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Digby Tatham-Warter (1917-1993)

Biography, Pegasus Archive

Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter

Unit : "A" Company, 2nd Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 75060
Awards : Distinguished Service Order

Formerly of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, Major Tatham-Warter commanded the 2nd Battalion's A Company, having joined them in the dying days of their part in the Italy campaign. Fiercely independent, slim, and standing over six feet in height, and eager for a taste of war, he was described by his fellow company commander Major Dover as "a cool, calm and collected man; he was tall, a little aloof and full of confidence". John Frost said he was "A Prince Rupert of a man; he would have been a great cavalry commander on the King's side in the war with the Roundheads". Though a fine company commander, he was not so gifted when it came to handling alcohol and was well known for getting into wild drunken fist fights in the mess with men whom he regarded as friends at the time, but of whose existence he would be utterly oblivious to on the following morning; however he would always return to his unit, fresh, and impeccably attired.

A Company were selected to spearhead the 2nd Battalion's march to Arnhem bridge because Lt-Colonel Frost regarded Digby as a thruster, and not one to hang around - thereby making him the ideal choice to lead in an operation that depended on speed. In comparison to the other battalions, the 2nd had a relatively easy advance through to the bridge, though they were held up several times by German units and armoured vehicles. A Company were remarkably swift in brushing aside such opposition, though as they entered the narrow streets of Arnhem interference from armoured cars hampered their progress. Having called for an anti-tank gun to be brought forward to deal with these threats, the Major chose to lead his men through the back gardens of houses rather than down the main streets, thus by-passing these units and allowing him to proceed.

Tatham-Warter had often worried about the unreliability of the radio sets and so he had trained his men in the use of bugle calls that were used by the British during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th Century. He was delighted to see it being used so effectively on the way to the bridge, and in the following days it would continue to be a most satisfactory method of communication between his platoons; their calls always audible over the noise of the bombardment. When they arrived at the bridge shortly after dusk, A Company were feeling rather pleased with themselves. Not only had they captured the Bridge intact, but they had marched 8 miles in 7 hours over tricky terrain. En route they had killed or taken prisoner over 150 Germans, many of whom were members of the prestigious S.S., whilst only suffering one dead and a small number of wounded on their own side. All in all, a very successful start as far as they were concerned.

During the heavy fighting that followed, Digby could often be seen calmly strolling about the defences, seemingly oblivious to the constant threat of mortar barrages and sniper fire. Choosing to wear his red beret in place of a helmet and swinging his trademark umbrella as he went, Tatham-Warter, no matter how desperate the situation became, never failed in his ability to remain unconcerned and to encourage those around him. Even old hands like Major Freddie Gough became disheartened when Mark IV Tanks crossed the Bridge and the battle seemed lost, but his gloom lifted instantly when he caught sight of Digby leading a bayonet charge against German infantry who had dared to enter British territory; carrying a pistol in one hand, madly swinging his umbrella about his head with the other, and now sporting a bowler hat on his head - which he had obtained from God knows where - doing his best to look like Charlie Chaplin. On another occasion he used the rolled up umbrella to in-effect disable a German armoured car, simply by thrusting it through an observation slit in the vehicle and incapacitating the driver.

Tatham-Warter later revealed that he carried the umbrella because he could never remember the password, and it would be quite obvious to anyone that the bloody fool carrying the umbrella could only be an Englishman. During the battle, Father Egan, the Battalion Padre, was trying to cross to a building on the other side of the street to visit the wounded in its cellar. He made an attempt to move over but was forced to seek shelter from intense mortar fire. He then noticed Digby Tatham-Warter casually approaching him. The Major opened his old and battered umbrella and held it over Egan's head, beckoning him "Come on, Padre". Egan drew Tatham-Warter's attention to all the mortars exploding everywhere, to which came the reply "Don't worry, I've got an umbrella." Shortly afterwards Lieutenant Pat Barnett was sprinting over an open area he had been ordered to hold when he caught the sight of Digby visiting men who were defending the sector, holding his opened umbrella over his head. Barnett was so surprised he stopped dead in his tracks and suggested to the Major "That thing won't do you much good.", to which Digby replied, after staring at him with exaggerated shock, "Oh my goodness Pat, what if it rains?".

Signalman George Lawson was running down a street on a quest for ammunition - he had a shopping basket slung over his arm to put it in - when he saw Tatham-Warter coolly walking around and directing men to fresh positions. Upon noticing Lawson he asked him what he wanted, and was enlightened, so the Major advised him to "Hurry up and get some and get back to your post soldier, there are snipers about.", seemingly unconscious of the fact that he himself was a very obvious target. Such untroubled and good humoured gestures doubtlessly contributed greatly to the morale of the defenders, and even when defeat was imminent, spirits were always very high.

Like the majority of the defenders, Digby received several wounds during the battle for the bridge, but he shrugged off the limp, caused by minor shrapnel cuts to his posterior, and hung his umbrella from the sling on his arm. After the death of Major Wallis, Lt-Colonel Frost acknowledged Digby as his new Second-in Command and put him in charge of the 2nd Battalion, whilst he himself commanded the entire defence. Throughout the battle, Tatham-Warter was a model of leadership and continued to enliven spirits with his eccentric sense of humour, whilst also being tireless in making sure that the defences were as solid as they could be under the circumstances. Not having fought in a battle before and choosing an unusually violent one for his debut, Tatham-Warter asked of Frost "I would like to know if this is worse or not so bad as the other things you've been in?" Frost replied that it was hard to say as some things were worse, whereas some weren't; they still had food and water, but were low on ammunition.

Once it was clear that the fight was almost lost, most of the remaining defenders were scattered into Arnhem to try and make their way back to Oosterbeek, leaving Tatham-Warter and the 2nd Battalion behind at Brigade HQ, where they could still fire upon the bridge, to fight until the last. The massive mortar barrage that had pounded the British positions for the previous four days was now concentrated on their small perimeter. The position was untenable and so Digby concocted the plan of slipping men out of the area in two's and three's so that they could hide overnight and escape the bombardment, but return before dawn to retake their positions and still be a threat to the Germans the following morning. Unfortunately the area was utterly surrounded and very few men escaped. Major Tatham-Warter, together with almost all of his Battalion, was captured.

He was admitted to the St. Elizabeth Hospital, but only stayed there throughout the daylight hours of Thursday 21st before escaping with his Second-in-Command, Captain Tony Frank. After dark, once their German nurses were out of sight, the pair dressed themselves, climbed down from their first floor window, and then crawled through a garden next to the hospital before, exhausted from their ordeal over the previous days, coming to a halt close by. On the next day, using Tatham-Warter's escape compass which was assembled from the buttons on his uniform, they headed east out of Arnhem and came to a halt in the pine woodland at Mariendaal, immediately north of the railway line and a mile west of Arnhem.

At dawn on the following day they spotted a farmhouse on the edge of this wood and spent some time watching it for signs of life, of which there were none. The two men had not eaten since they had escaped from the hospital two days ago, and even then they had only received a small helping of mashed potato and a slice of bread. Throwing caution to the wind Tatham-Warter decided to knock on the door of the farm in the hope of finding food and shelter. The owner turned out to be a solitary old lady, and, though initially frightened by the scarecrow appearance of these two soldiers, she prepared them some cheese and fried eggs and directed them into a barn where they slept in the loft, hidden beneath a bed of damp straw.

On the afternoon of Monday 25th September they were visited by Menno de Nooy, of the Ede Resistance, who assured them that from now on they would be safe. He took the men two miles northwards to the dense Warnsborn woods where they took up residence in the more habitable accommodation of the home of Van der Ven, a farmer. Living in a concealed room in the shed, the two men emerged each evening to cut home grown tobacco with the farmer, or to play cards with him.

On the 3rd October, Tatham-Warter received a visit from the head of the Ede Resistance, Bill Wildeboer. There was at this time a considerable number of escaped airborne men on the run or in hiding with local residents, and organizing them and finding appropriate shelters was an enormous task that was beginning to overwhelm him, and so he turned to Tatham-Warter for help, who readily agreed. The next day, dressed in civilian clothes, he and Wildeboer covered the ten miles to Ede on bicycles and Digby took up residence in the family home and made it his headquarters. His bedroom was beneath a log pile where there lay a concealed dug out which Wildeboer had himself used in the past when hiding from the Gestapo. It held a cot and some other light furnishings, and though damp it was warm and made for more than adequate accommodation under the circumstances. A barber, a tailor, and a photographer arrived on the following day to tidy the Major up and provide him with a forged identity card; and so it was that to all intents and purposes, Digby became Peter Jensen, the conveniently deaf and dumb son of a lawyer from the Hague. He had no qualms at all about venturing out of doors, and was as bold here as he had been at the bridge; setting out each day on a bicycle to visit the increasing numbers of men in hiding. Due to his casual manner he was never suspected by the swarms of German soldiers in the area. Indeed he almost seemed to invite the attention of the enemy; once stopping to lend a hand to help push a staff car out of a ditch. By a stroke of bad luck a group of German officers were billeted in Wildeboer's home, and shortly before the curfew, when Tatham-Warter would return from visiting the evaders around Ede, he would frequently find himself attempting to enter the house at the same time as the Germans. Initially he gave way and let them through first, but after a while grew tired of such polite gestures and insisted on entering first. There was a mild dispute over this, but after casting a scornful gaze in their direction the Germans allowed him to pass. From this day on these officers felt well disposed towards Tatham-Warter and they would nod to each other in greeting, even occasionally patting him on the back.

Tatham-Warter excelled in managing the large numbers of airborne evaders, now numbering in the hundreds, and with the signal links set up at his HQ he was able to contact British Intelligence at Nijmegen and 1st British Airborne Corps HQ in England. Using these communications he arranged for the RAF to drop equipment, ammunition, as well as some food and cigarettes to his force; the arms were buried in the countryside until they were ready to use them, and in short these remnants of the 1st Airborne Division were reformed into an effective force. Tatham-Warter envisaged that his men, together with the Dutch Resistance, would launch coordinated attacks on German targets in the event of a further attempted crossing of the Rhine by the 2nd British Army, and in effect they were to be a coup-de-main force. However it became clear that an attempt to establish a bridgehead on the German side of the Rhine was not at all imminent, and so with little else to be achieved by holding their present position, the thoughts of Tatham-Warter and his men turned to their mass escape to the Allied lines.

Operation Pegasus was set for the 22nd October; the plan being simply to advance 138 men, most carrying arms, down to the river bank, and all were to be prepared to fight their way through heavy German opposition to get there. On paper Pegasus appeared foolhardy, possibly even suicidal, but nevertheless it was a tremendous success and all who set out upon it were evacuated to safety. Travelling to the rendezvous area, which was deep in the woods around Renkum, with Brigadier Lathbury, the two men rode abreast on bicycles and passed as many as 200 marching German troops on the way without drawing a single challenge. At 21:00 that evening, having conducted a reconnaissance to within a short distance of the Rhine without encountering opposition, Tatham-Warter gave the final go-ahead to begin Pegasus. His group began their march to the embarkation point, and though their boots had been wrapped in rags to dull their noise, Digby later compared their stealth to a herd of stampeding elephants. Emerging out the cover of the woods, two hundred yards between them and the riverbank lay a meadow shrouded in low lying mist. Tatham-Warter, at five yard intervals, ordered every man to proceed to the Rhine on his belly. To ensure the sanctity of their position, fighting patrols were dispersed upon both flanks to deal with any enemy troops in the vicinity. But for a short exchange of Spandau and Sten fire, no shots were heard, and in this particular engagement the Germans turned and fled. The column, though perfectly intact, had strayed a few hundred yards east of where it should have been, but luckily Tatham-Warter's "V" signal on his red torch was eventually seen and their position was discovered. By 01:30 the next morning, all the men had been taken across in boats. Major Tatham-Warter's account of Operation Pegasus can be read below.

Upon returning to England, Digby resumed command of what remained of A Company, and wrote up a report of the defence of Arnhem Bridge which led to Jack Grayburn being posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. There is little doubt that Tatham-Warter played a great part both in the defence of Arnhem Bridge and also in its glory, and for this and his first class involvement with Pegasus I, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

What follows is a report that Tatham-Warter wrote about the battle at the Bridge and sent to the families of men of the Battalion who did not come home. My thanks to Peter Ives for a copy of this.


The task given to the 2nd Battalion was:

  1. To seize the three Bridges over the RHINE at ARNHEM.
  2. Later to establish the Western half of the Brigade sector forming a bridgehead North of the main road Bridge, to allow the advanced units of the 2nd Army free passage, and deny use of it to the enemy.

The plan for carrying out those tasks was as follows. The Battalion would advance with all possible speed, with A Company leading, seize the Main Road Bridge West of the town, C Company were to seize the North end, and pass one Platoon to the South bank with the task of linking up, from the South, with A Company on the Main Bridge. C Company were then to establish their part of the Battalion sector for Phase 11.

On reaching the Boat Bridge, B Company were to seize the Bridge, and hold it as the left flank of the Battalion sector in Phase 11.

We were in possession of detailed information of enemy defences and concentrations, and did not expect anything except hurriedly organised resistance in Phase 1. It was clear, however, that the enemy would react strongly, and we expected to withstand heavy counter-attack, with the likelihood of tanks, until the arrival of the 2nd Army who were scheduled to reach us after 48 hours.

The Battalion was dropped at 1445 hours on D. day 17th September, with perfect accuracy on the D.Z. 7 miles West of ARNHEM. There was no opposition on the D.Z. and except for a motor patrol captured by A Company at the R.V. , no opposition was met until we had moved two miles towards the town. Here A Company bumped what proved to be the Southern flank of a strong enemy position, and after a spirited assault by one Platoon, were able to continue the advance. They met no more opposition until the railway West of the town. From then on Armoured cars and hastily organised defences caused only minor delay in the falling light, until A Company reached and seized the North end of the Main Bridge at 8 p.m. . They had taken some 50 prisoners during the advance.

Meanwhile C Company had taken the North end of the Railway Bridges only to see it blown as they began to cross. Similarly the Boat Bridge, which B Company reached after overcoming considerable resistance, was burnt before they could use it. An assault by A Company, across the Main Bridge, was met by devastating fire from tanks and light A.A. on the Bridge, and the attempt was abandoned. Efforts were then made to secure boats for an assault on the South end of the Bridge, but thorough reconnaissance revealed that all boats had been removed from the North bank. In spite of these reverses we were more than satisfied with the course of events. By first light on Monday the position was as follows:-

  1. We had captured our objective with comparatively few casualties.
  2. We were holding a small but strong bridgehead North of the Bridge. The force now consisted of the 2nd Battalion less C Company and one Platoon of B Company with the addition of Brigade Headquarters and attached troops, who had followed us in. We also had four 6 Pdr. A/TK guns. The force was commanded by Lt. Col Frost, D.S.O M.C.
  3. A strong counterattack from the South had been repelled during the night.
  4. We had lost contact with C Company after their episode at the Railway Bridge, and although patrols were sent out to contact them, nothing more was heard of them during the battle. We heard afterwards that they had reached their objective, but owing to the failure of the Brigade to establish the original sector, they were isolated, surrounded and eventually suffered much the same fate as ourselves.

Throughout Monday we were attacked with increasing vigour from the East, and subjected to continuous mortar fire and shelling. A number of tanks and S.P. guns supported the attack, and several attempts were made to bring armoured cars and tanks over the Bridge. Heavy toll was taken by both 6 Pdrs, and P.I.A.Ts. and nothing crossed the Bridge during the three days we held it.

During Monday night another counterattack from the South was repelled with heavy losses. The position East of the Bridge where A Company and part of the Brigade H.Q. force had borne the brunt of the attack, was strengthened by the addition of one Platoon of B Company.

Until Tuesday midday we had no wireless communication with Div. H.Q. or the rest of the Brigade, but we could hear by the noise of the battle that they were having a very sticky time. When contact was finally made, we heard that every effort was being made to reach us. We heard afterwards that they had been unlucky in meeting very heavy opposition soon after leaving the D.Z. and though they fought without a break, they never got more than a footing in the town.

Major Wallis was killed on Monday evening and Major Tatham Warter took over command of the Battalion. Our casualties had been heavy, but were mostly wounded. Tuesday was a repetition of Monday, with no appreciable worsening of the situation, except for an increase in casualties and a growing shortage of ammunition. The most serious deficiency was in P.I.A.T bombs, of which we now had none left, and so had no method of dealing with tanks which shelled our houses at very close range. The 6 Pdrs still kept the Bridge and Western approaches covered, but could not maintain positions East of the Bridge.

By Wednesday midday the situation had worsened considerably. We had been burnt out of all our positions East and immediately West of the Bridge. In spite of the most gallant defence and reported counter attacks by A and B Companies, the remnants of both companies had to be withdrawn to a firm position, still covering the Bridge, but slightly further North, which had previously been held by H.Q. Company. Colonel Frost and Major Crawley M.C. (Commanding A Company) were wounded during the morning, and Capt Frank M.C. (then commanding A Company) had been wounded the previous evening.

It had now become clear that the rest of the Division were very unlikely to reach us but we were cheered by the news that advanced units of the 2nd Army would reach the Bridge by 5 p.m. that evening. This did not happen and by dark the situation had become critical. Soon after dark the few houses still standing were set on fire, and we found ourselves without a position. The wounded were then surrendered, and from reports I received afterwards were well cared for, with our own doctors to look after them.

During the night we tried to re-establish ourselves in other houses, but in doing so suffered heavy casualties and became very split up. By morning we were no longer a fighting force, and the battle was over.

Of the 2nd Battalion approximately 350 had reached the Bridge, of this number 210 were wounded, many of whom had fought on to the end, in spite of their wounds. It is not possible to estimate the number killed, but I know of approximately 100 taken prisoner unwounded.

The Battalion had fought with the utmost gallantry, in inconceivably difficult conditions, and had denied the use of the vital Bridge to the enemy for 80 hours.

Major Tatham Warter
Officer Commanding 2nd Parachute Regiment

After the War, Digby Tatham-Warter, on the strength of the recommendation of his aunt and uncle, took up an appointment with the 5th King's African Rifles in Kenya. He bought a farm at Eburru in the Rift Valley. During the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950's, he commanded a mounted section. The family later moved to another farm at Laikipia, and Digby began to organise safaris, accommodating photography, bird shooting and small game. He died in Nanyuki in 1993.

Owner of originalhttp://www.pegasusarchive.org/arnhem/tatham_warter.htm
Date26 May 2010
Linked toAllison Digby Tatham-Warter

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