Shropshire Star

'Gentleman and scholar' veteran of ill-fated Operation Market Garden dies aged 97

POSS ADDS TO COME, BUT READY TO GO IF NEEDED His father called him the '10-day soldier'.

Last updated
Arnhem veteran Tom Brewin, who has died aged 97

Alvin Brewin, a former sergeant in the Coldstream Guards, had served the entire duration of the First World War. So when his son Tom was captured by the Germans within days of landing in Arnhem, it was inevitable he would come in for a bit of stick.

Tom Brewin, one of the last surviving veterans of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery's ill-fated Operation Market Garden in September 1944, has died at the age of 97.

His youngest son Alan paid tribute to his father, who he described as "a gentleman and a scholar, a lovely, kind man."

Tom Brewin celebrates his 90th birthday at The Royal British Legion Club in Church Road, Willenhall.

Ironically, Tom had actually been worried he would miss out on the action altogether when he went to offer his services at the Army recruitment office in Wolverhampton.

“I had just turned 18, and I hadn’t had my call-up papers,” he said during an interview with this newspaper in 2014. “I thought the war was going to be finished before I got my foot in the door. I didn’t want to be left out.”

The papers came soon enough, and when Montgomery launched his audacious plan to bring the war to a swift end, Tom couldn't wait to get started.

Filled with the gung-ho bravado of youth, the young private in the 2nd South Staffordshire Regiment was bursting with excitement as he set off for the largest airborne operation of the war.

“We weren’t afraid, we never gave it a moment’s thought. We thought it was going to be a piece of cake,” he says. “We had seen so many operations cancelled, we were all pretty frustrated, and we just wanted to get on with it.”

Tom Brewin with the South Staffordshire 2nd Battalion in 1943.

The operation, which became the subject of Richard Attenbrough's epic war film A Bridge Too Far, looked so simple on paper.

The allied invasion of Normandy had gone better than expected, and there seemed little to stop the forces sweeping through northern France and Holland as they headed towards Germany. Paratroopers and glider-based soldiers were to be dropped in Arnhem and the surrounding towns, on the other side of the Rhine. They would take control of the bridges, opening the way for armoured road units to steam on towards Germany’s industrial heartlands of the Ruhr.

But things didn’t go quite according to the script.

Tom, who grew up in the Whitmore Reans area of Wolverhampton, felt relief and excitement when his glider finally took off from Manston Aerodrome, near Margate.

Tom landed at Wolfheze, around six or seven miles north-west of Arnhem, around 2.30pm on September 17, 1944, and was told to stay put until the following morning, keeping the landing zone clear for other gliders. The following day the instructions changed, and the men were ordered to head for the main bridge at Arnhem. It was then that things started to go awry.

“We set off for Arnhem about 8am, it was a lovely day,” Tom recalled. “But it was too far, I don’t know why we landed so far away.”

Allied intelligence had failed to pick up on the fact that two German SS tank divisions were already based in the area, leaving the lightly-armed airborne troops hopelessly out-gunned.

“We got so far, probably within a couple of miles of the bridge, but we then had to turn back. We could see that the Germans were there, they were firing at us, and there was no way we could get through.”

They were redirected to Oosterbeek, three miles west of Arnhem, but again their progress was blocked. “The Germans were brilliant,” he said. “We had invaded on the Sunday, but by the Monday they were in all the right places to stop us. They knew we were after the bridge.”

A machine-gun post was set up inside a house along the Arnhem-Oosterbeek Road to cover the flood plain, before coming under fire from German tanks.

Tom’s platoon took up position in the grounds of the ‘Old Church’, the Dutch Reformed Church in Oosterbeek on the Wednesday, but by this time – just three days after they had arrived brimming with confidence – it was obvious the game was up.

A scene from Arnhem in Tom Brewin's private collection

The RAF had done its job, dropping food and other essential supplies. But because they had been obstructed, they were unable to reach the drop-off points. Most of them went to the Germans.

"We had very little food. I don’t know how we managed to live for days and days without eating, but we just didn’t think about it,” Tom said.

A scene from Arnhem in Tom Brewin's private collection

On Sunday night Tom was ordered to head for the river, ready to be evacuated the following evening, but it was a hopeless task.

“There were about 300 or 500 of us on the river bank, but the boat could carry only 10 at a time,” he says. “Some of the men decided to swim for it, but the current was so strong, and I watched many of them drown. I decided I wasn’t going to risk going into the river.”

The evacuation continued until dawn when the boat suddenly disappeared. “I don’t know whether the man in the boat abandoned us, or of course he could have been shot himself,” said Tom. After that, there was nothing to do but wait for the Germans to arrive, and after just 10 days, Tom’s military adventure was over.

“We had a choice, pack up or get shot," he said.

“When we were captured, a couple of the Germans came into the warehouse where we were waiting, and they brought a field kitchen. They made us a potato soup, and it was beautiful, the best soup I had ever tasted. It was the first time I had eaten properly since leaving England.”

After being surrounded by the Germans, their captors marched them all the way to Arnhem to show their prisoners to the Dutch.

"It was their way of saying they weren’t finished yet,” he said.

The British troops were interrogated before being loaded onto cattle trucks at the railway station.

“They said they’d give us rations for 24 hours for a 17-hour journey, but we were on there for five days,” added Mr Brewin. “It was completely miserable.”

As a PoW, he spent nearly eight months in prison camps, mostly in Czechoslovakia. He describes the day of liberation in May, 1945, as ‘a complete anti-climax’.

“It was a strange day. We woke up and all the guards had gone," he said.

"We presumed they’d just abandoned their posts.

“The Russians came past but they had no food for us, so six of us decided to make a break for it and get to Allied lines. We made it and the Americans looked after us. Within a day we were put on a plane to Belgium and then back to England.”

Of the 10,000 men who landed at Arnhem, nearly 2,000 were killed, and 6,854 were taken prisoner.

Tom married Annie in 1949, and the couple lived in the Pennfields area of Wolverhampton, and had four children. He worked as an electrician, and spent 40 years with the MEB, rising to the rank of head foreman.

Tom Brewin celebrating his 90th birthday with fellow members of Wolverhampton Parachute Regiment Association at The Royal British Legion Club in Church Road, Willenhall

He was a stalwart of Oaklands Bowling Club, representing them in local leagues playing bowls, dominoes, snooker and darts. He served as president of the club and even tried his hand working behind the bar, although son Alan said his most notable accomplishment was as the groundsman, maintaining one of the best greens in the area.

Alan said gardening was another of his passions.

"Dad always had an allotment to relax in and escape from his four screaming children," he said.

"When we moved to Pennfields he secured an allotment on Jeffcock Road which he maintained with his brother Al.

"He especially enjoyed growing different varieties of tomatoes, far too many for the family to consume so ended up giving the majority away."

He said Tom's eyesight deteriorated significantly about 10 years ago and subsequently he could not see and enjoy the labours of his love so he passed on the management of the allotment to his daughter Ann and her husband Colin.

"Dad was always grateful for surviving the challenges of World War II when many of his colleagues didn’t," he said.

"He was a friendly, generous and convivial gentleman who was deeply loved by his family and friends and will maintain a special place in the hearts of many. Dad was a gentleman and a scholar who embraced life and his loving family."

Tom died on February 2 at Eversleigh Care Home in Albert Road, Wolverhampton, after a short illness. He leaves sons John, Tom Jr and Alan, and daughter Ann, as well as grandchildren Emily, Daniel, Matthew, Emma, Kelly, Steven, Laura, Lisa and Joe, and great-grandchildren Evie, Holly, Rose, Arthur, Joshua, George, Ethan, Niamh, Sam, Elliott, Phoebe and Myles.

His funeral will be held on March 23 at St John's in the Square church in Wolverhampton. Son Alan said he was expecting there to be a large turnout.