Two Airborne Paratroopers and their last journey to Arnhem, September 18th & 19th, 1944
On their way to Arnhem
This short story originated in 2002, when I remembered hearing that during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944, some fifty years before, there had been considerable fighting between Germans soldiers and British paratroopers in the vicinity of my parents' house, when there were casualties on both sides. Among the British dead were sergeants George Bowers and Robert Thompson; but German records were not kept, so we cannot know the names of their fatalities today. However, while the Germans collected their casualties in a truck, they refused to take the British, who were therefore field buried along Callunastraat, at that time an allotment, now a children's playground.
After leaving Arnhem in 1965, I came back to the area in 2000 and wondered if it would be possible to find out who those British soldiers might have been and also to get in touch with their relatives. So I decided to try to get information at the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek and a kind gentleman, whose name appeared to be Wybo Boersma, referred me to the "Roll of Honour", a book that lists the casualties with the place of first burial.
After obtaining a copy of the "Roll" I started scanning. The casualties are listed alphabetically by the day of their death. But at that time I did not know the relevant date, so it was necessary to scan through the "Roll" from the beginning and on page 81 I found the names of Bowers and Thompson, first burial along Callunastraat, from where they were reburied in Oosterbeek, grave numbers 28-C-9 and 28-C-10.
Having discovered this, I continued searching and in the course of this search several unexpected and interesting facts emerged. This little story is about them.
In Arnhem, on Friday 15th September 1944, two German Tank Soldiers of the 9th SS Hohenstauffen Division rang at house number 71 at Callunastraat where the Gerstmeyer family lived and asked for a cup of - surrogate - coffee. Mrs Gerstmeyer was frightened but gave the two a cup and asked why they didn't stay in their barracks. Probably she meant the barracks at Willemsplein in down town Arnhem, where nowadays there is a fountain. The men answered that it was safer to spend the night in or near their tanks which could not be easily seen by Allied reconnaisance planes under the high trees along the Heijenoordseweg. The barracks could be easily bombarded they said. On Sunday the 17th the barracks were indeed bombarded.
Mr Gerstmeyer worked at Dutch Rail and was at Wolfheze when the preliminary bombardment began, which inadvertently fell on the Psychiatric Hospital. With his colleagues he tried to find a way out along the railway to Arnhem and luckily enough they did.
During that time some Germans lived in the former Villa Heijenoord, where the "Kleuterzorg" kindergarten school is now located, and from which, to judge from his uniform, a senior German officer regularly made a Sunday morning walk. When the weather was nice my parents would sit in the garden of their house at 100 Heijenoordseweg and my mother told me that the officer would politely nod to them. Their reaction would not have overwhelmed him, but I don't remember their saying this happened on September the 17th.
In England the Airborne Forces waited for the moment they could finally get into action. Several planned attacks before had been cancelled. Perhaps José Thompson, 7 at the time and daughter of Robert Thompson, may have had her last ride with her father on his motorbike, sitting on the back. She can remember her father very clearly, in particular because the motorbike rides, though her brother Jeffrey is younger and does not remember his father at all.
On the morning of 17th September things were going to change radically. A number of allied planes threw out red and white leaflets. My brother, not quite six at the time, could not get one for himself, as older boys were quicker to gather them up, but in any case could not yet read. I don't know what these leaflets might have said.
Then, around 13:00 hrs, the 7th Battalion "The King's Own Scottish Borderers" landed North-East of Wolfheze (1). The battle of Arnhem had begun.
At that moment, Sergeants George Bowers and Robert - Tommo - Thompson were most likely at the Air Base at Saltby (2) from where they would leave the next day to participate in the battle of Arnhem. Unfortunately it would be, as for many others, their last campaign.
On Monday 18th of September, the 4th Parachute Brigade to which their 11th Battalion belonged, left from the airfield of Saltby for Arnhem. At approximately 15:00 hrs the Paras were dropped at Ginkel Heath from no less than 121 Dakota's.
(1) From: 156 Battallion "The Parachute Regiment", Vereniging Vrienden van het Airborne Museum. Also speech by Colonel John Waddy during excursion Airborne Friends Association.
(2) Source: Jeffrey Thompson
From Ginkel Heath to Arnhem
The 11th Parachute Battalion was dropped on the South-East sector of Ginkel Heath. After landing the order was issued that the 11th Battalion had to march immediately to Arnhem. The route went along the railway to a village called Wolfheze and from there to Arnhem and they finally reached its western areas; however, attempts to break through to the bridge over the Rhine failed and the Paras were thrown back into the area called Lombok.
At the request of Mr. Jeff Thompson, whose father was killed in action and field buried next to Callunastraat, an old comrade in arms of his father, Joe Berry, put his memories on paper of that day, the 19th of September, in a letter to him. Jeff gave me a copy of this letter and from this it appears that from Lombok, on the orders of General Urquart, a group of Paras tried to cross the railway to reach and occupy the area of Heijenoord-Diependal. Here are a few extracts from Joe's letter (please note that the railway embankment at the place where this happened is an estimated 15 to 20 meters deep, RJ).
"When we got into Arnhem and was stopped from advancing any further by the fighting in front of us. We were ordered to go north over the railway to try to contact the 10th Battalion advancing into Arnhem over the north side of the railway.
When the front of the column went to cross the railway bridge they came under fire from the enemy on the other side.
We cut holes in a fence on the left hand side of the road into trees and got onto the railway embankment opposite.
Then Sgt Bowers and two others crossed the railway (Arnhem - Utrecht) and... captured two Germans in a slit trench in a matter of seconds.
The enemy opened fire on Sgt Bowers and whoever was with him and we saw them go down. The two Germans went to walk away so we shot them.
A group of us with Sgt Thompson went over the railway to rescue them if possible. Some occupied the enemy slit trench. But Tommo wanted to find out about Sgt Bowers.
We moved along the corners of the embankments. Tommo, me and two other men to where we could hear someone talking coherently. Your Dad insisted it was George. It was in my opinion one of the Germans. But nobody could persuade your Dad it was not Sgt Bowers.
We knew that to go over the embankment would fetch enemy fire on to you. I pleaded with Tommo to give it up but he was still adamant.
He must have got up to look over the top of the embankment and he came rolling head over heels down to the bottom of the embankment without making a sound or trying to stop I could not hear or see him breathing. There was nothing I could do".
Joe Berry unfortunately passed away in 2004 at the age of 84.
The Heijenoord area is north of the Railway and opposite the Lombok area which is south of the railway Arnhem - Utrecht. South of Lombok is the Rhine river.
Reacting quickly, the Germans had sealed off the area north of the railway as far as possible. Guns had been situated at various locations along the Noordelijke Parallelweg, but also at the entrance of the Mariëndaal park next to the little house that stands there. In those days there was a concrete water well next to the house and the Germans had installed a machine gun on top of it, from which they had a fairly clear view of Lombok and shot at anything moving over there.
When the heads of Paras on the other side of Heyenoordseweg appeared above the embankment they were shot at as well and most likely Sergeant Robert - Tommo - Thompson lost his life this way. How Sergeant Bowers died cannot be determined now, but maybe there are still people alive today who know and who will get to read this. If so, I'd be very obliged to hear from them. Possibly he went through the back alleys and reached Callunastraat.
Based on reports of two eyewitnesses, respectively Jan Gerstmeyer and Paul Jongman, neither six years old at the time, the bodies of a British and a German soldier lay the back garden of 86 Heyenoordseweg. The Briton may have been Bowers.
On the 19th of September, when this all took place, there was also heavy firing from south of the Rhine over the Heyenoord area from artillery and Flak. The Wiesenfeld family, living in the corner house on the north side of Callunastraat, which had a good view to the west where the fighting was taking place, was not feeling all that safe. The playground building was not there yet, so they fled to the opposite side of Callunastraat where they could shelter in the house of the Gerstmeyer family. When the shooting got extremely heavy they locked themselves in the toilet, located under the stairs, that being the safest place in the house.
The Germans opposite 100 Heijenoordseweg, which was even nearer to the fighting, made gestures to the Jongman family who were living there that they should go upstairs and lay on their beds (get under their beds?) to reduce the chance of being hit, so they did.
As I have said, after the fighting ended, the Germans picked up their dead, but refused to take the British, so Bowers and Thompson were field buried by a group of neighbours amongst whom were messers Gerstmeyer, Stam and Jongman. There may have been more but I am not familiar with any other names.
After the fighting ended the Germans picked up their victims but refused to take the English. A few days after the battle ended, the German Command ordered the evacuation of all civilians in Arnhem and a wide area aound it and they could only return to their now thoroughly plundered houses in May 1945.
Now this may seem a somewhat unusual approach to the subject.
Considering that the Paras who left Saltby on Monday the 18th, woke up at about 7 a.m. and landed on Ginkel Heath at around 15:00 hrs after a flight of some 3 hours, (based on the estimate of the retired British Colonel John Waddy during the excursion on 19 April 2008 at Ginkel Heath) then, by 13:00 hours, on September 19th, these soldiers had been on their feet for some 30 hours. On top of that our time is one hour ahead of British time, so another hour could be added to that (and in no record have I been able to find a single indication of their having any time for what today is called personal matters, most probably much less considered during wartime than today). Walking from 15:00 hrs on the 18th to Arnhem would easily have taken 3 hours, and it certainly was not a nice summer walk, although the weather was good, as the enemy was ready to strike where ever possible. The attempt to relieve the Rhine bridge via the lower route failed and it surely could not have been a pleasure to have been there, considering the casualties, and being in the Lombok neighbourhood was also frightening, certainly against all expectations.
It seems almost certain there was no chance of getting any sleep. Nor it is clear how much food the men got, if any at all, or if they had time for eating. In spite of the fact that these were well trained, experienced troops, after 30 or maybe even 40 hours in these conditions the men could no longer have been in top condition, even were they hardened veterans used to just about anything. It had become a battle of attrition.
It has been an interesting experience to "dive" into this matter. Without knowing it at the time, as a child I walked every day from the house of my parents, where it once happened, via the Heijenoordseweg across the "Oranje" (Orange) bridge (the continuation of Oranjestraat over the railway) to kindergarten in the Lombok area near the house on Zwarteweg where General Urquart needed to hide for some 15 hours. A lot happened there and it was good not to be aware of that as a child.
My interest in the matter was further stirred up later while at Pieter Reijenga school in Oosterbeek, next to the Airborne Museum. Of course as well because I was one of those many children putting flowers on the graves on the English War Cemetery during a commemoration service. During many years my wife and I guided several interested friends and colleagues along Ginkel Heath, the Museum and the cemetery.
During several years I regularly visited England for my work and noticed several times that when my hosts heard I was born in Arnhem this lead to positive remarks by them.
It is amazing that one finds out a lot of information within a not too long time. Remarkable was that instances like the Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth Wargrave Commission have very little information about this.
The discovery of the call of mr Thompson jr on the English veteran site of the South-Staffordshers crowned the work. Mr Thompson jr. enquired if there was someone who could say something about his father. Almost 64 years later he got an answer.
From that moment we have intensive pleasurable email contact and it was very special to meet Jeff and his elder sister José and her husband during the 2008 tour with the Airborne Friends Association to England, in the bar of the hotel.
We invited Jeff to visit us but and we had the pleasure of having him over in October 2008! It appeared that our information remarkably coincided with the letter of Joe Berry and with almost certainty we could show Jeff where his father lost his life. We also hope we may welcome José and her husband one day. We realise we look at this matter from totally different angles: they lost their father, for us it is an interesting hobby. We talked about this.
Finally: To my regret not much can be said about Bowers. Also Jeff has also tried for years to get information about him. His father and Bowers were good friends, that he knew. As far as we know Bowers was not married. That is about all we know about him.
W. Boersma, Board Member Airborne Museum Friends Association and former director of the Airborne Museum Oosterbeek
P.A.H. Jongman, eyewitness in 1944, brother of the author
J. Gerstmeyer, eyewitness in 1944 and friend
G. Maassen, Gelders Archief (Archive Gelderland)
H. Timmerman, Specialist of Gelderland Library, Arnhem
The battle of Arnhem, Major-General R.E. Urquart
Roll of Honour, J.A. Hey
Arnhem 1944, Martin Middlebrook
Another view on the battle of Arnhem, Peter Berends
The black autumn, Arnhem 1944, C.A. Dekkers/L.P. Vroemen
Tugs and gliders to Arnhem, Arie-Jan van Hees
The battle near Arnhem, C. Bauer (Lt.Kol.b.d. Th.A. Boeree)
Off at last, Robert N. Sigmond
VVAM Brochure 156 Battalion, W. Boersma & G. Gijsbertsen
9. SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen, Herbert Fürbringer/Georges Bernage
About the author
Rudolf Jongman, (Ruud or Rudy) born 1946. Went to kindergarten adjacent to the cover address of Gen. Urquart in the Lombok area in Arnhem. On primary school already very interested in history. Visited later the Pieter Reijinga school, adjacent to the Airborne Museum. From 1965 living in Amsterdam and was one of the kids that laid flowers on the graves of the Airborne cemetery. After returning in the area continued interest in "Arnhem". Contacted the son of Sgt Thompson, who lost his life in Arnhem. Visited many battle fields of both WW1 and WW2 like Verdun, Ardennes, Normandy, but also Gettysburg, US Civil War. Loves symphonic music e.g. Mahler, Mozart and Sibelius.