As the last chance to tour Moor Park Mansion this year approaches, Alan Jamieson recounts how one of the most disastrous campaigns of the Second World War was secretly planned here.
In September 1944 General Montgomery hatched a daring plan – Operation Market Garden – to race the Russians to Berlin by striking across the Rhine and advancing through northern Germany. The key would be the capture of eight bridges across the Rhine. Arnhem, in Holland, was the most northerly bridge – and the only way to reach it was by a parachute drop of 10,000 men. Daring in conception, disastrous in execution.
This is where Moor Park enters military history. Since February 1944 a cohort of military planners in the Airborne Corps had been holed up in the mansion. Some stayed in the elaborate building itself; some, less fortunate, in caravans parked in the grounds. The playing of golf – for the public anyway – was abandoned.
Suddenly, only three weeks before the intended parachute assault, the Moor Park planners were given the task of planning it. This episode (highly secret at the time, of course) is commemorated now by a plaque mounted on the portico of the mansion. It says, simply, that the house was the headquarters of the 1st British Airborne Corps from February 1944 to October 1945. That brief acknowledgement, though, hides a dramatic story.
The commanding officer of Operation Market Garden was Lt. General Frederick Browning. His youthful appearance earned him the title of ‘Boy’ Browning, and out of his earshot some of the soldiers even called him ‘Mr Daphne’, for he was the husband of famous romantic novelist Daphne du Maurier, of Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel fame. It was, apparently, General Browning who told Montgomery that Arnhem was ‘a bridge too far’, and he was right.
Browning had his headquarters at Moor Park along with the soldier who was to lead the 1st Airborne Division, part of the 21st Army Group. Together, they climbed the stairs at Moor Park to a room on the first floor where they laid out their maps, built a model of the Arnhem area and drew up their plans. The soldier was Major General Robert ‘Roy’ Urquhart (played in the famous film of these infamous events by Sean Connery).
Urquhart was living in one of the caravans on the golf course and, on the day before the paratroop drop, he calmly played a few holes of golf – one of the many famous visitors who have tried to master the intricacies of drive, pitch and putt on Moor Park’s notoriously tricky course.
In the weeks before the attack, a sand table model of the Arnhem area with the Rhine, hills and town, was set up in that first floor room. The story goes that the weight of the sand caused the floor to sag, causing much consternation… below was the Thornhill Room with its famous ceiling by Antonio Verrio of Aurora and the Dawn, painted in 1707 – a national treasure. The walls, too, were covered with dramatic paintings from antiquity. Despite rumours to the contrary, some military personnel are art lovers, or at least art respecters. The weight of the sand on the table upstairs was reduced, and the paintings saved.
Today, visitors can view that planning room, now called the Arnhem Room. It isn’t open to the public at all times but you can see it (with the Airborne’s flags, and paintings of the battle) on days when tours are organised by guides from National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Society: one Thursday a month during the summer. The last chance for 2010 is imminent: 14 October. Take notice, too, of Aurora in the Thornhill Room for there’s an evident bulge in the ceiling where that sand-laden table almost came through.
For Browning and Urquhart at Moor Park, one of the major problems was logistics. Moor Park was over a hundred miles away from the paratroop division’s four brigades (including a Polish paratroop brigade).
“There was constant shuttling to and fro of brigade commanders and their staff from airfields in Lincolnshire to Moor Park”, wrote one officer. One observer of these dramatic events, Tony Hibbert, had already experienced the escape from Dunkirk, and now, four years later, was the brigade major for 1 Para. Aged 93, he told me that he recalled going to Moor Park on several occasions, joining Browning and Urquhart at the briefings, on their knees around maps and aerial photographs spread out on the floor.
Plans and timings were agreed, and on 14 September, Urquhart left Moor Park for the last time; he drove in his jeep to join his men for the flight from a secret airfield to the killing fields of Arnhem.
General Urquhart at headquarters in Arnhem
Two days later, Urquhart who had a distinguished record in campaigns in North Africa, Sicily and Italy (but had had no experience of parachuting before Arnhem, and suffered from air-sickness) took off. The airfields for the transports and gliders were scattered across three counties: Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire. Over 1,500 aircraft and 500 gliders took the first wave of paratroops to Holland. Unfortunately, two German SS Panzer divisions of tanks, artillery and infantry were regrouping near Arnhem.
There was bitter fighting over the next nine days. A company of 3 Para did reach the northern end of the Arnhem road bridge, despite heavy casualties. Bad weather delayed the second drop of another two thousand men, including the Polish parachute brigade that didn’t arrive until the third day. Furthermore, the rescuing, advancing British soldiers of 30 Corps, together with American Airborne troops, were bogged down on the narrow road, strenuously defended by German infantry and artillery.
The British held out at Arnhem… but eventually, exhausted and out of ammunition, they surrendered. Casualties were severe: out of the ten thousand men who took part, over 1700 died and a further 6500 were wounded and taken prisoner. Tony Hibbert was there: taken prisoner, he escaped and was one of the two thousand men (with Urquhart) who crossed the river and returned to the UK.
In 1945 the house was returned to the golf club. Sadly there’s no archive on the premises. “When the paratroopers left in 1945, they took everything with them,” Jon Moore, chief executive at Moor Park, explains. Twenty years later the plaque was unveiled on the mansion’s portico by Sir Richard Gale, then C-in-C of British land forces and a former commander of the 6th Airborne Division. Records do exist – but they are all at the Parachute Regiment’s records office at Duxford, and there’s little about Moor Park. What you can read at Duxford are the accounts by soldiers of every rank and every battalion. They describe the fierce fighting and bravery of men of both sides in cool prose. There was plenty of gallantry – five VCs were won at Arnhem and countless other medals.
At a price. Brigadier John Hackett counted the cost thus: “Thirty-one officers of my battalion flew to Arnhem, and 15 were killed or died of wounds.”
Historians still argue about the pros and cons of Arnhem – ambitious, daring and ultimately disastrous – but there’s no doubt whatsoever of the bravery of the paratroopers who took part. A bridge too far, indeed, but a glorious episode in our military history – and Moor Park played a small part in it.
Alan Jamieson’s booklet, Moor Park and the Battle of Arnhem, 1944, has been published by Moor Park Golf Club. Copies are available, price £3.50 (including p&p) from the Golf Club or from Three Rivers Museum, Basing House, Rickmansworth WD3 1RL. Call 01923 775882.