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Arnhem - John Frost Bridge (Image Copyright: Stephen Berridge)
Arnhem - John Frost Bridge (Image Copyright: Stephen Berridge)
When the Oxf and Bucks went “A Bridge Too Far” – 18th September 1944
Arnhem - John Frost Bridge (Image Copyright: Stephen Berridge)

John Frost Bridge, Arnhem (Image ©Stephen Berridge)

On this day 18th September 1944 – 1ST AIRBORNE DIVISION – ARNHEM

German resistance on the first day was stronger than expected and only the 2nd Parachute Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, got through to the main objective along with elements of other units. The Divisional Commander, Major General Urquhart, and Brigadier Lathbury were both missing, so command was now in the hands of Brigadier Hicks of the 1st Airlanding Brigade.

The 1st and 3rd Parachute Battalions together with the 2nd Bn, South Staffordshire Regiment, advance to Arnhem but do not progress further than the St. Elizabeth Hospital. General Urquhart is forced to hide in a house nearby during the chaotic fighting.

At 3 p.m. the 4th Parachute Brigade drops at Ginkel Heath.

The 11th Parachute Battalion is immediately sent to Arnhem via the southern route.

Four Battalions (1st, 3rd, 11th and the 2nd South Staffords) are ordered to reinforce the troops at the bridge but do not succeed in breaking through the German “blocking” line.
The two remaining Battalions of the 4th Parachute Brigade attack the Germans according to the original plan but are checked at Dreijenseweg by SS Spindler north of the Utrecht-Arnhem railway.

Map from “A Tour of the Arnhem Battlefields” by John Waddy

Map from “A Tour of the Arnhem Battlefields” by John Waddy

Major Allison Digby TATHAM WARTER

Major Allison Digby TATHAM WARTER DSO

The Distinguished Service Order medal

The Distinguished Service Order

Men of the Campaign:

Major Allison Digby TATHAM-WARTER - 2nd Parachute Battalion, Officer Commanding “A” Company.

Commissioned into the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in 1938. He served with the 2nd Battalion (52nd) then in India. He returned to the UK from India with the 52nd in 1940 and went on to command Letter C Company.

By 1942 the 52nd were a glider-borne Battalion. This was not exciting enough for Tatham-Warter, however, and in 1943 he joined the Parachute Regiment. He was given command of “A” Company of the 2nd Parachute Battalion who he would lead at Arnhem.

When training his Company in the UK and remembering his Light Infantry roots, Major Tatham-Warter concerned about the effectiveness of radios had set up a system of using Bugles to send signals within his company that were used to good effect on the march to the bridge and in its defence.

The umbrella wielding officer in the film “A Bridge Too Far” is based on Major Tatham-Warter who carried his umbrella because “he could not remember the password”. There are reports that on one occasion he used the rolled-up umbrella to disable a German armoured car, simply by thrusting it through an observation slit in the vehicle and incapacitating the driver!

On another occasion during a mortar bombardment the Battalion padre, Father Egan, was trying to cross to a building on the other side of the street to visit the wounded in its cellar. He made an attempt to move over but was forced to seek shelter from intense mortar fire. He then noticed Digby Tatham-Warter casually approaching him. The Major opened his old and battered umbrella and held it over Egan's head, beckoning him "Come on, Padre". Egan drew Tatham Warter's attention to all the mortars exploding everywhere, to which came the reply "Don't worry, I've got an umbrella."

Brigadier (later General Sir Gerald) Lathbury recalled that Tatham Warter took command of 2 Para

when the Colonel was seriously wounded and the second-in-command killed ... He did a magnificent job, moving around the district freely and was so cool that on one occasion he arrived at the door of a house simultaneously with two German soldiers - and allowed them to stand back to let him go in first.

After the defence at the bridge ended, Major Tatham Warter was taken away with the wounded of the battalion, but along with his Company Second-in-Command he managed to escape from hospital and evade capture with the help of the Dutch underground. After the withdrawal of the remnants of the Division across the Rhine at the end of the battle he was involved in organising many of the evading Airborne troops left behind to get back to Allied lines in Operation Pegasus.

For his exploits at Arnhem and beyond he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order:

Major Tatham-Warter commanded a company of 2 Para Bn which dropped west of ARNHEM in HOLLAND on 17 Sept. The task of the Battalin was the vital one of capturing the main RHINE bridge and this officer handled the leading company with such dash and skill that the bridge was in our hands before dark after considerable casualties had been inflicted on the enemy and 30 prisoners captured. After, when the O.C. took command of all forces on the bridge, Major Tatham-Warter assumed command of the Bn. He commanded during the next three days when the Bn, without any re-supply of food and ammunition, resisted incessant and determined attacks by vastly superior forces including tanks. Throughout this period, Major Tatham-Warter displayed magnificent qualities of courage, leadership and the utmost determination. He was to be found invariably at the most threatened point in the defence, where his personal example was an inspiration to all.

On one occasion he was rendered unconscious by blast from an 88mm Tank gun firing point-blank at the house he was in, but he recovered and resumed command. Later, when captured by the enemy, he escaped and showed great initiative in making contact with the Dutch resistance organisation. He organised and assembled a force of one hundred escaped airborne troops, so that they could play their part when the Germans should begin to withdraw.

Finally, when orders were received to withdraw this party through the German lines, Major Tatham-Warter was largely responsible for the planning of a most brilliant and successful operation in which 130 armed men escaped through the German lines and crossed the RHINE. For a month, behind the German lines, this officer moved about regardless of his personal safety and was an inspiration to all those who saw him.

"We can't accept your surrender" - The Officer with the umbrella in this this famous scene from MGM's A Bridge Too Far was based on Major Tatham-Warter DSO

This blog is part of a series which will be published each day from 17th to 26th September 2021, 77 years on from the day in which the events described happened.

Stephen Berridge has long been a volunteer at Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Oxf & Bucks Light Infantry - his knowledge has helped us put together a number of our exhibits - most recently a new  Battles display featuring stories from Arnhem.

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