ACCOUNT BY 64 MEDIUM REGIMENT OF THEIR SUPPORT OF 1 AIRBORNE DIVISION
It was four o'clock in the afternoon of the 20th September that the Regiment received long-awaited orders to move from its area South of the Escaut Canal Bridgehead. There was no destination given; we were merely told to keep moving up the Centre Line until ordered to deploy by the C.R.A. of the Division we were supporting.
Not one of us that evening could have suspected that a slow night march into Holland through Valkenswaard, Eindhoven and Son - Son a sharp silhouette against the glow of burning vehicles - would shortly culminate in the dramatic and exciting action in support of the 1st British Airborne Division.
Two hours snatched sleep near Uden in the cold of early morning and then on again. Information was scanty; only this: - the great bridge over the Waal at Nijmegen was intact and firmly held by the Airborne Troops. But of 1st British Airborne there was nothing - only an ambiguous report that the bridge at Arnhem was intact.
About 0700 hrs, our recce parties were ordered forward to an area 4 miles short of Nijmegen. At 0935 hrs, RHQ began to pull in. And there was still no news af the 1st Airborne Division. Suddenly, the smoothness of our Regimental net was broken by a station using an unknown code sign. He was asking permission to come in on our net. He was ordered off. He persisted: "We are being heavily shelled and mortared - can you help us?". The voice was calm but behind it was an urgency that compelled us to think. We asked who he was.
"The people you are trying to join up with," came the reply.
It seemed incredible, but it must, it could only be, 1st British Airborne - or could it? Could it possibly be a German 'pirate' station angling for information? It seemed hardly likely; but we couldn't take risks. We must identify the station beyond a doubt. Our methods of authentication were unorthodox but so was the whole business. The C.O. knew the name of the C.R.A. of the Airborne Division. "Does your name begin with -----?" we asked. "Yes, and my christian name is. -----". "And do you know a -----?", giving the Christian name of a mutual acquaintance, we continued. When the surname of the mutual acquaintance was immediately supplied by the pirate station, we reckoned we had established his identity beyond question.
First British Airborne: And they were urgently in need of help. Something had to be done.
At 1035, our 4.5" battery reported ready. The Airborne gave us two targets; both out of range. They gave us a third; this was all right. Two corrections: and then schale 10. This was only a warmer.
It had already become obvious that we couldn't give maximum support to the Airborne Division from our present positions, so about midday, one of our 4.5" Troops moved forward a matter of 4000 yards. Meanwhile, the other Troop remained in action where it was and engaged 6 further targets. Four additional ones, unfortunately, were out of range, but when the forward Troop reported ready, these too were engaged. Then the rear Troop moved up.
At 1230 hrs, another strange station came on our net. The speaker at once gave his name. There was a sudden quickening of personnel interest. A man in danger was talking to his friend who could give him aid. But not a hint of the smaller drama that was being enacted within the larger was contained in this correct exchange of wireless conversation between the B.M.R.A. of the Airborne Division and the Adjutant of the Medium Regiment.
The first 'pirate' station now seemed to be susidiary to H.Q.R.A. It was, in fact, as we later discovered, the F.O.O. control.
There was no hiding the fact that the 1st British Airborne Division was in a pretty bad way. They had one wireless link to the outside world - through us. So bad, in fact, was the situation that at 1250 hrs the F.O.O. control speaking to his C.R.A. reported the enemy no more than 40 yards from his position. The tenseness of the situation was brought home to us by the sound of bursting shells coming over our radio. The Airborne badly wanted a Sitrep; could we tell them where our leading tanks had got to? Try as we might, we couldn't find out.
A single thought drummed in our heads. Could they possibly hold out?
And all the time target followed target with scarcely a break. Sometimes scale 1, sometimes scale 3, and not in vain. At a quarter past one the C.R.A. was able to report that the general situation was appreciably improved.
At 1330 hrs came more good news. The C.O. who had been making a full report to Corps HQ returned with the information that a battle group consisting of an armoured regiment and an infantry brigade with artillery support, had been ordered to push on and contact 1st Airborne Division. Further a battery of 155 mm's was coming up as fast as it could; and an L.O. of 1st Airborne would be reporting to R.H.Q.
By 4 p.m. the battery of 155 mm's was in action under the C.O.'s command.
Up to now, the wireless had been working well, particylarly to the F.O.O. control. But night was falling and even the most optimistic of us had doubts about being able to keep contact during the darkness. But we had to remain through, even if it meant two or even three step-up stations. Consequently, a relay was sent out with an officer in charge. His instructions were short and to the point: "Go as far as you can without being put in the bag - and keep through". He did: and for the remainder of our liaison with the Airborne Division the station remained out. Its work was invaluable.
The night was quiet. Only two calls for D.F. come through: one just after midnight and the other before dawn. It looked as though the Bosche had been made to think.
During the night, the C.C.R.A. had opened a set on our Regimental frequency (surely a unique distinction!) and at 0720 hrs he asked the C.R.A. of the Airborne Division for a Sitrep, adding "We are driving on hard".
The reply came back "No change - we shall be glad to see you".
Later in the morning, a second wireless link to the C.R.A. was established through the Airborne L.O. who had arrived with a wireless on to his own control north of Nijmegen. This eased the situation somewhat for R.H.Q. but the day was as hectic for the gunners as the previous afternoon. In addition to our fire-plan in support of the Airborne Division - 31 targets were engaged by the Regiment. Inspired by the urgency of the situation the men worked magnificently.
Realising our commitments in this direction, the Division we had originally come up to support had, as far as possible, only made calls upon our 5.5" Bty; but during the day, it became abundantly clear that the fulles possible aid had to be given to the Airborne Division if they were to survive. To enable out 5.5" Bty to give additional support, positions were chosen for them in the same area as the 4.5" positions. They were occupied at first light on the 23rd.
In the normal course of events, RHQ would have moved up without the station. But present circumstances found us on the horns of a dilemma. To move forward would unquestionably facilitate our regimental communications, but might also impair communications to the Airborne Division. Particularly in view of the fact that the ground sloped down to the river and tended to become more and more "built-up". The 2 i/c however, went out the wireless truck and tested reception at various points and finally, having found a spot suitably near to the batteries where reception of the Airborne Division seemed to be as good as ever is was, decided that RHQ should move.
The Adjutant, and the Signals Officer went forward witha small Tac HQ whilst the remainder kept contact with the Airborne Division. A 30-feet aerial was erected in the new area. Communications were good, so Tac HQ took over to allow the main body to rejoin them.
That day, 25 targets were engaged.
By this time, our worries were increasing. The Division we were nominelly supporting was beginning to make frequent calls on us. Our supply route had been out by the enemy. No guarantee of an early replenishment of amn could be given. As luck would have is, the local RMC had been supplied with medium amn just before the road was cut. But this wouldn't last long at our present rate of firing. Our difficulties, however, were eased somewhat when a bty of HAA and another 4.5" Bty came under command.
But things had become desparate for the Airborne Division. Calls for fire were now interspersed with long Slidex messages between the CCRA and the CRA of the Airborne Division. There had still been no link-up and none seemed likely. Supplies were giving out. Is was becoming tragically clear that the Airborne Division could not hope to hold on much longer in their narrowing perimeter. An attempt was made to supply them on the nights of the 24th/25th. It failed. Only a few DUKW's got across the Nederrijn in the face of the strong currents, and the thickly mudded barks.
As so at 1025 hrs on the 25th September, the cryptic message "Berlin tonight" was passed to the CRA of the Airborne Division. A fire plan was prepared. Under cover of blistering barrage operation "Berlin" was carried out.
The last call for fire had been made.