Hero glider pilot from Kingsbury unveils WW2 Battle of Arnhem memorial in the Netherlands
PUBLISHED: 16:18 25 September 2018 | UPDATED: 17:09 25 September 2018
“I’ve got thousands of friends, thousands. Anyone you see wearing a maroon beret, you’ll know they are a friend of mine.”
Sergeant Frank Ashleigh’s eyes glisten as he recalls the friends he made, the friends he lost and those he continues to make having been a glider pilot in WW2 until capture by the Germans and months as a prisoner of war.
Last Thursday the 93-year-old left his home in Kingsbury and again returned to the Netherlands to unveil a memorial on Landing Zone X in Renkum, the spot where 74 years ago he and thousands of comrades had alighted and the Battle of Arnhem began.
“I’m honoured to be doing this. I had a paratrooper with me. Everything about it makes me emotional. The ceremony was so warm and friendly.
“In the Netherlands a man in his 20s sees my maroon beret and comes to speak to me. Here (in England) people look at me curiously but nobody speaks. Everybody knows about the Battle of Arnhem in the Netherlands. Ask over here and hardly anybody knows.”
Born in London’s East End, Frank was working as a welder when he volunteered for the army on his 18th birthday on December 23 1942.
Six weeks later he was enlisted and his primary training began. Not long after a notice went up looking for volunteers to join the glider fighter regiment. Frank flew through tests checking for colour blindness and fast reactions, and found himself at camp for a gruelling six week training programme.
“It was hell on earth. Physically and mentally it was torture, you were put through the most stringent training process.”
One exercise had men walking five miles in full gear in under an hour. If they took more than an hour they had to go round again until they succeeded. “If one of the instructors sent you back then you were given an LMP, Lack Moral Fibre. In other words, you were a coward,” he said.
Glider pilots had no parachutes, no means of escape. The WW2 Horsa Gliders were nearly the size of a Lancaster Bomber but without any engines.
Gliders carried troops and heavy equipment and were released from their RAF Tug-aircraft in a series of “lifts” directly over the battle zone.
“They wanted only the best. We lost about 30 per cent of volunteers through the training. Those who were left were promoted to corporal. In the mess was a painting of hideous green devil with the caption ‘You want to be a glider pilot’.”
He added: “We were two pilots, we were paired together and we did everything together. We ate together, slept together, we did exercise together, we flew together, we chased the girls together, you name it - always together. Eventually I knew I could rely on the man I was flying with 100 per cent and he could rely on me, neither would ever let the other one down.”
On September 17 1944 he was in the second out of three “lifts” to fly to Arnhem. Over three days, 5,500 men were in the gliders and a further 4,500 jumped with parachutes on Renkum. “We were told to capture the bridge and hold it for 48 hours. We held it for five days. The battle continued for nine days.”
In the grounds of General Urquhart headquarters he and pilot Bernard Cummins were digging a slit trench when Frank volunteered to go on a reconnaisance mission with three men to find the enemy. “Bernard was killed in action. I was not there, I was captured by the Germans and sent to a prisoner of war camp,” he recalled.
Surrounded, they had taken cover in the roof of a church and were shooting to wound, not kill the Germans. With nothing to eat for four days, one of the men was shot in the stomach and they were forced to surrender. They were fed, interrogated. When told to come and be photographed they thought they would be shot. They were then sent to the camp Stalag Luft 7.
“In January came the Long March over the River Oder. The allies were advancing very quickly. We walked 87 miles in 17 days in minus 20 degrees. It was a bit nippy.” Where possible they slept in cowsheds as “cows give off body heat, horses do not”
On February 8 they reached Stalag III-A, another camp near Berlin. But in early May 1945 it was captured by the Red Army and Frank was flown home the next day, given six week’s leave, then given his last posting in Victoria.
In his regiment of 1260 glider fighter pilots 229 were killed in action.
Supported by the Glider Pilot Regiment Society, he has annually returned to Arnhem for more than 40 years.
“It’s always good to go back,” he said.
To contact the Glider Pilot Regiment Society, a network for veterans and their families, email firstname.lastname@example.org