The second instalment of ' Remembering Stanley' offers context and insight into Stanley Biggs' involvement in The Battle of Arnhem, 17th - 25th September 1944.
September 1944 saw some of the fiercest fighting for over 10,000 British and Polish glider and airborne troops, fighting against a force that despite being in respite, were highly experienced and trained troops. It is said the 1st Airborne Division descended and were met by over 6000 German troops of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, who were in the Arnhem area.
The Battle of Arnhem was one part of a wider Allied Operation, Market Garden. The objective was to invade Germany, via the most direct route, and to end the war by Christmas.
As a student of history, you would have read the naive words “over by Christmas” on many occasions regarding the British Army. As those events that came before, Operation Market Garden did not end the war by Christmas. However, on paper, it did achieve many of its objectives.
Operation Market Garden was a plan suggested by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery; to push northwards up into the Ruhr by crossing The Rhine River.
The ‘corridor’was circa 60 miles long, and would involve a combined effort between airborne forces (“Market”) and land forces (“Garden”).
Along the corridor that began in Belgium, nine bridges would need to be captured, crossed and held.
In order to obtain the element of surprise, the bridges would be captured simultaneously by the airborne forces, while the land forces would advance up Highway 69 (later known as “Hell’s Highway”) crossing each bridge as they advanced.
The timing of Operation Market Garden had to be planned to perfection. Any delay would cause issues.
The final bridge on the route was Arnhem Bridge. Due to its location and the plan to capture all bridges at once, Arnhem Bridge would need to be held for the longest period. According to the plan, this would be for two to three days until the land forces of XXX Corps reached and crossed the Bridge.
Arnhem Bridge was held for four days by elements of the 2nd Battalion of The Parachute Regiment, commanded by Major-General John Frost, until they were overwhelmed and captured. This is remarkable because of the sheer odds against them. They ran out of ammunition and medical supplies before they surrendered.
To put their achievement into perspective. On the first day of the Operation (17th Sept), three Battalions (totalling 3000 men) were deployed to race to the Bridge, to hold it until the remaining elements of the Division (a further 7000 men) could arrive.
Only Johnny Frosts’ Battalion, totalling around 800 men, made it to the Bridge.
They then held the position, while they waited for other reinforcements to arrive.
800 men out of 10,000 held the Bridge, for twice the length of time they were expected to.
And though the Battle for Arnhem Bridge is remarkable and deservedly holds a place in the history books, our story takes us elsewhere.
The story of the Battle in and around the town of Oosterbeek. This battle was bravely fought in the wrong location and under the worst circumstances by the majority of The 1st Airborne Division.
Logistics are one of the key elements to any military operation and Operation Market Garden was no different to any other. It required a huge amount of logistical planning but the Allies were no strangers to this.
Only a few months before had the Allies successfully carried out the largest invasion in history (D-Day Landings, June 1944). But, they were desperate to ensure it was not a failure. They could not afford for it to fail. They were running out of supplies & time and there was no way that they could launch such an invasion force again. The war would be lost.
The pressure was on and risks had to be taken. Operation Market Garden, promised one of the shortest, quickest routes to victory. So it was eventually approved for September 1944, with limited priority, and therefore with minimal amount of planning.
There are always logistical challenges to overcome, but the task of capturing Arnhem Bridge, really was a logistical nightmare. There were several key factors hindering the airborne operation from the outset.
The air defences around the area meant that it was only possible to fly one air lift per day. This meant that the force of 10,000 in total could not land all at once or in a short space of time. They would need to be dropped across three days (72 hours).
Secondly, the surrounding terrain meant there were few suitable landing sites, with only a handful north of Arnhem Bridge being available. This forced Major-General Roy Urquhart, Commander of the 1st Airborne Division to settle for drop-zones (DZs) and landing-zones (LZs) up to 8 miles (13 kms) away from the north of Arnhem Bridge. The reality meant that once his troops had landed, they would then have to defend a perimeter of 18 miles, for three days. That perimeter would encompass the Bridge, the surrounding towns, and then the supply drop zones.
Even with 10,000 troops at his disposal, it was still a mammoth task to begin with.
Consistent supply was the other logistical challenge. Even if he had wanted to, Urquhart could not deploy all the troops that had landed that first day to take Arnhem Bridge. This is why only 3000 troops were sent initially to capture the bridge at Arnhem. The remainder had to ensure the landing and drop zones were not overrun by the enemy, ready for the second wave to arrive.
The 1st Airborne Division was made up of three brigades of infantry (two parachute, one glider-borne). They were then supported by artillery, anti-tank regiments as well as the Royal Engineers, Royal Army Service Corps and the Royal Army Medical Corps
Though many of these units were parachuted, especially the infantry elements, the majority of the supporting elements were in fact transported by Glider.
After three days of glider landings, the Landing Zones were crammed with the remains of over 130 abandoned gliders.
It was in a Horsa glider, chalk number 286, that Private Stanley Biggs landed on LZ-S, from RAF Down Ampney, on the first day of the operation; 17th September 1944.
With him were six other men of his unit, an airborne Jeep and trailer, two airborne panniers full of supplies and two airborne bicycles.
Though an infantryman first, his trade was Medical Orderly for a surgical unit. He was one of hundreds who made up 181ist Airlanding Field Ambulance, Royal Army Medical Corps. On landing, the unit’s first priority would have been to establish a Main Dressing Station (MDs), to support the forces arriving throughout the first day, and those advancing to Arnhem. Number 9 on Duitsekampweg was chosen as their base.
By 0800 the following morning, they had admitted 180 men. It was a busy first night with no respite.
On the 18th September Cameraman Gordon Walker took the opportunityto film, for prosperity, the important work of the surgical teams in and around the house in Wolfheze. He unwittingly filmed a soldier who we now know to be Stanley Biggs. Hair unkempt, his smock and battledress blouse set aside, he can be seen carrying a stretcher through the makeshift dressing station, and conferring with one of the officers of the unit, entirely focussed on his duties.*
As the second wave landed on the various Landing and Drop Zones, the unit would have been increasingly busy and between 1700hrs and 2000hrs the dressing station was moved to the Schoonoord Hotel in Oosterbeek to be closer to the fighting now reaching a new level in the town of Oosterbeek and beyond into Arnhem.
The surgical unit was once again captured on camera by a photographer. Stanley, standing at the back, can barely be seen and is often confused for the man standing in front of him. This is the last known photograph of Stanley Biggs and the surgical team he was part of. It is interesting to think that for many, the battle would continue for a further eight days and the fact that there is lack of other film and stills footage of 181st Field Ambulance Unit indicates how fierce and frantic the battle must have been for the units supporting the fighting troops.
Even those unfamiliar with military strategy will agree that a crossroads was not the safest place for a Field Hospital to be located. The town was a tourist destination in pre-war days and the geography of the town was based heavily around this, with several large hotels dominating the centre of the town. It is hard to think that several decades later these hotels would house a different type of guest; those wounded in the battle for the town’s freedom.
The Schoonoord Hotel, today a restaurant, located at the famous crossroads of Oosterbeek remained as a Field Hospital throughout the battle until 21st September, changing hands between the British and German several times. It seems only fitting that today it acts as one of the main focal points for veterans, historians and residents to meet and remember the events of September 1944.
As the situation unfolded Lieutenant-Colonel Marrable, commander of the 181st Field Ambulance, relocated the surgical units down the road from the Schoonoord, to the Tafelberg Hotel. As the perimeter grew smaller and smaller, the Tafelberg became one of the focal points for the British forces and wounded to find refuge.
The Tafelberg Hotel was one of several buildings that were commandeered by the British. Each with their own story to tell. What they all have in common is that where the British were, the residents of Oosterbeek were close by. Often working side by side with the British troops.
Kate Ter Horst, ‘the Angel of Arnhem’ (second left in photo), is perhaps the best known of the Dutch residents who helped care for the wounded. Her home, near the Church, was also commandeered as a Field Hospital.
Many residents were keen to support their liberators, one such account a young girl speaks of her attending the Tafelberg Hotel and working several shifts to support the medical orderlies working day and night inside.
This closeness and bond between the British and Dutch was lifelong and, for many, has continued down the generations.
Giving further insight into how fast paced and chaotic the battle was; the Tafelberg Hotel was under German control several times throughout the battle. Stanley Biggs worked out of the Tafelberg throughout the battle and would have witnessed the change over first hand. In fact an account from veteran Tom Bannister years later recounts a unique insight into Stanley’s character;
The SS marched all the orderlies outside and lined us up with hands on heads near the garage we were using as a mortuary. It looked as though that was it. I was standing next to a chap named Stan Biggs, and he looked across to me, grinned and said; 'Well, there is one thing, Tom, they won't have far to carry us.’ **
One can only imagine the exhaustion and strain the men must have felt as the battle progressed, and the situation worsened for the British troops.
There was brief respite on the 24th September when a truce was arranged. The Germans took many of the wounded who were choking up the Schoonoord and Tafelberg Hotels, to nearby Hospitals in Arnhem.
The truce was short lived as on the same day the Germans moved into the area of the Schoonoord, squeezing the British perimeter tighter. In the fighting that ensued, many of the wounded and medical orderlies in The Tafelberg were killed or wounded again. It is pure speculation but we believe that Stanley was one of those wounded.
With the situation untenable, the order came from Headquarters to tactically withdraw from the battle. Only the able and fit were able to cross the fast flowing River Rhine however, so the many wounded were left behind. Along with the wounded, 25 Doctors and 400 Medical Orderlies from the RAMC stayed behind. Stanley Biggs was one of these men.
On the night of the 25th September, under the cover of darkness, an impressive rainstorm, and an artillery barrage by XXX Corps (who were just across the River at Driel by this point), the remnants of the 10,000 strong force made their way down to the banks of the Rhine River. Royal Engineers were awaiting to assist them with assault boats.
Many attempted to swim across the Rhine. Some made it, but many were so exhausted they were swept away by the current. The Germans were relentless in their attempts to stop the British, and from several advantage points along the River, were able to fire several lines of fire into the retreating troops, helpless, as they crossed the black expanse to the other side.
Of the 8,969 troops of the 1st Airborne Division, only 1892 were successfully withdrawn. 5903 were captured or missing, and 1174 were killed.
Of all the men of the 181st RAMC, only ten made it across to the other side of the River Rhine.
During the barrage carried out by XXX Corps to assist with the British withdrawal, a stray shell hit the Tafelberg Hotel. It passed through the roof, the upstairs floor and exploded on the ground floor. As a result Stanley Douglas Biggs was killed along with several other injured soldiers.
Under the shade of a tall tree in front of the Tafelberg Hotel, Stanley and 34 other men were buried.
Their grave, like many others around Oosterbeek, were cared for by the children of Oosterbeek until they were moved to the Military Cemetery.
To remember Stanley, we have commissioned artist Tim Godden, to create a unique piece of art, picturing Stanley during the Battle of Arnhem.
After having read the latest instalment, we hope you may recognise some of the surroundings in the piece.
With each print sold, a donation will be made to The Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
*the film footage can be viewed at the Imperial War Museum Video Archive.
** 'Red Berets and Red Crosses' by Niall Cherry pg108.
To purchase ‘Red Berets and Red Crosses’ by Niall Cherry, please email us directly where we can put you in touch with the author.
Special Thanks to Niall Cherry for his kind permission to reproduce several images from his publication.