Arnhem remembered: 66 years on
SIXTY six years ago Frank Ashleigh was holed up in the roof of a small church in Oosterbeek, near Arnhem, in the Netherlands.
He was surrounded by German troops and armed only with the little ammunition he could carry when he left his military base at the Hartenstein Hotel.
For three days and nights Frank and his two comrades kept a constant vigil, taking it in shifts to fire on enemy troops.
Frank said: “We continued firing down on them in shifts for the next three days. We always tried to wound the men rather than kill them. Killing a man only takes out one person, but wounding takes out three – him and the two that stretcher him away.”
On the third day tragedy struck. One of the men was shot in the stomach. Grievously wounded, bleeding profusely, and all out of options he staggered down the winding stairs and gave himself up to the German troops.
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Within a few hours Frank and his fellow remaining pilot were captured by German troops.
Now a grandfather of three living in Wyndale Avenue in Kingsbury, Frank, who is Jewish, said: “We looked out of the window and all we could see were Germans, so we opened fire.
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“We were in the organ loft when one of the men I was with was shot, in the shock of it all he told the Germans where we were hiding, and they came up to get us.
“They led us away for interrogation and then put us in solitary confinement.
“That was the last I saw of both of them. I don’t know if they survived the war.”
Frank was one of nearly 20,000 glider pilots and paratroops who landed behind enemy lines in Arnhem from September 18 to 19, in 1944.
They were there to capture a strategically important bridge which controlled routes into the Ruhr where most of the German wartime production took place.
But the allied forces met unexpected resistance, and the battle became one of the bloodiest of the Second World War.
More than 1,500 troops were killed and many thousands more were captured and sent to Prisoner of War camps (POW). Frank was one of the latter.
His destination was camp Stalag Luft 7, where prisoners were malnourished, and Frank’s weight dropped to just 6st. He is 5ft 10 ins tall.
“In the camp you learned to go into a trance like state. We lived from minute to minute,” he said.
“It had crossed my mind to try and escape but the army was clear that we shouldn’t.”
Frank had been at the camp a few months when news came that allied forces were advancing fast.
In a last ditch effort to escape the advance, the Germans ordered all 800 or so prisoners at the camp out of their huts and marched them through sub zero weather to the far larger Breslov POW camp.
Half starved and weak from war, many did not survive the journey. Prisoners’ pleas to bury their fallen comrades were ignored, and their bodies were unceremoniously dumped – a stark testament to the savageries of war.
But no matter how horrific the conditions of his detainment, Frank remembers that Russian prisoners faired far worse.
He said: “The Russians weren’t protected by the Geneva conventions and they were literally starving. They were nothing but skin and bone. It was truly appalling.”
A few days after Frank arrived at the camp Russian soldiers liberated it.
He said: “The Russian troops were superb as fighting men. They captured the commandant, he didn’t last long.
“The other guards had run away, they knew it was only a matter of days.”
While Frank survived, others didn’t. His close friend and fellow glider pilot, Lofty Cummins was one of the thousands who lost his life.
“I know he was later killed in action. He was a lovely man and we got on like a house on fire. I always go to his grave when I visit Arnhem. I hope he is sleeping well.”
Frank’s Jewish faith would have marked him out for persecution across Europe, but as a prisoner during those final wartime months he insists the Germans did not single him out for poor treatment. The game was up.
“The Germans knew I was Jewish but they never treated me any different. And it was only afterwards that we knew about the horrors of the concentration camp.
“There had been rumours, but we didn’t know what they had done,” he said.
For many years after the war Frank never spoke about his experiences. By his own admission he hoped that if he ignored it the memories would fade away.
But for the past 15 years he has talked more freely about what he saw during those fateful months in Arnhem, and every year he attends the memorial service there.
This is the first year in more than a decade that Frank won’t be standing side by side his comrades remembering those who were lost in the battle, as he has stayed at home to mark Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
But while hundreds of miles separate him from his fellow glider pilots, his thoughts will be with them.
“I met the finest body of men we have ever had during that battle. I don’t feel any anger looking back on those months, it was war.”