Whispers and Shadows in the Night – Engineers Rescue Airborne Forces

Op BERLIN Memorial, Driel
British paratroops arrive in Nijmegen after Op BERLIN (Imperial War Museum)

A memorial at Driel in the Netherlands commemorates the British and Canadian sappers in a little-known Second World War operation called Operation BERLIN. That operation was the evacuation of the remnants of British and Polish airborne troops back across the Rhine River on the night of 25/26 September 1944 after the failure of Operation MARKET GARDEN.

One of the objectives of Operation MARKET GARDEN was to capture the Rhine bridges between Eindhoven and Arnhem with a combination of British, American and Polish Airborne Forces. The complete plan is known in perpetuity in the movie “A Bridge Too Far.”

The British 1st Airborne Division was to capture the most northerly bridges over the Neder Rijn at Arnhem and they began dropping west of Arnhem at 1300 hrs on 17 September 1944. These 11,000 troops were supposed to hold the Arnhem Bridge for a maximum of two days until the arrival of XXX (British) Armoured Corps. In the end, however, the Airborne Division held for nine days with only 740 of the 11,000 men making it to the objective, among them, sappers of the 9th (Airborne) Field Company, Royal Engineers hold the bridge.

Attempts by Allied ground forces to link up with the encircled airborne forces failed and the only option was to evacuate the remnants of the Airborne Division by small boats across the Neder Rijn at night. Four sapper field companies were tasked for Operation BERLIN: the Royal Engineer 260th and 553rd Field Companies and the Royal Canadian Engineers 20th and 23rd ​ Field Companies.

The operation was to start at 2200 hrs on 25 September. The field companies started their move forward many hours earlier and had to move through enemy positions to the south bank of the Neder Rijn. In dismal weather and under constant German machine gun, mortar and artillery fire, the boats shuttled back and forth across the wide swift river through the night. The evacuation went on until daylight came and the operation was forced to stop.

The official death toll was 1755 Allied soldiers killed. More than 3000 men were wounded and became prisoners of war. Several hundred escaped on their own aided by the Dutch resistance. Operation BERLIN rescued some 2500 airborne troops. The 23rd Field Company recovered the majority of the besieged paratroopers by traversing the river with approximately 150 boatloads.

The 23rd Field Company lost seven killed and 14 wounded. Five were decorated for their heroic actions. The monument to Operation BERLIN was unveiled on the 44th anniversary in 1989. The inscription on the monument to the British and Canadian Engineers reads, “They were just whispers and shadows in the night", the way a British paratrooper had remembered these heroic sappers.

The text on the monument reads:

It is 25th September 1944: The battle of Arnhem is still raging, but the position of the surrounded British and Polish troops on the northern Rhine bank has become untenable. Then the order for their evacuation across the river is given. In that rainy night hundreds of soldiers come in small parties to the river forelands, between the farmhouse and the Old Church - both clearly visible from here - and wait to be rescued. Under heavy German fire from the Westerbouwing, British (260 and 553 Fd Coys) and Canadian (20 and 23 Fd Coys) Engineers make dozens of trips in their small boats from this bank. In one night, supported by other units, they manage to rescue 2,500 airborne troops. At the time the rescued had hardly seen their savers, so they have never been able to thank them. This monument has been erected to express their gratitude (15 September 1989).