John (left) chats to, old 10th Battalion comrade, Gerry Dimmock at Somerby, 2012
After 60 years, John eventually gets to Arnhem Bridge, September 2004
‘The bullets tore holes in my parachute… It was complete chaos. We tried to get forward; I was firing the Bren gun. A couple of men dropped to this side of me, a couple dropped that side. One got split down the middle by machine gun fire.’
This is how ‘Jonny’ Stillwell described his descent by parachute into Nazi occupied Holland in 1944. The drop zone, Ginkel Heath, about 8 miles from Arnhem Bridge, was a scene from hell, the heathland was on fire, the men from the sky were being shot at with everything the Germans and Dutch Nazis had, anti aircraft flak and machine guns. John was a mere twenty-two years old but already a battle hardened veteran of North Africa and Italy, now trained and honed as an elite soldier, one of a real band of brothers.
John went on to say when describing the drop, ‘that was the first time in my life I knew there was somebody up there looking after me. I believed; I believed’
And, indeed, someone was looking after him as, of course, he survived and prospered and look now at his marvellous legacy, Barbara and John’s family, 3 children, 6 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.
John was a private in the 10th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. There were around 650 men in the Battalion. He had been with the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Sussex, in North Africa at the battle of El Alamein and took part in the seaborne invasion of Sicily. He was there when far seeing officers (including a certain Captain Lionel Queripel, of whom I will tell more later) from the Royal Sussex, which was decimated in N. Africa, decided to convert the battalion to one of the new fangled parachute regiments. He was there on a snowy day in December 1943, arriving in Somerby, his new home not many miles from here. During the long hot summer that followed, John drank and sang in the community hall and pubs in and around the village.
He dropped from the sky onto Ginkel Heath and was captured close to a previously unknown railway crossing in the tiny Dutch village of Wolfheze near to Arnhem. Back to drop zone Y on Monday afternoon, 18th September 1944. I suppose that the horror of dropping behind lines into extreme enemy resistance was not at all dissimilar to finding yourself landing on the beaches of Normandy some 3 months earlier. The difference though, was that once those very brave men on ‘D’ Day cleared the beaches, life got a little easier. They found themselves backed up with aircraft, tanks, heavy artillery and all the highly mechanised paraphernalia of war. For the paratroopers like Jonny, things only got worse, much, much worse. Their weapons were largely what they could carry. Their ammunition ran out, they had little or no food or water and ultimately they held out for nine days against overwhelming odds. Fighting tanks, self-propelled guns and aircraft with small arms, ultimately even bayonets, bare hands and sheer bloody-mindedness.
The day after John descended into the carnage of the drop zone and during which the Battalion had fought a ferocious five-hour battle around a pumping station on the road to Arnhem, he found himself in a small party under the command of Captain Lionel Queripel (whom I mentioned earlier). They were ordered to hold a tunnel leading to a small finger of woodland to the north east of the vital railway crossing at Wolfheze. This company of men, including John, held the position throughout the night and into the next day with small arms and grenades against heavy mortar and Spandau machine gun fire. As the enemy pressure increased, Captain Queripel, by now wounded in the face and both arms, ordered his men to withdraw and despite the loud protests he remained behind alone to cover their withdrawal. Queripel later died of his wounds and was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. John told that Queripel was a much loved and respected officer and there is no question that he earned that highest award for bravery but John also said that every man involved in that stand deserved a VC.
When asked by The Mercury, I described Granddad John, Great Granddad, Little Granddad (what a great name!) as a local hero, indeed he is, but not just for what happened in Egypt, Italy and Holland. We tend to forget that in 1945 when these men returned, post-traumatic stress had not yet been invented! There was no counselling, no help; they merely got on with normal life. This was truly heroic and I am in no doubt that the terrible memories and nightmares did not fade for a very long time, if ever.
Famously John and Barbara met in 1944 whilst Barbara and her friend were queuing for a hot dog (everyone was very hungry in those days). Spotted by John, who quickly donned the famous red beret (nobody would argue with a Para.) and escorted her to the front of the queue and offered to pay, little realizing that she was buying for all of her workmates! The rest, as they say, is history.
I think that John’s passing leaves maybe only four or five 10th men still with us. The other day I spoke to Gerry Dimmock, he and John were re-united at Somerby in 2012. As Gerry said, they had a right good old chinwag. Gerry can’t be here, he lives up in Scotland but he sends his deepest regrets at the loss of another old comrade in arms.
I really liked John, when we talked the years fell away and strangely it was as though I was the old man and he was again the young Sussex farm-boy turned soldier. He seemed kind and gentle. He was modest, funny and self-effacing with that twinkle in his eye, the spark of a much younger man. He was a great comfort to me, filling in gaps about my dad. When dad died 25 years ago, I wasn’t able to speak about like this so it is such a privilege and honour to speak about John.
Like you, I will always remember John. I like to think that he’s now standing around the piano at Somerby, Dad bashing the keys and all the brothers in arms of the famous 10th holding pints of watery wartime beer and singing away at the top of their voices.
Take a look at the photograph on your order of service, as well as being a great picture of John, it succinctly and beautifully tells the whole story. John took sixty years to reach that famous bridge not the twenty-four hours or less originally planned by Montgomery and his staff. It has, of course, become a cliché, for something unachievable; ‘A Bridge Too Far’.
It is no wonder that Field Marshall Montgomery after the battle said about John and his comrades; ‘there can be few episodes more glorious than the epic of Arnhem, and the those that follow after will find it hard to live up to the standards that you have set. In years to come it will be a great thing for a man to be able to say: ‘I fought at Arnhem. You are MEN APART, EVERY MAN AN EMPEROR’.
Stanley Maxted and Alan Wood, war correspondents, sent in their now famous wireless broadcast to London from a shell hole in Arnhem, ‘If, in years to come, you meet a man who says ‘ I was at Arnhem’ raise your hat and buy him a drink.’
Lets raise our glasses if not our hats to him.
Alec Wilson 2014
War Biography by Grahame Warner, 2014
Pte 6412179 B J 'Jonny' Stillwell
One of the original 'Band of Brothers'
In early 1943, John Stillwell was in Egypt and following Montgomery's victorious 8th Army conquest of Rommel's forces in the decisive 2nd Battle of El Alamein, Jonny, as did many of his comrades, joined Lt Col Ken Smyth in his newly formed and embryonic 10th Parachute Battalion as a volunteer.
The Paras had no shortage of volunteers from the 8th Army as on a mercenary level, all successful volunteers were to receive enhanced pay on qualifying as a paratrooper! Therefore selection was competitive and only the best made it through.
In the oppressive heat of Egypt's Suez Zone, Jonny was to train and become a member of one of Britain's early elite special forces - the famous Paras. He was posted to A Company (the first coy to be recruited) under the command of Major Anson.
Initially based in Kabrit, Egypt, Jonny and the 10th Battalion were based directly adjacent to the famous fledgling SAS Regiment formed around the same time by Lt Col David Stirling. In the absence of proper funding and equipment, it was not unknown for both regiments to suddenly 'acquire' supplies and equipment as part of 'authorised' clandestine night exercises much to the surprise and annoyance of other Allied units based nearby. For John and his cohorts this was all part of and parcel of doing things under 'special forces initiative training'!
Jonny was to carry out his initial parachute training as part of the very first parachute course which was run by the Para Training School in Ramat David, Palestine on the 24th March 1943. By this time, his Battalion, together with the entire 4th Parachute Brigade, had moved from Egypt to Palestine on the 22nd / 23rd March which meant that Jonny went straight into para training the day after he arrived!
By July 1943, the 10th Parachute Battalion was operationally almost up to the mark and in September that year Jonny and the Battalion formed part of the invasion of Italy - Operation Slapstick. Landing at Taranto near the heel of Italy, they found themselves up against formidable foes, the 1st SS Fallschirmjaeger ( Parachute) Regiment. Fierce and frenetic fighting ensued which resulted in the defeat and withdrawal of the SS; The Tenth Battalion's objectives were achieved.
However, this was not the last that Jonny would see of the 1st SS Fallschirmjaeger, in exactly twelve months, they would again be opposing each other, but this time during Operation Market Garden and The Battle of Arnhem across Central Holland.
After Italy, Jonny returned to the UK with the 10th Battalion on the 10th december 1943 in preparation for the invasion of Europe (D Day). He and his pals from A Company were barracked in Somerby in the stables opposite Somerby House together with the Battalion HQ. the rest of the Battalion were stationed in the surrounding villages of Ashby Folville, Thorpe Satchville and Burrough on the Hill.
Jonny spent a frustrating nine months in Somerby, where after continual training, he was preparing to go into battle in Normandy on 5th June 1944. On that day before D Day, when the whole of the 1st Airborne Division (of which 10th Para were part) were put on short notice to be back up to the 6th Airborne Division who were to drop behind enemy lines. The long and short effect was that the 1st Airborne Division spent the next 3 months waiting for orders to go into battle. Jonny and his pals were prepared on 16 different occasions to drop behind German lines ahead of the advancing Allied Army but all were cancelled. Sometimes, 10 Para were actually in the air and halfway across the Channel when the operation was aborted!
The Tenth finally got their chance when, on the 18th September 1944, as part of Operation Market Garden, Jonny and the rest of 4 Platoon, A Coy, parachuted onto Ginkel Heath to support the securing of Arnhem Bridge, some 8 miles away.
Immediately upon landing on the drop zone, Jonny and the rest of 4 Platoon, commanded by Lt Pat Mackey, came under immediate machine gun fire from Dutch SS troops hiding in woods next to the intended rendez-vous point for the battalion. Lt Mackey and Sgt Bennett with other members of 4 Platoon immediately charged the machine gun position, killing the SS troops and seizing the guns. Unfortunately Mackey and Bennett both lost their lives in the attack.
Over twenty five percent of the Tenth had failed to make it to the RV point, either through wounding, loss of life, or their aircraft being shot from the sky or overshooting the DZ. Major Pat Anson was one of these which resulted in Captain Lionel Queripel, the 2nd i/c to take over command of A (Jonny's) Company.
Twenty four hours later, the tables had turned. The entire 1st Airborne were in retreat and the Tenth Battalion were told to withdraw and secure a railway crossing in the village of Wolfheze. Jonny was now in a mixed party consisting mainly of A Coy and S Coy men covering the rear of the Battalion during the withdrawal during which the Battalion lost more than 25 men killed and a further 60 wounded.
Once back in Wolfheze, Jonny was ordered to join a small defence group, consisting of Capt Queripel, Sgt 'Busty' Bentley and Sgt Joe Sunley together with 9 or 10 other men, to defend and secure a large culvert underneath the main railway lines against German armoured attack. Therefore allowing the rest of 4th Parachute Brigade to escape. It was for this heroic defence that Capt Queripel, already wounded several times was to receive his Victoria Cross.
Queripel and the group defended this position against German armoured vehicles, with only light small arms and grenades, for most of the evening until, against overwhelming odds, he gave the order to Sgt's Bentley and Sunley to get the remaining men to safety including Jonny and others from 4 Platoon. Capt Queripel ordered that he would hold the position until all the others had reached safety and then he would follow. Queripel was last seen with only his service revolver and hand grenades fighting off the advancing Germans; he was not to make it. As the Jonny and the rest of the men reached safety, Queripel was fatally wounded and died later that night after being taken POW.
Jonny was later to comment that "no other officer deserved winning the VC more than Capt Queripel during this action and also at the pumping station, but, they were all heroes; the men who held that position, and should all have got VC's, in my opinion".
Later that evening and into the morning of the 20th September, Jonny with countless other men from the Battalion were captured in the woods north of Oosterbeek.
Jonny was initially taken to Arnhem and then with many hundreds more of his comrades was marched off into captivity at Stalag IVB at Muhlberg in Germany before being taken to Halle. Here, some 5 months later, during a British air raid a stray bomb blew a hole in the camp fence. Jonny and two others escaped and headed for the hills. He narrowly missed being recaptured when he made a daring return to the camp to collect food. He was repatriated at the end of The War.
Of the 582 men from Jonny's beloved Tenth Battalion who were dropped at Arnhem, 92 were to lose their lives, 404 men were either wounded in action and / or taken prisoner. Only 36 men managed to escape across the Rhine to Allied forces on 25th / 26th September.
Arnhem was a glorious failure; however, the men who stood firm on the northern banks of the Rhine with only light weapons against the might of armoured German forces for nine days has gone down as legend. John Stillwell was one of these men.
Grahame Warner February 2014