This week marks the 70th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, one of the most heroic failures of the Second World War.
Launched on September 17, 1944, it saw the British 1st Airborne Division – many based in and around Melton – tasked with capturing a bridge in the Dutch city of Arnhem against German forces that proved far stronger than expected. The fighting was exceptionally fierce; the division went into battle more than 10,000 strong, but only 2,100 men avoided death or capture.
Two Leicestershire veterans of the bloody conflict, spoke to Alan Thompson about their memories. We start today with former Private Jim Duplock, of the 11th battalion the Parachute Regiment. When Jim Duplock climbed aboard the Dakota bound for Arnhem on the second day of the operation, it was his only his second combat jump.
Jim, now 94, who joined the 5th Leicesters at the start of the war, said: “You were young, you weren’t frightened. An American pilot took us and he said ‘I’ll take you as far as I can – many aircraft were shot down.”
The paras jumped from just a few hundred feet, laden with heavy kitbags, and had only a few seconds to prepare for landing. “You used to drop from as low as you could, I think it was 350 feet at Arnhem – you couldn’t get down quick enough with all the bullets flying around. “There were about 20 men in the Dakota and the mood was all right on the plane. I had a good jump and the first thing I remember seeing were two dead Germans on the ground. “There were a lot of trees and we landed in a field near Oosterbeek, and we could hear shots as we landed.”
Jim, a resident of St Mary’s House residential care home, in Lutterworth, said: “They told us when we landed we should look up to see which way our planes were flying and walk in the opposite direction. “Two men near me were shot. I looked at them and Major Gilchrist, who I was with, said ‘you’ll be seeing plenty more of them in a bit.”
Jim recalled being “dug in” by the side of the road when two Allied sections came past. “They said there was a tank coming and they had got nothing to stop it,” he said. “Our major told us to stand fast. That tank came right up to us as we lay there, but they never saw us. “One of its soldiers opened the turret and looked around – we could have shot him, but we daren’t in case it turned on us.”
Memories from 70 years ago are still fresh in Jim’s mind. “I still wake up at two in the morning sometimes thinking about what I saw and it’s the first thing on my mind again when I wake up in the morning. “One of the things I think about is when Major Gilchrist told me to go into a building, but then decided he would go in himself.
“He got wounded and had to shoot some Germans. That would have been me.”
Two days after he landed, Jim and several of his comrades were captured as they made their way through back gardens in the war-torn city. He said: “We were heading for the John Frost bridge when they confronted us – they’d got machine guns, we’d got .303 rifles. “We knew Jerry was close and we’d gone through the gardens because the houses were getting fired on, so we thought we’d be safer there.”
After his capture, a letter was sent to his mother in November, 1944, which read: “His comrades in A company join me in extending their sympathy over the posting of your son as missing.“He was a good soldier and a good comrade. We can only hope that he turns up soon in the hands of the Dutch Underground or, at worst, as a prisoner.”
It was only after Christmas, 1944 that Jim was able to send his family a postcard letting them know he was alive. Jim said: “That postcard was the first my parents knew I was alive. They didn’t know what had happened to me and they were very pleased when I was back home.”
On Thursday, Jim sets off for his first visit to Arnhem in 70 years, thanks to Alison Anderton of Age Concern, Lutterworth and District. Alison, with husband Jerome, will drive Jim – in his motorised wheelchair – in a specially-adapted vehicle. She said: “We started looking into it 12 months ago and the only way to do it was for us to take him. “It will be the first time in 70 years that Jim makes this emotional journey to pay his respects to his fallen comrades and to the people of Arnhem who lost their lives.”