Seventeen Year-Old Commando, One of Few Survivors in Operation Market Garden: Arnhem, September '44
Updated: Sep 15, 2019
As I sit in my friend Herman’s living room in Florida, I anxiously await the arrival of Rodney and Maureen. Rodney, better known as ‘Rod,’ lives next door, and his reputation proceeds him. He is known as one of the nicest men in the neighborhood, described by neighbors as a ‘perfect neighbor’ and a ‘technical genius.’ Neighbors tell a story of this ninety-two-year-old man climbing on top of his RV to install a new roof. Other stories included motorcycle-racing, sailing more than 1,200 miles around the U.S., and many professional accomplishments, including his role as founding father of the Corvette, designer of fighter jets, and even designing the first (and only) flying saucer. Who is this man? Possibly the most interesting man in the world?
Despite his incredible accomplishments, all of which I couldn’t wait to hear, one four-year period of his life elevated Rod into ‘hero’ status, although he doesn’t see it that way. From 1944-1948, Rod served as a young soldier in the British Army. Having grown up as a child in the ‘Battle of Britain,’ when Rod turned seventeen, he volunteered to enlist.
I heard a knock at the door, and I expected a grizzly old war veteran to enter. Instead, a cheerful, vibrant British man entered the room, along with his lovely wife Maureen. At the young age of ninety-two, I expected an old man to come hobbling through the door. Rod strolled right in, embraced my hand, and introduced himself. I was nearly speechless as I laid eyes on this man who appeared 20-25 years younger than his age. Everyone walked to the back porch to talk, while Rod and I took seats on the couch. What follows is the story of this incredible gentleman…..
Military Enlistment & Training
At the age of seventeen, against his mother’s wishes, Rod volunteered to join the Army. His mother desperately pleaded against Rod joining, as he was the only member of the family still at home. He turned seventeen on January 5th, and on February, 1944, he walked to the local Army recruiter’s office and volunteered to join the British Army as a member of the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Several days later, they shipped him via train to Norwich for Basic Training. For the first three weeks in Basic Training, they taught basic infantry skills like patrolling and other Infantry tactics. One day, a non-commissioned officer (NCO) instructor pulled Rod to the side, handed him a 1917 Enfield rifle and said, ‘This is a 30-06 caliber, 1917 Enfield. Do you see that white target down there?’ Rod looked down range, located the target, and replied, ‘yes.’ Rod, having never fired a gun before, lightly gripped the rifle, pulled the stock into his shoulder, set his left knee on the ground, sighted in the two hundred meter target, and squeezed the trigger. Rod and the NCO watched as the red tracer round blew the bulls eye of the center of the target. The NCO was very impressed and asked Rod how often he practiced shooting. Rod explained to the NCO that he had never fired a round before that day. The NCO didn’t seem to believe him. The NCO asked Rod if he thought he could do it again, and Rod replied, ‘I don’t know. I have no idea.’ The NCO, assuming Rod’s first shot had been lucky, asked Rod to fire a second shot. Rod sighted in the target, squeezed the trigger, and bam, another bull’s eye. The NCO asked Rod to shoot one more time, and once again, bull’s eye. At this point, the NCO was very impressed.
When the trainees returned to camp that evening, the NCO pulled Rod out of the building and took him to the British Commando [similar to our Special Forces] recruiting office not far away. The NCO, along with the Commando recruiter, asked if Rod had ever fired a gun before. Rod once again replied, ‘no,’ and told the NCO’s that his shots were just lucky. The NCO’s had seen thousands of soldiers pass through training and it was very uncommon to see soldiers with Rod’s skillset (combined with his high level of physical fitness). They explained that Rod had a gift, and they asked him to join the British Commandos. In Rod’s words, ‘My face lit up! A Commando, at seventeen? You betcha!’ Rod laughed, and next thing he knew, he was transferred to Scotland for Commando Training.
Having not even completed Basic Training, Rod arrived at Achnacarry in the Scottish Highlands and was immediately immersed into Commando training with a group of other young soldiers. The young Commandos conducted survival training in the mountains, learned how to conduct covert operations through mud tunnels, and practiced advanced navigation skills. Exercises were conducted using live ammunition and explosives to make training as realistic as possible. Physical fitness was a prerequisite, with cross country runs and boxing matches to improve fitness. Speed and endurance marches were conducted up and down the nearby mountain ranges and over assault course that included a zip-line over Loch Arkaig, all while carrying arms and full equipment. Training continued by day and night with river crossings, mountain climbing, weapons training, unarmed combat, map reading, and small boat operations. Living conditions were primitive in the camp, with trainees housed either under canvas in tents or in Nissen huts. All trainees were responsible for cooking their own meals. Correct military protocols were enforced: officers were saluted and uniforms had to be clean, with brasses and boots shining on parade.
After several weeks, the young commandos were transported to the Fenlands on the east coast of Britain, where they were to learn and conduct amphibious operations using live ammunition. Rod’s class consisted of 60-70 Commandos, several of which became his best friends. The training NCO’s separated the Commando’s into small groups of eleven soldiers, provided a rubber dingy for each group and sent the young Commandos into the bay to conduct an amphibious mission. There were no motors on the dinghy’s so the Commandos were forced to paddle to their objectives. Midway through the mission, the seas, very common in the English Channel, grew very rough and Rod remembers six-to-eight foot waves cresting over the side of his watercraft. One of waves struck the side of a dingy occupied by Rod’s battle buddies, and the dingy capsized into the turbulent seas. Rod and the other Commando’s struggled valiantly against the tumultuous waves to save the Commandos, but within seconds, the Commandos were gone. ‘We lost them all. 11 guys. The seas were so rough, we couldn’t get to them,’ Rod explained with a painful look on his face. Rod’s dingy was also lost amongst the storm at sea, but eventually it was located by a British Navy vessel, which towed the lost Commandos to shore. Rod and the other Commandos were in impeccable physical condition. In Commando school, Rod, with full combat gear and carrying a Bren, could run a mile in less than 6 minutes!! That’s pretty amazing!
During that time, British Commando training lasted for five to six months, and Rod, thanks to his high level of physical fitness, handled the training with ease. In September 1944, several weeks before he was due to graduate, they sent 50-60 of the Commando trainees south to Dover Castle, a ‘beautiful castle that sits high on a hill,’ Rod explained. When they arrived, the Commandos began training on a long zip line over Loch Arkaig that extended from the top of the cliffs down into a valley. They also conducted extensive hand-to-hand combat training, bayonet training, and other survival techniques. One day, the training NCO’s transported the Commando’s to an airport and explained that the trainees would learn how to conduct parachute jumps for their next segment of training. ‘Boy, I hated this. I really did,’ Rod said with a smile as he stared into the distance. The Commando’s boarded DC-3’s, which carried 28 paratroopers in the belly of the plane. Rod and his fellow Commando’s boarded the plane, hooked up their static lines and sat nervously awaiting the command to jump. Rod first jumped from an altitude of 1,000 feet, typical for a combat jump. It was important to jump as low to the ground as possible to minimize time in the air and probability of taking enemy fire when jumping into combat. Rod was extremely nervous during his first jump, but once he exited the plane and the static line deployed his parachute, Rod breathed a sigh of relief and glided to the ground. Although he hit the ground hard, he thought to himself, ‘wow, that was a lot of fun!’. So, the next day, the Commando’s jumped again, and then they jumped two more times in the following days, for a total of four practice jumps. After completion of their fourth training jump, the trainers gathered the trainees together and told the Commando’s that their next jump would be for real. Having not even graduated Commando school, Rod and the Commandos didn’t understand exactly what this meant.
‘They gave us four jumps,’ Rod repeated. ‘Then after the fourth jump, it was real. Very real.’
The next morning, Rod and his fellow Commandos awakened and were transported by truck [an hour away] to one of the largest airfields in Britain at the time [Rod doesn’t remember the exact name of the airfield, because there were so many temporary airfields built during WWII], where Rod saw more planes lined up than he had ever seen before. ‘I’d never seen so many planes in my life,’ Rod explained as his eyes grew wide. ‘I asked the NCO where we were going, and he told me we were going to Arnhem. Operation Market Garden.’ Rod paused for a second then repeated very slowly, ‘Operation Market Garden.’
Operation Market Garden, Day 1:
Airborne Invasion – Sunday, September 17, 1944
At first light on the morning of Sunday, September 17th, a massive air attack consisting of Mosquito fighter-bombers, Boston and Mitchell medium bombers, and B-17 Flying Fortresses took off to attack various targets in the Netherlands, including German barracks, airfields, flak positions, and troop positions. Rod and his fellow Commando’s awakened and had a leisurely breakfast of smoked haddock, a real treat for the British soldiers. After breakfast, the Commandos were transported to one of eight airfields utilized by the British 1st Airborne Division. Upon arrival to the airfield, they were attached to Lieutenant Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Battalion. Beevor explains that ‘Frost himself had eggs and bacon. He was in a good mood. Having been dismayed by Operation Comet, he thought that this time the arrangements at least seemed much better. Frost, who led the highly successful Bruneval Raid in February 1942, seizing a German radar set in Northern France, had also known disasters in Tunisia and Sicily. He did not expect the coming battle to be easy, but he still ordered his batman Wicks to pack his dinner jacket, golf clubs, and shotgun ready to come over with the staff car later. He then checked his own equipment, including a forty-eight hour ration pack, his Colt .45 automatic and the hunting horn with which he rallied the battalion. Frost, a religious man of firm convictions, was admired by his men. ‘There’s old Johnny Frost,’ they would say, ‘a Bible in one hand and a .45 in the other.’20
Beevor explains that ‘a total of 1,544 transport aircraft and 478 gliders stood ready for the first lift of more than 20,000 troops. The runways provided an impressive sight, with each tug aircraft and glider lined up perfectly for take-off. The troop carrier command C-47 Dakotas were also carefully aligned to become airborne at twenty-second intervals.’21 ‘I’d never seen so many planes lined up in my life,’ Rod said once again. As Rod and the Commandos lined up to board their C-47, they were given tea and sandwiches, which, unbeknownst to them, would be their last real meal for quite some time. Rod declined the tea for reasons he would explain later, but he willingly took the sandwich and boarded the plane with 27 of his fellow soldiers.
Rod emphasized the sheer weight of the gear each paratrooper had to carry into battle. Beevor details the paratrooper’s load: ‘Paratroopers were so heavily loaded that they could hardly move and needed to be pushed or pulled up the steps into the aircraft. They had helmets covered with camouflage netting and strapped under the chin, webbing equipment, musette bags with personal items such as shaving kit and cigarettes, three days of K-rations, extra ammunition in beige cloth bandoliers, hand grenades and a Gammon grenade of plastic explosive for use against tanks, their own M-1 rifle or Thompson sub-machine gun, as well as mortar rounds, machine gun belts or anti-tank mine for general use, and of course every man carried his parachute behind.’22 Rod carried even more weight than the average paratrooper. Rod was Bren gunner, which ultimately allowed him to survive the horrific battle at Arnhem, but it also meant he was forced to carry two or three times more ammunition than the average soldier.
Finally, it was ‘go time.’ At approximately 0900 hours (9:00 AM), Rod and his fellow partially-trained Commando’s ascended into the sky, having no idea what they were about to fly into. ‘Three of us were in the plane together. George Joy, my best friend, Don Spoll, and I. We all went to school together. I was sitting toward the back of the plane, on the pilot’s side. We were all wearing Type X, Mk II parachutes. We approached the drop zone, and they told us to prepare to jump. There were 28 of us jumping, and I was on the opposite side of the plane from the door, so when they told us to go, I had to work my way around. I was probably number fifteen or sixteen out of the plane.’ I asked Rod if they knew where they were going, and he replied, ‘We only knew we were going to Arnhem.’
Ahead of the paratroopers, there were 320 tug planes towing Horsa gliders carrying the 1st Airlanding Brigade, divisional headquarters, and field ambulances, along with supplies and ammunition.23 A Horsa glider is a rickety plywood structure designed to be towed behind a plane, then released for gliding into the landing zone. Gliders carried many men along with jeeps, heavy weapons, and other equipment. Beevor explains how the gliders took off, ‘The tug plan advanced slowly until the tow rope tightened and then finally the glider began to move down the runway. The glider pilot would shout back over his shoulder, ‘Hook your safety belts, the towline is fastened…they’re taking up the slack…hold on!’ Then with a lurch, a second lieutenant recounted, ‘the tail comes up, the nose goes down, the plywood creaks, and we are barreling down the runway. Long before the tow plane leaves the ground the speed sends the flimsy glider skyward.’24. Can you imagine loading into a flimsy plywood box towed behind an airplane, prepared to take off into combat? Several of the gliders broke apart in the air, killing all of their passengers. Other gliders released at the wrong point and landed in England or the North Sea in route to their objectives.
Rod was thankful that he jumped via parachute into Arnhem, versus a rickety glider. ‘I sure am glad I didn’t end up in a glider,’ Rod said. ‘They used to load all of the men in the front of the glider, and the heavy guns and vehicles in the back. The gliders flew in, and rarely did they land properly. I saw gliders break in half, tip over, and they were easy enemy targets. The worst part about the glider was when they landed and came to a sudden stop. The heavy equipment in the back would come flying forward and would smash the people, killing them. It was horrible.’
Motion sickness was a huge problem as many of the paratroopers struggled to keep their haddock breakfast down. As the paratroopers looked down, they saw the coast line more than one thousand feet below, and they were suddenly over the North Sea. The reactions of the paratroopers varied. Some very confident and boisterous, whereas others were quiet, trying to keep their nerves in check. Many of the paratroopers slept, or at least closed their eyes. My mind drifted back to my first jump at Airborne School in Fort Benning, Georgia . I remember boarding the plane, and everyone was extremely nervous. Before long, half of the soldiers were asleep! I never understood why, but I observed the same phenomena in combat as well. Many times, our soldiers would sleep while riding inside of Bradley’s or M113’s in route to an important objective. As soldiers, we mastered the art of sleeping in nearly any situation. There also seemed to be a strange sense of peace that accompanied a dangerous mission – a realization or acceptance that the coming mission could be our last. While disturbing for an outsider looking-in, as a soldier, it brought about a sense of tranquility, and a satisfaction that we were giving everything we could possibly give. I believe that unrest for the average person often results from a feeling of falling short; a nagging feeling of disappoint that one is capable of giving more – of achieving greatness. I also learned early in my Army career, ‘Eat when you have a chance to eat, and sleep when you have a chance to sleep, because you never know when the next chance will come.’ The paratroopers preparing for Operation Market Garden had no idea how true this would be.
As the planes reached the Dutch coast, the flak batteries began firing at the approaching Allied aircraft, packed to the brim with paratroopers. The paratroopers observed the tracer anti-aircraft shells rising upward, almost like flying over a Fourth of July fireworks display. Beevor points out that ‘the Netherlands was known as ‘flak alley’, because of the massive enemy anti-aircraft defenses guarding the shortest route for Allied bombers headed to Germany.’25 Many of the paratroopers were wounded by flack as it penetrated the exterior of the planes and gliders. If a paratrooper was wounded, he was pushed to the back of the plane to be returned to England for treatment, if he survived the long flight. The paratroopers and pilots were sitting ducks, hoping and praying their numbers wouldn’t be called. The paratroopers’ saviors were the Spitfires, Typhoons, and Thunderbolt P-47’s who would nose-dive toward the flak batteries, guns and rockets blazing, to attempt to knock out the batteries. The pilots displayed tremendous courage, many times guiding damaged planes to the drop zones to drop the paratroopers, while sacrificing themselves.
Rod and the British 1st Airborne soldiers flew along the Northern approach route, the fastest and most direct route to Arnhem [82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions flew along the southern approach routes]. ‘The transparent insincerity of their smiles,’ wrote Colonel Frost, ‘and the furious last-minute pulling at their cigarettes reminded me that the flight and the prospect of jumping far behind enemy lines was no small test for anyone’s nervous system.’26
At 1300 hours, the gliders began to land, having been released from their tow lines nearly more than a kilometer before. The troops who successfully landed in the gliders secured the drop zones in preparation for the paratroopers’ arrival. At approximately 1350 hours, Rod and the Commando’s approached the drop zone and prepared to jump.
‘We received ‘ack ack’ [a slang for ‘flack’ or anti-aircraft fire] as soon as we prepared to jump out of the plane,’ Rod explained. ‘When I jumped, my weapon was hanging down and I frantically tried to steer the damn thing [parachute]. We took sporadic anti-aircraft fire, flack, and I felt a pain in my stomach. I knew I was hit. I panicked thinking I was going to die. I had never been in combat before, and I didn’t know what to do. I learned later that they dropped us more than 8 miles from the bridge, which was our primary objective. Anyway, I was hit right here in my stomach,’ as Rod points right below his belly button. ‘I was hit by a piece of shrapnel about the size of my finger nail, and to this day, I have two belly buttons. Right here.’ At this point he shows me the wound on his stomach, which serves as a permanent souvenir from Arnhem every time Rod looks in the mirror. ‘I was panicked. We were only in the air for 90 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. I thought I was going to die, and when we landed, I called for a medic. The medic looked at my wound and told me it was just a small hole in my stomach, so he put a patch on it and told me to get back to work. At that point, I thought, ‘What the hell. I’ve been initiated already and we’re not even in Arnhem yet,’ Rod said with a smile on his face.
Suddenly, Rod’s face grew serious and he explained, ‘My best friend, Don Spall was injured during the jump, and I thought he was dead. He was hit three times in the back, I said goodbye and we left him there thinking he wasn’t going to make it. We had to move toward our objective as quickly as possible. I was very sad, because we had been school boys together.’
As the spectacular number of planes, paratroopers, and gliders filled the sky, the Germans were caught wondering what was happening. German reactions ranged from stunned admiration as tens of thousands of paratroopers flew through the sky like a swarm of locusts, to fear and trepidation. Generalfeldmrschall Model was visiting German Army Group B headquarters at Hotel Tafelberg, when he saw the paratroopers in the sky. Unbeknownst to the paratroopers, Model and his command staff narrowly escaped capture, as they gathered their belongings and bolted northeast in a convoy toward Arnhem. Panic struck many of the German soldiers, but German commanders kept their wits about them and quickly mobilized their forces to set up hasty defenses.
As Rod continued to tell his incredible story, my mind drifted back to 2004 in Iraq, which was the first time I (or my platoon) had ever been engaged by enemy fighters. The first shot was extremely nerve-racking, scary, and very confusing. Nobody knew exactly what to do, and hundreds of thoughts flew through my head. The second time we were attacked, we weren’t quite as afraid, and we had our wits about us. After the third engagement, the attacks seemed no different than any other routine task we grew accustomed to performing. Of course, it’s easy for me to say now, but regardless, I can’t imagine being wounded just minutes into Rod’s first combat mission. Being attacked is a very scary thing, and oh by the way, Rod was a seventeen-year-old kid.
Once Rod’s 2nd Parachute Battalion had landed, within ten minutes’ time, Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, commander of the battalion, summoned Rod and the soldiers of 2nd Battalion, to his location. They gathered their forces and by 1500 [3:00 PM], they were moving through the Doorwerthse Woods in route to their primary objective, the steel road bridge over the Rhine River in Arnhem, gateway to Germany.
Rod continued, ‘Lieutenant Colonel Frost was our battalion commander, and when we all landed, he gave us the order to move toward Arnhem. There was no resistance whatsoever on the ground. On our march toward Arnhem, people came out of their houses to greet us and cheer for us. The Dutch people handed us cookies, flowers and they shouted, ‘I love you.’ It took us about 6-7 hours to make the 8-mile march from the drop zone to our bridge objective in Arnhem, mainly because the people kept stopping us. They kept hugging us, and I thought, ‘wow, this is going to be a piece of cake!’’
The Dutch people were so incredibly excited to see the British troops, and they did everything possibe to help them. When the paratroopers landed, Dutch farmers helped free the tangled soldiers by cutting their rigging lines. They brought food and water out to the troops, as they moved toward Arnhem. ‘Pretty Dutch girls kissed the soldiers, sweaty from the heat and the march. ‘Everywhere the Churchill V-sign was used as a currency of friendship and greeting.’ Cheering civilians, women and old men, offered fruit and drinks, including gin. Officers shouted orders that nobody was to drink alcohol or stop. Younger men emerged from hiding and begged to be allowed to accompany them and fight too,’27 Beevor explains.
As Rod moved along with the 2nd Parachute Battalion, Frost soon lost radio communications with his higher headquarters. The combination of trees and obstacles interfering with the radios, along with German radio-jamming, made radio communication nearly impossible.
On their initial movement to the bridge, as they entered Arnhem, Rod’s battalion captured several German prisoners. Rod remembers one of the Germans who spoke English, and said to Rod, ‘I’ve never seen so many gliders and paratroopers in my life. What power! What power!’ Rod continued to explain that despite the number of paratroopers dropped into Arnhem, they weren’t equipped to fight Panzers, Tigers and other heavy German weapons. Many of the paratroopers, including Rod, weren’t even equipped with the normal Infantry steel helmet. ‘When we jumped, they made us wear this leather thing over our heads. It was nuts,’ Rod said. I laughed. I can’t imagine going into combat with a leather hat protecting my head.
As Frost’s battalion passed the rectory and church in Oosterbeek, C Company veered off to attempt to capture the Arnhem Railway bridge. As they moved to assault the bridge, a German soldier ran to the middle of the bridge and knelt down, apparently preparing to detonate the bridge. C Company charged the bridge, as they set foot on the northern portion, the middle of the span detonated and collapsed in their faces.
Rod and his fellow soldiers moved under the railway line from Nijmegen, and they began to encounter stiff resistance from Krafft’s battalion in Arnhem, consisting of only 435 men, including officers, NCO’s, and soldiers. By mid-afternoon, Model and his staff understood the full scope and intention of the Allied operation. XXX Corps had already begun their advance, so Model understood that the Allies were attempting to secure a bridgehead over the Rhine. With that, he issued orders to secure the Arnhem bridge immediately. Model immediately requested reinforcements, which consisted of the 107th Panzer Brigade, and an assault gun brigade, rerouted while heading to Aarchen from Denmark. In addition, he requested a heavy Panzer battalion of Mark VI Royal Tiger tanks, 88mm flak battery and just about every unit available to be sent to prevent an Allied breakthrough.’28
While 2nd Battalion moved into Arnhem, the American 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were dropping into their objectives. 101st Airborne would secure the first sector of ‘Hell’s Highway’ north of Eindhoven in four locations near St. Oedenrode and Veghel. 82nd Airborne Division would be given the difficult task of securing Nijmegen and the Nijmegen bridge, allowing free movement for XXX Corps north into Arnhem. Once again, the Dutch assisted the paratroopers at every possible opportunity. Beevor tells the story of a young Dutch girl who assisted a gunner James Seabolt of the 101st Airborne. ‘Dutch civilians ran up to help, and started to carry away a gunner called James Seabolt who had broken his leg in the crash. They and the Americans came under fire again. A few moments later, ‘a beautiful Dutch girl arrived with a wheel-barrow.’ Seabolt was placed in it and they trundled him off. He was in such pain that his comrades had to leave him in a barn in the care of the girl. They gave him a morphine shot and handed him a pistol, which seemed an unsafe combination, but they and Seabolt were all returned to American lines over the next week thanks to their helpers.’29
Generalobesrt Student, German commander in that area, hastily assembled two battalions and sent one each to St. Oedenrode and Veghel to defend against the 101st airborne invasion. Meanwhile, 82nd Airborne Division, led by Brigadier General Jim Gavin, took heavy flak fire as they landed near Nijmegen. They encountered stiff resistance as they assembled on the ground and began moving toward their objective. At 2200 hrs [10:00 PM], 82nd Airborne soldiers entered Nijmegen and began encountering resistance in the urban areas. Several paratroopers were wounded, and the local Dutch citizens once again did everything they could to help by pulling the wounded soldiers into their homes.
Rod paused for a second to explain the overall mission for ‘Operation Market Garden’. ‘There were multiple bridges involved,’ Rod explains. ‘It was a huge operation. Many of the soldiers were loaded in gliders and towed. We jumped from C-47’s, and I’m thankful I wasn’t one of the soldiers loaded into a glider. More than 10,000 soldiers jumped into Arnhem as part of Operation Market Garden within a few hours of each other, and I believe it was one of the largest Airborne missions of all-time. French, Polish, British and American soldiers were all part of this mission.’ Rod used a few props on the coffee table to explain the mission. ‘There was a river with a main road alongside it. Across the river there were five bridges, with the farthest being Arnhem Bridge. The Americans’ objective was Nijmegen Bridge, and they were very lucky. 2 things brought the Americans luck. First, the bridge was rigged with explosives, and as the Americans began to advance across the bridge, the Germans pulled the plunger to detonate the explosives, and nothing happened. As a result, an entire battalion of Americans was able to cross the bridge, but they were still two bridges below us. On the Americans’ other bridge, the battalion was massacred. The Americans used tiny boats to paddle across the river and the Germans inflicted tremendous casualties.’ Rod pauses for a second and says again, ‘They took tremendous casualties. They really did take tremendous casualties.’
Rod explained that he was a Bren gunner, the famous British light machine gun, known to be one of the most reliable and effective machine guns in history. Known as simply ‘The Bren,’ the British machine gun was a top-loaded weapon, sporting a bipod for increased accuracy with a range of 600 yards (and deadly accurate fire). With its signature curved magazines, the Bren (eventually converted to 7.62 caliber ammunition) was not officially retired from the British military until 2006. ‘The Bren was a beautiful weapon. It was a lightweight machine gun that fires a .303 caliber round. You can put a 30-round clip in the top,’ as Rod motions with his hand, ‘or you can use a one hundred-round drum. The front had a tripod, and boy, you thought I was accurate before? You should have seen me shoot that gun. I carried two ammunition packages with 3 magazines in each pouch. Two more soldiers, the ammo carriers, also carried six magazines each. I had the option of selecting semi-automatic or full-automatic,’ Rod explained as his eyes sparkled with excitement.
Rod and the lead elements of 2nd Battalion reached the Arnhem road bridge at 2000 hrs [8:00 PM], under the cover of darkness. Alpha Company, commanded by Major Digby Tatham-Warter, reached the bridge first and set up positions underneath the north end. He then deployed two platoons along the sides of the bridge to occupy houses and set security positions overlooking the bridge. Rod was part of the two platoons that occupied the houses. The paratroopers would knock on the doors and respectfully explain to the residents that they would need to leave before the battled started. The residents were not happy when the soldiers began knocking out their windows, using furniture to create fighting positions, ripping down curtains and blinds, and filling bathtubs to ensure a supply of water, amongst other things.30. Keeping in line with traditional Dutch hospitality, they still managed to the welcomed the Allied soldiers.
Frost himself joined the paratroopers under the bridge after they secured the northern end under a cover of darkness. The British soldiers allowed German traffic to continue flowing over the bridge as they set their positions and were careful not to alert the Germans of their presence. The Germans were ill-prepared to secure the bridge upon 2nd Battalion’s arrival. They only had a few men set up in the vicinity of the bridge, and despite Modl’s orders, they reacted slowly to bolster its security. Frost recognized a need to act quickly and decisively to secure the south end of the bridge before the Germans could send reinforcements. The Arnhem rail bridge had already been blown, and the pontoon bridge south of their location had been disassembled, leaving Frost no choice other than to cross the river in boats, or assault across the Arnhem Road bridge itself. 2nd Battalion was unable to locate any boats in the immediate vicinity, so Major Tatham-Warter deployed Lieutenant John Grayburn and his platoon to assault across the bridge directly. They stayed close to the sides of the bridge and attempted a frontal assault on the German positions. Rod watched in horror as a German armored car and 20 mm flak guns hammered the assaulting platoon, wounding the majority of the platoon, which caused them to withdraw back to the north end of the bridge. Lieutenant Grayburn later was awarded the Victoria Cross for his heroic attempt at securing the bridge. While Frost organized another attempt to secure the southern end of the bridge, paratroopers set up Frost’s HQ and other fighting positions in and around the houses adjacent to the bridge.
Soon, a second attempt was made to secure the south end of the bridge. This time, a platoon of combat engineers attempted to use a flamethrower to ‘smoke out’ the fighting position on the south end. The soldier accidentally caught a box of ammunition (and possibly some fuel) on fire with the flamethrower, which caused a massive explosion and fire in the center of the bridge. The second attempt to occupy the southern end failed, but Frost was hopeful the fire had destroyed any explosives that the Germans had planted on the bridge in preparation to detonate it.
Rod explained the paratroopers’ actions when they arrived at their objective bridge. ‘We finally arrived at the bridge, and, BIG SURPRISE. We dug in on the north side of the bridge, and we spotted the Germans lining up on the south side of the bridge. We did not expect tanks. We were told there would be no German Panzers in Arnhem. Our mission was supposed to be a cake walk. When we arrived at the bridge, we set positions under and around the north side of the bridge. We occupied as many houses as we could that would provide security over the bridge.’
Frost’s forces consisted of more than 700 men set in position around the bridge, but the Achilles heel for Rod’s battalion, and also the 1st Airborne Division during the entire operation, was a lack of radio communication with other units. During the first night, forward artillery observers realized they had no radio communication with artillery batteries setting up to their rear. Knowing how critical artillery support would be, they risked driving through German lines to make contact with the artillery batteries in order to properly sight them along the German’s most likely directions of attack. Beevor provides an account of a British gunner, who knocked on the door of a home and politely urged the residents not to be frightened when the guns began firing. ‘When you hear a boom and a whistle it is ours,’ he explained. ‘When you hear a whistle and a bang it is one of theirs.’31
The other battalions [further behind Rod’s battalion] encountered strong resistance from the quickly organizing Germans as they had a difficult time moving into West Arnhem. Model moved German reinforcements into Arnhem as quickly as possible, informing his commanders that the Heavy Panzer Battalion 503 with Mark VI Royal Tigers was being brought across Germany to reinforce Arnhem and Nijmegen. Another fourteen Tiger Mark VI tanks were also being railed in from Heavy Panzer Battalion 506 at Paderborn. Model explained the importance of securing the rail lines to allow for the reinforcements to arrive.32
In addition to the Tiger tanks, Model and his staff ordered as many Infantry reinforcements as possible, redirecting several Infantry battalions, tank destroyers, anti-aircraft batteries, artillery batteries, and even flamethrowers to Arnhem. Beevor explains the German force that Rod and his fellow paratroopers would soon be up against: ‘All through the night, Model’s staff had been ordering in reinforcements towards Arnhem, using the town of Bocholt as railhead. The 280th Assault Gun Brigade, en route from Denmark to Aachen, was diverted to Arnhem. Other units included three battalions of around 600 men each; nine Alarmeinheiten of scratch units totaling 1,400 men; two panzerjager companies of tank destroyers from Herford; six motorized Luftwaffe companies totaling 1,500 men; and a Flakkampfgruppe made up of ten batteries, with a total of thirty-six 88 mm guns and thirty-nine 20 mm guns. They were ‘temporarily motorized’ which meant that civilian tractors and tracks were used to tow them. The 20 mm light flak guns were sent forward to the landing zones to take on any more airborne lifts or drops. Model’s plan was not just to block the rest of the 1st Airborne Division from reaching the Arnhem road bridge, it was to crush it between two forces.’33
The Germans were aware that only a small force of 1st Airborne Division soldiers (Frost’s 2nd Battalion) actually reached the bridge. The first priority for Harzer’s Hohenstaufen was to concentrate all available forces on building two blocking lines to ensure that no additional 1st Airborne troops would be able to make it through to the Arnhem road bridge. While Harzer’s forces focused on repelling British reinforcements to the west, Harmel’s Frundsberg Division was ordered to destroy all resistance at the bridge as soon as possible, so that Harmel could send forces south across the bridge to reinforce Nijmegen.
To learn more about the overall Operation Market Garden plan, days two through nine in Arnhem, and Rod's life, visit: