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.

 

“You Will Do Your Work on Water”: Hydration in the Field

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.

– Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din

The human body needs to be kept hydrated; a person can function longer without food than without water.  Therefore, no military equipment would be complete without giving the soldier a method of carrying water.

The standard British water bottles used in both World Wars were very similar; the Mark VI version issued with the 1908 pattern webbing equipment was replaced by the Mark VII, issued with the 1937 pattern equipment.  Both were made of enameled steel with a wool cover, with a stopper made of cork which was attached to the bottle with a short length of cord.  Each version held two Imperial pints of water, or 40 ounces.

Webbing Detail

The British Mark VII water bottle in its webbing carrier, attached to the 1937 pattern equipment.  Photo by the author of items in his collection.

When the 1937 pattern equipment was adopted, the original intent was that the water bottle would be carried in the haversack, or “small pack” as it was commonly called.  However, a webbing carrier was also developed; it could attach to the ends of the braces and hang below the waistbelt.  Officially, use of the webbing carrier was not the preferred method.  In actual practice, however, more equipment was carried in the small pack than the designers had intended, and the troops were forced to use the carrier simply to make room.  Because of the inherent difficulties in resupplying Airborne troops, they typically carried two water bottles:  one suspended on the carrier and a second inside the small pack.

The original water bottle carrier was made of webbing straps.  A later version consisted of a webbing sleeve; while this version used more material, it was easier to manufacture and saved labor costs.  The earlier type was often called the “skeleton” carrier, and the later type the “envelope” carrier.  Some modern militaria vendors have tried to assert that the envelope version was only issued to Airborne troops, implying somehow that it was more rare or specialized, and therefore more desirable to collectors; that is completely untrue and easily disproven.

Three Carriers

Three water bottles with carriers.  The top right is the original version, sometimes called the “skeleton” carrier.  The other two are examples of the later “envelope” version.  Note the brass buckles for attaching to the brace-ends of the webbing equipment.

The envelope carrier has a web strap at the bottom to support the weight of the water bottle, but is open at the top.  The skeleton carrier has a retaining strap that is closed with a large snap or press-stud; some Indian-made versions closed with a buckle.  The intent was obviously that the water bottle would simply be lifted out, with the carrier remaining attached to the rest of the webbing.  However, I have found at living history events that this is easier said than done.  Over the years, I have used several different carriers, of both types, and all of them have been very tight.  Getting to the water bottle has often required significant effort, or assistance from a friend.  Between events, some of my friends have experimented with soaking the carrier in hot water and stretching; the most successful method involves placing wooden shims between the bottle and the wet carrier, then allowing it to dry.  I assumed that the carriers had all somehow shrunk while sitting in a warehouse for the last several decades; surely they could not have been so difficult to work with during wartime.

As I have mentioned in previous articles, one of my favorite authors is George MacDonald Fraser.  His book, Quartered Safe Out Here, is an extraordinary memoir of his service in Burma, fighting the Japanese as part of Slim’s 14th Army.  Fraser’s title was inspired by Kipling; I thought I would follow suit with this article.  There is a remarkable segment in Fraser’s book dealing with the water bottle and its carrier.  It is a somewhat lengthy and colorful narrative, full of slang and foul language; I will summarize rather than reprint it here.  A significant battle was going on, but Fraser’s section was on the flank and had not encountered the enemy.  It was a hot day, and one of the other soldiers found himself very thirsty and naturally wanted a drink.  He was the largest member of the section, and had a nickname that reflected his size.  He asked one of his section-mates to borrow his water bottle, as he could not easily get to his own.  His mate refused, but countered that he would help the first man with his own bottle.  What is significant in this exchange is the fact that the second soldier did not offer to pull the first man’s bottle out of its carrier; instead, he offered to unbuckle his comrade’s carrier from the rest of the webbing.  This exchange was astonishing when I first read it; my assumption that the carrier must have been easier to use in wartime was shattered.  The narrative continues with the troops finding a local well, using their slouch hats attached to rifle slings to bring up water, and adding purification tablets; all that effort was still apparently easier than accessing the water bottle.  It was at that point that the section took fire from the enemy, and Fraser ended up down the well.

This story of unbuckling the water bottle carrier from the brace-ends must not have been an isolated incident, and I have been trying to find other examples.  While I have not found any other narratives, I did find a rather remarkable photograph showing this method.  The picture shows troops from 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden, and was taken near Divisional Headquarters in Oosterbeek.  The photo shows two Airborne soldiers in a slit trench; one is in the act of drinking water, with the water bottle very clearly still in the skeleton carrier.

Water Bottle Market Garden IWM

Operation Market Garden, September 1944.  The man on the left drinking from his water bottle has clearly detached the webbing carrier from the rest of his equipment.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

In another part of his memoir, Fraser describes being issued with a canvas water bag for certain patrols.  This water bag was a clever item; it had to be soaked in water prior to use, which would cause the fabric’s fibers to swell and, somewhat counter-intuitively, make the bag water-tight.  This item was called a “chaugle”, derived from the Urdu, but the troops often called it a “chaggle”.  I have only seen references to its use in the Far East, despite its obvious superiority to the enameled water bottle.

Providing clean water to the troops was a logistics challenge even in the best of conditions.  In the deserts of North Africa, fresh water had to be trucked out to the troops on a constant basis; it had to be chlorinated to kill any bacteria and prevent algae from forming during transport.  Even in Northern Europe, where troops could fill their water bottles from the many rivers and streams, it had to be assumed the water was contaminated.  In Fraser’s narrative, he referenced the use of water purification tablets.  These were universally issued regardless of theater, for use when the men had to obtain their own water.  The “sterilizing outfit” was issued as a small tin; inside were two glass bottles.  One bottle contained the actual purification tablets; however, these tablets gave the water an unpleasant flavor that was supposed to be neutralized by the tablets in the second bottle.  I have one of the tins in my collection, but not the glass bottles.  One of each of the tablets was to be dissolved in the water to be treated; shaking the water bottle was supposed to speed up the mixing of the contents.  In Fraser’s story, the soldiers argued whether chewing the pills prior to drinking the well-water would do any good.

sterlizing outfit

The sterilizing outfit:  the two glass bottles go inside the tin.  The “thio” tablets were supposed to counteract the unpleasant taste caused by the sterilizing tablets.  From the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

I feel rather relieved that my personal struggles using the water bottle at living history events seems to be an accurate reflection on historical precedent.  I have occasionally seen fellow reenactors hide modern plastic water bottles inside their basic pouches, but I consider that cheating and bad form.

Sterilizing - Directions

Instructions printed inside the lid of the sterilizing outfit tin.  Author’s collection; I only have the tin without the contents.

A note on terminology:  to the British, the item that held water was called a “water bottle”, while the American term for such an item was “canteen”.  In British usage, a canteen was a shop, restaurant, and social club specifically for service members.  As an American who reenacts as British, I believe it is important to use the correct terminology.

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.

220px-john_frost

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.

Guard Duty and Tea

I recently read Oh What a Lovely War!  A Soldier’s Memoir, by Stanley Swift.  Swift served in the Fifth Royal Horse Artillery and crewed 25-pounder field guns.  He fought in North Africa, Italy and finally France and Germany.  The following excerpt struck me as quite amusing.

We had to do guard duty, and there’s nothing more soul destroying than having to do a twenty-four-hour guard, with all the ritualistic hooha. We were given the afternoon free from other duties in order to clean ourselves up, polish our brass, make sure our rifle was clean, put on our best uniform.  At the prescribed time we’d line up, a bombardier [RA equivalent of corporal] or sergeant in charge, and go through the drill ritual, slope arms, present arms, all that nonsense.  The bore of our rifle was examined to ensure its cleanliness, then off we marched to the guard we were about to relieve where we were inspected by the orderly officer.  We were not allowed to speak to the officer unless spoken to…

First order of the day was to make tea. Hot, strong, and sweet, it was made in a bucket.  This handy utensil was stainless steel, holding about three gallons, and the procedure was to throw in the tea, pour on boiling water, and then add Libby’s condensed milk.  For speed a hole was punched in a couple of Libby’s cans and then cans and all tossed into the brew.  In time the labels would detach, float to the surface, and be scooped out.  When the tea was finished, empty cans were fished from the bottom of the bucket.  Most efficient.

The man in charge of the guard had a book in which he was supposed to record anything unusual that happened. There was nothing in it because nothing ever happened.  But one day an entry did appear:  3:00 A.M. Accidentally kicked over tea bucket. Straightened tea bucket.  Saluted tea bucket.

Personally, I’ll stick to my own method of brewing tea and adding the condensed milk; the unglued labels are a tad off-putting.

I plan to do a complete review of this book, but I wanted to share this portion.  Oh What a Lovely War! appears to be out-of-print, but Amazon does have it available through their third-party vendors.

Oh What a Lovely War! by Stanley Swift

Update:  After originally posting this, I became intrigued by the idea of brewing tea in a bucket and wanted to find other examples.  I have not yet found any more written descriptions, but I did find a couple of photos.

The photo on the left shows troops returning to England after the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.  The photo on the right shows Airborne troops in 1944 prior to emplaning for an operation.  I would like to find more photos and narratives about brewing tea in a bucket; it appears to have been a standard procedure when making large quantities.  I would also like to get my hands on a similar bucket – although I suspect the old ones may no longer be considered food-safe.

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