2nd South Staffords – Arnhem Part I

Urquhart_outside_his_headquarters

Major General Roy Urquhart shortly after returning to his Divisional HQ at the Hotel Hartenstein, 19 September.

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The 2nd lift advances into Arnhem where it encounters the German blocking line, 18 September.

The 2nd South Staffords, about 420 strong, were brought in from their positions around Wolfheze and at 10.30 a. m. set off towards Arnhem. They were strafed by German fighters soon after leaving Wolfheze, and some men were wounded. All went well after that until they came to the area where the main road into Arnhem ran through the railway embankment just east of Oosterbeek, the position where the 1st Battalion had been fired upon earlier that morning and been forced south to the lower Oosterbeek railway bridge. The South Staffords had exactly the same experience and, like the 1st Battalion, had to side-step to the lower road. They were fired upon by snipers in Oosterbeek and encountered more serious fire in Arnhem but, by changing their route several times, eventually reached the area near St Elizabeth Hospital, where they met what was left of the 1st Battalion. It had taken seven hours to cover five and a half miles; two men had been killed and several wounded.

The next to arrive was Lieutenant-Colonel George Lea’s 11th Battalion, fresh from its parachute drop that afternoon. This unit had left its rendezvous quickly and made a swifter passage, even though there had been a delay of more than two hours near the Hartenstein, to which Divisional HQ had now moved, possibly while Brigadiers Hicks and Hackett argued about the battalion’s employment. Major David Gilchrist, commander of A Company, found it ‘a nice, quiet afternoon walk to Oosterbeek, with no interference and no sounds of battle, followed by sitting on our backsides for several hours on a grassy bank near the Hartenstein. We were all perfectly happy at that stage.’ The battalion was then led skilfully into Arnhem by some Dutch guides, finally coming up to the St Elizabeth Hospital area, but experiencing some fire in Arnhem and suffering at least three men killed. The last of the reinforcements to arrive were the men of the second-lift element of the South Staffords, who were delayed by the difficulty in following the changing path of the first part of the battalion. The men of this group were the last of so many men who passed under the railway bridge at Oosterbeek Laag Station to fight in Arnhem. They arrived in the rear of the 11th Battalion.

The time was about midnight. There were now two fresh battalions, at nearly full strength, together with the weary but still effective remains of the 1st and 3rd Battalions. They were all in the same area and available for a co-ordinated attack to be made for the first time. But there was no overall commander, despite, ironically, there being a wounded brigadier and a healthy divisional commander in hiding only a few hundred yards away. No senior officer had been sent from Divisional HQ to control the vital operations in this area. The scene was now set for the last real chance of getting a sizeable force of troops through to the bridge.

The Battle in the Town – Tuesday

Lieutenant-Colonel Dobie’s 1st Battalion HQ became the focus for the coming action, and he took the initiative in co-ordinating the main attempt. The period started with orders, counter-orders and some confusion which must have severely tried Dobie’s patience. At 8.0 p. m. on Monday Lieutenant-Colonel McCardie of the South Staffords had come to Dobie and expressed himself willing to comply with the wishes of this officer who seemed to represent the authority of the 1st Parachute Brigade. A plan was made for a two-battalion attack to take place at 9.00p. m.: the Staffords, about 600 strong, though still split into two parts, to attack on the upper road past St Elizabeth Hospital; the 1st Battalion, now that its R Company had come up, to attack again along the river-bank road. The 3rd Battalion, though close by, was not in contact, and the 11th Battalion had not yet arrived. But, while this move was being prepared, Divisional HQ received a false report that the force at the bridge had fallen, and Brigadier Hicks ordered that any attack being prepared be postponed. Later, at 1.0 a. m. (on Tuesday the 19th), orders came that the whole force should withdraw to Oosterbeek. It took an hour and a half for the false report about the surrender at the bridge to be corrected, and Dobie was ordered to resume his attack. He called Derek McCardie in again, and Lieutenant-Colonel George Lea, whose 11th Battalion had now arrived, also attended. Lieutenant ‘Tsapy’ Britneff, Dobie’s Intelligence Officer, describes that meeting:

The scene was, I suppose, dramatic – a darkened, bullet-shattered house with Col McCardie and others sitting and standing round a table lit by a single candle; a wireless set whistling in the background. Dobie and McCardie determined, come what may, to reach the 2nd Battalion at the bridge before dawn. Dobie gave his orders sitting at the head of the dining-room table. ‘We must help Johnnie Frost’, was the theme. The plan was that the 1st Battalion would take the embankment road. The South Staffords would advance parallel to us along the main road; the 11th Para Battalion would follow on behind. Starting time around 0400 hours. We had to reach the bridge before damn, because to be caught on the embankment was death.

Unknown to David Dobie, another effort had preceded his on that embankment by the Rhine. As he and his depleted battalion, having come down from their overnight position, moved forward along the river bank, they met part of Lieutenant-Colonel Fitch’s 3rd Battalion which had made an earlier, independent attempt to push along by the same route. Fitch’s men had advanced successfully in the dark for about half a mile until heavily fired upon by the German positions at the end of the open area and sustaining about a dozen casualties, including one of the few remaining officers and RSM Lord, both injured. John Fitch could see that there was no way through and, in the process of pulling back his men, met the 1st Battalion coming forward, still in the dark, along the open ground. Major Alan Bush of the 3rd Battalion tells of this conversation between David Dobie and Captain Richard Dorrien- Smith, a 3rd Battalion officer who had once served in the same company as Dobie:

Dobie: Good morning!

Dorrien-Smith: Where the hell do you think you’re going?

Dobie: I’m going up here.

Dorrien-Smith: I wouldn’t do that if I were you. It’s full of mortars and machine-guns.

Dobie: How do you know?

Dorrien-Smith: Because I’ve bloody well been there.

Dobie: Well, come and show us.

Dorrien-Smith: Not bloody likely.

Lieutenant Britneff observed that Dobie was ‘quite infuriated’ at the news that the way ahead might be blocked, but he decided to press on. John Fitch decided to lead his weary men forward yet again; Alan Bush says: ‘Now that we had got rid of the divisional commander and the brigade commander, Fitch was determined to do everything he could to support David Dobie and help get through to the bridge.’ So the fifty men who were now the only effective members of the 3rd Battalion moved on to the slope to the left of the river bank in an attempt to find cover among some bushes from which to give supporting fire to the 1st Battalion attack. (It should be mentioned that among the 3rd Battalion men in this and recent actions was a group of Royal Engineers from C Troop, 1st Parachute Squadron, who had loyally remained with the 3rd Battalion since leaving the landing area.)

A short distance to the north, Derek McCardie’s South Staffords started their move forward about half an hour later, astride the main road (the Utrechtseweg, later becoming the Utrechtsestraat) which ran uphill in front of the dominant building of St Elizabeth Hospital. But this road steadily diverged from the river bank, so that the attacking forces gradually separated, and the co-ordination agreed at Dobie’s conference did not last long. Both units made good initial progress – and then it started to get light.

The Germans had pulled back the defence line which had held the 1st and 3rd Battalions on the previous evening and had now located it in and around the buildings at the far end of an open space between 700 and 900 yards beyond the starting-point of these new British attacks. But they had also placed forces on either side of that open space, not directly on the edges of it but set well back in cover so that they could not be engaged by the light British weapons but could fire their own heavy weapons into the flanks of the British attacks. These flanking defences were on an embankment on the far side of the railway cutting to the north and in the brickworks on the south of the river. The different levels of the ground meant that the fire from neither German flanking force would hit their own men opposite. Fire from the south bank would finish up hitting the steep embankment; loose shots from beyond the railway would pass over the heads of the Germans on the south bank. This was a very important point, because the attacking airborne men would be fired on from both flanks as well as having to face the weapons and tanks at the far end of the open space. The Germans had no less than five ‘battle groups’ manning these defences, one on either flank and three in the main defence line ahead. All were from the 9th SS Panzer Division.

The savage encounter between these German troops and the airborne men advancing here in the growing light would prove to be the turning-point of the Battle of Arnhem. The Germans were well supplied with armour, heavy weapons and ammunition, were comparatively fresh and could remain in the protection of their trenches, house positions or armoured vehicles. Many of the airborne men were very tired and short of ammunition; they were only armed with light weapons. They would need to get to very close quarters to be able to fight on equal terms, and that the coming daylight would not permit. Nor would the airborne men be able to manoeuvre; the railway and the river barriers ruled out any flanking move. There was no effective artillery support, no friendly armour, no fighter bombers. Fighting in the open spaces of Tunisia, Sicily and Italy and exercises in England had not prepared them for anything like the urban conditions here in Arnhem. The results of the optimism over the lack of German opposition and the decision to drop the division so far from its objectives were about to become apparent.

There was one happy result of the withdrawal of the Germans to their new portions; Major-General Urquhart and his two companions were released from their hiding place. An anti-tank officer, Lieutenant Eric Clapham, drove Urquhart and Captain Taylor back to Divisional HQ; Lieutenant Cleminson rejoined the 3rd Battalion. The wounded Brigadier Lathbury was not rescued and had to remain in hiding in another house.