If I was going to jump out of a perfectly serviceable aircraft, it was probably a good thing that I was going to be attached to a 6”5’ German Fallschirmjäger, a paratrooper of 22 years experience who looked like he was hewn from granite.
This mighty son of Arminius was introduced to me in Eindhoven air base in a huge hanger of 1,000 airborne troops preparing for a big drop over Nijmegen.
It was the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, the bold, some would say foolhardy, strike north through occupied Holland, crossing the various channels and canals that make up the huge Rhine river system. If the Allies managed to capture all of these bridges intact they would have a highway into north west Germany, and the industrial heart land of the Ruhr.
This was a much more attractive option that bludgeoning their way through the massive defences of the old French-German border to the south. It was an exciting proposition. In late summer 1944 France had been liberated, the Germans looked like they were retreating pell mell.
The massive deployment of an entire army of airborne troops to secure these crossings looked risky, but not impossible. Allied planner decided it was worth a go.
That is why, 75 years later I was strapped into a harness. Alongside the mayor of Arnhem, the British, American and Polish ambassadors and most importantly Tom Rice, the 98 year old veteran of the initial Market Garden drop, I was going to parachute into one of the original landing zones.
A hangar full of paras was intimidating. The full-throated roar when Tom Rice marched in, ramrod straight, will live with me for years to come.
We boarded a Polish transport aircraft. This was the VIP flight and the veteran, dignitaries and ambassadors were accompanied by grizzled airborne veterans with centuries of experience between them.
Opposite me, an inconceivably good looking Italian managed to lounge on his bench, chatting to his comrades and occasionally laughing at my pink socks, showing beneath my ill-fitting flight suit.
I had got dressed at 6am with little thought for my sock game, a decision that I was wholeheartedly regretting in a plane for the toughest and coolest men I had ever met.
‘Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong’
75 years ago the first wave of drops had gone reasonably well. Most of the crossing were secured, with a couple of notable exceptions. The Germans managed to destroy the odd bridge which would slow down the armoured thrust from the south that was designed to relieve the paras.
More importantly the Americans at Nijmegen and the British in the very north at Arnhem struggled with their objectives. The Americans did not seize the huge Nijmegen bridge initially and nearly everything that could go wrong for the British in Arnhem began to go wrong.
Wireless radios failed, the Germans responded with impressive speed and aggression, the paras were landed too far from the bridge, and at the end of the day only one small group of 800 or so men under Lt Col John Frost were able to seize the north end of the vital bridge.
‘God Save the King’
In the days that followed, the Germans first prevented any of more troops from reaching the bridge and then started to crush Frost’s men like a vice. Luftwaffe aircraft made low strafing passes, artillery smashed surrounding buildings, tanks edged ever closer and their paltry supplies of medicine and ammunition ran ever lower.
The fighting on that bridge, the tenacity shown by Frost’s men, will never be forgotten while the history of the British Army is told. Eventually they were defeated. Their last radio broadcast said simply:
‘Out of ammunition. God Save the King.’
The heavy armour and reinforcements moving up from the south had been only a few miles away when the resistance of Frost’s men ceased, but it was a few miles too many. The plan to cross the Rhine and enter Germany had failed. But the story has obsessed historians ever since. Was failure inevitable?
Re-creating the jump
As my plane reached 3,000m the Polish aircrew roared at us in 5 minute increments. I was struck by that strange feature of airborne war: on D-Day and at Market Garden they left comfortable barracks in eastern England, crossed the sea and were then cast into the maelstrom of battle.
It is very sudden. There is no long train or lorry journey to the front-line, the sound of artillery in your ears, the smoke on the horizon, the aircraft shrieking overhead. The transition to war is instant.
When the back of the aircraft yawned open the sheer insanity of what I was about to do suddenly crashed into my mind. Hurling yourself out of a plane for a TV show and a podcast felt stupid. But I was committed. We stood up and waited for the green light.
Below us, we could see the curve of the Rhine through patchy cloud. Then it was all go.
The aircrew yelling. The men in front of me leaping out and disappearing into freefall. I felt my German buddy tighten the straps and we balanced on the lip of the ramp. The air screaming in my ears. He forced me off my feet, I was hanging between his legs. Then he jumped.
For a minute we hurtled down, screaming fast yet with a strange feeling of being static high above the earth. Suddenly there was a yank and my legs jack knifed up. He had pulled the chute. We both whooped with joy. We were alive and in a controlled descent, which was nice.
We picked out Arnhem, the Ruhr, Nijmegen, the Rhine beneath us. Circling down he made a perfect landing in a dry field. I managed to kick up a cloud of dust. Seconds later Tom Rice came in. Thankfully his para made a perfect landing and the 98 year old lay cheerfully in the dirt before we hauled him to his feet.
I asked if that was his last jump. He said ‘No way, I have lots more in me.’
I hugged my new German friend. 75 years ago his grandfather was killed fighting allied forces on the Belgian border. Today we had swooped down together, laughing, shouting and cheering like kids.
Our personal act of reconciliation and commemoration felt as important as any concert, church service or parade. Peace is too important to be left to politicians