Arnhem 75

On 17 September 1944, seventy-five years ago 7,500 men of Britain’s 1st Airborne Division began parachuting and gliding into dropping and landing zones near the Dutch town of Arnhem. Their objective – the town’s bridge over the Rhine. Nine days later barely a fifth of them had made it out. The rest were killed, wounded or captured. By any reckoning the mission was a failure and a disaster.

Operation MARKET GARDEN as it was known was bold in its concept. The plan called for three airborne divisions, two American, one British, and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, a total of 35,000 Airborne troops, to seize a total of twenty-one bridges behind German lines along a route through Grave, Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem. The ground component, XXX Corps, would then punch through the front line and motor some sixty-four miles along this corridor held by American paratroopers, relieve the British airborne troops at Arnhem two days later and burst across the Rhine into Germany thus ending the war by Christmas. It was a brilliant plan in every way. But there was a tiny, tiny flaw in it. It was bollocks.

In an act of spectacular cognitive dissonance planners wilfully ignored credible intelligence that two SS panzer divisions had been withdrawn to the Arnhem for refitting. So, battle-seasoned would be a fair adjective to use. Almost from the outset the British found themselves on the defensive. Only a tiny force, one battalion, 2 PARA, made it to the bridge, securing only one end of it. Their astonishingly tenacious defence of that foothold over many days has now become the stuff of legend. Elsewhere, at Oosterbeek, the remainder of the 1st Airborne Division found itself unable to push on to the bridge and on the defensive.

The situation might have been saved had XXX Corps managed to stick to the two day schedule. Despite the 101st Airborne Division’s easy capture of the bridge at Grave, at Eindhoven and Nijmegen the 82nd Airborne Division failed initially to capture its bridges, thus halting the advance of the Guards Armoured Division and imposing further delay. A heroic opposed assault river crossing in flimsy canvas boats by a company of the 82nd Airborne Division’s paratroopers resulted in the bridge being captured intact. But, this imposed additional delay on an already unrealistically tight schedule. In fact, before the war, the Dutch war college had war-gamed exactly that scenario and concluded that advancing along a raised, single-vehicle-frontage road all the way to Arnhem could only result in failure.

The finger-pointing began almost as soon as surviving British paratroopers were being marched off into captivity. One of them was Jack Edwards. Rather unfairly XXX Corps and the Guards Armoured Division were criticised for not making haste. But, in reality, the action at Arnhem was doomed from the moment planners chose to drop onto DZs too far from the objective and in face of SS formations.

That notwithstanding, Montgomery declared the operation 90% successful. But, that’s rather like a woman saying she’s 90% pregnant or 10% not pregnant. It’s nonsense. Success in war is usually binary. Missions are achieved or they are not. The currency of failure is always measured in blood.

In the British Army and the Parachute Regiment we tend to celebrate our victories – Blenheim, Waterloo, El Alamein, Normandy, Goose Green, Mount Longdon. We tend not to dwell on our disasters too much, unless the propagandists decide to turn a shambles into a glorious folly, as was the case with the charge of the Light Brigade in Crimea.

But, Arnhem is different. It is the Parachute Regiment’s finest disaster – its Alamo. We both commemorate and celebrate it because the tenacity of dogged resistance in the face of crushing and overwhelming odds so completely illustrates the character of the British airborne soldier. Arnhem is our Mecca. When taking the surrender of the survivors, the SS commander sought out the British commander and told him that his British paratroopers were the bravest warriors he had ever encountered, including on the Eastern Front. It’s not the dog in fight that counts so much as the fight in the dog. British paratroopers are not just soldiers, they are Britain’s warrior elite.

Although he was wrong about the operation being a 90% success, Montgomery was spot on in his description of the airborne soldier:

“What manner of men are these that wear the maroon beret?

They are firstly all volunteers and are toughened by physical training. As a result they have infectious optimism and that offensive eagerness which comes from well-being. They have ‘jumped’ from the air and by doing so have conquered fear.

Their duty lies in the van of the battle. They are proud of this honour. They have the highest standards in all things whether it be skill in battle or smartness in the execution of all peace time duties. They are in fact – men apart – every man an emperor.

Of all the factors, which make for success in battle, the spirit of the warrior is the most decisive. That spirit will be found in full measure in the men who wear the maroon beret.”

He might have added – ‘…who wear and wore the maroon beret.’ You can take the man out of the regiment but you can’t take the regiment out of the man, so the saying goes. Which kind of explains the madness of racing the Ninjas on the Grande Traversée des Alpes and taking on the GR20 here in Corsica in seven days – as a warrior cast we’re all Saracens at heart.

Each year serving paratroopers and veterans of Airborne Forces flock to Arnhem to pay their respects to the paratroopers buried at Oosterbeek cemetery, where local Dutch children lay flowers in a moving ceremony. This year is, obviously, a special year for us both at Normandy earlier in June and now this coming weekend at Arnhem.

In 1977 my father took me to see A Bridge Too Far, the movie based on Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 epic book about Operation MARKET GARDEN. That was the day I decided that I’d join the Parachute Regiment. I was fourteen. Jumping out of aeroplanes looked like a great way to go to war, and the bonus seemed to be that there wasn’t much marching involved. Jump, fight, medals. No footslogging. How wrong was I? Look at me now!

In all the years I spent in the Parachute Regiment I never once made it over either to Normandy or Arnhem. It was not for want of trying. I always seemed to be posted elsewhere. During the big 50th anniversary in 1994 I was with General Sir Michael Rose in Bosnia. I’ve been jinxed to miss these great commemorations. The festivities have always eluded me.

This year is no different. But, throughout Tatiana’s Gambol 2019 I’ve been carrying this Airborne Forces flag for the day on which I finished the GR20 in Corsica. And I’ll fly it wherever I am on this day, the 17th of September, as a mark of respect for British paratroopers killed since 1940 and as a symbol of solidarity with all my airborne brothers everywhere of whatever nationality and especially with those who’ll be making the pilgrimage to Arnhem this coming weekend. I’ll be with you there in spirit.

And this evening I’ll be remembering the twins – Claude and Thomas Gronert, sons of Truro and Cornwall, my home county, killed within minutes of each other while serving in 6 Platoon B Company 2 PARA at about 6pm on this day seventy-five years ago at Arnhem. And Jack Edwards, their great mate also from Truro. All three were men of the Greatest Generation, my mother and father’s generation, who stood up against tyranny. Jack Edwards, and Thomas and Claude Gronert joined up together and served in the same platoon in 2 PARA. Jack survived, was captured and successfully escaped. I had the privilege of rowing with his son, ‘Milly’ Edwards, in the Roseland Pilot Gig Club supervets’ crew at the 2013 and 2014 Isles of Scilly Pilot Gig World Championships. Small world.

A personal message for Milly Edwards: I’m glad we met, Milly, and I am grateful that you graciously allowed me row with Roseland. I’d like to think I added a little Caradon flair to the crew, despite the fact that our joint Roseland-Caradon crew shirt, which you designed, was definitely biased towards Roseland. I now use it for drying the dishes.

But, I also remember when you invited me to the Parachute Regiment Association dinner in Falmouth in December 2013. That was the evening you almost got me to sing. But, I managed to dodge that bullet. And, I also remember hearing how you’d go over to Arnhem with your family each year to lay flowers on the twins’ graves. I was really touched and impressed by that.

As it happens a limited number of Elliot Brown watches have been commissioned by Simon Curwen (currently serving Parachute Regiment member) to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Arnhem. There are 123 of them. I managed to secure watches 97, 98 and 99 and have had them engraved with the Regimental numbers, initials and names of your dad and the twins. Additionally I’ve had the jump date (17 Sep 44) and their unit (6 Pl, B Coy, 2 PARA) added to the back.

The Regimental numbers tell the story of the sequence in which they all joined up and were attested that day. Your dad led the way. Possibly there would have been one or two others after him before Thomas the elder twin joined up with Claude right behind him. So, the limited edition numbers 97, 98 and 99 of the watches correspond to the order in which the three of them joined up.

I wanted to get the additional engraving sorted out before I left on Tatiana’s Gambol but couldn’t manage it, otherwise Norma would have been giving you watch No. 97 today. So, this post will have to do instead. But, we’ll sort all that out when I get back from Corsica. Elliot Brown have very kindly provided the additional engraving – the date they all dropped into Arnhem and the platoon, company and battalion they served in. I am very grateful to Elliot Brown Ltd. for doing this.

Obviously, watch No. 97 is yours. As far as the twins’ watches are concerned, I’m proposing we auction them and raise some funds for the Parachute Regiment Charity. I’m open to suggestions as to how from anyone reading this blog.

Above: 20 Sep 19. Cemetery at Ooesterbeek. Dave (right) and Harry (left) Mitchell, twins, pay their respects to Thomas and Claude at Oosterbeek cemetery on 20 September 2019.
Above: 21 Sep 19. Cemetery at Ooesterbeek. Major General Chip Chapman, Cornishman, who commanded 2 Platoon in 2 PARA in the Falklands pictured at the twins graves (right, top photo), and the graves of Corporal Rogers (left, top photo) and Lieutenant Cane and an unknown soldier (left, bottom photo). Lt Cane and Cpl Rogers were also in 2 Platoon and killed alongside the twins in the same ambush. Yellow roses were placed by someone at these graves. Yellow was the designated colour of 2 PARA.
Above: Jeff Evans, formally of 1 PARA, at the twins’ graves 24 Sept 2019.

So, I mentioned earlier that we paratroopers are all Saracens at heart. But, who are they?

“We are they who come faster than fate: we are they who ride early or late:

We storm at your ivory gate: Pale Kings of the Sunset, beware!”

James Elroy Flecker – War Song of the Saracens

Arnhem 75 – lest we forget, the Greatest Generation.

God bless them and you all.

Utrinque Paratus – Ad Unum Omnes.