Major General John Frost

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.

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Frost in the uniform of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)

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.

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Anthony Hopkins and Maj. Gen. Frost on the set of “A Bridge Too Far”

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.

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Plaque at the north end of the John Frost Bridge over the Lower Rhine, Arnhem, Netherlands.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

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

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Frost’s hunting horn, displayed at the Airborne Museum, Hartenstein, Oosterbeek, Netherlands.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

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Veterans Day and Remembrance Day

I believe the American people have lost touch with the real meaning of most holidays.

As a Christian, I believe the most sacred days of the year are Christmas and Easter. They are the holiest of all holy days, and they have nothing to do with reindeer or rabbits.

But we can’t even get our secular holidays right.

Shortly after the American Civil War, May 30 became known as Decoration Day. People went to cemeteries to place flags and flowers at the graves of the Union soldiers who had been killed in the war.  It became widespread in the North, and was eventually made into an official holiday.  However, Decoration Day was not popular in the South – it was seen as yet another reminder of the Southern defeat.

After World War One, Decoration Day was renamed and became Memorial Day. The idea was to pay tribute to those who had fallen in all of America’s wars.  It was still observed on May 30 until 1971, when it was moved to the last Monday of May to create a three-day weekend.

Now, Memorial Day is seen as the unofficial beginning of summer. Students and their families prepare for summer vacations.  People flock to the beaches and parks to hold barbecues and parties.  Memorial Day weekend is the beginning of the summer “blockbuster” season in the movie theaters.

This mentality is reflected in the television news. There are stories about the crowds at the beaches and which films made the most money.  Towards the end of the newscast, there will be footage of the President laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, and perhaps there will be coverage of a local parade.  But, sadly, that seems to be the only tribute that our nation’s fallen are able to receive.

The First World War was fought from 1914 – 1918 and was the bloodiest, most devastating conflict the world had seen – to that point. Much of the war was a stalemate; despite the appalling casualties, neither side could make any progress.  Fortunately, the United States entered the war in 1917, which helped finally break the stalemate.  A ceasefire was declared, and the guns stopped firing at 11:00 on November 11, 1918.  It was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.  November 11 became known as Armistice Day.

World War I was supposed to have been the “War to End All Wars”, but of course it wasn’t. After World War II, November 11 was still observed, but renamed; in the United States, it became Veterans Day.  As we already had Memorial Day in May, the November holiday was to pay tribute to those who had served their country and survived the ordeal.

As Great Britain and the Commonwealth did not already have a Memorial Day as the Americans did, they renamed November 11 as Remembrance Day, although it is sometimes still referred to as Armistice Day.  Traditionally, a two-minute period of silence is held at 11:00 to mark the time when the guns stopped firing at the end of World War I.  Commemorative services are held at cemeteries, war memorials, and churches.  In the UK, Remembrance Sunday, the second Sunday in November, has become the main observance, although the period of silence is still held on November 11.

During World War I, the red poppy became a symbol for honoring the war dead. It is a common flower in Northern Europe, and has the remarkable ability to grow in recently-disturbed ground.  In the spring of 1915, the battlefields of France and Belgium were covered with poppies; their red color was reminiscent of the blood that had been shed.

A Canadian medical officer, Lt. Col. John McCrae, was inspired to write the following poem:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poem became hugely popular as a symbol of remembrance throughout the Allied nations. An American woman, Moina Michael , created artificial poppies made of silk.  The American Legion adopted the concept of wearing artificial poppies on Armistice Day, and the practice was soon copied by the Royal British Legion.  Now, these poppies are typically made of paper or plastic.  Today, in America, banks and government agencies close on Veteran’s Day, but most business remain open.  The custom of wearing the poppy has almost completely disappeared.

In Britain, Canada, and some other countries, the tradition of the poppy remains strong. The Royal British Legion and the Royal Canadian Legion sell them as a fundraiser, helping these organizations provide support for their nations’ veterans.  Most people wear a poppy for the two weeks leading up to November 11; it is unusual to find anyone not wearing a poppy.  In recent years, some people have started wearing a white poppy not only to honor the fallen, but also to express their hope for an end to war.

I have worn a poppy for the last several Novembers. I first knew about the poppy as a British custom, and I bought my poppies from the Royal British Legion.  I was surprised to learn that it was an American who came up with the idea, and that the poppy used to be commonly worn in the US.

We owe so much to our veterans and our war dead, and we don’t do enough to honor them. I am an amateur historian and an Anglophile, but it’s personal, too – many of my friends served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  When I see an advertisement for a Veterans Day sale, it just seems like a mockery of the real holiday.  I have sometimes been accused of celebrating the wrong holiday or even being in the wrong country, but I feel it’s important to observe November 11 as best I can.  I would love to see the poppy tradition return to the United States.  It started here; let’s bring it back.

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