By Calvin Palmer
On this day 67 years ago, a 21-year-old from Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, was killed during the Battle of Arnhem.
John “Jack” Baskeyfield, a lance sergeant with the South Staffordshire Regiment, which formed part of the 1st Airborne Division that took part in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden, was awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military decoration for valour in the face of the enemy.
Operation Market Garden was an ambitious plan to help end the war in Europe by Christmas 1944. It was the largest airborne operation of the Second World War, with 34,600 men of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, U.S. 82nd Airborne Division, British 1st Airborne Division and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade being dropped behind enemy lines by parachute and glider to seize several bridges across rivers and canals in German-occupied Netherlands to enable a rapid advance by allied armour into Northern Germany to encircle the industrial Ruhr.
The U.S. divisions were designated to take bridges at Son, Veghel, Grave and Nijmegen. The British 1st Airborne Division was entrusted to capture and hold the most northerly bridge at Arnhem and the rail bridge at Oosterbeek.
Before the operation, the commander of the British airborne forces, Lt-Gen Frederick Browning, is alleged to have said: “I think we may be going a bridge too far.”
The British failed to capture and hold the bridge at Arnhem due to a combination of poor equipment, radio sets did not work; bad weather that prevented air support and delayed some of the parachute drops; and the presence of crack troops of the German 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions in the Arnhem area.
Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield was in command of two 6-pounder anti-tank guns at a T-junction on the road between Arnhem and Oosterbeek.
In the initial German assault on September 20, Baskeyfield and his gun crews destroyed two tanks and a self-propelled gun. Baskeyfield allowed the armour to come within 100 yards of his positions before ordering his crews to fire, while paratroopers of the 11th Battalion in nearby houses dealt with attacking infantry.
In the course of this action, the crews of the two guns under Baskeyfield’s command were killed or wounded and Baskeyfield himself was badly injured but he refused to be evacuated. He remained at his post and worked the gun singlehandedly, loading, firing and reloading himself. He fired round after round until enemy fire put his gun out of action. He then crawled to the second gun and engaged another German self-propelled gun, which he destroyed with two rounds. Shortly afterwards he was killed by a shell from a German tank.
The full citation for Baskeyfield’s Victoria Cross appeared in the London Gazette on 23 November 1944. It read:
On 20th September, 1944, during the battle of Arnhem, Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield was the N.C.O. in charge of a 6-pounder anti-tank gun at Oosterbeek. The enemy developed a major attack on this sector with infantry, tanks and self-propelled guns with the obvious intent to break into and overrun the Battalion position. During the early stage of the action the crew commanded by this N.C.O. was responsible for the destruction of two Tiger tanks and at least one self propelled gun, thanks to the coolness and daring of this N.C.O., who, with complete disregard for his own safety, allowed each tank to come well within 100 yards of his gun before opening fire.
In the course of this preliminary engagement Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield was badly wounded in the leg and the remainder of his crew were either killed or badly wounded. During the brief respite after this engagement Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield refused to be carried to the Regimental Aid Post and spent his time attending to his gun and shouting encouragement to his comrades in neighbouring trenches.
After a short interval the enemy renewed the attack with even greater ferocity than before, under cover of intense mortar and shell fire. Manning his gun quite alone Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield continued to fire round after round at the enemy until his gun was put out of action. By this time his activity was the main factor in keeping the enemy tanks at bay. The fact that the surviving men in his vicinity were held together and kept in action was undoubtedly due to his magnificent example and outstanding courage. Time after time enemy attacks were launched and driven off. Finally, when his gun was knocked out, Lance Sergeant Baskeyfield crawled under intense enemy fire to another 6-pounder gun nearby, the crew of which had been killed, and proceeded to man it single-handed. With this gun he engaged an enemy self propelled gun which was appoaching to attack. Another soldier crawled across the open ground to assist him but was killed almost at once. Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield succeeded in firing two rounds at the self propelled gun, scoring one direct hit which rendered it ineffective. Whilst preparing to fire a third shot, however, he was killed by a shell from a supporting enemy tank.
The superb gallantry of this N.C.O. is beyond praise. During the remaining days at Arnhem stories of his valour were a constant inspiration to all ranks. He spurned danger, ignored pain and, by his supreme fighting spirit, infected all who witnessed his conduct with the same aggressiveness and dogged devotion to duty which characterised his actions throughout.
After the liberation of Arnhem in 1945, Baskeyfield’s body was never identified. His name is inscribed on the memorial at Groesbeek to Allied servicemen who have no known grave.
Baskeyfield’s Victoria Cross is on display at the Staffordshire Regiment Museum in Whittington Staffordshire.
A memorial statue was erected in 1990 at Festival Park, Stoke-on-Trent, and the John Baskeyfield V.C. Church of England Primary School in Burslem is named after him.
A tree on the site of Baskeyfield’s second gun has been named the Jack Baskeyfield Tree.
In the film A Bridge Too Far (1977) directed by Richard Attenborough and based on the book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan, one gets the impression that the British airborne force had only rifles, machine guns and the PIAT anti-tank weapon with which to take on the German armour.
Needless to say, the account of Baskeyfield’s gallantry shows that the British troops engaged in the Battle of Arnhem did deploy artillery pieces.
One wonders why this glaring omission and distortion occurred. Was it a case of Attenborough wanting to depict the British as being incompetent? While it may have been true of some of the British top brass, the bravery of Baskeyfield and his comrades in arms was worthy of a more accurate cinema account.