SECOND World War paratrooper Jim Denning was right in the thick of it at the Battle of Arnhem. Mike Pryce recalls interviewing the airborne trooper of the Royal Engineers, who had already had quite a war.

Jim had been rescued off the beaches at Dunkirk, dropped behind enemy lines in Sicily, where he was a temporary PoW, invaded Italy and received a commendation, before being told to get his stuff together again and head for the bridge at Arnhem.

Sadly Jim, who was a Worcester postman, died in 1990 at the age of 71, but his uniform and kit are now on display in the Airborne Museum at Duxford, near Cambridge.

In 1977 I interviewed him at the height of his powers and he had vivid recollections of the battle of the Bridge Too Far.  

“We were six weeks preparing for the mission,” he said. “In fact we were stood by 31 times only to have it called off at the last minute.”

Ironically the night before the attack came, Jim was back home to Worcester on leave with his family.

“Of course I was sworn to secrecy, but when I got the call to report back immediately, I think my father knew something big was going on,”  he recalled. 

The members of Jim’s unit gathered at an airfield in Dorset and the airborne armada circled the skies of the Midlands, gradually forming up as sections joined from other British air bases.

Several times he passed over Worcester where a few hours before he had been sitting with his parents.

Sgt Denning and his men were dropped the second farthest into enemy held Dutch territory.

The theory was the advancing main body of the Allies would link up with the parachutists section by section and form a thrust deep into the Nazi heart.

 Jim explained: “We were sent in by glider and landed five miles from Osterbeek, where our eventual target was to capture the Hotel Wolfensen. This was to become one of the headquarters of the operation.

“The landing went OK but almost straight away we met up with the Hitler Jugend, the youth regiment. They were only kids of about 14 to 16 but they’d got machine guns and were as lethal as anyone else.

“We just mowed them down. Some of the lads felt a bit sick when they saw how young these kids were, but that was that.”

Jim was by now in command of a troop of 72 soldiers and they stormed the hotel, dug in and waited. But the promised link-up never came.

“We were shot at and shelled for nine days solid,” he said. “I just couldn’t get any sleep. I cat napped for about five minutes at a time, that was all.

“One time a mortar round landed right on top of us, but we were deep down, covered by thick mattresses and survived.”

When the call eventually came to move out of the hotel and get back to the Second Army’s base as best they could, 58 out of the 72 men were dead or wounded.

“We had been told for days the Second Army was coming but we knew really that was impossible. To make it back to them was all that was left to do.” 

The retreat was a nightmare too. Under constant fire from two sides, they managed to rest for a while at Nijmegen, but even there the perilous situation was brought home to them when they found one morning the properties either side of their shelter had been knocked down in the night by shells. Eventually they did get out and by then Jim Denning was the only one of the 72 men still in one piece.