Para makes a last jump over Arnhem, aged 83 and blind

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The Independent Online

Ray Sheriff will make his last parachute jump at Arnhem this weekend. His wife, Betty, is relieved. She feels that, at 83, it is time for him to fold away his wings. He accepts that the old bones are getting brittle and that, being blind, he always runs an added risk of injury.

Ray Sheriff will make his last parachute jump at Arnhem this weekend. His wife, Betty, is relieved. She feels that, at 83, it is time for him to fold away his wings. He accepts that the old bones are getting brittle and that, being blind, he always runs an added risk of injury.

Corporal Sheriff, of the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, lost his sight during the battle at Arnhem. Three days later he was shot in the leg and taken prisoner. He was then 24.

Mr Sheriff made his first jump after the war at the age of 70 just to find out whether he could do it. Since then, he has jumped every year with fellow Arnhem veterans on the anniversary of the battle to raise money for charity, the only blind person to do so. The group of 64 has dwindled to 10, and the remaining members have decided to call it a day after this time.

Arnhem was one of the most spectacular Allied operations of the war, with waves of troops sweeping in on parachutes and gliders. It was also one of the most disastrous, with 7,600 of the 10,300 killed - a higher casualty rate than the D-Day landings. The plan was to seize crossings over the rivers Maas Waal and lower Rhine, allowing the 30th Corps tanks to drive into north Germany and allow Field Marshal Montgomery to steal a march on US General Patton.

It was executed with faulty intelligence and inflexible, incompetent strategy. Three airborne divisions, one British and two Americans, were dropped into the jaws of two Panzer divisions at Arnhem. After 10 days of fighting, Allied troops were ordered to withdraw. It really had been a bridge too far.

Corporal Sheriff had already seen plenty of action in north Africa and Italy. But he has no regrets about going to fight: "We were defending our country. We were fighting Nazis, racists. I believe it was the right thing to do, it was a just war - if there is any such thing."

The same cannot be said, he thinks, about the war in Iraq. "I have the utmost respect for [the soldiers'] courage and their professionalism," he said. "I also feel terribly sorry for those who died or were wounded, and also for the poor civilians.

"I do not believe there is any justification for this war. Iraq now seems to be in a much worse state than before the invasion. It seems they simply did not prepare for the aftermath. I also believe that Tony Blair misled us about these weapons of mass destruction. Some of us who fought in the Second World War learnt to understand how precious life is. It is sad to see it being thrown away in Iraq."

Mr Sheriff vividly recalls the carnage of Arnhem. "We realised what a cock-up it was pretty soon. It started with the RAF bombing a mental hospital because they were told it was a German camp. When the real Germans came across us, they threw everything at us - tank shells, mortars, flame-throwers, you name it. We did not have the firepower to match them.

"Of course I remember losing my sight. I was told to lead some guys up into some woods from where we were getting a lot of flak. I was carrying a Bren gun and there was this almighty explosion. I rolled over and then it was as if someone had thrown a lot of grit into my eyes. I rubbed them, apparently that was a mistake, because then a lot of blood started pouring out. Very tiny fragments of shrapnel had gone in, and the funny thing is some of it comes out even now after all these years."

Cpl Sheriff was led back towards the British line, which was attacked again, and he was hit in the right leg by a bullet. He was then taken to a hospital in Arnhem, which changed hands between the British and the Germans three times.

"I was taken prisoner and taken to Utrecht. I was seen by a Dutch eye specialist, Professor Weber, who happened to be one of the leading authorities in the world. He didn't mess around. He just said to me that my optic nerves were severed and I would never see again. I just thought, 'God, this is going to be so inconvenient'."

Apart from being punched by a 14-year-old Hitler Youth memberfor making a comment about Nazis, Mr Sherrif says he was treated well. "The next time I got hit was by a tin of jam. It was friendly fire. We were being liberated from a stalag near Hamburg, and the British soldiers coming in were throwing packets of tea, cigarettes, jam, all kinds of things. Obviously we just felt a huge sense of relief. It was time to go home."

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