Former British paratrooper Alfred Watkins recalls being more scared of being shot down in an airplane than what awaited him and other soldiers on the ground at Arnhem, the Netherlands.
He participated in Operation Market Garden on September 18, 1944, in a plan to shorten the Second World War by capturing bridges on the road cutting across Holland to the German border. If successful, thousands of troops could invade Germany through a back door.
But the plan was too ambitious. The bridge at Arnhem was the furthest one that required capture. Paratroopers were too far from the landing zones then encountered stiff resistance from seasoned German troops who were not known to be in the area.
Strong resistance was met over the area as thousands of German machine guns fired up at the planes.
Watkins recently visited Arnhem, his first since 1944.
He didn’t think about death and guns as he floated down because he was focused, he said. When you hit the ground, you ran, even if the soldier beside you was hit. Stopping meant being injured or killed.
Welsh-born Watkins was drafted into the Welsh Regiment in 1942. He trained at the Brecon Beacons before being shipped off to do battle. Some time was spent in Africa, which he hated, he explained, because there were full kit inspections daily in addition to living in the desert in tents. So with his mate, they looked to check what was on orders when they saw a notice asking for parachute regiment volunteers. They signed up.
Watkins remembers the anticipatory atmosphere on the plane as it headed for their drop zone. He said there wasn’t any panic; he wanted to get out and jump.
Thousands of British troops died in the campaign that was too ambitious.
The bridge at Arnhem was almost captured. At the conclusion of the first day, British paratroopers had taken the north end of it, but the Germans rapidly put together tank reinforcement and wrestled victory away. British support failed to reinforce the paratroopers.
Watkins enjoyed the visit to Arnhem where he saw the graves of those who had died, in addition to meeting the daughter and granddaughter of an officer killed in the campaign who was like a father to him. Watkins told the daughter of his great respect for the officer who is buried at Oosterbeek War Cemetery in Arnhem. She had known of his reputation as a strict disciplinarian and so was grateful to hear that he had a softer side, Derby Telegraph reported.