Heroic Harry’s miraculous survival amid carnage of Arnhem 75 years on
- Credit: Archant
As the nation remembers the nine-day epic battle for Arnhem 75 years ago, Steve Snelling pays tribute to a Norwich airman's heroic role and miraculous survival in the brave but disastrous struggle
They were flying low, perilously and selflessly so, their holds filled with supplies of ammunition, food and medical equipment vitally required to rescue an ambitiously conceived operation that was fast unravelling.
Already delayed by bad weather, the crews knew little about the likely strength of enemy opposition, still less that their valiant endeavour was all in vain: that the drop-zones to which they were headed were mostly overrun and all attempts to divert them had failed.
The full realisation wasn't long in coming. "Suddenly," recalled one glider-borne padre, "there was the most awful crescendo of sound and the very air vibrated to a tremendous barrage of guns."
In that shattering moment, faint hope turned to stark horror as the sky erupted in a storm of flak. "All we could do was gaze in stupefaction at our friends going to inevitable death."
One aircraft in particular held their attention. It was a Dakota transport, its starboard wing a writhing mass of fire and smoke that seemed almost to envelop the rear half of the fuselage.
Among those watching helpless on the ground was the airborne operation's awe-struck commander. Major General Roy Urquhart remembered looking on "spellbound and speechless" as the burning aircraft flew through a blizzard of fire not just once but twice in order to complete its mission.
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He later wrote: "I dare say there is not a survivor of Arnhem who will ever forget, or want to forget, the courage we were privileged to witness in those terrible eight minutes."
Seventy-five years on, that extraordinary act of self-sacrifice seems strangely emblematic of the futility and forlorn valour that so characterised one of the most audacious and controversial battles of the Second World War.
But for one Norwich man the last flight of DC-3 KG374 and his remarkable role in Operation Market Garden, the calamitous 'bridge too far' enterprise that was designed to shorten the conflict but merely added to the butcher's bill, was less about symbolism and rather more about the arrows of outrageous fortune.
As far as Harry King was concerned the battle of Arnhem was synonymous not so much with military disaster as miraculous survival which would lead him to be justifiably dubbed "the luckiest man alive".
Harry's flight path to Arnhem and a place among the crew of the most celebrated Dakota engaged in history's most famous airborne operation was a circuitous one.
Born in Leeds on October 17, 1907, the son of a regular soldier from Norwich, he spent almost the first six years of his life in India where his father was serving as a non-commissioned officer in the Royal Artillery.
On retirement the family settled in his father's home city, where Harry attended Angel Road School before eventually following in his father's military footsteps. Enlisting as a teenager in the 18th Hussars in 1926, he served five years, some of it as a member of Britain's Army of Occupation in Germany, until exchanging cavalry life for a new career in the mounted division of the Lancashire Police based at Eccles.
Still serving as a policeman when war broke out in 1939, he was desperate, as a former soldier, to re-enlist and 'do his bit'. But his age - he was 31 at that time and his work - policing was a reserved occupation - were against him and it was only after a prolonged battle, during which he lobbied eminent local citizens, that he succeeded in joining the Royal Air Force.
By then 33, with a receding hairline that made him look even older, he was sent for training to the Air Navigation School in South Africa where he quickly acquired the nickname 'Pop' from fellow students who were mostly at least 10 years' his junior.
Posted to Lyneham in Wiltshire, where he was engaged in flying aircraft to the Middle East, his war continued unspectacularly until January 1944 when he joined 271 Squadron, RAF Transport Command, equipped with Dakotas, ahead of preparations for the Normandy invasion.
Described in a report as "a most capable navigator… eager to improve", he was in the thick of things from the eve of D-Day onwards: helping transport the first wave of paratroopers into France, conducting crucial re-supply operations and evacuating wounded from makeshift landing grounds in the beachhead.
Then, with barely a lull between them, came Arnhem. Officially-styled Operation Market Garden, it involved landing British, American and Polish airborne forces more than 60 miles behind enemy lines with the objective of securing three vital bridgeheads over the rivers Maas, Waal and Lower Rhine ahead of the arrival of ground forces.
The overall aim was to outflank the enemy's fortifications along the so-called Siegfried Line, resulting in the encirclement of the Ruhr, Germany's industrial heartland, and a potentially war-winning thrust deep into Hitler's Reich.
All being well, British airborne forces, faced with the farthest and, therefore, most challenging mission would need to hold the bridge at Arnhem for two days - or three at most - before being relieved.
Tragically, as is amply recorded in books and in film, all did not go well. A combination of poor planning, poor communications and over-confidence meant the operation was doomed to failure even before it began.
By the time Harry King took off on his last, fateful mission shortly after 1pm on Tuesday, September 19, 1944, Market Garden was into its third day and British airborne troops were already fighting a losing battle against overwhelming odds.
Part of a 'maximum effort' re-supply operation, the mission flown by 164 Stirlings and Dakotas was Harry's third sortie to Arnhem in three days and his second as a 'stand-in' navigator aboard KG374.
Chance or mischance had conspired to place him in the crew led by 30-year-old Flight Lieutenant David Lord, already the holder of a Distinguished Flying Cross and one of the most experienced and respected pilots in 271 Squadron.
Just days before the airborne operation was launched and before any plans were confirmed, Lord's regular navigator had gone on leave to get married and Harry had been invited to fill in.
The two had known each other for some time and recognised each other's skills, though Harry frankly admitted that he found Lord, a pre-war regular, something of "a strange fellow".
Years later he told a researcher working for Cornelius Ryan, the American author whose book was the inspiration for Richard Attenborough's star-studded 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far, that Lord had "studied for the ministry, but left a seminary to join the RAF" before saying, rather tellingly, "he was rather a grimly determined chap".
Something of that resolution was apparent during their first sortie when Lord had insisted on 'pressing on regardless' despite a faulty engine to successfully release a glider filled with troops before returning to base with his rear fuselage and tail assembly riddled with flak.
For their second sortie, the crew, composed of Lord, King, 19-year-old second pilot Richard Medhurst, another new addition, and regular wireless operator 'Alec' Ballantyne, were joined by a four-strong team of army despatchers, Corporal Phil Nixon, Drivers Len Harper, James Ricketts and Arthur Rowbotham, whose job was to ensure the smooth release of eight panniers of ammunition.
After a morning's delay waiting in vain for mist and cloud to clear, 17 Dakotas took off from Down Ampney to join the unescorted air armada on a flight path that led across the Channel, Belgium and along the Dutch air corridor to the pre-arranged drop zones on the north-western outskirts of Arnhem.
Hampered by poor visibility, many aircraft, including Lord's, lost formation for a time, relying on Harry's navigation to keep them on track. By the time they started to descend through a swirl of haze into clear skies, they were back among a straggle of transports.
They were barely 10 minutes from the target area and as the sweep of the Lower Rhine came into view King estimated their time of arrival at 3pm.
So far, weather apart, their progress had been unhindered, but any hopes of an easy run-in to the drop zone were about to be violently shattered. Barely four miles out, with the crews straining for a sight of the clearing in the woods little more than half a mile square where they were to release their supplies, the skies were suddenly rent by the combined firepower of five flak batteries which had been rushed from the Ruhr to disrupt the inevitable re-supply operation.
At 900 feet, the transports were so low and so slow as to be little more than target practice for the gunners on the ground and they quickly found their mark.
Among the first to be hit was KG374. According to Harry, the aircraft was struck twice, at least one of the shells starting a fire in the starboard engine. "Everyone OK?" Lord called over the intercom. "How far to the drop zone, Harry?"
"Three minutes' flying time," he replied, but from his position he could see even that was going to be 'touch and go'. The aircraft was already listing badly to the right and losing height fast. Worse than that, flames were spreading rapidly along the wing towards the starboard fuel tanks.
To one airman in a Dakota alongside KG374 it looked like a flying torch. "The flames were pouring way back beyond the tail," he later recalled. "It was an enormous great fire and all the time it was getting worse. I couldn't understand why the pilot didn't try to crash land."
Lord's mind, however, was made up. Harry heard him say, "They need the stuff down there. We'll go in and bail out afterwards. Everyone get your 'chutes on."
Moments later Harry spotted the drop zone. He pointed it out to Lord who replied calmly: "OK, Harry, I can see it. Go back and give them a hand with the baskets."
Harry made his way back, little realising that this final instruction would safe his life. In the account he gave Cornelius Ryan, he spoke of the frantic efforts being made by the army despatchers to fulfil their by now desperate duty.
Flak had damaged the rollers used to move the heavy panniers, forcing them to manhandle them to the door. It would have been an exhausting struggle at the best of times, but in a tilting aircraft teetering on the brink of annihilation it seemed almost impossible.
Yet somehow, they succeeded, taking off their parachutes in spite of the inherent risks, in order to tug the 'baskets' forward and heave them out into the smoke and flame-choked slipstream.
With Harry's help they had managed to despatch six panniers when the red light, indicating that the aircraft had exited the drop zone, flashed. Over the intercom, Harry informed Lord that they still had two more panniers.
By then it seemed to those watching on the ground a near-miracle that the aircraft was still flying with almost the entire lower half of the fuselage and starboard wing enveloped in flames.
But Lord was not finished. "We'll come round again," he announced. "Hang on!" Determined to complete his mission, he made a tight left turn, "handling the ship like a fighter plane" in Harry's words, to fly back over the drop zone at little more than 500 feet.
Beneath them, weary and begrimed troops climbed out of their slit trenches in mesmerised incredulity at what they were witnessing. "We were dead tired and we had little to eat or drink, but I couldn't think of anything but that plane at the moment," recalled one of them. "It was as if it was the only one in the sky."
What final thoughts ran through Lord's mind in those last terrible moments is anyone's guess. Most on the ground, desperate though they were for supplies, were willing the crew to jump before it was too late. Harry, meanwhile, was too busy to think of anything.
"I was trying to help the RASC boys get their 'chutes back on," he said. "The green light flashed and we pushed out our bundles. The next thing I remember is Lord shouting, 'Bail out! Bail out! For God's sake, bail out!"
What followed was something of a blur. In one account Harry had a memory of Alec Ballantyne telling him to lead the way for the despatchers to follow. "These fellows won't go till they see one of us go," he told him. Then, reaching the open door, he turned to see young Dickie Medhurst coming towards him, with his parachute on. They exchanged thumbs-up signs and that was the last he saw of him or any of the others.
The next thing, he recalled, "there was a tremendous explosion and I found myself hurtling through the air". Whether he was pushed or blown out, he could not say for certain though he thought it was the former.
Plummeting earthwards, he reacted fast though his memory of his fall was fuzzy. "I don't remember pulling the ripcord," he said, "but I must have done it instinctively. I landed flat and hard on my back."
He was winded, his uniform was scorched and his shoes were nowhere to be seen, but otherwise he was miraculously unharmed. "I remember looking at my watch," he said, "and seeing it was only nine minutes since we took the flak."
Nine minutes of supreme, almost incomprehensible, valour that cost the lives of seven brave men and which would ultimately be recognised by the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to David Lord.
Harry escaped into a farmyard before joining up with paratroopers with whom he fought until being overrun and taken prisoner a few hours later - some five days before the battle ended and the last airborne survivors were evacuated across the Lower Rhine.
One of more than 6,500 men captured at Arnhem, he returned home to receive the Dutch Bronze Cross and to resume his career as a policeman.
Strangely, there was no similar honour from his own country. But if it rankled, he never spoke of it. His only complaint was the lack of recognition given to the army despatchers. "These men were not volunteers like aircrew," he said, "they received no 'flying pay', yet were, without doubt, superb in their fulfilment of duty even though KG374 was burning for the whole period over the dropping zone."
Ultimately, his greatest reward was 40 more years of life. As the sole survivor of KG374, Harry King lived to see the creation of a KG374 Dakota Memorial at RAF Cosford shortly before his death in 1984.
Today, his ashes lie beside All Saints Church, Down Ampney, a lasting reminder of one of the most gallant missions in RAF history which began just a few hundred yards away on a runway bound for Arnhem and a mission too far.