A confused and bitter struggle
That this was so had been realized by Major-General Urquhart who, as soon as he had escaped from the house on the outskirts of Arnhem, had taken over command once more. Now he was faced with a difficult and urgent decision. Was it still possible to carry out all or part or none of the plan? The Air Landing Brigade had established itself more or less in the position originally chosen, west and south-west of Arnhem. For sixty hours the 1st Parachute Brigade had been heavily involved in the town itself and the position of its battalions was very obscure except that, as far as was known. Frost and his men were still at the bridge. The 4th Parachute Brigade, which was to hold that part of the perimeter comprising the northern approaches to Arnhem, had been unable to capture their positions. How could what remained of it best be used?
Urquhart soon decided that it was quite out of the question to attempt to put it north of the railway, in other words to create that outer perimeter which should include the town within its embrace. On the afternoon of the third day, therefore, the Brigade was ordered to disengage and to move south of the railway so as to occupy, it’ possible, the high ground between Oosterbeek and the town; but even this task proved impossible. With staccato clarity the diary of the 156th Parachute Battalion, one of its units, tells why. On the day before, in twenty-four hours two of its companies, striving to make headway, had been cut to pieces in the woods just north of the railway.
” 0830 hours. ” A ” Company put in an attack on the line of defence on I lie road running from Arnhem to Utrecht. The company met very heavy opposition including S.P. guns and armoured cars after suffering heavy casualties, including all officers.
” 0900 hours. ” B ” Company put in an attack on the same line moving round the north of ” A ” Company and met with the same heavy opposition. Its commander was wounded and heavy casualties were sustained.”
By the afternoon of September 19th, therefore, the battalion was already gravely reduced in numbers, when ” orders were received from Headquarters to move to the area of the hotel at Wolfhezen in fifteen minutes’ time. Owing to the speed of this move and the fact that the enemy were attacking, the battalion got divided and ” S ” Company and half of ” B ” and ” C ” Companies moved along the north side of the railway. They were attacked and overrun during the night, and except for the Quartermaster and six men, have not been heard of or seen since.”
Sergeant T. C. Bentley of the 10th Parachute Battalion, equally involved in this action, is more explicit. ” We were given orders,” he says,” to leave the wood. It was every man for himself, for by then we were all split up. The top of the wood was occupied by fifty or sixty Germans…..Sergeant Sunley and Sergeant Houghton were terrific. We ran across a playing field and found several men showing yellow triangles. We understood that they were Poles….. We had by then lost about two-thirds, but the men were still in good heart though they had no more support weapons.”
What happened to the 10th and 156th Parachute Battalions is-typical of the fate suffered by the rest of the Brigade. There was no respite given or demanded. Captain L. E. Queripel of the 10th Parachute Battalion was especially conspicuous. After carrying a wounded sergeant to cover under heavy fire, he was himself hit in the face but, undeterred, continued to lead his men. A strong-point composed of a captured British anti-tank gun and two machine-guns was a cause of trouble and casualties. Captain Queripel attacked it alone, killed its occupants, and recaptured the gun. Later that day he was again wounded, but insisted on covering the withdrawal of his men from a position which had been untenable for several hours but had none the less been held. In so doing he exhausted the ammunition of his automatic pistol and threw every grenade he could find at the enemy. He did not rejoin his men and was not seen again. For these deeds he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Captain R. Temple was at Brigade Headquarters, which, after losing all its transport, had taken to a hollow south of the railway. “We spent,” he says, “most of the day there being attacked all the time……At one stage we thought the Germans wanted to surrender, and they thought that we did…..By Wednesday evening the strength of the Brigade was about 250. We were practically out of ammunition and the Germans were still attacking.”
Eventually what remained of the Brigade reached the area of Divisional Headquarters; but by then it was not more than 150 strong, and it was obvious that the task given it was beyond its strength. Urquhart, therefore, with great reluctance, was forced to take a decision which meant the abandonment of all the troops near the bridge, the seizure of which had been the main object of the operation. The virtual destruction of the 4th Parachute Brigade in the woods ‘north and north-west of Arnhem, the virtual disappearance of the 1st Parachute Brigade in the town itself, and the heavy losses sustained by the Air Landing Brigade left him, indeed, no choice. He decided to form a perimeter round the suburb of Oosterbeek and there hold out until the long expected relief from the 2nd Army arrived, using for this purpose the remains of the 4th Brigade together with any other troops available.