Captain Ashton Kerr, a Canadian CANLOAN medical officer who served with the British 1st Airborne Division, aboard SS Nieuw Amsterdam en route to Canada for a thirty-day leave period in Montreal, Québec, Canada. 12-16 September 1945.Capt.Ken Bell / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-208316 Restrictions on use: Nil Copyright: Expired
"I looked out the window, and they were coming down in flames and I thought, “Oh, my god, what have I got myself into this time.”"
Well, we were pulled out and went to relieve another division whose name I do not know, who had been sitting on the Rhine [River, Germany], and we relieved them so that they could go and have a rest period before crossing the Rhine. We were there for about a month and came back to Bulford on Salisbury Plain [England], about the 1st of March or maybe middle of February in preparation for flying over the Rhine. On the 23rd of March, 1945, we boarded gliders.* I was with [6th Airlanding] Brigade Headquarters, remember, at this time. We boarded gliders and I was in Glider No. 155 and at about 5:00 in the morning we took off.
Now the takeoff of gliders is a very interesting operation. Because the two planes were lined up along one side of the runway - angle parked. The gliders on the other side of the runway – angle parked with the ropes at the stern of the tow plane to the bow of the glider, across the runway and the first tow plane started to move forward. The towline tightened, the glider started to move forward. The glider would then take off because it had a stalling speed of only 30 knots. Whereas the plane had to get up to 60 before it could take off. So, by the time the glider was in the air, the next tow plane had started running down that runway. And here we had two tow planes and two gliders going in the same direction on the runway at the same time. And if that first tow plane had run into trouble, that second tow plane would have run into him. It would have been an awful mess.
But fortunately, the whole division got off without any problems and we were to land behind the German defence on the Rhine because the ground troops had started crossing the Rhine at dawn. And normally, airborne had gone in ahead of the ground troops. This time, the ground troops had gone in, no airborne. Seven o’clock came, no airborne. Eight o’clock came, no airborne. The Jerries [Germans] were being pushed. They brought their reserves forward. Nine o’clock came, no airborne. Nine-twenty came, two divisions landed in twenty minutes--the British 6th [Infantry] Division and the American 2nd [Infantry Division]. In addition to a field hospital. And the air was black with aircraft. It was just an incredible sight.
It was a scary operation, quite honestly. And because once we got over our landing spot, there was only one field in which we could land gliders and the Jerries knew it. And while they had brought their reserves forward, they had left an ack-ack battery on two corners of the field. So as we got over target, I looked out the window and here were gliders coming down in flames. Because the [Airspeed AS.51] Horsa [glider], in which the British used, were made of wood. And we didn’t have self-seating gas tanks, so a piece of shrapnel going through the gas tanks on one of those jeeps or motorcycles just put the whole thing up. I looked out the window, and they were coming down in flames and I thought, “Oh, my god, what have I got myself into this time.” But fortunately, 155 landed safely with the brigadier aboard. But by the time the 2 Battalion Ox & Bucks** counted noses, there were only ½ there. Half of them were killed on that landing!
Now once we got on the ground, there was no problem. Because the Jerries came in with their hands up. We were landing behind their reserves. So they knew that they had had it. And I got my mail that afternoon. It was just incredible the speed with which the forces moved. They had bridges across that Rhine. The engineers must have done a wonderful job. I never saw them because we were east of the Rhine. And then, of course, our job was to move forward, move east. We did so immediately and as long as we kept moving, we had no problems. The problem was when we took a rest and the Jerries firmed up and we had trouble getting going the next morning or wherever it was that we getting going.
Because the German population was being driven westward by the advances of the Russians. And I think, I’m putting words into their minds, but I’m assuming that they said, “Well if we are going to be captured, we would rather be captured by the Allies than by the Russians.” So, one of our big problems in moving eastward along the highways was confronting these wagons and wheelbarrows and peasants with kids on their backs and sacks of clothing on the same road. And we were trying to go forward and they were trying to go behind us. So, we relegated them to the ditches which we had to do. Because we had to move. We had to keep moving forward. So this was the tragic part and, at one point, I was in charge of a large camp in the woods of refugees for a couple of days until the battalion moved forward and then I released it to someone else.
*For Operation VARSITY, the airborne component of Operation PLUNDER (the crossing of the Rhine River) was the largest single airborne operation in history
** Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry
Interview with Lieutenant Thomas Anstey FCWM Oral History Project
George Metcalf Archival Collection
© Canadian War Museum