Who’s the guy with the brolly? His name is Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter DSO, known as Digby.
Most of us are familiar him because of the film “A bridge too far” which made him famous for carrying a brolly into battle. But, there was much more that he did than that !!
This guy was a legend.
He was made OC, A Company, 2 Para, which was then part of the 1st Parachute Division of 1st Airborne Brigade. Col John Frost, the CO 2 Para knew a good one when he saw it and chose A Company, with Digby in command, to lead 2 Para into Operation Market Garden. Digby was known to be an aggressive commander and this was exactly what was needed.
As well as the usual preparations for an operational drop, Digby decided that he didn’t trust the radios (an incredibly prophetic call!!) so trained his men in bugle calls in case the radios failed. He took his umbrella with him because he was a failure at remembering passwords. He was quoted as saying “If anyone saw me they will obviously assume that only a bloody fool Englishman would carry an umbrella into battle against the Nazis”.
As we know, the dropping zones were some distance from the bridge. In order to get through to the bridge they had to get past the Germans in Arnhem town. Digby chose to lead his men throught the back gardens and alleyways, instead of the road and successfully avoided the enemy. A Company managed to cover the 8 miles in just over 7 hours. No mean feat in a battle situation. Especially as they also captured 150 Germans soldiers en route.
He insisted on wearing his red beret instead of his helmet, but, during the battle, he led a bayonet charge across the bridge and, wisely, chose to change his headdress to…a bowler hat. During the charge he used his umbrella to disable a German armoured car. He pushed his brolly through the observation port and stuck the brolly in the driver’s eye, completely disabling him!!
The padre had cause to thank him (or curse him) when he was pinned down by enemy fire. Digby said “Don’t worry about the bullets. I’ve got a brolly”. Whereupon, he opens the umbrella and uses it to shield him and the padre as the cross the road. Imagine what the padre was thinking!
The incident on the bridge was beautifully recreated in the film. It showed Digby explaining to the German Officer trying to negotiate the Airborne surrender that he simply didn’t have the facilities to put up all the Germans. Classic !
Sadly, Digby was caught by shrapnel and was eventually captured and sent to the nearby St Elizabeth’s Hospital. The nurses clearly didn’t know who he was because, as soon as they left him and his 2 i/c, Captain Tony Frank, alone, they escaped out of a window. Tasting freedom, they headed for the town of Mariendaal where they were hidden by a Dutch lady. She hid them but, as she spoke no English, she contacted her neighbour. The neighbour quickly disguised them as painters and moved them to Derk Wildeboer’s house. Derk was the leader of the local Dutch resistance movement in Ede. Menno de Nooy, a resistance member, gave them a bicycle while, Derk had a fake Dutch ID make for Digby. The ID named him as Peter Jensen, the deaf mute son of a local lawyer. Needless to say, he’d got rid of the brolly by now.
Digby, as Peter, used the bicycle to visit his comrades in hiding to organise a breakout. While doing this he had German soldiers being billeted in the house he was staying in and, on one occasion, helped to push a Nazi staff car out of a ditch. But, his main purpose was to gather the troops, some 150, and get out of the area to safety. He had made contact with HQ by telephone, speaking nightly to his contact, Airey Neave (later the first British soldier to escape from Colditz) . Operation Pegasus was born and set for 22nd October. Digby gathered his 150 comrades and headed towards the front line. Once they got there he signalled, using his torch, to flash the letter V, in morse code. XXX Corps troops spotted this and arranged to ferry them all across the Rhine to their lines.
They were all repatriated to the UK and Digby was awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order). What a guy!!
He died of natural causes in 1993.