Unlikely hero of Arnhem

Living History

In a new book about 12,000 heroes, 90-year-old Peter Clarke expresses surprise to find himself on the first page. But an hour in his company reveals just why this softly spoken former solicitor, who has settled near the River Thames in Abingdon, is there as he recalls being on the banks of another river, the Lower Rhine in the Netherlands.

Mr Clarke does not claim to have the best memory. Nor, as a devout Christian, did he ever view himself as being an effective fighter relishing a struggle for survival against crack German troops.

In fact, he readily points out, that he could never count himself as battle hardened, with his direct experience of fighting limited to just a few days in Holland in September 1944.

But those few days were spent at Arnhem, where 1,500 died and 6,000 taken prisoner. And as a new account of the battle for Arnhem Bridge — based on the dramatic accounts of those who were there — reveals, heroism in this bold but ultimately doomed bid to bring the war to a speedy end came in many forms.

Mr Clarke, of Eason Drive, Abingdon, was one of the glider pilots charged with ferrying a shock force of British troops behind German lines, close to the German border, to capture and hold its vital bridge over the Rhine.

But what was meant to be an audacious masterstroke to end the war went wrong, with reinforcements failing to arrive.

What became of Mr Clarke and the isolated airborne forces, surrounded and outgunned, is the subject of Arnhem: The Battle For Survival by historian and journalist Tony Rennell and John Nichol, a former RAF flight lieutenant, whose Tornado was shot down on a mission over Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991.

At Arnhem and in Oosterbeek, they tell us: “Every street was a war zone, every stand of trees a fortress. Every inch was contested; casualties were enormous, on both sides. But in the furnace a legend was forged — of bravery and endurance far beyond the simple call of duty.”

How Peter Clarke, as a 23-year-old staff sergeant, found himself in such a furnace is a fascinating story in itself — presenting the dilemma facing a man with a Christian belief, who had a desire to play a part in defeating Nazism.

Mr Clarke had been training to become a solicitor before the outbreak of war and was a dedicated member of the Crusaders Bible Class in Croydon.

“I joined the Field Ambulance with about half a dozen friends from the Bible class. At the time the decision was taken on conscientious grounds,” Mr Clarke told me.

Unable to go to France with the Field Ambulance because he was under 19, he provided medical services to anti-aircraft batteries in Gravesend. before being “loaned” to RAF medical services in Kent.

But he had always wanted to fly.

He said: “My mother had not been keen on me joining the RAF because she thought it too dangerous. In those days we took notice of what our mothers said.”

After wrestling with his conscience he decided to switch from medic to aircrew and was accepted by the RAF for pilot training, later being diverted to the glider pilot regiment formed in 1942.

“I had learnt to fly Tiger Moths near Swindon and I did my glider flying at Kidlington Airport. People often had to land in the grounds of Blenheim Palace,” he recalled.

After 260 flying hours and 485 flights, Arnhem was to be his first and only mission. “I missed out on the D-Day campaign because my co-pilot went down with glandular fever. So it was an awful lot of training to land one glider in a field,” he now chuckles.

His glider was towed by a Dakota to Arnhem in a three-hour flight from England. With notoriously heavy controls, staying directly behind the tow in the right position above or below the slipstream proved both physically and mentally exhausting.

But once released he made a textbook landing on a harvested field. To his right he was to see another glider hit the top of trees before disintegrating. He recalls the speed with which the mortar platoon in the back left the glider.

“I do not recall having been told in advance who or what we were carrying,” he said.

Only years later did he learn something of the men, of the Border Regiment, whom he had carried to the battle.

He was to spend the first night dug in on the edge of one of the landing zones.

“We were told more gliders would be landing the next morning. In fact they did not come. Instead we were shot up by ME109s.”

Still confident that the bridge would be taken and that he would be returning home within days, he was content to do his bit as an auxiliary soldier. He knew how to handle a rifle but his lack of any infantry exercises meant there were huge gaps in his training.

The next day he was involved in the move south to Oosterbeek.

Dug in again on the edge of a wood with a group armed with rifles and a Sten guns, he was conscious of using his rifle. “I fired but I was never conscious of hitting anybody. We faced mainly mortar fire with a few snipers. There was a very real sense that we might die in that trench.”

Thankfully, a single paratrooper with a Vickers gun allowed the increasingly desperate group to repel light German armour that suddenly appeared.

His limitations as a soldier and reluctance to be involved in any killing, led him to draw on his training as a medic.

“At some point I decided would be better off creating my own little first-aid post,” he recalled.

On his own initiative he set up a base close to the village hotel. He had a few blankets, towels and a little food found in the house but only the most basic first aid equipment. “I had nothing but a few bandages and a few morphine capsules.” He knew how to treat the wounded, though his function was as much that of a padre as a medic.

The wounded began to arrive as the extent of the military disaster began to unfold. “I was only able to do the most simple things, like applying field dressing. It really acted as an interim stop. I mainly worked in the kitchen and the cellar. It was a question of providing the wounded with a temporary safe haven in a building able to withstand mortar attacks. The casualties came to me and then would be evacuated by Jeep to a field hospital.”

Exhausted, working alone and ever fearful of attack, he had no idea how orderlies found his “little house”, as this unofficial first aid post became an official one.

Today he is still unable to estimate the number of men he helped over six days, though he can recall individuals.The glider pilot turned medic was to stay in his post to the bitter end. When he was offered the chance to be evacuated he refused.

“I had four casualties to look after. I was not going to leave them in the lurch.”

They included a man whose injuries had left him paralysed and a glider pilot with a damaged foot.

He stayed with them until a German officer knocked on the door and was to spend the rest of the war as a prisoner in Germany and later Poland, before being forced to march 330 miles in the last weeks of the war to be finally released.

Mr Clarke went on to pursue his legal career. But he was delighted that his youngest daughter Gillian Dean pursued a medical career, becoming an Oxford GP, while his grandson Ben Dean qualified as an orthopaedic surgeon working at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, Oxford.

Mr Clarke continues to return to Arnhem with other veterans each year. He last went in September.

The field where he landed is still farmland, his “little house” still stands and at 90 Mr Clarke, the reluctant war hero, still puts his survival down to his faith.


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