John William Bateman, known as Bill, was from Acocks Green in Birmingham, and originally enlisted on 18 September 1941. He volunteered for airborne forces after he had completed his basic training and been posted to his unit, The Dorset Regiment.
Bill was personally interviewed by Major Freddie Gough and accepted into the 1st Airlanding Reconnaissance Squadron in 1942. He was initially posted to B-Troop, under the command of Captain AJ Waterman, and saw service with the Squadron in North Africa and Italy, before returning to the United Kingdom.
By mid-September 1944, as 1st Airborne Division prepared to rejoin the conflict in North West Europe, Bill was serving with Polsten Section of Support Troop, 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron. The Recce Squadron flew out on the morning of 17 September 1944. Bill later recalled his experiences:
'As we flew on that memorable Sunday, 17 September 1944, from the ground, thousands watched the great winged armada. An unforgettable sight winging its way towards the coast [...]. We emplaned for Arnhem, the tension of the many cancellations had been very trying on the nerves. We flew for Holland, and as we crossed the Dutch coast, we flew through the anti-aircraft gunfire. It was pretty nerve-racking. We got the green light to jump and landed on the dropping zone of Wolfheze.' 1
On landing, his jeep had failed to arrive and he could not locate his own troop. Given the spare jeep, he joined another Recce troop from the Squadron:
'Our instructions were, for the first part of the operation, to get to and hold "The Bridge at Arnhem". If you should encounter the enemy "put your foot down and blast your way through!!!" [...]. This column I was with ran into an ambush and the first three jeeps blocked the road, and so our instructions could not be obeyed. The casualties on this ambush were 75% killed or wounded.' 1
Managing to return to the DZ, he rejoined his own troop and eventually proceeded to Oosterbeek and the Divisional HQ. However, constant shelling and mortar barrages on their position made restricted their counter-attacks to the hours of darkness and took their toll on morale:
'It [the artillery and mortar attacks] never stopped at all during the day and at night we used to go out on fighting patrols [to shoot up the enemy]. For the first two days I was afraid to die, but after that it was in my mind that I would never see England again, and I was not afraid anymore.' 1
Nevertheless, as the Battle progressed the harrowing ferocity of the combat he experienced did not abate. On 20 September, the Polsten Troop Commander, Lt Christie died in his arms:
'On the fourth day Lt John Christie and I went out to engage a German tank that was causing us a lot of trouble. We proceeded down the road and the tank missed us with his first shot. Lt Christie and I took cover, then Lt Christie tried to get the jeep under cover and was blown up with the second shot from the tank. It struck Lt Christie full in the chest and took an arm away as well as part of his shoulder and chest. His jeep was destroyed but I could not believe he actually walked towards me and fell into my arms. The horror of it all remains to me this day, how could he, with such terrible injuries have managed to try to return to his men. I tried to comfort him but he cried out "My God ! My God !" and died in the shelter of my arms.' 1
On another occasion, on perhaps 24 September, a momentary lapse in concentration caused the shocking death of a friend and fellow soldier:
'Little Jock Odd my friend suddenly shouted "I'm Twenty One Today!" and jumped up with joy. A snipers bullet rang out, and hit Jock in the head, the next he lay dead, from that moment memories became hazy'
Conditions at Divisional HQ at the Hartenstein Hotel progressively deteriorated, with perhaps hundreds of German soldiers in the woods opposite their position anticipating their surrender. Despite increasing hardships including lack of food and reliance on rainwater to drink, unburied dead due to the dangers of shelling, and Bill and his fellow soldiers had little option but to stay in the frontline. Bill himself had suffered shrapnel wounds to his back:
'Night followed day, and one lost track of time, eventually we had orders to pull out. The continuous rain which was very depressing, I feel, saved our lives in the end. We quickly made our way to the river bank, holding the jumping smock of the man in front of us, following the white tape through the trees. We could hear the German sentries talking, but just felt numb.
I will never know how I managed to cross the river, I just got into a boat, one of the lucky ones, as so many did not make it to safety. Eventually on arrival at the other side, I walked to Nijmegen, and was put on a plane which flew me to England.' 1
Recovering back in the UK, the effect on Bill had been both physical and psychological:
'I myself had lost four stones in weight. They put me into Dudley Guest Hospital where I remained for 6 months, my speech was gone, and it took 3 months for it to return. My mother walked past my bed and did not recognise me.' 1
Looking back on the conflict proved difficult, with many experiences firmly imprinted on the mind long afterwards. Despite these harrowing memories, the love of his family and the kindness and generosity of the people of Oosterbeek helped him:
' Since then I have never slept through a night, and the nightmares of Arnhem are relived. The smell of the gunsmoke, the dead are there and the continuous noise of the bombardment. I started drinking heavily and only stopped when I remarried. My wife says "I parachute every night" and she shares the awful memories now, and takes me back to pay my respects where my comrades fell so many years ago. Eventually I hope to join them there in the place where I got hurt, I may find eternal peace, in that quiet, peaceful place now, called Oosterbeek. The peace that eludes me in life, I hope I will find in the life to come.
For years I had a guilt complex, of a beautiful Dutch village, which was left in ruins when we left. But in recent years with the kindness of the Dutch people, especially close friends I've grown to love, I see Holland has risen again, and they have never forgotten those days when we stood together and they had freedom for 10 days.“ 1
After his return from Arnhem to Ruskington in Lincolnshire John was one of those that helped to rebuild and reform the Squadron for further operations. Of 300 men in the Squadron at the time, he recognised just four! In May 1945 they were deployed to Norway for several months to oversee the surrender of the German occupation forces there. Shortly after the Squadron's return to the UK, the unit was disbanded and Bill was demobbed.
Bill rejoined the Regular Army shortly afterwards however, serving both the Royal Artillery and in the Cavalry for many years. He saw service in both Korea and Malaya, where he earned a Mention In Despatches when his 25 pounder field gun blew up and, although wounded in his arm, he got his gun crew to safety. On return to Britain he transferred to the Military Provost Staff Corps and then spent four years in Singapore. He finished his service with the rank of Staff Sergeant.
After his retirement ‘Bill’ would visit Arnhem each year and give talks at different schools to the children about the battle and then accompany them on the pilgrimages when they laid flowers at the Oosterbeek Cemetery in September.
He was an early member of the Arnhem 1944 Veterans Club and a staunch member of the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron Association.
‘Bill’ died on 2 March 1993.
Further sourcesObituary in Pegasus, June 1993 Obituary in1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron Association Newsletter, March 1993. 1Personal account recorded by Paul "Blackie" Dixon.
Compiled with assistance from Bob HiltonRead More