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Band Of Brothers: The Island

Rescuing the British Paratroopers

Converted for the Web from "Band Of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagle's Nest" by Stephen E. Ambrose


With Winters' replacement gone, 1st Lt. Fred "Moose" Heyliger took over the company. Heyliger was an OCS graduate who had led the HQ Company mortar platoon in Normandy (where he was promoted to 1st lieutenant) and Holland. He had been in E Company back in the States. From the first, Winters liked him immensely.

Heyliger was a good C.O. He visited the outposts at night. He went on patrols himself. He saw to the men as best could be done. Like the men in the foxholes, he never relaxed. The tension was always there. His company was spread much too thin to prevent German patrols from penetrating the line, and the dangerous possibility of another breakthrough of the size of that of October 5 was in his mind constantly. He bore up under the responsibility well, took the strain, did his duty.


"The British are masters of intrigue," according to Cpl. Walter Gordon. "I wouldn't necessarily want them on my flank for an assault on some target, but I sure would like to have them plan it, because they are very good at planning."

He was referring to "the Rescue," which took place at midnight, October 22-23. A week earlier, Col. O. Dobey (nicknamed "The Mad Colonel of Arnhem") of the British 1st Airborne Division, who had escaped from a German hospital after being made prisoner, had swum across the Rhine and contacted Colonel Sink. Dobey said there were 125 British troops, some ten Dutch resistance fighters who were being sought by the Germans, and five American pilots hiding out with the Dutch underground on the north side of the Lower Rhine. He wanted to get them back, and he needed help. Sink agreed to cooperate. As the crossing point was across from Easy's position, Sink volunterred Heyliger to lead the rescue patrol. Or, as Gordon put it, "We would furnish the personnel, the British would furnish the idea and, I suppose, the Band-Aids. A fair swap, by British standards."

Dobey was in contact with the Dutch underground on the far side via telephone (for some reason, the Germans had never cut those lines). He designated the night of October 22-23 for the operation. The American 81st AA-AT Battalion would fire tracers over the river with their Bofors guns to mark the spot where the Dutch would bring the men waiting to be rescued. To allay German suspicion, for several nights before the operation, the 81st fired tracers at midnight.

On the appointed night, Heyliger, Lts. Welsh and Edward Shames, and seventeen men selected by Heyliger followed engineer tape from the dike down to the river, where British canvas collapsible boats had been hidden the previous evening. It was, as usual, a murky night, with a drizzle adding to the obscurity. The shivering men edged the boats into the river. At midnight, the Bofors fired the tracers straight north. The Dutch underground blinked the V-for-Victory signal with red flashlights from the north bank. Easy began paddling as silently as possible across the river.

The men crossed with pounding hearts but without incident. They leaped out of the boats and moved forward. Gordon had the machine-gun on the left flank; he set it up and prepared to defend against attack. Cpl. Francis Mellett had the machine-gun on the right flank. Private Stafford was at the point for the column seeking contact with the Dutch underground, Heyliger immediately behind him.

Stafford moved forward stealthily. There was no firing, no illumination. This was enemy territory, completely unfamiliar to the Americans, and it was pitch black. "The absolute quiet was almost petrifying to me," Stafford remembered.

Stafford took another cautious step. A large bird flew up not more than a foot away from his face. "I am positive my heart stopped beating," Stafford recalled. "I flipped off the safety on my M-1 and was about to fire when Lt. Heyliger calmly said, 'Easy.'"

They continued on and shortly met the British troops. The first one Stafford saw "hugged me and gave me his red beret, which I still have." A British brigadier stepped forward and shook Heyliger's hand, saying he was the finest looking American officer he had ever seen.

Heyliger motioned for the British to move in column to the boats, urging them to keep silent. But they just could not. Pvt. Lester Hashey recalled one saying, "I never thought I'd be so glad to see a bloody Yank." Lieutenant Welsh, who was in charge down at the boats, grew exasperated with the Brits who kept calling out "God Bless you, Yank," and told them they would all get killed if they didn't shut up.

The British got into the boats; Heyliger pulled his men back in leapfrog fashion; soon everyone was ready to shove off. Gordon was the last one back, and in the trailing boat crossing the river. "There was a certain amount of excitement and urgency," he said, and he was certain the Germans would sink them all any moment. But they were never spotted. By 0130 the entire party were safely on the south bank and crossing no-man's-land on the way to the American front line behind the dike.

The next day Colonel Sink issued a citation for gallantry in action. He declared that "the courage and calmness shown by the covering force was a major factor in this successful execution. So well organized and executed was this undertaking that the enemy never knew an evacuation had taken place.

"All members of this covering force are commended for their aggression, spirit, prompt obedience of orders and devotion to duty. Their names appear below."

Gordon's name is there. When I suggested that he must be proud to have volunteered for and carried out so well such a hazardous operation, he said the only reason he went along was that Heyliger had selected him. "It was not a volunteer operation. I'm not saying I wouldn't have volunteered, I'm just saying I didn't volunteer."

Copyright © 1992 by Stephen E. Ambrose. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

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