Ten Minutes at Arnhem
Bloody suicide! Or so his co-pilot, Dickie Medhurst, had shouted at him.
‘We can make it,’ David smiled, though he wasn’t sure the old bus would hold up. The wings had more holes than a colander, and the starboard engine was coughing blood, spitting flames. But, as they lurched down, out of the mirky cloud, he gave Dickie a re-assuring thump on the shoulder.
Green as grass, thought David. But keen as mustard.
‘Drop Zone in two minutes, skipper.’ Harry King, the navigator, crackling into his ear phones.
David eased the column forward, held the yoke steady against the shuddering vibration in the airframe, began the descent down to nine hundred feet. Through the thickest flak he’d ever seen. He could see the DZ now too. Flicked the warning light switch to amber. Then glanced back over his right shoulder, as far as his harness would allow, peering through the cockpit door, down the ribbed green tunnel of the Dakota’s fuselage. The loadies had seen the light. Good. Two of them, Ricketts and Rowbotham, attaching their safety straps. A third, Harper, helping the ALM, Corporal Nixon, with the door.
Everything ready. Two minutes. Then we’ll get these panniers down to the lads on the ground. He could see some of them. Tiny. But clear. Along the edge of a field. Waving like fury. Poor devils, he thought. Must be desperate. But at least we can get this little lot to them. He gripped the yoke tight, as the rear door came open and the normal, howling gale slammed into the old lady’s innards, kicked her sideways. He looked past Dickie Medhurst to the damaged starboard engine. That’s if the ruddy donk gets no worse!
Tony Crane’s No. 2 Platoon was strung out along the farm’s drainage ditch. Arms waving like windmills. Shouting useless warnings. Watching the supply plane coming in. Still coming in, smoke pouring from its wing.
He’d dropped just to the west of Arnhem two days ago. Sunday afternoon. And they’d set about the task of marking out a Landing Zone for the first wave. Homing beacons too.
There’d been the lunatics to contend with, of course. Somehow escaped from the local asylum and a few of them still wandering around when the Horsas and huge Hamilcars had come in. Many of the gliders had landed just fine. Bang on! But there were others… Christ, what a mess.
And the Second Lift, yesterday. By then, Jerry had moved up so many anti-aircraft guns that they’d picked off the gliders like flies. Things weren’t going right. He could feel it in his water. All those briefings. The whole operation seemed to have ground to a halt, their positions surrounded, and the plan to turn the Germans’ flank, to capture the Arnhem bridges now all stood on its head. Everything running low. Already.
So today they’d managed to set out the giant ‘V’ that would guide in the desperately needed supplies. Only that, too, had now turned sour. Planes scattered all over the show. And the Jerry guns, the sky full of flak. Black with the stuff. The explosions. Some planes already shot down. This one coming in. Closer now. The smoke. Every signaler trying to warn them. Warn them.
I could shut it down, thought David Lord. Feather it. Shut it down.
Like Satan, tempting him.
If I shut it down, we can’t make the run. If we can’t make the run…
‘Couldn’t we shut it down, skipper?’ shouted Dickie Medhurst, but Lord ignored him, leveled out at nine hundred feet, hardly able to believe that the flak was even worse than before. And he felt the next prang through his fingers. Starboard wing again. Jolted upwards. The engine suddenly an inferno. The ammonia stink of coolant dragging him back to his days as a chemist, polluting the kite’s normal smells of hot oil, metal – and the sickly rubber of his whiff mask. He flipped the thing towards his mouth, pressed a finger to the mike button.
‘Approaching Drop Zone,’ he relayed. ‘Alec. Harry. Get ready to go aft and help the loadies.’
Then he stretched out to the warning light switch, hesitated.
Not too late, he thought. Still time to pull out. Still time to jump.
But when the yellow marker panels along the Drop Zone’s nearest edge – the bottom of the ‘V’ – appeared below, his gloved finger instinctively moved the switch to green. He looked back again, saw the navigator, Harry King, and the wireless operator, Alec Ballantyne, climbing from their positions and swaying down the decking to where the squaddie despatchers were unfastening the shackles holding down the first crate, the first pair of canister tubes.
‘Skipper…’ shouted Medhurst. He looked like he was about to bag up.
That’s all we need, thought David. Puke all over the place.
‘Easy, lad,’ he said. ‘They don’t call me Lucky Lummy Lord for nothing.’
True enough. He’d survived D-Day, got the Duchess home from Normandy on a wing and a prayer. And yesterday, tugging for the gliders in the Second Lift. But this was bad. The flames even worse now. And, at this altitude, not a cat in hell’s chance of quenching it.
But at least we can pick a spot to bail out, he thought, breathed a sigh of relief when the final edge of the marker panels came into sight through the window. The end of the Drop Zone. Job done. The switch flicked to red.
He was about to press the mike button again, get them all ready to jump. But then there was Harry King in the ear phones again.
‘Skipper, we’ve still got two crates left!’
Tony couldn’t work out how the plane was still in the air. The whole near-side of the thing was ablaze, great clouds of filthy black smoke. But it had flown all the way across the Drop Zone, dropping one canister after another, pale blue parachutes billowing.
Food, he thought. We don’t need the damned food! Just get to hell out of there.
It seemed that every Jerry gun in the whole damned place was now trying to bring the Dakota down. Despite the smoke, he could see the triple white stripes under each wing and its tail, the lettering along the plane’s fuselage. YS-DM.
‘Haven’t they got the message yet?’ Tony’s Platoon Sergeant came hobbling, frantic, along the trench line, using an old broom for a crutch. ‘For God’s sake, are they blind?’
The signalers were working like fury, one of them with a portable Aldis lamp, the other with semaphore flags – they’d given up on the useless wireless set long since. But it wasn’t helping. And Tony cursed the Germans, hated them in that moment more than any time since he’d joined up. He’d enlisted two years ago. Ended up in the Paras. Two bob a day more than the Poor Bloody Infantry. But he looked down at his sniper rifle. Still barely fired a shot in anger.
‘Think they’ll get out OK, Sarge?’
‘Those Fly Boys will be having cold beer in their nice comfy mess before you know it,’ said the Sergeant, though his voice was trembling with rage. ‘If we can just get them to see the ruddy signals.’
The prayer went round and round in David Lord’s head.
Hail Mary. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
He pulled the whiff mask across once more.
‘We go again!’ he relayed, struggling to keep his voice level, confident. ‘Repeat. We go again.’
Nothing came back. He glanced at Dickie Medhurst’s stricken face. Disbelief. And a tear running down the boy’s cheek.
‘The quicker we make the second run,’ David shouted, ‘the quicker we get to jump.’
The weight on his shoulders was physical, pressed him down into the seat. They called him The Old Man because, compared to the rest of them, that was exactly what he was. A month short of thirty-one. And every intention of celebrating the birthday.
He fought with the yoke and column, the rudder pedals, slowly bringing the Duchess on her slow turn to port, and he was gratified to find Medhurst at his own set of controls, helping to ease the old crate around.
The men of No.2 Platoon were out of their ditches. Still waving.
‘They can’t be…’ Tony shouted. But they were. They were going around again. That starboard wing raised up like a bloody burning beacon. ‘Jump, you silly buggers. Jump.’ Yet, at the same time, his brain was sending out different messages entirely.
Go on, you beauties. You can make it!
And there were tears running down his face. He hardly dared look at the others.
The Dakota completed the turn, leveled out. Lower than before.
Four more canisters came tumbling down. One. Two. Three. Four.
Jump now! Tony’s brain screamed. Jump!
‘That bugger’s lining himself up for a VC if anybody ever did!’ A Jock’s voice behind him. A posh Jock, and Tony turned around ready to give the bugger a mouthful. But the Scotsman was frowning, incredulity painted into every crease of his face, so Tony changed his mind. In any case, it probably wasn’t a good career move to shout abuse at the commander of the 1st Airborne Division.
Hail Mary. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
‘All gone, skipper.’ Harry was behind him, in the cockpit doorway, hand on the shoulder of David’s flying suit, bellowing into his ear over the roar of engine and flame, and the shuddering screams of the stricken, grinding airframe.
‘Then go and get the loadies into their ‘chutes, Harry.’
How long? he wondered. It was a miracle the tank hadn’t blown. How was that possible? Yet they couldn’t have long. He fingered the mike button. Less than five hundred feet on the altimeter. But the only chance…
‘We’re going to jump, boys,’ David told them all. ‘Get ready.’ He looked once more at young Dickie Medhurst, winked at him. ‘Go on, Dickie. I’ll be right behind you.’ The boy smiled back, began to unfasten his harness. ‘OK,’ David shouted into the mike. ‘Bail out! Bail out! For God’s sake, bail out!’
General Urquhart rubbed a hand across his cheek.
‘Why don’t they jump?’ he said.
Tony Crane wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to answer. But he watched the canister ’chutes open. And, as though that was a signal too, the fuel tank on the stricken starboard wing exploded. A shower of flaming shards. A heat blast, which reached even Tony, there on the ground. The Dakota lurched to the left. Just once. A single figure somersaulted from the rear door as the wing fell away. Burning. Falling. Burning. And the plane’s remaining wing reared up. Its nose dived, the fuselage tipping sideways so that Tony thought he could see inside the cockpit, the pilot still at his controls.
Maybe… he thought. A stupid spark of hope, which turned first into a Catherine Wheel of despair as the loose wing struck the farmland and spun, over and over. Then, second, into a fire ball of grief when the rest of the Dakota slammed into the farmland and came apart in a bomb-burst fury that assaulted Tony’s ears like all the demons of hell.
He turned away, choking back yet more tears, saw a runner salute General Urquhart and, his message delivered, head off again along the track to Oosterbeek.
‘How’s that for bad luck?’ he heard the General snarl to his aide. ‘We called off the attempt to take back the Drop Zone ten bloody minutes ago.’
‘Jerry’s got all the supplies?’ said the aide.
‘Yes, I’m afraid so.’
But all those signals, thought Tony Crane. Warning them. Telling them to turn back…
‘Why did they keep coming in, sir?’ he said.
‘Why?’ Urquhart replied. ‘Because some silly bugger back in Blighty had told them to ignore all signals from the ground. In case it was a German trick. Can you believe that? All for nothing. Nothing.’
David Lord was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his conspicuous bravery on 19th September 1944, during the unsuccessful Operation Market Garden. A plaque in his memory is located in St Mary’s Cathedral, Wrexham, North Wales, and a plaque can still be seen on the house where the family lived in Wrexham itself. David is buried alongside his crew in Arnhem’s Oosterbeek War Cemetery. They were Pilot Officer Dickie Medhurst and Flying Officer Alec Ballantyne, along with the army despatchers Corporal Phillip Nixon and Privates Len Harper, James Ricketts and Arthur Rowbotham. There was only one survivor – the navigator, Flying Officer Harry King, thrown clear by the blast.
Tony Crane was born in Wrexham in 1924 and, in the days after the sacrifice made by Flight Lieutenant David ‘Lummy’ Lord, became famous for his actions as a sniper when his unit defended a house at 34 Pieterbergseweg, Oosterbeek. Tony died in January 2011. There is, of course, no reason to suppose that he actually witnessed the final moments of David Lord’s famous flight, though he was certainly in the immediate area.
Acknowledgements: Arnhem: The Battle for Survival (John Nichol and Tony Rennell); So Near and yet So Far (Martin Bowman); and the website www.paradata.org.uk for its Extended Biography of Tony Crane.