Allison “Digby” Tatham-Warter might be the most interesting member of the British Army to have fought during World War II. Known by associates for his humor and aggressive command, he gained fame for his actions during the Battle of Arnhem. In particular, he caught everyone’s attention for his skills with the most common of items: an umbrella.
Enlistment in the British Army
Digby’s military career began in 1935, when he was accepted into the Royal Military College. He graduated in 1937 and was commissioned to the Unattached List of the Indian Army. He was transferred to the 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, in April 1938.
Digby didn’t see action in WWII until the death of his brother during the Second Battle of El Alamein. He volunteered for the airborne forces and was transferred to the Parachute Regiment. He was appointed company commander of the 2nd Parachute Battalion’s A Company, part of the 1st Parachute Brigade of the 1st Airborne Division.
The Battle of Arnhem
A Company was chosen by Lieutenant Colonel Jack Dutton Frost to lead the 2nd Parachute Battalion in the Battle of Arnhem. Codenamed Operation Market Garden, the objective was to seize strategically important bridges in the Netherlands to allow the Allies access to the Rhine River. It would also allow them to bypass the Siegfried Line.
Digby trained his men to communicate with bugles, used by the British during the Napoleonic Wars, in case their radios failed, and he himself decided to carry an umbrella, as he struggled to remember passwords. When asked why, he said that “only a bloody fool of an Englishman” would carry an umbrella into battle.
On September 17, 1944, Digby and his men parachuted into the Netherlands, seven miles from Arnhem. Over the next several hours, they traveled through the back gardens of local residences, and along the way took 150 German prisoners.
By the evening, they’d captured the north end of the bridge. Mortar fire meant it was impassable, so the battalion waited for backup. Unfortunately, their radios had failed and they were unaware help wouldn’t be arriving anytime soon.
The Germans soon mounted a panzer defensive against the 2nd Battalion. Digby, wearing a bowler hat, led the charge against them. With his umbrella in one hand and a pistol in the other, he disabled a German armored vehicle after shoving the umbrella through the car’s observation slit, incapacitating its driver. He also used it to save a chaplain, saying, “Don’t worry about the bullets, I’ve got an umbrella.”
The Dutch Resistance
Digby was injured by shrapnel and his unit was captured. Due to their injuries, they were sent to a German hospital. He wasn’t there for long, however. When left alone by the nurses, he and his second in command, Captain Tony Frank, escaped through a window.
The pair were housed by a Dutch woman who introduced them to Dirk Wildeboer, a local leader of the Dutch Resistance in Ede. Wildeboer gave Digby a fake identification card, which identified him as the deaf-mute son of a Dutch lawyer.
He also introduced Digby to another member of the Resistance. He gave Digby a bicycle, which he used to visit fellow escapees. Despite being surrounded by German soldiers, he was able to remain unnoticed.
Digby was given a radio to communicate with British Intelligence. Over the coming weeks, he set up supply and equipment drops with the Royal Air Force and had weapons and ammunition buried at designated spots in and around Ede.
Ever the cunning soldier, Digby planned to create a force behind German lines to help future Allied attempts to cross the Rhine. When it became clear no such mission would occur soon, the plan was changed to one of escape, codenamed Operation Pegasus.
On the night of October 22, 1944, Digby and a contingent of 150 escaped soldiers cycled to the Rhine, where members of the XXX Corps helped them cross the water. Before crossing himself, Digby flashed a “V for Victory” message in Morse code with his torch. From there, the men journeyed back to the U.K.
Digby was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his efforts. His report on the Battle of Arnhem led the British government to posthumously promote Lieutenant John “Jack” Grayburn, who died during Operation Garden Market, to captain. The deceased soldier was also awarded the Victoria Cross, the most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.
Upon the conclusion of WWII, Digby went on to serve in British-controlled Mandatory Palestine, after which he was transferred to British Kenya and appointed to the 5th King’s African Rifles. During the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s, he raised a volunteer mounted police and led them into battles against the Mau Mau. He was also present in Kenya during the move for independence.
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Digby passed away on March 21, 1993, in Nanyuki, Kenya, where he’d lived for the remainder of his life. Upon completing his military service, he is credited with establishing the concept of the modern safari, where an emphasis is placed on taking pictures of the animals, rather than hunting them.