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Arnhem: The Surprise Survivor

Photo: Taken from the Oosterbeek perimeter, this picture shows Stirlings on resupply missions dropping their cargoes over Drop Zone ‘V’ on 19 September 1944. Note the bursts of anti-aircraft fire among the open parachutes. [M. Hodgson]

 

When the RAF tried to resupply the beleaguered troops of Operation Market Garden, many aircraft, all too predictably, came to grief. With the help of first-hand accounts, we revisit September 1944 and focus on the surprising adventures of Short Stirling LK545.

The objective of Operation Market Garden, which began on 17 September 1944, was to secure the bridges over the River Maas and the River Rhine, with the hope Allied forces could break into Germany and bring the war to a speedy conclusion. The capture of the most distant of those bridges, over the Lower Rhine at Arnhem, had been the target of British 1st Airborne Division. It turned out that only one of the airborne battalions, Lieutenant Colonel John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion, had been able to reach the bridge and for four days the bulk of the 1st Airborne Division had been pinned around Oosterbeek, with 2nd Battalion holding at the bridge.

A Short Stirling returns to the UK after a resupply mission over Arnhem. This is the aircraft, Stirling Mk.IV LK171, flown by RAF Harwell’s Station Commander, Group Captain Bill Surplice. [K.A. Merrick]

It had been expected that the lightly-armed airborne troops would only have to hold out for two days before British XXX Corps reached Arnhem. Yet, by 20 September these units had still not punched their way through the German forces that blocked the road. If the airborne troops were to be able to hold out any longer they needed to be resupplied. That job was handed to the RAF.

From information gleaned on the 19th, it was believed  elements of the 2nd Parachute Battalion were holding one end of the bridge and that one of the landing zones – LZ ‘Z’ – was still held by 1st Airborne Division. For the resupply drop  RAF’s Transport Command was to provide 63 Dakotas from 46 Group, whilst 38 Group would furnish 100 Short Stirlings.

However, in the intervening hours the situation had changed and the airborne troops mainly held only a perimeter around Oosterbeek. The weather, which restricted earlier efforts at resupplying the troops, was again a handicap during the morning of the 20th, with fog covering most of the airfields in eastern England as well as the target area. It was not until 11:30 hours the fog had cleared enough for the aircraft to take to the sky.

Flying as much as possible over the route which had been cleared by XXX Corps – to avoid anti-aircraft fire – RAF crews were given a map reference where their drops were to be made. This represented a small enclosure opposite the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek – 1st Airborne Division’s headquarters.

A Sad and Moving Sight

One of the pilots who set off for Arnhem that morning was Flight Lieutenant Roy Scott of 295 Squadron: “We continued en-route to Arnhem at about 3,000 feet. The flak was quite heavy and I can recall feeling through the seat of my pants, the air pressure from the bursts of flak which damaged the undercarriage area. As we approached the container dropping zone at Oosterbeek near Arnhem, I let down until we were at the height for container dropping – 600 feet – and reduced speed to about 140 mph. On the run in an aircraft flying ahead and just above us dropped his containers and they very nearly hit us. Whew! …

Jeeps of No.2 Platoon, 250th Light Company RASC, head off to collect supplies from the drop zones on 19 September 1944. Note the pannier dropping in the background. On the right of the open ground is the RASC Divisional Maintenance Area. [Historic Military Press]

“My concentration was now on flying at the correct height and speed and following the bomb aimer’s instructions – left a bit – steady – steady – right a bit, etc. This seemed to go on for a long time and must have seemed like ages for the rest of the crew who at this point could just sit and watch. It couldn’t have been too pleasant for the two despatchers in the body of the aircraft either, whose job it was to push out the four packages through the hatch which was now open, as were the bomb doors ready for the release of 24 containers …

“Then we were over the dropping zone, the bomb aimer pressed the release button and the containers were away, and we felt a little lift as each one dropped. We were hit several times by flak …

“Out of the cockpit window I could see a Stirling close to the ground with the engines on both sides on fire … The pilot belly landed and the whole thing seemed to explode in flames, a sad and moving sight.”

That day, the 163 aircraft despatched dropped 2,400 containers and 1,408 panniers, but only 10.6% of this total of 390 tons of supplies were reported to be retrieved by 1st Airborne Division. It had cost 14 Stirlings and three Dakotas. With the troops still holding out at Oosterbeek another major effort would be needed. The pilots knew they had to be accurate if the troops were going to receive any supplies. The Germans would be ready and waiting.

I could see a Stirling close to the ground with the engines on both sides on fire … The pilot belly landed and the whole thing seemed to explode in flames

Mission On

Once again bad weather caused a delay to flying that morning for the 64 Stirlings of 38 Group and 53 Dakotas from 46 Group. The first wave, nevertheless, was able to take off at 11:05 hours, the second and third waves soon following. “Thursday 21st September dawned grey, more misty than ever it seemed,” recalled Gordon Frost, a navigator with 570 Squadron. “At the briefing we were told the airborne lads were really up against it, being inexorably boxed in a small area around Oosterbeek, in the suburbs of Arnhem. It was becoming clear that they were not going to hold the bridge. However, they needed all the supplies we could get them.”

RAF Harwell-based 570 Squadron was the lead squadron, and Gordon Frost’s Stirling was able to return to base with only superficial damage. Only one aircraft from Harwell failed to return – Stirling LK115, flown by Pilot Officer Denis Peel.

“When we opened the bomb doors,” Peel later explained, “we were about 700-800 feet and as slow as possible. We then realised we were being shot at and our starboard inner engine was on fire. I was told the fuselage was on fire and the despatchers had jumped out to avoid the flames.

One of the many resupply aircraft shot down over Arnhem on 19 September 1944. With its nickname The Saint visible below the cockpit, this Short Stirling has been identified as EF267/5G-C, flown by Flying Officer D. Hardwick of the RAF Keevil-based 299 Squadron. [D. Hardwick]

“We dropped our container supplies in accordance with the instructions and then I decided we had no choice but to put the aircraft on the ground, which fortunately I was able to do. It was a great surprise when we got out of the aircraft to discover the troops in the area were German, and obviously much in control.”

From RAF Fairford that day flew the Stirlings of 190 and 620 squadrons. This included LK498 skippered by an Australian pilot, Flying Officer Frank Pascoe. The squadron’s Operational Record Book describes the fate of Pascoe’s aircraft:

“On the approach to the area it was very evident that the reception was going to be hot – the sky was patchy and dark with flak bursts; smoking aircraft could be seen falling headlong out of the sky, and enemy fighters, ME109s and FW190s, were much in evidence … The pilot reduced height to tree-top level to make the expected enemy fighter attacks less easy for them. At this height the aircraft was also a large, albeit fleeting target for enemy machine gunners and the rattle of bullets hitting the aircraft sounded like heavy hail against a window pane … Miraculously, no member of the crew was hit, although the aircraft was holed in a number of places … The DZ was found and the supplies were dropped, save some which failed to leave the aircraft, due no doubt to the release mechanism being damaged. At the DZ there were few signs of our own troops and it seemed possible, in the heat of battle, their supplies were dropped into enemy hands.”

It was very evident that the reception was going to be hot – the sky was patchy and dark with flak bursts; smoking aircraft could be seen falling headlong out of the sky, and enemy fighters, ME109s and FW190s, were much in evidence

As the Stirling turned away, a false reading on the repeater compass due, no doubt, to the gyro unit being damaged, caused Pascoe to turn too far and the bomber banked round and back into the inferno.

“The fire abated momentarily, but soon burst back into life. It was obvious that the aircraft was doomed, but it was too low for the crew to make their escape by parachute. And there would not be sufficient power from the two port engines to gain height quickly, if at all. Frank Pascoe coolly announced over the intercom that he would put the aircraft down and ordered the crew to their crash positions.

“The aircraft skimmed along very low, lopped off a few trees, lightly struck a farm building or two and then belly-landed in a large cultivated field, carving out a deep furrow, which might be expected from 30 tons of metal hurtling along at 100mph. On coming to rest the aircraft seemed full of chocking, blinding dust, but ‘Taff’ Hughes found his way through it to the rear door, which, surprisingly, he was able to open quite easily. He made a quick getaway in the knowledge that the aircraft was still burning; there remained a lot of fuel in the tanks, and perhaps some of the hung up containers in the bomb bay were packed with ammunition – not a place indeed to hang around.

Pictured by a German photographer, some of the many panniers that fell into enemy hands.

“He was quickly joined in a nearby ditch by the wireless operator and the rear gunner. A few shouts brought over the navigator and the bomb aimer but where was the pilot, Frank Pascoe? Was he trapped in the wreckage? After a few moments he calmly emerged from the far side of the burning aircraft, and, on hearing their shouts, he joined the other crew members in the ditch.”

From RAF Keevil, 21 aircraft were able to fly, with 196 Squadron supplying ten Stirlings and 299 Squadron contributing 11. Amongst the latter was Stirling EF323, in which Flying Officer Bassarab, the Intelligence Officer of 299 Squadron, was the aircraft’s navigator: “We flew in that narrow corridor past Eindhoven, which had proved so successful the previous day, but were ever mindful of flak. It wasn’t until we reached the DZ, still in the same relative locality, that we encountered opposition and here there was plenty.

“With airspeed of 140mph and height of 1000ft we lumbered in to drop our containers. As the last container dropped away and we passed the clearing and over the wooded section that surrounded the area, all hell seemed to break loose. Metal tearing through metal, angry black puffs completely encompassed us and no immediate escape in view. We were thoroughly boxed and the German gunners were letting us have the works. … The chatter of machine-gun fire from the rear gunner could be heard through all the racket but his targets were well screened by trees, and I doubt if his fire availed any satisfaction … As we looked back the area seemed full of flak and aircraft; it was a terrible spot to be in and we were glad to be out of it.”

The Flight of LK545

Flying the 299 Squadron Stirling LK545 was Flight Lieutenant Reginald Turner. With him were Flight Sergeant Price, the navigator, Warrant Officer Harvey as the flight engineer, Sergeant Moss was the wireless operator, Flying Officer Sutton was the rear gunner and Flight Sergeant Sedgwick the bomb aimer. The two air despatchers from 253 Airborne Divisional Composite Company, Royal Army Service Corps, were Corporal Sproston and Driver Brackman.

“Our journey had been quiet until we crossed the Rhine over the DZ,” recalled Turner, “when heavy, light and medium flak concentration opened up, followed by enemy fighters who were waiting outside the DZ area to catch who dodged to get in. We had no fighter cover, so enemy aircraft were able to attack in numbers, until air cover arrived later and the enemy dispersed. While over the DZ we were hit by flak and the tail caught fire, forcing the rear gunner to bale out, after attempts had been made to get him out. I continued course, but the fire got out of control, so I chose a position in or near our territory and crash landed at 062063E. No-one was hurt and the secret equipment was destroyed.

Views of the mid upper turret position on the fuselage of LK545. [Courtesy of Arie-Jan van Hees]

“Dutch peasants came up, welcomed us effusely [sic], told us our position and that the British were coming up. They took us to a house, fed us and contacted the underground, who took us to an Army contact for crashed air crews, who put a guard on our aircraft.”

Over the Drop Zone (DZ) Cpl Sproston, the air dispatcher, had delivered the load of ammunition and other stores accurately and in a timely fashion, allowing Turner to effect a forced-landing and without the inherent dangers presented by the volatile and dangerous cargo. However, and whilst all of the crew managed to reach XXX Corps’ headquarters that night, their adventures were not quite over.

En-route, the crew found themselves embroiled in a ground battle as the party they were travelling with in convoy chanced upon by four Tiger tanks, which immediately engaged their vehicles. A number of British trucks were knocked out, but a small party from the group took up a position in a nearby house with the redoubtable Cpl Sproston taking charge of a forward observation post. From here he directed fire from a Bofors gun which succeeded in fending off the attack. Some accounts have the Bofors gun knocking out two of the Tigers, but the likelihood of 40mm rounds inflicting terminal damage on this formidable tank seems remote. However, for his actions, Sproston was awarded a well-deserved Military Medal, the citation noteworthy for its failure to mention the alleged destruction of any of the tanks.

Not all the men taking part in the resupply that day were so fortunate. Of the 117 aircraft setting off, 35 failed to return, as did many of their crews. Most of the losses were not the result of ground fire, however. It transpired that a German Jagdgeschwader (fighter unit), already in the air, was ‘vectored’ against the largely unprotected supply aircraft. On subsequent days the RAF ensured there was adequate cover.

All hell seemed to break loose. Metal tearing through metal, angry black puffs completely encompassed us and no immediate escape in view. We were thoroughly boxed and the German gunners were letting us have the works

For all the sacrifice of men and machines, the results were disappointingly similar to the previous day. Just 4% of the 412 tons of supplies dropped reached the stranded airborne troops.

The RAF continued to try and supply 1st Airborne up until the end of Market Garden on 25 September, Day 9 of the operation. The resupply efforts began on D+1 and over the course, 38 Group and 46 Group flew 611 sorties, undertaken by 371 Stirlings and 240 Dakotas. Of these 54 of the former and 35 of the latter failed to return. Not all of these were actually shot down, as some landed on emergency airfields in the UK and in Belgium.

As a percentage the losses were remarkably similar, at 14.5% of Stirlings and 14.6% of Dakotas. In total, 1,445 tons of supplies were dropped in panniers and parachutes and 2,228 tons in containers. Only 6.4 % of that total was officially counted as received by the men of the 1st Airborne Division.

However, the tale of Flt Lt Turner’s coolness and Cpl Sproston’s courage had a remarkable postscript in 2003 when a new owner took possession of a house in the Dutch town of Beuningen, west of Nijmegen.

Stirling to Storage Shed

When he examined his garden, Erik Peelen was puzzled by a mass of ivy growing in a thick clump over a clearly solid object underneath. As he pulled away the clinging vegetation he was astonished to discover a section of aircraft fuselage in astonishing condition and still bearing wartime RAF camouflage paint and markings. Each end had been bricked up, with a door added, thus turning the fuselage section into an improvised garden shed.

It didn’t take long before Arie-Jan Van Hees, the author of an all-encompassing book on the resupply operation, Green-On!, and his friend, Frans Ammerlaan, identified it as a five-metre section of the fuselage of LK545 which had come to grief nearby on 21 September. Further research discovered it had been used as a pigsty and then storage shed until, more recently, it became overgrown and forgotten. Realising the historic significance of his ‘shed’, Erik Peelen generously donated the fuselage to the VLB Museum (Dutch Aircraft Examination group) at Deelen Airfield and once the vegetation had been stripped away and the end walls taken down it was transported away by the Dutch army.

Loaded on board a Dutch Army truck, the surviving section of LK545 begins the journey to its new home with the Dutch Aircraft Examination Group. [Courtesy of Arie-Jan van Hees]

Later investigation revealed still-evident flak damage from the action over Arnhem making this remarkable chunk of Operation Market Garden a historically important relic in its own right. Remarkably, the fuselage section’s survival is important in itself given that no single surviving intact example of the Short Stirling exists anywhere in the world today. Without a doubt, this must be the largest surviving aerial relic from Market Garden as well as one of the largest known pieces of surviving Stirling structure.

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