Ten airborne veterans descend on Arnhem for last hurrah

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The Independent Online

At 10.02 on a windy morning of hazy sunshine 10 parachutes floated down over Arnhem - the last hurrah from veterans of a devastating defeat, but a battle that has also become synonymous with courage and sacrifice.

At 10.02 on a windy morning of hazy sunshine 10 parachutes floated down over Arnhem - the last hurrah from veterans of a devastating defeat, but a battle that has also become synonymous with courage and sacrifice.

In the autumn of 1944 waves of troops sailed into the same Dutch fields on parachutes and gliders. They also landed into the gun sights of two waiting German Panzer divisions. Out of 10,300 British airborne troops who came, 7,600 were killed or captured - a heavier casualty rate than during the D-Day landings.

After days of ferocious fighting, the main target, the river crossing at Rijn - the "bridge too far" - could not be held. The Allied forces were ordered to withdraw.

Yesterday's 60th anniversary of the battle is the last many of the veterans will attend. Sixty thousand people, one of the biggest attendances ever, turned up for the parachute drop at Ginkelse Heide. Among them was General Sir Mike Jackson, the Chief of General Staff, himself a paratrooper. The Prince of Wales arrived for a commemoration service at the military cemetery today.

Tom Hicks, the oldest of the parachutists at 85, insisted he was full of energy after plummeting 10,200ft at 120 miles per hour. "This is always a great event and one has a buzz. Tomorrow will be very sad when I look at the graves, all my mates who fell," said Mr Hicks, from Barnsley, Yorkshire. Out of his unit of 125 only three escaped being killed, injured or captured. He was wounded by shrapnel twice and taken prisoner. "We weren't expecting what hit us; you can't fight tanks with Sten guns. I saw people die around me, and at the end I was cut off and got captured."

The young sapper of 25 was full of anger towards the enemy, and then he found himself lying in hospital next to a young German soldier. "He was in the SS, but I could not hate him. He was just 18, and in terrible pain. He was saying 'Wasser, Wasser' so I gave him a little drink, and held his hand. Next day a German officer came in, asked my name, and said to me: 'For you, Tommy, the war is over.' Yes, he actually did say that!"

Ray Sheriff was one of the younger parachutists yesterday at 83. He is the only blind veteran who has been taking part in the annual jumps to raise money for charity. He was 24 when he lost his sight at Arnhem. Three days later he was shotand captured. "We were pinned down by heavy fire. Suddenly there was an explosion and I got bowled over. It was as if someone had thrown a lot of grit into my eyes. I rubbed my eyes, and blood came pouring out. It was shrapnel."

Comrades of Mr Sheriff speak of his courage and how he asked for others to receive medical treatment before him. He waved that off. "When I left the Army feeling a bit helpless, St Dunstan's, who help blind ex-servicemen, helped put me back on my feet. Raising money with these jumps is just our way of thanking others."

ONE VETERAN'S STORY

Les Lockett, 83, was a 23-year-old clerk in "C" company of 156th Battalion when he parachuted into the woods around Arnhem on 18 September 1944.

Mr Lockett was shot during the jump but landed safely. "[The Germans] were down there waiting for us," he said. While seeking treatment he lost contact with his comrades. After searching for four days he was injured in a mortar attack and taken to a German casualty station. "The floor was covered with us and amputations were going on. It was horrible. One English guy with burns was crying all night. A German with a bullet through his neck was in a hell of a state but never made a murmur. That's the way it goes."

He was taken to Germany in a cattle truck, before being liberated by the Americans and flown to Aylesbury via Brussels. "From my battalion, 854 dropped in and I've heard only 27 returned."

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