The final stand at the bridge

The final stand at the bridge

By midnight the defence was “greatly weakened.” The 2nd Battalion, commanded first by Major Wallis and, after his death, by Major Tatham-Warter, whose conduct was exemplary even amid so much gallantry, had suffered heavy casualties; so had its supporting troops, among whom must be numbered the signallers fighting as infantrymen under Captain B. Briggs. Ammunition was running short, and the key house commanding the north end of the bridge had been burnt down. The Germans posted in houses farther back nearer the town, though making no attempt to infiltrate, kept the whole area of the defence under more or less continuous small arms and automatic fire. The number of wounded had now reached serious proportions. They were lying in the cellars of a house, attended by two Royal Army Medical Corps doctors, Captains J. Logan, D.S.O., and D. Wright, M.C. ., who did particularly fine work in dreadful conditions and remained with them to the end. The order to surrender the wounded was given by Colonel Frost after the house had been set on fire. Wednesday, September 20th, brought no relief. By then the Force had been burnt out of its original positions on or near the bridge and was fighting in the ruins close to and beneath it. Presently German tanks were able to move across the bridge from north to south, for the six-pounders, sighted to cover it, were under small arms fire and could not be manned. Aircraft also played a part in the German attacks, and a Messerschmitt 109, diving on the position, hit the steeple of a nearby church and crashed. Nevertheless, the defence was still maintained and hopes were still high, for news had been received that the 2nd Army would attack the south end of the bridge that afternoon at five p.m.

By now those of the defenders who were not beneath the bridge were holding slit trenches hastily dug in the gardens of the houses from which they had been driven by fire. The spirit of the defence is best exemplified by the following wireless dialogue which was overheard.

Captain Briggs : The position is untenable. Can I have permission to withdraw?

Frost: If it is untenable you may withdraw to your original position.

Captain Briggs : Everything is comfortable. I am now going in with bayonets and grenades.

The final stand was made, first in a warehouse, and then underneath the bridge, the total number still capable of fighting being about 110 men and five or six officers. The position was shelled by a German tank and armoured car, but they were unable to hit that part of the underside of the bridge where the defence was holding out. It was at this juncture that Lieutenant Grayburn, whose valour earned him a Victoria Cross which he did not live to receive, led a series of counter-attacks, in one of which Germans laying charges to blow the bridge were killed and the charges torn out. Every time a patrol went out it suffered casualties, and with each hour the situation became more and more hopeless. There was no more ammunition, there had been no food for a long time, and hardly a man but was wounded. The very ground on which the defenders stood or crouched was constantly seared by flames from the burning houses about it, and no man could remain there and live.

So in the end the gallant remnant were dispersed or captured.