Sometimes here on Unfortunate History we discuss some well-known people or moments from history. However, we also like to include some less-known people from history. I, personally, like doing this because it helps introduce you listeners to historical figures that you may never hear about anywhere else. With that said, today we’ll be discussing one of those people.
Today we’re going to be covering Major Allison Digby Tatham Warter. Major Digby was a true British eccentric known for his charismatic nature, indestructible confidence, and his umbrella. He served as a commanding officer under the British Army during WWII and was known to stroll the battlefield, umbrella in hand, seemingly unaware of the constant barrage of bullets.
Digby’s life was filled completely with moments of heroism and absurdity, and we’ll be discussing some of the most interesting today. We’ll start with Major Digby’s early life, like we normally do, and then we’ll discuss a few of his incredible military operations.
Digby was born in Shropshire, England during the Great War on 21 May 1917. He was the son of Henry de Grey Tatham Warter, who had also served in the British Army during World War I. Henry was actually gassed during this war and unfortunately died when Digby was 11 years old.
Digby was educated at Wellington College, Berkshire, and in 1935 he was accepted into the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.
Digby graduated from Sandhurst two years later as an officer at the rank of Second Lieutenant. Interestingly enough, he actually had some family connections in India and he wished to transfer the Indian army. He was attached to an Indian army battalion, although he was never actually transferred to the Indian army. Here he developed unfortunate interests in tiger hunting and pig-sticking. Which I personally say that I do not support, and, interestingly, Digby showed more conservatism in his later years; but that will come later.
However, after 2 years in India, Digby wanted to see action on the front lines. So, he requested to be transferred to the airborne forces fighting in Europe during WWII. This decision soon saw him in command of A Company of the 2nd Battalion of the newly formed Parachute Regiment.
His timing couldn’t have been more perfect to see action on the frontline, because A Company was to be an integral part of the biggest airborne operations in history: Operation Market Garden.
The point of Operation Market Garden, not that many really care, was to gain control over certain bridges in the Netherlands. This would give the Allied Forces control over a great majority of the River Rhine, which ran through the Netherlands and even through Germany. This would allow the Allied Forces to bypass the Siegfried Line, which was the German’s defensive line that ran along the western border of the old German Empire.
In general, this operation would put the Allied Forces in a position to really stick to the Axis Forces.
The training for Operation Market Garden is where Digby truly started to show his impressive commanding abilities, along with his dry sense of humor and ingenious inventiveness. At the age of 27, Digby was described as having one of the coolest heads in the war. However, he apparently also knew how to party.
On one particular occasion during the training, Digby managed to procure an American Dakota aircraft. He then used this aircraft to fly him and all of A Company’s officers from their base in Lincolnshire to a party at the Ritz in London. I found no information on if Digby was punished for this or not, but he continued to command A Company, so I assume he wasn’t.
I mentioned Digby’s inventiveness just a moment ago. One of the ways he showed this was in the use of radios within his company. He didn’t like them. He felt that they were unreliable, so he decided to reach back to communication tactics used during the Napoleonic Wars. A Company was trained on the use of bugles, a tried and tested method of communication on the battlefield. I couldn’t actually find any information about other companies using this form of communication. We’ll actually see in a moment that this was a very smart decision.
Something else that came during training is Digby’s penchant for carrying an umbrella everywhere he went. He would go on to carry this umbrella throughout all battles he fought in the war. He claimed that, since he could never remember the military passwords, he would carry his umbrella because, ‘it would be quite obvious to anyone that the bloody fool carrying the umbrella could only be an Englishman.’ Which he’s kind of right.
Aside from his oddities, Digby was seen as an incredible commander. Even though he was unable to remember his soldier’s names (along with the previously mentioned military passwords), he was still able to demand an enormous amount of respect from them. Because of Digby’s leadership, A Company was chosen to perform a pivotal role in Operation Market Garden. They were to parachute into Holland and lead the 2nd Battalion 7 miles north to the most distant bridge: Arnhem Bridge. They were then to hold the bridge until reinforcements arrived 48 hours later.
The fighting that occurred in the journey through Arnhem and at the Arnhem Bridge was later referred to as the Battle of Arnhem. This battle contains a LOT of information, so we’re going to focus on Digby’s experiences throughout the battle.
Once A Company had landed at their dropzone, they made their way to Arnhem. Their journey there was relatively smooth, with A Company only sustaining one casualty while also capturing 150 German troops, many of which were a part of the S.S. However, they soon experienced heavy resistance from German forces when approaching and attempting to capture the bridge. Unfortunately for the Allies, the radios which Digby had doubted did indeed cut out and were all but useless when the fighting began. So, his insistence on bugles actually did pay off for A Company.
Even still, Digby would still be seen strolling about the battlefield with his umbrella and wearing his red beret instead of a helmet. I’m going to discuss a few stories from the battle that describe Digby’s general attitude and personality during the operation, all of which involve the use of his legendary umbrella.
At one point in the battle, Father Egan, the Battalion Padre, was attempting to cross to a building on the other side of the street, but was pinned down due to intense mortar fire. Digby caught sight of him and strolled across the street to meet him. Digby opened his umbrella and held it above Egan’s head and invited the padre to accompany him. When Egan gestured to the mortar fire occurring around the men, Digby simply said, “Don’t worry, I have an umbrella.”
On another occasion, the company was under the attack of a German armoured car. Digby, in an show of his ingenuity, used his rolled up umbrella to disable the car by poking it through the observation slit into the vehicle, incapacitating the driver.
In another ridiculous example of Digby’s heroism, the company was being beaten back from the bridge when a group of Mark IV German Tanks and German infantry began entering British territory. Many of the men, including much more experienced soldiers, became very disheartened by the sight of the tanks and men. However, that soon disappeared when they saw Digby leading a bayonet charge directly at the infantry unit. He was carrying a pistol in one hand and wildly swinging his umbrella above his head. He had also replaced his red beret with a bowler hat and no one had any idea where he could have gotten it. This charge effectively pushed the advancing German forces back from the Northern part of the bridge.
This is where a bit of the unfortunate parts of the story come in. Unfortunately for Digby, Operation Market Garden was not a well thought-out plan. They had done relatively well with holding the Northern part of the bridge, but they were greatly outnumbered by the German forces. All but 1 infantry battalion still existed. The 2nd Parachute Battalion (the one which included A Company), was separated from the other forces of the operation. Other allied forces were further from the bridge and cutoff by German forces. The decision was then made to abandon the 2nd Parachute Battalion, including the umbrella-wielding Digby.
It was hoped that the battalion would be able to hold out until reinforcements arrived. However, it was soon obvious that none would be coming, although they had held the bridge for four day; double the time they were expected. The Battalion was left on their own to hold the Northern part of the Arnhem Bridge.
The men continued fighting the German forces while also concocting different escape strategies. One particular strategy involved small numbers of men sneaking out late in the evening, but these men were soon captured. The German forces surrounded the men and all were captured. The men were then lined up, ten at a time, and shot unceremoniously; with Digby being one of the first, still sporting his bowler hat from earlier.
Digby was ACTUALLY taken prisoner and admitted to St. Elizabeth Hospital to recover from various wounds he had experienced during the battle. One of which was receiving an annoying amount of shrapnel straight to the ass.
Digby was also admitted with his Second-in-Command, Captain Tony Frank. The two men waiting for the nurses’ attention to be drawn elsewhere. When the opportunity presented itself, the two men dressed, climbed out through the window, and made their escape into the countryside.
They travelled for about a day before deciding to approach a nearby farm for help, as they had no provisions and had not eaten much for days. The farm was owned by a solitary woman who agreed to help them. She invited them in, fed them, and allowed them to sleep in the loft of her barn.
Soon, they were approached at this home by a member of a Dutch resistance movement. Who invited them to another farm. The men agreed and went with the man. After arriving at the new accommodation, Digby was given a false identity. Which, coincidentally, was the identity of a man who was deaf and mute. This would allow Digby to move freely in the area without much hassle from the German patrols. He would even go on to assist a German military personnel with their car, without raising any suspicion at all.
The leader of the previously mentioned Dutch resistance soon visited the farm where the two men were staying. He informed the men that there were other escaped Allied soldiers scattered around the area hiding with other members of the resistance. In total, there were 138 soldiers hiding in the surrounding areas. Digby, along with his new identity, was also given a bicycle, and, in the most English fashion, set out around the countryside to check on the men. He also was invited by the resistance leader to set up a headquarters in his home, which Digby did.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Digby worked with the resistance to communicate with Allied forces back in England. He informed the Allies that there were 138 men left and that these men needed to be rescued. They began to develop a plan, and this operation came to be known as Operation Pegasus.
The aim of this operation was very simple: get these 138 men to the river and across to Allied territory. It seemed very foolhardy, considering there were many German patrols in the area. There were literally hundreds of German soldiers around every corner. So, Digby would need to recon the area to make sure it was safe to move the men. One of the men, General Lathbury, who had been the commander of the 1st Airborne Battalion, was one of the 138 men. He and Digby both decided to mount bicycles and ride through the area to check it was safe for the men. They were not stopped by any of the 200 plus German soldiers they passed, and the operation was set to begin on October 22nd, 1944.
The men were led through the countryside and through a wooded area near the Rhine River. At the end of this wooded area was a meadow leading to the river and shrouded in a low-lying mist. Digby began ordering every man at five yard intervals to make their way to the river on their stomachs. Each man did as they were instructed and by 1:00am the following morning, all 138 men had been transported from to the Allied Forces side of the river by boat. Successfully completing Operation Pegasus.
When he returned to England, Digby resumed command of what remained of A Company. For his bravery and undeniably heroic involvement in Operation Pegasus, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
Later in his career, Digby emigrated to Kenya during the British colonisation of Africa. Here, he bought two large estates and made one into a safari. However, this safari did not allow the animals to be killed (except for small birds), but instead promoted the use of cameras. Some people argue that Digby was the first person to put into practice the idea of the modern safari.
Digby stayed in Africa until he died at the age of 75 on the 21 March 1993. He was an amazing eccentric person who left his mark on everything he touched. Just judging him from his military exploits, he was a courageous man and one who would not let the world affect him. Personally, in the day and age, I hope to strive to be more like that. I hope that I can begin living a life where I can control myself to such an extent that the risk of mortar fire does not affect my stroll or the twirl of my umbrella. The world needs a few more Digby Tatham Warter's and until the day comes when there are, I’d say it’s a bit unfortunate.