The recent reference to Captain Harry Roberts in the Perfectly Imperfect blog written by my excellent colleague Lucy Brown, the Museum's Social Media and Digital Marketing Officer, touched on the story of a man who, by any standards, had an eventful war. Fortunately for the Museum, we have many fascinating objects associated with Harry in the permanent collection, and these enable us to tell his story to the fullest.

Operation Market Garden

The fulcrum of his military career was undoubtedly the Allies' 1944 airborne assault on The Netherlands, and it is worth spending some time referring to these events in order to give context to Harry's experiences.

In September 1944, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery flew to Brussels to see General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allies' forces, and proposed two airborne operations, Market and Garden. Montgomery's plan under Market was for forces of the First Allied Airborne Army to seize bridges and terrain in the areas of Eindhoven, Grave, Nijmegen, Arnhem and Oosterbeek, while the complimentary operation, Garden, would see ground forces move north to support the entrenched airborne units. Establishing these bridgeheads would enable the Allies to sustain the eastward momentum they had generated beginning with the D-Day landings, and create a route for an invasion of northern Germany.

Although planned and thought of separately, it is these operational names that have been combined in the public mind as Operation Market Garden, events described in the 1974 book by Cornelius Ryan, "A Bridge Too Far" and the film of the same name released three years later.

Eisenhower consented to the plans for a number of reasons, with the main one being pressure from the United States to use the First Allied Airborne Army as an offensive unit. By this point in the War, eighteen airborne actions had been planned and cancelled; this was because the Allied front was moving so rapidly that the ostensive targets for the paratroopers were taken by conventional ground troops before the drops could be made. Eisenhower also believed that using his airborne forces at this time could give the impetus for the Allies to cross the Rhine and inflict a massive psychological blow on the Nazis.

Harry joined REME in 1943 and was attached to the First Airborne Army. His civilian career meant he found a natural home in the Corps. He was born in York, and when he was 16, joined the London and North Eastern Railway company (LNER), as a fitter in the firm’s carriage and wagon works. He wanted to join up when war was declared in 1939, but his employers considered his to be a reserved occupation so his request to leave was denied. He was eventually allowed to join and ultimately rose to the rank of Second Lieutenant. Harry’s first posting was to the Corps' Airborne Division Workshop, a unit formed in the same year he joined.

Document titled Memorial Service with a maroon square and white pegasus with man riding.

Programme for a memorial service attended by Harry a year after the Operation Market landings. The Airborne Forces' sign shows Bellerophon mounted on the winged horse, Pegasus. This is the first recorded instance, albeit a mythical one, of an airborne warrior in human history.

The Airborne Division Workshop that saw action in Market consisted of seventy-five REME personnel who occupied four Horsa gliders. Two of the four aircraft carried a jeep and trailer, while the other two transported troops, motor cycles, folding bikes and hand trailers. The Horsa aircraft was designed by Airspeed Ltd., and was a vital part of the British Government’s efforts to create a unit of airborne troops, a project that began in early 1941; military planners had studied the impact German paratroopers had had during the Battle of France, and wanted the British armed forces to have a similar option for future operations.

The Horsa was made largely of wood, both in order to save weight and reduce the use of precious metals during wartime. It has been described as probably "the most wooden aircraft ever built", and Harry clearly disliked it. He wrote:

It was a flimsy plywood contraption which bucked and swayed in the tug's slipstream.

Despite this, Harry and his comrades took off from Down Ampney near Cricklade at precisely 11am on 18 September 1944, and joined those aircraft that formed part of the airborne 'northern route' destined for The Netherlands. It is easy to imagine the apprehension and excitement that all the men in the operation probably felt, as they left the ground and began the journey to the drop point to participate in the largest airborne operation in military history.

Harry’s glider arrived over the landing zone near the town of Wolfheze at just after three o'clock. The landing was almost a disaster, as a number of gliders were damaged or destroyed by fire from the German defenders as they descended. Although the landing of Harry’s glider was a safe one and he and his comrades were able to exit the aircraft, machine gun fire immediately killed one man and Harry was shot in the back.

With hindsight, Harry was able to reconstruct and write about what happened to him. Just like every other British soldier, he was wearing a gas mask, and the bullet hit the rubber folds of the breathing tube. Although this deflected it and slowed it down, the round still had enough momentum to chip his spine between the fifth and sixth vertebra. This immediately paralysed Harry from the waist down, and although he was able to shoot some Germans from the fox hole in which he managed to take cover, he was later shot again, this time in the right shoulder.

Prisoner of War

Eventually, the Germans were forced back from landing zone and Harry was recovered by stretcher bearers and taken to a hospital in Wolfheze (this town is about four miles from Oosterbeek and seven from Arnhem). After being moved to a casualty station based in Oosterbeek’s Hotel Vreewijk, he was taken prisoner by the Germans on 25 September as they began to fight back against the Allied troops.

Black and white image of a building.

A wartime image of the Hotel Vreewijk in Oosterbeek where Harry was taken prisoner by the Germans.

Many of those who have studied the landings near Arnhem have said that the German soldiers facing the Allies were of the highest quality, and this along with Market's operational and organisational issues were the main reasons why the attack ultimately failed. By the time Harry was taken prisoner, Operation Berlin had been launched. This was the night-time evacuation of the surviving soldiers from the British 1st Airborne Division, who were trapped north of the Lower Rhine.

Harry was eventually transported to Oflag IX A/Z, a camp that occupied a former girls’ school in Rotenburg near Bremen, and arrived there on 1 October 1944 (the word 'oflag' is a contraction of the phrase Offizier-Lager, or officer camp, and shows Harry was taken to a camp specifically for senior ranks). The camp’s commandant was the school's former principle.

Document in German with a photograph in the bottom corner of a man holding a sign with numbers.

Harry's Prisoner of War identification card.

Harry was medically assessed in the early days of incarceration by both British and German doctors, and the general consensus was that he should not have been alive as the bullet near his spine should have killed him. The rest of his time in the camp was accompanied by long periods of boredom and hunger, the former alleviated by gardening and wood cutting, the latter by a number of good meals over Christmas 1944. Fortunately for Harry, his incarceration also saw him recover from his paralysis and regain the ability to move unaided.

Card with outline of a landscape scene, reads

A Christmas card sent home by Harry from Oflag IX A/Z.


Oflag IX A/Z was evacuated on 29 March 1945, as the Germans realised they needed to retreat in the face of the rapidly advancing US 4th Armoured Division. The prisoners marched for 16 days north-east to Wimmelburg, where they were overtaken by a column of Sherman tanks. Harry was eventually transported back to Britain on a Stirling aircraft that took off from Brussels, landing at Wescote on 18 April 1945.

Eventually the bullet was removed in a long operation that took place in May 1945. This procedure was also preceded by a doctor declaring that Harry should not be alive.

On leaving REME, Harry returned to the railways and resumed his work as an engineer. He ultimately moved to Swindon where he became the works' manager. Harry passed away in 1992.

It is beyond the scope of this piece to assess the success or failure of Operation Market Garden (and particularly Market in which Harry was involved), a debate that continues vigorously to this day. The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the very personal story of a brave and resilient man, one of many whom saw action with the Corps during World War Two.

I am grateful to my colleague Lucy Brown, the Museum's Social Media and Digital Marketing Officer, for the original inspiration for the article, and to Celia Cassingham, the Museum's Archivist, for facilitating access to the Museum's excellent collection of archival material relating to Harry.

Richard Davies, Curator. Published in The Craftsman, November 2023.