Obituary: Maj-Gen John Frost

Max Arthur
Sunday 18 September 2011 17:30
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John Dutton Frost, army officer: born 31 December 1912; MC 1942; DSO 1943, and Bar 1945; CB 1964; married 1947 Jean MacGregor Lyle (one son, one daughter); died 21 May 1993.

FROM an early age John Frost became familiar with the sound of gunfire. In India when he was only three weeks old his father shot and killed a snake that was crawling up the side of his cot. When he was eight the train on which he and his governess were travelling to Baghdad was attacked by mounted men firing at the gallop. The boy found this most exciting and was delighted to see how it terrified his governess.

While his father was serving in Iraq John was taught by an Arab groom who realised that he had a natural instinct for horses. By the age of nine the future master of foxhounds was riding with a pack of salukis chasing jackal.

John Frost was born in Poona in 1912, the son of Brigadier FD Frost MC. In 1921 he was brought to England for his prep-school education. He spent most of his holidays with uncles or aunts before going on to Wellington, and later to Monkton Coombe. After two years at Sandhurst, where he not only learned to box, but re-learned to ride, he was commissioned into the Cameronians. Like many young officers in the Thirties, he enjoyed - outside the annual manoeuvres and dealing with minor difficulties in Palestine - shooting, fishing, riding and playing golf.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Frost was in the Syrian Desert seconded to the Iraq Levies. He became increasingly frustrated about not being involved in the real fighting. His friends around him put pressure on authority and he was returned to England, but not before a leaving party presented him with a copper hunting horn and not before his clerk, Mr Sethi, put before him a paper concerning the proposed establishment of a parachute regiment. Frost said to Sethi, 'You don't suppose I would ever want to get mixed up with that kind of thing, do you?' To which Sethi grinned and replied, 'You never know, all that is to come.'

Frost found himself far from the heat of action guarding the beach defences along the coast of Suffolk. One evening after a solitary walk he was handed a letter. The War Office was looking for volunteers for Special Air Service. He had little idea what it meant, but assumed it would have something to do with Commandos, and therefore action. Ten days later he was training at Hardwick Hall and was soon to be Adjutant of the 2nd Parachute Battalion. After completing five jumps in three days he gained his wings and was given the command of C Company. Sethi's prophecy had been fulfilled.

A few days later he was ordered to prepare his company for an airborne drop into France. On 27 February 1942 C Company, led by Frost, dropped into Bruneval and after a short fight captured the components of a vital radar unit before being picked up by the Navy. It was a short, sharp, highly successful operation for which C Company received a hero's welcome in the Solent with Spitfires dipping their wings overhead and naval vessels playing 'Rule Britannia'. The raid had been carried out when the country's fortunes had been at a low ebb. Singapore had recently fallen and the beleaguered German battleships had escaped up the Channel. Frost was called to Downing Street to relate his experiences to a delighted Churchill.

In October 1942, after a short spell as the second in command of the 3rd Battalion, Frost returned to his old unit, who, with the remainder of the 1st Parachute Brigade, were preparing for North Africa. His commanding officer became increasingly unwell and was actually put ashore just before the troopship set sail. Overnight Frost took command.

His first operation in North Africa was to drop with his battalion and destroy enemy aircraft on an airstrip at Oudna. When he reached the airstrip he found no aircraft, only six heavy tanks. He was immediately attacked by them and from the air and lost more men the following morning when attacked by well-supported infantry. Leaving a platoon behind to look after the seriously wounded he blew his hunting horn and withdrew across bleak terrain to Medjez. Only 160 of his men survived. His anger was increased when he was told later that his battalion had drawn off a lot of the enemy from a major battle elsewhere. In later years, even considering Arnhem, he was to regard withdrawing '2 Para' from that nightmare situation as possibly the best thing he ever did.

Soon after, at Tamera, 2 Para came under intense artillery bombardment followed by an infantry onslaught. But renewed in spirit they repulsed the attack, which at one point had enveloped C Company. Reinforcements were sent from the 1st and 3rd Battalion and narrowly missed capturing the German parachute commander, Witzig. The battle for Tamera was over. During its four months in North Africa the brigade had fought almost non-stop and had suffered 1,700 casualties. On the train journey back to Algiers they passed a large prisoner-of-war camp. The German prisoners recognised the paras' berets and ran to the wire shouting 'Der rote Teufel' ('the red devils'). The legend of the Paras had begun.

The following summer, Frost commanded 2 Para in Sicily, where he captured the high ground south of the river Simeto while other airborne units captured the Primosole Bridge. Frost was not happy in Sicily. Due to bad weather and careless navigation the airborne troops had been dropped all over the island. He also thought the 1st Parachute Brigade should have been part of the 8th Army's advance on Catania, but it was shipped back to North Africa. After a comparatively short time in Italy with the 1st Parachute Brigade he returned to England, where the 2nd Battalion were housed at Stoke Rochford, near Grantham.

After the success of the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy the British Army was on the crest of a wave - it was important to keep the momentum going and to drive the Germans from the occupied countries of Europe. Many tasks were found for the 1st Parachute Brigade but none came to reality until Operation 'Market Garden'. Frost and the other brigade commanders were told on 15 September to prepare themselves for an offensive which had the ultimate aim of surrounding the Ruhr and thus making it impossible for the Germans to continue the war. The Allied Airborne were to lay an airborne 'carpet' over which XXX Corps of the 2nd British Army would ride at great speed. The vital points to be captured and held were the road bridges across the rivers Maas, Waal and Lower Rhine. 1st Airborne were assigned the three bridges at Arnhem, with Frost's 2nd Battalion given the task of taking the pontoon, railway and road bridge and then forming a close bridgehead garrison.

Shortly before take-off Frost learned that the pontoon bridge had been dismantled. His main concern however was that they were to be dropped eight miles from their objective, therefore taking away the crucial element of surprise. In addition to this the RAF were only prepared to carry out one drop each day which meant that men had to be left to guard the drop zones instead of being in the van of the attack. To offset the bad news Frost had been reassured that the enemy, such as it was, consisted of no more than lightly armed SS recruits.

So confident was Frost of an early success he had his batman load his shotgun and golf clubs. After a leisurely breakfast they set out on a clear, fine, cloudless day. On the drop zone they met little resistance and moved towards Oosterbeek - no easy task, as it seemed the entire Dutch population had come out to welcome their liberators. Frost detached C Company to deal with the railway bridge, but when they were halfway across it was blown up. Frost began to realise the basic mistake of dropping airborne troops on the far side of the river when you need to have them on both. He also realised, as his men met considerable resistance, that the Germans were better prepared than he had been led to believe.

By the time 2 Para arrived at the main road bridge it was barely light, but they quickly occupied the buildings on the south side. Having established themselves and their HQ, Frost ordered a platoon to move across the bridge but they were forcefully attacked by an armoured vehicle at the north end and from a pillbox. As they overcame the pillbox with a flame-thrower and moved forward again, German lorries came towards them. These were brought to a halt near the flaming pillbox and caught fire themselves.

Frost sought alternative ways of crossing the river, but his chief engineer told him that there was no way across the pontoon or railway bridge and no suitable barges or boats could be found. Frost then determined to make a tight perimeter and hold on until XXX Corps reached them from the south. At dawn the next day Frost was surprised to see a column of armoured vehicles of the 9th SS crossing the bridge. He had received no information that they were in the area. Although this attack was repulsed, the German infantry now began to open up on Frost's positions close to the bridge. The battle to hold Arnhem Bridge was now intense. Only C Company of the 3rd Battalion and stragglers from other airborne units were reaching the bridge, but the Germans were now being reinforced by the hour. The situation was desperate: both water and ammunition were running low, and German prisoners were found on interrogation to be members of the elite 2nd SS Panzer Corps resting and refitting in the area. British intelligence had failed.

Frost constantly moved between his men, still confidently expecting XXX Corps to arrive any moment. Although freshly landed airborne battalions were fighting their way to him Frost was isolated at the bridge and the remainder of the division were stretched from Oosterbeek back to the drop zone. That night heavy tanks began to cross the bridge, blasting huge holes in the walls of the houses, but outstanding work by the gunners of the Anti-Tank Battery, often getting within feet of the tanks, drove them off.

At last Frost made contact with General Urquhart, who had gone missing for the first 36 hours of the battle, but he could give no news of the whereabouts of XXX Corps.

The wounded in the cellars were now lying on top of each other. While Frost was considering the situation he was hit and wounded in both legs. Frost emphasised that it was essential to hang on in case the Polish Airborne Brigade could get across the river or XXX Corps arrive. But on the fourth night after heavy shelling the Brigade HQ caught fire. The battalion doctor told Frost that there was no chance of putting out the fire and that the 200 wounded would burn to death. As Frost's men had by now almost ceased fighting, through lack of ammunition, he had no option but to agree to ask the Germans for a truce. Once this had been accepted then everyone, including the SS, laboured to evacuate the wounded.

Frost was taken to a prisoner-of- war camp. Many of the airborne forces continued to fight for another five days and, although some managed to escape, most were taken prisoner. It was a sad end to the operation and a grievous blow for the Dutch. The fatal casualties were nearly 2,000, of which 456 were never identified. Frost said later, 'No body of men could have fought more courageously or tenaciously than the officers and men of the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem.'

After the war Frost returned to command 2 Para, this time in Palestine, where there were problems of internal security, which was not a situation that he enjoyed. In 1947 he attended Staff College at Camberley. He became GSO 2 at the HQ of the Lowlands Division before going on to Senior Officer School. In the early 1950s he served in Malaya during the emergency. He was appointed Commandant of the Support Weapon Wing in 1955, where he found the opportunity to take up polo again (Frost was one of the comedian Jimmy Edwards's polo team which won the Ruins Cup at Cowdray Park). In 1958 he returned to the Airborne Forces to take over 44 Parachute Brigade TA for three years. From 1961 to 1964 he was GOC of the 52nd Lowland Division before taking over as GOC Malta and Libya, where he played a lot of polo and learned much of politics. At the end of this period of service he was surprised to be told by the Army Council that they could not see their way to employing him further. John Frost left the army and became a successful farmer.

But Arnhem always remained with him. In 1976 Richard Attenborough made A Bridge Too Far, which starred Anthony Hopkins as Frost. Attenborough invited Frost to the studios to see a preview. When he arrived he found to his surprise Eamonn Andrews with his 'Red Book'. Among the many guests was Colonel Witzig, whom Frost had narrowly missed capturing. In 1977 the Dutch honoured Frost by naming the road- bridge at Arnhem after him. His first book, A Drop Too Many (1980), recalls his military experiences and is particularly critical of the thinking behind Operation Market Garden. His next book, Two Para - Falklands (1983), gives a good account of his old battalion's actions in that short campaign. His last, Nearly There (1992), covers his full life and well demonstrates his bulldog nature.

After a good evening and one or two whiskies together, I asked him if he had ever prayed at Arnhem. He replied, 'Pray? What, let the enemy see me on my knees - NEVER]'

(Photograph omitted)

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