Heroes Return Blog – Stories from Second World War veterans’ trips

Fred Knapp’s story…

Fred Knapp, 84, from Neyland, Pembrokeshire went to Arnhem in September to revisit the site of one of the most daring wartime operations – to free the occupied territories of Europe from the clutches of Nazi Germany.

September 2009 marked the 65th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, a planned military thrust by the Allied Forces in Holland, which aimed to bring an end to war in Europe by Christmas 1944.

On 17 September 1944, thousands of paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines near the Dutch towns of Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem. The aim was to secure eight key bridges so that the Allied army could advance rapidly northwards, turn right into the lowlands of Germany and bring an end to the war.

After 10 days of bitter fighting, the operation ended with the evacuation of the remainder of the 1st British Airborne Division from the Arnhem area.

In 1944, Private Fred Knapp was a keen 19-year old member of the 11th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. He was among the second wave of paratroops dropped into an area eight miles from Arnhem where the Allies were desperately trying to hold the vital road bridge made famous by the film, A Bridge Too Far.

“As we floated down from the transport aircraft,” recalls Fred, “we found ourselves being fired at by German troops from the nearby woods.

“Bullets were flying around us and we were completely helpless. Our kit bags were suspended below us on a rope and they contained everything we needed to go into battle, including our rifles.

“As I neared the bottom of my descent, suddenly a bullet cut through the rope and I lost the bag and my rifle so when I hit the ground I had nothing to fight with. But I stumbled across a Sten gun and I was able to shoot back.”

Gradually, the paratroops got together and fought back so effectively that the group managed to capture a number of Germans. Then came an astonishing 10 days of grim fighting to defend an ever-decreasing perimeter from the encircling Germans.

“Even though the Dutch Resistance had warned of strong German SS units in the area, the landings went ahead,” Fred says. “Things were very difficult. Our radio operators told us they had been issued with the wrong crystals for the radio receiver, so were unable to communicate with either HQ in England or the troops fighting at the bridge. It was a bit of a hash up to be honest.”

Under mortar and machine gun fire, the Paras were frustrated when RAF supply drops fell into enemy hands.

“Things were going badly wrong and we were running out of everything.

Finally, we were ordered to make our way to the river. In the fog and the darkness, white tapes had been laid to guide us to a section of the river bank where an evacuation was to be attempted.

“By the time I got there, it was getting light and the Germans threw everything at us. There were just a few flimsy boats left and we were out of ammunition so we had no option but to surrender.” It was the end of the fighting for Fred, but only the beginning of nine long months in captivity following a gruelling journey to the south of Germany.

That period came to a somewhat surreal end on 8 May 1945 – Victory in Europe Day – when the group walked out of their prison camp and into a town full of Russian troops. But soon afterwards, they found an American unit and were on their way home.

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