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A German Jew in the Glider Pilot Regiment
By Louis Hagen
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Louis Hagen
All rights reserved.
After five long years of a land war against Germany, which had flowed from Poland to the Low Countries, Scandinavia and France, North Africa, Greece and Italy, the focus moved back to Britain in 1944. Here, in June of that year, the joint American/British forces mounted the greatest sea/air invasion in history. Three million men, half a million motor vehicles and tanks and three complete mobile harbours were ferried or flown or towed over 100 miles of English Channel.
It was not easy. In three days the Allies lost over 3000 troops – but a bridgehead 2 miles wide and 3 miles deep was established in Normandy. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander, now commanded two and a quarter million men, who, in the next few weeks, were to advance through France against the tough and battle-hardened German troops.
As they advanced, the problems of supply grew. Half a million motor vehicles and armour needed a vast amount of petrol, oil and ammunition; and two and a quarter million men needed a constant supply of food, ammunition and equipment. Everything had to be shipped over the Channel either to the temporary Mulberry harbours, or on to bare beaches and then on to lorries for delivery to the forward units, the Allied bombing having put the French railways out of action. The supply lines soon stretched to the point where the advancing Allied troops had to slow down: they finally came to a halt at the beginning of September near the Dutch/Belgian border.
Now there was a new danger. A large army just standing still might well encourage the enemy to counter-attack: then, with winter coming on, the battle could develop into the bloody and inconclusive stalemate of trench warfare.
In order to break the deadlock, Field-Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, commanding 21st Army Group, the northern 'prong' of the Allied advance, proposed early in September 1944, using airborne troops to make a daring leap over the German defences and open up the way for a mass advance by the Allied armour into Germany. British and American parachutists and glider-borne troops would land in strength behind the German lines in Holland, capture bridges over the Meuse, Waal and Lower Rhine, and hold them while Lieutenant-General Miles Dempsey's British Second Army, led by XXX Corps, poured through Holland into Germany. Montgomery persuaded Eisenhower to support his plan, which went ahead under the codename 'Market Garden'.
The details of the plan, as evolved by Montgomery with Eisenhower's approval, called for the following:
Parachutists of US 101st Airborne Division would capture the canal bridges at Son and Veghel.
US 82nd Airborne Division would take the bridges over the River Maas at Grave and the River Waal at Nijmegen.
The bridge over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem – the farthest bridge – would be the responsibility of British 1st Airborne Division. Simultaneously with the air landings, Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks' XXX Corps would strike out northwards from the Neerpelt bridgehead and relieve the airborne troops in turn once they had captured the various bridges.
If successful the operation would establish an extended supply line as far as the last bridge at Arnhem. The great natural barrier, the Rhine, would have been crossed, and the Ruhr and the rest of Germany would lie open to the Second Army with no more natural obstacles in the way.
The details of that part of the plan which concerned Arnhem were worked out by Lieutenant-General Frederick ('Boy') Browning and Major-General Roy Urquhart, respectively the commanders of the British 1 Airborne Corps and 1st Airborne Division. (The two American airborne divisions were to come under Browning's 1 Airborne Corps for 'Market Garden'.) One factor that gave them some concern was that the RAF had insisted on the drops being made well outside the town, in order to avoid the anti-aircraft guns that were protecting Deelen airfield. Urquhart was unhappy about this, but such was the urgency that it was by then too late to refer the plan back to Montgomery.
The 1st Airborne Division plan called for 1 Parachute Brigade to capture and hold, in order, the Arnhem railway bridge, west of the town, a pontoon bridge about 2½ miles east of that, and, finally, the crucial road bridge 600 yards further to the east. 1 Airlanding Brigade would protect the landing-zones until the second wave, which would include 4 Parachute Brigade, landed on the second day; they would then move east to link up with 1 Parachute Brigade, who would be holding the bridges. 1 Airlanding Brigade would then move to the west and form a defensive wall. Finally, Polish 1 Independent Parachute Brigade would land south of the river on the third day and march over the bridge to join up with 1 Parachute Brigade.
The bulk of the division – some 10,000 men in all – with their weapons and equipment, were to be landed in three stages on 17, 18 and 19 September on two landing-zones and two drop-zones situated from 6 to 10 miles to the north-east of Arnhem, in the neighbourhood of the hamlets of Wolfheze and Heelsum.
A number of supply and reinforcement drops were also planned, to be activated as the situation demanded. If all went well the Division would be relieved by Horrocks' XXX Corps within two days. Even under the most unfavourable circumstances they would expect the operation to be over in four days. The path would then be clear for the bulk of Second Army to pour up the corridor, occupy Holland and turn east into the industrial Ruhr.CHAPTER 2
Anyone who went to Arnhem could have told this kind of story. Mine is for the friends and relations of the men who did not come back ...
We knew it was coming off this time as the first glider lift had left on Saturday morning. We were waiting in the mess for the tug pilots to return and give us the gen. All seemed well. They had found the L.Z. – Landing Zone – quite easily, with no flak to complain about and, as far as they could see, there was no ground resistance. We were all happy and confident about our lift on Monday morning – this time we knew that it was not going to be cancelled, as once a large-scale airborne operation like this has started nothing can interfere with its planned development.
We were lucky to be one of the first planes to take off on Monday morning. I was second pilot – the first pilot, Mac, was a typical Glaswegian. Our load consisted of one jeep with a trailer, both loaded with petrol, and three chaps of the Parachute Brigade. They rather resented coming with us because to them a glider is an unknown quantity and an extremely dangerous way of travelling. They feel much safer jumping with the other lads.
It is hard physical labour flying a glider in the slipstream of another aircraft, but our tug pilot was very skilful in avoiding the hundreds of other planes making for Holland. He had to fly completely out of formation and at the wrong altitude to achieve that, but we encouraged him and praised him all the way.
Map reading did not seem much use to us, once we got over the sea and were approaching Holland, as the Germans had flooded all the large islands in the Rhine delta and great stretches of the country itself were under water. Dry land was slowly emerging and I thought it time to check up on our position.
'Hello Tug ... Matchbox here ... How many minutes before we reach the LZ? Over.'
'Hello Matchbox ... Tug here ... Another fifteen minutes and it's all yours ... Can you pinpoint your position? ... Over.'
'Thank you, Tug ... I should say we were just crossing the first of the three arms of the Rhine delta ... Please confirm this ... Over to you.'
'You are correct ... Now only two more river crossings and you should see your LZ.'
From now till we landed it was essential that I should not lose our position for a moment. I continually checked from my map to the ground and peered searchingly forward for the first signs of our objective. Some flak came up at us, but it was very light. Our ideal pilot still kept us away from the rabble and out of any slipstream. I made a mental note to buy him a pint when we got back.
Soon I recognised the Lower Rhine, and a moment later could see our LZ – two small squares of wooded land pieced together at one corner only. Our landing was to be just where the woods joined together. It looked exactly like the photographs they had shown us at the briefing. I never imagined they could possibly look so much alike.
This was the moment to cast off:
'Hello Tug ... We are getting ready to cast off now ... Thanks for the wizard ride.'
'Best of luck, Matchbox ... See you soon.'
'OK Tug ... Same to you.'
Mac pulls the lever which releases the cables from our wings and we are in free flight. The tug banks off to the right as Mac pulls up our nose to gain height and reduce our flying speed. As we settle to our normal gliding speed, all the noise dies away and it seems unbelievably peaceful and calm in our cockpit. We can't think of it as other than one of our many mass landing exercises. We are now slowly losing height, and as we cross the river we can clearly see the bridge at Arnhem which is our ultimate objective.
We are nearly there now. We turn to starboard with half flaps down and our gliding angle steepens suddenly. Another 15 degrees to starboard and we are just about over our landing area. Full flaps down and our nose is now pointing directly to the ground, the flaps keeping our speed constant and just above stalling speed. Someone cuts in from the right and we veer off a little, and then, just before we hit the ground, pull out level. We lift gently over a hedge and then touch down firmly. Brakes full on ... a slow skid to port ... a perfect landing.
We sat there for a moment, looking pleased with ourselves, when the crackle of distant machine-guns and the whistle of some nearer shots that were obviously meant for us, reminded us forcibly that this time we were not on an exercise. We leapt out and got into the tail unit, which we had to remove before the jeep and trailer could be got out.
Mac and I start on the heavy bolts inside the tail, eight of them, and they have to be synchronised. Meanwhile, two of the parachutists loosen the shackles on the jeep and trailer, and the third one begins to cut the control wires. Mac and I are sweating like pigs. We have to work together and reach the same stage of the operation at the same time. We have to be quick. They are still sniping at us and we are completely helpless and exposed. Safety wire cut ... backwards and forwards with the release lever ... one by one the bolts come out ... not so hard really ... pretty much like the drill on the station ... I'm stuck now ... the bastards are getting more and more difficult ... I'm so terribly hot. I send one of the parachutists to stick the trestle under the body and he shouts that he has done so ... we get to the last two bolts ... must be completely together now ... mine is quite loose ... ready Mac? ... right ... go! ... why the hell doesn't the tail fall off? ... we've done everything just like the practice ... we bang from the inside but it is stuck fast. I jump out to look and discover that the bloody fool of a parachutist has stuck the trestle under the tail itself. ... I kick it away, and with a terrific crash the whole tail fuselage breaks off and falls over on the trestle ... it's in the way still ... we all get our shoulders under it and heave to the left ... but the trestle is jammed in the fuselage now and embedded in the ground ... it's a hell of a job ... eventually we manage it, sweating, cursing and using all our strength.
The two runners slipped out and fitted beautifully, and the paratroop driver drove straight out of the glider. As we jumped on the jeep and drove off, we noticed just on the right a cross and grave of one of yesterday's glider pilots. We had been surprisingly lucky. Most of the first and second lifts had taken a lot of punishment before they even reached the ground. We had not really done so badly because now that we had a chance to look around, everywhere we saw groups of men cursing, sweating and heaving to get the tails off their gliders. Some were even using saws and axes, and when we looked at our watches we found that we had done the job in 20 minutes, which made us feel very pleased with ourselves. To get to our first rendezvous we had to follow a narrow sandy lane through low brushwood, small fields and single rows of trees. Everywhere we saw gliders; in the fields, some even on the trees, there were an odd wing wedged between two big branches of an oak, a tail unit sticking right up in the air, and pieces of gliders distributed everywhere. We passed a large meadow with gliders parked in a more orderly fashion; obviously this was the real landing zone of Sunday's lift. We joined more and more jeeps and trailers, all filing to their various RVs. Ours was not so difficult as it was Wolfheze station, and from there to the lunatic asylum. It was a tiny station and its main features were the cross-roads running over the lines and parallel to the railway. Here was a terrific assembly of jeeps, trailers, light artillery and groups of parachutists. Red Cross jeeps with stretchers bearing casualties were passing through, nurses and men vainly trying to repair the water system in between this confusion. All the while we were sniped at; sometimes a mortar would go over and everyone seemed to disappear, but after a few seconds the confusion returned. Everyone was spreading out maps and asking everyone if they had seen or heard of their respective units.
In the crowd I suddenly spotted a glider pilot of a different squadron whom I had been hoping to meet for months. He had taken unfair advantage of me one day when I was about to go on leave. The urge to get away, once a leave pass is in your pocket, is so strong that any sacrifice is temporarily justified. This chap had dashed up to me when the car was packed up and ready to take us to the station, and asked me for the loan of a couple of quid, promising to return it by post, as we were unlikely to meet again. I never heard of him again and was very indignant, as he knew that I had no means of getting hold of him. I thought it was a dirty trick. There he was in the middle of the cross-roads at Wolfheze, and it all came back to me, and besides I had only ten shillings and no Dutch money on me. Sniping or no sniping, I started to dun him. He protested that he had very little cash on him, and an animated financial discussion proceeded. My troop shouted at me to come on as I had all the maps; they added that I could continue my argument when I got back to Whitechapel. We suddenly realised how idiotic we must look and both burst out laughing. He pressed a few guilders into my hand and I joined my troop again. We glider pilots were supposed to remain with the units we had taken over until further orders, and so we arrived eventually at the main building of the lunatic asylum.
There were scores of giggling and rather frightened nurses who screamed and scattered every time any kind of gun report was heard. The inmates had been moved out of hospital, and it was now filled to capacity with civilian casualties. Soon the blokes found out that I could talk to the civilians, and I was dragged from one group of nurses and paratroopers to another, translating. It was rather hard to tell who were the nurses and who were the inmates helping them. All were concerned to know where Prince Bernhard was and if their Queen had reached Dutch soil. They wanted to know which places had been liberated and if there would be any more bombing. It was quite a crazy atmosphere with our chaps, of course, trying to flirt and make up to them, being robbed of their cigarettes and sweets. The Dutch girls were bewildered by this onslaught and never far from tears and laughter, remembering again and again the hell they had gone through when they were being bombed the night before. Through some kind of misunderstanding, and probably due to my imperfect knowledge of their language, I was suddenly hailed as Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and drawn into the hospital. I tried to explain, but it seemed to be quite useless in the confusion that followed the discovery. Only after I had been presented to the matron and given all my sweets and most of my cigarettes away, shaken hands with all the pathetic men, women and children who were lying injured in the hospital, was I allowed to resume my ordinary identity.
Excerpted from Arnhem Lift by Louis Hagen. Copyright © 2012 Louis Hagen. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
About the Book,
Prefatory Note to the First Edition,
Foreword to the Second Edition,
1 About the Author,
2 The Background,
3 Arnhem Lift,
4 Winrich Behr's Story,
5 The German View of the Battle,
6 Summing Up,
7 Life After Arnhem,