One of my greatest heroes is Major-General John Frost. This should not be a surprise; I am fascinated by the history of the British Airborne Forces, and Frost was one its most important figures.
Several months ago, I was asked to write an article for my World War II living history club’s newsletter. I was specifically requested to write a biographical article. I decided immediately to write about Frost. With the permission of the editors of “The Front”, the newsletter of the California Historical Group, I am posting the article here.
Major-General John Frost, CB, DSO & Bar, MC (1912 – 1993)
John Dutton Frost was a British Army officer best known for his association with 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.
Frost was born in India, to British parents, on 31 December, 1912. He was educated in England. As his father was an Army officer, it was only natural that he attended the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He graduated in 1932, and was commissioned into the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). After promotion to Captain, Frost was sent abroad and worked with the Iraq Levies, whose primary function was guarding RAF airfields. Frost and his fellow officers formed a traditional hunt club, although they hunted jackals instead of foxes.
Originally, Frost enjoyed his time in Iraq. However, when war with Germany was declared in 1939, Frost became frustrated and felt the war would pass him by. He returned to Britain in 1941; the hunt club gave him an engraved hunting horn as a parting gift. Frost spent a short time with the Cameronians, but soon volunteered for the recently-formed Airborne Forces and was assigned to 2nd Parachute Battalion.
1st Parachute Battalion had been in existence for about a year, but 2nd and 3rd Battalions were just being formed. The three battalions comprised 1st Parachute Brigade, and were composed entirely of volunteers. Many of the officers were newly-commissioned; because of his experience, Frost was made 2nd Battalion’s Adjutant.
Shortly after Frost completed his parachute training, he was given command of 2nd Battalion’s C Company, known as “Jock Company” as it was almost entirely made of Scotsmen. In February, 1942, C Company conducted a raid against an enemy radar station at Bruneval, France, near Le Havre. This was Britain’s first major airborne operation. Frost and his men overwhelmed the garrison, while an RAF radar expert and several engineers dismantled the radar array. The Company was evacuated by the Royal Navy, and the radar components were taken back to Britain for study. The raid was considered a complete success and was widely publicized, although the exact reason was not released to the media. However, it justified the existence of Airborne Forces to the military establishment, and provided a boost to British morale when it was desperately needed.
In the autumn of 1942, Frost was given command of 2nd Parachute Battalion. 1st Parachute Brigade was attached to British 1st Army and sent to North Africa. After the Operation Torch landings in November, each of the three battalions was assigned a separate parachute operation to help the breakout from the beachhead. 1st and 3rd’s operations went well, but 2nd Battalion was not as lucky. They were ordered to drop on two airfields, Oudna and Depienne, near Tunis. Shortly after arrival, Frost received word via radio that 1st Army had cancelled their drive to Tunis; Frost was forced to lead his men on a fighting retreat across the desert to friendly lines. They held defensive positions during the day and moved at night; Frost would sound his hunting horn to keep the men from getting separated in the dark and the rough terrain. Casualties were heavy, but the Battalion survived. Many of the survivors credited Frost’s tenacity and leadership for their escape.
1st Parachute Brigade continued to fight as standard infantry. As British 8th Army pushed from Egypt and Libya, the enemy attempted to break through the less experienced 1st Army. 1st Parachute Brigade saw more action than any other unit in 1st Army, as they were rushed to plug whatever weaknesses were found in the line. Because of their maroon berets and their ferocious fighting ability, the British parachutists earned the nickname “The Red Devils”.
Once North Africa had been secured, the next move was the invasion of Sicily, in July 1943. After the initial landings, 1st Parachute Brigade was dropped as part of the breakout. Their objective was the Primosole Bridge over the Simeto River; unfortunately, the bridge’s importance was also recognized by the enemy, who reinforced the position. 1st Parachute Brigade captured the bridge, but their ammunition ran out and they were forced off the objective. They withdrew to the high ground south of the bridge; the leading elements of 8th Army were then able to recapture the bridge. 1st Parachute Brigade suffered numerous casualties, and were ordered to return to England to rest and refit.
In June, 1944, British 6th Airborne Division played a significant role in the invasion of Normandy; 1st Airborne remained in Britain as a reserve. Numerous operations were planned for the Division, but cancelled. In September, the Division took part in Operation Market Garden. 1st Airborne was to seize the vital road bridge over the Lower Rhine in Arnhem, Holland, near the German border. It was hoped this operation would outflank the heavily defended Siegfried Line and get the Allies across the Rhine and into the enemy homeland.
The dropping and landing zones were several miles away from the objective, and the enemy successfully engaged in blocking actions to delay the Airborne troops from reaching the bridge. Most of 2nd Battalion made it to the north end of Arnhem bridge, along with elements of 1st Parachute Brigade headquarters. As Brigadier Lathbury was wounded on the march, Frost took command of the entire force at the bridge. Heavy enemy fire from armored cars prevented the composite force from capturing the south end of the bridge.
The next day, a reconnaissance unit from the 9th SS Panzer Division, which had been observing American movements in Nijmegen, attempted to cross Arnhem bridge from the south but were unaware of the British defensive positions. British PIATs and anti-tank guns caused havoc. 2nd Parachute Battalion continued to hold their position, but soon ran out of ammunition and other supplies. The Germans brought in more and more reinforcements, both infantry and armor. By the end of the fourth day, the British could no longer fight. Most men were wounded, including Frost. Those who were healthy enough to fight had no ammunition with which to do so, and were ordered to try to connect with the rest of the Division. Frost and his men were taken prisoner and sent to a camp in Germany, where they remained until the end of the war.
After the war, Frost remained in the Army until 1968; he retired at the rank of Major- General. Frost was interviewed by Cornelius Ryan for the book A Bridge Too Far, first published in 1974. Frost then served as a consultant for the film adaptation, released in 1977, in which he was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins (for my review of the film, click here). In 1978, the town of Arnhem named the road bridge over the Rhine the John Frost Bridge. Frost wrote an autobiography, A Drop Too Many, which was first published in 1980.
John Frost died on 21 May, 1993, at the age of 80. His widow donated his famous hunting horn to the Airborne Museum, Hartenstein, in Oosterbeek, where it can still be seen today. For his leadership and personal bravery, he had been awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order, with bar; he was also made a Companion of the Order of Bath.
Frost’s autobiography is available from Amazon:
A Drop Too Many by Maj. Gen. John Frost