By late summer 1944 the Allies were suffering from success. Following a lightning quick advance across France, General Dwight Eisenhower’s legions had ground to a halt. In the north, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group was stalled along the Dutch–Belgian border. In the south, Lieutenant General Omar Bradley’s Twelfth and Lieutenant General Jacob Devers’ Sixth Army groups had sputtered to a halt before the Siegfried Line.
With supplies still having to be trucked all the way from Normandy, Eisenhower faced the difficult decision of where to allocate the resources he had available in order to keep the rapidly retreating Germans off balance. On September 10, Montgomery offered a solution. He would take the newly formed First Allied Airborne Army and drop it behind enemy lines in the Netherlands, seizing vital river crossings that would be held long enough for an advancing armored column from his XXX Corps to reach each airborne division in turn. If it worked, the Allies would flank the Siegfried Line (300 miles worth of fixed fortifications along Germany’s western border), cross the Rhine and have a clear path for an advance into the Reich’s industrial heart.
Dazzling in its audacity, Operation Market-Garden was planned as a bottom to top undertaking. It was vital that each of the lightly equipped airborne divisions taking part succeed in securing its objective and holding it long enough for the armored column to reach each unit in turn. In the south, the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division would be responsible for capturing Eindhoven. In the middle, it would be the job of the 82nd Airborne to take and hold bridges at Nijmegen. And farthest north, the ultimate prize — a bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem — would be the objective of the “Red Devils” from the British 1st Airborne Division. It was an all-or-nothing gamble. If it worked, the war in Europe would come to an end much sooner. If it failed, the Germans would be given time they badly needed to recover from their drubbing in Normandy and the continued bloodletting at the hands of the Soviets on the Eastern Front.
The toughest assignment would fall to Maj. Gen. Roy Urquhart and his 1st Airborne Division. They would have to seize the bridge at Arnhem and hold it for three days. To accomplish this, Urquhart selected Brigadier Gerald Lathbury’s 1st Parachute Brigade, which was made up of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd battalions of the Parachute Regiment. The rest of the division would secure the drop and landing zones and other important areas around the bridge.
Lathbury planned to commit the 2nd and 3rd battalions to seizing the bridge, while the 1st was ordered to hold a patch of high ground north of Arnhem. The problem was that his drop zone was about eight miles away from the objective. Lathbury hoped to overcome that obstacle by sending out a coup de main force in jeeps that would dash ahead of the rest of the brigade, seize the bridge and hold it until the 2nd and 3rd battalions arrived on foot.
Everything began well enough. The September 17, 1944, jump and glider landings near the village of Wolfheze were almost perfect, with few casualties. Lathbury’s brigade was quickly organized and headed toward Arnhem. In the lead was Major Freddie Gough’s reconnaissance squadron. Gough, however, soon ran into stiff German opposition, and Lathbury was forced to send his 2nd and 3rd battalions toward Arnhem on foot in a race to beat the Germans.
Slowed by unexpected enemy opposition and the overly enthusiastic welcome of Dutch residents along the way, Lathbury’s columns quickly bogged down. By 6 p.m. his 1st and 3rd battalions were heavily engaged with the enemy, and Lt. Col. John Frost’s 2nd Battalion was moving toward the bridge alone.
Hoping to pick up the pace, Lathbury called on Lt. Col. John Fitch, the commander of the 3rd Battalion, to get some of his men moving. Soon C Company was ordered down a side road to outflank the Germans and find a faster route to the bridge. Commanding the company was Major R. Peter C. “Pongo” Lewis, who after receiving Fitch’s instructions returned to his company to brief his platoon leaders. One of these was Lieutenant Leonard William Wright, the commander of 9 Platoon. Patience was growing short. “I had my O-Group [staff] standing by; that was routine,” Wright said. “But, before I could start to brief them, I heard the high-pitched voice of the brigade commander, saying ‘Where’s the leading platoon commander?’ I jumped to my feet, saluted — believe it or not — and said, ‘Here, sir.’ He asked me what I was doing, and I replied, ‘Briefing my O-Group, sir.’ He snorted, very sharply, ‘They don’t need briefing; just tell them that’s the bloody way. Get moving!’ So I did.”
The company first headed north and then turned right along the railway line into Arnhem. “I proceeded with my company up a side road which led to a railway line as I thought this might not be protected,” Lewis later reported. “At the junction of the track and the railway line, 9 Platoon came under fire from an enemy vehicle, which quickly withdrew. Two more halftracks were ambushed by this platoon and set on fire, and 7 Platoon, under the command of Lieutenant [Peter] Hibburt, attacked a halftrack, which came up from their rear, and set it on fire. The total casualties from these actions were five other ranks [enlisted men]. I believe the only fatal casualty was Sergeant Graham of 9 Platoon.”
On reaching the railway line, there was a short pause while the company reorganized before moving in the direction of Arnhem, still with 9 Platoon in the lead. At several points along the way, the company encountered German machine guns, firing on fixed lines down the track. Crawling on their bellies part of the way, the men finally arrived at Arnhem station around 10:30 p.m. Major Lewis then marched his company through town to the main square in one body, hoping that in the darkness the Germans would mistake this large group of men for their own troops.
Now 8 Platoon was in the lead, commanded by Lieutenant Gerald Maurice Infield. As it neared the main square, Infield’s platoon ran into some Germans, but Lewis ordered the lieutenant to avoid a confrontation and move with all possible speed to the bridge. Finally the group reached the objective.
Infield was told to take his platoon to an important crossroads just northwest of the bridge, where there appeared to be a school or similar public building. Seven Platoon was instructed to go immediately to the schoolhouse while 9 Platoon temporarily held the north end of the approach road so that all the designated buildings could be fortified. Before 7 Platoon could move up the ramp road, however, it was overrun, and 9 Platoon came under increasingly heavy fire during a series of attacks from the front and both flanks. The platoon made a fighting withdrawal, but only nine men reached the schoolhouse, five of them wounded.
Lewis now joined the remnants of 9 Platoon as they entered the three-story Van Limburg Stirum school building. At the door they were greeted by men from A and B troops, 1st Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers. One of the sappers who let the 3rd Battalion men into the schoolhouse was Arthur Hendy. “I was with Lance Corporal Joe Malley and we let them in the front door, which at that time hardly had any barricades,” Hendy said. “To approach this door you had to walk five or six steps to the lower floor. You then went down again to the side entrance, which was heavily barricaded.”
Hendy and the other engineers had taken their own circuitous route to the school. They had begun the day at the rear of the 2nd Battalion but around 6:30 p.m. had carried out a left-flanking maneuver to act as a guard while dealing with some German opposition at Den Brink. In an hour they were on the move again. After diverting from the column to check on the possible use of a pontoon bridge — for naught, it turned out — the engineers moved on into Arnhem.
The engineers finally neared the road bridge at about 10 p.m. and reached it a half-hour later. Almost as soon as they arrived, engineers from A and B troops made an attempt to take the southern end of the bridge. Armed with a flamethrower, Sapper (private) Ginger Partridge attempted to destroy an enemy pillbox but missed and instead hit a hut next to it that contained fuel and ammunition. The resulting explosion ignited the paint on the bridge, which burned throughout the night and illuminated the area.
After rejoining their comrades, the engineers were ordered to the east side of the bridge to set up a defensive perimeter. As Sergeant Harold Padfield recalled: “We managed to get under the bridge without any bother. We came across a large building which Lieutenant D. [Dennis] Simpson told me to break into and search….I just broke the glass in the door and turned the handle from the inside. I asked Joe Malley and Arthur Hendy to give me cover as I searched around. I went upstairs and realized it was a school; there were desks and chairs and a blackboard and blasted great picture windows on one side of the main classroom and porthole windows on the opposite side, but other rooms weren’t too bad. There was a good view of the bridge from the room at the end of the passage. I went out and reported back and we then took over this building.”
Other sappers, mainly from A Troop, went to a building north of the school, but a German attack convinced Captain Eric Mackay, the commander of A Troop, that the building was too vulnerable, so he ordered his men to pull back to the schoolhouse and join the engineers from B Troop. At first, the new arrivals were not welcomed. Sapper George Needham remembered that when they entered the school they were told by one of the B Troop sappers to “Bugger off and go find your own place.” Eventually everyone was accommodated, and all hands set to work fortifying the empty rooms.
Although everything had not gone according to plan, by the evening of the 17th, nearly 800 men from Frost’s 2nd Battalion, along with bits and pieces of other units, were in position on the north end of the bridge. All they had to do now was hold on for three days until the tanks of XXX Corps arrived to relieve them.
The 60 men from the Royal Engineers and C Company who were gathered at the schoolhouse spent the rest of the evening preparing the building for defense. This included filling as many containers as possible with water. Four toilets were found in the basement, together with a tap. Three of the commodes were placed out of bounds so they could be used for drinking purposes, while the fourth was reserved for calls of nature.
Padfield remembered: “We used desks and cupboards to make barricades. We had the advantage of fires around the place to see what we were doing, and then we settled down to wait. I positioned myself on the stairway so that I was available for any occurrence. I sent Arthur Hendy to have a scout around the basement to see if there was anything of use in the way of clothing that we could use to muffle the sound of our boots, and just as important to see if there was any food. Our luck was in as he came up with pullovers, slips and skirts, obviously a girls’ school. We passed them round and he cleared off again as he said ‘There were some vegetables down there.’ After a while he came back with some hot soup, which went down very well. Daylight came and I went round and sorted out the arcs of fire I wanted each man to cover. I went to Sid Gueran and set him up on a desk so that he could comfortably sit and cover a vital area to the west through his porthole window. I was telling him the area I wanted him to cover and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t getting a response. When I turned towards him, he was sat upright, and my first loss. He had been shot through the mouth. It must have been a stray bullet because I certainly didn’t hear anything. I got hold of Joe Malley, whom I had put in charge of this particular area, and we laid him out on the floor and made sure that his identity tag was round his neck.”
Although Frost was able to prepare a perimeter defense, he was isolated from the main body of the division, which was located about three miles from the bridge and busy fighting its own battle. The lightly armed British paratroopers had run into two SS armored divisions that had reacted quickly to the landing and were now trying to crush the northernmost airborne bridgehead. There had been intermittent opposition throughout the evening in Arnhem, but the first concerted German attempt to destroy Frost’s position at the bridge came at about 8:30 the next morning, when a mixed force of armored cars and halftracks from the 9th SS Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion, commanded by SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Viktor Gräbner, raced toward the north end of the bridge. It is not known if Gräbner, barreling down the road from Nijmegen, intended his column to mount an attack or if he was just trying to dash through the British positions to reach his divisional headquarters.
The men in the schoolhouse had a good view of the vehicles as they approached. Two or three were allowed through before the order was given to open fire. Sapper Ronald Emery from A Troop was one of those who immediately opened on the Germans. He shot the driver and co-driver of a halftrack, which crashed into the schoolhouse not 10 yards from where Emery was positioned. Disregarding the hail of machine gun fire coming from the vehicle, the sapper stood up in full view of the Germans and threw a grenade that killed the crew and silenced the gun. He then went on to assist in the destruction of five other vehicles. When the fusillade finally stopped two hours later, 12 German vehicles were destroyed and approximately 70 SS troops were dead, among them Gräbner.
After this first attempt to regain control of the bridge, there was a period of relative quiet for an hour or two before the Germans began a series of attacks on the schoolhouse, which went on unceasingly for the remainder of the day. At 1 o’clock the sturdy brick building endured an hour of concentrated mortar fire that was followed by infantry attacks lasting until 7:30 p.m. “The Germans then opened up with mortar and artillery, and life was getting difficult,” Padfield remembered. “Twiggy Hazelwood was badly wounded and Ginger Partridge had the sights shot off his Bren gun, but miraculously he wasn’t touched. Houses around about were set on fire from the constant barrage of shells, and we just waited. You could hear battles going on all around, but at this particular time shelling was our main worry.”
When these attacks were beaten off, the Germans resumed their bombardment, firing 51mm mortar rounds directly through the building’s north-facing windows. So intense was the fire that for a short while many of the rooms had to be temporarily abandoned, but they were reoccupied before the Germans could move in. The fighting was up close and intense. At one point, Emery used a Bren gun to defend a room under attack. Six grenades flew into the room and exploded. Although stunned in the blast and wounded by shrapnel, Emery continued to fire his automatic and drove off the Germans trying to get inside, killing 13 of them.
There seemed to be little organization to the maelstrom in and around the school, with soldiers from both sides fighting random intermittent encounters. At about 3 a.m., a large German force — believing that they were relatively safe — began to assemble directly under the windows of the school. Standing around and chatting among themselves, the unsuspecting Panzergrenadiers were startled when a shower of grenades began to fall.
With elements of three different units defending the schoolhouse, accounts vary as to what had just occurred. “We all stood by with grenades,” Lieutenant Len Wright of C Company remembered. “We had plenty of those. Then Major Lewis shouted ‘Fire!’ and the men in all the rooms [on] that side threw grenades and opened fire down on the Germans. My clearest memory is of Pongo Lewis running from one room to another, dropping grenades and saying to me that he hadn’t enjoyed himself so much since the last time he’d gone hunting. It lasted about a quarter of an hour. There was nothing the Germans could do except die or disappear. When it got light, there were a lot of bodies down there — 18 or 20, perhaps more. Some were still moving, one was severely wounded, a bad stomach wound with his guts visible….Some of our men tried to get him in, showing a Red Cross symbol, but they were shot at and came back in, without being hit but unable to help the German.”
Lieutenant Dennis Simpson, however, remembered things differently: “Early on Tuesday morning, an explosion shook the southwest corner of the school. There was a flash and, when the falling debris had settled, one corner of the building and roof had been blown away. Hastily the wounded were taken down to the basement and the men reorganized. A few minutes later some 60 Germans arrived quite casually on the south side of us. They appeared to believe our resistance was over for they crowded together close to the building. Captain Mace and his men in the southern rooms stood at the windows with hand grenades at the ready. The north side was fairly safe owing to the light from the fire next door, so that most of my men formed a chain supplying the grenades and Gammon bombs to the bombardiers. On a given signal, the grenades were dropped and chaos ensued. The men stood up on the window sills and gave everything they had. The noise was a hideous mixture of explosives, screams from the Germans and cries of ‘Whoa Mohammed’ from the men; our North African battle cry resounded from house to house. It was all over in no time. A moment of alarm was caused during this episode when one of the sergeants, in his keenness to play his part, threw a grenade, which hit the top of the window and bounced back into the corridor. Fortunately it exploded in a corner and did no harm.”
The sergeant was Norman Swift, who remembered: “We were told to hold our fire until ordered, then hit them with all we’d got. I went into a passageway leading from our rooms where an unmanned window, suitably blocked with furniture, faced the garden. When we received the order to fire I threw a 36 grenade through the window. At least that was my intention. Imagine my horror when the grenade hit the wooden crosspiece of the window, bounced back and landed amongst the piled up furniture! Luckily, I was the only one in the passage, so with a yell of ‘Grenade,’ I dived back into the room. Thank heavens no one was hurt.”
Regardless of the details of who tossed the first grenade, the results were the same, a major German force was destroyed before it had an opportunity to press an attack against men who had, by this point, been fighting without rest, reinforcement or resupply for days. Even this momentary triumph, however, offered no real respite. Fighting continued throughout September 19. German attempts to eliminate resistance in and around the school once and for all included small-arms fire, mortars, artillery and finally armor.
At about 7 p.m. a German tank approached to within about 30 yards of the schoolhouse and blew away the northeast corner of the structure at the first-floor level, with other shots going right through the building. In spite of this, the defenders held on. In a first-floor room off the landing, about a dozen mattresses had been stacked to give protection from splintered glass. As Padfield remembered: “Suddenly there was an explosion and one of the mattresses was on fire. I went in to pull it off the pile and put it out and was hurled to the doorway by another explosion. What the hell was that? Someone thought it might have been a rifle grenade from a sniper across the road. I crawled back and there was another explosion with the same result. The third time I was lucky and got the fire extinguished.”
Although every German attack had been beaten back, the constant fighting had used up ammunition at a terrible rate. Given the school’s crucial position east of the bridge, however, the men fought on. Sergeant Swift remembered, “armor piercing shells, fired by German tanks, coming straight through the walls of the room and creating so much dust that we thought we had been blinded and the cries of ‘Whoa Mohammed’ growing fewer and fewer as our positions were overrun and fighting fires in the upper part of the school.” It had been three days since the school had been fortified, and the tiny band inside the school had suffered two killed and 24 wounded holding the key position east of the bridge.
The hard-pressed men, however, still clung to hope that XXX Corps would reach them. It was not to be. The British tanks were still trying to make their way through Nijmegen.
On the morning of the 20th the bleary-eyed men could see considerable German activity around a crossroads south of the school building. At about 9, a tank and self-propelled gun began firing on the schoolhouse from only 70 yards away. Armed with nothing more than Bren guns and small arms, the defenders could do little more than watch as the German guns blew away the roof and top story of the school. One shell set the roof ablaze and another explosion injured and stunned Major Lewis and Lieutenant Wright. Padfield remembered: “Joe Simpson and Paddy Neville were killed, the rest of us were OK and moved into the basement. It was becoming obvious that we should have to move out. [Corporal Bill] Twiggy Hazelwood [wounded before] was getting worse by the hour, and sure enough another direct hit and the school was well alight.”
The end was now fast approaching. “Preparing to leave the school because the fire had finally won,” Swift recalled, “Captain Mackay told me to gather together any Gammon bombs the lads had left and he and I would try and get the Tiger tank under one of the school walls. To my relief, after collecting together a few bombs in a canvas bucket, when we were going up the main staircase the ceiling of the landing collapsed putting a stop to that idea.”
Mackay detailed a few sappers to remain at their posts as a rear guard and to stop any German attack during the evacuation. The wounded were brought up from the basement, with eight or so seriously wounded being brought up on doors or mattresses. There was a low wall that the defenders had to cross to reach the new position and unfortunately they would be exposed to German fire when doing this. Several men from both units were wounded and killed doing the maneuver. Meanwhile the rear guard was also suffering from the shelling, and more men were wounded and killed there as well.
The retreating British hoped to reach a nearby smaller building, which had been evacuated by the sappers on the first night. But as the first men began to move, Lieutenant Simpson was wounded. “As we made our way across to a wall, we came under fire,” Padfield remembered. “John Bretherton was killed as he was getting over it. Twiggy got a machine gun burst up the side of his body as we were lifting him over the wall, but he was still clinging to life. The next 20 minutes were phenomenal; we were caught in an enfilade of fire, and air bursts. Charlie Grier was hit by a stray bullet; it made a hole in his helmet but didn’t mark his head. Billy Marr had his pack severed from his back but with no injury.” One of the men carrying Lewis on his mattress had half his face shot away and slipped quietly to the ground dead.
Through the din, Major Lewis called out from his mattress, “Time to put up the white flag.” His second in command, Captain Wilfred Robinson, remembered: “Being unwounded, I felt guilty about allowing myself to be captured, so I went up toward where he was and called out to ask if the fit men could attempt to get out. He shouted back that we could.” About 10 men ran across to some gardens in the houses to the east, but were soon discovered and taken prisoner. Lewis shouted that the remainder should surrender and that they should take pride in their performance. Men took the bolts out of their weapons and threw them away, leaving the arms behind.
Padfield noticed that Sapper Butterworth was the farthest forward, and he was told to put his white handkerchief on the end of his bayonet and to go slowly forward waving it. While he was doing this, a German opened fire and shot him in the legs. A German officer then told the men to come forward, saying, “You are very brave, but very foolish.” The Germans surrounded the pitiful survivors and took them prisoner.
Swift was directed by a German soldier to leave Major Lewis in a cellar. Lewis asked for water, and Swift remembered “staying behind to leave him my water bottle and then being chased out with arms raised by another German soldier.” Swift also commented on “the kind treatment we received from our captors, even to being given cigarettes and drinks of wine.” He recalled, “It was only later that rear echelon troops, who were no doubt more afraid of us than we of them, got a bit nasty.”
With the loss of the position at the Van Limburg Stirum school, Frost’s battalion had little hope of holding its position at the bridge. Late that afternoon, Frost ordered the men to attempt a breakout. Those too badly injured were left behind to be taken captive. Defeated but defiant, the surviving defenders of the schoolhouse were escorted through the rubble of the town. As they marched into an uncertain future, the men sang “Roll Out the Barrel.”
West of Arnhem, the rest of the division fought on around Oosterbeek. With Arnhem now securely in their hands, the Germans could concentrate their full force on Urquhart’s men. The remaining paras fought on for five more days, and on September 25 the 1st Airborne Division was evacuated. Of the 11,000 men who had landed on September 17, only 2,300 made it safely back to Allied lines.
Too often overlooked in accounts of the fighting at Arnhem, the defense of the Van Limburg Stirum schoolhouse by 60 brave men was a crucial element of Frost’s gallant four-day defense of the bridge. Without the stand made by Major Lewis and others, the Germans would have been able to concentrate their full force on Frost, forcing him from his position sooner. This would have allowed the Germans to move more men against 1st Division forces fighting around Oosterbeek, and might have ended with even more men winding up on casualty lists or as POWs. Although it ultimately ended in a British defeat, the fight at the schoolhouse should be remembered as one of the greatest examples of a defense in urban terrain ever carried out by the British army.
This article was written by Niall Cherry and originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of World War II magazine. Niall Cherry is the first non-Arnhem veteran ever to be accorded the honor of serving as the UK/Worldwide representative for the Society of Friends of the Airborne Museum Oosterbeek. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today