Book Review: Men at Arnhem

It is September as I write this; all month long, my thoughts have been on Operation Market Garden, and the annual commemorations held in the Netherlands.  I decided to re-read one of my favorite books on the subject, Men at Arnhem, by Geoffrey Powell.

Geoffrey Powell retired from the British Army in 1964 with the rank of Colonel.  He was originally an officer with The Green Howards, but was seconded to the Parachute Regiment.  For Operation Market Garden, he held the rank of Major, and commanded C Company, 156th Parachute Battalion; he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions during the operation.  Men at Arnhem is Powell’s personal account of the battle.

156th Parachute Battalion was part of 4th Parachute Brigade, 1st Airborne Division.  For Market Garden, there were insufficient aircraft to take 1st Airborne to Holland in a single lift; 4th Parachute Brigade therefore dropped on September 18, 1944, as part of the second lift.  The element of surprise had been completely lost by that point, and the paratroopers took fire during their drop.  The original plan was to head to Arnhem and reinforce the troops who had made it to the bridge.  However, enemy strength was significantly greater than expected; every time the battalion tried to advance, they hit a blocking line and took substantial casualties.  They would regroup and try again, but with the same outcome.  The battalion commander was killed, and Powell took over leadership of what remained of the unit.  Eventually, the survivors were forced to fall back and go on the defensive; they held part of the perimeter at the village of Oosterbeek, outside Arnhem.  Starving and low on ammunition, they fought as best they could from the houses and gardens of the village.  By the end of the operation, only a handful were evacuated across the Rhine.

Hartenstein IWM

Troops of 1st Airborne Division on the grounds of the Hotel Hartenstein, Oosterbeek; the hotel was used as Divisional Headquarters during Market Garden.  The men are desperately trying to signal resupply aircraft, as the enemy had overrun the designated resupply dropping zone.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The book is very well-written.  The narrative flows easily, and the descriptive language is highly effective.  Stylistically, it seems like a novel, and the reader has to remember that this is not fiction; the tragic events really happened, and the descriptions of pain and loss reflect the author’s own experiences.

It helps if the reader already has a basic knowledge of the battle of Arnhem, as Powell provides little background information.  However, he describes the sensations of the battle, and his writing is highly evocative.  He describes the pressure of being under nearly-constant fire from enemy machine guns and snipers, as well as the deafening mortar and artillery fire, which drove some men to the edge of their sanity.  He expresses his frustration at the poor intelligence and the continual breakdowns in communications, as well as his bitterness at 2nd Army’s failure to break through and relieve the airborne troops.  Powell wrote about his pride in his battalion, its high level of training and esprit de corps, as well as the heartbreak of watching the unit get destroyed in just a few days.  He describes the sorrow of watching his friends and comrades being killed.  Powell felt tremendously guilty that he was unable to do more to save his men; the other survivors from the battalion, however, credited their escape to his leadership.

The revised edition includes a preface in which Powell explains that he initially found it very difficult to write about his memories of the battle.  To ease his difficulties, he wrote and originally published the book under a pseudonym, Tom Angus.  He changed the names of the people he described, and he wrote the narrative as he remembered it, which did not always match official records.

I have read a number of personal accounts of the Second World War; I consider Men at Arnhem as my favorite.  This is partly because of the subject matter; I have a particular fascination with 1st Airborne Division and Operation Market Garden.  However, it is the quality of the writing that truly impresses me; this is a powerful and evocative personal account that portrays the confusion and fear of combat, the author’s pride in his unit, and the tremendous sense of loss from the many casualties.  I cannot recommend this book enough.

Men at Arnhem is readily available through Amazon.  It is also available through the Airborne Shop, www.airborneshop.com, where all purchases provide funds for Support Our Paras, a charitable organization dedicated to assisting airborne soldiers and veterans.

Men at Arnhem Cover

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Flt. Lt. David S. Lord, VC

This article originally appeared in “The Front”, the newsletter of the California Historical Group, and is reprinted here by kind permission of the editors.  This version has been revised and expanded since the original.

Flt. Lt. David S. Lord, VC, DFC (1913 – 1944)

Britain’s highest award for bravery and dedication to duty is the Victoria Cross.  There were five Victoria Crosses awarded for the Battle of Arnhem:  four of the recipients were soldiers of the 1st Airborne Division*; the fifth was a pilot of the Royal Air Force, named David Lord.

David Samuel Anthony Lord was born in Cork, Ireland, on October 18, 1913.  His parents were Welsh, and his father was an NCO in the British Army.  After the Great War, Lord’s father was sent to serve in India, and took his family with him; once he retired from the Army, he moved his family back to Wales.

2.0.1

Flt. Lt. David S. Lord, VC, DFC

Lord was raised Roman Catholic, and as a young man, he decided to study for the priesthood.  However, he quickly decided it was not his vocation, so he moved to London and attempted a career as a freelance writer.  This, too, did not work out, so in 1936, Lord joined the Royal Air Force.

Lord underwent pilot training, and was made Sergeant Pilot in 1939.  He was assigned to India and flew transport aircraft.  His unit, Number 31 Squadron, flew the Douglas DC-2, which was then replaced with the Douglas “Dakota”, the British name for the DC-3 / C-47.  He flew several transport and supply missions in India and Burma, including missions supporting the Chindits; he also spent time in Egypt and the Middle East.

In 1942, Lord was commissioned as a Pilot Officer, then awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1943.  In 1944, he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant; he returned to England and was assigned to Number 271 Squadron.

No. 271 Squadron was based at the airfield at Down Ampney, Gloucestershire.  The Squadron specialized in Airborne operations, dropping paratroopers, towing gliders, and flying resupply missions.  As part of this Squadron, Lord supported 6th Airborne Division during the Normandy invasion.

In September 1944, Operation Market Garden was launched; 1st Airborne Division’s objective was the road bridge over the Lower Rhine in Arnhem.  It was hoped that the relief column would reach 1st Airborne in two days, but many felt that three or four days would be more realistic.  It was realized that aerial resupply would be a critical component of the operation.  While the plan was for the Division to occupy the town of Arnhem and its vital bridge, the nearby village of Oosterbeek also needed to be held, as the open fields north of the village could be used for resupply drops.

Lord was pilot and captain of one of 271 Squadron’s Dakotas which was specially equipped for resupply missions.  In addition to static lines for deploying parachutes, the airplane had rollers on the floor of the fuselage to assist in moving the heavy containers and panniers of equipment.  The Dakota had a crew of eight:  four RAF, and four air despatchers of the Royal Army Service Corps.  These air despatchers were specially trained in packing supply containers, loading them into the aircraft, and quickly getting them out of the cargo door to land accurately on the designated drop zone.  The air despatchers were issued parachutes, but rarely wore them as they interfered with working inside the airplane.

Dakota Panniers

Air Despatchers of the Royal Army Service Corps prepare to drop resupply panniers from a Dakota during a training operation.  Photo courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

The operation began on September 17.  On September 19, 271 Squadron, including Lord and his crew, flew a resupply mission.  News from Arnhem was scarce, and what did get through was not good:  the Airborne troops had encountered much heavier resistance than had been expected.  The Germans had reinforced their anti-aircraft batteries, and the “flak” was much heavier on the 19th than it had been the previous two days.

As Lord approached the supplies dropping zone, his airplane was hit, and the starboard engine caught fire.  However, Lord continued his descent to drop height, and rather than bailing out, the crew began dispatching their vital supplies.  The fighting on the ground nearly came to a halt as astonished soldiers watched the burning Dakota turn full circle and make a second pass over the drop zone.  Then the starboard wing collapsed, and the plane, engulfed in flames, plummeted to the ground.

Flying Officer Henry King, Lord’s navigator, bailed out of the doomed airplane, but he was the only survivor.  He was found by a patrol from 10th Parachute Battalion, who offered him a chocolate bar and a mug of tea.  The soldiers apologized that they had nothing else to offer; King was devastated to learn that the enemy had overrun the drop zone, and had captured most of the supplies.  By the end of the battle, King and his new friends from 10th Battalion were captured and imprisoned by the enemy.

At the end of the war, King was freed from the Stalag; as was customary with released prisoners, he was interviewed about his experiences.  According to King, Flt. Lt. Lord had been determined to get as many supplies to the men on the ground as possible.  When he learned there were still containers aboard after his first pass, he made a second run over the drop zone despite the damage to his plane.  Once the last container was out, Lord ordered the crew to bail out, but only King escaped.  Lord remained at the controls and made no effort to save himself, in a desperate effort to buy time for his crew to escape.  It was based on King’s testimony that Lord was recommended for a posthumous Victoria Cross.  The request was granted; as Lord had never married, the award was presented to his parents in November, 1945.

After the war, Major General R.E. (“Roy”) Urquhart, the commanding officer of 1st Airborne, wrote about the battle, including his vivid memories of Lord’s actions.

One Dakota was hit by flak and the starboard wing set on fire.  Yet it came on, descending to nine hundred feet.  It seemed that every anti-aircraft gun in the vicinity was sighted on the crippled aircraft.  With its starboard engine blazing, it came through to the dropping zone.  At the end of the run, the Dakota turned and made a second run to drop the remaining supplies.  From foxholes and slit trenches and from the restricted spaces to which we were trying to attract the pilots; from blasted buildings and ditches and emplacements of rubble and earth, the eyes of hundreds and probably thousands of careworn soldiers gazed upwards through the battle haze.  We were spellbound and speechless, and I daresay there is not a survivor of Arnhem who will ever forget, or want to forget, the courage we were privileged to witness in those terrible eight minutes.  It was not until some time after the operation that I learned the name of the pilot of that Dakota – Flight Lieutenant David Lord, of 271 Squadron.  We saw the machine crashing in flames as one of its wings collapsed, and we did not know that Lord had ordered his crew to abandon while making no effort to leave himself.  There was one survivor.  This incident was talked about long afterwards by men who had grown accustomed to bravery…

Arnhem
Major General R.E. Urquhart, C.B., D.S.O.

David Lord’s body was recovered and identified, and his remains are now at rest in the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.  Lord’s headstone is engraved with the crest of the RAF as well as the Victoria Cross.

D Lord Marker

David Lord’s grave at the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.  The obscured text reads, “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  Author’s photograph.

In England, little remains of the RAF airfield at Down Ampney.  However, the villagers commissioned a stained glass window for the local church of All Saints as a memorial to Flt. Lt. Lord and his comrades of 271 Squadron.

D Lord Window Down Ampney

Memorial window at All Saints church, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

Postscript:

On a personal note, I have only had one opportunity to visit the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.  While there, I made sure to locate Lord’s grave and pay my respects; I did the same with the other two V.C. recipients buried there.  Two years later, while touring the Cotswolds, I visited Down Ampney.  I had wanted to see the village as it was the birthplace of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams; however, my strongest memory of Down Ampney is of the Lord memorial window at All Saints church.

*The four Airborne recipients of the Victoria Cross were:

  • Major Robert Cain, VC, 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment;
  • Captain Lionel Quirepel, VC, 10th Parachute Battalion;
  • Lieutenant John (“Jack”) Grayburn, 2nd Parachute Battalion;
  • Lance Sergeant John Baskeyfield, 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment.

Major Cain was the only survivor of the battle to receive the Victoria Cross; the other awards were granted posthumously.  Like Flt. Lt. Lord, Capt. Quirepel and Lt. Grayburn are buried at the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery; L/Sgt. Baskeyfield’s body was never recovered.