Views of a private soldier on Operation Market Garden
George Hill, 1st Parachute Battalion, 1922 –1992
Ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pride and with due humility that I address you today. You have no doubt heard from some very knowledgeable and erudite persons, who with the advantage of twenty-twenty hindsight, will have given you their theories as to why Operation Market Garden was not the huge success that it should have been. So then let me introduce myself and my background.
My name is George Hill. I was a private soldier of the 1st Parachute Battalion of the 1st British Airborne Division. I was born in 1922 in an army hospital, the son of a professional soldier and lived for the first thirteen years of my life in army quarters. I was proud to be a soldiers son, and it’s sometimes said that such children have rifle oil in their veins instead of blood, and their nickname is Barrack Rats. I joined the army as soon as possible in 1938 at 16 years of age as a territorial soldier. Until the outbreak of war, when I was called to the colours and became a full-time soldier.
I served in the Royal Artillery until in one week in 1943, I attained the age of twenty-one years, got married and qualified as a parachutist. Having given up an NCO’s rank to do so. My pride was complete when, in June 1943 Iwas posted to the 1st Parachute Battalion in North Africa. In September 1943, we returned to England for training and more training. Learn to fire the two-inch mortar from the hips. No questions about training, ‘Just do it’ and learn from the experts who have done it all and now expect you to do it as well. No better than they can. No mistakes. Do it again and better and again until you are exhausted. The company to which I am attached is now under Major Timothy of Bruneval raid fame. An interesting occurrence this, because he knows me. How? He was a pre-war lieutenant in the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. My father’s Regiment would you believe?He remembers my Father teaching him, ceremonial sword drill at Maidstone Barracks.
And so, a few views of a private soldier on Market Garden. I wonder if the experts have ever considered why the operation took place when it did, there was immense political and media pressure to use the division, which in 1944 had not fought for a whole year. The two American Airborne Divisions, the 82nd and 101st, had both been in action on and since D-Day, while the British 1st Airborne Division had not. What is conveniently forgotten or discounted is the fact that it had fought in North Africa, Sicily and Italy prior to any American Army involvement. Thus, as has been said, the British Airborne Division was a ‘hot coin in the general’s pocket’. I wonder, which general?
General Montgomery has been blamed, I would say, accused, of being over ambitious in the operation. But if we examine his record, we can, I suggest, agree that he never took unnecessary risks. He would not to my knowledge, willingly send men to their deaths. If we accept this, surely, we must question why he did so in September1944. We know that he could be daring and inspirational, as at El Alamein and the North African victories, but therefore the job, he had the men and the equipment with which to win his battles.
At Arnhem, if when I accept certain facts, it becomes apparent that here he was hamstrung from the very start of the operation. It has been said that this operation was the most daring single thrust with no flank protection. Most victories are due to great daring, whether in planning or in execution, and there is nothing wrong with daring, so long as you can be confident of support from one’s allies and other services.
Consider our allies. There were not sufficient aircraft for the most distant of the three drops on the 17th of September, and so for us, the 1st British Airborne Division, our greatest asset, surprise, was lost on day one, because only one third of the division was dropped. An unheard misuse of Airborne troops on a divisional operation. Further, consider the admitted fact that an American General who was idolized in The States was purloining supplies from every other allied army for his own benefit. That was Patton. Two examples of allied non-cooperation. Add to these, the great problems posed by the Royal Airforce force, who decided the drop zone and decreed that air losses over the bridge would be too great due to anti-aircraft activity. But where was it? Surely, we had dropped on targets before and would have accepted losses, which would have been less than the actual casualties incurred, because at least one Parachute Brigade, complete, would have been at the bridge. Also, the Royal Air Force ruled that the land near the bridge would not take gliders and they would ‘nose-in’ on landing. Surely the glider landings were not perfect at Ginkel Heath or Wolfheze.
And so dawned September 17th, 1944. Market Garden will not be cancelled. So confidently, we embus, en-route to the airfield at Barkston Heath. No need to worry. The briefing gives us a buoyant hope: little opposition, stomach troops only is the enemy, and young Volkssturmers. No armour, no problems. Events are to prove some slight error or over optimism, but not now. We have right officers and non-commissioned officers. Sergeant Barrett, Sergeant Hicks, Sergeant Ishelwood would have seen it all before and will lead.
After a carefree flight, as we approached the DZ at Wolfheze surrounded by Royal Air Force fighters, our aircraft loses about one foot of its port wing to an AA gunner. But that’s all. One of the fighters, quickly sorted that gun out. A few minutes later, about 1.30PM on a beautiful Sunday, with, oddly enough, thoughts of Sunday dinner, we jump into a foreign land with foreign names, but the only hostile reaction is to come from the Germans.
A perfect landing. We can even see the rendezvous point with no problem. Perfect rendezvous. The company is complete and starts to dig in. The other battalions move off, and we follow in perfect order. Now to use the radios…and they do not work!
Past the houses with orange armbands and banners everywhere. The Dutch have little enough but ensure that we are greeted with apples, tomatoes, drink and their love and gratitude. The liberators have come! The late General Urquhart has often been criticized for his handling of the operation. But bear in mind the fact that he was not an Airborne General, but an infantry commander appointed about eight months before the operation, over the heads of men who had been Airborne commanders from the very inception of Airborne Forces. What was not realized was the extreme jealousies of commanders in Airborne Forces, with the resultant chaos caused by the Brigadiers when the General was missing. It was an unholy lapse. The command hand-down should have been decided at command briefing but the troops were not so inhibited. By consent, the ground troops follow their natural leaders, who took command of small sections and led them until a non-commissioned officer appeared, when leadership was handed back quite naturally. None of these were ever supermen, they’re good men, doing a job for which they had volunteered. They were simply building a Regiment and a history and fighting a war.
It has been said that some of the troops were inexperienced and ducked at every sound of gunfire. Some were, but most had seen action before and knew that in essence survival is more beneficial to the battalion, which would survive as a fighting force. But Airborne Forces were never intended to fight against tanks, which were not supposed to be in Arnhem.
With the best German commander too to deal with Airborne troops, having been an Airborne commander himself, he knew the truth of military basic: The best means of defence is attack.
Having been committed, the second battalion went for the bridge and, with other units, took and held it. An interesting exercise could be to see how many men from each of the other battalions died, either in defence of, or en-route to the bridge. And still, the 2nd Battalion claim to have captured and held the bridge. This is not to employ criticism of the great 2nd Battalion, but to point out that Market Garden was a Divisional operation and every battalion played its part. Perhaps it would have been more honest to have named the bridge Pegasus in memory of the division.
Another point to bear in mind is that the German troops were not third-rate troops, but seasoned troops fighting on the very threshold of their own country for survival. What did slow the advance was the overwhelming welcome by the Dutch.
The first time we had had such a greeting. It was understandable that the Dutch, after being occupied for so long, should welcome us so. But we would not have been human had we brushed their welcome aside. We were, after all, only human, and maybe that is what made us different to our enemies.
I will turn now to a few personal anecdotes which I know to be true. A few days after the battle, I was thinking things over, and I recall clearly giving my tin of hard chocolate to a Dutch child and later doubting the wisdom of it when I was hungry. But in any case, his need was greater than mine. Certain actions on reflection seem almost stupid. I can remember sheltering behind a tree about twelve inches round and although I was slim then, with all my equipment on, I was not slim enough to get any protection from that tree at all.
War also produces his own tragedies. In my own case, having jumped on Sunday afternoon at Wolfheze and made a copy-book rendezvous, I led my company off the DZ. Just as we approached the hospital, I was ordered to the rear of the section, having led far enough. The man who took over the lead, took ten paces and died instantly with two others of the section and two others wounded. Pressing on toward Wolfheze level crossing at a point to the right of the station and behind the shop in a clearing, a self-propelled gun hit what was left of the section, blinding our section Corporal and leaving him blind and concussed for two days. Here, I turn right up to the crossroads where the German General Kussin lay dead. Onto Westerbouwing, which was our primary target with the simple instruction: ‘It’s the high ground take and hold it’, a great task for a company of 90 men, but when you’re down to 40 or 50 men, life gets tough.
Another tragedy or comedy situation occurs here. Going forward to where the chair lift now is and looking down over the Rhine, I was stunned to see the gun of a Tiger tank pointing straight up at me. I withdrew and made my way down along the lower road, past the church, and came up somewhere near the side of the Rhine hotel. Then back onto the Onderlangs as far as where the Art School now stands. Into the gardens on the left,(sloping gardens) from the back of the house on the upper road, down to the lower road of one time, at one-point I looked up. What was that sound? I said to myself. Breaking glass and thent he German fires at me whilst I’m looking up into the broken window at him.The bullet enters my pack and I slide down feigning injury, praying he believes he has got me.
No further trouble. Back to the path on the left. A machine gunner on the point of a grass ward opens up and hits Lieutenant Kilmartin. He is dead, another dies beside him. Another is wounded and crawls into a garden where a Rhododendron bush is and lies there. I do not know this, but it’s my mate, Lieutenant Kilmartin’s batman George Dymott. The German machine gunner who had been firing at us stands up. I cannot understand why. He had enough bandoliers of ammunition on him to hold us up for a long time, but Sergeant Barrett sees that he takes no more lives. I duck into the garden that might make my way towards the bridge once more. As I’m passing the next garden I hear moans. Obviously, somebody badly hurt. I call in a hoarse voice who’s there? Astrangled reply ‘Is that you George?’ And so,the terrible twins, the two George’s meet. I had morphine, twelve phials. George Dimott, the injured boy, has a good dose and is a little relieved. Another batman, Arthur West is higher up the garden, uninjured. A Tiger tank followed up and I was captured by SS troopsand marched into the square opposite the Musis Sacrum.
Sometimelater we’re put into trucks and taken to Zutphen and put in a railway warehouse. Aircraft action during the night with plenty of noise but where are the rest of the first division? Where are the rest of the 1st Battalion? I do not see any.
Thus, I became a guest of the Germansfor the next eight months. I arrived at Halle and just about survived on very low rations. After all, the Germans had very little food, so they were not going to feed us too well. Memories fade. The only dates I can remember are Sunday, September 17th, 1944 and, after eight months in a POW camp near Leipzig, working in a German crematorium, Easter 1945, when,whilst on the march we were released by General Patton’s American troops.
However, after my release in 1945, I quickly returned home. I must stress that my talk this afternoon has been made up of my personal views as seen by an ordinary soldier. Whether Market Garden was a success or not depends on which way one looks at the operation. But the one certain thing that remains is that any failure was not due to any weakness on the part of the men taking part, and in any case, perhaps lessons may have been learned. I have a personal view when I came back to Oosterbeek, Renkum and Arnhem and see the graves and tablets, signs of those who died is, is the price too high and were too many lives wasted to satisfy higher commands dreams without serious considerations of basics such as nearer DZs and better appreciations of intelligence reports?
I trust I have not bored you too much. Thank you, friends, for your attention.