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A mythical beast - a female wargamer! I got back into wargaming in the summer of 2011 after a very, very long break. My current interests are Ancients, ACW, 30YW and SciFi gaming.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Arnhem 75th, Day Two - Bash on Recce!

As it's the 75th Anniversary of Operation Market Garden, I've decided to do some relevant posts over the next few days. I'm going to start off with a post on the Recce Squadron. Actually, I suspect that most of these posts will be about them. There will be at least one post which isn't (completely) about them.

From "A Bridge Too Far":

McKenzie: "Brigadier Lathbury has just left, sir. Johnny Frost and 2nd Battalion are already on the river road."
Urquhart: "Good."
"Thank you, Baker" (Baker departs)
"Any news of Freddie Gough's jeep squadron?"
McKenzie: "Well, it's unconfirmed but..."
(unnamed officer): "A bit of bad luck, sir, considering how few gliders we lost on the way in..."
McKenzie: "...but it appears that a lot of the special jeeps failed to arrive and those that did have been badly shot up in an ambush."
Urquhart: "So, no-one's going to get to Arnhem Bridge except on foot? Splendid."


There is obviously a certain degree of artistic licence taken by the film with that scene. At the time, the Divisional HQ had not made contact with the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron, so were not aware that their lead jeeps had been ambushed. However, there was most certainly a belief that most of their jeeps had failed to arrive.


1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron - Freddie Gough's Specials

Following their return from Italy in 1943, where B Troop had been virtually wiped out, the squadron was reformed and replacements incorporated into their ranks. Under the new organisation, the composition would be Squadron HQ, HQ Troop, three Recce Troops (A, C and D) and a Support Troop which took the four 3" mortar teams from the Recce Troops. At some point in 1944, the squadron acquired two 20mm Polsten anti-aircraft guns which were assigned to the Support Troop.

In Italy, having worked alongside the armed jeeps of the SAS and Popski's Private Army, at one point they had mounted captured German aircraft guns on some of their jeeps. This experience led Major Gough to seek permission for the squadron's jeeps to be armed with Vickers K Guns. The original idea was for these to be be fitted as a double mount, but this was dropped to a single gun per jeep after consideration of the weight for the extra ammunition that would be needed and the maximum loads per glider. At the beginning of May 1944 all 41 of the squadron's jeeps had been fitted with the K guns.

In addition to the jeeps, the squadron also had a number of 350cc Matchless motorcycles. I haven't been able to identify how many of these were on the Arnhem lift. I have seen home film footage that shows at least five; there could have been several more in the gliders.

Seven of the jeeps were sent ahead on the seaborne tail in August, leaving 34 to be sent in by glider. The squadron would be allocated 22 gliders for the lift. Ten of the gliders (those for SHQ, HQ Troop and Support Troop) would carry one jeep and trailer each, motorcycles and squadron supplies; the other 12 gliders would carry two jeeps each (4 gliders each for the Recce Troops). Each glider would also carry two or three personnel from the squadron; the remainder would be parachuting in.

The Plan

In addition to their own personnel, there were some attachments:
Corporal Tom Italiaander of the Dutch Commandos
Captain Heggie and an eleven man detachment of 9 (Airborne) Field Company, Royal Engineers (with two jeeps and trailers)
Captain Mallett and 2 men from 1st Field Observer Unit, Royal Artillery

On arrival, the squadron would come under command of Brigadier Lathbury's 1st Parachute Brigade, apart from A Troop which was assigned to the Divisional reserve. Their task would be to carry out a "coup de main" rush to Arnhem bridge, capture it and hold it until relieved by 2 and 3 Para, a role for which the squadron was neither trained nor suited to perform. the squadron would then return to Divisional HQ and conduct the reconnaissance tasks for which they were suited.
Major Gough argued against this plan, proposing that the squadron's Recce Troops should be assigned to scout ahead of the three Para battalions; this was denied. He then requested that the squadron be reinforced with a troop of Tetrarch tanks from 6th Airborne Division; this request was also refused.


D-Day - 17 September 1944

200 squadron members were on the lift. One of the parachute element was ill on the way over and did not jump. There were two injuries among the parachutists.

The gliders landed around 1335, the parachutists around 1410.

Of the 22 gliders, only two failed to arrive. One of these was from HQ Troop, the other was from A Troop (allocated to 2 Section's jeeps). Both had landed in England and would join the 2nd lift  the following day. This meant that only 3 (out of 34) jeeps had failed to arrive.

However, there were problems with a number of the glider landings. Four or five of them had crashed into some woods (one crashed about 30 foot up a tree) and others had become embedded in the soft soil. This led to some severe delays unloading them. There were casualties among the glider element - Sergeant Baxter, a glider pilot, was killed; Squadron Sergeant Major Meadows suffered spinal fractures (he was in the glider up in the tree). The crashed gliders mainly affected A Troop, with all six of their jeeps which had arrived stuck; four would be extracted by about 1800, the other two the next morning. The jeeps of D Troop's HQ section were also proving difficult to extract - allegedly Major Gough loaned them two from HQ Troop (possibly including his from the SHQ) and waited for their jeeps to be retrieved and arrive at the RV.

By 1500, most of the jeeps had been extracted and they set off for the RV with the parachute element, arriving there around 1515. In the squadron's war diary, Captain Allsop noted that HQ was assembled less one glider and two jeeps - presumably the 2nd missing jeep was the one up the tree. D Troop's jeeps arrived at the RV at 1530.

The original plan had 28 jeeps making the bridge run; 26 from the squadron and the two Royal Engineers jeeps. There were 25 jeeps at the RV point.  Ignoring the eight jeeps of A Troop and the two already mentioned from HQ Troop, there should have been two from SHQ, two from HQ Troop, four from Support Troop, eight from C Troop and eight from D Troop. However Lt Marshall of D Troop's 10 Section and his driver, Trooper Joe Irala (a Spanish volunteer), somehow took a wrong turn on the way to the RV point and spent the afternoon driving around the countryside. That means that there were 23 of the squadron's jeeps available for the run; the other two must have been those of the Royal Engineers. Major Gough decided to leave two jeeps under Lieutenants Collier (the QM) and Lickorish with some men to gather supplies from the drop and landing zones.

There have been suggestions that the Royal Engineers either didn't RV with the squadron, or were late in doing so. As 25 jeeps were at the RV, they must have made it to the RV; there is also no evidence that they arrived late. In fact, it is more likely that they were already at the RV when the squadron's jeeps arrived.

The squadron's war diary does not mention their presence or absence. However, the war diary for 9th (Airborne) Field Company RE notes on the Monday morning that Captain Heggie's party was still with the squadron and had suffered no casualties.


The Rumour

Back at Divisional HQ, the belief that most of the squadron's jeeps had failed to arrive took hold. It is probably the case that when A Troop reported in, someone had asked where their jeeps were and assumed from their response that it applied to the whole squadron rather than just their troop. It seems that nobody thought at any point to confirm this with them. They were also suffering from the well known signals problems; not that they could have directly contacted the squadron who were on the 1st Parachute Brigade radio net, not the Divisional one.

When Gen Urquhart heard this news, he sent out an order for Major Gough to report to him at Divisional HQ.


Rush For The Bridge!

The squadron was assembled by 1530 and at 1540 set off on Leopard Route with C Troop in the lead. After passing through the level crossing at Wolfheze, Lt Bucknall's 8 Section took the lead and proceeded down the Johannahoevesweg, a lane along the north side of the railway embankment which would eventually join the main Amsterdamseweg and take them into Arnhem. This was also the route that 1 Para were due to take.

At 1545 as Lt Bucknall's jeep went up the rise after a slight dip and entered the second patch of woods, it came under heavy fire from the woods and the railway embankment. This came from the reserve platoon of Sepp Krafft's 16th SS Panzergrenadier training and replacement battalion, reinforced with one or two tripod MG42s from the support platoon. They comprised the northern tip of the blocking line he had established and had only arrived there a few minutes earlier.

Lt Bucknall's jeep was set ablaze, likely one of the fuel cans was hit. Lance Sergeant McGregor's jeep a short way behind at the bottom of the dip then came under fire, but they were able to bail out and assume firing positions in a ditch to the right of their jeep. Sticking his head up to try to locate the German positions, he was shot and killed.

7 Section following behind dismounted and went forward on foot ti investigate. While the rest of the section took up covering positions on either side of the track, Lance Sergeant Stacey advanced carefully, but was shot within yards of the second jeep; he later bled to death from his wounds. Captain Hay detailed 9 Section to go round to cover the south side of the railway line and took his HQ section forward into the first woods to engage the enemy.

Meanwhile, the rest of the squadron at Wolfheze station came under mortar fire from other elements of Krafft's battalion at around 1600. At some point, the Support Troop's two Polsten guns were called upon to drive off some armoured cars which were causing problems for the 2nd South Staffs* on their way down from the Landing Zone. Presumably the armoured cars were elements of Walter Grabner's 9th SS Panzer Aufklarungs battalion.

* according to one source; Hilton's book just says they engaged and drove off some armoured cars. It isn't mentioned in the squadron's war diary and there is no war diary for Support Troop.

D Troop had moved into Wolfheze and around 1630 engaged forward patrols from Krafft's battalion "The enemy shows himself and suffers in consequence. Sections push home advantage and become involved in fairly stiff battle. Not one loss to the Troop."

The firefight with Krafft's blocking line continued. The squadron's MO, Captain Swinscow attempted to get forward to treat and recover the casualties, but came under mortar fire.

At about 1630, Major Gough received the message ordering him to report to Gen Urquhart at Divisional HQ. He handed over command to his 2iC, Captain Allsop, assuming that he would be back shortly. Taking two jeeps, a dispatch rider and grabbing two extra soldiers from D Troop to provide additional protection, he set off to find Gen Urquhart. On their way they ran into Lt Col Dobie's 1 Para who were meant to follow the same route. Having been informed of the blockage, Dobie took his battalion straight north to the Amsterdamseweg.

At around 1800, with the firefight still going on sporadically, Captain Allsop ordered the squadron to return to Divisional HQ. HQ, Support and D Troop moved out at this point; C Troop held on until about 1830 when they were relieved by members of the Glider Pilots Regiment.


C Troop's Fate

All four personnel in Lt Bucknall's jeep were killed. Of those in L/Sgt McGregor's jeep, only McGregor himself was killed; Trooper Minns was very badly wounded and was left for dead by the Germans, as was L/Sgt Stacey; the other four were taken prisoner. Trooper Bill Edmonds of 9 section was mortally wounded and died later in the dressing station set up by 181 Field Ambulance.


What Went Wrong?

Firstly, the bad landings of so many gliders which delayed unloading for the jeeps. Under normal conditions it should take about 30 minutes to extract all the jeeps, trailers and other supplies from a Horsa glider. As has been seen, it took some 85 minutes for most of the jeeps to be extracted and ready to move off to the RV. If they had been able to assemble just 15 minutes earlier than they did, they would have avoided the ambush by Krafft's  men who wouldn't have been in place.

If they had been able to set off earlier and avoid the ambush, they may have run into Grabner's armoured cars on the way into Arnhem. That would have been a worse encounter than the one they did have. Had they avoided such an encounter and made it to the bridge, they would probably have been able to capture it. However, they would later have been up against the main part of Grabner's battalion which arrived at the bridge around 1900-1930, in which case it is quite likely that they would have been severely mauled.

Leaving earlier and avoiding Krafft's troops would have meant that they couldn't warn 1 Para about the blocking line, although 1 Para may have been better suited for dealing with the ambush.

If the Recce Squadron had set out at the time they did, and instead of heading north from Wolfheze to the Amsterdamseweg 1 Para had stuck with their intended route, the Paras could probably have dealt with the ambush while Recce Squadron kept them pinned.

With the benefit of hindsight and the advantage of not having been in the hot seat, it is easy to question why the squadron seemed to make no effort to determine how far Krafft's line extended. Had they done so, they would have found that they were facing the northernmost extremity of the line and could potentially have gone around the position. Looking at the maps, there were tracks through and alongside the woodlands which could easily have been used by the jeeps.

One could also ask why they didn't make use of their quite extensive firepower - the remainder of C Troop had 6 Vickers K Guns, 10 Bren guns and two 2" mortars, plus sniper rifles and a PIAT. Utilising all that firepower, they could have pinned Krafft's men while D Troop scouted the northern flank, and then attacked the ambush from the flank and rear. The Support Troop's 3" mortars and Polsten guns would certainly have helped had they been used and might have forced the ambushers to abandon their position.

I think that a combination of factors came into play. The squadron certainly did not welcome or relish the task they had been assigned. Running into stiff opposition so soon after landing when the intelligence reports that had been passed down to them indicated "a few old men, boys and invalids - nothing to worry about" would have been a big shock, as would the loss of a popular young officer and his men. Having not been actively engaged in combat for over a year may have played its part; their record and fighting spirit in Italy had been superb.

Another factor was Major Gough's recall to Divisional HQ while the action was going on. His 2ic, Captain Allsop, expected him to return shortly so just maintained the current positions rather than looking to outflank the Germans.


What Happened With The Jeep In The Glider Up The Tree?

I honestly don't know. I've found nothing that says if it was eventually recovered or if it was abandoned. They would have had a hell of a job getting it out though.




I think that's enough for today. I'll continue with the Arnhem series tomorrow - look forward to "Sunday Afternoon Drives in the Dutch Countryside" featuring Lt Marshall and Major Gough.

8 comments:

  1. brilliant stuff! Thank you for posting. Even though there was a bit of dramatic license taken with the conversation about the recce jeeps, the fact is that for the typical person in the audience it was just what was needed to bring them up to speed.

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  2. Great idea Tamsin, really looking forward to these posts.

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  3. Good read . I have a relative who was in 1st Div signals who didn’t make it . Buried in cemetery at Lockum . We visited a few years ago . We found his picture in the museum at the Hartenstein

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    1. PS. I hugely, hugely, recommend the Robert Radcliffe Airborne trilogy for some excellent fiction about the battle and indeed the Para's earlier experiences in the war

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    2. Glad you liked it, Steve, and thanks for the book recommendations :)

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  5. @ Jerry - glad you enjoyed it! It was certainly necessary for them to use dramatic licence and mention it as they couldn't really show the action. Mind you, earlier in the film they do quote the erroneous information in Ryan's book saying that the jeeps were armed with twin Vickers guns :)

    @ Michael A - thanks! :)

    @ Dave - cheers! So many brave lads lost for Monty's ego :(

    @ Ray - thanks! :)

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