This Remembrance Day, we’ll be taking the time to reflect on the men and women who were willing to place their life on the line for their country. While it’s easy to define veterans generally, especially on a day dedicated to celebrating them so broadly, we think it’s important to reflect on the individual stories that each one carries.
Particularly close to our hearts this year, are the veterans of the Battle of Arnhem, as we’ve been celebrating the release of Iain Ballantyne’s Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron — a stunning oral history of war, based on face-to-face interviews. Here, Ballantyne — who has met dozens of war veterans, ranging from WW1 and WW2 to the Cold War and more recent conflicts — reflects on one man he wishes he could have chatted with about his war experiences.
Over years I have interviewed many war veterans, hearing their incredible stories and doing my best to make sure they are not forgotten. Every story a soldier, sailor, Royal Marine or aviator told me offered some amazing aspect that — possibly via just one small incident or detail — could illustrate what it was really like to live through a global war.
I was lucky to interview some of those who fought at the Battle of Arnhem for my newest book, and who in 1944 were in their 20s. However, one veteran I dearly wish I could have chatted with was Major Freddie Gough, CO of the 1st Airborne Div Recce Squadron at Arnhem who served in the Royal Navy in WW1 and British Army in WW2. He was in his 40s when he fought at Arnhem. After escaping the clutches of the Germans in 1945, and being demobbed, Gough was back in uniform to play himself during the battle in the drama-documentary Theirs Is the Glory, which was directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. All those on screen in the film were veterans of the battle and there were no sets — filming took place a year on from the battle amid the ruins of Oosterbeek, Arnhem, and along the Rhine.
He is seen here in a still from that production.
There are quite a few moments from Gough in Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron, but here’s one of my favourites:
Maj Gough makes his own bid to escape, intending to hide out in some waterworks, but, before he can disappear, a German foot patrol comes into sight. He tries to hide under a pile of wood. Unfortunately, a boot heel still shows, and he is unceremoniously hauled out of there.
It is a ludicrous end to his Arnhem adventure. The 43-year-old Airborne warrior, who served as a junior officer in Royal Navy battleships during the First World War (before joining the army in the 1920s) is being taken prisoner by enemy soldiers who were not even born during that previous conflict (and indeed not for some years later).
Once Gough is firmly in custody, a Waffen SS officer, who has heard about him commanding the British force at the bridge, comes to see him.
He extends his congratulations for a masterful fight. Explaining that he is a veteran of urban combat at Stalingrad, the Waffen SS officer says he can tell that Gough and his men must also have fought in many such battles too. Gough begs to differ and tells him: ‘This was our first effort. We’ll be much better next time.’
My aim with my military history writing has always been to bring to life the veterans I write about as the young people they were in battle. We should never forget what they did in the cause of freedom and democracy and also, of course, those less lucky than Gough who never came back from war.
As always, thank you for reading, and be sure to tweet us @AgoraBooksLDN with your veteran stories close to your heart this Remembrance Day!