The Battle for Arnhem (Operation Market Garden)

The Battle for Arnhem had been planned as the spearhead of a powerful allied thrust through Holland and across the Rhine, using a massive airborne force to jump ahead of the ground troops to secure the route.

This 'airborne carpet' was to drop along the Eindhoven-Arnhem Road and seize bridges over the Rhine, which would provide the stepping stones for the Second Army's advance across the last barrier to Germany.

Within 48 hours of the drop, armoured columns of 30 Corps and other units, would dash 60 miles across the flat Dutch terrain and link up with the airborne units, before the enemy had chance to reinforce their defences.

Codenamed Operation Market Garden, the airborne assault took place on September 17, 1944, when 10,000 allied paratroopers filled the skies above Holland, unaware of the troubled times ahead of them and the fact that fewer than 3,000 would return.

Allied intelligence reports indicated that German morale was low and enemy forces in the area were weak, nothing could have been further from the truth.  German spirits were, in fact, high, and an SS Panzer unit was in Arnhem, overhauling its tanks.

Despite losing aircraft, the drop had gone according to plan and the British airborne units were quickly away to their allotted tasks with the lst Air Landing Reconnaissance Squadron, heading towards the bridges.  But of the 320 gliders involved in the operation, 38 failed to arrive.  Included in those casualties were the jeeps of the reconnaissance squadron.

The Germans had initially been taken by surprise and after landing at Renkum Common, eight miles west of Arnhem, the lst Parachute Brigade set off in the direction of Arnhem, their objective - to seize the road and rail bridges across the Rhine.

Led by Lt Col Frost, 2 Para took the lower Oosterbeek road heading for Arnhem bridge, while I and 3 Para took separate routes in the same direction, only to be ambushed by German armoured units.

Now Lt Col Frost, the man who had led the attack on Bruneval and had seen action all over north Africa and Sicily, was at the forefront of action again.  His 700 Paras marched to Arnhem and captured the northern end of the vital road bridge, only to meet a fierce attack from SS Panzer grenadiers as they tried to assault the southern side of the structure.

Earlier, before flying out to lead the Para in their finest hour, Frost had ordered his golf clubs to be packed so he could enjoy himself after beating the Germans, but they had other ideas.  To repulse the Paras' advance, they poured more SS troops into Arnhem, including three crack Panzer units, supported by heavy armour and well-trained troops.

Frost, like the other battalion cornmanders, had been told that they only had to defend the bridge for 48 hours until 30 Corps arrived.  But they couldn't get through and the Paras faced a bitter fight against Panzer tanks on their own.

At dawn on September 18, the Paras were rushed by a force of five armoured and seven tracked troop carriers, in an attempted assault by the Germans to take the bridge.  All the vehicles were knocked out with anti-tank weapons.  They burned all day under the eyes of the Paras and their enemy, blocking the bridge until the end of the battle.

After a full day of intense shelling, attacks and counter attacks at the bridge, the Paras fixed bayonets and charged the Germans, who were preparing for another assault.  They charged to the battle cry, of 'Whoa Mohammed', which had been adopted during the 2nd Battalion's service in north Africa, when an Arab used the term to slow his donkey.

Lt John Grayburn led his men across the bridge, to mount numerous counter attacks, despite being heavily outgunned by Panzer tanks and the ever increasing number of SS Panzer grenadiers.

Grayburn was injured twice, but refused to be evacuated and remained in the fore- front of the fighting at Arnhem bridge until he was killed in action on the night of September 20, 1944.  He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions.  His citation read 'There is no doubt that, had it not been for this officer's inspiring leadership and personal bravery, the Arnhem bridge would not have been held for the time it was'.

The Germans rained firepower down on the northern side of the bridge, destroying every house and were amazed by the Paras refusal to surrender - instead the Red Berets responded by attacking at every opportunity.

On the third day, a short truce allowed the wounded to be taken into German captivity.  Then the fighting resumed, until one by one the Paras ran out of ammunition and their position was overrun; just 100 men remained.

General Frost CBE, DSO, MC and Bar, held no bitterness towards his old commanders who were unprepared.  He confines his criticism to the fact that 'our generals had an off day'.

'It slowly dawned on us that no help was coming.  By the time we surrendered, we had 250 wounded, including myself.  I'd been hit in the feet by shrapnel . . . In war, there are two things people always forget how to care for the wounded and how to supply ammunition.  We'd got only the bullets we carried on us'.

In action, Frost was a tough leader whose clear head in battle won the respect of every Paratrooper in the battalion.  'He didn't mix his words and seemed to inject confidence in everyone, even if you didn't like what he said. we would have followed him anywhere' said one Para.

The remains of the initial airborne force had been forced to consolidate at Oosterbeek and they, with Frost and his men at Arnhem bridge, were taken prisoner - but only after having fired every round in their possession.

Despatch rider, Dennis Clay, had volunteered for 'special service' and having completed parachute training at Ringway, found himself serving in RASC Airborne Light Company.  As a driver, he was detailed to fly into Arnhem by glider, ready to get access to his jeep.  But cast off 10 miles short of Arnhem, the glider crash landed, the wings were ripped off and the aircraft turned over, everyone was killed except Driver Clay.

The stunned Para was helped by a Dutchman, who told him there were five Germans in his home, who wanted to surrender.  Clay took them prisoner and marched through the woods until he met up with men from the Staffordshires of the lst Air Landing Brigade.

'I'll never forget it, there I was on my own having just survived this crash and a bunch of Germans give themselves up to me.' Dennis Clay was later decorated.

There were many heroic actions recorded during Operation Market Garden and the bravery of the fifteen Army Chaplains who served with the 6th Airborne division, saved many lives.  But only a handful of the chaplains survived.  After the battle they stayed behind to tend the wounded and were captured almost straight away.

In total 7,167 men were listed as killed, missing or wounded at Arnhem, in an operation described by some as, 'a total disaster'.  But after the battle, in which the Paras won five Victoria Crosses, the American General Dwight Eisenhower was full of praise for the airborne warriors.

He said, 'There has been no single performance by any unit that has more greatly inspired me or more excited my admiration than the nine day action by the lst British Parachute Division between September 17 and 25'.

In December 1944, the German armies launched a massive counter attack through the forests of the Ardennes.  The plan was aimed at splitting the Allied forces and pushing through a German advance fast and furious.  Montgomery called for reinforcements and the 6th Airborne division, recently rested after their success in Normandy, were ordered to move at once and form a defensive line at crossing points on the River Meuse.

The enemy advance was quickly halted, but the Germans re-grouped at Bure and on January 13, 1945, the men of 13 Para were ordered to attack the village.