HQ Trp. 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Sqn
' Just Ordinary Men '
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17 to 25th Sept 1944
26th Sept 1944
Why did it fail?
Operation Pegasus
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Operation Pegasus

Operation Pegasus

The Escape of the Survivors of Arnhem

Overview :

Of the approximately 8,000 casualties of the British 1st Airborne Division (including the glider pilots and the Polish Brigade) not all were killed during the battle or taken prisoner by the Germans: quite a number of men evaded capture. At least 300 of these men managed to return to the Allied lines eventually, often with help from the Dutch resistance. One such attempt to reach friendly grounds was operation 'Pegasus I' on the night of 22 October 1944, were Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter led 138 men safely across the Lower Rhine. The news of this successful escape soon reached the Germans, who reacted by strengthening their patrol on the river bank. As a result of this 'Pegasus II' on 18 November 1944 failed with only 7 men returning safely. Colonel Graeme Warrack, the Division's chief medical officer, who had arranged the evacuation of the British wounded during the battle of Arnhem, was one of those persons who didn't make it to the Allied lines that time. For him and many others more time of hiding and travelling would follow. Warrack returned safely on 6 February 1945, almost 5 months after the beginning of Market Garden.

The Operation

After the end of Market Garden it soon became clear that no Allied advance to the north of Holland was planned for the near future. This meant that the escaped airbornes couldn't just wait to be 'liberated' by their comrades; something had to be done to get them back to the Allied line, which now followed the south bank of the Lower Rhine. Most of the airbornes who went into hiding had made contact with the Dutch underground. Together with the help of the resistance and a SAS officer, the Belgian Lieutenant Gilbert Sadi Kirschen, plans were made for a large scale river crossing under the command of Major Tatham-Warter.

Major Tatham-Warter of Frost's 2nd battalion had been taken prisoner at the bridge on September the 21st after SS troops had overrun their positions. Together with Captain Tony Frank, a fellow airborne, he managed to escape from a dressing station. Their intention was to return to the rest of the division at Oosterbeek, but the wounds of Captain Frank and the presence of German troops in the area forced them to shelter at a farm. Eventually they made contact with the Dutch resistance of the town Ede. Tatham-Warter was bed downed at the farm of Wildeboer, member of the resistance and known as "Bill". Bill played an important role in organizing operation 'Pegasus'. In the time Tatham-Warter went underground he showed great aplomb and moved about the area quite freely and on one occasion helped to push a German staff car out of a ditch. At one time there were even Germans billeted in the same house were Tatham-Warter was hiding. The resistance brought Tatham-Warter in contact with Brigadier Gerald Lathbury, the commander of the 1st Parachute Brigade, and later also with Lieutenant-Colonel Dobie, commander of the 1st battalion of Lathbury's Brigade. It was also the resistance who introduced him to the SAS officer Kirschen, code named Captain King.

Captain King, together with a couple of men, was dropped behind enemy lines in order help the Dutch resistance sabotaging the Germans in the event of a new Allied offensive. He had radio contact with London and could arrange uniforms, weapons, explosives and food to be dropped. After London had informed Captain King that new Allied advance was planned for the upcoming months it was first suggested that the evaded airbornes had to take shelter for the winter and just had to wait until the British Army would move northwards. However, this suggestion was rejected by both the Dutch resistance and Lathbury and Tatham-Warter. This was far too dangerous for the airbornes and for the people hiding them, who risked their lives by doing this. It was at this time that the first ideas of a large scale river crossing arose. After a initial plan had been worked out it was decided that Dobie would try to reach the 2nd Army and inform them about the river crossing. Dobie left Ede on 14 October and eventually succeeded in making his way with the utmost difficulty to the 2nd Army at 19 October, where he explained their plan.

By then Captain Tom Wainwright and Sergeant-Major Grainger had made a reconnaissance at the river bank at 17 October and concluded there was no chance of crossing the river between Wageningen en De Grebbenberg, east of Ede, because of the strong German defence in that area: machine guns every 100 meters and patrols each half hour. A suggestion by the Dutch resistance to cross the river at Renkum, directly south of Ede, was accepted. Contact with Dobie in Nijmegen was surprisingly simple. There was a direct phone connection between the two buildings of the PGEM power supply company in Ede and Nijmegen, which the Germans had overlooked. Tatham-Warter simply rang Dobie in Nijmegen to discuss the matter. Dobie told Tatham-Warter that Dempsey had approved the plan: a crossing point 'Digby', north of Randwijk, was chosen. Bofors gun would indicate the exact crossing point by firing tracers low across the river after the airbornes would have identified themselves with red flashlight. The only thing that remained was the exact date of the operation, named 'Pegasus'.

The plan was to get all the airbornes to an assembly point near point 'Digby'. The resistance would start with moving them towards this rendezvous a few days before the actual crossing, so that at all men would be there in time. The woods around Bennekom would be a perfect place to assemble. At the rendezvous all soldiers would receive a uniform and a weapon, thanks to Captain King, and then the whole group would go to point 'Digby'. On 20 October it became known that the town of Bennekom had to be evacuated before Sunday 22 October. This gave them the opportunity to move the group of airbornes rather safely, since the roads would be crowded with people who where leaving their homes. A disaster for the people of Bennekom of course, but good news for operation 'Pegasus'. The short time for preparation, 2 days, was something they just had to put up with. Unfortunately because the crossing would take place on such a short time notice it was known beforehand that several evaded airbornes wouldn't able to reach the assembly point at time. Now the group would be made up of approximately 40 men from the Arnhem area and over 80 from the Ede area.

Before it all would start the area of the crossing was scouted first by Captain Wainwright and Sergeant-Major Grainger and later by Tatham-Warter and 'Flip' of the resistance. Then on Saturday the 21st the operation started: guided by men, women, boys and girls the airbornes moved towards the woods at Renkum, and from there other guides brought them to the rendezvous, a wooded area near hotel 'Nol in 't Bosch', west of Renkum. There they received their uniforms and weapons. After Tatham-Warter had given his last instructions the group moved on around 2130. In a long line the men walked the first 3 kilometers through the woods. Although Tatham-Warter had impressed on the men to be quiet, it seemed as he described later that a herd of elephants was rumbling through the woods. Around 2300 they reached the edge of the woods. They had to became more cautious, since they were now in the open field. Here the Dutch guides left and the airbornes were on their own. At 0030 they reached the road Renkum-Wageningen and now only the foreland of the river was their last obstacle. The last 200 meters were covered crawling: point 'Digby' was situated between two German posts.

The forces on the other side of the river which were awaiting the signal of the airbornes belonged to the 101st Airborne Division. Together with the 82nd Airborne Division they were still under the command of XXX Corps, and the 'Screaming Eagles' were now defending the south bank of the lower Rhine between Opheusden and Driel. The 506th Regiment was stationed in the area where the crossing would take place and 1st Lieutenant Fred T. Heyliger, commander of Company E of the 2nd Battalion, was responsible for the rescue operation. For several days the 40 mm Bofors guns had been firing across the river, so that the Germans wouldn't suspect anything when the actual crossing would take place. Furthermore, strong fighting patrols had been send in order to dominate the north bank in the area. On both sides of the crossing point at the southern river bank the Americans had machine gun posts and mortars ready to give support if necessary. Also two machine gun teams (15 American paratroopers) would cross the river together with the sappers of the 43rd Wessex Division. All together 23 canvas boats were available. At 2300 the soldiers who would make the crossing had assembled and at 0030 the British artillery started shelling the high grounds East of Arnhem with phosphorus ammunition. Now the only thing they could do was to wait for the signal.

Tatham-Warter and the other leaders though that they had reached point 'Digby' and flashed the light signals across the river. But after 20 minutes still nothing had happened. It would take another 30 minutes before the Bofors would fire again. The situation was becoming awkward: a group of 150 men was facing enemy positions without any protection. Tatham-Warter already thought that t the boats hadn't made it to the river on time, when suddenly a voice came out the darkness: "Are you people by any chance looking for some boats?", to which Tatham-Warter replied "Well, actually we are". The man was Lieutenant Leo Heaps of the 1st Parachute Battalion, who had reached the Allied line a few weeks ago after escaping from train en route to Germany. Now he was part of the team helping the escape. He and Dobie had seen a weak signal on the east site of point 'Digby' and decided to take a closer look, gladly to find the airborne party. Heaps took them to point 'Digby' and signalled towards the other river banks. Soon the boats appeared. After three crossings all men where safe on the other side. A white tape across the field brought them to HQ of the American battalion. Here trucks and jeeps were ready to take the men to Nijmegen for a well deserved rest.

Operation 'Pegasus' was a complete success: 138 men made it to Allied lines. Mostly British airborne soldiers, but also a number of British and American aircrew, Dutch patriots, one 82nd US airborne man and one Russian.

On 23 October Brigadier Lathbury transmitted the following message via the BBC:

" Message for Bill.  Everything is well,  All our thanks ....."


Recruiting OfficeAttached Units Photo TV Event InfoAirborne HistoryOperations 1941-1945Armoury & Transport