The War Illustrated, No. 241, Vol. 10, September 13th 1946

great. Stories of the War lietotri The Airborne €ro$$im j B y ML. ARSLAN D GANDER who, as The Daily Telegraph War Arnhem is deservedly extolled as the finest exploit o f British airborne L troops, but I doubt whether the omen f the 1st Airborne Division felt anymore cxcited, tense and apprehensive than we who waited behind barbed wire for an un­specified operation in March 1945. We glider types were held incommunicado at a camp known as Mushroom Farm —a small town of Nissen luits somewhere near Brain­ tree in Essex. Merely to mention the name o f that camp revives in theme sense of sickening foreboding I felt as, wearing anew red beret conferred by the courtesy o f M ajor-G eneral Eric Bols, the Divisional Commander, 1 passed through the gales to what I felt convinced was certain doom .Even the magnificent bearing and camaraderie of the trained sky-troops could not entirely banish my depression- All that we knew about the coming operation, at that time, was that it would bethe biggest o f the war, with two complete divisions taking p a rt—one British and one American—in close co-ordination. There were rum ours that we were going to Denmark even that we were going to beat the Russians to it by seizing Berlin itself. On the whole, however, it seemed most probable that we were destined to establish a Rhine bridge­head to open the way for the 2nd Army into the heart o f Germany. General Bols Unfolds His Plan The men of the 6th Airborne, many of them heroes o f D-D ay drops, spent their time in preparation and occasional revelry. On these social occasions they liked to roar out their swashbuckling, blood-freezing choruses. One which ran to the tune o f John Brown’s Body had as its theme :“Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die ’Cause we ain’t going to live moreno !”Another, sung eluded with :to Red River Valley, con- “So come standby your glasses so ready Here’s a toast to the omen f the sky. Let us drink to the men dead already And here’s to the next man to die !”Despite this fatalism the air-troopers were in fine fettle, and if they had any fears they concealed them beneath a nonchalant, good-hum oured, bantering manner. We were each served outwith equipment which seemed to anticipate every possible form of violent or lingering death. First, a Mae West lifejacket casein we fell in the sea. Then a little red light (with battery) to insure against falling in at night, and a great slab o f stuff to colour the sea yellow lest we should fall in in daylight. We were given emergency rations and shell-dressings, domed steel helmets, vests like fishing nets, and camouflage jackets. The one thing we were not given was parachutes, for the theory was that in gliders either you all landed together or you did not land at all. We war correspondents, o f whom there were six with the 6th Airborne, took an increasingly dim view o fit all. One morning General Bols, slim, fair, debonair, supremely confident, unfolded his plans to us. We hardly knew whether to feel relieved or disappointed when he said that, after all, the operation— known by the codename o f Varsity— might not come off if the weather did not suit. Sure enough, it was to bethe Rhine crossing. But the air­borne show, comprising ourselves and the 17th U.S. Division, under M ajor-G eneral Correspondent, on March 24,1945, glided across the Rhine with the 6th (British) Airborne Division. commanding 18th U.S. was merely a “bonus ”M.B. Ridgway, Corps (Airborne), to the land attack. Applying the hard-learnt lessons o f Arnhem it was intended that our landing, north of Wesel, should be supported from the start by the medium artillery of 21st Army Group. This meant that we should drop only a mile or two ahead o f the land forces, which should be able to' make a injunction a matter o f hours, instead of days or weeks. If all went well, overnight a Commando brigade would have stormed into Wesel in the van of XXX Corps which was to cross the Rhine on a wide front. Then, with any kind of luck, we should be linking up with 15th Scottish Division shortly after landing. i)f the Rhine before we arrived. The only omission on the enem y’s part was that, probably through-lack o f time, he had not studded the fields with anti-glider poles and wires or putdown minefields in the likely dropping zones. Greeted With a Torrent of Fire I was invited to study an aerial photo of the field, on the fringes o f D icrjfordter Wald, where my particular glider was supposed to land. Noticing some white marks in the ditches I asked, innocently, what they were supposed to be. d“Oh on’t worry about that !”said my cheerful adviser. “Those are German machine guns, but the R.A .F. will take care o f them .”Though 1 am the last to disparage the R.A .F. 1 am bound to say that o:i this occasion all the rosy optimism at Mushroom Farm was unjustified. Somehow the flak batteries eluded the scouring Typhoons, and when on the morning o f March 24 our air armada arrived it was greeted with such a torrent o f fire that only 88 out o f 416 gliders landed undamaged. But I am racing somewhat ahead o f my story. AT THE POINT OF A STEN GUN a German prisoner is marched away by a British air-trooper who, jumping with the Allied airborne forces across the Rhine in March 1945, landed in the American dropping zone. To the right (near his helmet and rifle) lies a wounded German. I'hoto, Keystone T his.w as a wise plan. The airborne boys were being used to widen and deepen a hole already made in German resistance. They were not to be left isolated for days or weeks iii an island attacked by an ever-increasing weight of heavy weapons that could not be brought by air. So far so good. But the Germ ans, it seemed, were extremely well informed o four plans. Despite continuous defeat and collapsing morale they showed every intention o f giving us a warm reception. This knowledge, plus the fact that the London newspapers, a day or two before our operation was due, began to discuss its possibilities openly, made .farcical the elaborate pretence o f a security black-out. knew that the enemy had packed the’’ p bro ab ledroppingzonew ithsm allcom bat groups o f parachute and S.S. troops trained to tackle glider troops and parachutists before these had had time to organize. He had also massed light flak for our reception. We were reassured, however, by intelligence officers, who said that the R.A .F. were putting on “the biggest blitz ever, a terrific stonk ”which would wipe out every flak cun long PAGE 323 I had been assigned to a H orsa glider carrying omen f the Divisional Headquarters defence company. The weather held good, and on a calm ,sunny, Saturday morning 1 climbed into the glider at Shepherd’s Grove airfield with 18 stalwart infantrymen, a Colonel o f the Royal Engineers, and the Senior Chaplain as fellow passengers. We sat opposite each other on benches, trussed-up with equipment and strapped in. You could not see much through the small p o rt­ holes. Somebody likened it to travelling in a tube. Half-sick and taut with nervous excitement which each hope.1 was not apparent to his neighbours, we felt ourselves, after an eternity o f waiting, pulled off into the air. I was able to move from time to time into the p ilo t’s cockpit, from where I could seethe blue bowl o f sky swarming with the silver “flying fish.” High above sparkled the shoals o f fighter minnows, paradoxically protecting the bigger fish below just ahead o four glider wallowed the whale o four bomber tug, along sagging cable in between. The eye could hardly intake the spectacle. Tugs, gliders, parachute aircraft everywhere the landscape rolling sluggishly below. We
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