Operation Market Garden: Lonsdale Force, Defending the Perimeter

Late September 1944, the attempt to seize vital bridges in Holland by a combined allied airborne army known as Operation Market Garden hasn’t gone to plan. Four days in and the men of the 1st Airborne division are valiantly fighting what looks to be a losing battle. However, they still believe they can hold out for the armoured thrust of 30 Corps to reach and relive them.

Operation Market Garden

On the 20th of September the remainder of British airborne units, not including the men still defending the now almost entirely surrounded men serving under Major John Frost, were relocated to the town of Oosterbeek. Here a last ditch defensive permitter was established. ‘Lonsdale Force’ was created to plug the gap in the east of the permitter near the Oosterbeek Church.

Major Richard ‘Dicky’ Lonsdale

In charge of this ad-hoc force was Major Richard ‘Dicky’ Lonsdale. During the battle for Arnhem he would become one of the eternal figures of the fighting for the bridges during one of the most disastrous operations attempted by the Allies during the latter stages of the Second World War.

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Before the start of Operation Market Garden, Lonsdale, a pre war regular had joined the fledging airborne forces while serving in India before he transferred into the 2nd Parachute Battalion in July 1943. He had become the commanding officer of A company. Lonsdale served with distinction in Scilly in the same year, repelling enemy counter attacks around Plimsole Bridge.

Richard Lonsdale
Major Richard ‘Dicky’ Lonsdale DSO (1913-1988)

For his outstanding leadership in Italy he was awarded a DSO. In September 1944 he had been promoted as the 2nd in command of the 11th Parachute regiment. The Officer had come a long way since butting heads with his fellow Officers earlier in his Parachute Regiment career!

Lonsdale dropped into Arnhem as part of the second lift on the 18th of September. The 11th War diary mentions heavy flak with several German Machine Guns covering the DZ. The Dakota that Dicky was flying in was hit by flak with the Major himself receiving a wound to the hand.

Operation Market Garden was well under well for Lonsdale before he had even landed.

This injury kept him unable to assist in the command of his men for short while as it was treated. After failed attempts to reach and reinforce the men defending the Arnhem Bridge, 11th Parachute brigade fell backwards to Oosterbeek in the evening of the 19th of September.

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Lieutenant – Colonel Thompson sent Lonsdale forward to take control of the various units falling back towards the town.

Arriving in Oosterbeek in the early afternoon of the 20th, the battalions war diary details the elements of the units under Dicky’s command that made up Lonsdale Force.

Major Lonsdale arrived from Div H.Q. to take command of the whole eastern sector of the Divisional Perimeter.  “Lonsdale Force” came into existence, consisting of 1 Para Bde, 2 S.Staffs, 11 Para Bn, a party of Glider Pilots, and 4 6 lb A/Tk guns.

Bring up the PIAT

As well as Anti Tank guns Lonsdale also had a number of PIATs (Projectile Infantry Anti Tank), the main man portable anti tank launcher of the war. This often misunderstood weapon would be immortalised at Arnhem for its prowess in the face of German armoured vehicles.

The PIAT was also part of the arsenal used by Major Robert Cain during his Victoria Cross winning actions, where he took on multiple German Self propelled guns on his own.

He was eventually stopped from going out to face the enemy again by his own troops so his wounds could be treated.

Lonsdale himself remarked after the battle in his after action report about his admiration for the weapon during the defence of the perimeter.

The tragedy of the operation was the shortage and towards the end the complete lack of them. Time without number the cry was “Give me the PIATs and we’ll stay until Christmas!”

At 5 o’clock on the 20th a successful resupply by air gave the men in Oosterbeek some cheer, but only 2 hours later German forces set fire to the houses being defended by Lonsdale’s men in the same action that saw Lance Sargent Baskeyfield receive the Victoria Cross.

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The Major ordered his troops to relocate to the Church to the edge of the permitter to the South. Here they would stay until their withdrawal. Their withdrawal was covered by a Vickers Gun and an anti-tank guns. Operation Market Garden was coming to end.

Theirs is the Glory’

Oosterbeek Church was to become the place that was most associated with Lonsdale force after the war. Major Lonsdale amassed his men inside allowing them to rest and dry out from the rain. The pews of the church were soon filled with its new Denison Smocked congregation, men made tea, smoked and took stock of the days bitter fighting.

Market Garden
Men from the 1st Airborne Division fighting during Operation Market Garden Arnhem, September 1944 (IWM)

At this point in the operation Lonsdale looked like a man destined for the hospital with his head bandaged and bloodied, sling from his injured arm and another bandage around his leg. Looking over his flock in the Church, Dicky delivered a now famous speech to rouse his men for the fight ahead.

The speech was recreated in the Church by Lonsdale himself in the 1946 film ‘Theirs is the Glory’.

‘You know as well as I do there are a lot of bloody Germans coming at us. Well, all we can do is to stay here and hang on in the hope that somebody catches us up. We must fight for our lives and stick together. We’ve fought the Germans before – in North Africa, Sicily, Italy. They weren’t good enough for us then, and they’re bloody well not good enough for us now. They’re up against the finest soldiers in the world. An hour from now you will take up defensive positions north of the road outside. Make certain you dig in well and that your weapons and ammo are in good order. We are getting short of ammo, so when you shoot you shoot to kill. Good luck to you all.’

The Net Closes in

In the days that followed, the defensive permitter around Oosterbeek was attacked ferociously by the German forces. Their reinforcements started to pour in. Fresh troops and tanks were now threatening to rout the defenders, but Lonsdale Force along with the other troops in Oosterbeek refused to back down.

1st Airborne soldiers signal to Allied aircraft from the 1st Airborne Division’s HQ in Oosterbeek, Arnhem, September 1944.

Lonsdale’s men fought doggedly and held firm. They managed to knock out at least 1 German flame throwing tank on the 23rd of September. On Sunday the 24th men of the 2nd South Staffs fought a fierce battle against infantry supported by tanks.

Despite their efforts 2 Tanks broke through their lines. These were stopped when a 75mm Pack howitzer from 1st Air Landings Light regiment was brought up to destroy them. One tank was knocked out with the other beating a hasty retreat.

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By Monday, 25th of September a whole week since Lonsdale dropped into Arnhem, his men were still putting up a fight.

During the night of the 24th a radio message was intercepted. It told Lonsdale that a large German attack was going to hit Lonsdale Force. This was to split the defenders in two, this attack was lead by SS troops and Tanks. The 11th battalion war diary details further.

Landing Zone
The British Airborne landings in Arnhem showing Oosterbeek on the lower Rhine.

In the afternoon a tank and infantry attack was launched from the East, with the intention of splitting the Div sector in two. We had no PIATs or A/T Guns, but engaged the infantry with Bren and rifles, and handled them severely.

Beginning of the End.

German attacks were launched all around the perimeter but the line did not break. The 11th battalion were warned of a withdrawal at 6 o’clock that evening. The men of Lonsdale force were picked up by boat from Royal Canadian Engineers & engineers from the 43rd Wessex.

These being supported with covering fire from elements of 30 Corps who had reached as far as the other side of the Rhine.

Major Lonsdale stayed behind on the Oosterbeek side of the river until all of his men had made it across. He then, still wounded with no boats left to take him, swam across the river to safety. He was one of the last men to do so that night. For his inspired leadership during the battle he was awarded a bar to his DSO, the citation reads.

Major Lonsdale so organised and inspired those under him that in spite of repeated attacks by enemy infantry, tanks and self-propelled guns, the positions taken up were subsequently held until the remains of the division withdrew over the River Lek. Throughout this period of six days the positions were continually mortared and shelled. Major Lonsdale, although again wounded, organised several counter attacks to regain ground temporarily lost and his personal example and supreme contempt of danger was an inspiration to all those with whom he came in contact.

The men of Lonsdale force yet again proved the bravery of troops fighting in the most desperate of circumstances. Nothing shows this more than 3 members of the makeshift unit being awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions in the cauldron that September.

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After Market Garden the Parachute Regiment would eventually cross the Rhine into Germany as part of Operation Varsity in late March 1945.

Post war in 1946 Lonsdale transferred from the Paras into the Kings African Rifles in Uganda. Upon leaving the Army he spent time in Africa and became a wine merchant. He passed away on the 23rd of November 1988 aged 74.

In part down to his leadership and the dogged determination of his men to fight in the face of overwhelming odds, the Oosterbeek perimeter never broke. This,despite the failure of the overall operation.