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The Group of Four or Four Hundred…

  • Posted on 24 May 2024
  • 18 min read

The Arnhem equivalent of being ‘on the balcony’…

By Niall Cherry of The Arnhem Fellowship

The idea for this short article goes back to a visit to the Bastogne War Museum in March 2024. When browsing in the museum shop, I noticed a ‘new’ book — to me, at any rate — called Driving Back the Nazis by Martin King.

Someone had decided to use the famous or infamous photograph of the four-man patrol from Oosterbeek as the cover photograph. Whilst this book may not contain much Arnhem information — and I must admit I did not buy it — I did spend around five minutes looking through it; it is a very poor book in my humble opinion. The caption of the attached photograph of Arthur Letchford shows how the author has failed to do proper research.

Arthur was well known to many members as was a regular attendee of the September commemorations in Arnhem and was indeed a member of the 2nd Parachute Battalion. His twin brother Philip had also, as the caption says, been in “2nd Battalion Paratroops”, whatever that unit may be!

Worse than the sloppy, American-style nomenclature like “Company C” is that fact that C Coy never made it to the Arnhem bridge, Arthur Letchford was in Support Coy and Philip Letchford was not even at the Battle of Arnhem.

The ‘Group of Four’ photograph was taken on or around Friday, 22nd September 1944 by Sergeant Mike Lewis of the Army Film and Photographic Unit. Lewis captioned it as ‘a patrol of paratroopers moving through ruins of Oosterbeek.’.

I should say that I feel that it was a posed photograph, especially when we consider the comments by Harry Faulkner Brown in his book A Sapper at Arnhem. Faulkner Brown recounted: “Our position [was] in one of some ruined one-storey buildings which had lost their roofs and some of the external walls facing us.

“They probably had been stables or garages for the Hartenstein Hotel. About the middle of the morning, a group of about four members of the Division appeared with a press photographer, who proceeded to take shots of the group moving through the ruined garages.

After everything we had been through we were rather disgusted at this untrue, artificial display of house clearance and my sappers gave them a few boos and cat calls as an indication of their disapproval.”.

For many years, the actual location of the building where the photograph was taken remained a mystery but it was obviously in the Oosterbeek area. Fortunately our President Robert Voskuil was able to identify the location and the results were revealed in 2004 when he announced that it was taken in a building that once stood where the car park of the Kleine Hartenstein restaurant is now situated.

In the Arnhem Fellowship Newsletter No. 94 of June 2004, we asked readers if anyone could identify where the widely-known photo of a four-man British patrol ‘somewhere in a building in Oosterbeek’ was taken. We said then that the photo was taken by Sergeant Lewis of the Army Film and Photographic Unit, describing it as Frame 7 from Film 4 rather than Frame 8, as described in error.

All the images on this roll of film were shot near the Hartenstein. Various members responded to our appeal and here is a short summary:

Mr Visser in Zelhem wrote that the man in the beret was Staff Sergeant Mark Leaver, G Squadron, Glider Pilot Regiment. Mark Leaver, who died on 31 October 2000, said at the time that the photo was taken in ‘Beekweg’  He probably meant the Van Hofwegen laundry in present day Zuiderbeekweg.

Mrs Betty de Roder from Renkum suggested that it could be the premises of Aits forge in Paul Krugerstraat.  F Oudendal from Huizen said that the concrete reinforcing bars were probably intended for some sort of German building work because, by 1944, such material had been unavailable for private use for many years.

Mr C Bierdrager in Eelde pointed out that in Stuart Eastwood’s book When Dragons Flew: An Illustrated History of the 1st Battalion the Border Regiment 1939-1945, the picture caption says: “The location is unknown, but may be the stable block of the Hartenstein Hotel.”.

So, I think we can assume that the photograph was taken close to the Hartenstein. The next question concerns the identity of the men in the photograph. S/Sgt Mark Leaver is a reasonable guess but Leaver was a fair distance from where the photograph was most likely taken so it is doubtful that the photo includes Leaver. As for the caption in When Dragons Flew, this was corrected in the book’s second edition.

In more recent years, with the advent of social media, a number of the Facebook generals have commented on this photo. One FB poster wrote: “The front left soldier is my grandfather Jack (Known as Jackie) Burns. He never really spoke about the war and sadly passed in 1980’s.’.

I replied: “I have 11 Burns on my Arnhem list with two ‘J”s…One of these was taken prisoner before the photo was taken and the other – his unit was based several hundred yards away…..do you have his number so I can cross refer?”. No reply was ever received.

Someone else posted: “My father the first on the left is A.J.Brooks of the R.A.S C. later he joined and became part of 2 Para and then rejoined in 1963 as T.A. I will find his Regimental NO and his 1943 jump card and Army Driving Card [sic].”.

I answered: “I can’t find an AJ Brooks RASC or ex-RASC on my Arnhem list of 11,500 or so names nor on the Ringway course list but there is a Driver Brooks on it with sadly no initials. Do you have his number so I can confirm?”. No reply was ever received.

So, we have at least three names for the man on the left. This image often appears on some of the poorer Arnhem-related websites, forums and social media pages with people claiming that their relative is in it.

This is without counting the many people over the years who made the same claims to me when I was Secretary of the Arnhem 1944 Veterans Club and, later, of the Arnhem Fellowship. I wish I had kept a list of them all but it would number at least a hundred names had I done so.

Two stories that particularly stand out in my memory include the woman whose father had definitely been in the 2nd Parachute Battalion and whose Liberation Form said that he was taken prisoner on the 20th at the road bridge. She insisted that she recognised him in the image “from his walk”.

I asked her if her father had ever mentioned escaping after being captured in Arnhem on the 20th and making it back to Oosterbeek in time for the photograph to be taken before being captured again — which of course was never mentioned on his Liberation Form. I never got a reply.

Another alleged relative asked me for information about the photograph and her father. “It has been on the mantlepiece at home for many years.”, she wrote. Her father’s name, as she gave it to me, didn’t appear on my Arnhem list of over 11,500 names although he was supposedly in The Parachute Regiment. Nor was the name on any of the lists of men who did a parachute course in WW2.

Most of these people, when they don’t get the response they want, reply that the records are wrong and that “I know he was there because he told me!’.

Another name often cited as being that of one of the Group of Four is Brigadier ‘Shan’ Hackett’s driver, ‘Private’ Alfred Ward, who is said to be the second man from the right as one views the image. His rank, in fact, was ‘Driver’. I have seen a booklet of doubtful quality that mentions that not only was Ward wounded during his parachute descent on September 18th onto Ginkel Heath but also near the Old Church in lower Oosterbeek when with Hackett on September 21st — the day before this photograph was taken.

I could carry on but won’t as I think you get the idea. So, what can we say with any certainty? We know where and when it was taken so who was in this area or had reason to be there? By this time, the Divisional HQ personnel aside, the Oosterbeek perimeter was very much a 4th Parachute Brigade area.

One theory that has gained a lot of acceptance and is certainly plausible comes from the 156 Parachute Battalion gang. On September 21st, Lieutenant Piers St Aubyn of C Coy was sent with a group of four men to Div HQ by Major Geoffrey Powell for information on the situation and also to try and scrounge some supplies.

In the book From Delhi to Arnhem, this photograph is used with a commentary that Major — later Colonel — John Waddy recognised one of the men as Lance Corporal Noel Rosenberg. If you look closely, you will see that Rosenberg, said to be at the rear of the group, has a bandage around his left hand which, his family said, was inflicted by a German bayonet. Did Sgt Lewis persuade Lt St Aubyn’s escort to pose for his photographs?

Another great bit of circumstantial evidence comes from Len Lockett. Lockett identified former comrade Pte John Dugdale of the 156 from his habit of leaving his helmet strap undone: “He looked more like a Yank than a British paratrooper, which was enhanced by his cowboy’s gait, probably caused by all the football he played.”. Dugdale is on the left of the photo.

These are far better ‘suspects’ than most of the others, in my humble opinion. I think the best thing to do is to leave it here. I hope this has been of some interest. If so, think about joining the Arnhem Fellowship. And if you see someone on the Internet claiming that one of the men in this iconic photograph was a relative, just smile!

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