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Forces War Records Blog

OPERATION MARKET GARDEN: AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT

Gordon Johnston (Jock) Walker was one of the three Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) cameramen at Arnhem, 1944. His vivid account of Operation Market Garden, kindly submitted by his son, Neil Walker, brings those nightmare days into sharp focus.

Eventually we were briefed on ‘Operation Market Garden’, which was the bridge across the Neder Rhine at Arnhem. On paper it was a doddle, maximum of only Brigade opposition, and that would be composed of ‘clapped out’ tanks and second-class infantrymen. The plan was far-seeing; only three bridges stood between our advanced tanks and infantry and Germany. The first two would be taken by the two American Airborne Divisions, the 82nd and the 101st, one on each bridge, and we, the British 1st Airborne Division, were to take the final one at Arnhem, thus leaving the way clear for the 2nd Army to advance in record time. Our part of the operation was to last two days and then we would be relieved. That was the theory!

 

The lift was planned to take place in three successive days, all being combined Parachute and Glider landings. When we got to our departure airfield we were finally briefed and shown our exact dropping and landing zones, and I must say that none of us were too happy about the distance these were from the bridge itself, a matter of seven miles, and in completely unknown territory. However, ours was not to reason why, so two of us had to fly in a Glider with the jeep and trailer, plus two Royal Signals wireless operators. These weren’t parachutists or even airborne troops, but were two very newly called up, very young lads, who had never heard a shot fired in anger and had been posted as wireless operators to the Army Public Relations team, which was also going with us (these lads were magnificent, and did their job in the highest ideals of the Signals and, incidentally, the Public Relations wireless link to the U.K. was the only one working during the whole of the action). One bloke was to accompany the parachutists and this was Sergeant Mike Lewis, who was a veteran of the Tunisian campaigns and the most experienced parachutist of the three of us. My mate in the glider was Sergeant Dennis Smith.

For us the journey was uneventful. Before we reached the coast of Holland there were a couple or so gliders down in the drink, how or why I don’t know, and after we crossed the coast, a number of dummy parachutists were dropped to fox the enemy. I’ll bet a few Jerry soldiers didn’t need their number nine pills when they saw them dropping. There was some anti-aircraft fire, but our escorting fighters soon took care of them and the flight continued on. At approximately 1400 hours we jumped onto terra firma, and immediately started to film the Para drop, as by a nice bit of luck, we had landed before they arrived and so were able to capture the 1st Parachute Brigade and the 1st Airborne Brigade arriving for the bitter fight that was to follow.

 

We retrieved our jeep and trailer and swanned around to see what was happening, and we found out that the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the Para had gone, hell for leather, for the bridge in their various directions, with the 2nd Battalion going directly through Oosterbeek, the 1st Battalion via the Ede-Arnhem Road and the 3rd Battalion via the Utrecht-Arnhem road. The 2nd Battalion, we were to discover later, was the only battalion to get to the Bridge, the other two met with massive opposition in the form of tanks and self-propelled guns and were cut to ribbons en route; without knowing this, we tried to get to the bridge but encountered heavy and accurate fire and hastily retired, and came across Divisional H.Q. who had set up shop in Hartenstein. From them we discovered what had happened to the Para Battalions. We added our bit of information, then went to join the South Staffs for the night so as to be ready to film the arrival of the second drop the next day, the significance of the cut roads to the bridge not having hit us.

The next day we joined up with the Border Regiment and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who were holding the landing zones, having been ordered to do so at all costs. With great ferocity, they had fought a pitched battle with the enemy, ending up by going in with the bayonet and scattering them like a burst bag of peas. They were well pleased with themselves, and rightly so too. The landing was due at 10:00 hours, but it came, and went, and no aircraft, gliders or anything appeared, and the situation was decidedly ‘dodgy’ with sporadic shelling, mortaring and sniping. These snipers were the very devil and picked off more of our men than I care to think about.

By about 15:00 hours the planes started to arrive, banging into a hail of anti-aircraft and machine gun fire. The scene was horrible, at least two Dakotas were hit and set on fire, the Paras exiting in a hurry into a hail of tracer, and the planes themselves eventually crashing in flames. The heath was on fire, Paras were being killed and wounded as they descended, and many a glider hit the deck, out of control. This was the 4th Para with some more South Staffs, and what was left of them formed up and set off for Arnhem, but never got through to the bridge and, in point of fact, the 1st and 4th Para Brigades had almost ceased to exist as a fighting force; this was clear by the third day. We had re-joined Divisional H.Q., as we had no more film left, and offered our services as required. We found out that the General had been missing for a day but had now turned up, after some hair-raising adventures in which Brigadier Lathbury, the 1st Para Commander, had been severely wounded and was out of action. With the terrible reverses that we had suffered and the enormous casualties, the plan was to make a large defensive perimeter around the central point of the Hartenstein Hotel and to withdraw what troops could be mustered to this perimeter and make a stand until the 2nd Army could relieve us. By now we had gone 24 hours over the time we were told we should be relieved, and hunger and thirst were beginning to bite very hard.

The third day dawned and by this time those left alive and kicking of 10,000 men were defending the perimeter, the remnants of 1st and 3rd Battalions were down by the river, the 2nd was on the Osterbeek-Arnhem road and the South Staffs by the Church at Oosterbeek, who were having a rotten time with snipers. I joined them there early in the morning, and that evening the Germans launched an attack with, I think, three tanks. Sergeant Baskerville of the South Staffs won a V.C. in the view of many of us by knocking out two of the tanks, then had his gun knocked out. Crawling to another gun which was working, but whose crew were dead, he took on the third tank, which had withdrawn, single-handed, but paid the penalty by being killed himself. A very brave man amongst many brave men.

The German infantry were attacking meantime, but we gave them stick; they ran into Vickers and sub-machine gunfire, and wave after wave of them were sent to their particular Valhalla. They were massacred in their scores. The noise of the action was terrific, with the ripping sound of Spandau machine-guns, the stutter of Sten guns and the heavy thumps of the ‘75’s and the Mills bombs, all making their contribution to a massive Death March but in 6/8 time. The noise to me that stood out above all others was the very reassuring heavy thump, thump, thump of the Vickers, rising above the clash of the battle, and the lads who played that particular instrument of death did it as if on a practice range; no panic, no wild bursts, just a steady rhythm.

The enemy broke, leaving the ground piled up with dead and wounded, and the cries of ‘Wa Ho Mahomet’, the airborne battle cry resounded throughout. It was a notable victory but was just a taste of things to come during the following days. If only I’d had some film for my camera, but expecting only a two-day stand I only had 500 feet, thinking to pick up more when relieved, and that amount had been used up. On the evening of the fourth day, when things quietened down, it was back to H.Q. to discover that they had had a most fearful mortaring all day, reaching, I was informed, a density of forty plus bombs per hour, causing a lot of casualties. Later that afternoon, at about 17:00 hours or so, we had an accurate supply drop of ammunition; this was on the 20th September.

On the 21st it was impossible to leave the Hartenstein Hotel area, due to the fact that the enemy made a very determined attempt to break into the perimeter. What with this and the recommencement of the heavy mortaring and shelling it was a wonder any of us lived through it, but we did. Defending the perimeter, in addition to the Para and the South Staffs, there were elements of REs, RAs, Royal Signals, Glider Pilots, Pathfinders and RASC, who fought as hard and viciously as the rest. It was a case of their life or yours, and although airborne troops don’t need to have their back against the wall in order to fight, this was literally a case of give an inch and we were all done. The R.A.F. supply planes and their dispatchers were giants among brave men. Whenever they came over with supplies (which unfortunately usually fell to the enemy) all the fury of the enemy was directed against them, but steadfastly they flew straight and level through the most fearful ‘flak’, the dispatchers at the doors, chucking out the containers, even when repeatedly hit and set on fire, flying on, blazing torches in the sky, until they eventually crashed in flames. What devotion to duty and so sorrowful to watch. There wasn’t a man on the ground that wasn’t moved by this display of courage and, in the main, with no benefit to us.

That day, in an attempt to reinforce us, the Polish Para were dropped on the other side of the Rhine, opposite our perimeter, but due apparently to lack of boats they had to stay there until the next night when they joined us, a very small batch of about 200; they too had been cut to ribbons. Food and water was a definite problem. We managed to collect some apples and vegetables from time to time and at the end of the open space behind the Hartenstein there was a well, but collecting water was very ‘dodgy’ due to these pestilential snipers. One of the Sergeants and his men faked up a dummy soldier with a stick, pillow and tin hat, and exposed it every so often. It never failed to draw fire, thus showing where the sniper was, and then he would get his ‘come-uppance’. The Sergeant knocked out an awful lot of snipers this way and enabled us to get water from time to time.

If you were wounded it was certain captivity, as the British and German Red Cross agreed to work side by side, but the Germans controlled the hospital, so if you were taken there into captivity you went. In fact, the only jeep that was still running was the one that ferried the wounded to hospital. The enemy respected it, and it was back and forth all day long, carrying the wounded to succour, safety and a life behind barbed wire.

 

It wasn’t all grim, square-jawed stuff, we had some laughs, like when a German Psychological unit in a van came up and bellowed through the loud-hailer that we were good blokes and marvellous fighters, and that if we would surrender we would be treated as heroes and all this guff. The answer of course was cat calls, “Up yours from Wigan”, “Get knotted,” and other military replies, and when it came next day somebody fired a P.I.A.T. bomb right into it. They didn’t send another one! And if you were caught in the open during an enemy ‘stonk’ and dived into a slit trench you had usually to battle with squirrels for possession of it; they couldn’t live in the woods and very sensibly occupied slit trenches, and were not at all keen on a human being there too. Sharp little teeth they’ve got. We had our own psychological weapon too. Even during times of stress the body’s normal functions still carried on, so we did what was necessary in flower pots, of which we had an abundance, and heaved them, grenade fashion, at Jerry. I often wondered if a hit was scored and what the receiver’s remarks and thoughts were!

The 22nd, 23rd and 24th were a repeat of the previous days, non-stop shelling and mortaring and attack after attack, and every day the perimeter grew a little less until the evening of the 24th we were told we were evacuating as the 2nd Army had at last reached the opposite bank at Driel. We were filthy dirty, beyond tiredness, and hunger and sleep were luxuries that belonged to another life, but we weren’t broken, not by a long way, and we received the news with gladness that it would soon be all over and with sadness at the loss of pals who wouldn’t be coming back with us. Late that night it was our turn to go down to the river, and with a guide at the front and all our ‘tails’ undone so that each person could hold on to the bloke in front, we went in single file. It was very overcast and pouring with rain and we had our feet muffled with sacking or other rags, and so we reached the river bank.

The Second Army were banging shell after shell into the German lines to cover our withdrawal, and as we lay in the mud we hoped that everyone found a target. Eventually we got on a boat, manned by REs, and crossed over safely (notwithstanding a bit of mortaring). Sergeant Smith had been wounded during the fighting but had absolutely refused to go to hospital as he didn’t want to be a POW, and wasn’t in too good shape when we got to the other side. We set off walking towards Nijmegen, carrying our cameras, film and arms. It became a bit of a strain, so the first house we came to, we forced an entry, found a bed and laid down and went to sleep; seemingly only minutes later I was awakened by a British corporal and two men, poking their bayonets at my rear. They thought we were Germans, but were soon disabused of this idea, and they took us to a First Aid Post where Sergeant Smith had his wound dressed. We were given a lift in an ambulance to Nijmegen. From there into hospital for a day, and the following one we flew back in a Dakota to England, as our pictorial record of part of the action was of paramount importance. Since we were the first survivors home, we received a tremendous and most embarrassing welcome.

 

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