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.

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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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A Brief History of the British 1st Airborne Division

The following is a very short history of the 1st Airborne Division; I plan to write a more extensive version in a future article.

The British Army’s Airborne Forces were first created in June 1940.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been impressed by the German use of parachute and glider troops during their invasion of France and the Low Countries, and sent a memorandum to the Chiefs of Staff requesting that Britain develop a similar capability.

Originally, Airborne Forces were conceived as raiding forces to perform small-scale operations in occupied Europe for intelligence gathering, destruction of specific targets, and demoralization of the enemy.  Accordingly, No. 2 Commando was trained in parachuting and eventually became 1st Parachute Battalion.  2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions were then created; the three battalions comprised 1st Parachute Brigade.

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Paratroopers in 1942.  They are wearing the early “step-in” parachute smock, based on the German design, prior to the adoption of the camouflaged Denison smock.

Britain’s first use of airborne troops was a small raid against an Italian aqueduct near Tragino in February 1941.  This was followed by the first significant Airborne action, Operation Biting, in February 1942.  C Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, attacked a German radar installation on the French coast at Bruneval; along with a radar specialist from the RAF, they captured key components of the radar, and were evacuated by sea by the Royal Navy.  The operation was a complete success.

1st Parachute Brigade was then sent to North Africa, attached to British 1st Army, in support of the Operation Torch landings in November 1942.  Each of the three battalions performed a separate operation.  The Brigade was then reunited and kept in the front lines for several months in the bitter fighting in Tunisia.  It was here that the British Airborne earned their nickname of the “Red Devils” for their ferocious fighting ability.  It was also where they adopted their war cry of “Waho Mohammed”, inspired by the natives’ calls from hilltop to hilltop.

2 Para Officers Tunisia

Officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion in Tunisia, December, 1942.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Airborne Forces were rapidly growing.  The Parachute Regiment was formed in August 1942, and its cap badge adopted in May 1943.  All Airborne troops wore the distinctive maroon beret and the divisional flash depicting the Greek hero Bellerophon, riding the winged horse Pegasus.  1st Airborne Division was created, including 2nd Parachute Brigade and 1st Air-Landing Brigade, which were flown in gliders, along with supporting elements from the artillery, engineers, medical corps, and others.  These new units were transported to Tunisia to join with the now-veteran 1st Parachute Brigade.

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Bellerophon riding Pegasus, the insignia worn by all British Airborne Forces.

In July 1943, the Allies launched Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily.  1st Air-Landing Brigade took part in the initial invasion, capturing the vital Ponte Grande Bridge near the beachhead.  Then, as British 8th Army pushed up the island’s east coast, 1st Parachute Brigade captured the Primosole Bridge.  Losses in both operations were heavy, but their vital objectives were taken.  Once Sicily had been secured, the Allies invaded mainland Italy.  2nd Parachute Brigade took part in this operation, and 1st Airborne’s commander, Major General George Hopkinson, was killed in action.  The Division returned to Britain to refit and replace losses; 2nd Parachute Brigade was detached from the Division and remained in Italy.

1st Airborne received a new commander, Major General Robert “Roy” Urquhart.  Additionally, 4th Parachute Brigade joined the Division, to replace 2nd Parachute Brigade.  In the summer of 1944, 6th Airborne Division spearheaded the Invasion of Normandy, while 1st Airborne was kept in reserve.  Several airborne operations were conceived to support the Allied breakout from the beachheads, but were all cancelled.

In September 1944, the Division took part in the epic Battle of Arnhem, part of Operation Market-Garden.  The Division found itself surrounded, out-numbered and out-gunned; they fought extremely bravely, but their relieving force never arrived.  Out of 10,000 men, only 2000 escaped across the Rhine; the rest were killed or captured.  The Division was never longer brought back to strength and was disbanded in November 1945.

Film Review: A Bridge Too Far

My two greatest passions are writing, and studying British military history; the purpose of this blog is to help me express both interests.  While I am fascinated by the entire history of the British Army, my particular focus is on the Airborne Forces during World War II.  It should not be a surprise, then, that one of my favorite films is A Bridge Too Far.  If anything, the only surprise is that it has taken me this long to write about it, although I have referenced it in some of my earlier articles.

A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden, and provides an excellent introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the subject.  Market Garden was a massive undertaking; three airborne divisions were to take bridges over the various rivers and canals of the Netherlands, with an entire corps sent as the ground-based relief column.  The battle raged for nine days in September 1944.  A Bridge Too Far gives a good overview of the significant events of this enormous, complex operation in the course of a three-hour movie; that is no small feat.  While it shows the overall “big picture”, it also shows something of the personalities of many of the key personnel involved, from generals down to enlisted men.  Despite the scope of the film, the human element is always very much present.

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An early scene from A Bridge Too Far, in which a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire flies over the Dutch countryside.

The film was released in 1977, the same year as the original Star Wars.  While the one film broke new ground in special effects, the other used traditional techniques, but on an epic scale.  I like to think of Bridge in terms of “what you see is what you get”.  The filmmakers used eleven C-47 aircraft and dropped 1000 parachutists, including paratroopers from the British and Dutch armies.  They used as many real tanks, half-tracks, jeeps and scout cars as they could get their hands on.  They filmed on location in Holland, using the actual battlefields whenever possible.  Nijmegen Bridge in the film is the actual Nijmegen Bridge.  While Arnhem today looks nothing like it did during the war, the town of Deventer makes an excellent substitute, and its bridge over the Ijssel closely resembles the Arnhem road bridge at the Lower Rhine.  This was the first film to put the actors and extras through a “boot camp” to give them the right military attitude and bearing; this is now standard practice with war films.  Several of the key officers portrayed on screen served as consultants and advisors for the film.

The acting is excellent.  Dirk Bogarde portrays Lt. General “Boy” Browning as bristling with confidence, yet his eyes somehow convey his deepest doubts and fears.  Anthony Hopkins as Lt. Colonel John Frost shows massive calm and stoicism despite the chaos surrounding him.  Edward Fox has stated that portraying Lt. General Brian Horrocks was one of his favorite roles.  Many of the actors have a strong physical resemblance to the historical figures they portray.  Maj. General “Roy” Urquhart was unfamiliar with Sean Connery prior to the film, but his wife and daughters were thrilled with the casting.

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Sean Connery as Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart, talking to his signals officers.

The cinematography is outstanding, and Richard Attenborough’s direction is simply brilliant.  The ground battle begins with a rolling artillery barrage, followed by the advancing tank column.  When the tanks hit resistance, an air strike is called; the cameras follow the aircraft as they swoop in from behind the ground column.  This sequence is visually stunning; one could call it beautiful if it weren’t for the explosions, the carnage, the horror of war.  The failed German dash across Arnhem Bridge on the second day of the battle is equally spectacular; in fact, John Frost wrote that watching that sequence was more exciting than being there for the real event.  I first became familiar with this film on “pan and scan” VHS copies.  The epic scale and magnificent cinematography of this motion picture really benefit from modern DVD recordings and widescreen televisions, although I must confess that I have not seen it on Blu-Ray.

I have very few criticisms of this film, but of course, no motion picture is perfect.  There is too much reliance on composite characters.  For example, one of the most memorable characters is Major Harry Carlyle, yet no such person was at Arnhem; the character was based primarily on Major Digby Tatham-Warter, but also performed actions by Lt. Jack Grayburn, VC.  On that point, there were five Victoria Crosses awarded for the Battle of Arnhem, but none of the recipients are named in the film, although some of their actions are hinted at.

There are several key parts of the operation that the film ignores or glosses over.  There is also a subplot involving James Caan that, while interesting, does little to help the overall progress of the story; I have been known to fast forward through the entire sequence.  I love the fact that the film shows real paratroopers jumping out of real Dakotas, but I never understood why the filmmakers had the planes painted a dusty yellow instead of the correct olive green.

Even the title itself is problematic.  At the end of the film, Dirk Bogarde, as General Browning, states, “we were trying to go a bridge too far”, referring to Arnhem, the farthest objective.  Cornelius Ryan was so captivated by this statement that he named his book after it, and the title carried over to the filmed adaptation.  However, current historians believe the statement is apocryphal, that is, Browning probably never said it.  After all, the operation was not just a thrust to gain territory in Holland; the entire point was to get across the Rhine, outflank the Siegfried Line, and invade Germany itself.

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The defense of Arnhem Bridge as shown in A Bridge Too Far.  This sequence was filmed in the town of Deventer, on the river Ijssel.

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The actual Arnhem Bridge; photo taken shortly after the battle.

I tend to nitpick this film because I have read more about the Battle of Arnhem than any other event in history.  However, if it had not been for A Bridge Too Far, I may never have studied Market Garden as intensely as I have and learned as much on my own.  If not for this movie, I may never have started reenacting as 1st Airborne, or been inspired to visit Arnhem itself, which I did in 2003.  Overall, I think it is one of the best motion pictures ever made about World War II.

Postscript:

I just watched the film again, and thought I should add a few comments.

Part of the decision behind 1st Airborne’s drop zones being so far away from Arnhem Bridge (about eight miles) was to avoid the enemy anti-aircraft batteries defending the airfield at Deelen.  Ironically, the take-off scenes in the motion picture were not filmed in England, but at the Deelen airfield.

The first few times I watched the film, I thought Ryan O’Neal was far too young to portray a general.  It was only later that I learned the officer he portrayed, Brigadier James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne, was only 37 during Market Garden.  A month later, upon promotion, he became the youngest major general in the US Army.

The film conveys the idea that a major factor in 1st Airborne’s problems at Arnhem lay in the breakdown of radio communications; this was certainly described in Cornelius Ryan’s original book.  While this may have come as a surprise to 4th Parachute Brigade and perhaps even Divisional Headquarters, this was nothing new to the more experienced 1st Parachute Brigade.  They had experienced similar problems in North Africa and Sicily, and anticipated them for Arnhem.  Lt. Col. Frost’s use of his hunting horn seems like a silly affectation in the film, but in reality, Frost and his officers had developed signals on bugles and whistles to convey simple messages on the assumption the radios would fail.

For related articles, please see the following:

Film Review: Theirs is the Glory

2nd Parachute Battalion – The “Mepacrine Chasers”

Major General John Frost

Thoughts on Market Garden

Film Review: Theirs is the Glory

One of my favorite motion pictures is Theirs is the Glory, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and released in 1946.  The film tells the story of the Battle of Arnhem, and it is quite remarkable.  Rather than making a movie in the traditional manner by hiring actors and building sets, Hurst and his team worked in close cooperation with the British Army.  Just over 200 survivors from the British 1st Airborne Division were transported back to the ruins of Arnhem and Oosterbeek to recreate the epic battle.  The movie is also inter-cut with footage from the actual operation.

Early scenes show the troops receiving their final mission briefings, then going to bed for some needed rest.  The sharp-eyed viewer will notice that, in the barrack scenes, the soldiers are wearing post-war wool shirts with collars, rather than the wartime collarless shirts.  One must remember that they were still serving soldiers when the film was made, and simply wore their normal clothing as issued.  They were not actors, and some of the lines are delivered in a rather stiff or subdued manner; but looking closely at their faces as the film progresses, the viewer gets some sense of the horrors these men survived.

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Lt. Hugh Ashmore of 21st Independent Parachute Company briefing his platoon.

Historical events are inevitably distorted in film, and this is no exception.  Some of the most important figures from the battle, including General Urquhart and Colonel Frost, were unable to appear, and the film makes it seem as though Major “Freddie” Gough of the Reconnaissance Squadron was in command at Arnhem Bridge.  However, most of the major events of the operation are portrayed as authentically as was possible.

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Maj. “Freddie” Gough as he appears in the film.

As the story progresses, some civilians appear.  Stanley Maxted, the Canadian journalist who broadcast from the battle, acts as narrator; it is interesting to compare his narration to archived recordings of his original broadcasts.  Kate Ter Horst is shown sheltering wounded men in her home’s basement, including a very moving sequence in which she comforts the wounded by reading from the Psalms; she was known by the troops as the “Angel of Arnhem”.

The level of realism is impressive, but as always, there are some compromises.  Arnhem Bridge was destroyed shortly before the end of the war and had not been rebuilt in time for the film; a large matte painting had to be used instead.  Other locations are easily identified, however, such as the badly-damaged spires of St. Eusebius Church and St. Walburgis Church in Arnhem, and the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, which was used as the Divisional headquarters.  Major “Dickie” Lonsdale recreates his speech to a mixed force of defenders at the Old Church in Oosterbeek, just as he did towards the end of the fighting.

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The Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek.  This building was used as Divisional Headquarters, and was still battle-damaged when the film was made.

Most of the vehicles and weapons were real, with little use of props or special effects.  Troops can be seen firing actual flamethrowers, and the careful observer will notice the Bren guns firing real ammunition, including tracer, in a way that 1940’s film effects could not replicate.  However, a number of black powder charges were used to replicate artillery and mortar rounds, which caused a great deal more smoke than the real versions.

Comparisons with 1977’s A Bridge Too Far are inevitable.  A Bridge Too Far is epic in scale, and shows the entire operation, from British, American, and German perspectives.  Theirs is the Glory is more focused as it only shows Arnhem, and only from the British standpoint; Germans are rarely seen, even though their artillery fire is relentless.  However, there are some similar sequences in which the later film must have been influenced by the earlier.  For example, there is a famous scene in A Bridge Too Far in which a young soldier lifts a resupply container, puts it on his shoulder and starts running with it to friendly lines, until he is shot by a sniper.  The original drop containers weighed around 350 pounds when loaded with supplies; in Theirs is the Glory, a trooper attaches his toggle rope to a container and drags it behind him, which is much more realistic, but perhaps slightly less cinematic.  (Note:  for my review of A Bridge Too Far, click here.)

Theirs is the Glory is an extraordinary motion picture.  Anyone who enjoys World War II movies would enjoy it, and anyone with a particular interest in the British Airborne should see it.  It is also a good film for filmmakers to study, as it was made in such a unique way.

Theirs is the Glory is easy to find in the UK on Region 2 / PAL format DVD.  Americans and Canadians are not so lucky, as the DVD will not play in a normal Region 1 / NTSC format player.  Fortunately, Theirs is the Glory is often included in war movie DVD collections; it is currently available through Amazon US as part of a Best of British War Cinema 5-disc set.  It can also be found on YouTube.

There is also a new book that examines the films of director Brian Desmond Hurst and his portrayal of war and other conflicts; the focus of the book is “Theirs is the Glory”.  I have not had a chance to read the book, but I hope to in the future.

UPDATE:  I have just learned that Lieutenant Norman Hugh Henry Ashmore, pictured at the top of this article, died at the age of 95 on November 10, 2017.  Lt. Ashmore commanded No. 3 Platoon, 21st Independent Parachute Company (“The Pathfinders”) during the Battle of Arnhem, and recreated his role for Theirs is the Glory.

Theirs is the Glory: UK DVD through Amazon

Best of British War Cinema: US/Canada DVD set

Theirs is the Glory:  Arnhem, Hurst, and Conflict on Film

Theirs is the Glory UK DVD

DVD cover from the UK release; this version will not play in most North American players.

Theirs is the Glory Book

Cover of the recent book on Brian Desmond Hurst, focusing on his film about Arnhem

2nd Parachute Battalion: The “Mepacrine Chasers”

In June, 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent a memorandum to the War Office calling for the creation of an airborne unit. Churchill had been impressed by Germany’s use of parachute and glider troops during their invasion of France and the Low Countries, and felt Britain should have a similar capability.

It took time for the Airborne Forces to become fully developed. No. 2 Commando, consisting of 500 men, was given parachute training in the summer of 1940.  Airborne Forces were then expanded, and in September, 1941, 1st Parachute Brigade was created.  No. 2 Commando was renamed 1st Parachute Battalion, and 2nd and 3rd Parachute Battalions were established.  The new Battalions recruited soldiers from all across the British Army.  In those early days, the only Airborne-specific insignia was the parachute brevet (or “jump wings”); the famous maroon beret had not yet been adopted, and the new paratroopers continued to wear the insignia and headdress of their previous units.

2nd Parachute Battalion’s first Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Edwin Flavell, gave each of his officers a bright yellow lanyard to wear on the left shoulder, to distinguish them from officers of the other two battalions.  The “other ranks” (enlisted personnel) decided they wanted to wear the yellow lanyard, as well.  However, they had to make their own, which required a certain amount of improvisation and ingenuity.

The lanyards were made by cutting a length of rigging line, made of white silk or nylon, from a parachute after a training jump. This cord was braided or tied into a lanyard; those unskilled in making it themselves begged help from friends.

The most ingenious part of the process was dying the lanyard. Troops sent to the tropics were ordered to take Mepacrine, also known as Atabrine, a bright yellow medicine intended to fight malaria.  Continued use of this drug was known to turn the skin and eyes yellow; therefore, it was seen by the troops as a logical dye.  Mepacrine pills were acquired, then ground up and dissolved in water to turn the white lanyards a deep yellow or golden color.

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US-issued Atabrine; the British called it Mepacrine.  It was a common anti-malaria drug in the 1940’s, but continued use turned the eyes and skin a yellow color.

Intentionally damaging a parachute and misusing medical supplies were both serious offenses. The officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion would normally have punished anyone guilty of these military crimes.  However, they turned a blind eye and even unofficially encouraged the behavior.  The yellow lanyards became prized possessions; the men were immensely proud of their Battalion, symbolized by the yellow lanyard.

Eventually, 1st Parachute Battalion adopted a dark green lanyard, and 3rd Parachute Battalion adopted red.  However, their creation did not seem to have the same creativity behind them.

By the time James Sims joined 2nd Parachute Battalion in 1943, it was a veteran unit, having recently returned to England after bitter fighting in North Africa and Sicily.  Airborne Forces had expanded to two Divisions, the 1st and the 6th, and the maroon beret had been adopted for all Airborne Forces, including glider troops.  The Parachute Regiment had been formed officially, with its own insignia and cap badge.  However, in 1st Parachute Brigade, the colored lanyards were still in use to distinguish the different Battalions.

As described in Sims’ book Arnhem Spearhead, the yellow (or golden) lanyard was still made the same way as in the early days of the Battalion. Sims was given his when he first joined the Mortar Platoon of S Company.

They laughed at my discomfiture but suddenly one of them said, ‘Here, put this on.’ He handed me a beautiful gold lanyard, obviously made out of parachute nylon rigging line, the removal of which was a court martial offence.  This gold lanyard was worn only by the 2nd Battalion and was produced as follows.

After a jump a para would cut off a rigging line and secrete it about his person. Back at camp he would persuade someone skilled in the art to plait it into a lanyard.  He would then dissolve a mepacrine tablet in a saucer of water in which he would place the lanyard, leaving it overnight.  In the morning he would have a beautiful gold lanyard.  No one could recall the genius who first devised this unauthorized use of medical supplies, which was based on the idea that if these tablets could turn a man yellow they would do the same for nylon.  Because of this practice the 2nd Battalion were known in the First Para Brigade as the Mepacrine Chasers.  The 1st Battalion had dark green lanyards and the 3rd red.  Everyone in our battalion had a ‘larny’ lanyard, as it was known, and it was very highly regarded.

I belong to a living history organization which portrays B Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion, and it is humbling to read about the extraordinary men whose history we try to preserve.  I gave a copy of Arnhem Spearhead to a close friend as a Christmas present.  Being an avid sailor and generally good with knotting and braiding, he decided to make a number of lanyards for us.  He used nylon parachute cord, and experimented with different formulas and concentrations of “RIT” dye.  Previously, I had worn a machine-made yellow lanyard from a surplus store; replacing it with a hand-made lanyard given to me by my friend is much more meaningful, and much closer to what the original lanyards represented.

2 Para Lanyard

Hand-braided, hand-dyed yellow lanyard, made based on the description in James Sims’ Arnhem Spearhead.

Arnhem Spearhead is out of print, but copies are often available online. Lt. Col. Flavell’s issue of the yellow lanyard to the officers of 2nd Parachute Battalion was recalled by the Battalion’s first Adjutant, and later, most famous commander, John Frost, in the book Without Tradition:  2 Para 1941 – 1945, by Robert Peatling.

More information on Maj. Gen. John Frost and 2nd Parachute Battalion may be found in an earlier blog post, here.

Without Tradition:  2 Para 1941 – 1945 by Robert Peatling

 

 

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.

Thoughts on Market Garden

I wrote this a few years ago for a club newsletter.  Now that I have a blog, I wanted to share it again.

Operation Market Garden began on 17 September, 1944. It was a combined operation, Market being the largest airborne operation attempted to that point, and Garden the ground operation to reinforce the airborne component.

The German forces who had survived the slaughter of the Falaise Gap were retreating back to Germany, and the Allies were eager to take advantage of the German retreat. General Montgomery devised Market Garden, a plan to outflank the heavily-defended Siegfried Line and break into Germany. It was hoped to end the war by Christmas.

An “Airborne Carpet” was laid down, utilizing the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions and the British 1st Airborne (with the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade attached). Each Airborne Division was assigned to capture key bridges over the rivers and canals of Holland, with the British 1st the farthest north at Arnhem, near the German border. British XXX Corps was to drive north, linking up with each Airborne division in turn. At Arnhem, XXX Corps was to cross the Lower Rhine, then turn east and head into the Ruhr, the center of German industry.

Despite the size and complexity of the operation, the plans were hurriedly thrown together in only a week. Prior to the launch of the operation, the front had been moving north several miles a day; the Allies were eager to exploit the German withdrawal. As the operation was thrown together so quickly, mistakes were made in the planning. Nobody was too concerned, as the Germans had been retreating like mad; surely they would not stand and fight, or so it was thought.

Optimised by Greg Smith

It was an extremely bold and ambitious plan. Sadly, it failed. Just as the operation was launched, the Germans decided to stop retreating, and instead dug in and prepared to defend themselves against the Allied onslaught.

The American Divisions took their objectives and held them. But the northward drive of XXX Corps was constantly harassed by the enemy and suffered terrible delays. They were forced to use a single road on top of the Dutch dykes. Any tanks that went off the road found themselves mired in mud. The Germans set ambush after ambush, and destroyed tank after tank.

The British 1st Airborne had been told the German defense would be rear echelon troops made up of poorly-equipped old men and boys. Instead, Arnhem was held by the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, elite troops with numerous tanks and self-propelled artillery.

1st Airborne had been told they would be relieved after only two days’ fighting. 2nd Parachute Battalion took and held the north end of Arnhem Bridge for four days. After those four days, most of 2 Para were wounded, and they had no more food or ammunition. The wounded surrendered and the others attempted to return to Divisional headquarters. After the Germans re-took Arnhem Bridge, they concentrated on shrinking the perimeter held by the rest of 1st Airborne in Oosterbeek (a suburb of Arnhem). Still XXX Corps did not arrive.

Finally, after eight days of constant fighting, the remnants of 1st Airborne were ordered to escape, under cover of night, and cross back over the Rhine. Market Garden had failed. However, the bravery and tenacity of the British Airborne has become a legend. The fact that they held on as long as they did, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, was an amazing feat of arms.

The 1st Airborne fought against fascism to make a better world. We are all in their debt. Please remember them.

I participate in living history events with the British 1st Airborne Division Living History Association.  The Association’s mission is to remember the bravery and dedication to duty of those men who fought at Arnhem.  Please visit our website or follow us on Facebook.

British 1st Airborne Living History Association: website

British 1st Airborne Living History Association: Facebook page