23rd Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers

Operation 'Market-Garden'

What was Montgomery thinking when he launched the plan for Operation ‘Market-Garden’? Within a week of planning, this enormous operation had to be put into action. Three airborne divisions had to capture all of the bridges from the border of Belgium towards Arnhem in Holland. Through a small corridor the 2nd British Army, part of XXX Corps, would spearhead to the north to reinforce the airborne troops and relieve them in due time. The airborne operations where accomplished, and many bridges taken. The British 1st Airborne had the toughest job, they landed in the section where two German Panzer divisions were located, near Arnhem. Within days the message was clear, the operation to make a right turn at Arnhem and cross the border of Germany and end the war before Christmas, became idle hope. To make matters worse, a large continent of British and Polish troopers were trapped in a small perimeter at Oosterbeek, a small town west of Arnhem. The outcome for these men looked grim, killed, wounded and capture by German troops was imminent.

Operation 'Market-Garden'

’Market-Garden’ took of on September 17, 1944. During this day 23rd Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers was on standby near Hechtel, and waited fot their orders. Orders had to come from XXX Corps, and the unit expected to take part in the assault crossing of the Nederrijn. But in the days after the start of the operation, 23rd Field Company, was still in his holding area. On September 21st, Major Mike L. Tucker, the Officer Commanding and Lt. Russ Kennedy went to Nijmegen to confer with the The Commander Royal Engineers (CRE) of the 43rd Division, Lieutenant-Colonel W.C.A. Henniker. When these men left, the unit meanwhile saddled up to move from Hechtel towards Grave in a large bridging convoy, with 23rd Cdn Fd Company leading without guarding support. At Grave they were met and guided to the south of Nijmegen, where the unit arrived at 17.00 hours.

The next couple of days, the 23rd Field Company stayed near Nijmegen, waiting for orders. On the 24th September, the unit moved during the morning to the north, but returned to their holding place at 13.00 hours, south of Nijmegen. Lt. Kennedy, with Sergeant Barnes and Sapper McKee, returned from a reconnaissance with the 260 Field Company, and reported that a couple of hundred Polish paratroopers crossed the Nederrijn, to bring aid to the trapped British paratroopers at Oosterbeek. 260 Field Company used their assault boats to assist the crossing of the Polish troopers, and were in a constant danger of being hit by German mortar fire.

CO Major Mike L. Tucker, Lt. Russ Kennedy, Lt. Bob Tate
Pictures: Lt. Russ Kennedy

The after action report from Major Tucker was a great source for how September 25 would develop.
The Officer Commanding of 23rd Canadian Field Company, Major Tucker attended a meeting with ‘O’ (Order) Group of the Commander Royal Engineers 43rd Division at 10.00 hours on September 25. It was clear that there was no other option than bring back as many as possible of the stricken 1st Airborne troops from Oosterbeek. It was decided that the 23rd would use stormboats, but from where was at that point not yet decided. There was more to follow at the next meeting at 17.00 hours, which would be organized at ‘O’ Gp at 130 Brigade. To establish a jump-of point, Major Tucker started a recce with Lt. Kennedy in the area of Valburg. Problem of this whole stretch of land was the soft ground, which was not suited to carry heavy military equipment. A railway yard was found to accommodate the company and a nearby lane was chosen to place the bridging vehicles. The 23rd Company got the order, to pack up and move up north. Meanwhile, Lt. Kennedy and Lt. Tate made inquiries on the positions of own troops positions, information on the enemy, with 130 Brigade. Lt. Kennedy had a good knowledge of the whole area when he was two days attached to 3rd Platoon, 204 Field Company (from September 22 till September 24) and to 260 Fd Coy. Kennedy expected that these units would support 43 Division in the assault crossings. The 23rd Fd Coy convoy consisted of, 3 Jeeps, 2 Scout cars (with radios), 2 kitchen lorries and the 12 section 3-tonners. Also in this convoy was one 3-ton truck carrying 12 fitters and repairers from 10 Canadian Field Park Company, and 17 bridging vehicles, and the whole moved out from Nijmegen at 14.00 hours. The route towards Valburg was a tricky one. Another convoy with assault boats was lost the day before during their search for the right road, and ran into enemy controlled lines, and was captured and destroyed. But 23rd did find the right small roads leading to Valburg, and were in place around 16.30 hours.

Operation 'Berlin'

Two sides which Lt. Kennedy had suggested were picked as the sites for the night operations. 260 Fd Coy were ordered to operate the assault boats, and 23rd Fd Coy would use their storm boats. Fourteen storm boats were allotted (and 17 Evinrude engines) to the 23rd. The column moved towards Stavaste, but had orders not to proceed further until 19.30 hours. The tension started to rise when the column started from Valburg at 19.15 hours. At every crossing a man was dropped of to direct the others the right way, so not one would wander of in the wrong direction. Stavaste Bridge was passed at 19.40 hours. It was still light, and German shells were coming down on the road the column was moving. Only one man, Sapper Black, was slightly wounded when a piece of shrapnel hit his arm, the rest reached their off-loading area unharmed. But, three personnel lorries, which were following the bridging vehicles that were going towards the 20 Cdn Fd Coy, made a mistake to follow these, and could not be brought back to the 23rd on short noticed and went also to the 20 Cdn Fd Coy. This was a big blow for the 23rd, because every man was necessary, and this made the workload for every man even harder. Lt. Kennedy was in charge of the off-loading form the vehicles and the move of the storm boats, 500 yards ahead to the launching site.

An Evinrude outboard engine

The man, who is centerpiece of this article, Donald Somerville, had also his duties cut out these days. During the night of the evacuation Donald had lots of duties. At the very beginning of the night before the evacuation even started, Donald was one of the men needed from 2nd Platoon to construct a small bridge in an apple orchard, the assembly area, near the launching site of the storm boats at Driel. The bridge was needed to get all the lorries close enough to the river for the evacuation to begin.

The assembly area (apple orchard)
(as explained by Mario van Gerwen)
(Detail of picture taken on September 6th, 1944, RAF No.541 Squadron)

On the launching site of the storm boats, Major Tucker mentioned in his after action report the following: 'This beach had two bays, one on the western end, about 20 yds wide, and one on the eastern side about 60 yds wide. The two were separated by a groin build of rock and projecting about 30 yds out into the river. The small bay was used for launching of boats and the wider one and the groin as operation bases for the craft.' ‘This beach had two bays, one on the western end, about 20 yds wide, and one on the eastern side about 60 yds wide’. I think he means, ‘this bay had two beaches’. The bays are around a 100 yards wide (see the aerial picture below taken on 6 September 1944, eleven days before Operation Market Garden).

Problems were at the off-loading areas, because of the slippery banks of the river. The height of these bank was at one place 20 feet high (with a slope of 45 degrees), and at the lowest point 10 feet (with around 20/15 degrees slope). But the Canadians had come all the way, and they had a job to do, to bring back as many men as possible from across the river,... and they were determent to succeed.

The launch site of 23rd Fd Coy
(picture taken on September 6th, 1944, RAF No.541 Squadron)

Operation ‘Berlin’ started at 21.30 hours when 23rd Fd Coy launched first (the 20th Fd Coy started 2 hours later). But the first boat that had to be launched, was peppered with holes during the haul over rocks towards the river. So the first launch was postponed, and the real first launch was at 21.45 hours. Lt. J.R. Martin lead a group of three crewmembers. It took off, but not seen again. Eyewitness account that the boat was struck by a mortar and sunk, with the loss of all four on board. Lance Corporal McLachlan captained the third, and they made a successful crossing and brought back the first troopers from the other side. McLachlan made 15 trips before he and his crew were relieved by a fresh crew. The fourth boat, launched at 22.35 hours, and captained by Corporal Smith, made a successful crossing and paratroopers went on board, but when a mortar landed beside the boat, the occupants dived for cover, and the boat ran full of water. Cpl. Smith and four passengers made it back to shore, but there were no other survivors. Every 20 minutes a boat was launched, and fourteen boats were crossing the river at 03.30 hours. One by one boats were put out of working order by holes created by enemy fire or the rocky shores. But non was further sunk during this crossings, but most had to be abandoned when reaching the shore at one time or another. Meanwhile, the Germans used mortars against the boats and some landed also in the orchard. At least two heavy machineguns sprayed the top of the dyke and river.

The launch site of 23rd Fd Coy with in the back the church of Oosterbeek
Just visible in the summerdyke, on the right; the culvert of the former Company Aid post
The house on the extreme left is where Kate ter Horst lived (the famous heroin of Oosterbeek)

During the early stages of the rescue, Donald Somerville made 3 trips across the river that night. After that, he did other things, such as helping with the wounded. One wounded English paratrooper under Donalds care was brought by him to a farm nearby where he could take shelter and warm himself. Next to the farm house was a large stone barn. When Donald opened the large rounded doors the smell of cattle and hay drifted out. He laid the wounded soldier into some hay and left to do other jobs, like retrieving gasoline back at the base station. As the rain was quite heavy that night, a lot of the engines had stalled out, so getting them going again was another job all to itself.

The farm where Donald brought the wounded paratrooper

After the war Donald wondered where the farm stood where he dropped of a wounded paratrooper, but never found it again. But in September 2016, Mario van Gerwen, with some help from wonderful friends, did find the farm back! It seems that the barn was hit by a German grenade later in the war. The back and front of the barn were rebuilt and the large rounded doors were not placed back. Many years after the war, a English paratrooper wandered into the farm, and told the farmer he 'was there the night of the evacuation'. He entered the large barn, kissed the ground, saying he was happy to be still alive,...'

Here is a clip of a visit to the farm with the barn
where Donald brought the wounded paratrooper,
(filmed by Mario van Gerwen)

With dawn approaching, the condition could be become more worse, because of enemy activity. So the ferry crossing became to the end more hectic. It is estimated that at least 150 crossings were made with rescued men on board. The average on board were 16 passengers, the minimum were 6 passengers that night (the boats could normally carry 18 troops). At 04.00 hours just two boats were operational. The last boat, the boat driven by Lt. Kennedy, dropped life belts onto the shore and took in the largest load on board, 36 men. The other boat had another one in tow, because his engine was disabled. On the last trip, the operating boat was that loaded with men, that the operator was not able to pull the starter cord. At long last, the boat in tow had to be cast off. The men in it paddled with rifles and their hands, but were sitting ducks in the river, and their craft was riddled with bullets. Only four of the twenty-five on board reached the other side alive, where Sapper D.J. McCready and a passenger who were not hit on the river, were wounded by machinegun fire when they reached the top of the summerdyke. This was the end of the operation, which was ceased after approximately 2400-2500 men were brought to the rescue on the south side of the Nederrijn. Among the men 23rd Fd Coy brought out was Major-General R. E. Urquhart, the G.O.C. 1st Airborne Division.

Evacuated paratroopers,... they made it, thanks to the Storm Boat Kings,...

Very few retreating troops came down to embark at the point farther west to which the 20th Fd Coy had been allotted, and subsequently had stopped earlier with their operation, at 03.30 hours. The 20th Field Company employed only British assault boats, and only 46 men of the Dorsets were evacuated (including a trip by a section of Dorsets using an assault boat they found themselves on the north bank). Later in the night, attempts were made to reinforce the 23rd with four storm boats from the 20th, but one was lost in a mortar attack, and a second had an stalled engine, so these attempts were stopped.

Your reporter, Pieter Jutte at the monument for the Engineers
(At the launching area of the 23rd Field Company)

The Regimental Aid Post treated many wounded, almost 70 men, as soon as they reached the shore. Because there are not enough stretchers, the wounded are laid out on the summerdyke, before they are brought to the aid post. Around a hundred men, who were walking wounded, were also helped at the RAP. A lot of the recued men were soaking wet, and got dry clothes. But there was hardly enough, so civilian clothes were handed out, among these were woman dresses, handed out by the owners. But these women blinked hardly an eye when some of these men came stark naked from the freezing water. Nobody cared, as long they had warmer clothing on their shoulders, even it were colourful dresses.

One of the first casualties, Lieutenant J.R. Martin and his grave at Holton cemetery
(picture gravestone: Jamie Imhoff)

But the rescue during Operation 'Berlin' was not without casualties suffered among the Canadians of the 23rd. The following men lost their life that night (Sapper Mckee died later of the injuries he sustained that night);

Lieut. J.R. Martin
L/Cpl M.D. Ryan
Spr D.L.G. Hope
Spr R.G. Magnusson (was missing but later found in a German cemetery)
Spr L.J. Roherty
Spr N.A. Thompson

The following men were wounded during this rescue:
Spr D.E. Barnes: wounded
Spr D.E. Francis: wounded
Spr D.J. McCready: wounded
Spr R.T. McKee: wounded (but died later of his wounds)
Spr J.P. LeToqueux: wounded

Survivors after their rescue, save in Nijmegen; from L to R.: Sgt. Mike Lewis,
Sqn.Ldr. Howard Coxon, Major Roy Oliver, Stanley Maxted and Flt.Lt. Bill Williams

Stanley Maxted, a Canadian war correspondent who was assigned to cover the 1st Airborne Division's success was one of those who was evacuated, and a record of his account can be heard in the film 'Theirs is the Glory' (sorry, Dutch only). It was originally broadcast on the BBC shortly after the evacuation.
Stanley Maxted: 'At the river we lie motionless - some for hours - until the time comes to scramble over the dykes and onto the banks while the 2nd Army guns thundered their anger on enemy positions. We drag ourselves into a boat. Just now I heard a voice that was sheer music, saying, 'You better step lively boys. It ain't healthy around here.' It was a Canadian voice and these are Canadian Engineers who are manning the assault craft, who hauled them over land under enemy fire through a narrow German flanked corridor, over fields and dykes, to come and get us out of hell across this swift flowing river.'

Celebrating men from the 1st Airborne Division toast on their rescue

On September 26th the men of the 23rd Field Company, R.C.E. received the following message from the Chief Engineer of 30th Corps.
It read: 'On the departure of 1st Canadian Army Troops Engineers from 30th Corps, I should like to thank you and them for their excellent and very courageous work with Storm Boats in the evacuation from Arnhem. The work they did was carried out under very difficult and dangerous conditions of enemy fire and weather, but was exceedingly efficiently done, and was instrumental in the safe return of a very large proportion of Airborne troops'.

... Gratitude ...

The extraordinaire exploits during the night of the engineers, were not recognized for a long time by many. The men who were rescued by them, had other worries than notice the grim faces of the engineers in the dark wet night. But the troopers were more than grateful towards these men. But somehow, the big rescue was soon forgotten. Maybe the movie ’A Bridge Too Far’ brought a first recognition. On September 15, 1989 the river crossings were immortalized in the monument at the corner of the winterdyke where once the apple orchard was, and the launching site for the 23rd Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers.

On the next page,... the return of a Storm Boat King,...
Click on the monument below,...