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02/01/2019


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Arnhem Les’ Story

 

 

The Battle of Arnhem a Second World War military engagement fought in and around the Dutch towns of Arnhem, Oosterbeek, Wolfheze, Driel and the surrounding countryside from 17—26 September 1944.

 

After sweeping through France and Belgium in the summer of 1944, the Allies were poised to enter the Netherlands. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery favoured a single thrust north over the branches of the Lower Rhine river, allowing the British 2nd Army to bypass the German Siegfried Line and attack the Ruhr. To this end, the Allies launched Operation Market Garden on 17 September. Paratroopers were dropped in the Netherlands to secure key bridges and towns along the Allied axis of advance. Farthest north, the British 1st Airborne Division, supported by men of the Glider Pilot Regiment and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, landed at Arnhem to secure bridges across the Nederrijn. Initially expecting a walkover, British XXX Corps planned to reach the British airborne forces within two to three days.

 

The British forces landed some distance from their objectives and were quickly hampered by unexpected resistance — especially from elements of the 9th SS and 10th SS Panzer Divisions. Only a small force was able to reach the Arnhem road bridge while the main body of the division was halted on the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile, XXX Corps was unable to advance north as quickly as anticipated and failed to relieve the airborne troops according to schedule. After four days, the small British force at the bridge was overwhelmed and the rest of the division became trapped in a small pocket north of the river — where they could not be sufficiently reinforced by the Poles or XXX Corps when they arrived on the southern bank, nor by the RAF’s re-supply flights. After nine days of fighting, the shattered remains of the airborne forces were withdrawn in Operation Berlin.

 

With no secure bridges over the Nederrijn, the Allies were unable to advance further and the front line stabilised south of Arnhem. The lst Airborne Division had lost nearly three-quarters of its strength and did not see combat again.

 

Despite being the last great failure of the British Army, Arnhem has become a byword for the fighting spirit of the British and has set a standard for the Parachute Regiment. Montgomery claimed “in years to come it will be a great for a man to be able to say: “I fought at Arnhem”: a prediction seemingly borne out by the pride of soldiers who took part, and the occasional desire of those who did not claim that they were there.

 

One man who was a paratrooper there during that fated battle was Les Ransom, a true hero and one of the very few who actually made it to the bridge in Arnhem. He was captured and escaped during this time and is still with us today. The following account taken from an interview with Les explains a little about his life and experience’s and to share’s his perspective of what happened on the ground during this time.

 

Les was driving a milk van for his brother in Dunswell, near Hull, when he heard war had be declared. When his brother couldn’t afford to pay him, Jacksons took him on as a delivery driver. It wasn’t long before he was unemployed due to cut backs, so Les drove a tractor for his dad for a while until he signed up at the recruitment office and given a job driving a lorry on bomb damage, cleaning out bombed out sites, shifting blocks and various other tasks.

 

Les got his call-up papers in March 1942, reporting to Barrhead near Glasgow. After 6 weeks basic training, he was posted to Halifax to a holding company. Les and his mate Charlie Clifford, heard volunteers for the Airborne Division were being sought.  A pay increase of a shilling a day more to fly gliders and 2 shillings a day more to be a parachutist was enough for both to volunteer. Les and Charlie went down to Amesbury in Wilshire and joined 250 company. Les had known Charlie from when he was a lorry driver in Hull, Charlie was a driver too. They had met when Les pulled Charlie out of a dyke down Dunswell Lane. Charlie and Les stuck together from then on, right up to the drop into Arnhem.

 

Parachute training was completed at RAF Ringway which is now Manchester Airport. 6 Jumps from a Whitley bomber through a hole in the floor, 2 drops from a balloon. 8 drops to earn your wings, then the money went up again. It was a tough regime training to be a paratrooper. Any spare time was taken up with a lot of walking and exercise, if you wanted to go anywhere or do anything, such as get to the nearest pub!

 

After training, Les was sent to North Africa. The fighting was all over by the time he got there, the 51st Highland Division of the 8th Army had driven General Rommel out of Tunisia. After 6 or 7 months, Les was sent to Italy, the whole point of being sent to North Africa in the first place was to prepare to invade Italy from there. Les remembers a close shave in Italy; he was going along the quay side and he was being told to get in a boat, he was just about to do so, when he was stopped and told to get on the next one. The boat Les should have boarded was blown up in the harbour and it went down. Les saw allsorts in his time in the Army and experienced real hardship to boot.

 

On the 17th September 1944, Les and 300 men of 250 company, were attached to the 2nd battalion, part of a group of about 10,000 men of the First Airborne Division, they were all trained and based in Lincolnshire before Arnhem. Their mission was to take the bridge at Arnhem.  Les was allocated a position in a Horsa glider as there weren’t insufficient planes to transport all the troops. Charlie Clifford made the crossing in an aircraft, both landing at about the same time. It was a huge operation. Les had never seen anything like before it and never has since.

 

They landed about 8 miles from Arnhem at the Drop Zone and it was carnage with the parachuting of incoming troops spanning hours. Les ran into Arnhem with his platoon, all hell broke loose when they arrived in the centre. There were bodies and people everywhere, continuous gunfire, explosions, burning buildings and vehicles were all over the place. Not many troops made it to the centre of Arnhem.

 

Les found himself on a tow path, where a German barge on the water was firing machine guns at anything that moved, as they couldn’t fire downwards Les took cover next to a cafe’ near the bridge, he sat next to 2 other men he presumed were his comrades. After the barrage of gunfire had ceased, Les and the two other men stood up, they were both German! No words were exchanged, they just looked at each other up and down then went off in separate directions! It was complete chaos. In an abandoned police station, Les found some bunk beds and managed 2 hours sleep, with all hell raging outside!

 

Eventually reunited with 8 men from his outfit, they took up a position in a toilet block in some council offices. After 4 days with no food, the only drinking water was from the radiators, the situation was grim. When the ammunition ran out, the order came through from a ‘runner’ (There were no radios working and ‘runners’ ran in to give the men information, risking their lives) ‘it was every man for himself’. The group that had started off as 8 were now down to 3, realising this was down to a German sniper in a church tower near by the council offices. The tower and the German was blown up with the last of the ammunition! One of these men, Geordie Hall, was even shot up the bum when he was climbing some stairs as was seen by the sniper!

 

With no hope of escape and no supplies, it was decided the only option was to surrender to the Germans. As the 3 men walked down an alley way to give themselves up, Les dropped his rifle jumping over a wall, he went back to retrieve the firearm as it had been drummed into them during training you never lose your gun. Once he’d retrieved it, he threw it away purposefully, not just dropping it by mistake.

 

Taken prisoner, Les never saw any of 250 Company again, until a reunion in 1963. Charlie Clifford, had escaped much earlier. He managed to swim the river and got away, Charlie could swim like a fish as his dad was a swimming instructor at Beverley Road baths in Hull. Les was put in Stalag 9a and then to Stalag 4b, he was there for about 3 weeks before being sent to Dresden with a group of 20 men, called a ‘commando’.

 

While detained in Dresden, Les’ mechanical skills were put to use repairing trams. Although treat reasonably well by his captor’s, food was rationed. Les lost 4 and a half stone in 9 months.

One man Les worked for at Dresden station used to give Les 2 tiny boiled potatoes every day, he put them in his tool box. In fact this man, Fritz, even asked Les to go back after the war and marry his daughter!

 

The Americans increased the bombing Dresden, the outlook for Germany looked bleak. Dresden city was devastated, Les and his commando were made to dig up unexploded bombs and munitions. His captors were all around the same age as Les, late teens, early twenties, they often talked about what might be the outcome. The Germans didn’t want to fight the Russians, they were all very scared. It was decided an escape plan was put into action. As Les and his mates crossed a field heading for Czechoslovakia, they were challenged by their captors, “shoot us if you are going to” was the reply, but they didn’t. They eventually were caught and taken back to Dresden. Once the Russians started bombing Les and his commando made a second escape bid.  The group got split up leaving Les and two others, he never saw the other 17 men again. From the day Les was captured, all he had on his feet were a crude bits of wood with a carpet nailed to the top. They had a smock on each and weren’t distinguishable as British, there were many displaced people all heading West and didn’t look out of place. They eventually made it to Czechoslovakia and were taken in by a family for a few weeks until news came through, the war was over.

 

As Les tried to make his way back home, he sought out friendly people and scavenged for food and shelter along the way. An American convoy passed giving a well-received ride and food supply, but on the down side he spent 3 days in a field eating peanut butter. Les was flown by Douglas to Rheims, where he was interrogated then brought back to Lyneham by Lancaster bomber. After being documented and deloused, issued with a new uniform and a railway pass, Les sent home to Hull for 6 months leave.

 

Nothing remained of the First Airborne Division after Arnhem, Les couldn’t get back into the airborne sector. He was posted all over England on his return and luckily got posted back to Hull for the last bit of his time in the army. Les was demobbed 12 months after his leave, returning to his old job of driving a wagon.

 

Arnhem will always be a massive part of Les’s life and an achievement to be wholly proud of. He truly is an admirable man and probably the most humble and generous person you could wish to meet.