DAILY MAIL, CONTINENTAL EDITION, THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 28, 1944
230 HOURS OF HELL
From RICHARD McMILLAN, B.U.P. War Correspondent
WITH BRITISH ARMY BEFORE ARNHEM, Wednesday.
STRUGGLING through a hurricane barrage of fire from 88mm. guns, tank cannon, and machine-guns, the last survivors of the noble band of British Airborne troops who held the Arnhem bridgehead for nine days were ferried over to our lines during Monday night.
I saw the tragic but heroic cavalcade of bloody, mudstained, exhausted, hungry, and bearded men flood up from the river bank into our lines after going through 230 hours of hell.
Many were stretcher cases. Many were wrapped in blankets. Some hobbled with sticks. All were so completely exhausted that they could hardly keep their eyes open. They were beaten in body, but not in spirit. “Let us get back again; give us a few tanks and we will finish the job,” they said.
Every one of them had a story to tell of terror by day and by night, of ceaseless enemy attacks with flame-throwers, tanks and self-propelling guns firing high explosive and armour-piercing shells.
Captain Bethune Taylor, of Landsdowne-place, Cheltenham, wearing a beard like a French poilu’s, told me his story of tragic adventure as he struggled against sleep.
“Most of the division dropped on Sunday,” he said. “I , a gunner, dropped on Monday. It was easy. A bit of flak hit our glider, but we landed west of Oesterbeek, and took up our positions.
“There were odd snipers, but they did not cause much trouble, and we started moving towards the bridge. One brigade began to move down the railway lines.
“It ran into the first tough opposition. Eighty-eight millimetre guns were at the road and rail crossings and they forced this section back.
“We were told to withdraw, and at nightfall we did so, with tanks following us up. We then got into a field in the middle of a wood. The German tactics were to send in tanks followed by infantry. The tanks fired then turned away, leaving the infantry.
“We usually managed to clean up the infantry, who were not too good. But then the Germans bought in flame-throwers and self-propelling guns. They gave us more than we gave them. They also sent over fierce fire from mortars.
“The weather was fine, with odd spots of rain. We had two days’ food, with an extra day’s food for the whole division. The resupply seemed to work well.
“We marvelled at the amazing courage of the boys of the R.A.F. I saw three transport planes come in blazing. The pilots kept them on their course and I saw the parachutes drop over the perimeter.
“Wonderful, but then deeds of high courage were being enacted every minute of every hour of those long and indescribably horrible days and nights.
“Shelling became more intense as the enemy moved up artillery round the perimeter which had been formed round our gun positions. We were using American-type 77mm. cannon.
“At one moment two tanks were being held off by one man with one gun, all the others of the crew had been killed. The tanks bashed at houses, knocking them down like packs of cards.
“So troublesome were the panzers that a major went out with a Piat and took two on. He nosed round the corner of a house. Every time his head appeared the German tanks fired. But he got his Piat in position and bagged one of the tanks.
“The other moved off started stalking it with Piats until nightfall.
“The hide-and-seek chase for enemy tanks became the sole object in life of the gunners in the perimeter. Whenever a tank was signalled they limbered a gun to jeep and went in pursuit.
“Once we raced right under the gun of a tank. On the flank we had fire directed on to the panzer to distract it’s attention. Then we turned around and opened out, and we got that tank fair and square.”
All survivors paid unstinted tribute to the gunners of the Second Army, who, firing from five to eight miles’ range, put down most accurate barrages and greatly helped to hold the repeated German attacks.
Having used flame-throwers, mortars, tanks, self-propelled guns, and massed machine-guns without breaking the morale of the Red Devils, the Germans tried smoking them out.
Our men were blinded and choked, but they did not budge. One survivor said “The smoke drifted away and left the Jerries out in the open. That was our chance. Soon there were 20 or 30 Jerries less to trouble us.”
Captain Taylor said he was evacuated from the river bank at 3:30 a.m. Before leaving the perimeter our men destroyed all equipment.
The Germans did not seem to realise what was happening until dawn, when they resumed their murderous barrage, this time directed over and into the river. The two banks became a shambles.
Lieut. Adam Donaldson, from Kelso, confirmed that the parachutists suffered heavy losses.
Most terrifying ordeal were the attacks by flame-throwers against our men in the trenches, said Lance-Corporal John Stillwell, of Balance-road, Hackney Wick.
At one time Stillwell was cut off after he went out with a patrol and wiped out an enemy machine-gun post. “After lying up all night we succeeded in getting back to the fringe of the perimeter,” he said.
Wrapped in an army blanket, he sat exchanging jokes with other survivors. Men on stretchers grinned, despite their wounds.
As we talked the conversation of the other men gave an inkling of the tragedy as one man would ask another: “Where’s So-and-So,” to be answered: “He was killed and so was So-and-so,” or “He’s a prisoner,” or “He’s been missing since the first day.” Every sentence had a hint of heroism or disaster.
“When we got back near the perimeter we got into a house where we took shelter for the night,” Stillwell took up his story. “In the morning we moved out to some trenches. The flame-throwers star. They got a man next to me.
“He screamed in agony, for all the lower part of his body was aflame. We rushed for the houses again. Then the German self-propelled guns got to work.
“Then they came back again. We had 20 civilians with us in that house. They were in the cellars. When we left they cried to us: ‘Please don’t leave us.’ But we had to. We made our way down to the river through another lane of withering fire.
“One man did wonders. He kept three Vickers guns going all alone to hold the escape channel open. A hero, I’ll say, but almost every man did marvels. The fellow with the Vickers got wounded in the leg, but he carried on.
“The enemy by this time could do what he liked with us. I shall never forget the perimeter at Arnhem. I prayed I would live to see Hackney Wick again, but never believed I should.
A London private described the perimeter as “a monster engine that spat flame and smoke and liquid death for eight nights and nine days.”
He said that they were “seared out of the trenches by the flame-throwers,” while the houses they took refuge in became “flaming charnel houses.”
When dawn came on Tuesday and the German barrage reached its full ferocity, many men were stranded on the banks amid a maelstrom of human and material flotsam.
The evacuation was carried out with the aid of infantry from a West-country regiment and Polish parachutists who had crossed the river lower down and linked up with the perimeter.
The crossing was then made with assault craft which had been rushed up. First to be carried back were the wounded.
The passage went on from 11 p.m. until daylight interrupted the operation, when the Germans opened up with massed batteries of guns, machine-guns, as well as small arms fire.
The parachutists themselves have no complaint. They only regret that the tanks and infantry did not reach them in time.
Knowing the nature of the terrain between the river at Nijmegen and the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, they understood the difficulties our armour encountered.
As I see the situation from my own personal observation and experience, there were three main causes which prevented an earlier linking-up with the Airborne division.
These were circumstances over which no-one could possibly have control and were incidental to the conduct of war.
1. Our armour pushing on to Arnhem were perfect targets on the elevated roadway for batteries of German 88mm. guns hidden behind dykes in the canal country;
2. The fast thrust by the armour to Nijmegen outdistanced the infantry, which had to be awaited to clear up the 88mm.’s and to push forward to the river to make a crossing;
3. The road along our axis was cut, and this held up the passage of vital things like assault craft. Shells were also becoming short, and on the night of the evacuation the guns fired a protective barrage with the last of their immediate reserves.
The Airborne division lost heavily, but they won a great victory, the battle of the bridges at Nijmegen.
Everyone is agreed on that. Without the Red Devils’ immortal and heroic action in holding the bridgehead at Arnhem, we might never have won the first and most vital phase of the fight for the Rhine bridges.