Background of the 1st Battalion:

Screenshot 2020 10 01 At 21.07.04When the Germans invaded Poland, the 1st Battalion was stationed at Aldershot. After Britain declared War on Germany, the Battalion was mobilised and sent over to France. They arrived on 21 September and would stay near the border with Belgium and Germany preparing defences until the Germans invaded. As the Germans continued their advance the 1st Battalion pulled back to Dunkirk where they would eventually be evacuated. Whilst back in Britain, the Battalion would retrain to fulfil a new, airborne role and were deployed in gliders. Their first experience with this new type of warfare would come in 1943 as part of the first wave in the Allied invasion of Sicily. Though they would not take part in D-Day they would take part in Operation Market Garden and the infamous Battle of Arnhem from 17 – 26 September 1944.

Why Operation Market Garden?

Between the Allied invasion at Normandy on 6 June 1944, and the start of Operation Market Garden on 17 September 1944, most of France and Belgium had been liberated and Allied forces were either near or at the German border. Due to the rapid advances of the Allies their supply lines had been stretched. Most of the supplies had to be landed in Normandy and make it through France before arriving at the French, Belgian, Dutch and German Borders, around 600 kilometres in some places. To put this in perspective, General Patton’s Third Army, roughly 200,000 soldiers, required, according to historian B.H. Liddell Hart, over 1.5 million litres of fuel a day. Though the Allies liberated the port of Antwerp in Belgium in early September, they were unable to use it to bring in supplies straight away. The Allies still had to defeat the German forces in the nearby areas that could damage or destroy the ships coming into port. This combined with the Allies engaging the German Siegfried line meant the once rapid Allied Advance slowed down. With all of this in mind General Montgomery created Operation Market Garden for the Allies to regain the speed the Allies once had.

Operation Market Garden:

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Landing Zone (or LZ) Z with gliders being unloaded, while men of the 1st Parachute Brigade land, 17 September 1944.

In 1944, General Montgomery planned Operation Market Garden. The plan was to have airborne divisions, made up of British, Polish and American troop, land on day one behind enemy lines to secure the bridges at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. This was the Market part of the plan. The Garden was an advance on the ground from Belgium and link up with the airborne units. This would allow the allied armies to cross the lower Rhine river, bypass the Siegfried Line and get into the Ruhr, where much of Germany’s industry lay. However, Allied intelligence failed to detect that Germany had many tanks in the area, some were part of elite SS divisions. This meant as the 1st Battalion and the rest of the airborne units landed on 17 September, they had few weapons that could effectively deal with tanks. The American 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions would be successful in capturing and holding the Bridges at Nijmegen and Eindhoven with the help of 30th Corps. However, due to a variety of factors, such as the wet terrain and the narrow area 30th Corps advanced (it was along a single highway), they could not reach the British and Polish airborne troops near Arnhem.

The Battle of Arnhem:

The goal for the British and Polish forces for the Battle of Arnhem was to secure the final bridge over the Rhine River. Though at one point during the battle the British and Polish troops had secured the bridge, they could not hold it. As the battle went on the British and Polish soldiers were continuously pushed into a smaller and smaller perimeter. Unfortunately, 30 Corps was unable to advance to Arnhem and assist the paratroopers. Some of the British and Polish airborne forces were able to make from their headquarters in Oosterbeek, a town just 4 km from Arnhem, to 30th Corps but others were forced to surrender. The 3rd and 1st Battalions in their advance on Arnhem had met very stiff opposition and suffered very heavy casualties. The British went to battle at Arnhem with 10.000 men, including the 1st Border Regiment. After the battle only 2.000 made it safely back to 30 Corps, around 1.500 were killed, and 6.500 became prisoners of war.

Communication is Key:

On 22 September the headquarters of the 1st Battalion had lost wireless communication with one of its subunits, C Company. Those at headquarters last heard the company were being attacked by Germans. Lance Corporal Charles Gavaghan volunteered to attempt to reach the company to repair the communication equipment and to take a telephone line with him. To make it to the company Charles had to make it through artillery and sniper fire. Charles was able to make it to the position that needed the telephone line and equipment repaired and was able to bring back information to the headquarters which allowed them to call in their own artillery. By reopening the line of communication Charles had prevented the company from being overrun. He would be nominated for the Bronze Cross for his actions that day.

Tank Hunter:

Sergeant Sidney Clarke was in command of a platoon that was to clear the Germans from the nearby woods. The soldiers with Sidney could not help him as the German fire from the woods was too intense. Sidney took it upon himself to clear these woods. Using grenades Sidney was able to clear the German positions from the far end of the woods. There was also a tank shooting at the 1st Battalion. Sidney made way to the tank, opened the top of the turret and dropped grenades inside, setting the tank of fire. For these actions Sidney would receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM).


The Humour from the Front:

When Lieutenant Joseph Hardy first arrived at Arnhem, he had two pigeons with him. These were to be used to send messages back to Air Defence Headquarters Great Britain, (ADGB), or to units with no wireless communication. By 25 September he only had one left, the first had been sent with a message on 19 September but it was unknow if the pigeon had made it to ADGB or not. Joseph wanted to try to send another message, despite some of the soldiers wanting to use the bird as food for themselves. Joseph asked his acting Commanding Officer, Major Cousens, what he could send back. The response was, “Anything you like.” The message Joseph wrote is:

“1. Have to release bird owing to shortage food and water.

2. About 8 tanks laying about in sub-unit areas, very untidy but not otherwise causing much trouble.

3. Now using as many German weapons as we have British, MG 34s most effective when aimed towards Germany.

4. Dutch people have been grand but Dutch tobacco rather stringy.

5. Great beard-growing competition in our unit, but no time to check up on the winner.

6. Please repeat to Brig R. H. Bower and REAR HQ HSG.”

The pigeon did make it to the Corps HQ Though the message is light-hearted and humorous it is important to remember the soldiers of the 1st Battalion at this point in the battle were trying to ensure they could make it out of Arnhem alive. They were dangerously low on supplies and ammunition, and few were fit to continue fighting.

At a separate action on 18 September, at the start of the Battle Joseph Hardy would earn the Military Cross. He did so by helping a company, that had been isolated by the Germans, back to the 1st Battalion.

Did you know?

How many soldiers were in different units?

The size of any unit in the military could vary significantly if they were in action due to availability of reinforcements. The smallest unit is a section which consist of 7 to 12 soldiers. 3 to 4 sections or 25 to 30 soldiers make up a platoon. A company can have between 100 and 150 soldiers and a battalion can have between 500 and 1.000 soldiers. There are much large units in the military, some with hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

Why the communication equipment wasn’t working?

The wireless set the 1st battalion brought with them had difficultly sending messages in the Arnhem area due to the woods disrupting the signal. Wired communication was also difficult as with all the fighting going on artillery fire destroyed some of the lines. Therefore, soldiers like Lance Corporal Charles Gavaghan had to repair telephone lines, or in some cases, had to run from unit to unit carrying messages.

What is the Siegfried Line?

The Siegfried Line was a series of defences built by the Germans along their French border all the way down to the Swiss border. Operation Market Garden was a way to go around this defensive wall, as it did not extend north to the Dutch Border. But with the failure of Operation Market Garden the Allies had to go through the Siegfried Line and would not completely do so until early 1945.

What is 30th Corps?

30th Corps was a more traditional army unit that had tanks, artillery and infantry. They would be the ones with the heavy equipment, like tanks, that could have turned the tide of the battle at Arnhem if they would have made it before the Germans defeated the British there.

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The Airborne Cemetery at Oosterbeek.

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