The valiant defenders of the bridge



The valiant defenders of the bridge

Before recounting the last stand round the village of Oosterbeek, we must return to the bridge and the men who had captured it by nightfall of the first day, and who still held on with grim tenacity long after all hopes of relief or reinforcement had vanished. The destruction of the German armoured cars and half-track vehicles which sought to cross the bridge and enter Arnhem on the morning of the 18th showed the enemy that the Parachutists were strongly established and in force. He therefore began to mortar the houses and positions on or near the bridge; these were held by the 2nd Battalion and remnants of the 3rd, supported by elements of the Headquarters of the 1st Parachute Brigade, of the Royal Engineers, the R.A.M.C. and R.A.S.C., of the Light Regiment of Artillery and one troop of anti-tank guns. This mortar fire continued as long as there were any airborne troops in the area.

In the afternoon of the 18th an enemy attack succeeded in driving some of the Brigade defence platoon out of their houses, but the two German tanks leading it were eventually knocked out, one by a six-pounder, the other by a Piat ; and just before dark, four houses were set on fire and their garrisons had therefore to leave them. All through that day there had been many rumours that the 1st and 3rd Battalions would arrive with much-needed reinforcements, but by late afternoon no one had appeared and hope died, to be revived, however, by the news that the South Staffordshires and the 11th Parachute Battalion were fighting their way towards the bridge. In an endeavour to deal with Frost and his men before their arrival, the Germans, about sunset, formed up for an infantry attack but were forestalled by the parachutists. Shouting their battle-cry, “Whoa, Mohammed !” they charged the enemy with the bayonet and the Germans fled.

After an uneasy night with many alarms and excursions the captors of the bridge prepared at dawn on the 19th to deal with further counterattacks. These did not develop immediately, for at first the enemy contented himself with heavy mortaring and shelling, the shells being fired by tanks which had crept up to a position close to the river bank. This fire lasted throughout the morning until Captain A. Frank dealt with the tanks by means of Piats, scoring three direct hits but using all the remaining ammunition. The German tanks limped away, and about this time Lieutenant McDerment recaptured a house from which he and his platoon had been driven. The battle swayed this way and that; but in general, despite the fierce efforts of the enemy, the defenders of the bridge held on and did not falter, not even when a Tiger tank moved down the road just before dark and pumped shells into each house in turn. The casualties it caused included Father Egan, M.C., who had served from the outset with the Brigade, and Major A.D. Tatham-Warter, both of whom were wounded but remained in action. The method used by the defence was to stalk the tanks by moving from room to room through the houses, knocking holes in the partition walls in order to do so, and thus getting close enough to fire a Piat or throw a gammon bomb. It was in this way that Lieutenant Simpson knocked out a tank close to the house in which he was posted. Its crew got out and “crept along the wall till they came to a halt beneath the window where I was crouching. I dropped a grenade on them and that was that. I held it for two seconds before I let it drop.”

In the morning of the next day Frost, who was in command of the whole force, was badly wounded and the active defence was taken over by Major C. F. H. Gough, M.C., commanding the Reconnaissance Squadron, though Frost continued to do all he could to bear a share in the fighting. To report his presence and the situation at the bridge, Gough spoke to the Divisional Commander, using not wireless, for all the sets were out of order, but the Arnhem telephone system. The exchange was held and operated by Dutch patriots, but to make sure that any German who might be listening in would not be able to identify him, Gough referred to himself throughout as “the man who goes in for funny weapons.”