Lest we forget: Exclusive interview for Timeless Travels with WWII veteran, Colonel John Waddy
John Waddy was a Captain in the 1st Parachute Regiment when he was wounded taking part in Operation Market Garden. Here the 99-year-old veteran discusses the war, life as a POW and being an advisor to Richard Attenborough.
by Fiona Richards
Above: Colonel John Waddy at a commemorative event in the Netherlands
Colonel John Waddy joined his family’s regiment, The Somerset Light Infantry and was posted in July 1939 to the 2nd Battalion, then serving in India, at the age of 19. After nearly two years soldiering in the Raj, and keen for more adventure, he volunteered for the 151 British Parachute Battalion (later renumbered as 156) which was established in India in 1941.
As one of the founding officers, they trained in Egypt, Tunisia and Palestine before seeing action in Italy. He commanded B Coy 156 Bn at Arnhem, where he was wounded in fighting at Johanna Hoeve woods in September 1944. He was subsequently wounded twice more while at a Main Dressing Station and eventually taken prisoner. In Spring 1945 he was liberated by General Patton’s army from Stalag VIIA in Bavaria.
He then spent nearly three years in Palestine combating the Jewish terrorist threat where he was wounded again in July 1947. After some routine postings in the UK, Libya and Egypt he rejoined The Somerset Light Infantry in Malaya in 1952. Lengthy spells patrolling in the Selangor Jungle earned him a Mention in Dispatches.
Above: John Waddy as a young officer in the dessert in WWII
In 1958 the Parachute Regiment was allowed to have a permanent cadre of officers which he volunteered to rejoin, and was accepted and posted as Second in Command of 2 Para, serving with them in Cyprus, Jordan and the UK. He was awarded the OBE in 1962.
In 1964 he was appointed Colonel SAS and commander of the SAS Group (comprising all three SAS Regiments) and in 1976 he took six months’ leave to act as a military adviser for the film A Bridge Too Far directed by Richard Attenborough.
Colonel Waddy talks to Fiona about...
The formation of The Parachute Regiment:
“In the spring of 1940, German parachute troops captured Belgium and Holland with the highly successful use of airborne forces, which fascinated a few officers in the War Office. They managed to get some items of parachute equipment from the Dutch, and brought them back to England, and then more or less, they started inventing a new parachute regiment at an RAF station outside Manchester as a private venture.
“They sent out a round robin to all interested battalions in England asking for volunteers and had the backing of Churchill who had just become Prime Minister. It was the sort of idea that interested him as he was intent on defending England but also looking further ahead to attacking occupied Europe. He wrote a famous memo saying ‘I would like to see a force of 20,000 parachute troops - pray let me have them.’ And it was amazing to set it up from scratch, we had nothing in England, just a gang of enthusiasts! But we ended the war with something like 30-40,000 parachute troops and it spread to America - they caught the bug as well."
About his men of B company
“They were amusing characters, kept me in fits of laughter. A lot of them were Irish. In the early days when we were experimenting, this type of warfare was new and unheard of in the conservative British Army, and in fact we were looked down upon by the rest of the them - we were thought of as thugs who came out of aeroplanes, and not proper soldiers. Even though our standard of training was way above anyone else’s, as we were allowed to select the men we wanted.
“As an officer you did quite a lot of jumps because in those days you were experimenting with different aircraft and different equipment and how to jump with your weapons and equipment on you instead of in containers. So, inevitably the officers had to be the guinea pigs – ‘it wouldn’t have been done, old boy, if you hadn’t done it first’. We also had to demonstrate the equipment was OK. I remember once we were testing how to land with our weapons - hitherto we’d had to have them in containers that were dropped, but sometimes they didn’t drop, or there were bushes on the landing zone and we couldn’t find them.
“So it was important that everybody had to have a weapon and we had to experiment how to drop with a rifle or machine gun. I remember jumping with a light machine gun and a shovel and my rifle in a bag attached to my leg, but somehow when I pulled my cord they became loose and spiralled to the ground, narrowly missing one of my soldiers who swore at me roundly. When I landed alongside him, however, he had the decency to salute and said ‘sorry sir!’"
On the landings of Operation Market Garden
“We were dropped on the correct drop zone, but it was eight miles away from our objective. And this was a typical mistake of so many airborne operations – where do you drop the parachute troops? (Nowadays an operation is not on if you can’t drop the troops close to the objective).
We were dropped on the second day and that was one of the mistakes of the campaign. I’m afraid our Divisional Commander, a good man, who was an experienced infantry soldier but not an airborne one, landed too many non- essential fighting troops on that first day; a lot of the glider troops and HQ troops spent the first 24 hours sitting on their backsides on the landing zones. There were only two under-strength parachute regiments that were sent to the bridge, and only one got there.
“Whereas General Gavin, the American commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, to the south had about eight bridges to capture, and his tactic was to get what, he said, was the maximum number of bayonets to attack and hold the bridges. He used two parachute brigades together to attack each bridge and so they succeeded."
Above: Parachutists rain down at the start of Operation Market Garden
On being wounded
“I thought, once or twice, I might not make it. The second and third times I was injured was when I was in the Medical Corp dressing station in Oosterbeek and we were literally in the midst of the fighting. I was in a Dutch house and the bombs and shells were landing all around us. Suddenly there was a big crash and some German troops would rush through and then ours would rush back. Eventually the Germans took over and they established a firing position in the ruined window of the room I was in. I remember our Medical Officer shouting at them that this was contrary to the Geneva convention, as the Germans had set up a machine gun in the window with a Red Cross flag hanging over it.
“Afterwards when all the wounded were left behind, I was taken to a German-run Dutch hospital in Apeldoorn – it was quite comfortable actually – and I was just dumped on the bed with all I had, which was my battledress jacket and my khaki shirt. I had field dressings all around my head and there were some German SS troops in the ward all nattering away, and because I could speak German, I could understand what they were saying. They believed that we were cousins and we should be fighting together against the Russians.
“Eventually I was put in another ward to the soldiers so I couldn’t instruct them to escape, not that there was a lot of that going on, and in the ward of 18 beds opposite the door of my little room I could hear the German soldiers crying for their mothers in the night and the English soldiers telling them to shut up."
Time in hospital
“I was in hospital for about six weeks and then sent to a ‘hospital’ in Bavaria: Stalag VIIA. It was called a hospital because it had wooden huts. About a week after arriving, a big, blonde German nurse came into my room and said ‘your soldiers are being disrespectful to the Führer’. I found out there had been a big ward of 24 beds with both German and British soldiers together. One day, one of our soldiers got out of bed and turned over a picture of Hitler to the wall saying ‘I can’t stand looking at that bastard any more’, and some of the German soldiers clapped!"
Above: British paratroopers fighting in Oosterbeek
Life in the POW camp
“Our Stalag was for other ranks of all nationalities, including 15,000 Russians, 5,000 French and 5,000 British and a small compound with 30 officers who had been captured in Greece and Yugoslavia during special operations. As the Germans retreated, they moved the prisoners further south as they wanted to use them as potential hostages, so our small bunch of ex-airborne officers now were joined by officers that had been captured at Dunkirk. While prisoners, they had been allowed to have their uniforms and clothes sent out. So they were in full service dress with shiny brass buttons and Sam Brownes, while I had been captured with only my battle jacket and khaki shirt and wore scrounged trousers etc from the French and Americans.
Our little hut of about 35 officers came under the command of a Colonel in the Welsh Guards who had been at Dunkirk. After roll call with the Germans, they would hand over to the senior British officers to dismiss the parade. Our hut was told to stand by as everyone else was dismissed and the Colonel came over to us and said ‘I am absolutely appalled at the standard of your turnout’. The New Zealand officer behind me just told him where to go.
“I was in camp for 3 months. As soon as I arrived in early December, the Swiss Red Cross interviewed me, took my particulars and told my parents I was alive. They received the message on Christmas Eve – they had previously been told I was dead.
“Conditions in the camp were very difficult and after the war the Camp Commandant was convicted of war crimes for killing Russian prisoners. The Russian prisoners were starving and they had stolen some meat and hidden it underneath the floor of their hut. One of the guard dogs found the meat so they killed the dog. In future, when ‘testing’ a new guard dog, the Commandant would take Russian prisoners out of the camp and let the dogs chase and kill them."
Above: Russian POWs in a camp in Germany
On being liberated
“Just before we were liberated, we knew that the Americans were nearby, as we’d heard on our secret radio and late one evening we could hear artillery fire a few miles away. The next morning the Germans were starting to relax, so we didn’t have to go into the huts and we could hear the battle about five miles away.
“Therefore we were all outside to see the American tanks come over the hill and roar past our camp and about an hour later on the church tower in the nearby German village, we saw the American flag raised. I was standing behind an American Air Force officer at the time (dressed in pink shorts, no idea why), when he saw the flag on the church clock tower and exclaimed ‘kiss my naked ass!’
“When we were liberated, all the Dunkirk officers tried to take command and issued orders saying that no one could leave camp and if they did so they would be court-marshalled.
“But we six Airborne officers found a little trolley that the Germans used to move potatoes about and walked out of the camp. A Dunkirk officer at the gate tried to stop us but we said we are airborne troops and we’d just got information on our secret wireless that the RAF are going to drop supplies over the hill. ‘Oh good’ he said and so off we went, dumping our little wagon about half a mile away and then we carried on to the local village and took over the pub, asking the woman running it for beer, bed and a bath.
“We were in pub for five or six days! The Russian prisoners were out looting and getting their own back. But eventually we heard we were leaving and were taken in American trucks to the American airfield where there were Dakotas waiting for us.
“We flew to Reims, and were dumped there, but the Americans looked after us, put up tents and gave us food and we were told that the RAF would come and get us the next day. But the next day was D-Day and so the whole of Bomber Command were drunk! So a day later 80-90 Lancaster bombers came to get us and we had to squash 30 people into the bombers. I sat in the mid-upper turret and it was a lovely May day. I saw the white cliffs and clambered down and told the Dunkirk chaps they must see them but they weren’t interested.
“We had been given such a tremendous reception by the Americans when they liberated us, but my friend predicted when we arrived in England we would be given a packet of Woodbines and a cup of stewed tea – and we were. But it was home.
“The British had set up camps to receive ex POWs and we all went to the camp cinema and the chap on the stage said ‘we will send you out of here properly dressed, but you have to go through 18 stages first.’ We were all dressed like gypsies and four hours later I came back with back pay, advance pay, battle dress and so forth. It was about 8pm at night when we finished, so my friend and I spent the night going around London. Every bar was full of Americans and British and the drink was flowing."
Above: John Waddy on the set of a Bridge too far with Richard Attenborough
As an advisor on the film, A Bridge Too Far
“I do NOT recommend that film - it turned out to be an American film for American audiences. I was military advisor, but neither I, nor Richard Attenborough, were allowed to alter one word of the script. I did try to change one big scene, the one with Robert Redford capturing Nijmegen bridge (rather than a sergeant in the Grenadier Guards). A message came back from New York: ‘Tell the Colonel I make movies for money, not history. Besides I’m paying Redford three million bucks’. Redford was only with us for three days! Richard was very good to work with, although we disagreed about Ghandi."
Read the story of the founder of the initiatives Liberation Route Europe and Europe Remembers, Jurriaan de Mol, designed to ensure the stories of WWII are not forgotten.
Twenty nine years earlier, Nicholas de Mol had knocked on the same door but in a very different state. Starving and nearly freezing to death, he had escaped three days earlier from a labour camp in Hamburg
This interview was first published in the Summer 2019 edition of Timeless Travels magazine.
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