The Battle of Arnhem, part of Operation Market Garden, took place between 17th and 26th September 1944. This, now infamous, battle saw fighting in and around the Dutch towns of Arnhem, Oosterbeek, Wolfheze and Driel and the surrounding countryside. It resulted in an Allied defeat.
With the anniversary in mind, we step outside our usual focus on Green Howards and predecessor regiments to tell the story of a local Richmond man who left our part of North Yorkshire to try to help shorten the second world war.
Joseph Johnstone was born on 2nd March 1917 at Snape. In September 1939 Joseph was living in Northallerton where he worked as a hairdresser. In June the following year he married Vera Anderson and the couple moved to Richmond and set up home at 28 Westfields.
Despite having just embarked on married life, Joseph enlisted into the Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment (service number 4619254). Infantry life was not for Joseph so, seeking adventure, he answered an advert, posted in August 1941.
“Officers and men in any Regiment or Corps (except Royal Armoured Corps) who are medically fit, may apply for transfer to the parachute or glider-borne unit of the Airborne Forces….A limited number of officers and other ranks are urgently needed for training as glider pilots. Applications for transfer or further information should be made to unit headquarters.”
Such a transfer was no small endeavour, as it turned out glider pilots would be trained not just to fly and navigate; they would, having landed, be trained to fight as infantry, as well as be trained to use radio, demolition charges a range of infantry weapons both allied and German. The term ‘Special Forces’ doesn’t seem enough to describe what men like Joseph, let’s remember a hairdresser from Snape originally, took on. Joseph was accepted for Glider Pilot training. He successfully completed the demands of the course and was posted to 10th Platoon, G Squadron, 1st Wing of the Glider Pilot Regiment.
The plan for what became known as Operation Market Garden was, with hindsight, incredibly optimistic. Not least of the problems was the limited availability of aircraft needed to land the attacking force. Such was the shortage the troops earmarked to take the bridge at Arnhem had to be taken over and dropped in three separate lifts. Joseph was part of the second lift. Flying from RAF Fairford, 38 Stirling bombers each towed a Horsa Glider and took their men and equipment to their designated drop zone, in Joseph’s case, Drop Zone Z, north-west of Arnhem.
The fight for the bridge is told elsewhere. Instead, we will follow Joseph as he falls back to Oosterbeek, fighting a series of short savage close-quarter actions, with dwindling supplies until the order is given for men to get back across the Rhine in any way they can.
An officer of G Squadron, Lt Mike Dauncey recounted the nature of the fighting at this point in the battle, Monday 25th September. “As the morning wore on the ominous squeak of enemy tanks began to get louder and louder. One of the boys gave me a Gammon Bomb and armed with this I went up the round with another soldier to await the arrival of the tanks. Eventually a tank came into sight and I ran forward and threw the bomb. Nothing happened for a long time and I began to wonder if it was ever going to explode. Then suddenly there was an enormous blast.” Later that day, Lt Dauncey was wounded in the face by a German grenade that broke his jaw, and taken to the Regiment First Aid Post at Ter Horst House, with few medical supplies, no surviving medical staff and hundreds of wounded. Lt. Dauncey was given a blanket and a cup of tea, something he tried to drink but, much to the amusement of the men around him, “the tea came out again through the hole in my chin, which I have since heard from other people was a most amazing sight.”
On that same day, the 25th September 1944, Joseph Johnstone was killed fighting his way to safety. He was given a battlefield burial by his comrades at the road junction of Hoofdlaam and Van Lennepereg road at Oosterbeek. For those who have visited the Arnhem battlefield, this is on the north-west corner of the grounds in which the Hartenstein Airborne Museum is situated. On 8th August 1945 Joseph’s body was exhumed and re-buried in Oosterbeek Cemetery. The dedication of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission keeps graves like Joseph’s immaculate. The additional very specific mention of Westfields is a poignant touch.
In many places, including at Oosterbeek, the tradition has grown for local schoolchildren to adopt a grave and tend it, an act of gratitude and remembrance which continues to this day. Joseph’s name is also inscribed on the War memorial in the church of St. Mary the Virgin at Thornton Watlass.
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