2nd South Staffords – Arnhem Part II

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Men of the 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment advance toward Arnhem, towing a 6-pounder anti-tank gun with them, 18 September.

The 2nd South Staffordshires

The main attack on the upper road, by Lieutenant-Colonel Derek McCardie’s battalion along the Utrechtseweg in front of St Elizabeth Hospital, started half an hour late, at 4.30 a. m. D Company led off, followed by B and A Companies; with Battalion HQ there were about 340 men. C Company was in reserve, and many of the support weapons were also in the rear because they could not be deployed in the darkness and in the urban surroundings in which the battalion would fight its one and only major battle at Arnhem. These were all glider-borne troops, but Lieutenant David Russell and four of his men who had escaped when the 2nd Battalion’s C Company had been taken prisoner the previous day voluntarily joined in the attack, hoping it would enable them to rejoin their own battalion at the bridge. Immediately in the rear, however, was a complete parachute battalion, the 11th, ready to support the Staffords’ attack.

It was an eerie advance in the dark along that wide main road in front of the well-lit hospital with its large Red Cross flag. Accounts nearly all mention a wrecked tram with a dead German killed the previous day stretched out on the roadway alongside it. David Russell says that ‘As we moved over to the south side of the road, we could see big fires near the road bridge, an awesome sight with a church tower silhouetted against the flames and the greying sky.’ No one could be quite sure where the Germans were, and the Staffords started nervously forward, taking cover where they could, behind garden walls, bushes, corners of buildings, lamp-posts, trees. Long bursts of machine-gun fire kept swishing along the road from ahead and across it from the side streets and passages on the left. It was a standard German tactic in the dark to fire such bursts at irregular intervals; they had plenty of ammunition. Sergeant Norman Howes says: ‘It was totally unlike any other action. We had spent months and months practising battalion attacks on a 400- to 600-yards front, and the battalion finished up attacking up a street no more than fifty yards wide.’ There were some Germans in the houses, even though this was not yet the main German line, and the advance was several times held up by opposition. Within half an hour, the leading company lost 40 per cent of its strength in casualties in advancing about 300 yards to just past the hospital. Its commander, Major John Philip, was shot through the stomach, and two other officers were killed, one of them, Captain ‘Oscar’ Wyss, described as last seen leading his men ‘waving his walking stick and shouting, “Come on, lads!”, as if it was only an exercise on Salisbury Plain’.

B Company, meanwhile, had also become involved in the fighting. It would be led by Captain Reggie Foote until Major Robert Cain, whose glider had force-landed in England on the first day, came up later in the morning. The battalion account becomes confused at this point, and it is unclear how far B Company progressed, but it was certainly not much further than the museum, an advance of about 650 yards from where the battalion started and well short of the point reached by the 1st Battalion fighting at the bottom of the steep slope which fell away from the museum area to the river. The reason for the lack of further progress was that tanks were among the houses 150 yards ahead. Derek McCardie sent the third of his companies forward to consolidate the original gain and to provide a firm base for a possible future advance if the opposition ahead could be outflanked. This was Major T. B. Lane’s full-strength A Company. Its men moved up, past the hospital and past the dead of the earlier attack, and took cover with Company HQ and one platoon in the museum itself and the other three platoons in and around houses on the other side of the road.

Here the battalion’s attack stuck. It was now light. Mortar fire fell among the men who were in the open near the museum; German tanks came forward, almost to point-blank range when the supply of Piat bombs was exhausted, and started firing into the museum and the houses where most of A Company was sheltering. There was a stalemate, any attempts by the Staffords to show themselves at windows or to move in the open drawing instant fire. The Germans brought up self-propelled guns and infantry ready for a counter-attack. Major Cain, who managed to join his company in and around a hollow in the slope outside the museum, later wrote an account of this period:

We found ourselves being attacked by tanks; this was between 9 and 10 in the morning. Our mortars were trying to engage the Germans who were far too close to them. The mortar officer was removing the secondary charges in order to reduce the range of the bombs, and they were shooting straight up in the air. Some tanks came in from the low road, between the river and the bulk of the town. They were firing with 88-mm guns up into the dell which we occupied. We had no anti-tank guns because we couldn’t get them up the road, mainly because the pelting fire was so heavy. We had, therefore, to use Piats to cope with the tanks.

We held them for two or three hours. Lieutenant Georges Dupenois was in action with his Piat and Jock Buchanan and I were drawing the fire and trying to get ammunition for Georges, which we did. When a tank appeared, we got four Brens firing on it with tracers. That shut the tank up, because the commander couldn’t stand up in the turret. As soon as we let off a Piat at it, we’d move back, and then the German shells would explode below us. We were firing at 100 to 150 yards’ range. Dupenois fired about ten to twenty rounds. Once, instead of hitting a tank, he hit a house with a Greek inscription on it which he read and which made him laugh.

It was impossible to tell how many tanks there were and I don’t think we ever disabled one, for we never saw the crew get out. All this lasted until about 11.30 a. m. Then the Piat ammunition gave out. The tanks came up and were firing right into our dell and our men were just being killed one after the other. I saw one of our men with just his face showing, his eyes wide open. You could hear the call of ‘Stretcher bearer’ all the time. There was no effective fire going back to those beasts because we had no more ammunition.

The CO came up and told us to pull out of the dell, which was an absolute deathtrap. I remember seeing the whole of a bush blown out of the ground while I was talking to him. I put a rearguard with a Canadian officer and a dozen men with a Bren to cover our pull-out . . . This was the South Staffs’ Waterloo.

The only other personal accounts available are from men who were in the museum. There were about forty of them in the building, mostly South Staffords, but also Lieutenant Russell’s 2nd Battalion party. He had been asked by the Staffords to take his party to the top of the building and act as observers. They took up position in what was probably the caretaker’s flat and were able to report various events and sometimes fire on Germans, and they helped direct the mortar fire outside already described by Major Cain. David Russell describes how the end came:

I suppose it was about mid-morning when I saw the outlines of a large tank through the garden gate. I warned the company commander, who sent a Piat forward to cover the road; we stayed upstairs. The tank milled around, treating the world in general to bursts of MG and big wallops of gunfire. We were, as yet, untouched. More tanks appeared to have arrived, as there was now gunfire from the bottom road up into the gully and another was reported on the top road. The Piat scored a hit on the extra side armour of one tank, but failed to put it out of action. An assault gun moved slowly along the top road, blowing to pieces and setting on fire all the houses around the museum. Up came another tank in our rear and started on our building, the first two rounds taking off the living room which we had just left. I had a quick conference at the foot of the stairs with the Staffords’ company commander and other officers; the ground floor was full of wounded. Were we to fight on with small arms against tanks, try to break out, or surrender? We decided that as our object – to join those fighting at the bridge – was impossible and as the building was being systematically demolished and there was nowhere to break out to, we should surrender. I chucked my Sten over a hedge, buried my pistol, and walked out with a handkerchief.

Sergeant Norman Howes was the platoon sergeant of the Staffords platoon in the museum:

I went downstairs to check on the ammo supply and spoke with CSM Vic Williams. I can remember some tank and mortar fire, but nothing very local, so it was with a somewhat casual air that I remounted the wooden steps to the first floor to my platoon position. You might imagine my shock on seeing, instead of my platoon, German troops, two of them facing me as I entered the room, each with rifles in hand. I could see others in the background.

I weighed up the odds and threw myself back down the steps. At the bottom was an upright piano and, guessing what was following, I got down behind it. At least one grenade was thrown, and the two Germans then came down the steps to check me out. I shot the first; I am not sure if I hit the second as he got up the steps. I shouted to the Dutch people who were there that the Germans were in the building and reported to CSM Williams in the corridor.

Things were getting very noisy by this time, with tank shellfire being directed at the sides of the building and, it seemed, non-stop MG fire. About six of our men then came running back down the corridor – all unarmed. I stopped them and sent them to the exit, to the Regimental Aid Post to collect arms and ammunition discarded by the wounded. I followed them. It was a maelstrom of confusion and noise. At the aid post, with the wounded and the dead, was the padre, Captain Buchanan; he saw me stopping there and shouted, ‘Not here, sergeant; we have wounded.’

The Dutch people referred to were the caretaker, Mr Berendsen, and his family and the Van Loon family who had been taken in by the Berendsens when their own home was requisitioned by the Germans. Mrs Van Loon later found a spent bullet in the blankets of her baby’s pram. Also in the museum at some stage was a Dutch commando attached to the airborne men who calmly used the civilian telephone in the middle of this action to speak to his parents at Ede.

The end was nigh. The German self-propelled guns were able to roam at will once the Staffords’ Piat ammunition was exhausted. Infantry had entered the museum through a breach in the walls. One of the houses occupied by an A Company platoon was ablaze, though the men inside were still firing from the unburnt part of the house. Lieutenant-Colonel McCardie had authorized B Company to retire from its exposed area in the open, but only Major Cain and a few men managed to get away. A Company started to surrender in increasing numbers as the tanks got in among them; Battalion HQ was also overrun. After his return from prison camp in 1945, Derek McCardie wrote to Major Cain:

I still can’t believe that I was taken prisoner. It was a thing I had vowed should never happen. I was trying to get to A Company, to find out why the hell they weren’t shooting at those tanks, and I suppose that something must have fired at me. At any rate, I found myself under about two feet of earth with two Germans pointing Schmeissers at me.

Large numbers of men became prisoners. The Medical Officer, Captain Brian Brownscombe, and possibly Padre Buchanan, managed to get to St Elizabeth Hospital, where they continued their work; but of the other officers only Major Cain managed to get away. Of the hundreds of men taken prisoner, only one, Sergeant Jim Drew, sent a contribution for this book:

A vehicle came up and down the street with a loud hailer shouting, ‘Come out, you South Staffords, with your hands up. You are surrounded, and there is no way out.’ We stayed in the cellar, where the firing was now very heavy. Eventually the cellar was kicked open, and a German threw an object on the cellar floor. We jumped to the other side, expecting a grenade to explode. After several minutes I looked and saw that it was a house brick. He was, indeed, the finest German that I had never met. We were then taken prisoner of war.