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ARMED WITH AN UMBRELLA

Thousands of parachutes fill the sky over the Netherlands as the Allies push toward Germany during World War II

Thousands of parachutes open in the skies over the Netherlands as Allied paratroopers prepare to land in September, 1944.
With them is Digby Tatham-Warter.

Photo Credit: U.S. National Archives 111-SC-354702

At the Arnhem Bridge

In 1940 the Brits are fighting alone against the dark forces engulfing Europe. By late 1941 the Americans, free French, free Poles, and Russians have joined them, and in 1944 they launch D-Day. Crossing the English Channel they take the war to liberate Europe to German-occupied France.

Success is followed by supply delays that make it difficult to move as planned toward Germany. The Allies conceive a daring plan to parachute into Holland, seize eight vital bridges, and take control of the northern Rhine, the last major natural barrier to an advance into Germany.  They give this operation the whimsical name of ‘Market Garden’.

Map of the Netherlands

The most northerly of the bridges to be seized is the Arnhem, not far from the border with Germany (grey on the map). Arnhem Bridge lies on the Niederrhein, the lower Rhine. Nijmegen Bridge is to the south, on the Waal River.

 

The Allies are unaware that the 86,000 men of the German 15th Army and 600 artillery pieces have been ferried to the Netherlands, into the path of the planned attack.

An eccentric idea

Digby Tatham-Warter is a tall, young commander in his late twenties with a wry sense of humour. Along with his company, 2nd Battalion ‘A’ of 1st British Airborne, he is waiting to parachute into battle. Nobody likes to wait, particularly if they are waiting to do something dangerous. As operations are called, then cancelled, A Company grows irritable.

Digby has not experienced much combat, but enough to know that the radios often failed to work, leaving them in the dark on the battlefield.  He distracts his men by teaching them 19th century military bugle calls so they can keep communicating if their radios quit. At their camp in England the brass bugles make a stirring, antique sound.

It is a pity the Nazis started the war. 'A' company intends to help finish it.

In mid-September Digby is told that he and the men of 1st and 2nd Airborne have been assigned to seize and hold Arnhem Bridge until British 30 Corps relieves them. It is expected this will occur within 72 hours.  No one mentions they might encounter SS Panzer Divisions in the vicinity of Arnhem Bridge.

Jump day

Flight day, September 17, is beautiful and calm. Allied parachute troops jump toward their landing zones near the eight bridges carrying their weapons, ammunition, and food and, in the case of ‘A’ company, their bugles.

The Allies capture several bridges, but the force tasked with taking Nijmegen Bridge never makes goal. This means that British 30 Corps cannot cross the bridge and march north to Arnhem.

In the north, Digby and company land without loss of men to the north of the bridge, and march toward Arnhem, seven miles away. Just as Digby had feared, a frequency problem has put all the long-range radios out of commission, and the short-range sets are not working either. They make do with the bugles, but they are unaware that 1st Airborne is under attack and unable to support them and that British 30 Corps is not marching north to relieve them.

They reach Arnhem in the early evening. Not one to hang around since he has been told to take the bridge with all speed, Digby leads his men at a jog through back gardens, bypasses German armoured cars in the main street, and reaches the bridge shortly after dusk. They destroy the pillbox, and begin to cross, but are stopped by mortar bombs and four blazing trucks which make the bridge impassable.

There is still no sign of 1st Airborne, but under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost, 2nd Battalion sets up a strong bridgehead with defensive positions at the north end of the bridge, and prepares to stand its ground until British 30 Corps arrives.  Without working radios, they still do not know that the Nazis have pinned down 1st Airborne and that 30 Corps remains stuck on the wrong side of Nijmegen Bridge. However, the cheerful notes of the bugles keep the platoons in communication with each other.

The Brits’ unexpected arrival surprised the Nazis, but not for long. The 9th SS German Panzer Division is in the neighborhood. Its Mark IV tanks grind toward Arnhem, reach the bridge, and begin a relentless barrage. Undismayed, the Brits dig in to defend their position.

Umbrellas and bugles

Wearing the red beret of British Airborne, Digby leads ‘A’ Company in repulsing the attack while carrying an umbrella and firing his gun.  Figuring that any British soldier knew that only "a bloody fool" of an Englishman would be mad enough to carry an umbrella, he uses it as a helpful identifier in the turmoil of battle.  Meanwhile, over the noise of the bombardment rise the rousing calls of the bugles.

The SS 9th Panzer Division presses its attack, and very nearly takes the bridge.  Digby leads a bayonet charge carrying a pistol in one hand, and swinging his umbrella about his head with the other. He has lost his beret, but has managed to locate a bowler. He and the Brits beat back the SS onslaught. 

They carry their wounded into the cellars of nearby houses, and care for them there. Night falls on the second day of the battle for the Arnhem Bridge. The Brits have food and water, but are running low on ammo. Nevertheless they are determined to hold the northern bridgehead until 1st Airborne and British 30 Corps arrive. They are unaware that the Nazis are wiping out the forces of 1st Airborne that are trying to reach the bridge.

"Against enormous odds, the British clung fiercely to their positions"

On the third day, 2nd Battalion faces another intense mortar barrage, but Digby is cheerful, and undaunted.  Cool under fire, indifferent to sniper bullets whistling around him he directs his men to fresh positions.  

On the morning of the fourth day, September 20, they are exhausted and their food and water is almost gone. Many of the buildings on fire, many of their men are wounded, and their ammunition dwindling. They arrange a two-hour truce to evacuate the wounded (including Lt.-Colonel Frost) into German care and captivity. But the Brits who remain standing are stubbornly determined to hold the northern approach to the bridge. Digby has taken several wounds, but he shrugs them off, and hangs his umbrella from the sling on his arm. 

At noon the radios finally start working, and they learn that 1st Airborne has fallen back to Oosterbeek, while 30 Corps is still miles away, trying to get boats across the Waal River. That afternoon the SS makes a ferocious assault. Massively outgunned, the Brits fall back on the houses close to the bridge, but refuse to surrender.

To the south, the Americans

To the south the Americans of the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, are determined to link up with them. In what has been called one of the bravest actions in military history, they cross the Waal River in fold-up canvas canoes, heading straight into Nazi cannon, flak, machine guns, and a hailstorm of artillery shells and bullets. Despite horrendous casualties, they rush the banks, run them over, and storm the bridge. After four long days, Nijmegen Bridge is in Allied hands, and British 30 Corps should be racing north.

In Arnhem, the Nazis’ heavy tanks, menacing and sinister in the fiery light, shell the houses. The Brits have no anti-tank weapons unless one counts Digby’s umbrella. He disables a German tank by thrusting his rolled-up umbrella through an observation slit in the vehicle and incapacitating the driver.

Out of ammo

Digby and company endure a massive mortar barrage concentrated on their small perimeter. They fire their last bullets trying to hold off the SS while some of their fellow Brits try to escape to Oosterbeek to join 1st Airborne. On this, the morning of the fifth day, September 21, they are down to a handful of men in two houses. The bugles have fallen silent.  An hour before 30 Corps reaches the bridge, Digby and his men send a last radio message – “out of ammo, God save the King” – and surrender.

Escape

Taken prisoner, Digby is sent to a German hospital, but stays there only through the daylight hours of September 21 before escaping with his Second-in-Command, Captain Tony Franks. Digby goes underground.

Digby Tatham-Warter, looking very young, uses false identity papers to escape the Nazis

Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter,
2nd Battalion A, British Airborne
,
pictured in his false identity card after
escaping the Nazis.

They find shelter in a barn, then connect with the Dutch Resistance. Digby dresses in civilian clothes, obtains a forged identity card with the help of the Dutch, and takes up residence under a log pile. From this he emerges each day as the deaf and mute son of lawyer, and boldly rides around the countryside on a bicycle, locating several hundred Brit paratroopers who have evaded capture and are in hiding.

In his disguise and on his rounds, Digby encounters a number of German officers, but he is unperturbed, and arouses no suspicions. He secretly organizes the paratroopers, and alerts 1st Airborne in England.

He arranges for the RAF to drop equipment, ammunition, food and cigarettes, reforms 1st Airborne Division into an effective force, and plans a massive escape to Allied lines. Operation Pegasus flies into action. One hundred and thirty-eight Brits prepare to fight their way back.

But on October 22, they meet only small arms fire, and the Germans they meet flee. All the Brits escape safely.

After the Axis Powers are beaten and the war ends, Digby moves to Africa. His adventures there are less harrowing.

 

 

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass