment and a motorbike. Over the North Sea we heard a loud noise and the American pilot sent back a message to our Jump Master that the motorbike was heading for the water!
I was number 8 in our stick and dropped at the Renkum end of the drop zone behind the Pathfinders at about 2 pm. This was only the second time I had jumped out of a Dakota but the first time with full kit bags! After landing I released my parachute and emptied my kitbag of three boxes of machine gun ammunition and two Hawkins anti-tank mines. While I was doing this I noticed a container drop to the ground rapidly because its parachute had not opened and on impact there was a huge explosion.
I also saw a Dakota leave the formation after dropping its troops and I wondered what was going on because it circled round the area and flew back in underneath and across the stream of aircraft. I then noticed one man jump out of the plane and parachute down. I can only assume that the stick didn’t leave the Dakota fast enough and the soldier, who would have been an NCO, being the last man out of the plane, would not have wanted to go back to England and possibly fly out a day later with Fourth Brigade.
I then looked around to see if the Pathfinders had let off the gold coloured smoke to indicate our rendevouz point and noticed it over a small wood and we all congregated there. We moved off with Lt McDermont’s Platoon in the lead and Lt Grayburn behind him. A German reconnisance vehicle appeared with a small armoured car and an open topped lorry full of soldiers. As I was about a hundred yards behind, I was not part of the fight but saw all the German soldiers either killed or captured.
I was with Headquarters Company, which included a small Support Company consisting of a Machine Gun Platoon, Mortar Platoon and an Assault Platoon. We were under the control of Captain Panter and my Lieutenant was an Irishman by the name of J.H.A. Monsell. There were three routes heading for the bridges, codenamed, Lion, Leopard and Tiger. I was on the Lion route. We headed straight for our target, being Arnhem bridge itself, the furthest one from the drop zone.
We threw smoke bombs to provide cover and we made good progress. Along the way we came to a low rise in the landscape, which stood out because Holland is so flat, this was called Den Brink and on the top, unknown to us, were some German soldiers, one of whom took a shot at me, missed, narrowly missed Sgt Joy, our Platoon Sergeant and the bullet hit a nearby tree. I started to run up the hill to shoot back and I remember Pte. Humphreys shouting after me “Morgan’s after a medal!” I was told to get back in line – we had to get to the Bridge! Just a short distance from Den Brink was a railway bridge that had a stone arch. I was aware of a commotion near this bridge and heard shots. As I was behind the assault platoon I could not see exactly what was going on but as we marched passed the spot I saw the Gronert twins, both shot by a German in an armoured car, their bodies, lying as they fell in a cross formation. They are buried side by side at Oosterbeek cemetery. We left ‘C’ Company at this bridge and ‘A’ Company under the command of Lt Col John Frost continued along the route and we were in close support with our machine guns.
Somewhere near the Hartenstein Hotel at Oosterbeek a captured motorcycle and sidecar caught up with us. Billy was in the sidecar with an MG34 German machine gun and his Officer was riding the motorcycle. As they drove by Billy shouted to me “It’s a piece of cake Steve!” It was for him, he was riding, I was on my feet with a heavy pack on my back and another four miles to fight to the bridge. Then a jeep caught up with us and we were told we could load our heavy boxes of ammunition on to it, which we did, unfortunately that was the last we saw of it!
We carried on towards Arnhem along the Utrechtsweg having to push our way through grateful civilians who were giving us milk and fruit. It was getting dusk by the time we were in sight of the bridge, I think it was about 9pm. We came to a wooden pontoon bridge, which spanned the Rhine on our right (there is now a new concrete bridge there called Nelson Mandela Bridge). To our left were some houses between which ran a narrow road as we approached a German sniper took a few shots and a Bren gun carrier was called from behind as reinforcements. While we were waiting for the gun to arrive I looked around me and on my right saw a German helmet appear on some steps leading up from the river and noticed that two soldiers were walking up to road level, I took aim and the one in front fell back down the steps. I have since learned that they were both taken prisoner after we had carried on for Arnhem bridge.
After arriving at Arnhem we were told to go in groups and warn the civilians that we needed to defend the bridge and that they were in danger. I remember standing with a group of soldiers in a Sunday School while the teacher was told to evacuate the building. Why there should be a Sunday school at 9 o’clock at night I have no idea.
(Many years later I returned to Arnhem and was stood looking at a 25lb field gun which was on display as a memorial. A Dutchman came up to me and we chatted for about an hour. He told me he was a boy living in the town during the battle and remembered some soldiers going into his Sunday school and telling them to leave the building. He had never met any of those soldiers since – until I told him I was one of them! He wanted me to meet his family but unfortunately I had a ferry to catch!)
Back to Sunday 17th September 1944 – after arriving in Arnhem I was in a group of soldiers standing on some grass just west of the bridge and as I had no orders I decided to walk over to the bridge and up on to the ramp. I knew that some German lorries had been fired on earlier and I could see the stationary vehicles. After a few minutes of searching I found two German soldiers hiding in the back of one of the lorries. I took them prisoner and marched them back to near our Battalion HQ and handed them over to another soldier.
I was then ordered to take up position in building no. 15 and spent the night there on guard looking out over the back of the building. Just before daylight on Monday, 18th September we were ordered to take up positions in a house right next to the bridge (building number 1), with our machine guns facing south in anticipation of the Germans trying to cross the river. Plans were being made for a “flying column” under the command of Major Gough where a machine gun would be mounted on a Jeep and driven across the bridge to break through the German line as we were expecting reinforcements to come up from the south. We had to wait until the right moment to do this but before this could go ahead a German vehicle appeared and drove quickly past our position and carried on out of sight undamaged. There then appeared a convoy of armoured troop carriers and half-tracks crossing the bridge and they also tried to get through. We opened fire and for about an hour there was a very vicious fire fight. At this point we should have had four machine guns but two were left with ‘C’ Company defending the railway bridge.
While this fighting was going on I remember being three storeys up in the loft with my rifle, taking shelter by the chimney and seeing a sniper at the window by the name of Cox. A shell came through the window and blasted Cox out of it. For the remainder of the war I never saw him again and did not know what happened to him. After I was discharged from the Army in February 1946 some scenes for the film “Theirs is the Glory” were being shot at RAF Brize Norton and a lot of the paratroopers were taking part and used to go into Witney during their time off, I walked into the Cross Keys pub in Witney and at the bar there stood Cox in a group of Paras having a drink! I walked over to them and noted that L/C Dodds was also there and started to talk with them. Unfortunately I was in civvies and one of the group, who was a young, inexperienced Para, became belligerent and objected to me joining the group, saying that I was merely a civilian until L/C Dodds spoke up for me and said “I remember Steve banging away with his rifle out the window with me”.
For a few hours after the battle, in which Hauptsturmfuhrer Graebner was killed, we stayed in this house as we were being heavily mortared. I remember one soldier, whose surname was Hutchinson, had a piece of shrapnel in his foot and I offered to dress it for him with one of my field bandages. He wouldn’t let me take his boot off because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get it back on and wouldn’t be able to carry on fighting.
During Monday afternoon I, and a young lad from the REME, were moved to guard a building that had a water outlet flowing into the Rhine (number 9) and we stayed there the whole night. During the night we fired on some Germans who were trying to infiltrate from the west towards the bridge.
On Tuesday morning, 19th September, a dozen or more British soldiers entered this building to take up positions and I was told to go to a nearby carpentry shop (number 10) together with the young lad from the REME. We joined some soldiers who were already there and kept watch. We never knew each other’s name simply because it seemed unnecessary to introduce ourselves when we were watching out for enemy movements and awaiting our next order
Late on Tuesday afternoon somebody drew my attention to falling slates from a nearby roof and we were sure there was a German sniper in that building (number 11). Somebody fired a Bren gun from behind me and we had no more trouble from him.
We were constantly being mortared and the Germans were gradually gaining ground by bombing us out of buildings. Tiger tanks were being moved in while we had run out of heavy weapons and had to rely on machine guns and rifles. I was well supplied with bullets because I had helped myself to an extra 200 rounds before leaving England, which meant I had twice the amount of the other soldiers!
As it got dark a group of us were taken from the carpentry shop and moved closer to the bridge. I was picked because I was a “spare” man as I was the ammunition carrier for the Vickers machine gun. I was following Corporal Orris and we had to walk through a hole in the wall caused by an earlier explosion, as I did so I had a bit of a shock because lying at my feet was a dead paratrooper, probably shot by the sniper in the roof, and I had to jump at an angle to avoid treading on him. We were put back in the house facing the bridge (number 1) and stayed there the night. The building had been badly damaged in the fighting as it had been on fire and by now all the windows were missing and the roof had collapsed.
On Wednesday, 20th September we were ordered to reinforce Lt McDermont who had earlier occupied a house the other side of the bridge (number 3). He had left it to take up position under the bridge as his platoon had suffered so many casualties but the order to re-take the house would cost him his life. We congregated under the bridge and charged towards the house with Lt McDermont in the lead and me being the third in line. We entered the house by the back door and ran up the first flight of steps, got to a half-landing to turn the corner and was met by a hail of machine gun bullets. Lt McDermont fell badly wounded and as I stepped over him, I glanced back and saw that the hand holding his Sten gun had had the tops of all four fingers shot off. He had been hit several times and the bullet holes ran in a line across his chest, I understand he later died of his wounds. The next soldier in line was also hit, leaving me, and the soldiers behind to face the enemy. Luckily somebody behind me fired a shot up and across the stairwell and killed the German soldier firing at us. As L/C Dodds piled into the room after me, I presume it was him who fired the shot with his Sten gun. We only had single shot rifles and bayonets but yes we took the house.
I also remember seeing two German ME109 aeroplanes flying low, in a straight line, south to north. The first one passed by, but the second one clipped the spire of St Walburgis Church with its wing, which fell into the street close by, and the rest of the aircraft somersaulted through the air and crashed well outside the perimeter we were defending and I saw the smoke go up about half a mile away.
We had to defend this building from an attack by the Germans and I noticed on the road, leading north past the School, was a lone German soldier not wearing a helmet but a soft hat. He was attempting to assemble a tripod for a machine gun (numbers 7 and 8). I could not take my eyes off him because every time he bent over, his hat fell off and he kept picking it up and putting it back on! It was almost comical to watch but I decided I did not want him to start firing at us so I spoke to a soldier looking out of the next window along (number 6) and borrowed his Bren gun. I set the sight for 600 yards and fired off half a magazine and he fell to the ground. Within minutes of doing this, roughly a Platoon of German infantry came charging down the road firing Schmeisser sub machine guns but as they had no machine gun support from the man I had shot, we were able to pick them off before they got within effective range of us and they disappeared into the houses around us. Then three Mark III tanks appeared along the Westervoortsedijk and turned the corner into Ooststraat and swung theirs guns round in line with the house we were occupying and one of them fired a shell which came through a hole in the wall and hit a Corporal from the Royal Engineers on the left shoulder and cut his body clean in half.
Late in the afternoon we were ordered out of this building, as there were so few of us, to go back under the bridge. This we did one at a time dashing for cover in case there were hidden snipers but the road was quiet. There was quite a bit of cover for us due to the building materials stored there and it was here that I saw Lt Grayburn for the first time. He was there with Captain Frank and an assorted group of soldiers from various units of the Division. I suppose there were about thirty of us taking shelter under the bridge. One by one we were being shot by German snipers, there was also a Tiger tank on the road nearby firing at us and hitting the bridge overhead (number 13), which caused chunks of concrete to fall down on top of us. As Captain Frank, who was in ‘A’ Company, was the highest ranking officer, he had the responsibility of making decisions. He shouted out “Does anybody have any gammon bombs?”, I replied “I’ve got a couple” and pulled out the stockinette bags and fuses and pulled two sticks of plastic explosives out of my back hip pockets. Within minutes he had assembled the bombs and together with a Sergeant I saw him creep out from under the bridge and used the buildings between the bridge and the road to get within range of the tanks and I saw him throw both bombs, one of which knocked out the middle tank by hitting it in the rear. We saw the hatch on the turret of the tank lift up and the German soldiers climb out and although we tried to shoot them we were not successful.
After Captain Frank and the Sergeant had returned, he took stock of our resources and realised that we were nearly out of ammunition and he decided that with volunteers he would make a breakout because we were completely surrounded by Germans. Five or six men volunteered, he took all our remaining Bren guns and ammunition and left. We could hear their guns getting fainter as they ran. I never knew what happened to him or his men. This left Lt John Grayburn in charge and he could hear the water running from the outlet in a nearby building, the one that I had been in earlier, and he decided to head for that. He was already wounded in several places, I remember seeing a bandage round his head, his right arm was in a sling and he was firing his pistol with his left hand. One of his trouser legs were ripped and his leg was bandaged as well. As we were surrounded by Germans firing their rifles, we were being picked off one by one until just Lt Grayburn and myself were on our own, all the soldiers around us were either dead or too wounded to take part. He patted me on the back and said something like “It’s time to go”. We ran out from under the bridge in a zig-zag formation firing our weapons and it was at this point that I finally ran out of ammunition, having used all 400 rounds. I reached cover but before Lt Grayburn could join me the tank in front fired and he fell (number 14). I looked out and saw him lying on the road, I realised he was still alive and called to him. I also remember somebody, who sounded like an Officer, shout from a nearby building , something like “Is it very bad?” He replied “Leave me”, he knew he was dying, the Officer replied “Goodbye dear boy”. I also remember somebody who also sounded like an Officer call out “Good Luck”. I decided to try and pull him under cover and crawled out on my front, it was quite odd because the Germans did not fire at me. Lt Grayburn again said “Leave me” unfortunately he was too heavy for me to move on my own and I had no choice but to get back under cover. He was aged 26 and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He was a very brave man and somebody who I admired very much.
I ran to the building closest to where I had taken cover and found four soldiers in the cellar (number 2). These were Sgt Joy (on our Dakota we had written Joy’s Boys), Corporal Orris, Private Robertson, the young man from the REME who had been with me guarding the carpentry shop and me. Between us our remaining equipment consisted of one 45 Remington semi-automatic pistol, seven rounds of ammunition, a compass and a Sykes Fairburn fighting knife. Our rations were gone, I had not eaten mine, they had been lost in the fighting. We had been issued with two days’ ration – this was day four - but in the thick of the fighting you did not feel like eating!
We were sitting quiet and exhausted waiting for night to fall, to creep away, a lone voice from across the road roared out our Battle cry “WAHO MAHAMED”. This was from the house that had been 2nd Battalion Headquarters but soon after we heard the Germans in the ruins above us reply “Come out Englanders we will fight you” but what would we fight with? One pistol, seven rounds and one Sykes Fairburn knife, it was time to go, just as Lt Grayburn had said to me an hour before.
The noise of the battle had subsided and as we were completely surrounded, when it got dark we crept out. We decided to head north and crawled along mostly on our stomachs we had cover from all the rubble lying around and eventually we came across some ponds surrounded by shrubs. It was getting daylight and we could see we were just past the Musis Sacrum By this time we were very thirsty and across the road saw a pipe with water dripping out of it and decided to go over to it to have a drink and this is when the Germans saw us. We took refuge in another cellar but the Germans shouted “Englanders come out”. We had no choice but to surrender and were taken prisoner. We were marched past the spot where I had shot the German trying to assemble the tripod and his body was still lying in the road beside the machine gun. It had been there all night and I had to keep quiet that it was me who had shot him. We were taken to a Church that had been used as a dressing station for English soldiers, I could see that the bandages and dressings lying around were made out of cotton and linen and not paper, which is what the Germans had, and then through the town to a big house. Inside were hundred of paratroopers who had been taken prisoner. We were kept there overnight and given water and jars of preserved fruit that had obviously been plundered from somewhere, I remember clearly eating the fruit and thinking how wonderful they tasted as I had nothing to eat for a couple of days. There was an amusing story of an Officer in the Signals Regiment called Major Deane-Drummond who had hid in a cupboard in one of the rooms. This room was used by the Germans to question the British and he could hear everything! He stayed in the cupboard for several days until he realised that the Germans had left the building and made his escape!
Four or five days after arriving at this house we were loaded into lorries and taken to a railway and put into a warehouse. We slept there overnight and we given food and water. There were 200 – 300 of us. In the morning we were loaded onto railway wagons, sixty to a wagon, and travelled for five days, it took us a long time to get anywhere as the RAF had blown up the railway tracks and we kept having to make detours. At one point I remember looking through the ventilation slit and saw to our left the twin towers of Cologne Cathedral, during the afternoon I looked out again and saw we were travelling along the banks of the Rhine and I saw a Stirling bomber that had been shot down and was lying in the shallow water.
We were issued with three-quarters of a loaf each and a bowl but no water. When the train stopped at various stations we used to shout to the firemen to squirt their water hoses through the ventilators on the roof of the wagon and we took it in turns to have a few drops of water. We arrived at Frankfurt am Main and got out under heavy guard. The Red Cross were dishing out soup and then we had to get back on the train. After a couple of days we arrived at Limburg which had a transit prisoner camp called Stalag XIIA. There were prisoners from various armies here including Indians and Gerkhas. I remained there for about 10 – 12 days, sleeping on straw under canvas. We were fed a bread ration, sometimes with soup and sometimes had coffee made out of acorns. We were grateful for anything, even if it tasted horrible!
We were once again loaded onto another train and travelled for another five days across Germany and put into another prison camp called Stalag IVB Muhlberg. We stayed in this camp for two to three weeks. It was about this time that I caught sight of Billy in another compound (I’m not sure exactly where) and he shouted to me “I wish I had kept that £5 in my pocket!”. It was here that I used to see squads of Russian prisoners being walked to some sort of work, always at the back getting further and further back was a squad of prisoners walking on crutches. Some with one leg, some amputated on both legs, walking on their stumps – a most pitiful sight – no work, no food we were told, and this in the coldest of winters in Eastern Germany with more snow than for years.
We did not stay in Stalag IVB for long before we were taken to a derelict factory near a village called Herzberg not far from Muhlberg where bunks had been assembled in one half of the building. I was with a group of about thirty British Army soldiers and we used to be taken out early in the morning in work parties. We had to do labouring jobs, one of which was digging out the floor of the other half of the factory to about three feet deep – we never found out why. This went on for the remaining time that I was a prisoner. We all lost weight rapidly as we were given a cup of black acorn coffee for breakfast, no sugar or milk and did not have anything else to eat until we returned to the factory at night and had a bowl of watery soup and a 2kg loaf to be shared between six men. Of course there was the usual arguments about who had the biggest piece and exactly where the knife should be positioned before cutting the bread! Sometimes I kept a slice of bread to eat in the morning to get me through another day of hard work.
During this time we never had a change of clothes and one of my trouser legs was completely torn off (I had ripped it on barbed wire put along the road near the house where Lt McDermont was shot), I had no shirt, just a plain Army smock (all camouflage equipment had been taken off us) and no socks! Although once a month on a Sunday we were taken about 8 kms to Falkenberg to a delousing station right by the railway. We were allowed a quick shower – with no soap – and then had to stand around naked while our uniform was put in an oven to kill the lice, fleas and ticks. While this was going on the lady German civilians waiting for a train at the station nearby used to be whispering and nudging each other! As I was taken prisoner in September and escaped in April all this went on over the winter months!
Christmas Day 1944 I was singled out from all the others and taken to the caretaker’s house who lived near the factory with his wife and family. They had had a delivery of coal briquettes and on my own I had to take them into the cellar and neatly stack them, while my fellow prisoners, including my mate Jack Elliott from Sheffield, were given a ration of half a bowl of beer each! After I had finished the work the caretaker and his family presented me with a Christmas dinner made of rabbit and my mates had saved some beer for me!
One day I dropped a railway sleeper on my foot and had to go to the village doctor for treatment. A guard called Corporal Muller was ordered to escort me and on the way, in perfect English, he told me that he had been educated at Oxford. He remembered travelling around Oxfordshire while he was studying here and even knew where my house was in Witney. He had been fighting on the Russian front but had been allowed to do a less dangerous job in view of all the injuries he had received. When I arrived at the Doctor’s surgery, the nurse who treated me showed Corporal Muller to the waiting room and closed the door. She then told me that she had been working in a hospital in Doncaster when the war started and was ordered back to Germany. Her English was also perfect and she told me that she listened into the BBC radio broadcasts twice a week and gave me news on how the war was progressing. This carried on for several weeks while my foot healed. On one occasion, Corporal Muller, who was a big fair-haired good-looking man, walked me through the back streets and knocked on the door of a house. I was told to stand outside and look out for the postman while he disappeared inside with the lady who answered the door! The same thing happened the following week and I said that if he was going to leave me stood outside for an hour in the cold I would walk back to the factory myself! So I was invited in and given coffee and biscuits. I still had to look out for the postman – I never did see him, which was just as well as he was the lady’s husband!
From time to time we received a few Red Cross parcels, which amongst other things, contained packets of cigarettes. One German guard called Hans realised that some of the prisoners were smoking and sat outside our sleeping quarters playing his accordion, knowing that we had to be up at 4 am. In the end he was bribed with a few cigarettes to keep quiet and it then became an understanding that when we received parcels he would not play his music if he was given cigarettes! Although tobacco was currency we were paid prison money once a month, called lagergeld, although I was prisoner for only two or three “pay days”. We were told of a few items we could buy (no food or clothes) but things like razors, toothbrushes, toothpaste or a sewing kit. There was no proper soap to buy but some of the prisoners bought a packet of soap powder that you were supposed to be able to wash your clothes in. I don’t know what was in it but it turned the clothes to slime and they had to be thrown away! I did not use the lagergeld given to me and used to go and see an old British soldier who had been prisoner for quite a few years and for a few cigarettes he would trim my hair. After I returned home I gave my prison money to my older brother as I did not want anything German on me.
Our biggest problem was hunger and we used to get out at night and raid the nearby fields for vegetables and cook them up back at the factory. We used to get over the wire by climbing on top of the toilet block. I remember on one occasion noticing a nearby smallholding had some rabbits. I managed to trap one and get it back into the factory and started cooking it with some carrots. The farmer reported to the guards that one of his rabbits was missing and they came and searched our sleeping area, turning our beds over and looking in cupboards. They could smell the rabbit cooking but could not find it. They did not realise that the pile of coal in the corner concealed a saucepan full of rabbit stew!
On another occasion two British prisoners decided to go out and look for some food in the middle of the night. They ran round a corner and saw a German guard out walking with his girlfriend. He happened to be the meanest guard of the lot and immediately went into our sleeping area to see who was missing. What he didn’t know was that we had two means of escape – the other way was via the disused boiler house next door. The two prisoners jumped down the flue and crawled along it, as it ran under our floor, and got back up through a concealed hole. The guard was very annoyed that he couldn’t find anybody missing and did not question the two prisoners standing in the corner covered in soot!
It was easy enough to get out of the factory where we were being guarded but it was too difficult to stay out because we had no forged identity papers, no German currency and did not know the language but we knew the war was progressing in our favour and were waiting for the right moment to make our move to get away. While we waited we had struck up a reasonably friendly relationship with one of the guards who we called “Little Max” – so called because I am sure his rifle was taller than him! He was quite an elderly man and could not keep up with us prisoners while marching us to work so we linked our arms through his and lifted him off his feet and carried him! This became such a regular event that as soon as we were out of sight of the factory he would hand his rifle over to one of us to carry while he himself was carried! We were all worried what would happen to him if the Russians made it to us before the Americans and I remember him being kitted out with a British Army uniform so that he could be smuggled out at the right moment. Unfortunately I never knew what happened to him as I was one of the first to escape but I have often wondered what happened to Little Max.
The derelict factory, which had been home for several weeks, was part of a group of buildings one of which had a large armoured train hidden away in a concrete building. The train was taken out every night to the Russian front about a hundred miles away and every morning it was back under cover. I never found out what it did. The factory also had seven massive chimneys and I realised that it would become a target for the Russian guns rumbling in the distance and that we would have to get out before they got too close.
A short distance away over the fields the Germans were building a big radio station with huge masts, taller than the Post Office Tower in London. One Friday morning in April we were marched to work to dig holes for the cement to be put in to secure the anchor cables, it was a pleasant day and I heard aircraft overhead, I looked up and counted 32 American Thunderbolt aircraft. Very soon they swooped down through a gap in the cloud and we stopped work and took cover in ditches at the side of the field. Our German guards ran off but we stayed and watched the Americans bomb the radio station, a magnificent sight! As usual two ME 109s appeared to give the impression they were giving chase but as this became such a regular occurrence, presumably to boost civilian morale, the solders ended up calling the two planes Gert and Daisey. After a while our guards returned and marched us back to the factory. There we found that the Americans had strafed the place, there were no English casualties but some Russian and Polish prisoners had been killed and we had to bury them the following morning, a Saturday. While we were doing this we saw coming up the road German soldiers who were walking wounded and we heard from our guards that Russian tanks had broken through the German lines. I talked to Jack and we agreed that we had to get away as soon as possible and collected up what few possessions we had, climbed on to the toilet block roof, jumped down and we were away.
Once out we headed for Herzberg and obtained more food to go with the loaf of bread we got from the factory. When we walked through the village we saw dead horses and soldiers lying in the road, they had been strafed by the Americans the previous day. We headed west and tried to keep ourselves hidden by trees and hedges as there were hundreds of refugees everywhere and as we were carrying a food tin for cooking, a knife and a blanket these could be regarded as valuable and didn’t want to lose them! That first night of freedom we slept in a barn after having brewed some black, unsweetened acorn coffee. The following day we continued to walk west and that night slept hidden in a wood as we could hear voices coming from the other side of the trees. During the night I remember waking up and realizing that there was somebody stood over me and then I felt my blanket move. I realised this person was trying to steal my blanket so I hit him with the back of my hand and he ran off and didn’t disturb me again.
On the third day we were getting near Torgau and saw some Germans heading east towards us. They could plainly see we were British from the remnants of our uniform but they threw sweets and food to us. They were SS and cheering as they went by. They were not all bad and were probably relieved the war was coming to an end as much as we were. That evening we could see some buildings in the distance as the land was quite flat and as we got closer we realised it was another prison camp. We walked up to the perimeter and could see the prisoners walking about and I realised I recognised one of them, he was Corporal Stephenson (or a similar name) from either my platoon or the Mortar Platoon. He invited us in to the prison camp because he said they were being freed in the morning and had raided the Red Cross parcel store. He assured us the German sentry would let us out again but we decided not to risk it and found another barn to sleep in. In the morning we continued our journey and saw a cyclist coming our way. He was a German officer, we stopped him and asked him where our troops were. He replied in reasonable English that there were some Americans just a few miles down the road.
Jack and I reached Torgau and saw some American soldiers and as they were on the front line they were in sheltered positions ready to fire. As we approached the town they could see we were British and took us to the Town Hall where we were given food. The local people had been asked by the Americans to hand in any weapons they may have and Jack and I saw two German women on bicycles heading to the American HQ. We stopped them and took their bikes and the Belgian pistol with five rounds they were carrying. Although we were the right side of the front line we still needed something for self-defence. We decided to get away further back from the front line and saw a river (the Elbe) and a canal running side by side. The bridge crossing the river had been completely bombed but the railway line was still intact and sagging nearly into the water. Even so Jack, myself and the bikes got across and away we went! The Americans found us and put us in a camp and gave us new American uniforms to wear. After a couple of days we were taken to Naumberg which was formerly an SS barracks. Here we had plenty of rations and stayed for three weeks. I was there when VE day was announced on 8th May 1945. The Americans had the radio turned up and I heard Churchill’s speech. I also remember the Red Cross van arriving and these women cooking up massive quantities of doughnuts!
A couple of days later I was taken to Leipzig aerodrome and boarded a C47 Dakota, the same kind of plane I arrived on, and we were flown to France to Reimes Supreme HQ. We were marched off the aerodrome to an orchard where lots of tents had been pitched and also an arch constructed. On the arch were written the words “Here march the finest soldiers in the world”, the German workers were not allowed to walk under but had to walk round it. It still brings a lump to my throat to think about it. The encampment around the orchard had everything the Americans are good at, outdoor cinema, plenty of good food and ice cream! One night I was sleeping on a camp bed under an apple tree and was woken at 2am by a big black Military Policeman. He said “Do you want to go home?” I said “Like hell I do!” and jumped out of bed. Twenty-four of us were taken in lorries to the aerodrome and crammed into a Lancaster bomber. The only aircrew on board was the Pilot as the Co-Pilot and Navigator would take up two spaces that could be occupied by a POW. I was lying in the bomb aimer’s position in the front nose, after take off we were able to move about a bit and I found myself sitting in the co-pilot’s seat with a wonderful view of the White Cliffs of Dover on a perfect day. We landed near Worthing where the WAAFs made a fuss of us. We were taken into the Mess Hall where we were each given a telegram to write out to send to our families to tell them we were home. We were issued new British uniforms and badges, which we took to the ladies of the WI who sewed them on for us.
A few days later we were given six weeks leave and took a train from Worthing to London and then taken in different lorries to go to whichever station we needed. I went to Paddington and from there to Oxford and Witney. The first thing I noticed as I got closer to Witney was the St Mary’s Church spire – the golden cockerel was missing and the top of the spire had been knocked off by a glider.
I walked down Corn Street on my way home to Curbridge Road and saw Mrs. Powell sat outside her house near The Three Horseshoes. As I got closer she said to me “Hello, you home again? When are you going back?”
Quite soon afterwards I was sent to Reading for a medical. I was not allowed home but sent straight to Battle Hospital as I had caught TB. I did not feel unwell and was in hospital for my twentieth birthday in the July and for VJ day in August, which prevented me from going to have a go at the Japs for which I had already volunteered. I was then moved to the Osler Pavilion Hospital in Headington, Oxford so my family could visit me. I was in Hospital from June 1945 to Christmas. I was then discharged from the Army in February 1946.
I went back to Arnhem in 1949 to lay to rest a few ghosts and went to see the Hartenstein. There was a lot of abandoned Army equipment about including two 6lb anti-tank guns. There were a few Dutch people stood around looking at them and they asked me if I knew anything about them. I pulled the breech open on one of them, with a bit of effort as it was rusty and I was astonished when a live shell fell out! Somebody said to me that they were making a collection of all the equipment used in the battle and had started a museum at Castle Doorwerth, which was out in the woods. They asked me if I would go there with them and identify some of the things and I agreed. When I arrived there I was amazed by the amount of rifles, mortars and shells that they had collected. I found some No 36 grenades and unscrewed the buttons and pulled the fuses out to make them safe. I also found one or two Hawkins anti-tank mines, complete with fuses, which I also made safe. I wonder if they realised how much danger they had been in while carrying all these things to the Castle!
I also paid a visit to the Oosterbeek Military Cemetery which was under construction at the time and found Lt Grayburn’s grave. There were two ladies stood nearby talking to some Officers, I assumed one was his sister and the other his wife. I wanted to talk to her but decided that emotions were still too raw and did not. This I have always regretted as I understand she died a few years later.
I have been back to Holland a couple of times since then and on one occasion I was shown some writing left on a bedroom wall and the owners asked me to tell them what it meant – I couldn’t possibly tell them what it really meant and said “Put it this way the soldiers didn’t like the Germans!”
I have returned to Arnhem several times and I have found the Dutch people always grateful for what we did to try and give them back their freedom.
With thanks to Deborah Betts
Source: Airborne Assault ArchivesRead More