75 Years Ago: How Lancashire soldiers fought hand-to-hand to open the way to Arnhem

On the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem, Lancashire Infantry Museum's Roger Goodwin looks back at how Lancashire soldiers took a much cherished prize during the heat of battle.

Tuesday, 17th September 2019, 1:59 pm
Updated Tuesday, 17th September 2019, 2:59 pm
Burden Schmeisser on display in the Lancashire Infantry Museum. Lt Col George Burdens medals, including his DSO and Bar, are in the lower left of the picture

Seventy-five years ago, near the little town of Lommel in Belgium, in heavy rain, the 1st Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment launched an opposed assault crossing of the Meuse-Escaut Canal, one of Europe’s major waterways.

It was the start of the Operation Market Garden, which was to culminate in the famous failure at Arnhem.

An opposed water crossing is one of the most difficult of all military operations, and it cost the lives of at least two East Lancashire soldiers just trying to get across the steeply-banked, wide canal.

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Meuse-Escaut Canal, where the 1st Bn of the East Lancashire Regiment crossed during the Battle of Arnhem, as it is today. The high banks, wide waterway, and heavy forest on the far bank, all of which contributed to the difficulty of the crossing in 1944, are still very evident

Nevertheless the battalion made it over and plunged into the thick forest on the other side, which was laced with German Falschirmjaeger (paratrooper) defenders, recognised as some of the best fighters in the German Army.

It is rarely accurate to describe visibility as ‘nil’, but in the dense forest, in the pelting rain, it was a genuine description.

The troops quickly became disorientated and the fighting became completely confused, units all in the wrong place, and British and German all mixed together, so that when dawn broke it became clear that the East Lancashires had successfully got behind the defenders, but that the enemy still held the canal bank, and were therefore able to stop British reinforcements getting across.

It took all day to winkle them out, with much hand-to-hand fighting.

In the afternoon, the East Lancashire’s Commanding Officer, Lt Col George Burden, and his orderly, Lance Corporal Gammon, were racing from one position to the next, and dived for cover into a foxhole.

This came as a great surprising to its existing occupant, a lone German Falschirmjaeger, whom they quickly overpowered and took prisoner.

He was found to be carrying an MP-40 submachine gun, a well-known and much prized German weapon, incorrectly known to the Allies as a Schmeisser. He was promptly relieved of it by a delighted Lt Col Burden, who then carried it himself as his personal weapon for the rest of the war.

Seventy-five years ago today, and now ‘The Burden Schmeisser’ is a prized treasure on permanent display in the Lancashire Infantry Museum in Fulwood Barracks