Operation Market Garden: 75 Years Ago Today

Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen looks at a military operation crucial to ending the Second World War, which took place over 17-19 September 1944.

Essex played a vital role throughout the Second World War, being crucially placed to help in the defence of London, home to many important industries, as well as being a base for many British and American aircraft taking the fight to the Germans in occupied Europe. By the late summer of 1944, following on from the success of the Normandy invasion and liberation of much of occupied western Europe, there was a real hope that, after five years, the war could be finished before the start of 1945.

Flushed with the success of the advance across France and into Belgium the British commander, Field Marshall Montgomery, planned a new offensive for mid-September to drive a spearhead of troops that would outflank German defences by crossing the rivers Meuse, Waal and Lower Rhine. This would allow the deployment of armoured and mechanised forces to drive on Berlin and finish the war. In order to enable the ground forces to cross the many rivers in their way, para-troops and glider-borne infantry would be deployed to capture the bridges crossing them, creating a ‘carpet’ of friendly troops to make the advance of the ground forces as easy, and, crucially, as swift as possible.

Three airborne divisions were used: the American 82nd and 101st Airborne and the British 1st Airborne, the latter to be dropped furthest away from the relieving ground forces – their objective being the bridge at Arnhem. The airborne phase of the plan was codenamed MARKET while the ground-based operation was given the name of GARDEN. The lightly armed and equipped airborne troops had to be relieved as quickly as possible by the ground units – speed was of the essence. Perhaps the joint operation is most well-known to us from the 1977 film – A Bridge Too Far.

The 101st Airbrone Division was reinforced with 12 glider serials on September 18, 1944. In this photo, Waco gliders are lined up on an English airfield in preparation for the next lift to Holland. Apart from the serial number on the tail (the nearest is 339953) there are no other markings, which suggests these gliders are yet to be issued to the units that are going to use them. By U.S. Army Signal Corp – http://www.amazing-planet.net/operation-market-garden-chronology.php, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6080516

The operation commenced on Sunday 17 September. The first many people in Essex knew of it was when the vast aerial armadas of gliders (over 2,000 of these were on hand) and their tug aircraft (almost 2,000, mainly the famous Douglas C-47 Dakota, were available) flew over the county (the author’s father, then a teenager, retained vivid memories of the aircraft flying low over Broomfield on their way to mainland Europe). It is this phase of the operation that concerns us here.

Due to the large force of paratroops and gliders that were required, along with the dropping of supplies, several days of flying had to be undertaken to bring in more troops and equipment. This just added to the complex nature of running an airborne operation, increasing the risks inherent in conducting a successful engagement. The weather played a crucial part: gliders really did need quite still and stable conditions.to be launched. Conditions were not always kind. Early morning fog and mist delayed the launching of further reinforcement flights. By 19 September conditions had deteriorated, but resupply and reinforcement flights had to continue despite the risks.

In the afternoon of 19 September, at 13:15, an American Waco CG-4 glider broke its tow rope and came down in a field, ending up in a ditch in High Easter. Fourteen soldiers and the two crew hadn’t made it to the continent. Shortly afterwards, at 14:05, another CG-4 came down for the same reason, along with its pilot and six soldiers, near to Spitals Farm, Tolleshunt D’Arcy.

We know about these gliders because they were recorded in the Air Raid Precautions records which are still held at the Essex Record Office. These incidents are from the Crashed Aircraft series of records – three extracts below (C/W 1/11, click to enlarge images).

Of interest are the details contained in each report. A six-figure map grid reference is quoted for each report, which allows us to accurately plot where the event took place. These references correlate to the GSGS 3906 War Office series of maps (c.1940), which is different from our current National Grid Ordnance Survey (OS) map references. Luckily ERO has a set of these maps, and we include an extract to show where in High Easter the glider landed.

As the GSGS 3906 series of maps are at a 1:25,000 scale we have also included an extract of the same area from a 2nd Edition 6 Inch OS (1895) map which, while from the nineteenth century, does show the area in more detail. Also, being mapped on an individual county basis means that these earlier maps cover a different area. This allows us to also show Blunts farm, which is mentioned in the report but which is just off of the GSGS map extract – thus observing the First Law of Local History Research which says that whatever part of the county you are researching will always be on at least two maps, but often four!

Extract from GSGS Prov. Ed. 1:25,000 map, sheet 59/22NE, c.1940.
Extract from GSGS Prov. Ed. 1:25,000 map, sheet 59/22NE, c.1940. This kilometre square shows the area in which the glider came down. The six-figure grid reference, 099349, places it in the top right-hand corner.
Extract from 2nd Ed. 6 inch OS, sheet 33SW, 1895. ‘X’ marks the spot in this larger scale map. Possibly it was the northern boundary to this field that contained the ditch the glider ended up in?

The glider that came down in High Easter was recorded as having the following numbers on it: 274026 (serial number?), 29B (individual aircraft squadron number?) and 6413. The entry for the second glider is even more revealing. We know that the aircraft number in this case was 340369 and that the pilot was called Lionel Neyer with Sergeant Prupey[?]. They had taken off from Greenham Common. This would mean that this glider at least was being towed by a Dakota from the 438th Troop Carrier Group. (R.A. Freeman, UK Airfields of the Ninth then and now (London [1994]), p.16).

That’s about all we know, so over to you. What can you tell us about these events? Did you have a relative living in High Easter or Tolleshunt D’Arcy who was eyewitness to these momentous happenings? Do you know what happened to Flying Officer Neyer and Sergeant Prupey? Are you an expert on WACO CG-4 gliders and can tell us more about them? Comment below, or e-mail us to share your stories and research.

31st May 1944 – Just another mission

Neil Wiffen, Public Service Team Manager here at ERO, writes for us about a bombing raid that took off from Essex 70 years ago today…

Seventy years ago the skies above Essex would have been filled daily with the aircraft both of our own Royal Air Force but to a much greater extent by the massed forces of the Eighth and Ninth United States Army Air Forces.

By April 1944 there were eight Bomb Groups of Ninth Air Force Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers and three groups of Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers in Essex, totalling over 700 aircraft with many thousands of personnel and their supporting units. These aircraft and their crews were tasked with ‘softening up’ the German defences and associated transport infrastructure in Europe in order to facilitate a successful invasion and liberation of occupied territory, something dreamed of, and planned for, since the dark days of June 1940.

Some of these Bomb Groups had been in Essex since the summer of 1943, such as the 387th BG based at Chipping Ongar and the 322nd at Andrew’s Fields (Great Saling). Seven groups were relative newcomers, only arriving ‘in theatre’ in 1944. One of the more recently arrived was the 394th Bomb Group with around 64 B-26s who were based at Boreham, flying their first mission on March 23rd when 36 aircraft set out to bomb a Luftwaffe airfield at Beaumont-le-Roger in France.

A10950 Box 1 Book 1 B-26 image crop

A B-26 Marauder of the 394th Bomb Group (at Boreham?) This was taken sometime after D-Day as evidenced by the worn black and white invasion stripes which can be seen under the wings. Note what appears to be aircraft’s Auxiliary Power Unit under the port wing. This was used to ‘power-up’ the aircraft before main engine ignition. (A10950 Box 1 ‘Book 1’).

Bombing raids were run as regularly as the English weather allowed, with as little let-up as possible, and with sometimes two raids a day. With the date for D-Day set there could be no relaxation for the planners in endeavouring to give the assault troops as much assistance as possible before they hit the beaches. This meant that the Allies’ combined air forces had to keep on pounding away whenever they could.

The 394th was tasked with carrying out one such raid on this day 70 years ago. Their target for what would be their 53rd mission since arriving at Boreham was a bridge in Rouen (J.G Ziegler, Bridge Busters: the story of the 394th Bomb Group (Phoenix, Arizona, 1993), p.38.) This was to be the 10th mission in the last eight days, such was the intensity of the air campaign to date and with only a week to go for the planned launch of D-Day on the 5th June.

One of the 36 Marauders that was designated to fly the mission that morning was being piloted by Lt John Connelly of the 587th Bomb Squadron. Connelly was 11th in line to take off (S.D. Bishop & J.A. Hey, Losses of the US 8th & 9th Air Forces: aircraft and men 1st April – 30th June 1944 (Bury St Edmunds, 2009), p.543). Taking off for a heavily loaded combat aircraft was always a crucial time but especially so for an over loaded twin-engine Marauder. Fat with fuel and armed with two 2,000lb bombs the loss of an engine on take-off could have devastating consequences, and was something which Connelly was about to experience first-hand.

Lt Jack Havener of the 344th over at Stansted later recounted his experience of losing an engine after take-off: ‘We had just taken off…and were about halfway through the first turn to join up…when the right engine started sputtering and losing power. As we frantically clawed the…controls, trying to get some life back into the engine we realised we had a serious problem…By the time I had trimmed for single-engine operation we were still losing altitude, so I gave Sgt Skowski the order to pull the emergency bomb salvo lever…He immediately reached up and pulled the lever and greatly relieved the tension in the cockpit when he yelled out: ‘We got a haystack, Lieutenant!’ Havener and his crew were able to land back to their base – just (R.A. Freeman, B-26 Marauder at War (London, 1978), p.120).

Connelly decided, however, against dumping his bomb load as he decided that opening the bomb-bay doors would cause too much drag and force his Marauder to crash. Trying to regain the runway he was not able to stay aloft and crashed short of it into one of the extensive orchards that once surrounded Boreham airfield. Of the six man crew all survived wounded but Connelly and his co-pilot, Flight Officer Preston Fulgham, received major injuries.

A10950 Box 1 Book 3 B-26 image 1

A10950 Box 1 Book 3 B-26 image 2

Two views of the Connelly’s Marauder (Serial number 42-96069). How any of the crew survived is unbelievable. Note the bomb lying on the ground. (A10950 Box 1 ‘Book 3’)

As with all things that fell out of the sky, be they enemy bombs or friendly aircraft, the local authority civil defence system sprang into action. Even though this was an American aircraft and it fell within easy distance of all the US emergency services there were two very large bombs and several hundred gallons of high octane fuel that had been spilled over the Essex countryside. Around mid-day a message was reported to Essex County Control that ‘Waltham Rd. [was] closed from Russell Green to Little Waltham. Houses in the immediate vicinity evacuated on the instruction from American Police’ (ERO, C/W 1/11/3). Shortly after 1pm the road was re-opened and residents allowed back to their properties. While all this was going on the raid that was launched earlier was carried on with – just one more day in a long war.

C-W 1-11-3 31-05-1944 compressed

The Crashed Aircraft Report for 31st May 1944 with the details of the crash from the British viewpoint. (ERO, C/W 1/11/3)

Using the description I wondered if it might be possible to pinpoint the exact location of the crash. The orderly rows of fruit trees show up very well on aerial photos and Looking at am image held at ERO, taken immediately after the end of the war, there does appear to be a scar in the landscape (circled on map), so very close to the runways at Boreham that Connelly nearly made. Seventy years on, I wonder if anyone remembers this event and can confirm the crash site?

OS TL71SW 1-10,560

Boreham Airfield post war. The runways, taxiways, hardstands and accommodation areas, along with the orchards, are all shown. Circled is the suggested area of the crash. (OS TL71SW, 1:10560)