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officer who took on the Nazis - armed with ...a brolly! Remarkable true story of Midland major immortalised in the film A Bridge Too Far.

Byline: MIKE LOCKLEY Staff Reporter mike.lockley@trinitymirror.com

E was the Bridge Too Far hero who took on the Nazis - armed with a brolly.

HYou would be forgiven for thinking Major Digby Tatham-Warter possessed something of a death wish during World War Two's Battle of Arnhem.

The ultimate English officer could not have done more to make his presence known to the enemy.

He refused a metal helmet, preferring a red beret - but plumped in the end for a bowler when the time came to charge with bayonets fixed.

Distrusting radios, he urged his men to communicate by bugle. And he famously waved his umbrella while mortar shells fell like rain.

Not surprisingly, Digby was captured, but made good his escape within hours.

The eccentric Shropshire soldier's unique attire was later immortalised in the Richard Attenborough war epic, A Bridge Too Far. In the movie, however, the brollywaving captain was named Major Harry Carlyle - and he died, whereas the real-life Digby survived the war.

The 2nd Parachute Battalion commander, slim and over 6ft tall, certainly knew how to cut a dash in hostile environments.

"He was a Prince Rupert of a man," a fellow officer said. "He would have been a great cavalry commander on the King's side in the war with the Roundheads."

Digby came from a privileged background. Born in Atcham, Shropshire, on May 21, 1917, his father was wealthy landowner Henry de Grey Tatham-Warter. Henry was gassed during the Great War and died when his son was 11 years old.

The youngster was educated at Wellington College, Berkshire, and, in 1935, entered the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. He graduated as a second lieutenant in January 1937, and served with the 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in India.

Digby enjoyed the life and spent his spare time tiger-hunting and pig-sticking.

Bravery was certainly a part of the Tatham-Warter clan's DNA. Digby's sister Kit served in the Western Desert Campaign and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre while serving with the Hadfield-Spears Unit.

Brother John, a member of the 2nd Dragoon Guards, was killed in the 1942 second Battle of El Alamein.

That tragedy made Digby determined to see action in Europe and he volunteered for the Parachute Regiment, becoming commander of the 2nd Parachute Battalion's A Company.

A man always prepared to make a lavish statement, Digby hired a Dakota while training in Lincolnshire, and flew his fellow officers to London. The well-heeled group spent the night partying at The Ritz. It was a night of bubbly before Digby and his men were thrust into bloody battle.

A Company was selected by battalion commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel John Dutton Frost to take a leading role in the Battle of Arnhem, part of ill-fated Operation Market Garden.

There was some method in Digby's decision to arm himself with an umbrella. For a start, he could not remember passwords, so the brolly served as a unique aid to identification. Digby believed anyone who spotted him would realise he "was a bloody fool of an Englishman".

Problem was, his nationality would be obvious to the Germans, too.

In the Army, Digby had a reputation as a "thruster" - a leader who was capable of making fast, effective progress - and initially he and his men made rapid strides during the September 1944 offensive.

As A Company moved through Arnhem's narrow streets, Digby decided to lead his force through residential back gardens.

And with radio reception failing, Digby's decision to teach his men bugle commands proved invaluable. The instrument became the chosen method of communication and the sound from the advancing troops was akin to a fox hunt.

A Company covered eight miles in seven hours, then captured the infamous Arnhem Bridge intact.

During the trek, they had killed, or captured, 150 Germans, yet suffered only one fatality. Things seemed to be going swimmingly.

During the ferocious fighting that followed, Digby sauntered through the thick of it, seemingly oblivious to the storm of shells and bullets.

On one occasion, he led a bayonet charge sporting a bowler hat and waving his beloved brolly vigorously. On another, he captured a German armoured car by thrusting his umbrella through the observation slit and poking the driver in the eye.

Battalion padre Father Egan recalled attempting to reach wounded soldiers, trapped in a cellar, as shrapnel and shells exploded around him.

Digby strolled over and held his battered brolly over the cleric's head. "Don't worry, I've got my umbrella," he told Father Egan.

Lieutenant Pat Barnett received the same protection, but did point out: "That thing won't do us much good."

"Oh my goodness, Pat," replied Digby, "what if it rains?" The behaviour may have been beyond bizarre, but it proved a major boost to the under-fire soldiers' morale.

Digby was injured during the battle for the bridge, but simply fought on, the brolly hanging from the sling on his arm.

Following the death of Major Wallis during the thick of the fighting, Digby was given command of the 2nd Battalion. With the battle as good as lost, British troops attempted a retreat to Oosterbeek, while Digby's 2nd Battalion remained at the bridge.

Their task was hopeless. He, and most of his surviving men, were captured.

A life less ordinary... AFTER his capture, Digby was taken to hospital - but he and second-incommand Captain Tony Frank escaped as soon as night fell.

After two days on the run and racked with hunger, he decided there was nothing else for it but to knock on a farmhouse door and hope the owner was sympathetic.

He was lucky. The resident - an old lady - fed the dishevelled pair cheese and fried eggs, and allowed them to sleep in a barn.

On September 25, the escapees were visited by a member of the Resistance who provided them with a safe house, civilian clothes and bogus identity cards. He became "Peter Jensen", the mute son of a lawyer.

Deciding that being brazen was the best way of allaying Nazi suspicions, he would nonchalantly walk among German troops during his daily visits to other Allied soldiers who had been hidden by the Resistance. Once, he even stopped to help push a German staff car out of a ditch.

Throughout his time in hiding, Digby was in telephonic communication with British Intelligence at Nijmegen and 1st British Airborne Corps HQ in England.

He arranged for the RAF to drop supplies and ammunition to hundreds of men in hiding.

On October 22, Digby activated Operation Pegasus, a daring bid to free his men - and it worked like a dream.

With boots wrapped in rags to dull the sound, 138 men marched through woodland, then crawled on their bellies to the bank of the Rhine where boats were waiting to take them to safety.

Back in England, Digby was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. After the war, he served in British-controlled Mandatory Palestine before, in 1946, joining the 5th King's African Rifles in Kenya.

He settled in the country and ran estates in Eburru and Nanyuki. During the Mau Mau uprising, he raised a mounted police force.

In retirement, Digby organised a new, bloodless form of safari. Cameras were pointed at wildlife, not guns.

The amazing, fearless soldier died in Kenya on March 21, 1993. They simply don't make them like that anymore.

He was a Prince Rupert of a man. He would have been a great cavalry commander on the King's side in the war with the Roundheads A FELLOW OFFICER
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:May 14, 2017
Words:1249
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