The heroism of a little-known artillery unit staved off an even greater debacle at Arnhem.
For all that the Battle of Arnhem has been analyzed, studied, and written about, one part of the story has received scant attention: the heroic role played by a single airborne artillery battalion. Surrounded, outgunned, and cut off for nine days, they fought one of the most unequal urban combats in modern history. They stopped firing their guns only when the last of their positions was overrun by German tanks and infantry—a full week beyond the forty-eight hours they had been told the fight would last.
When it was over, nearly three-quarters of the 804 men of the Royal Artillery’s 1st Airlanding Light Regiment were dead or prisoners of the enemy. Other airborne units also held out heroically against long odds during the battle, notably the British parachute troops who fought street by street within the city of Arnhem itself. Yet without the valiant work of these artillerymen, the entire battle would have been lost much sooner than it was—and a successful evacuation of almost four thousand British and Polish airborne troops across the Rhine could never have been carried off.
At the time of the battle, the Light Regiment was one of the newest units of the British 1st Airborne Division; it had been established in February 1943 from several artillery units with long experience on the northwest frontier of India. For Market Garden, the Light Regiment was to operate for the first time in the airborne role, going into battle by glider.
One Horsa glider could carry a fully assembled American-made 75mm pack howitzer, its prime mover (a Willys jeep), and one trailer of ready-made ammunition—along with the sergeant gun commander and three members of the gun crew. That was enough men and equipment to bring the gun into immediate action on landing.
A second Horsa glider carried another jeep, two ammunition trailers, and the remainder of the crew. For the regiment’s full complement of twenty-four guns and eight hundred men, a total of 170 gliders was required. This was a huge allocation of precious airlift; by comparison the entire 1st British Airborne Division received only 654 glider sorties. A few staff officers questioned whether the gliders assigned to the artillerymen could be put to better use carrying more infantry instead.
Commanding the Light Regiment was Lt. Col. W. F. K. Thompson, a long-serving artilleryman and veteran of the French and North African campaigns. Thompson had served as the regimental second in command before assuming the top post in late 1943 in Italy. He was a fair, disciplined, and demanding leader, all of which would pay great dividends during the fighting in Arnhem.
Serving almost as an independent unit, Thompson’s regiment took part in some of the war’s toughest fighting in central and southern Italy and quickly earned a reputation for pugnacity. One Canadian officer whose unit received artillery support from them in Italy reported,“The Airborne Light Regiment are a tough, hard-hitting and strong punching crowd who don’t give a bugger for anything!”
The unit was redeployed to Britain in January 1944 to prepare for the invasion of Europe. After many canceled operations, the 1st Airborne Division was notified that it would provide the main effort in Market Garden. The plan called for two of the Light Regiment’s batteries (the 1st and 3rd) to accompany the division’s glider and parachute troops on the first day and provide immediate protection to their landing zones. As the 1st Parachute Brigade advanced toward Arnhem, the 3rd Light Battery would follow, so that its guns, with a five and-a-half-mile range, could cover the brigade’s key objective: the road bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem.
The 2nd Light Battery would land the second day, and once the entire division was on the ground and a perimeter protecting the Arnhem bridge established, the Light Regiment would take up a consolidated position between Oosterbeek and Arnhem where its guns could cover the entire division’s front.
On the way to their designated landing zones north and west of Oosterbeek and Arnhem on September 17, 1944, the 1st and 3rd Batteries lost only one glider, with a 75mm howitzer and its crew, shot down over Holland by German flak.
But the German reaction was swift. Ad hoc units were formed and they immediately set up positions to the west of Arnhem. Their orders were to defeat the Allied airborne units before they could mass or, at a minimum, prevent them from advancing toward the city until armor support arrived from the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions.
The 1st Parachute Brigade’s three battalions advanced from their drop zones along three different routes toward the Arnhem road bridge, eight miles away. But only one, Lt. Col. John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion, managed to slip through the stiffening German defense. It seized the northern end of the bridge before nightfall. Several attempts to take the bridge failed, however, as the Germans firmly held the southern end.
Maj. Dennis Munford, the 3rd Light Battery commander, was riding with Frost’s battalion. He set up an observation post overlooking the bridge to act as forward spotter for his gunners, but when he tried to reach his battery by radio, he could not get a reply. He jumped in his jeep, drove back, and replaced the unit’s radios. Making the return trip to Arnhem bridge, he was fortunate enough to avoid the numerous German units that were moving westward toward the British drop zones. It would be the last time he would see his gunners.
At first light the next morning, Lt. Peter Wilkinson, who remained at the 3rd Battery, was able to make contact with Munford after he moved his radio to an attic that commanded a direct line of sight to Arnhem bridge. Little did anyone realize that this radio link between the 3rd Battery and its commander would be the only reliable means of communication between the troops at the bridge and the remainder of the division for the rest of the battle.
By nine o’clock that morning, all of the howitzers of the 3rd Battery were ready for action in their new positions. Munford registered his battery’s guns on the southern end of the bridge. It was none too soon, for shortly after 9:30 a.m., the 9th SS “Hohenstauffen” Panzer Division’s reconnaissance battalion led by SS Hauptsturmführer Viktor Gräbner attempted to rush the bridge. With armored cars in the lead, armored half-tracks crowded with SS troopers in the middle, and sandbag-reinforced troop-carrying trucks in the rear, the reconnaissance unit drove toward the bridge. Gräbner’s force would have to drive nearly 650 meters to reach the end of the south ramp of the bridge, another 200 meters to cross the bridge itself, and then down the north ramp into the city center of Arnhem.
The young German captain believed that the British expected a dawn attack. By attacking near midmorning, he believed he would catch the paratroopers by surprise and be nearly across the bridge before the enemy could respond in force. Spotting the German formation, Munford radioed several urgent requests for fire to his battery. Less than thirty seconds later, the eight 75mm howitzers fired two 14.7-pound high-explosive shells apiece, and Munford watched as they landed amid the attacking reconnaissance unit.
Though the fire was accurate and did some damage to the vehicles, the column sped on through and was more than threequarters of the way across when Frost’s paratroopers, occupying the buildings and houses overlooking the northern approach to the bridge, opened fire. More artillery shells from the Light Regiment hit home too, and the column at last halted. Gräbner was killed when his vehicle was raked by machine gun fire. With his death, the attack began to disintegrate. The northern end of Arnhem bridge was soon littered with burning vehicles and dead and wounded Germans. The firing continued for several hours, then the surviving SS troopers, most of them on foot, retreated back across the bridge. Of the twenty-two armored vehicles that had been in the attack, twelve were ablaze, blocking the north ramp roadway.
Three hours later, the 2nd Light Battery, led by Maj. J. E. F. Linton, landed with the second wave. Thompson decided to move up his 1st and 2nd batteries to where they also could reach Arnhem bridge. By 6:30 p.m. the 1st Battery occupied a field just north of the Utrechtsweg, the main east–west road that linked Oosterbeek and Arnhem, and approximately 700 yards west of division headquarters. The 2nd Battery moved into a field about 1,000 yards north of the headquarters. Thompson then drove to the Oosterbeek church near the Rhine River, where 3rd Battery was, and spent the night there.
The third day of fighting proved the turning point. The Germans, by now heavily reinforced with fresh and well-equipped units, began to encircle the airborne forces in Arnhem and Oosterbeek. Fierce street battles broke out as at least five German battle groups, supported by tanks and heavy weapons, began to batter down the lightly armed British paratroopers. The airborne units were beginning to suffer from shortages in ammunition, water, food, and medical supplies; worse still, the paratroopers had been in combat for more than thirty-six hours with no armor or air support and not enough antitank guns.
The Royal Air Force made valiant attempts at resupply, flying through heavy antiaircraft barrages. But to the intense frustration of those on the ground, most of the bundles they dropped fell into the hands of the encircling enemy.
In all, four British battalions had set out to capture Arnhem bridge, but even by the end of the third day, only Frost’s had reached it. They still held the north ramp, but casualties had now hit the 50 percent mark, and all attempts to reinforce them had been beaten back.
Inside Arnhem, German units became intermingled with the British paratroopers, making artillery support extremely risky. Several requests for fire from British units were denied because the German targets were too close to friendly units; forward observers, limited in the distance they could see to single blocks in the city’s narrow streets, were unable to accurately report back to the gunners where their shells were falling. But several German self-propelled guns were destroyed after Munford got approval to fire an initial smoke round so observers could get an accurate fix and allow the gunners to more safely adjust their aim before firing for effect.
As the battle intensified, the Light Regiment’s batteries themselves came under attack from strafing aircraft, artillery, and approaching infantry. Ignoring the growing casualties, Thompson’s artillerymen continued to man their guns, beating back several enemy attacks. Amazed at their calm and confidence, one glider pilot who was on the scene later recalled,“When with them, one felt at times we were on a major training exercise rather than fighting for our survival.”
Seeing demoralized British infantry units retreating pell-mell along the Utrechtsweg road, Thompson ordered his men to form a roadblock with their jeeps, halted the mostly leaderless troops, and sent them to a supply dump to receive fresh ammunition, rations, and water. By dragooning these men, Thompson now had several reinforced infantry companies and several antitank guns under his improvised command. He consolidated his howitzer positions and formed the infantrymen to protect the guns and cover the road leading to and from Arnhem.
Lieutenant Wilkinson and his gunners in the 3rd Battery command post were forced to move from the attic to the basement after the house they were in was hit and severely damaged by German artillery fire. At 7:00 p.m. on September 20 Wilkinson received the last wireless message from Munford’s party at Arnhem bridge: “We have been blown off the top storey. We are quite OK. We have killed 300 or 400 Germans for the loss of 30. The bridge is blocked with German half-tracks, armored cars, etc. We need small arms ammunition.”
All British resistance at Arnhem bridge ended later that night. Frost and his men had held out against overwhelming odds for four days and three nights, much longer than the operational plan called for. German medical personnel came forward and assisted in removing more than two hundred wounded British soldiers from the ruins of the buildings they occupied. Frost, wounded in both legs earlier that afternoon, was taken prisoner, as was Munford.
German veterans of the Eastern Front remarked that urban combat with the Soviets paled in comparison to what they were now experiencing in the fight for Arnhem and Oosterbeek, which they soon gave the name der Hexenkessel—the Witches’ Cauldron. SS Hauptsturmführer Hans Moeller, the commander of the Pioneer Battalion for the 9th SS Panzer Division, wrote that his men fought “from room to room, from garden to garden, tree to tree.” The British paratroops, he said, contended for “every piece of ground or garden, no matter how small it was—like cornered tigers.”
At the Oosterbeek church, Thompson’s men held on for four more grueling days. Thompson himself was wounded by a mortar shell and evacuated to the aid station. The artillerymen fired their 75mm howitzers at the approaching German tanks. It was not until the morning of September 25 that the Germans finally controlled all of Oosterbeek.
The 1st Airlanding Light Regiment had suffered 92 killed among its 596 casualties. Thompson, Munford, and 464 other gunners were prisoners of war. But by holding out to the very end, they made it possible for four thousand Allied soldiers to travel across the Lower Rhine by ferry that final night, to safety, and to fight again another day.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.