One of the most moving ceremonies associated with WW II takes place every September at the Arnhem-Oosterbeek war cemetery in Holland. That is when Dutch schoolchildren stand quietly next to each grave and then on a signal place bouquets of flowers. Three quarters of the 1,760 graves are for men who served with the 1st British Airborne Division, 43 Wessex Div. or the Polish Parachute Brigade. These men died in the struggle to liberate Arnhem and to win control of a bridge across the lower Rhine River in September 1944.
The poignant ceremony is part of a program that includes a parachute drop and the annual Airborne Walk. More than 30,000 people participate in the 25-kilometre trek that includes a stop at a simple memorial located on the south bank of the river opposite Oosterbeek. Erected in 1989 by veterans of the airborne division, the memorial features an inscription that begins with the following words: “They Were Just Shadows and Whispers in the Night.” The inscription also records the gratitude of the 2,400 airborne troops who were evacuated to safety by Canadian and British engineers while under heavy German fire.
Few people on the Airborne Walk know the full story behind the memorial and even fewer know that almost all of those who were saved owe it to the men of the 23rd Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers.
The 20th and 23rd field companies had been attached to 43 Wessex Div. in an attempt to bolster the division’s river crossing capacity. The Canadians were equipped with stormboats powered by Evinrude motors. Each boat could carry 36 men. The British made do with smaller assault boats that had to be paddled.
The original intent was to use the Canadian boats to bring reinforcements across the Rhine and expand the airborne bridgehead, but no one in the British army seems to have understood the urgency of the situation in Arnhem. The army’s slow progress meant that the Wessex division arrived too late to do more than sacrifice a battalion of the Dorset Regiment which crossed the river just hours before the withdrawal order was issued.
On the morning of Sept. 25, 1944, the confusion and uncertainty that had marked the operations of the ground forces throughout Operation Market Garden were still evident. When Major M.L. Tucker–the commanding officer of 23 Field Co.–arrived at an orders group he was assigned a sector and told to bring out as many survivors as he could. No one could say how many there might be and there was no information available on the enemy or the crossing sites. 20th Field Co.’s sector proved to be opposite an area already held by the enemy.
Tucker and Lieutenant R.J. Kennedy immediately went forward to recce an advanced marshalling area for the boats and found one a few kilometres west of Arnhem at Valburg. Kennedy, who had already scouted the south bank of the river in preparation for the proposed assault crossing, was able to report that there was a site northeast of Driel where stormboats could be launched. The convoy carrying the boats–crews and mechanics from the RCE’s 10 Field Park Co.–reached Valburg by mid-afternoon.
Tucker attended a second meeting at 5:15 p.m. and was told that at last light an artillery barrage would begin and that it would drown out the noise of the stormboats. Simultaneously, the Wessex division would stage a feint attack to distract the enemy. There was still no information about the airborne troops or the fate of the Dorset Regiment that had crossed the river. The Dorsets had in fact landed inside enemy lines and most of the 300 men who crossed were taken prisoner.
It is possible to argue that the Canadian engineers were better off not knowing more about their challenge. The village of Driel was the headquarters of Major-General S.F. Sobowski’s Polish Independent Parachute Brigade. Sobowski and his men did not lack courage, but after landing near Driel they had been unable to get more than a handful of men across the river to join 1st Airborne Div.
Sobowski was furious over orders to stage a drop south of the river and then cross it under fire. With nothing more than six small rubber boats provided by the airborne division there was little chance of carrying out these orders. Unfortunately, the actions of the Poles and Dorsets had drawn attention to the crossing point at Driel and so it wasn’t long before German artillery and mortar fire was ranged in on the area.
Plans for the withdrawal were left to Major-General R.E. Urquhart, the airborne commander. He decided to try and evacuate everyone that night. Urquhart’s staff produced and coded a complex artillery plan that required the gunners, south of the river, to fire timed concentrations as the perimeter shrank and the troops withdrew. Medical officers and men of
the field ambulance stayed with the wounded, many of whom were in serious condition. The Dutch civilians, who had done everything they could to help, were also left behind to face the wrath of the enemy. The troops were told to blacken their faces, wrap their boots in blanket strips to muffle sounds and then move off in groups, holding “the tail of the smock or the hand of the man in front.”
While Urquhart and his staff relayed their orders and marked routes, Tucker organized his company by placing a bridge-building section in the lead so that boats could be brought across a drainage ditch and off-loaded just 500 yards from the river. The boats were delivered, but it was difficult to haul them to the launching site because rain had softened the ground. In his report on the operation, Tucker recalled that the “men’s churning feet soon created a slippery mess which lent no footing whatsoever.”
There was a lot of silent cursing, but by 9:30 p.m. the boats were in place.
On the north bank of the Rhine, the Germans had intensified their attacks by employing the newly arrived Tigers of the 106 Heavy Tank Battalion against the northern edge of the perimeter. The Tigers broke through to the airborne artillery position and their attached infantry swung south, a move that threatened the entire bridgehead. A sort of “snowball fight with grenades” ensued until the advance was stopped by close-range light artillery fire from the airborne. Continuous rain and the coming of darkness brought an end to the attacks by German battlegroups, but there was no relief from the shelling. Martin Middlebrook’s book Arnhem: 1944 is one of the best accounts of the battle. It records the words of a glider pilot making his way to freedom: “We passed several of our lads dead, laid out in open on their back, the rain pouring down on their faces…. There seemed to be quite a lot of them and having to leave them really upset me…. On top of that we were abandoning the Dutch…. I would have preferred to stay and fight it out.”
Those who made it to the riverbank were organized into a queue with the walking wounded given priority. Men fell into an exhausted sleep or hunkered down to wait. The first boat to arrive was one of the small assault craft of 260 Wessex Field Co. The current in the flooded river was very strong and so the British sappers had to approach diagonally while paddling furiously. On the return trip the passengers had to help out or risk being swept away. The rescue of large numbers of men depended upon the Canadians, but the first boat they launched sank after being badly holed. The second boat, captained by Lieutenant J.R. Martin, set off across the river to determine the situation and start the evacuation. Two witnesses reported that a direct mortar hit caused it to break apart in mid-river. None of the crew survived.
The third boat, commanded by a Corporal McLachlan, followed the same route. It reached the far bank without incident and wounded men were quickly loaded and rushed to safety. The fourth boat was swamped when a mortar bomb fell close by. Just four passengers survived. These setbacks might have led Tucker to question the point of the operation, but there really was no choice. Everything that could be done had to be tried. Fortunately, McLachlan and his crew seemed to lead a charmed life. They made 15 consecutive trips and evacuated nearly 500 men before they were relieved by a fresh crew. Other boats were launched at intervals of 20 minutes and by 3:30 a.m., 14 boats were at work.
It is impossible to improve upon Tucker’s official report on the operation: “The night was intensely dark, but fires started by our bombers in the afternoon and the numerous flares sent up by the enemy must have revealed a great deal of our movement to him. These fires helped us greatly too, since they provided beacons by which our boat crews could direct their craft…. Heavy rain was accompanied by a bitter wind which made things most unpleasant, but the bad weather was probably less to the liking of the enemy than it was to us and most surely have resulted in our having had less casualties than we would have done had the night been clear and fine.”
Tucker reported that rain caused boat motors to fail. He noted that electrical and mechanical personnel and the company’s own fitters worked ceaselessly, but could not prevent a series of engine breakdowns. “There was a great deal of enemy fire during the night. Machine-guns set on fixed lines swept the river and beaches on both sides…. Mortar and 88-mm fire fell everywhere. Many casualties were reported from the bridgehead, but on the river and on the south bank they were light. Three men were wounded in the off-loading area and one between there and the beach. Enemy snipers were also active and it was reported that some of the airborne troops spotted the positions of two of them in crossing the river and proceeded to liquidate them when they reached the south shore.
“It was impossible to regulate the number of passengers carried in boats at times. Men panicked and stormed onto the boats, in some cases capsizing them. In many cases they had to be beaten off or threatened with shooting to avoid having the boats swamped. With the approach of dawn this condition became worse. They were afraid that daylight would force us to cease our ferrying before they could be rescued…. A corporal operating a boat which was leaking badly decided he could make one more trip and bring off a few men before it went down. It sunk as it approached the south shore, but fortunately the water was shallow and they were able to wade ashore safely. It is estimated that approximately 150 boatloads were brought back by the stormboat crews and the average load carried was 16 passengers. Thus, approximately 2,400 to 2,500 troops were brought off.”
Tucker reported that there were very few forward facilities for the care of wounded. “Many of the rescued men were wounded and our own RAP (regimental aid post) dressed 69 stretcher cases as well as attending to over 100 walking wounded. Greatcoats and other clothing were used to improvise stretchers and were given to men who were in desperate need of cover from the elements.”
He reported that caring for the casualties proved a great drain on the company’s manpower and prevented adequate reliefs for the boat-carrying parties and boat crews.
“The work all personnel employed in this operation was of a very high standard, but there were those who rose beyond that level. Lieutenant Kennedy, in addition to making a recce, planning the operation and supervising the off-loading and delivering the stormboats to the launching sites, took command of a boat when these tasks were completed and brought off 125 men from the bridgehead under very trying conditions which prevailed with the advent of daylight. Cpl. Robinson did a tremendous night’s work…. On delivering the last boat, he took command of it and completed six trips before the boat was put out of commission. All of the boat crews were magnificent, and only gave up their ferrying when their boats were no longer operable or else when they were exhausted and had to be ordered from the beach.
“Of these, lance-corporals Albright and Gunness and sappers LeBouthillier and McCready were outstanding.” Tucker also singled out the Roman Catholic padre–a captain by the name of Mongeon–who came under fire for the first time in his career and acquitted himself nobly. “In addition to the normal duties of attending wounded and bringing courage and cheer to the exhausted men, he helped with the carrying of stormboats, carried petrol to the beach and seemed to always be present where he was most needed. The E&M (electrical and mechanical) personnel attached from the Field Park Coy rendered excellent service in keeping the Evinrude motors running.”
Next spring my wife and I will lead the annual Canadian Battle of Normandy Foundation Study Tour to France, Belgium and Holland. We will visit the memorial near Driel and at Groesbeek place flowers on the graves of the Canadians who played an important role in the liberation of the Netherlands.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on September 1st 2000.