Book Review: The Pegasus Diaries

I recently read The Pegasus Diaries:  The Private Papers of Major John Howard, DSO.

I have read Stephen Ambrose’s well-known book, Pegasus Bridge, a number of times, and thoroughly enjoyed reading about the capture of the bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal just after midnight on D-Day.  It was that book that inspired me to travel to Normandy and see the Benouville bridge in person.

Pegasus Diaries was published more recently, and I purchased it hoping it would give me additional insight into the planning and training that went into the operation.  However, that was not the focus of the book; instead, I learned about the life and personality of one of the greatest heroes of the Normandy campaign.

John Howard kept a personal diary from January, 1942, through early 1946.  His daughter, Penny, found the diary as a child, but was prohibited from reading it.  She did not see the diary again until after her father’s death in 1999.

Penny (now Penny Bates) decided to transcribe the diary into her computer.  This was not an easy task, as her father’s handwriting was very difficult to read; she was one of the few who could decipher it.  She then supplemented the diary with her father’s planning notes for D-Day and other documents, and decided to turn these sources into a personal narrative from her father’s perspective.  Because her father had worked closely with Stephen Ambrose for Pegasus Bridge, Penny wanted her book to be less about D-Day, and more about her father’s personality and family life.

Major John Howard

Major John Howard, D.S.O.

Reginald John Howard grew up in a large, working-class family in Camden Town, London.  His family called him “Reg”, but he preferred to go by his middle name.  As a child, John was intelligent and hard-working; he was a good student, and helped care for his eight siblings.  He became active in the local Boy Scout troop, through which he became an avid athlete, and also fell in love with the English countryside.

Howard joined the Army at the age of 19, and served seven years in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry.  While a soldier, he met Joy Bromley, and they fell in love.  After proposing to Joy, Howard left the army in 1938 at the rank of Corporal.  He was then accepted into the Oxford City Police Force.

War broke out in September, 1939.  John and Joy were married in October, and shortly after, John was recalled to the Army and rejoined his regiment as a Corporal.  Howard was an exceptional soldier, and was quickly promoted to Sergeant, then Company Sergeant Major; in April, 1940, he was made Regimental Sergeant Major.

The Army expanded rapidly after war was declared.  There was a desperate shortage of officers, and Howard was recommended for the Officer Cadet Training Unit.  Upon graduation, Howard was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and assigned to be an infantry training officer.

Being athletic, hard-working, and energetic, Howard grew bored and frustrated as a trainer and wanted a more exciting position.  Upon the creation of the Airborne Forces, the Army decided to convert 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire L.I. to become a glider-borne unit.  Volunteers were needed; Howard thought the Airborne role would suit him, so he applied and was accepted.  Shortly after joining the battalion, Howard was given command of D Company, in February, 1942.  2nd Oxf. & Bucks. was part of 1st Airborne Division, then was transferred to 6th Airborne when that Division was created in 1943.

When Howard joined the battalion, most of the other officers had come from aristocratic families and had graduated from the Sandhurst military academy.  They looked down on Howard’s working-class roots and the fact that he had come up from the ranks.  While a lesser man may have been consumed by resentment, Howard turned his bitterness into determination and focus on his work.  He wanted to prove that he could be just as good an officer as the others, if not better.

Howard wanted D Company to be the best company in the Regiment.  At first, his men grumbled about how demanding he was; he had very high standards, particularly for physical fitness and stamina.  He also gave his men intensive training in weapons handling, unarmed combat, and tactics.  He made sure his men were proficient in the use of first aid and signals, driving various vehicles, and cooking rations in the field.  The Airborne was made up of volunteers who were more highly motivated and more intelligent than the average soldier.  While the men of D Company complained about how hard they had to work, they soon developed a tremendous respect for their energetic officer and took enormous pride in their unit.  While Howard’s experiences in the Officer’s Mess were difficult, he soon formed strong friendships with the junior officers in his company.

Gliders

Benouville, Normandy, as seen in July, 1944.  These three Horsa gliders had transported Major Howard and part of D Coy, 2nd Oxf. & Bucks just after midnight on D-Day.  The counterweight of the drawbridge can be made out through the trees in the background; Cafe Gondree can also be seen.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

In June 1942, Howard was promoted to Major; a month later, his son, Terry was born.  Whenever possible, Howard traveled home on weekends to spend time with his family.  Joy lived with her mother and stepfather, but eventually the Howards tried to find a home of their own, which was very difficult during wartime.  Daughter Penny was born in March, 1944.

Howard and D Company were recognized for their capabilities, and were chosen for one of the most important objectives of the invasion of Normandy:  the capture of the vital bridges at Benouville.  D Company spent several months rehearsing for the operation, even training on real bridges that were similar in size to their objectives.

When D-Day arrived in June, 1944, D Company captured both bridges intact, and held them against enemy counter-attacks.  They were reinforced by 7th Parachute Battalion, and then by ground forces from Sword Beach.  After the battle, the drawbridge over the Caen Canal was re-named Pegasus Bridge after the Airborne insignia depicting the Greek hero Bellerophon riding the winged horse Pegasus.  Similarly, the bridge over the Orne River was re-named Horsa Bridge after the main type of British glider.

Pegasus Bridge July 44

Another view of Benouville in July, 1944.  Cafe Gondree is to the right, the bridge to the left.  Notice the sign declaring the site as Pegasus Bridge has already been placed, a month after the bridge’s capture.  The Horsa gliders can be seen in the background.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

D Company had been led to understand that they would be withdrawn shortly after D-Day, so their hard-earned skills could be used again in further operations.  Instead, they, and the rest of 6th Airborne, were used as regular infantry and kept in the front lines until the end of August.  In all this fighting, D Company took numerous casualties, particularly amongst the officers and NCO’s.  Howard himself narrowly escaped death when a sniper’s bullet pierced his helmet, but only grazed his scalp.  2nd Oxf. & Bucks. were finally withdrawn to England, where D Company returned to training and began replacing losses.  Several of Howard’s friends had been killed in action; the sorrow of these losses combined with bitterness over being used as regular infantry when D Company’s talents and training should have been better utilized.

Another tragedy occurred in November, 1944.  Howard was driving home to Oxford to visit Joy and the children; while navigating a blind curve, he crashed head-on into an American Army truck that had pulled out of its convoy and into the wrong lane.  Howard’s lower body was shattered, and he spent several months in hospital.  While recovering, Howard learned about 6th Airborne being rushed back to the continent to help stop the enemy offensive in the Ardennes.  Then in March, 1945, 6th Airborne spearheaded the crossing of the Rhine and the attack into Germany itself.  Howard’s injuries were painful, but being away from his Battalion during these actions caused just as much misery.  By May, he had been released from hospital, but had to return for additional surgery, and missed out on the Victory in Europe celebrations.

J Howard Beret Helmet - Detail

Major John Howard’s beret and helmet, now displayed at the Memorial Pegasus in Benouville.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

John Howard never did fully recover from the driving accident.  He was forced to leave the Army, and spent the rest of his life using either crutches or a walking stick.  Howard had hoped for a long military career, and was deeply upset that this was cut short by his injuries; Joy, however, was quite happy not to have John sent overseas or being put in harm’s way.  Howard was able to focus his energy and talents on a successful career in the civil service.  He also gave several lectures on the Pegasus Bridge operation, and returned to Normandy nearly every June for the annual commemorations.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions on D-Day.

The book is quite extraordinary.  It is well-written, and an enjoyable read.  While I did not learn anything about the capture of Pegasus Bridge that was not already covered by other sources, it was fascinating to learn so much more about the man chiefly responsible for the success of the operation.  I already knew that John Howard had been a remarkable man, and this book brought to life his courage and determination.  The book also demonstrates the difficulties of trying to have a normal family life during wartime.  It is also a rather unique concept, in that Penny Bates wrote it in first-person narrative from her father’s perspective.  After I read the introduction, I was somewhat dubious about this approach, but the result was quite successful.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is already familiar with the story of Major Howard and D Company, 2nd Oxf. & Bucks.; it is an excellent insight into a true hero of the Normandy campaign.  For anyone else, I would suggest starting with Stephen Ambrose’s book and then following up with this one.

The Pegasus Diaries:  The Private Papers of Major John Howard, DSO is published by Pen & Sword, and is also available through Amazon and other sources.

Benouville

The Caen Canal was widened in the 1990’s, and the original Pegasus Bridge moved to a museum.  This photo shows the modern, longer bridge, with Cafe Gondree clearly seen on the opposite side of the canal.  Photo by the author’s spouse.

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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

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.

 

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.

atabrine

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.

The McAuslan Stories

I just finished reading The Complete McAuslan by George MacDonald Fraser.  Or, rather, re-reading it, for at least the fifth time.

Fraser passed away recently, but was a remarkable author.  He fought in WWII in the Burma campaign, serving in The Border Regiment.  After the War, he was selected for officer training and became a Lieutenant in the Gordon Highlanders.  After demobilization, he spent a number of years working in newspapers, before turning his attention to fiction and screenwriting.

Fraser is probably best known for his Flashman books, some of the most meticulously-researched historical novels ever written.  However, the title character is an anti-hero; he is a misogynistic coward whose advancements are based by taking credit for the actions of others.  I love the history in the Flashman books, but I really don’t like the character and have only read a couple of the novels.

My favorite works by Fraser are Quartered Safe Out Here and the McAuslan stories.  Quartered Safe Out Here is Fraser’s memoir of fighting in the jungles of Burma.  It is quite possibly the best first-hand narrative of WWII.  I intend to write a separate post just on that book.

Several years ago, a friend suggested that I read The Complete McAuslan.  At first, I had a hard time getting into it.  I had expected a novel, with a logical chronology.  Instead, this is a collection of short stories, all set within about a two-year period, but not presented sequentially.  The stories were originally published in three volumes, but are now more commonly available as a complete set.  (Note:  the original collections were The General Danced at Dawn, McAuslan in the Rough, and The Sheikh and the Dustbin.)

The stories were originally published as fiction, inspired by Fraser’s experiences as a post-war officer.  However, he eventually admitted that the stories were true, although he fictionalized certain elements and combined some of the characters so as not to embarrass his former comrades in arms.

Fraser’s use of the English language is quite remarkable.  His journalistic training gave him a powerful command of descriptive language.  He was also highly talented at transcribing dialects; his characters range from the aristocracy to the Glasgow gutters, and their backgrounds and personalities are reflected in their dialogue.

Many of the stories are humorous, and I admit to laughing out loud while reading them.  But by the time I reach the end, I feel rather melancholy.  The stories describe a bygone era.  The older officers and sergeants reminisce about the First World War.  Most of the stories describe life in the barracks and messes, but in the collapse of the British Empire, the garrisons get turned out to keep the peace and prove their worth.

The characters are fascinating, from Private McAuslan, the “dirtiest soldier in the world”, to the massive Wee Wully and the debonair but cold-hearted Captain Errol.  Fraser deftly weaves in the traditions of the great Gordon Highlanders, without resorting to back-stories or footnotes; they are simply part of the lives he portrays.

I cannot recommend these stories enough.  Most of them are funny, some are exciting, a few are nostalgic to the point of sadness.  Even though The Complete McAuslan is typically listed as fiction, it belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in the history of the British Army, particularly the period just after WWII.  The descriptions of life on the parade ground, in the barracks and on exercise are based on the author’s personal experience, and have a tremendous feel of authenticity to them.

Note:  The Complete McAuslan is not always readily available in the United States; I ordered my copy through Amazon UK.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Complete-McAuslan-George-MacDonald-Fraser/dp/0006513719/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1472353368&sr=8-1&keywords=complete+mcauslan