Remembrance: The bridge too far that one veteran can still not comprehend

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It went down in history as the bridge too far, General Bernard Montgomery’s audacious attempt to bring the Second World War to an early end by taking his troops over the Rhine, through Holland and into Germany.

There were some 15,000 Allied casualties. A little over 75 years later, at home in North Yorkshire, John Jeffries still can not understand why.

John Jeffires, 97,  from Richmond, North Yorkshire.  Picture: Bruce Rollinson

John Jeffires, 97, from Richmond, North Yorkshire. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

His was one of the lucky ones. Shot by the Germans as he parachuted into enemy territory, his war ended in a PoW camp.

“I always get a lump in my throat,” he said. “I think to myself, ‘why?’ What a waste of talent – of lives.”

As a young man of 22, a parachute signaller attached to 156 Battalion, he was one among 10,000 paratroopers dropped over the Dutch town of Arnhem during the campaign known officially as Operation Market Garden. Weighed down by his radio equipment, he was an easy target.

“The Germans had a ring of steel. As I came down, I got shot up the backside by a Jerry down on the ground,” he said.

John Jeffires in younger days

John Jeffires in younger days

“I realised I couldn’t move my leg. It had severed the nerves in my backside and I couldn’t get up off the ground.”

It is a story he has recounted often, but his latest retelling, as he polished his badge and medals ready for the remembrance weekend, is the one that will live for the ages. At 97, and on the 75th anniversary of the Arnhem campaign, he has been recruited by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to contribute to its permanent audio archive of those who claimed back Western Europe in the months after D-Day.

His involvement culminated with his annual visit to the Oosterbeek War Cemetery, just west of Arnhem, where lie the bodies of 1,523 of his comrades.

“Every time I go to certain graves, because I know where certain lads are lying, and I remember,” he said.

“It triggers off my thoughts when I was working in the Signals with them.”

He had volunteered for parachute training because he found life with the Royal Corps of Signals in Africa “a bit boring”.

He recalls the preparations for Operation Market Garden as if they were yesterday.

“We collected our parachutes, we collected our sets. Then we had to carry it across the airfield to the plane and to climb up the rickety steps to get in the plane. And then we all had to sit down on the floor because there were no seats,” Mr Jeffries said.

The weather delayed the operation three times, but when the green light finally went on, spirits were high.

“We had to go over Germany, which was supposedly the shortest route to where we were dropping off. The Germans all along the coast had ack-ack guns and they were popping at us all the time and they were hitting the plane underneath. Any second I thought they’re going to hit that engine and we’re going to come down in the drink.”

It was the largest airborne operation in history, delivering more than 34,000 men of the 101st, 82nd and 1st Airborne Divisions and the Polish Brigade.

But having failed to secure the key bridge at Arnhem, the troops were halted at the Rhine, a setback that probably delayed the eventual Allied victory. Failures in planning and intelligence were blamed. The troops on the ground could not have done more.

Mr Jeffries immortalised his lost comrades in verse. The last stanza reads:

My heart is heavy as I read their name.

And age, so young, so who’s to blame?

There is no answer except to see,

That war has no winners. Peace is the key.

His trips back to Arnhem are funded by the Taxi Charity, a National Lottery-supported organisation formed by taxi drivers who wanted to honour those in the Second World War. It is one of 28,703 National Lottery funded projects for veterans across the UK, which have benefited from £339m since the first draw in 1994. In Yorkshire, nearly 2,000 projects for veterans have received £10m.