Taking Dad To Visit His WWll Ghosts In Arnhem

A heartfelt tale of one man taking his elderly father for a pilgrimage back to the battlefields of Arnhem and Oosterbeek in the Netherlands.
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A heartfelt tale of one man taking his elderly father for a pilgrimage back to the battlefields of Arnhem and Oosterbeek in the Netherlands.

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In September 1944 Glider Pilot SGT ANDREW ‘JOCK’ BROWN escaped back across the Rhine after the worst defeat of Allied forces during the Second World War.

Dutch children stop him in the street and ask for his autograph, old folks shake his hand and say slowly, emotionally, in broken English, “thank you so much for saving us”.  Business people buy him beers and coffees in repayment for his failing memories, and then come the beefy loud American ex-soldiers wanting to have their photo taken with him, telling him, “you’re a real hero man”.

Oddly-dressed amateur historians step from Battlefield tour buses and question him on minor details of military strategy based on his personal experiences.   “Can’t you remember exactly where you landed?” one demands.  “Not really,” he replies tolerantly, “we just got down as quickly as we could…you see German anti-aircraft guns were firing at us.”

This is a strange kind of celebrity.  He deals with it all awkwardly yet with quiet dignity.   Standing there with his shoulders back, his heels together, he accepts the plaudits but, afterwards, shakes his head and wonders what the hell all this is about.

Dutch children stop him in the street and ask for his autograph, old folks shake his hand and say slowly, emotionally, in broken English, “thank you so much for saving us”

It’s my fault we’re here.  He was reluctant to come back but, quack psycho-therapist that I am, I thought it might help in some way.    I guess I hoped he might finally face what happened to him all those years ago in Oosterbeek near the Rhine.  Perhaps he’d now look back on the battle for Arnhem with some kind of pride?   Perhaps the trip would be cathartic?  Perhaps it would help him come to terms with the deaths of so many young friends in the Airborne forces?

Before setting off I’d rung my sister to track down his old maroon beret from the battle – she’d worn it fashionably during her theatrical New Romantic phase – and dug out his dusty medals from their old O.H.M.S. cardboard box.  After they were polished up and mounted, and we’d borrowed a regimental tie, my Dad - the reluctant old soldier with the artificial hip - was all ready for the anniversary march over the famous John Frost Bridge.

Sergeant Andrew ‘Jock’ Brown - he still barks his number “3193249” when he meets fellow veterans - was 24 when he volunteered to transfer from the Kings Own Scottish Borderers to the Glider Pilot Regiment in February 1944.

According to the pages of his tattered RAF Pilot’s Flying Log Book, after training at Booker he finally went solo in a Hotspur 2 on May 30 and finally flew his first Horsa glider on July 4 above the base at Ramsbury.   Then, on Monday September 18 1944, with Staff Sgt Stan Lewis as his co-pilot, his glider - carrying five infantry soldiers plus a jeep and a trailer full of ammunition - was towed by an Albermarle aircraft from Manston on the South Coast of England across the channel to Holland as part of Operation Market Garden.

It was the second day of the ambitious three day Airborne plan, brainchild of Field Marshall Montgomery, to capture several key bridges over the Rhine, including the one at Arnhem.  The aim was to capitalise on the success of the D-Day Normandy landings and, had it worked, military experts continue to argue it could have shortened the war by six months.  It might have been all over by Xmas 1944.

From the landing zone, somewhere between Wolfheze and Ede, my father joined up with other 1st Airborne forces and helped secure the area for the third day of the delayed glider landings.  Then they set off towards the bridge at Arnhem.  Unfortunately, against all Intelligence reports (“magnificently bungled,” in the opinion of Major-General R.E. Urquhart), they encountered strong German resistance in the formidable form of an SS Panzer Division.   As a result, the British forces became bogged down near Oosterbeek on the Rhine to the west of Arnhem.

From Monday September 18 through to Wednesday September 20 my Dad recalls that there was still optimism among the Airborne forces, “we kept thinking, ‘if only we could meet up with the others’.”  But the ‘others’ – the British and American airborne forces who’d landed near Nijmegen further south – just couldn’t break through to Arnhem on time either.   As a result, the British battalion which valiantly held the bridge, under Lieutenant-Colonel John D. Frost, was overwhelmed early on Thursday September 21.  The strategically crucial Arnhem Bridge was once again in German hands.

From then on, in Dad’s words, “it was a total disaster” for the surviving British troops trapped in the one-by-one-and-a-half-kilometre perimeter that stretched from just North of the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek (the headquarters of Major-General Urquhart) down to the banks of the Rhine.    “We were completely surrounded, being shelled all the time, and because of the breakdown in intelligence we watched as 90 per cent of our supplies went over our heads and were dropped straight into German hands.

“We kept being told we’d be relieved, but the help never arrived.   By the Thursday and Friday we felt we’d been left there, to die or be taken prisoner.  We just kept our heads down in the trenches praying that the moaning minnies (German rockets) wouldn’t get us.”

Now 91, unsurprisingly he’s no longer in great health, my Dad.  His hearing was damaged during the war, he’s got diabetes, his short-term memory is poor as he deals with the cruel progress of Alzheimer’s (“oldtimers” or “the German disease” he jokingly calls it) but strangely, nearly seventy years on, he seems to know his way around Oosterbeek as well as he knew his adopted home city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

His strongest memories are of the tennis court near the Hartenstein Hotel in which German prisoners were held.   “We were in trenches all around them and, if we went too close, they’d spit at us through the fencing.   But I suppose they were just lads like us really, they didn’t want to be there either.”

Although, by the middle of that fateful week back in September in 1944, the supporting ground troops, chiefly the British 30 Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division, to the south started to make progress, liberating Nijmegen and capturing the Waal bridge, Operation Market Garden was already two or three days behind schedule.

Nearly seventy years on, he seems to know his way around Oosterbeek as well as he knew his adopted home city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

On the Thursday, while Frost’s battalion was defeated at Arnhem Bridge, the German’s captured the Westerbouwing Height overlooking both the Rhine crossing at Heveadorp and the Oosterbeek perimeter, enabling them to increase their bombardment of the trapped Airborne troops. Montgomery finally acknowledged that his plan had failed and, on the Friday, the rescue of British 1st Airborne became the new priority (codenamed ‘Operation Berlin’).

“Most of the attempts to rescue us came to little,” Dad recalls.  “The bad weather prevented much air support although I remember one day watching Polish parachutists dropping from the skies.  They were just hanging there while the Germans picked them off.  It was like shooting pheasants.  Some of the Poles that survived were so terrified they couldn’t move or speak.  It was heart-breaking to watch and we could do nothing. After a week of constant fighting without rest we were all totally exhausted.”

Lightly equipped and having suffered heavy casualties, the remnants of 1st Airborne in the Oosterbeek perimeter increasingly feared the worst.   During the bombardment, Dad carried one of his seriously wounded colleagues, Dixie Dean, down from near the Hartenstein Hotel to the Old Church (De Oude Kirk) towards the river.

“He had serious shrapnel wounds to his chest. But when I went in the church, it was so calm compared to the world outside.   All I could hear were the wounded and dying desperately whispering The Lord’s Prayer.  It was so moving, so terrible.”

He doesn’t weep often my Dad – only when he hears the bugle playing The Last Post or choirs sing ‘Abide With Me’ - but when he recalls this scene the tears keep flowing.   To this day he’s still not sure what happened to Dean.  There’s no grave in the Oosterbeek cemetery and yet Dad believes his young friend died that night in the Old Church.  “I was told at the time that he hadn’t made it, I even wrote to his parents when I finally got back to England.”

Perhaps Dixie Dean was buried in Oosterbeek cemetery; perhaps he’s one of the many un-named Glider Pilots resting among the 246 unidentified there, those “known only to God”?   Or maybe he survived until the Germans captured the old church and was the Sgt C. Dean (14433795) who was taken to Fallingbostel Prisoner Of War Camp near Hamburg?   My father still fears the worst.   One testament to Dean’s fate in Oosterbeek is the small bronze oak leaf emblem attached to my father’s war medals, signifying the fact that he was Mentioned In Despatches for helping his comrade (published in the London Gazette, 10 May 1945).

Our Arnhem trip brought back wave after wave of memories for my Dad.   The Dutch people, young and old, were exceptionally kind towards him; their praise for all the veterans was heartfelt, deeply touching and lasting.   In comparison, back home in the UK we only seem to remember this generation of soldiers every Armistice Day.  A minute’s silence once a year hardly seems enough of a tribute to the living and the dead of countless wars.

After visiting his comrades’ graves, a Dutch woman called Esme walked with us back from the cemetery towards Oosterbeek town, where the assorted brass and pipe bands were playing, while war tourists downed lager and bought up military memorabilia.

She talked warmly and appreciatively about the British soldiers who stayed with her family during the war; remembering how, despite the defeat at Arnhem, they’d given hope to the Dutch civilians and the Dutch resistance that liberation would not be too far into the future.

Our Arnhem trip brought back wave after wave of memories for my Dad.   The Dutch people, young and old, were exceptionally kind towards him; their praise for all the veterans was heartfelt, deeply touching and lasting.

Even Cor, a burly tattooed Dutch taxi driver in Nijmegen, turned to my father and said, “thanks for everything you did for my parents and for my generation”.   This moved Dad greatly.  He says he’d always felt guilty that the Airborne troops had had to withdraw secretly that night of September 25/26 1944, without having the chance to say goodbye or thank you to the  Dutch civilians and Dutch families who’d helped them.

Although at the Old Church in Oosterbeek the memorial is proudly dedicated to the Airborne soldiers and to the Dutch civilians who helped them, my Dad and his colleagues felt they’d somehow betrayed the Dutch when Major-General Urquhart ordered the withdrawal from Oosterbeek.  They knew that the retributions from German soldiers after Oosterbeek were grim, that those judged as collaborators or members of the Dutch Resistance had been shot.

In addition to the 450 Dutch men women and children who died as an immediate result of the fighting around Arnhem and Oosterbeek, an additional 18,000 (eighteen thousand!) civilians perished during that winter of 1944/45, when life was hard and food was scarce under the German occupation.  Arnhem and Oosterbeek were not liberated until the following April.

All the time, with every shake of his disbelieving head, my Dad thanks God that he got out of Oosterbeek alive.  “The odds were stacked against us.   We’d had so many casualties.  We were all just told to withdraw, to get out as fast as we could, and head towards the river.”  In the woods that night, on his way down from the Hartenstein hotel, he encountered a group of Germans.  He was terrified and fired at them madly, before throwing himself through some bushes.  He knows he shot and killed one of them and, to this day, sadly wonders how the young soldier’s parents coped with their son’s death.

“Then I crawled for what seemed like hours in the mud and the rain down the long slope through the woods towards the Rhine.   I was just so determined” (he grits his teeth here) “I was going to get out of there and back home.”

Eventually someone shouted out to him in a harsh, but thankfully British, voice. “I’ve never been so relieved in my life.  Stupidly I stood up with my hands up and blurted out, ‘British…British glider pilot.”  He just screamed at me to ‘Get down!  Get in line with the rest of them’.  And I joined the long trail of Airborne soldiers crawling and struggling, helping each other, down towards the boats.”

In the early hours of that Tuesday morning (September 26 1944) – just over a week after his glider had landed  – Dad managed to escape from the hell of Oosterbeek on one of the last small ferry boats, bravely operated by Canadian and British engineers under heavy artillery fire and in terrible weather, over the Rhine.   Only 3910 men (including my father) were evacuated over the Rhine that night; those left behind were taken prisoner along with the seriously wounded who stayed behind with the chaplains and medical troops.  Dad himself was wounded in the exodus, with shrapnel in his left shoulder, and later had to be temporarily patched up in Nijmegen.

But it wasn’t until he returned home to the UK via Brussels and arrived back at his base in Ramsbury, on September 29 1944, that the full-scale of the Arnhem disaster became totally clear to him.

All the time, with every shake of his disbelieving head, my Dad thanks God that he got out of Oosterbeek alive.  “The odds were stacked against us.   We’d had so many casualties.  We were all just told to withdraw, to get out as fast as we could...

“The casualties we’d heard were just numbers.  But arriving back at base was terrible – they’d made up beds for the whole of our squadron – there were only about nine of us left…we just sat on our bunks, looked around and prayed…it was and still is shocking to contemplate what happened to all those young men.”

The Glider Pilot Regiment had suffered terrible losses; of the 1378 men who set off for Arnhem, 229 had been killed and 469 were either wounded or became Prisoners of War (including Staff Sgt Stan Lewis, my father’s fellow glider pilot).    Many of Dad’s B Squadron lie buried in Oosterbeek Cemetery.

The overall casualty figures still make truly depressing reading.  News reports recently have focused on the dreadful loss of over 370 British soldiers in Afghanistan since 2001.  But compare this with that week in September 1944 when, during Operation Market Garden, of the11,920 British Airborne troops who landed, 1485 were killed and 6525 were taken prisoner (the majority of them wounded).  Several hundred more British soldiers, who managed to survive in hiding in Oosterbeek and Arnhem once the battle was over, were bravely protected and helped back to safety by Dutch civilians

Add to this the alarmingly heavy casualties in the ground forces.  The three British Corps (XXX, X11 and V111) suffered a further 3,784 losses.  3542 young Americans from the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were also killed in the failure of Operation Market Garden.  378 Poles died from the 1st Independent Parachute Brigade.    Thousands more, particularly the Canadians who fought to liberate Antwerp, were lost elsewhere in the campaign.

There were elements of our Dutch trip that my Dad doesn’t appreciate or even understand.  He just laughed when a teenager openly asked him “how many Germans did you kill?”   It’s as if war’s just become a computer game, in which the participants and the casualties no longer seem real.

Meanwhile convoys of military vehicles paraded through the streets, some carrying medal-laden veterans but many of them filled with smiling young people in shabby brown uniforms.   As we sat outside a café Dad politely asked a group of them which regiment they were serving with.   “It’s just a hobby,” one replied.  In fact, they were office workers who put on military fancy dress at the weekends.  “So they’re playing at soldiers?” My father was completely baffled by all this.  “We live in a completely crazy world, chap.”

The Glider Pilot Regiment had suffered terrible losses; of the 1378 men who set off for Arnhem, 229 had been killed and 469 were either wounded or became Prisoners of War.

Without doubt the battle of Arnhem scarred my father, physically and mentally. When I stupidly asked him if he’d had any counselling back then, he looks at me as if I’m mad.  “I went to hospital in Colchester to get my shoulder fixed, spent a few days leave back home with my mum in Coldstream and then, not long after, I was sent to India for 18 months.”

Those who knew him before and after the war noted that Arnhem changed him dramatically.   Maybe everyone involved in war is altered.   Growing up he certainly sometimes seemed harder, more toughened, perhaps stricter than some of my friend’s parents.

Not many other kids’ Dads got up and challenged the pugilists in the boxing booths when the fairground came to town.  Not many other kids’ Dads had them swimming in the North Sea off Bamburgh every November.  Not many other kids’ Dads would attempt to vault the washing line in the back garden with a clothes’ pole.  Not many other kids’ Dads took them on three-or-four mile route marches round Coldstream every morning before breakfast.

Much later, in October 1977, when I went to the University of Hull and my fellow students and I came into in conflict with the landlord of our slum dwelling, naturally it had been my Dad who sorted him out.   He was almost 60 then and, as a Sex Pistol-style tribute, my housemates printed t-shirts which clearly stated “Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s Len’s Dad!”

Even though it had lasted little more than a week - from his glider landing on Monday September 18 1944 through to his escape across the Rhine in the early hours of Tuesday September 26 1944 - clearly the Arnhem experience made him more determined that ever to value every day of the rest of his life

The years since Arnhem – “peacetime” some call it - haven’t been easy for my father and our family.   In brief, he worked for many years in the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries as a horticultural advisor, and although we had an extremely happy childhood, our lives were shattered when tragically my brother Don died aged only 21 in 1982 and my mother Janet passed away when she was just 67 in December 1993.   (Mum had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for almost 30 years and my Dad, with great support from Newcastle’s NHS nurses and surgeons, did an amazing job caring for her.)

Add to this the deaths of his mother and his two sisters – Dad had been only eight when he’d lost his father, a First World War invalid, to tuberculosis – and I can’t help concluding that my father’s had more than his fair share of grief.

As a result of all this, there’s now a very close bond now between my Dad, myself and my sister Kath.  He’s the grandfather of four girls, until recently he was a regular church-goer in Jesmond Newcastle and he loved the walk along the sands from Cullercoats to Tynemouth.  Although, because of the effects of pneumonia and rampaging Alzheimer’s, he’s recently had to move into a residential care home, he’s still passionate about sport, politics, horticulture and even the future of the planet.

But, standing straight-backed as he surveys the mass of graves in the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery, he sadly admitted that he really thought that they’d fought the war to end all wars.   He just shakes his head in despair at the mention of Iraq and Afghanistan but, in my bones, I know that he’s still the sort of man who’d lay down his life for lasting peace.    (Something I’m not sure I could honestly say about myself or my generation.)

When critics and viewers debate the merits of great films about war then Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (based on the Cornelius Ryan book about Arnhem) is rightly high on the list.   But, significantly, so is Saving Private Ryan, Stephen Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning film about the D-Day invasion and its aftermath; best remembered for its visually brilliant but harrowing recreation of the Normandy landings.

For veterans like my Dad, perhaps the most accurate and poignant moment in Saving Private Ryan is the final scene when the survivor James Ryan, as an old man half-a-century after Normandy, stands before the white-crossed graves of his war-time colleagues.   Emotionally, he bows his head and tells the fallen, “I’ve tried to live my life as best I could, I hope that was enough…
I hope that at least in your eyes I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”

Standing on the John Frost Bridge at Arnhem, waiting for the veterans to march past and accept the ongoing thanks of generations of Dutch citizens, I wondered if like the fictional James Ryan, the survivors of something as intense and devastating as Arnhem (perhaps survivors of war in general) always carried this psychological burden.   Maybe they feel guilty that they have had the fortune to survive while others, almost arbitrarily it seems, have died?   Perhaps they feel they’re living out their lives for those lost friends who fell in battle in their late teens or early twenties?

The Parachute Regiment Band passes by, then a bunch of strangely-dressed Dutch scouts, some cheerleaders, and then…there’s my Dad, perfectly in step with the other living monuments.   With his maroon New Romantic beret on, his polished medals glinting in the afternoon sun, he’s marching like a cadet across the famous bridge.   And you know what, weighing up all the problems he’s faced during his lifetime (and mine), I just can’t help feeling incredibly proud of him.   We’ve had our differences but he’s better than alright my Dad.  Tough as old boots.  Heart of old gold.

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Andrew 'Drew' Brown passed away March 23rd 2014, aged 94. To read more about his life, click here

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