THE NORMANDY ARNHEM SOCIETY

(founded 1996)

THE SHINY 9TH

The 9th Field Company, Royal Engineers (The Shiny 9th), were gliderborne troops who saw action throughout World War II. With roots going back to 1787, the Company became "Airborne" in May 1942. After the tragic  Operation freashman, the Company sailed to North Africa to prepare for the airborne assault on Sicily (9th July 1943). Operation Market Garden followed in September 1944, when the Company took part in the 1st Airborne Division landings at Arnhem. Of the 194 men who went into the battle in 22 Horsa gliders, 44 were killed in action, 79 were posted missing, and 71 were evacuated across the River Rhine after 9 days of vicious fighting. After Arnhem, the Company was reformed and rumors abounded that they would be going to the Far East to join the fight against Japan. However, with the end of the War in Europe, the Company were sent to Norway as part of a multinational force to oversee the surrender of 400,000 German troops.

 

ALL THE PICTURES BELOW CAN BE CLICKED ON TO ENLARGE

9 (AB) Fd Coy RE Encampment Pictures.

                                                                                                                                                                    

 

 

(AB) Fd Coy RE  Equipment

                                                                      

                                               

 

 

 

9 (AB) Fd Coy RE , Favourites

                            

                                                     

                                                                                            

                                                                        

                                                                 

                                             

 

 

 

 

 

 

The History of the 9th (Airborne) Field Company Royal Engineers 1939-1945

 

 

Beginnings

 

The Squadron’s beginnings go back to 1787 when the Chatham Company of the ‘Royal Military Artificers’ was raised. They remained at Chatham for a number of years mainly employed in fortification work.

     In August 1811, while at Chatham they were renamed the 2nd company and then again renamed the 1st Company of the 2nd Battalion.

      The following year, the Master General, Lord Mulgrave, decided that Chatham would be the location for a new training and instructional establishment for military engineering work.

     In 1817, the Company were sent out to Gibraltar and while there, in June 1819, they were renamed for the third time to the 9th company of the Royal Sappers and Miners. This was the first time that the members of the Company were referred to as Sappers instead of Privates. The rest of the 19th century saw the Company involved in the Kaffir Wars in South Africa in 1846, the Crimean War in 1855 and the Boer War in 1899. The Company remained in South Africa until posted back to Britain in 1905.

 

First World War.

     In the Great War (1914-18) the Company was part of the BEF and spent their entire war on the Western Front, taking part in numerous engineering tasks. They also took a more active part in the second Battle of Ypres in 1917 and the Battle of Arras in April 1917. In the Kaiser Battle of March 1918 the Company carried out defensive duties at the village of Roeux near Arras. They remained in France after the Armistice was signed until May 1919 and after a short leave in England they returned to Germany as part of the British Army on the Rhine.

     The company returned to Britain in 1924 and in the General Strike of 1926, they ran essential civilian services, such as bus driving, and also helped to keep other important services running.

 

Second World War.

     When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, the Company was sent to Borden Camp at Shorncliffe, under the command of the 4th Division, supporting the 10th Brigade. The Company’s strength at this time was three Officers and 199 other ranks.

    On the 28 September the company embarked from Southampton on the troopship Royal Sovereign and sailed for France as part of the BEF. They arrived at Cherbourg on the 1st of October after a very rough crossing. They quickly moved up to the Belgian border and were employed in various engineering tasks, mostly of a defensive nature. The Company was moved around the country on various tasks, including the building of pillboxes, anti-tank obstacles and the laying of road metals. At this time the Company built a three-room house complete with a staircase, toilet and lighting and gave demonstrations on the techniques of booby traps and explosives. The Company also developed a method for travelling in convoy at night in total blackout conditions, called the ‘convoy light’. This was a simple device consisting of a small light underneath the rear bumper to illuminate the rear axle, so the driver behind could follow. This became the standard method for night convoys for the whole of the British army.

     On the 10 May Belgium and Holland were invaded and the Company were sent off at 0430 hrs for Calonne in Belgium to convert two bridges for the use of motor transport. They then moved to Huizinggen near Halle where the Company shot down a German Dornier bomber and captured three of the German airmen who had survived the crash. They then moved to Lesdain to destroy forty barges on the river as the enemy were advancing at an alarming rate. When this job was completed the company moved to a small wood for the night. There was a Regiment of forty-eight field guns in the area and at dawn the next day they were heavily shelled by the Germans and had to make a hasty retreat.

     They then became part of ‘B’ echelon of the ‘Lawson Force’, which was one of a number of ad hoc battle groups set up to impede the advance of the enemy by whatever means were available. This included the destruction of bridges, barges and roads. The Company were under continuous bombardment from the Germans as they made their way towards the coast. By the third week of May, the Company was fighting a rear guard action at Taitignies and were almost exhausted; what with the constant moves, digging slit trenches and the ever present shelling, the men had little time to rest. They reached Knuisdoorn at night and some of the sappers were sent to help the 92nd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, providing cover and protection and in some cases actually firing the guns.

     The Company were ordered to destroy their vehicles and make their way towards Bray Dunes on the outskirts of Dunkerque. This they did and dug in at Rosendael to await evacuation back to England. At this time the bombardment was continuous and one shell caused nine casualties in the Company, including, Corporal Allan, Sapper Stone, Sapper Williams and Sapper Langley. In the late afternoon of the 1st June the Company shouldered arms and marched to the beaches, one of the few units to show such discipline. By early evening they were aboard a Grimsby trawler and evacuated to ‘Blighty’, just two days before the end of the evacuation.

      In excess of 337,000 British and French troops were evacuated to Britain in this operation, but the cost in material was huge. Apart from the men killed captured and wounded, over 70,000 vehicles, over 100 field guns, 12,000 machine guns, vast quantities of stores and ordinance and virtually every armoured vehicle were left in France.

 

On their return to England, the company found themselves scattered all over the country, in tented camps and various billets. The company was gathered together and moved to Monmouth. After a short period of reorganisation they were once more on the move, this time to Chipping Sudbury, just north of Bristol. Here they received their new transport and an influx of newly conscripted replacements to bring the Company up to strength. Their work consisted mainly of building roadblocks and helping with the harvest. Throughout September 1940, the Company spent much of their time laying minefields along the Cornish coast, from Bude to Barnstable. They also began honing their infantry skills with exercises on the firing range, unarmed combat training, small box girder bridge building and tactical lectures.

     On January 25 1941 the company travelled in convoy at night to Wallingford to build a model of the objective for the Operation Biting, the now famous Bruneval Raid, capturing German radar equipment. While here they carried on with their weapon training, bridging techniques and mine detection.

     The early part of 1941 saw the Company carpenters, bricklayers and electricians in great demand to repair bomb-damaged houses in and around Plymouth; they were also involved in rescue work helping the local authorities in the shattered cities. At this time the Company took delivery of the ‘go anywhere’ Willy’s jeep as their main transport. As winter approached, the company moved to Wiveliscombe, with rumours circulating that the Company was to become part of a new force

 

Parachutes and Gliders

 

The War Office of forming this new force gave Major J.F. Rock, a Royal Engineer, although he was given no detailed plan or policy. But in true Royal Engineer tradition, he got on with his job and ‘The Central Landing School’ was formed at Ringway Airport. This was later to be known as No 1 Parachute Training School.

     The Company was introduced to their first gliders in early 1942. This was the training glider the Hotspur. Earlier models did not have an undercarriage and landed on skids; this was improved later, but the Hotspur was never used operationally, later in 1942 being replaced by the Airspeed Horsa.

     King George VI inspected the Company in May 1942, which at this time was re-designated 9th (Airborne) Field Company, Royal Engineers. The remainder of the year was taken up with training exercises in and around the Salisbury Plain area. The Company experimented with different permutations of glider loads and how to load and unload the gliders as quickly as possible. The Company were instrumental in solving the unloading problems, by wrapping detonating cord around the fuselage and blowing the tail clean off. The Company’s operational transport consisted of vehicles that could be loaded into the Horsa. These consisted of seven Willy’s jeeps and trailers, seven 500cc or 750cc heavy motorcycle combinations (one for each officer), five lightweight 250cc motorcycles for despatch riders and a folding bicycle for each Sapper.

      The Company had been selected to become the first Field Company in the new Airborne Force and would work closely with the newly formed 1st Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers. These two units were made up of volunteers, even if some of the men didn’t remember volunteering. They were one of the most highly motivated and trained units in the British army.                                               The headquarters of the newly formed 1st Airborne Division was established under the command of General Headquarters Home Forces on the 1st November 1941 with its first commander being Major-General F.A.M. Browning. The first Royal Engineers’ unit to become part of the new Division was the 261st Field Park Company on 15 December; this was followed by the 9th (Airborne) Field Company and the 1st Parachute Squadron, both on 19 June 1942. The 2nd Parachute Squadron joined on 11 November, the 3rd Parachute Squadron on 19 January 1943 and the 4th Parachute Squadron on 19 June of the same year.

     The Company was stationed at Bulford where they received the newly issued ‘Red Berets’. Many of the Company were encouraged to take the Parachute course and many did; this gave the Company a fair proportion of qualified parachutists in their ranks.

 

     Operation Freshman.

 

Operation Freshman was the code name for the planned attack on the large hydro complex in the Telemark region of southern Norway. This was being used by the Germans for the production of deuterium oxide, better known as ‘heavy water’; this could be used in the manufacture of a new type of bomb, the Atomic Bomb. The allies settled on a Glider attack and two fifteen man teams were finally selected with the Company supplying two thirds of the force and the rest being from the 261st field Company.

     The Company were loaded into two identical gliders and flew out from Royal Air Force Skitten at the northeastern tip of Scotland, leaving at fifteen-minute intervals. The orders were explicit; the company had to remove their distinctive red berets and their Pegasus shoulder flashes and on landing the group faced a five or six hour forced march. Anyone who dropped out was to be left behind. If the group were challenged then the enemy would be despatched without hesitation and any form of communication in the area would immediately be put out of action. On reaching the objective sub-sections would attack the powerhouse and electrolysis plant, destroying vital machinery and putting the production of the ‘heavy water’ out of business. A reception party of local resistance members would mark out the landing zones with flares and a homing device to guide in the gliders.

     The weather over Norway began to deteriorate and became an almost ‘white out’; this and communication problems with the homing device and the radios caused great problems for the mission. A radio message was received in Scotland just before midnight requesting directions to return to Skitten, but nothing after this was received.

     On the 21 November the German radio reported that ‘ on the night of 19 to 20 November, two British bombers, each towing a glider were forced down. The airborne sabotage troops were put to battle and wiped out to the last man’. The true story of what happened did not come to light until the end of hostilities in 1945. After a detailed investigation by Major Frank Rawlings of 19 Civil Affairs unit, it was discovered that all the members of the mission that survived the landing were executed by firing squad. Oberst (Col) Erwin Probst was charged with the Shooting of Airborne personnel at Slettebo Camp on 20th November 1942. The firing squad was composed of Unteroffizier Wagner and personnel from the 12th Coy, 355 Regt, 214 Division.

 

     On 2nd April 1943, HM King George VI once again inspected the company before their move overseas. They were now at almost full strength with ten Officers and 235 Other Ranks. They handed over their camp to the 3rd Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers and then embarked at Gourock on 16 April on the Batavia Line ship Boissevain. The Company were off the Algerian coast on 22nd April docking at Mers-el-Kabir at 2000 hrs, then travelled by road and rail to Perregaux. The 1st Airlanding Brigade’s headquarters and other units were scattered around the area of Mascara on the plains north of the Atlas Mountains. The Company’s area was at a place called Tizi where they were detailed to find enough water for the Division, dig Brigade’s latrines and several other tasks. There were also several exercises to prepare the Company for the invasion of Sicily.

 

Operation Husky

 

Operation Husky was planned as a joint operation between the American 7th Army under General Patton and General Montgomery’s 8th Army. The objectives were to secure brides and road junction’s prier to the main invasion forces in Sicily. In preparation for this operation the company left for Tunisia, some with the transport and some by glider, a journey that most of the men would like to forget as the roads and the weather were atrocious.

     In the late afternoon of 9 July at 1830 hrs the Company, along with the other 127 American Waco and British Horsa gliders that would take the 1st Airlanding Brigade, took off from six different airfields for the three and a half hour flight to Sicily. No. 3 Platoon would form part of the ten gliders of the coup de main group that would attack and secure the Ponte Grande Bridge near Syracuse. Their task was to hold the bridge until the main invasion force relieved them.

     Once again the weather was to be a deciding factor of this operation; the high winds, inexperienced American pilots, shortage of navigators and the intense flack fire put up by the Germans nearly turned Operation Husky into a disaster. Gliders landed in the sea, or miles from their objectives, or some had to turn back through mishaps with loads or tow ropes. Altogether the 1st Airlanding Brigade lost more than fifty gliders and nearly 400 men perished. Only the initiative, determination, professionalism and outright courage of the airborne soldiers saved the situation.

     Most of the gliders landed miles from their targets and the countryside was filled with small groups of ad hoc fighting units heading towards their objectives. Only one glider had come down near the Ponte Grande Bridge, this contained men of the South Staffords and some Sappers from the ‘Shiny 9th’ Company. A fierce firefight took place and the bridge was secured. The fighting was savage all through the night and by 0600 hrs there was about one hundred men defending the bridge. Small groups of men arrived at this time to help defend the surrounding area, giving the Sappers time to check the bridge for explosive charges. All day the defenders were subjected to continual mortar and shellfire, plus determined and frequent counterattacks. By late afternoon there were only fifteen men unwounded and by 1700 hrs on 10 July the bridge was back in the hands of the enemy, but this was short lived. As the airborne troops were withdrawing, they met up with the Royal Scots Fusiliers; this was the spearhead of the main invasion force. They joined together in an immediate counterattack and in less than ninety minutes had retaken the bridge.

      By nightfall, Syracuse had fallen and with the arrival of the British 30 and 13 corps the operation was concluded for the Airlanding Brigade and on 14 July the Company returned to North Africa in an Infantry Landing craft.

 

     The Company were under canvas at Hammamet on the coast of Tunisia, when on 6 September they received orders to leave immediately for Bizerta. After a nightmare journey of blocked roads they finally arrived at the staging area and boarded the American cruiser USS ‘Boise’. They sailed in the late afternoon of 8 September 1943 and arrived off Taranto about 1700 the next day. Tragedy struck three hours later when the minelayer HMS Abdiel exploded in the harbour and quickly sank, killing nearly 160 Officers and men of the Parachute Regiment still on board.

     The next few weeks saw the Company functioning as a dock-operating unit, taking charge of the day-to-day organisation and running of the port. Apart from their port tasks the Company were also engaged in the daily ‘pack train’ from Taranto to the forward railhead positions of the Division. They were also involved in railway repairs and the construction of defence positions around the docks perimeter. The company also cleared and repaired bomb damage in Salerno and also cleared away around 700 mines and numerous roadblocks.

     Towards the end of October three Officers and thirty-six Other Ranks were sent from the Company to work with the 5th (Scottish) Parachute Battalion in the Foggia area. Their task was to work in small groups behind enemy lines in the Termoli area and blow up railway lines and disrupt the supply of reinforcements to the Germans.

     On 18 November the Company packed up to return to North Africa, once again in an American Tank Landing Ship, the Company had a very rough trip across the Mediterranean, which took four days to complete. The Company took transport to Philipeville about one hundred miles West of Bizerta where they loaded their equipment on board the SS ‘Duchess of Bedford’, more affectionately known as the ‘Drunken Duchess’ and sailed for England arriving on the 12th December 1943 at Liverpool.

     On arrival in England the Company along with the rest of the 1st Airlanding Brigade were concentrated around the Woodhall Spa region of Lincolnshire. Most of the Company were given leave for Christmas and on their return were involved in training exercises at both Divisional and Brigade level in their preparations for the liberation of Western Europe.

     On 16 March 1944, HM King George VI inspected the Company just before their move to Hurn in Hampshire to prepare the airfield for Operation Overlord. Here the Company extended the airfield and built roads, huts for other units and other construction work. The Company also trained for their part in the original early airborne strike element that would spearhead the main D-Day invasion force, but plans were changed and the company returned to Lincolnshire in early June.

 

On 30 August plans for airborne operations began in earnest to support the armies in France. Four operations were planned and in turn cancelled, mainly because the advancing troops in France overrun the objectives before the airborne troops had loaded their gliders. Each new plan involved the Company being involved in fresh deployment from one airfield to another and the loading and unloading of their gliders, only to bitterly disappointed as the operations were cancelled.

      The 9th (Airborne) Field Company was now commanded by Major J. Winchester, a tough and experienced officer. They were stationed at Keevil in Wiltshire with half a platoon at Blakehill Farm, when they received orders for another operation, this one would not be cancelled.

 

Operation Market.

 

Major Winchester received his orders from the CRE (Commander Royal Engineers) four days before the operation and spent this time with his Officers preparing equipment and studying the latest air photographs and intelligence reports.

     The plan for the Company was to fly to Holland with the first lift in gliders and land with Divisional troops west of Wolfheze. Major Winchester had to provide two detachments, each of an Officer and two jeep loads of Sappers and equipment to assist the Reconnaissance Squadron in the Coup- de- Main at the main road bridge in Arnhem. The Sappers were to remove demolition charges from the bridge and then carry out defence operations and other Engineer tasks along side the other airborne troops. Secondly, Major Winchester had to put one platoon with the Clarke Crawler bulldozer and a detachment of the 261st Field Park Company, Royal Engineers and clear the landing zones of vehicles ready for further landings over the next two days of the operation. Thirdly, Major Winchester had to provide a force to seize and hold the railway bridge over the River Rhine. This job was given to No. 2 platoon. The rest of the Company, plus Company HQ and half of No. 3 Platoon were to rendezvous at the crossroads of Schelmseweg and Amsterdameweg.

     At 1020 hrs on the morning of 17 September 1944 sixteen gliders, chalk numbers 381 – 396 took off from RAF Keevil for Arnhem. D Squadron, The Glider Pilot Regiment, piloted the gliders and the Short Stirlings from 299 Squadron, 38 Group RAF were the tug planes. As they flew over the village of Farrington Gurney, the Horsa glider RJ 113, chalk number 389 piloted by Staff Sergeant L.J. Gardner and Sergeant R.A. Fraser suddenly became unstable and seconds later broke in two. The two parts of the glider crashed into the valley and exploded on impact killing all twenty-one Sappers and NCOs from No. 1 Platoon and both glider pilots. Every year in September there is a small service of commemoration at a place called Double Hills at the memorial erected on the spot where all twenty-three men died. Two other gliders also had trouble on the first day, chalk number 383 had to return and made a good landing at Keevil and chalk number 385 had towrope trouble and cast off at 1000 feet and also made a good landing. Both gliders and men were to arrive on a subsequent days at Arnhem.

     The gliders of the Company landed on Renkum Heath Landing Zone ‘Z’ between Wolfheze and Heelsum about eight kilometres west of Arnhem at about 1340hrs. All the gliders landed safely except chalk number 386, the undercarriage of this glider came through the floor on landing and seriously wounded Sapper Raymond Holdstock. He was rushed to the Dressing Station but was found to be dead on arrival. Also Sergeant J. Paffett and Sapper G. Robertson suffered ankle injuries in the same crash. Despite these set backs the Company was at the rendezvous at the South corner of the landing zone in less than thirty-five minutes.

      No. 2 Platoon commanded by Captain Eric O’Callaghan had landed complete and was ordered to proceed to the railway bridge. No 1 platoon commanded by Captain Roger B. Binyon had lost one complete glider, chalk number 389 which had crashed and exploded, killing all on board.

      No. 3 Platoon commanded by Captain Maurice Heggie, also had a glider fail to arrive, which was to help the Reconnaissance Corp, so another detachment (Section 12) was hastily organised and sent in its place.

     At approximately 1500 hrs Captain Eric O’Callaghan took Sections 6, 7 and 8 and went to capture the railway bridge. While they attacked along the railway embankment a Platoon from C Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion put in an attack along the riverbank. The enemy was beaten back and withdrew to the far side of the river. As both assaults reached the bridge, the centre section was blown up. Captain O’Callaghan was ordered to search the bridge for any further charges, which he did under very accurate enemy fire from the two houses on the far bank. Finding no explosives on the bridge the Company rejoined the advance to the road bridge.

      As they reached their second objective, the site of the old pontoon bridge and harbour, it was found that the centre section had been removed and only the landing stage was in position. Movement had now become very difficult as the Germans were firing on them from the town to their left and also from across the river to their right. The Company was pinned down until about midnight when there was a lull in the firing and No. 2 Platoon took their chance and dashed across the Eusebiusplein at the double, drawing fire as they crossed. They reached number 27 Eusebiusplein, near the bridge ramp and while the Sappers prepared the house for defence, Captain O’Callaghan with Sappers Danny Weddell and Tom Carpenter made their way over the back gardens to check the bridge for demolition charges. When this job was completed, the rest of the Platoon was ordered to move up to the house on the corner of Kadestraat and Eusebiusplein on the west side of the main road bridge, their strength at this time was about forty men strong.

     Meanwhile No. 3 platoon was having a sustained firefight with the defenders of the Wolfheze Hotel; these were members of the SS Panzer Grenadier Depot and Reserve Battalion 16 under the command of SS Major Sepp Krafft. The Battalion’s No. 2 company had been carrying out exercises in the woods around Wolfheze when the airborne landings had taken place; it was these men that No. 3 Platoon was fighting.

     The Company was held up by machine gun fire at the Wolfheze Hotel, so Lieutenant J. Steel went forward on his motorcycle. This was later found riddled with bullets. After the war Major Winchester found out that he had been wounded and taken prisoner during that action and later taken to Oflag VIIB.

     At about 1800 hrs Lieutenant R.E.W.J. Timmins made a flanking attack with No 5 Section and men from No 1 Platoon. They succeeded in crossing the road, but in the attack on the Wolfheze Hotel, Lieutenant Timmins was shot in the chest and killed, also Lance Corporal William Takle and Sapper Peter Grieg were wounded by sniper fire, they were evacuated to the dressing station of 181st Airlanding Field Ambulance, but sadly died of their wounds. The rest of the attackers were ordered to withdraw to the main company positions.

     At about 0900 hrs of 18 September the Germans launched an armoured attack in an attempt to retake the main road bridge in Arnhem. This was met with withering fire from the now well dug in defenders and the attack was repulsed with heavy casualties for the Germans. The enemy response was to shell and mortar the Airborne positions and succeeded in killing Sapper Robert Trouse and seriously wounding Lance Corporal Coward and Sapper Thompson, who were later both taken prisoner and transported to Fallingbostel, Stalag XIB and Stalag XIIA.

      Enemy mortar fire and heavy infantry attacks were now developing to retake positions. Although the British troops were surrounded, the defenders hung on and continued to deny the bridge to the enemy and stop them sending reinforcements to the fighting at Nijmegen. The fighting in the closed perimeter around the bridge ramp was brutal and hand-to-hand and casualties were mounting.

     At about 1430 hrs 18 September, the second lift began to arrive on Landing Zone X. Twenty –two men of the 261st Field Park Company landed with their glider and the small Clark Air CA1 Bulldozer and made their way to the 9th Company R.E. positions across from the Hartenstein Hotel and were told to dig in and wait for orders.

     The Company were now in and around ‘De Sonnenberg’, a large house located on the Sonnenberglaan in the small village of Oosterbeek. The Company were to defend this area for the rest of the battle and it described by Major Winchester as “ A good position that commanded a good field of fire to the northwest and afforded excellent cover. Its strength was amply illustrated in subsequent days of fighting as we were never forced to give a yard of ground”.

     Having had no news from the bridge, Major Winchester ordered No.3 Platoon to proceed to the main road bridge and remove any explosive charges. Corporal H. Pink was assigned to head the column led by B Company, 2nd Battalion The South Staffordshire Regiment, commanded by Major R.H. Cain along the Utrechseweg to the bridge. Just north of the St Elisabeth’s Hospital they came under murderous machine gun fire and heavy casualties ensued. Corporal Pink was wounded in the face and he and the rest of the survivors made their way back to the Oosterbeek church and joined ‘Lonsdale Force.’

     During the morning of the 19th, Major Winchester, Captain Maurice Heggie and a party of six Other Ranks visited Heveadorp ferry and the jetty on the north bank of the Rhine. They found the ferry site useful and thought that they could have ferried a Battalion over the Rhine on the first day. Lance Corporal Stanley Hey and two other Sappers managed to bring in seven Para’s who had landed near the village of Driel across to the north bank. Shortly after this discovery a German self-propelled gun attacked the small party and leaving Lance Sergeant Hugh Lake at the position, the rest of the party retreated to the Artillery positions near the ‘Old church’ and dug in by an old stonewall.

     Just before dark, a detachment of twelve men from the 1st Parachute Squadron commanded by Captain S. George and a detachment of sixty men from the 4th Parachute Squadron commanded by Major A.J.M. Perkins reported to Major Winchester and were told to defend the northwest sector of the divisional perimeter. Also the commander of a 17 Pdr Anti-Tank gun No.1, X-troop, 2nd (Oban) Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery, Royal Artillery reported to Major Winchester and were told to defend the north east sector of the Company’s Headquarters, the gun was called ‘Brewed it up’ and it was manned by Sergeant Nobby Gee, Bombardier John Mills, Gunners Bob Williams, George Hurdman, Bill Bambridge, Tom Kemp, Smudger Smith and Driver Tom Henny.

     On the morning of the 20th,the CRE, Lieutenant-Colonel Myers ordered Captain Heggie and his men to make every effort to hold the ferry and they returned to join Lance Sergeant Lake who had stayed at the ferry all through the night. Later on in the day armoured cars of XXX Corp were reported to be at the south of the river and the RE Adjutant, Captain M.D. Green was taken to the south bank by members of Captain Heggie’s party. He found no friendly troops on the south bank, but after travelling ten miles in the darkness through enemy territory he contacted a small bridgehead north of Nijmegen. His information on the positions of the airborne troops, subsequently assisted in the evacuation of the 1st Airborne Division on the night of the 25 to 26 September.

     During the night the party at the ferry site was heavily attacked and was forced to withdraw to the Border Regiment positions. Lance Sergeant Lake once again remained and prepared to destroy the ferry when the enemy came to close. He remained under fire, within 200 metres of the enemy without food or water, half submerged at the waters edge until the 22 September, when he rejoined the unit, wounded and exhausted, but with detailed information of the enemy’s movements and dispositions at the river bank. This was one of the actions that won him the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

     The fighting at the road bridge had become continuous and increasingly more brutal. The houses that No. 2 Platoon had been defending had been set on fire by mortar and shellfire and they had to evacuate to new positions across the road at the corner of Markstraat and Hofstraat. They made a crouched run together and succeeded in making it across without casualties. Ammunition was now becoming scarce and food and water nonexistent, but No. 2 Platoon held this position during Tuesday night against fierce infantry and tank attacks. The next day after heavy shelling and mortaring the unit’s house was attacked by self-propelled guns and infantry and it was no longer possible to defend the position. The remnants of No.2 Platoon along with their wounded took up positions in the grounds of the 2nd Battalion Headquarters building on the Eusebius Plein. About 0100 hrs on Thursday September 1944, Captain O’Callaghan with Sergeant E. W. Gibbons, Corporal A. A. Lancaster and some Sappers who were fit enough to move were ordered to attempt a break-out from their positions, but they were met by overwhelming forces. In this last action of No. 2 Platoon, Sapper Arthur Cottle was killed and the others were wounded and taken prisoner. By 1100 hrs it was all over for the airborne defenders at the bridge and after four days of bitter fighting the bridge was once again in the hands of the enemy. During the fighting at the bridge No. 2 Platoon had six Sappers killed and two later died of their wounds. Those men killed were Sappers Arthur. A Cottle, Joseph H. Close, William J. R. Rogers, Ronald V. Russel, Robert G. Trouse and Bernard E. Turton. Corporal R. F. E. Evans and Sapper J. Everitt both died later of wounds sustained at the bridge.

      There is a plaque in a little room in the Eusebius church to the memory of those men of No. 2 Platoon who gave their lives at the bridge. It was unveiled on the 50th Commemoration by Sapper Tom Carpenter and Sapper Frank Paine and dedicated to their friends who did not return.

     The fighting in Oosterbeek was equally ferocious, with the enemy attacking the Sonnenberg house many times, but all attacks were repulsed. Towards evening of 20 September, the company Headquarters was attacked by infantry supported by a flame-throwing tank and a self-propelled gun. Mines were hastily laid across the forest track that halted the self-propelled gun and Sergeant Nobby Gee and the crew of his 17 Pdr Anti-tank gun put the flame-throwing tank out of action. The tank crew were all killed.

     During the evening, a shell exploded in the house on Benedendorpsweg near the old church killing Corporal Henry Pink and wounding Sapper Cyril R. Williams, Sapper Wilson was also wounded in the same area at about this time, they were all members of No. 3 Platoon.

     Captain Heggie returned from his duties at the ferry site with seven men and reported to Major Winchester that two men had been killed; they were Driver R. J. Gwilliam and Sapper T. O. Morris. Later on in the day Captain Wetherill, Major Winchester’s second in command and Captain Heggie were both wounded by mortar fire and evacuated to the nearest dressing station, where they were both taken prisoner.

      The shelling was taking its toll of the company and the casualties were mounting, also most of the units transport was put out of action by mortar fire. The Company could do very little about the bombardment, so had to just sit and ‘take it’.

     During the morning, the CRE was ordered to cross the river and contact the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade Group in positions around Driel. This left Major Winchester as the acting CRE and he also remained as sector commander for the perimeter defence. This entailed the Major having to cross and recross the main road several times a day to report to the Divisional Headquarters and in the Majors words “I had to do a smart sprint, avoiding debris and fallen branches and dodging the machine gun and sniper fire to reach the cellar, where the Div HQ was established”. During one of these visits he organised a party to ferry more Polish troops across to the north bank later in the evening. Around 1930 hrs Lance Sergeant Lake and twenty Sappers from 1st Parachute Squadron commanded by Captain Brown succeeded in ferrying some Poles and much needed ammunition to the north bank in reconnaissance boats.

     At about 0630 hrs on Monday 25 September the CRE returned to Divisional Headquarters with the plans for the withdrawal of the Division. The whole Division was to pull out that night along two routes to the riverbank, where boats manned by the 43 Division and Canadian Engineers would ferry them across the river. Operation ‘Berlin’ was to start at 2200 hrs and continue until all the men were across, the password was ‘John Bull’.

     Major Winchester arranged with the Quartermaster for all the men to pool what rations they had left and had a final ‘brew up’. Then at about 1930 hrs, Major Winchester set out with three Sappers loaded with rolls of tracing tape and taped the complete route from the Divisional Headquarters to the ferrying sites. By 2100 hrs the job was completed and the Division began to withdraw from their defensive positions. By 2115 hrs the Company was gathered together in groups of fifteen men each commanded by a senior NCO and made their way down to the river. For a short time the ferrying went well until the Germans started to mortar and shell the site sinking many of the craft and wounding many men waiting on the riverbank. Major Winchester undertook the duties of beach master and called parties down for embarkation as each ferry craft came in. The ferrying went on until the early hours of Tuesday morning when daylight prevented any further operations. After checking most of his men onto the boats, Major Winchester, thoroughly exhausted and his job as beach master completed boarded one of the last boats to leave for the far bank of the river. The men walked the two kilometres to Driel where a cup of tea and rum was given to each man by men of the 43 Division.

     Around 220 men of the 9th (Airborne) Field Company, Royal Engineers landed on Landing Zone ‘Z’. Nine days later 120 men had been wounded or taken prisoner, forty-three were killed and around fifty-six Sappers and NCOs and one Officer escaped over the River Rhine.

 

   The winter of 1944 – 1945 saw the rebuilding of the Company with Major Winchester sending his young Officers to interview young Sappers to assess their mental and physical requirements to become airborne soldiers. They took part in several exercises and then in April 1945 the Division prepared to move to Norway.

 

Operation Doomsday.

 

Operation Doomsday was the name given to the move of the Allied forces by air to Norway. The British element consisted of the 1st Airborne Division, less 1st Parachute Brigade, but with the Special Air Service Brigade under command. The task of the Division was to oversee the surrender of over 400,000 German troops still present in Norway.

     The men of the renamed 9th Airborne Squadron, Royal Engineers commandeered German trucks and drove to the Norwegian capital where they set up their command headquarters at Smestad near Oslo. Their job was to clear the numerous minefields around the beaches and important installations and also to make the railways work, repair the roads, build bridges and get the ferries working again. While in Norway investigations began as to the fate of members of the Company who were on Operation Freshman, witnesses were found and statements taken and eventually the truth was learned and the culprits were prosecuted.

     After a short leave in England the Company was sent to India as part of the Far East Advance Party in preparation for operations in Malaya, but on 6 August 1945 the worlds first atomic device bombed Hiroshima. The Malayan operation was cancelled as Japan unconditionally surrendered after a second device was dropped over Nagasaki.

      Shortly after this the 1st Airborne Division was disbanded and the Squadron was transferred to the 6th Airborne Division and on 16 September the squadron left for Palestine. While there on 25 December the Squadron tucked into their first well-earned peacetime Christmas dinner. They stayed in Palestine until March 1948 and then finally returned to England for a well-earned rest.

 

    Special thanks go to our friend Patrick Pronk and his wonderful book Airborne Engineers, The Shiny 9th. (An illustrated History of the 9th (Airborne) Field Company Royal Engineers 1939-1945.)  Sigmond Publishing. 2001 and also to the time and patience of the many veterans interviewed for the compiling of this short history.

      Special thanks also to our great friend Webo Boersman at the Hartenstein Museum for all his help

Contact us on : [email protected]

Newest Members

Recent Photos

Recent Forum Posts

Recent Blog Entries

Featured Products

No featured products