Alex Reith had just celebrated his 22nd birthday when he landed his glider in Normandy in northern France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. It may have been a dangerous day for his first taste of World War 2, but it was far from his worst. That was to come a few months later in Operation Market Garden – the parachute drop that turned into a slaughter and inspired the Hollywood film A Bridge Too Far.
It was a glum and grey afternoon when Alex Reith flew his glider – with five troops, a jeep and a field gun on board – across the English Channel, towards Normandy’s Sword Beach swarming with invading troops.
Although the 22-year-old British-born staff sergeant was aware of the scale of the operation, little did he know that D-Day would go down as the largest amphibious military assault in history. Some 195,701 servicemen took part in the operation, as well as 23,400 parachute units and many thousands of other troops carried by 7,000 ships and vessels and 11,590 aircraft and thousands of gliders.
Reith remembers his journey from England to France as if it were yesterday. The view from high above the English Channel is etched into his memory. Excitement saturates his voice as he recalls the 150-kilometer flight.
“As we were making our way across in our matchbox, we could see the thousands of vessels, boats, battleships and God knows what else below us which were headed for Normandy. We didn’t just catch a glimpse of the armada. No, we had a panoramic view of it! It was an absolutely one time fantastic sight!” Reith recalls, explaining that glider planes were called matchboxes because they were made of plywood, often manufactured in furniture factories.
Eventually, Reith’s glider touched down near Ranville, a small town east of Sword beach.
“It must have been sometime between 4PM and 5PM. It was over 70 years ago, you know, so I am not too sure about the exact time,” he says with a chuckle.
“The landing was fairly unremarkable. Normandy is flat. The only difficulties were the trees and the anti-glider poles the Germans had installed. There were plenty of those around. We were fortunate enough to land in an open field, together with some 20 other gliders.”
Before unloading the field gun and jeep, Reith did some surveillance to see if the coast was clear.
“There was quite a bit of gunfire and smoke, and there were bombs going off everywhere,” he recalls.
“After that, we settled down and had our army rations – which were quite dreadful. Then we went to sleep, taking turns on guard duty.”
Shortly after landing, Reith and a number of glider pilots made their way back to the beach, while the rest stayed behind.
“The duty of a glider was to land safely and accurately in enemy territory, often under very difficult circumstances, and then to take part in any required action on the ground, offensive or defensive. You have to understand that we were not pilots belonging to the Royal Air Force (RAF). We were soldiers, just soldiers – like any other soldier,” Reith explains. “The fact that we were able to fly gliders didn’t make a difference. It wasn’t a very glamorous job.”
The journey back to the beach was tough.
“It was quiet, yet there were all sorts of reminders of a massive battle. It had been truly a dreadful two days,” he says.
“There were dead Germans all over the place, as well as abandoned field guns and deserted vehicles. Interestingly enough, we did not see one single injured or dead Allied soldier. They had already been cleared.”
Reith recalls how he and his colleagues heard machinegun fire as they passed a small village. They decided to investigate.
“We found a lone German in a church, firing at targets outside. He was causing quite a bit of damage and chaos,” says Reith.
“We gave him a few warnings, and asked him to surrender so we could take him to our base as a prisoner of war. He replied by shooting some more. We decided that something had to be done. A shell wiped him out. In a way, I have always admired this man. Despite everything, he decided to go his own way after the German defeat. He was quite a brave man, I thought. And then he was gone.”
Market Garden Horror
Once on the beach, Reith and his crew were sent back home, after which their training started for the next offensive: the infamous Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands.
“That was a horrific operation from a glider pilot point of view. Well, it was a horrific operation from so many different points of view,” Reith says.
“We lost some 500 glider pilots during that mission, and thousands of other troops too.”
Operation Market Garden took place between September 17 and September 25, 1944, in and around the eastern Dutch cities of Arnhem, Eindhoven, and Nijmegen. The assault involved tens of thousands of British and American troops behind enemy lines as an ‘airborne carpet’, including 20,000 paratroopers and 13,500 gliders. Thousands of tons of equipment and vehicles were also dropped.
The troops’ objective was to capture eight strategic bridges on and near the Dutch-German border, while Allied tanks would advance on the ground. The aim: the liberation of a large part of the Netherlands, after which the Allied forces would cross the Rhine and bring Germany swiftly to its knees. It didn’t work. Two SS Panzer divisions near Arnhem turned the largest airborne military operation in history into a fiasco that claimed more than 16,000 lives.
“It was an absolute disaster, and a hopeless battle. The Panzer division, along with a battalion of cadets, prevented any Allied advance from Arnhem. British and American soldiers, paratroopers, the infantry, and airborne troops were decimated, as they had the river behind them and the Germans in front of them,” Reith recalls with emotion in his voice.
“I was lucky. I had landed in Nijmegen and not in Arnhem. Nijmegen was difficult, but not as difficult and horrendous as the situation was at the other side of the river.”
After Operation Market Garden, Reith was sent back to England to prepare for the next operation, in April 1945 in Italy’s Po Valley. But the assault was cancelled at the very last minute, after an Allied recce had shown the valley was riddled with Germans.
“Not wanting another Arnhem, the mission was aborted,” Reith says, who was in Sicily at the time.
“That was the end of it. Soon afterwards, the war in Europe came to an end. We celebrated, we drank too much, and then we were taken back to England by a troopship. That was that. It was a bit of an anti-climax, really.”
Reith was discharged from the army a year later, a war veteran at the tender age of 24. He remembers how lost he was during those first few post-war years.
“I [joined] the army when I was 17, after leaving school. This meant that I didn’t have any relevant experience,” he says. “Not many people will say this, but when I came out of the army, I was lost. In the army we were fed, clothed, sheltered; we were given a bit of spending money. There I was, 24 years old and thrown into the labor market with no experience or skills. Most jobs had already been snapped up so it was very difficult. It took me quite a while to find my way around.”
Reith eventually ended up in sales, which he took to.
“By the time I came to South Africa in 1970, I was a successful sales manager,” he says.
So why South Africa and retirement near the beach at Margate in KwaZulu-Natal?
“I had a stepbrother here and my daughters had moved to South Africa with their husbands. When the first grandchild came, my wife insisted we move too.”
When he was invited to the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings, he didn’t hesitate.
“I was treated like royalty and thanks to the South African Air Force Association (SAAFA), I had a sponsored trip – with a first-class ticket donated by British Airways,” he says.
While there were quite a few veterans at the ceremony, only seven glider pilots were there.
“Most of us were over 90, except for one young chap who was 89,” Reith says with a smile. “I didn’t know any of them. It was a bit disappointing in a way. The two gliders I am in touch with – one who lives in Australia and one in Wales – were not well enough to travel.”
“Apart from them and 2,000 to 3,000 troops, all in their best dress, there was an enormous crowd – mainly French people who wanted to extend their gratitude for the liberation,” he says.
“It was quite something, and at times totally emotional. My eyes were brimmed with tears more than once.”
“The most emotional moment was when I was among the gravestones, thousands and thousands of them, looking for a white cross with the name of a comrade fallen during D-Day,” he says before falling silent for a few seconds.
“It was a reminder of how lucky I had been. I survived D-Day, I survived Market Garden, and I lived long enough to attend the commemoration of D-Day’s 70th anniversary. I am a very lucky guy.”