Trooper Raymond McSkimmings

{ Mac }

Raymond McSkimmings was born on the 7 February 1925.

Trooper Raymond ‘Mac’ McSkimmings was a re-enforcement that joined the Squadron when it returned to the United Kingdom in early 1944 and was posted to C-Troop. He had enlisted on the 15 April 1943.

During the summer of 1944 the Squadron was warned off for various airborne operations and the men were constantly loading and unloading the Horsa gliders, checking and re-checking kit and being issued with new equipment. One piece of equipment that they felt very dubious about was the ‘body armour’ they were issued. ‘Mac’ was one of several men that went down to the firing range and tested it’s effectiveness and was pleasantly surprised at how it stopped a burst of fire from a Sten gun.

‘Mac’ McSkimmings was part of the crew of the second jeep of 9 Section, C-Troop which was commanded by Lieutenant. CB. ‘Stan’ Bowles for ‘Operation Market-Garden. He took off, with the main body of the Squadron from Barkston Heath airfield in Lincolnshire on Sunday the 17th September 1944 bound for DZ ‘X’ in Holland. His crew’s jeep was being flown from RAF Tarrant Rushton and being driven by Lance Sergeant David Christie.

In retrospect, some of the humour of the journey had a bitter irony to it, particularly in the light of subsequent events. With memories of the occasion on which they had tested the body armour, Arthur Barlow leant across the plane at one point, to ask his friend, Ray McSkimmings, if he was wearing it. “Too true,” was the reply, “in fact I’ve got two sets on, one front and one back – I don’t want any stray bullets up my arse as we go over.”[1]

The Squadron jumped successfully onto DZ ‘X’ and twenty of the twenty two gliders arrived safely on the LZ including theirs.

C-Troop led the way for the Squadron in it’s dash to get to Arnhem Bridge, but were ambushed just to the east of the Wolfhezez Railway crossing. In assisting the section that had been ambushed to extract themselves “Mac’s” own section had several casualties, including two of his own jeep crew.

On Monday the 18 September C-Troop were given a reserve role and stayed close to LZ ‘S’ and the Wolfheze railway crossing area.

On Tuesday the 19 September C-Troop were tasked with carrying out a reconnaissance of the Ede to Arnhem road, the Amsterdamseweg. All the way through the woods to the South of the road they could see the presence of German troops moving from West to East, closing in behind the 1st Airborne Division as it moved towards Arnhem. Having gotten close to the road the Troop carried out a recce on foot. The amount of German troops, armoured vehicles and guns moving to the East was considerable and the Troop Commander, Captain John Hay, was desperate to communicate this information back to the Division. The problem was that the radio’s would not operate properly in the thickly wooded terrain and they had to come up with a plan to break through the German’s and get back.

The predicament in which C-Troop found itself at the end of the morning’s reconnaissance was not an enviable one. As a result of their observations, they had been able to gauge the extent of the armoured concentration building up from the West, but it looked as if they would be unable to pass on this intelligence to anyone else, for wireless communication was non-existent and there was every sign that they were in the midst of an indeterminate, but obviously large body of enemy troops. This was apparent almost as soon as they had taken up positions of observation by the side of the main Amsterdam road, in time to see a party of Germans, chatting to each other as they crossed over, only 200 yards away. “Everyone kept perfectly still,” recalls Lance Sergeant David Christie, “and although the Jerries kept looking in our direction, nothing apparently aroused their suspicions and they passed to our rear. Within five minutes of this, five more Germans took exactly the same course as the previous three.”

In the circumstances, two alternative courses of action were open to them. One was to head off back through the woods and attempt to regain Squadron HQ by taking the approximate route by which they had come. Were they to do that, the certainty of attack was obviously high, yet there remained the outside chance that they might still reach their own lines unobserved. The bolder alternative was to seek escape by taking the jeeps in a rapid dash Eastwards down the Amsterdamseweg and then South by Wolfhezerweg into the safer territory beyond. Either way, they were virtually certain to meet with unpredictable enemy resistance. The second choice presented also the frightening possibility that they might encounter road blocks or mobile artillery.

A rapid council of war was held amongst the officers and senior NCO’s, in which the suicidal potential of the road dash was set against the parallel disadvantages of a relatively slow cross-country drive through woods which, they were beginning to suspect, might well be infested with Germans. It was a short debate. The sudden arrival over Landing Zone “L” of the Polish glider lift at four o’clock, settled any further argument for, as the roar of the towing aircraft was heard above the trees, to the astonishment of the C-Troop men, there came suddenly the distinctive “Crump-Crump-Crump” of anti-aircraft fire from all over the woods through which they had previously driven. “We must have come right through and passed several of their positions,” said David Christie, “and it left us in no doubt that to go back by the way we had come was now definitely out.” Captain John Hay, the Troop Commander, also recognised this, nor was he slow to appreciate the tactical advantage that had presently itself. Not only were the Germans pre-occupied with their own ground-to-air action, but the very noise of the planes and guns might just effectively help to blanket out the sound of the jeep engines. It was a desperate choice, but the only one that he had, and so his final decision was that they should seize whatever advantage was to be had from the turn events by immediately taking to the road and running the gauntlet of whatever enemy opposition might lie between there and the relative safety of the area South of Wolfheze.

Swiftly the group prepared itself. Brens were loaded and cocked, Sten magazines checked and the drums of Vickers “K” ammunition placed at the ready. It was decided that the jeeps would pack up tight and, from a starting point just to the East of the Planken Wambius café, race eastwards for a mile down the Amsterdamseweg and take the right-hand turn into Wolfhezerweg. The intention was then to follow that road all the way back to Oosterbeek. The final order was, “If fired on, don’t stop – keep going.”

As the crews scrambled aboard, the drivers of all seven vehicles engaged gear. With revving engines and the crackling of tyres on undergrowth, the line of jeeps lurched onto the road and propelled itself with rapidly gathering speed towards whatever unknown dangers lay ahead. For the first half-mile, the way ran through heath land, with only sparse woods bordering the road and to begin with all went well. Further along, the plantations of beech trees thickened to form a continuous stretch of woodland on either side. All around were the muted browns and greens of a Gelderland autumn, the hollows by the road edges already beginning to fill with beech leaves, golden in the late afternoon sun and contrasting with the dark, menacing areas of wood that lay beyond.

In rapid succession the vehicles roared into the tunnel formed by the rows beeches. Then almost immediately, those behind watched in dismay as the leading jeep of Captain Hay suddenly began to swerve erratically from one side of the road to the other. Clearly, the driver was attempting to take evasive action but in seconds he had lost control, for the vehicle careered off into the woods to finish smashed up hard against the trunk of one of the trees. Sergeant Fred Winder was in the second jeep and witnessed the incident: “we started off down the main road at about fifty miles an hour . . . all seemed quiet and then one of the men spotted about six of our own chaps in the wood to the side of the road. They must have been prisoners-of-war, because five or six seconds later we were under Jerry rifle and machine-gun fire. We kept going. The drivers started swerving from side to side. The [jeep] in front of ours turned over in the wood . . . we kept going”. It was perhaps as well that they did, because it was instantly apparent to the vehicle behind that the Germans had been holding fire until the lead jeeps drew level with the beginning of the ambush position. For those who had already run into it there was no alternative, short of surrendering, but to press on. Such was their speed that most of the following vehicles were committed to do likewise, finding themselves at that same point of no return almost as soon as the occupants were able to comprehend the nature of the enemy opposition.

Most of what then happened was witnessed by the five occupants of the fifth jeep. At the wheel was its commander, Sergeant David Christie, and beside him, with responsibility for the Vickers “K” gun was Lance-Corporal Bert Palmer from Portsmouth. In the back were troopers Cooke, McSkimmings and McCarthy. At twenty-three, Jimmy Cooke, a gardener from Basingstoke, was the oldest man in the group; he carried a Sten. McSkimmings also had a Sten, whilst McCarthy manned the Bren gun. As his own jeep approached the trouble area, David Christie recalls how the thoughts of home and family that had come into his mind only seconds before were as speedily dismissed by the reality of a bullet zipping past his head. As he was later to remark, with laconic Scottish understatement, “It brought me back to the matter in hand.”  For a reconnaissance section, that still meant trying to fulfil the primary role of estimating the extent of the German opposition, and Christie recollects that, even as he drove into the conflict, his brain was instinctively recording enemy strength as in the region of two companies. “Hundreds of them, laid three deep on each side of the road,” is how Jimmy Cooke remembers it, while Christie adds, “I can remember the ditches at both sides of the road, and they were strung out along them about two yards from the edge, firing at point blank range. I could have spat on the Jerries, they were so close.”

Suddenly, as the convoy sped on, the third vehicle was hit. From his own position further back, Cooke saw what happened: “It was like hell let loose. I saw Mr. Perason’s jeep go right up in the air. It must have been hit by a shell, because it just blew up and bits of it landed all over the place.” And accompanying those kaleidoscope images of destruction, death and injury was the raw sense-assailing sound of the firing. The noise was deafening, as each jeep’s complement in turn added its own contribution to the growing crescendo of fire. For Cooke and his comrades it reached a frightening intensity as Christie hurtled the vehicle into the thick of the fight. In the rear, Cooke and McSkimmings sat back-to-back, indiscriminately emptying their Sten magazines as fast as was possible into the rows of Germans lying in the dappled shadows to each side of the wooded road. McCarthy, too, was firing his Bren, whilst, in front, hunched over the Vickers “K” gun, Palmer hammered away at a frenetic thousand rounds a minute, with a barely perceptible pause for changing the [magazine] drums. All around, the acrid pungency of burning cordite tainted and polluted the air, as the fierce engagement mounted to its climax.

By then, the speed of the vehicles had increased to beyond sixty miles per hour, and it was only luck, together with the overall skill of the drivers that was preventing a multiple pile-up from developing. But it was at that point that some of the luck ran out. Crouched down in the driving seat, with his head ducked low behind a ration box strapped to the bonnet, Christie was steering with the left hand only. It was a position [that] afforded him the illusion rather than the substance of protection, but it particularly suited Palmer, who could then fire the Vickers “K” [gun] over his driver’s head. Suddenly, to Christie’s dismay, he realized that the jeep in front had run into trouble and begun to slow down. There was only one course [that] he could take. It was a split-second decision, but with the action at it’s most intense, there was no choice but to pull out and pass. “All the time,” he recalled, “I could see red, blue and green tracer flashing past my eyes. Palmer had just put on another one hundred round magazine [drum] and was firing again. I pulled closed to the left and ran level with the vehicle in front. Thank God the driver had the sense to keep it on a steady course. I was doing seventy now. My nearside wheels ran up the grass verge. I saw a little white milestone affair popping up through the grass in front of me. Christ knows how I missed it, but I did. I swung into the centre of the road again, and felt a bullet snick my left elbow. A tree was lying across the road in front of me. I swung to the side where the bushy top of the tree was and never slowed down. It was now or never. Luckily the tree was fairly thin and I got through.”

Lieutenant C.B. Sam Bowles was the officer in charge of the vehicle which Christie was forced to overtake. With him were three others, Lance-Corporal Alan Baker, Trooper Gerry Fergus and Trooper Freddie Brawn, the wireless operator. Bowles himself was driving, since Trooper Edmond, his own driver, had been killed on Sunday at Wolfheze. He later described what happened: “There was a heavy burst of fire and a hail of bullets raked across us. One must have hit the engine or some vital part, as it died on me. Another hit me in the foot, and I was nicked on the top of my knees as well as on the back of one hand. I turned the jeep into the ditch at the side of the road, we landed with a thump and I staggered out of the ditch into some rough scrub to take cover. Looking back briefly, I saw one man lying across the rear of the jeep, but there was no sign of any other person. I could see the Germans on the opposite side of the road, so I hobbled and ran as best I could back into a stretch of wood to seek better cover. No one came after me.”

From the crew of Sam Bowles’s jeep, there was only one other survivor for, whilst Gerry Fergus was lying unconscious in the ditch by the side of the road, Alan Baker and Freddie Brawn were already dead. Fergus’s last conscious recollection was of looking back and seeing Southwell, who was at the wheel of the following jeep. This, and the one at the tail of the column made up Lieutenant Ralph Foulke’s 7 Section. Having realized what was in store for them, they had taken avoiding action, and not entered the ambush at all, but instead, headed into the woods at a point where two rather badly shot-up German ambulances had been ditched in some earlier action. At the time, Foulkes thought little more about the abandoned ambulances, but two days later, he was to have very good reason to remember them.

This evasive move by the two 7 Section vehicles was registered up ahead by Cooke, at just about the time when he realized that Raymond McSkimmings was dead: “I noticed McSkimmings had a hole in his head – a tremendous hole. He was much taller than I was, and the shot had come from my side, passed over my head and caught him.” McSkimmings, only nineteen years of age, must have died instantly, for closer inspection revealed he had received a burst of machine-gun fire, and Cooke reported finding his brains all over the map cases and on McCarthy’s Bren.

Oblivious to all this, David Christie raced on, to emerge out of the green tunnel into open country. To the right, immediately ahead, lay the junction with Wolfhezerweg and the turn to the South. “As far as I can remember,” said Christie, “my accelerator foot was still hard on the floor when I swung round it, but we just made it. When I was straightening up after the bend, I heard something crash on to the road. I looked round and found only two men in the back of the jeep. ‘Who was that?’ I asked, ‘McSkimmings, Sarge,’ came the reply.” There followed a swift shouted exchange between Christie and Cooke, during which time the sergeant was slowing his vehicle to a halt. On Cooke’s emphatic assurances that McSkimmings was clearly dead before falling off the vehicle, Christie then depressed the accelerator again and sped off down Wolfhezerweg.

In front of Christie, one other jeep, commanded by Sergeant Fred Winder, had also emerged from the ambush; by a strange fluke, not one of its four men had suffered as much as a scratch. Once clear of the corner, the occupants of both surviving jeeps realized that as suddenly as it had begun, so had the firing stopped. What was left of C-Troop had got through and, without further trouble, the [eight] survivors made all speed back to the Squadron base by the Hartenstein, stopping briefly at the HQ of the 1st Bn The Border Regiment. [2]

Trooper Raymond McSkimmings body was initially buried at Ginkel Heath along the Amsterdamseweg. He now lies at rest in the Arnhem/Oosterbeek War Cemetery, 1. B. 17.

The son of William and Norah McSkimmings, of Carlisle, he was just 19 years old, when he was killed.


[1] & [2] Extracts from ‘Remember Arnhem’ by John Fairley. Pages 97 to 101.

Written by R Hilton

Read More

Service History

OS Tpr.R.McSkimmings. 1 Abn Recce Sqn. 1944


  • Tpr.R.Mckimmings. 1 Abn Recce Sqn. Oost Cem. Jul 2014

    Tpr.R.Mckimmings. 1 Abn Recce Sqn. Oost Cem. Jul 2014

    1 Image

Latest Comments

There are currently no comments for this content.

Add your comment