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Were British Paratroopers Murdered at Arnhem?

  • Posted on 23 May 2024
  • 27 min read

Grahame Warner revisits the controversy in his history of the 10th Parachute Battalion

Editorial Foreword

In a new 400-page history of the 10th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment from 1942 to 1944 Arnhem: Eight Days To Oblivion — author Grahame Warner revisits the question of whether or not British paratroopers were murdered by German soldiers during the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944.

These allegations were first made during the war but remained out of the public eye until The People, a now-defunct British newspaper, published an article based on a tape-recorded interview with 10th Bn veteran Joe Fennah in its September 11th 1988 edition.

The tape recording was already in the possession of the Airborne Forces Museum at Browning Barracks, Aldershot — known as Depot PARA — whose then-Curator Major Geoff Norton wrote a three-page summary of the inquiry into Fennah’s claims, which had resulted in the compilation of a 160-page file, so seriously were they taken.

There have been a couple of allegations of this nature. The one on which Warner focuses in his book is supposed to have occurred on the Amsterdamseweg on September 19th 1944, when Waffen-SS soldiers from SS-Kampfgruppe Krafft were said to have machinegunned captured 10th Bn paratroopers. Joe Fennah claimed to have survived this massacre.

SS Major Josef ‘Sepp’ Krafft

Commanded by SS-Sturmbannführer Josef “Sepp” Krafft, the 16th was one of the diverse German units hastily organised into battle groups to counter the parachute and glider landings by the British 1st Airborne Division around Arnhem when Operation Market Garden commenced on September 17th 1944.

As Kampfgruppe Krafft, it was the first German unit to offer any serious resistance to the British, stopping the advance off the drop zone of the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment and the jeeps of the 1st Airlanding Reconnaissance Squadron. Ninety of its men were awarded 1st and 2nd Class Iron Crosses after the Battle of Arnhem.

KG Krafft would meet The Tenth on the morning of September 19th 1944, by which time it had been absorbed into the larger SS-Kampfgruppe Spindler. Did soldiers of Sepp Krafft’s 16th Bn — more precisely of his 9th Company — mow down surrendered 10th Battalion men that day?

Waffen-SS troopers near Oosterbeek

Many years in the writing, Warner’s book contains many first-hand accounts from veterans and will be published in June 2024. Warner’s uncle was killed in action with The Tenth in Holland long before the author, a former soldier, was born. The book’s dustcover was designed by Derek Chambers, who also did several paintings for the book. Chambers, whose sons were both paratroopers, has been chosen to paint the portrait of The Parachute Regiment’s current Colonel Commandant, Lieutenant General Andrew Harrison DSO MBE.

Grahame Warner writes:

Summarising, the enemy forces confronting the 10th Battalion to their north that day were the 4th and 9th Companies of the SS Training and Replacement Battalion 16, forming the main part of SS-Kampfgruppe or Battlegroup Krafft.

SS-KG Krafft had spent the previous evening re-organising and replenishing near Deelen Airfield, where it had been strengthened by the addition of reserves from the 642 Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Cadre Regiment and 10th Company of the 3rd Police Regiment.

This enlarged Battlegroup, under the overall command of SS-Sturmbannführer Ludwig Spindler, would be later ordered to advance southwards and clear the Arnhem to Ede road, Once held, to then progress further south across the open ground (Landing Zone-L) and secure the main east-west railway line.

This move, they hoped, would ‘close the lid on the box’ from the north and converge with other German units moving in from both the west and east.  If successful, it would trap the whole of the 4th Parachute Brigade to the north of the main railway line.

The alleged murder of the captured 10th Bn men was said to have occurred on September 19th 1944 by the six-kilometre marker on the Amsterdamseweg. In a contentious taped testimony from 1988 – partly reproduced below – former Private Joe Fennah, Anti-Tank Platoon, recalled the clash with Krafft’s troops that day.

“On our right, later in the afternoon, we saw parachutes coming down and naturally took it that they were Poles coming in to help us. In the late afternoon of the Tuesday, this is, an attack came in from our front.

Joe Fennah in 1988

“At the same time, we saw coming towards us from the rear a line of ‘paratroops’ in extended order and waving yellow scarves which had been taken off our dead (although we didn’t know this at the time).

“We thought they were Poles coming in, but the parachutes we had seen dropped were supplies which were being dropped in the German lines and weren’t Poles. About 18-20 men (British Airborne), as far as I know today, ran out to meet the Poles only to find they were SS.

“Now we were completely surrounded. Ahead of us was the advance coming in and at our rear were the Germans, who we thought were Poles. We had no option but to surrender. They lined us up on the road; they took our cigarettes and watches and anything else that was of value to them.

“At the time, I was in the middle of the line. One of the boys had had an ear shot off and I went to him to put a field dressing on it. The German who was standing over us with a rifle pushed me back into line. Instead of going back to where I was originally, he pushed me to the end of the line. Another one stood with a machine gun- I don’t know whether it was a Spandau or a Schmeisser.

“The German stood back and, without warning, opened fire and mowed us down. I was fortunate in that I had gone to the end of the line. I got it in the legs, one at the other side of me got it in his feet, and as the gun went higher, so they got it in the chest and stomach.

“As far as I know, to this day, only a couple of us lived, but detail has come to light that there were more.”.

Unfortunately, the veracity of Fennah’s account has historically been clouded and questioned due to the inclusion of the following comments regarding Captain Lionel Queripel — who would be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross — and Sgt Joe Sunley.

Definitely not murdered by Germans as alleged by Joe Fennah: Captain Lionel Queripel VC

“Anyway, I started screaming and panicking and tried to get off the road, which was now also being mortared again. What I am sure of, and still sure of to this day and will swear on oath, Captain Queripel was in that line of men that was lined up. I saw him crawling out a ghastly colour and crawl into the woods.

“I heard later after I had come back from being a prisoner of war that he had been awarded the VC for throwing grenades at tanks, which he may have done, but I saw him in that line of men, and when he crawled into the woods, he was a ghastly colour and wounded.

“I gave myself morphine and got against a tree, and all around, there was hand to hand fighting and screaming. I heard someone shouting, who I found out later was Sgt Sunley of the machine guns. He shouted:  ‘They’re shooting the prisoners, don’t surrender, follow me!’.

“The last I saw of him, he had a .45 in his hand and a few of the men behind him charging the men that had shot us. Later I started to feel drowsy and looked around me to see many, many wounded lying there.”.

Fennah’s comment concerning Lionel Queripel and a further statement of witnessing other atrocities occurring later in a separate incident near the Vreewijk Hotel in Oosterbeek have tended to devalue his testimony. However, other independent accounts support Fennah’s story that some unarmed men were murdered on the Amsterdamseweg.

Private Ralph Shackleton, also of the Anti-Tank Platoon, in a more contemporary account from late 1945, supports the Fennah version of the incident in a personal reply to War Office correspondence enquiring into the whereabouts and circumstances of the death of Private George Youell of the same platoon. Youell’s body had not been found at this time.

“I hereby state truthfully and as accurately as possible the circumstances of the killing of my friend 14427072 Private Youell, who was my No2 on a PIAT mortar on the 19.9.44 at the spot of the 6 Kilo stone in the main Arnhem Autobahn (Amsterdamseweg).

“There were about 20 men, including Youell and myself, in close engagement with an SS Company. We were captured eventually, and Youell, after a great fight, was also captured and wounded in the stomach.

“We were all formed into a line and shot down with small arms at close quarters -2 yards. The enemy then left us all for dead. In fact, three remained alive, including myself.

“Youell was shot dead through the brain. I saw the wound, a clean hole between the eyes. I lay there for about ten hours, and he never moved, eventually turning yellow and grey. He was most definitely dead.“.

Joe Sunley later in life

Sgt Joe Sunley, Anti-Tank Platoon, recalls events during and before the Fennah incident. Most of his section was attached to A Company and were heavily involved with them during the day’s fighting. At the order to withdraw, Sunley, with most of his section still intact, joined a group of A Company men led by Sgt Harry Houghton.

Crossing the Amsterdamseweg to the south, they immediately became embroiled in the German attack described in Fennah’s account. However, they were able to mount a counter-attack, led by Sunley and Houghton, which drove them off. Harry Houghton was mentioned particularly as “letting loose with great effect” on the fleeing Germans, claiming countless lives.

RSM George White, who witnessed the charge, recounts what he saw: “Sgt Houghton led the charge with great guts and determination- he was shouting all the time. It reminded me of a charge at Glencoe!”.

Joe Sunley remembers passing the wounded Fennah as he lay on the ground: “I did shout out to him but can’t remember the exact words I used. I didn’t witness any deliberate shooting of our unarmed men, but this may have happened before making the counter-attack.”

More recently, it has been suggested that the infamous photographs of the 10th Battalion dead at the 6 km Arnhem marker may show the men referred to in Fennah’s ‘atrocity’ incident.

Murdered by the SS? 10th Battalion casualties at the 6km marker on the Amsterdamseweg with the Heijendal woods behind. It is suspected that German propaganda photographers may have falsely posed this image after the events of September 19th 1944. Some of these dead include Sgt Frank Chesson (A Coy), Pte Arthur Lishman (S Coy), and L/Cpl Walter Secrett (B Coy) ©Bundesarchiv
A later photograph: the 10th Bn dead have been temporarily buried. They remain unidentified for the time being.

There is clear first-hand testimonial evidence that confirms that most of the dead identified from this picture became casualties during other incidents that day and, therefore, could not have been part of the story related by Joe Fennah.

RSM Lord MVO MBE: Fennah’s report never found

Fennah, once he had later recovered from his wounds at Stalag XIB, Fallingbostel, reported the matter in full to RSM JC Lord, 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, the senior Warrant Officer in charge. The latter, supposedly, wrote a complete note of the accusation addressing this to the appropriate authorities.

On returning to the UK, Fennah was interviewed by Major Ronnie Boone, 2nd Battalion (ex 10th Battalion). He made a further written report which, he was told: “…would be forwarded through normal channels, but not to hold out too much hope that anything would come of it”. Fennah, despite remaining in regular service until after the Korean War, never received any formal response to his allegations.

In summary, it is difficult to conclude whether or not an atrocity occurred on the Amsterdamseweg. Supporting evidence for both positions certainly exists, but ultimately, we are left to draw our own conclusions.

Airborne POWs at Stalag XIB

[Grahame Warner notes: Over four decades later, the controversial September 1988 article by journalist John Smith in the British tabloid paper The People headlined Massacre of the Arnhem Heroes brought Fennah’s allegation tad o the attention of the general public.

Fennah’s taped interview had already prompted an internal inquiry by The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces, leading to an investigation by Major Geoff Norton, Curator of the Airborne Forces Museum, who had access to the 10th Battalion archives.  The file of correspondence relating to Fennah’s allegations amounted to 160 pages.

The findings of the inquiry, despite contributions from many informed sources, failed to support or negate Fennah’s story. In summarising his findings, Major Norton took a pragmatic and balanced view of the account.  However, the clear tone coming from other ‘official’ sources in both the Netherlands and the UK took a less complimentary view.

Arnhem: Eight Days To Oblivion — 10th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment 1942-1944 (ISBN 9781399926126) will be available directly from The Friends of The Tenth, the registered charity responsible for erecting the 10th Bn Memorial.

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