Allison ‘Digby’ Tatham-Warter | Rupert Augustus

To those already initiated in World War Two history, Operation Market Garden is a name that may conjure some combination of daring, overambition, and maybe a touch of recklessness. This feeling will likely only be heightened when talking particularly about Arnhem, the so-called ‘bridge too far’. If one has particularly granular knowledge about this battle, then 2nd Battalion may also ring a bell – as the initial and only unit capable of taking and holding the northern side of Arnhem Bridge, but quickly isolated and surrounded. This will be a brief look at the commander of the vanguard A company; an eccentric among eccentrics: Allison ‘Digby’ Tatham-Warter.

Hailing from Atcham in Shropshire, England, Digby trained as an officer prior to the war, and spent the early years in India – humbly hunting boar and tigers. He transferred to the commandos in 1942 after the death of his brother in North Africa, and before he’d even seen combat – he convinced the americans to allow him to fly a C-47 Dakota from his camp in Lincolnshire to London with his fellow officers for a party at the Ritz.

The operational mission wasn’t simple exactly; to drop airborne and paratrooper units which would then be able to secure major crossings of the formidable Rhine river in the Netherlands, which would allow a lightning thrust into Germany proper, with few major natural barriers left. According to the plan, the airborne units (at Arnhem particularly) would have to hold the bridges behind enemy lines for four days at most in theory. The battle lasted much longer in actuality, and Arnhem was never actually relieved in time.

Even prior to Market Garden, Digby was recognised as an aggressive commander; “a Prince Rupert of a man; he would have been a great cavalry commander on the King’s side in the war with the Roundheads”. It would not be long before they discovered how true this was. Nevertheless, as such he was given command of A company, and tasked with spearheading the attack on Arnhem bridge with utmost haste. They did this with gusto, travelling 8 miles through the town of Arnhem, often through back gardens and over fences to bypass strongpoints. They reached the bridge with only one man dead, and a few wounded, but had captured 150 German soldiers en route (many from the famed SS units). 

Now would be a good time to mention two points: prior to dropping, Digby didn’t trust the radios, and so insisted that his men learn Napoleonic Bugle signals, of course – the radios did end up being unreliable, so these signals saw extensive use throughout the battle. Secondly, Digby had trouble remembering passwords, so he instead opted to drop with an umbrella on the assumption that “the bloody fool with the umbrella could only be an Englishman”. Over the course of the battle, lasting four days for Digby’s unit, they first captured and then gallantly held their positions on the northern side of the bridge, fending off repeated attacks by infantry, halftracks, armoured cars, self-propelled guns, and tanks, all while being under near-constantly artillery fire and completely surrounded the whole time.

Digby took all of this in his stride, ever donning his umbrella, and a bowler hat that he found, merely strolling about wherever the fighting was thickest – to direct and reassure his men with his calm and encouraging demeanor. He didn’t even bother with a helmet, instead sticking with the famous maroon beret. This is all unless he was leading a bayonet charge using his umbrella, successfully, and not only once. On one occasion, he led a bayonet charge into advancing armour – himself managing to disable an armoured car by driving his umbrella through the driver’s vision slit and poking him in the eye. On another occasion, he spotted the battalion padre attempting to reach wounded soldiers in a nearby cellar, but was compelled into cover by heavy mortar fire. Digby casually strolled over to him, and raised the open umbrella telling him “Come on Padre”. When the padre objected on account of the mortars, Digby reassured: “Don’t worry, I’ve got an umbrella”. A lieutenant was similarly passing by in a hurry, when he spotted Digby strolling around with his umbrella raised and open. Shocked into stopping, the lieutenant shouted: “That thing won’t do you much good”, but Digby exclaimed in reply: “Oh my goodness Pat, what if it rains?”. A signalman was collecting ammunition on another occasion, finding Digby characteristically strolling about directing the men as though it were a sunny English ramble. He asked the lieutenant his business, and after being informed he advised: “Hurry up and get some and get back to your post soldier, there are snipers about”, clearly totally disregarding the danger posed to himself. All of this cannot have helped but maintain the excellent morale of the men, even in the face of heavy fighting, and an ever diminishing hope of relief with defeat imminent. However, though he may have disregarded the danger, it didn’t disregard him, as he sustained multiple injuries over the course of the battle. This included one instance where an 88mm flak gun was fired into a building he occupied at point-blank range, Digby was rendered unconscious and injured, but as soon as he regained consciousness, he immediately returned to his duties.

As they depleted their ammunition, their situation became untenable, so Digby – now in command of the battalion, led an attempted exfiltration of the whole fighting element of the force (after the wounded had already been evacuated under a ceasefire). However, they were so completely surrounded that this was mostly impossible, and only a few men made it out of the pocket, with the rest being captured, including Digby. Before their surrender, they sent one final radio message however: “Out of ammo, God save the King”. You’d think this is where the story would end, and you’d be wrong. By the next day he’d already escaped with one of his captains. 

Fashioning a compass out of his buttons, he was able to make it to a nearby dutch village, where he was put in contact with members of the local dutch resistance. He was sheltered, and given a fake identity, but all this did nothing to dampen his boldness. He spent most days out and about on a bicycle meeting with and encouraging an ever growing number of commandos who had also made it out and were sheltering nearby. His sureness never aroused suspicion among the many German troops stationed in the area, despite his even going as far as to help push a staff car out of a ditch. Eventually his impeccable luck ran out, and a group of German officers ended up billeting in the same house in which Digby was staying. He often returned at the same time as the officers, and at first allowed them the courtesy of entering first, but on one occasion grew dissatisfied with the arrangement, entering first himself. This resulted in a stand-off, but Digby saw the Germans down with a scornful look, earning their respect in the process, as they would later nod to him in passing, and sometimes pat him on the back.

Digby was able to re-establish contact with the Allies, enabling him to organise a drop of weapons, and supplies to his now 138 strong remnant unit, not including dutch resistance fighters. It was planned to use this force to strike at the rear of the Germans when the frontline was closer, but this did not transpire within an appropriate time frame, so they instead opted to cross the frontlines. Despite cycling most of the way with his 138 fellow soldiers (given often obscure or eccentric disguises, such as Digby himself; as a deaf, dumb lawyer’s son), they were not discovered in transit, and even proceeded almost all the way through the evacuation without detection, only a single outpost discovered them but were sent running with a few bursts from a sten gun. The whole evacuation was conducted successfully with no casualties. 

For all of this, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and stayed in the army until 1946, without much further event, later retiring to Kenya.

That is, until the Mau Mau rebellion erupted, wherein he raised and led a volunteer cavalry force at his own expense. 

Finally, after that, he settled into his retirement in Kenya, helping to popularise safaris of photography, rather than hunting.

Allison ‘Digby’ Tatham-Warter was and continues to be a model for eccentricity, leadership, battlefield vigour, duty, and in many ways – raw virtue. He exemplifies many of the best traits of the Salopians, and the English more generally through time. He ought to be remembered as such.

This essay is an entry to the Mallard’s Rogues’ Gallery competition. You can find more information here.

Photo Credit.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *