No tidy end to WW2 for British Airborne POWs on their long odyssey home from prison camps

Celebrating milestone anniversaries, such as VE Day 75 offers us a means of commemorating six years of a messy, horrific conflict with a heartfelt salute to soldiers, sailors and aviators who fought for freedom and democracy. We rightly honour those who gave their lives and never came back along with those who survived to return and tell the tale. May 1945 also saw the conclusion of a titanic effort on the home front to keep the troops fighting, involving its share of sacrifice for civilian men, women and children.

In reality, May 1945 was not a transformational cut off point between peace and war. It saw no tidy ending, with significant parts of the world still devastated, millions of people displaced from their homes, starving and deeply traumatized. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, savage battles were being waged between the Allies and the forces of the Japanese Empire. This was still a world in flames and ruins, with much suffering still to come.

For many civilians and combatants in Continental Europe the road home was a long one, including for thousands of soldiers belonging to the British 1st Airborne Division. They had been taken prisoner during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944 and shipped off on trains to Prisoner of War (POW) camps scattered across Germany.

British soldiers from the 6th Airborne Division in combat during Operation Varsity in March 1945, when Allied forces finally made their leap across the Rhine, which they had failed to do at Arnhem the previous autumn. Photo: Australian War Memorial (AWM).

Twenty-year-old Private Frank Newhouse of the 10th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, who had been wounded in the head while trying to knock out a German tank, ended up in a small camp near Dresden. He was put on working parties clearing up the rubble and body parts in the aftermath of the Allied bombing raids of early 1945.

After being forced to dig the grave of a fellow POW who was unjustly executed, he and three comrades were abandoned by their guards as the Reich collapsed and left to wander through southern Germany and into Czechoslovakia. It was an odyssey that did not end until well after VE Day.

As those back home in Britain were celebrating in the streets, Newhouse and his fellow Airborne refugees were trudging towards the spa town of Karlovy Vary, in the German speaking Sudetenland. Going from door-to-door they begged for food and shelter. Eventually the British soldiers were offered sanctuary by a frightened woman and her husband. They feared predatory Russian soldiers seeking to rape and pillage would break into their home. The couple asked for protection, in return for which they would give Newhouse and his three fellow POWs bed and board.

Crowds gather at Piccadilly Circus, London, on 8 May 1945 (VE Day) to celebrate the end of WW2 in Europe. Photo: AWM.

In a cruel irony, American troops, with whom the British could well have hitched a ride west, had occupied the town on 6 May but under the terms of an agreement between the Western allies and Russia were pulled back on 11 May. Newhouse and the others soon left Karlovy Vary, resuming their trek west. Exhausted and starving they spent the next month walking across country to Regensburg.

There they met some American troops who were delighted to give them a slap-up meal and provide transportation. ‘They took us to an airfield,’ recalls Newhouse in my book ‘Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron’.  ‘They gave us a couple of jerry cans of petrol and a car and told us to go to Brussels. The four of us got in this car and drove to Brussels and got deloused and then [sent] home.’ Newhouse turned 21 in September 1945, later reflecting that since he parachuted into Holland the previous autumn ‘a multitude of things happened…I’d lived a lifetime.’

Another paratrooper who fought at Arnhem and was also wounded, similarly made a long trek to freedom as the war ended. This was Corporal Harry Tucker, aged 25 when he jumped into action. After his wounds healed, Cpl Tucker twice escaped from prison camps while out on working parties, almost being shot when recaptured by the enemy the first time. On the second occasion he got away properly.

During his wanderings Tucker met some Frenchmen who had been transported into the Reich to work in factories turning out war materials. Like him they had escaped as their captors became less vigilant amid the growing chaos. Despite lacking a common language, it was agreed that he would help them make their way to freedom in the west in exchange for a share of the food and drink they were carrying.

Allied POWs walking to freedom and civilian refugees mix with British armour on a German country road in May 1945. Photo: AWM.

Eventually, they encountered an American soldier who asked for identification papers and though Tucker spoke the King’s English, it was still not enough to reassure the nervous G.I. Then the British paratrooper had a good idea: ‘I rolled up my sleeves and showed him my tattoos. Finally, he was convinced, when he saw “Dad” on one arm and “Mum” on the other. The Yank smiled and gave me a bar of chocolate. I burst into tears because I was so glad to have finally escaped and made it to friendly lines.’

Twenty-year-old paratrooper Private James Sims, from the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment who fought at the Arnhem road bridge before being captured, was at one stage in a POW working party strafed by marauding Allied aircraft. Captivity for Sims ended when SS guards marched 300 POWs east across country, it was feared to be held hostage in Berlin. However, the SS guards soon though better of it and absconded, after surrendering their rifles to the prisoners. That was when the moment of maximum danger clanked over the horizon. The POWs ended up pressing themselves into the mud of a field when caught between a battling British self-propelled gun and an enemy Tiger tank. The panzer came off worse and scuttled away, hotly pursued by its foe.

In the aftermath of this scrap, Sims and the other POWs wondered how to signal their presence to passing Allied aircraft and ended up using bits of cloth to spell out ‘POW’ on the ground. This was soon spotted and the following day a Bren gun carrier from a British Army unit emerged from some nearby woods. It trundled towards a large group of prisoners, who charge forward cheering their lungs out. ‘We practically lifted that carrier off the ground as we engulfed it in a human wave,’ related Sims. ‘At last it was all over.’

Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron’ is published by Agora Books


The Australian destroyer that was a British movie star

(and the day Noel Coward
played the piano aboard HMS Warspite)

The Royal Navy destroyer Nepal was transferred to Royal Australian Navy during WW2 and 75 years ago was committed to action off Okinawa with RN’s Task Force 57, the latter being the spearhead of the British Pacific Fleet (BPF) engaged in the final phase of the war against Japan.

Around three years earlier HMAS Nepal was used to depict ‘HMS Torrin’ in the David Lean/Noel Coward movie ‘In Which We Serve’. While possibly a bit too plummy and ‘gor blimey Mrs’ for modern tastes, it is one of the classic films about the war at sea and does accurately reflect many things.

Although designed to boost public morale, ‘In Which We Serve’ did not avoid depicting the hard knocks at sea & ashore, including the Luftwaffe’s blitz of the naval dockyard city of Plymouth in the south of England.

A still from the movie ‘In Which We Serve’ showing ‘HMS Torrin’ rating ‘Shorty’ Blake (John Mills, right) on a train.

Coward’s character (Captain E.V. Kinross, CO of the ‘Torrin’) is based on his friend Louis Mountbatten, who commanded a destroyer flotilla in the early part of the war. John Mills and Richard Attenborough also put in good turns as sailors, along with Bernard Miles as a senior rating. Like other warships in old British war movies, ‘HMS Torrin’ is a Devonport Division vessel. The studio mock-up of the destroyer is pretty impressive but locations around Devonport Dockyard were used for filming.

HMAS Nepal, a WW2 Royal Australian Navy destroyer that was used as ‘HMS Torrin’ in the Noel Coward/David Lean movie ‘In Which We Serve’. Photo: Iain Ballantyne collection.

The real ship was HMS Kelly, Mountbatten’s famous flotilla leader – sunk in the eastern Med, like the ‘Torrin’. The Kelly was a pretty new ship, commissioned into the fleet less than a fortnight before Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, after Hitler sent his troops into Poland. The sinking of the Kelly, by air attack on 23 May 1941, came while she was covering the evacuation of Crete.

The Royal Australian Navy destroyer HMAS Nepal (furthest) about to conduct a transfer with another warship (foreground) in the Pacific during WW2. RAN image.

Cover of The Criterion Collection blu-ray of Noel Coward’s ‘In Which We Serve’.

Just over year later the production of ‘In Which We Serve’ got underway. That David Lean was at the directing helm – sharing duties with Coward, who also wrote the script – adds a great deal to the visuals. You can tell Lean is at work due to the masterful execution of various sequences and with excellent cinematography by Ronald Neame. It all looks crisply glorious in its restored Criterion Collection HD version

The episode in which Torrin fights enemy surface ships in the North Sea, and has her bows blown off – but makes it back to port – is a superb piece of silver screen naval action. It is very similar to real events during the battle for Norway, in May 1940 that saw HMS Kelly sustain heavy damage from a torpedo hit, but still sailed home.

As an aside, I have included here an image of Noel Coward playing the piano aboard HMS Warspite, to entertain her sailors and Royal Marines while the battleship was in port at Malta in August 1943. It was used in my book ‘Warspite’ (Pen & Sword Books)

In this photograph from ‘Warspite’ (Pen & Sword Books) we see Noel Coward entertaining the men of the battleship HMS Warspite, at the time (August 1943) in harbour at Malta. Photo: C. Pearson Collection.

The CO of Warspite, Captain Bertie Packer, had just seen ‘In Which We Serve’ (released in UK cinemas at the end of 1942) and, on hearing Coward was on the island to entertain the troops, sent a note to him. Packer asked Coward if there was a copy of the movie available that could be shown to his ship’s company. Coward not only sent across a print of the movie, but also visited the battleship and gave an impromptu concert on the upper deck.

‘Thieves in the night’ provided the perfect crash-bang-wallop

It is April so my mind turns to thoughts of the Second World War, or more precisely to a visit I made in 1994 to Normandy. It also flashes back to the same time last year, when I was pondering how to begin the book I was writing with a suitable crash-bang-wallop.

I was making good progress with the rest of what would become ‘Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron’  but felt it needed a more dynamic start in order to really grab readers. I wanted to hurl them into battle from the off and then maintain the pace.

The churchyard at Ranville, Normandy, where a German soldier killed in combat
is buried alongside British soldiers. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

It may seem a trifle obvious, especially when tackling a history book, but the answer lay in the past. It occurred to me that the way to provide an action-packed beginning for the story of the epic September 1944 misadventure by the British 1st Airborne Division, to capture bridges over the Rhine, was a rewind to the D-Day invasion.

The war cemetery at Ranville, Normandy where lie both Allied and German servicemen who lost their lives during fighting in the summer of 1944. Photo: Iain Ballantyne.

I have, so far, visited the landing sites and battlefields of Normandy four times – thrice in 1994 (April, June and July) plus in June 2004. My first visit was blessed with typical April showers weather – brilliant blue rain-scrubbed skies with fluffy wide clouds drifting overhead. On one such afternoon, together with my future wife (who has ever since lovingly tolerated such research expeditions) I took a bus from Caen, our HQ for the week, to Ranville. It was the scene of much fighting between troops of the British 6th Airborne Division and the Germans back in the summer of 1944 and I heard there was a war cemetery there well worth a visit.

For the Normandy landings the 6th Airborne Division – sister formation of the 1st Airborne that would tackle Arnhem a few months later – was charged with securing the extreme eastern flank of the invasion beaches, dropping in via gliders and descending under parachutes to seize various key objectives.

Six platoons of D Company in the 2nd Battalion, The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were tasked with taking two bridges a quarter of a mile apart in an audacious coup de main attack in the early hours of D-Day. They were accompanied in each of six Horsa gliders taking them to war by half a dozen Royal Engineers, whose job it was to defuse and remove demolition charges attached to the bridges. One of them spanned the River Orne, near Ranville, and the other the Caen Canal, close to the village of Bénouville.

A Horsa glider of the British Airborne Forces comes in to land during a Second World War training sortie. Photo: Via Australian War Memorial (AWM).

Three gliders and 90 troops were committed to capture each bridge. The plan was that they would soon be reinforced by paratroopers and other glider-borne troops from the 6th Airborne Division to tighten the Allied grip. It was the kind of mission Airborne forces had been invented for – taking a gamble by coming down right on top of an objective to achieve total surprise and pave the way for greater success. While it might cost some casualties it would, with luck, work out well.

Months of meticulous planning and training preceded what was known as Operation Deadstick and to the Ox and Bucks fell the honour of being the first Allied unit to land in Normandy on D-Day. Their aim was, in the words of an official British Army history of the event, to ‘arrive at the bridges alone and unheralded, like thieves in the night.’

This they successfully managed to do and – despite some enemy opposition – seized the bridges, holding them with help from paratroopers until the arrival of commandos and tanks, which landed on Sword Beach several miles away and then fought their way inland.

Without doubt the most spectacular episode of the British side of the D-Day assault from the air was the thunderclap in the night seizure of the bridge over the Caen Canal. It was immortalised by the movie ‘The Longest Day’, itself based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.

Recounting such an episode, including drawing on the raw testimony of veterans lodged in museum archives, could not be anything other than exciting. With gliders skidding to a halt one-by-one right next to the bridge, Airborne troops tumbling out of them and screaming like demons as they charged across gunning down sleepy German defenders, it was the epitome of crash-bang-wallop.

Crowds outside the Pegasus Bridge Café, watching as the British warship HMS Campbeltown passes up the Caen Canal, to act as Royal Navy flagship for D-Day 60th anniversary events. Photo: Tony Carney.

The Caen Canal crossing is to this day known as Pegasus Bridge, in honour of the British Airborne troops whose badge features the winged horse of Ancient legend. The establishment right next to it is known as the Pegasus Bridge Café. Its owners played their part in obtaining crucial intelligence before the attack, helping to make it a success, and were good hosts to soldiers who came from the skies to liberate France.

I have never actually visited the café – owned to this day by the Gondrée family. However, in 2004, when I voyaged along the Channel in the British frigate HMS Campbeltown to report on D-Day 60th anniversary events, I sailed past it up the canal. The bridge can be elevated to let vessels, including fairly large warships, pass through. Visible in a field beyond the current, modern bridge is the old one the Airborne troops captured in 1944. It has been preserved as a visitor attraction, adjacent to the Pegasus Memorial Museum.

During the 2004 visit to Normandy, I went back to Ranville, but this time with the men and women of HMS Campbeltown. They wanted to pay their respects to military forebears who lost their lives there six decades earlier. Visiting a war cemetery is always a deeply moving experience and at Ranville more than 2,000 stark white headstones gleam brightly in the sun against immaculate green grass lovingly tended by staff of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In the neighbouring churchyard you will find arrayed along its ancient walls headstones for other British war dead and also a German soldier – former foes lying side-by-side. More than 300 other Germans are buried at Ranville too.

Sadly, the glider assault on Pegasus Bridge was merely the beginning of the end of the Second World War in North West Europe. There would be many more battles, not least the struggle for the bridges over the Rhine at Arnhem, in which many thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians would lose their lives. How that came to happen is recounted from the perspective of those caught up in the thick of the fighting in ‘Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron’.


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