I CROSSED THE RHINE WITH THE GLIDER TROOPS
How does it feel to drop into enemy territory bristling with guns just waiting for you? How does it feel the night before? A vivid personal report
LONDON (By Cable)—I could hear the whispering whistle of the air that operated the glider’s flaps. It was a mild replica of what you hear from the brakes of a transcontinental train or a streetcar coming to a stop. A Spandau machine gun, that sounded just outside the glider like an explosive typewriter, was tearing wicked holes through the fuselage. It was mixed with the slower slam of 20 millimetre incendiaries, for a fraction of a second before something exploded inside my head. The sour smell of burnt cordite was suddenly everywhere. I went down on one knee in the shelter of wicker baskets full of gasoline cans. Something hot and sickly was dripping over my right eye and off my chin.
Just then some giant kicked the glider in the stomach. There was a great rending and a horrifying bounce. There was another bounce and some more rending, and then everything seemed to be hurtling through space, and daylight filled with dust was suddenly all around us. I watched, fascinated, as the Bren carrier that was chained to ringbolts in the floor went inexorably out of the nose of the glider, carrying the whole works ahead of it. I don’t know why, but I noticed the steel caterpillars going round with its traction, as two signallers who had been lying on top of the carrier were wiped off like bread crumbs. Some battering ram had hit me in the small of the back—it was a jeep trailer that was chained to the floor just behind me. It had punched forward about six inches and then, mercifully, the chains and eyebolts held.
My pal, public relations officer of the parachute regiment, Peter Cattle, was lying on one elbow, with blood making a spider web over his face. One of the men was on the floor, staring fixedly at nothing, as a bird might look at a snake. One of his legs, rigid in front of him, was quivering in a
convulsion. Halfway up the siâe of the fuselage another man was pinned across the chest by wreckage. I couldn’t see his face, but, through the sudden, awful quiet that lasted for a few seconds, I could hear his breathy groans as he tried to cry out and couldn’t. Just over my head his legs were tlirashing around like a small child’s when you tickle him.
That was how we hit Germany, east of the Rhine.
Some days before, I had had a signal to return from the 9th U. S. Army, north of Cologne, and report in London—that was all. On reaching London I learned there was a job to be done with the 6th British Air-borne Division—colleagues of those wonderful men I had known at Arnhem. Where they were going, what they were to do—or when, was not discussed. That suited me all right. If I didn’t know, the chances were that very few other people did either. When too many people know about operations of this sort, you can be pretty sure there’s trouble waiting for you at the other end.
Major Roy Oliver, who led our little party out of the shambles at Arnhem, arrived with his colleague, Captain Peter Cattle, who dropped with these men of the 6th in Normandy on D-Day. We drove out into the English countryside for several hours, and toward evening were convincing a sentry at the gate of what looked like a concentration camp that we really had a right to come in and be locked up with the rest of the lads. The camp was an orderly collection of Army huts, neat as a new pin and bleaker than charity. The whole was surrounded by barbed wire. If you wanted tó go for a walk you could—through the alleyways between the huts. Here we would be kept incommunicado until the take-off. Roy called it, “going into purdah,” and if that’s what Indian potentates do with their wives, I agree that something should be done about India right away.
We each drew three blankets for our stay there,
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equipment as were needed. It’s always a nice moment when the sergeant hands you, for instance, a little morphia kit, with a hearty, “Better ’ave it, y’know, sir—you never know, do you?” The officers’ mess consisted of long trestle tables and benches in a hut, at one end of which was a row of kettles full of plain but appetizing food. The anteroom had as its main item of furniture a bar, around which the officers gathered each evening, drinking draught ale in mild quantities until the finish of the nine o’clock news, which was the signal for bed.
Mingling with the gathering around that bar, you were mixing with extraordinary young men. By no slip of the tongue did the conversation ever turn upon war or anything connected with it—except while the news was coming over. Then you might hear lighthearted commentary from one or other of the fellows nearby—“Monty caught ’em bending that time!” or, “Good old bombers—stout chaps those bomber crews!” Then, from an infant wearing ribbons that only get pinned on at Buckingham Palace, “You couldn’t get me out on one of those jobs with wild horses!” This from a youngster who generally starts into action dangling at the end of a parachute 800 feet up,
while the Jerries down below try to pick him off with machine guns.
The second day, Roy Oliver ambled into the hut with a roll of maps under his arm. He gave two to each of us, together with a very much enlarged aerial photograph of some fields, two railway lines and a lot of trees. As Peter unrolled his two maps and scanned their contents, he grunted, “Oh—Oh, so that’s it.” The maps were of the territory beyond the Rhine and just north of Wesel. That told us something, anyway. Roy said the general would tell us the rest after lunch.
“Well,” says Peter, “now we know where to have the flowers sent, anyway.”
After lunch we went up to the briefing room. One end of it was plastered with large maps and a model of the ground we were dropping on, and the objectives the air-borne men had to capture. We had barely seated ourselves on a semicircle of benches when brisk steps sounded outside the door and intuitively we stood up. I can’t imagine why, because no one told us it was the general—but there was suddenly something compelling in the air and—well—we just stood up.
Portrait of a General
You meet men like General Bols once in a while, and usually in distant places. When you do it’s an event—the very entry of a man like this into a
room has an impact that needs no announcement. Your attention is drawn and held, like filings to a magnet. He is lean and hard-bodied and quick, and has a trick of flinging a fact at you that’s as bald and gruesome as a skull. Then his frosty blue eyes soften and crinkle up as he tacks on some non sequitur phrase that takes half the sting away. He looks younger than he is, and heaven knows that’s not very old. Someone told me he was 38 but, be that as it may, it was strange at first to see a major-general’s insignia on those driving young shoulders. His quick, clipped phrases deftly sketched out the picture. Then he would stop for a second with a “clear?” Then, knowing quite well that anyone with half a brain had grasped what he meant, he’d go on to the next point.
“Well, gentlemen, you’ll be glad to know that this time we’re not going to be dropped down as a carrot held out for the ground forces. This time the Army and the Navy are going to storm across the Rhine, and just when they’ve gained Jerry’s attention in front—bingo! we drop down behind him. The trouble is that the only dropping zones in the vicinity are fairly well-packed with 20 millimetre ack-ack guns and machine - gun posts. That means we’ll have to fight for our landing and dropping zones. As a matter of fact, we’ll have a helluva fight when we first get down. If things go according to plan with the Second Army, we’ll be fighting like stink for the first day. However, things never go according to plan, so we’ll be ready to fight it out for 48 hours.
“This operation will be real teamwork. Under my command will be the First Canadian Paratroop Battalion, which will drop on this high, wooded feature here. The American air-borne Division to the south of us and ourselves make up a corps under the command of the American general, Ridgeway, for whom I have a great regard and affection. He’s a helluva fine soldier. We operate under the command of Field Marshal Montgomery, and over us all is Ike Eisenhower. That, gentlemen, is a real Allied team, and should make the sparks fly. Unless I miss my guess the initial tough fighting should break the crust of the remaining good troops the enemy has against us, and then I.think we’ll swarm out all over Germany.
“The Ox-and-Bucks will land here, and will immediately go for these three bridges here across the Issel. ' The Ulsters will land here, and will first •clear this area to the east, and then hare into Hamminkeln and clear and hold the town. The parachute regiments are landing here, here and here. With their objectives taken they will establish contact with each other and fight their way with their support elements back to my headquarters, which will be here. It’s a German headquarters now, but that’s all right— there’ll probably be some good brandy in the cellar.
“That’s the plan, gentlemen—but it probably won’t go that way at all, so we must be ready for anything. All I hope is that when the Second Army comes up we may have orders to climb aboard the tanks and swarm out beyond our objectives—then we can knock ’em for six. That’s all, gentlemen. Any questions? Clear? Right— and good hunting.”
I don’t know who put the words into our mouths but we all stood up and chorused, “Good luck, sir.”
What About V.G.’s?
We all straggled back to the hut without saying anything much, and everybody got their maps out, spread 1
them on their bunks and studied them, comparing the notes we had taken with the corresponding features on the map. It was going to be important to know parts of that map from memory. On the next bunk to mine was a kid of 21, who from time to time came out with some of the most naïve questions imaginable. He represented a London daily paper, and this was his first assignment. His enthusiasm was terrific, but it was plain to see that he hadn’t the foggiest idea of what he was in for. He was an engaging kid, and quite new to the business. He had been in the merchant marine, but should never have been sent on a thing like this for his first job. Just now he was fairly bubbling at the thought of how upset the Huns were going to be when they saw all those gliders and parachutes coming down on them. That night when I was half asleep, he reached his arm across and tapped the blankets over my shoulder. He enquired, very softly, “I say—can a war correspondent win the V.C.?” I mumbled something about no, a war correspondent couldn’t win the V.C.—and anyway, all he was supposed to do was to make darned sure that everybody heard about the guys who did win them.
Thursday night—the last night we spent at this camp—Peter and I went down to the men’s canteen to find out what they were talking about. Upstairs was a big room with a piano in it. It was wreathed in smoke, and packed with glider pilots, paratroopers, men of the various air-borne infantry regiments—all bunched round on chairs and drinking strong tea out of large brown enamel mugs. One of them was sitting at a tinny old upright piano with several of the notes missing. When we came into the room they were bellowing something to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” The verse went, “Should like to meet the sergeant who forgot to hook me up.” Then came the chorus, “Glory, glory, what a helluva way to die, And I ain’t gonna jump no more.”
There was another one, to the tune of “The Red River Valley,” that ran, “When you jump from your plane in the morning, just remember the sergeant’s advice, Keep your feet and your knees close together and you’ll hit mother earth very nice.” The last verse was, “Here’s a toast to the men who are ready, Here’s a toast to the ones in the sky, Here’s a toast to the first man to get there, And a toast to the next man to die.”
There were a lot more songs along just those lines, raw and humorously macabre. They made my blood run cold. Then somebody called for “Jerusalem.” I thought it would be another parody, but a sergeant next to me turned on me indignantly. “Parody, me ruddy eye! It’s no parody, it’s ‘Jerusalem.’” Why shouldn’t we sing it—same as anyone else?” Peter nudged me and murmured, “No kidding—they love singing this.”
Then, with a deep-throated roar, they all started in. What they called “Jerusalem” was the verse of the “Lost Chord” followed by the chorus of “The Holy City.” They thought it was all the same song. As the sergeant said, they were just singing it because they liked it. “I struck one chord of music like the sound of a grand amen,” they sang, then “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, hark how the angels sing,” It was all completely cockeyed, but somehow I found my throat tightening up—they were so very serious about it. It seemed to be their winding-up song, because chairs grated along the floor and the men grabbed their berets and started toward the door.
On the way back to the hut I heard a ¡ knot of them chanting the song of the
paratrooper whose chute hadn’t been packed properly, “They scraped him off the tarmac like a daub of strawberry jam,” and then pretty soon the whole place became dark and silent. Crawling into my blankets a few minutes later I was still thinking of these men and the way they look death square in the eye, and snap their fingers in his face. I wondered what their private thoughts were—or maybe they didn’t dare to think.
Next day—Friday—we moved for the night to a jumping-off camp near our airstrip. The building used to be a golf club. Here we met Jock Roberts, the tall, rawboned and redhaired young Scot who would be stickleader in our glider. Jock doesn’t talk much, but he knows his job. After dinner I listened to the nine o’clock news with him and heard that the Germans were expecting an air-borne attack north of Wesel. Jock turned to me, with a slow twinkle in his eye, and put out his hand. “It’s been pleasant knowing you,” he said.
I managed a sickly grin, and said, “Yes, wasn’t it?”
Up in the room where our bunks were made up, people were scribbling mysterious notes and doing things to their equipment. Reveille was 3.30 a.m. Getting ready for bed, the atmosphere was as taut as a violin string, but the morning would end the intolerable period of inaction—of being shut up with nothing to do but think. Tomorrow, no matter what the next sun! down might bring, the thunder of j the beginning of the end would be heard along the Rhine. . We turned the lights out and went to sleep. Young Bill, the merchant marine kid, was restless for a few minutes, and then slept like a baby.
I seemed to have just closed my eyes when somebody shook me and said, “Breakfast is in an hour.” Awareness seeped through sleep, and a lead weight descended on my stomach. Breakfast was a rugged affair—sweetened porridge without milk, and a big steak with mashed potatoes and parsnips.
At 4.30 in the morning trucks took us out to the airfield. It was beginning to be daylight. On an oversized runway hundreds of gliders stood, faced by hundreds of four-engined bombers to tow them. Richard Dimbleby of the BBC came across, looking rosy-cheeked and disgustingly fit. He was going in the aircraft that towed our glider, and we were to do some recording over the intercom from glider to bomber.
Off to Battle
We loaded up, and with a terrific din the first tugs moved down the runway—regular as clockwork, one every 30 seconds. Then it was our turn, and I felt the sluggish movement along the tarmac, the picking up of speed, the old feeling that this thing would never get off the ground with all this weight in it—then a smooth rise and fall as we became air-borne. We were on our way.
England’s green loveliness eased by under us to terminate where white cliffs held in the English Channel with its lace edges of lazy white foam. Sunny sparkling sea—then the sand dunes of the Belgian coast, the pock-marked scenes of months-old battles—Holland —then western Germany. Squinting ahead, through the tiny round porthole beside me, I could see the smoky windings of the Rhine. My stomach tightened up into a knot.
We did our last recording to the tugplane as we crossed the Rhine, and in the middle of talking, I saw, through the little porthole, the unbelievable sight of the glider that had been flying alongside a couple of hundred yards away bursting into flames. I looked
away, to the one ahead, and it burst
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into flames too. Little sparkles were showing like pinpricks in the sky around. Next, a glider out beyond the others just broke in half without burning and emptied two vehicles and a lot of little pinmen, sprawling and whirling, without any parachutes. It, was difficult to think of what I was saying, so I just asked Dimbleby to tell them all at home how these fellows were going into battle.
There was a bump while I was trying to finish—and we were on our own. That well-remem bered soaring feeling was with us. The big Hamilcar was coming in, with the rush of the wind in her wings, to touchdown. I just had time to see a thick white German-made mist on the ground, then that slamming through the sides of the glider started. That was when the explosive typewriter spat its message through our plywood skin. We had hit a railway embankment that took away the undercarriage, careened into an orchard that took the wings, and then just piled up.
The two glider pilots had the floor taken out from under them by the Bren carrier, but were unhurt—as were the two signallers that were brushed off when it plowed through the nose. Bullets kept crashing through the wreckage, but, heading for the daylight, I found myself lying face down in a ditch beside a hedge. Peter was lying ahead of me. We were both trying to burrow down into the ground with our noses, when a mild-voiced doctor, who seemed to bear a charmed life, bound us up and directed us to his aid post in a German farmhouse. From here we could see down the railway track to a station marked Hamminkeln. We had come down about three miles away from our dropping zone, and now the crashed glider was under fire and we couldn’t get to it. In that jeep trailer was a sending set, with which I was going to make history by broadcasting direct from an air-borne fighting zone, and my portable recorder. London was listening in for me—and just over there, so near and so far, was all that lovely equipment. For an awful moment I wanted to sit down and bawl, then I remembered that the next best thing was to find the others, get the whole story, and somehow get it back to England.
Even with the landing they had, the 6th Air-borne men had all their objectives by 1.30 that afternoon, and so Peter and I gradually made our way back to where the Devons were clearing out Hamminkeln, and then back across the fields to divisional headquarters. There, the young general, sparkplug of the air-borne men, told us that he expected to make contact with the Second Army before dark, and firm contact before morning.
Back where the lads were digging slit trenches for the night we learned that the kid, Bill, hadn’t been heard from and neither had his glider. I thought of those flaming in the air, and how he had wanted to win the V.C. I looked around at smoking patches here and there that marked burned-up gliders. Wherever he was, the kid was in pretty grand company that night.
Ihn looking at a letter from Jock Roberts that has just been delivered in London. Among other things he says, “We made an effort to get back to the glider next day. It was still under fire, and one of my fellows caught a packet. I went again later, only to find it a burned-out wreck and everything destroyed. I’m sorry. I was captured that night after delivering some ammunition, but we managed to turn the tables and bring quite a crowd back with us.”
See what I mean about these airborne fellows?