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A photograph from the Second Battle of El Alamein

The major who led his men into battle with an umbrella

Image: Major Allison Digby Tatham-Warter

Throughout its history, Britain has produced its fair share of eccentric characters. Choosing to charge into battle against a German Panzer division whilst wielding an umbrella and donning a bowler hat certainly places Major Digby Tatham-Warter right up there with the best of them!

If a biography were to be written about Major Digby it would surely be entitled, ‘You Can't Make This Stuff Up,' as his life was full to the brim with moments of jaw-dropping absurdity and heroism, often in equal measure.

Digby was born in 1917 during the Great War. His father fought in the trenches and survived the conflict, although he was badly gassed whilst serving with the Artists Rifles. The gassing would lead to his premature death when Digby was just 11 years old.

Following in his father's military footsteps, Digby graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst as an officer in 1937. His first commission saw him sent to India, a post well suited due to his family connections and his love of tiger hunting and pig-sticking. However, it wasn't long before Digby wanted to see some real action and so he requested to be transferred to the airborne forces fighting in Europe during WW2.

He soon found himself commanding A Company of the 2nd Battalion of the recently formed Parachute Regiment. A Company would shortly be involved in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne operation in history. The mission objective was to seize numerous strategically important bridges in the Netherlands. This would allow the Allies a foothold over the River Rhine and the ability to bypass the German defence line known as the Siegfried Line. If successful, the hope was that the operation could bring an end to the war by Christmas 1944.

It would be quite obvious to anyone that the bloody fool carrying the umbrella could only be an Englishman...

During training for the operation, the tall 27-year-old Digby garnered a reputation for himself as an innovative and aggressive commander, equipped with a cool head and a wry sense of humour. His reputation reached new heights after he managed to procure an American Dakota aircraft one time and fly all his company officers from their base in Lincolnshire to a party at the Ritz in London.

Unafraid of the unorthodox, Digby trained his men to use bugles, an instrument the British had effectively used during the Napoleonic Wars of the previous century. He distrusted the reliability of radio sets and believed the bugle would become the company's main method of communication…he would not be wrong. He also chose to go into battle carrying an umbrella, a useful tool of identification he felt, since he often forgot military passwords and ‘it would be quite obvious to anyone that the bloody fool carrying the umbrella could only be an Englishman’ he later admitted.

Due to his leadership abilities, Digby's A Company would be given a pivotal role during the operation - to parachute in, lead 2nd Battalion towards the Arnhem Bridge (the most distant of the bridges in the Netherlands), capture it and hold it until relief arrived, somewhere up to 48 hours later.

On the 17 September 1944, just before 3 pm, Digby and his men parachuted into Holland, landing at their designated drop zone, some 7 miles west of Arnhem. The first part of their mission went according to plan. Sticking to residential gardens instead of the main streets, A Company snuck past most opposition unharmed. By the time they had captured the northern end of Arnhem bridge by 8 pm, they had suffered very little loss of life but had managed to capture or kill dozens of German soldiers, including many members of the S.S.

Mortar fire combined with multiple burning trucks meant the bridge was impassable, so 2nd Batallion hunkered down and waited for backup before attempting to capture the whole thing. As Digby had predicted, the company radios had faulted en route, leaving the bugles to play a successful role in informing the platoons of each other's positions. The loss of radio communication meant that the 2nd Battalion was unaware that help would not be arriving any time soon.

Not many people in military history can claim to have stopped an armoured vehicle with a collapsible shade

Although the Germans were taken by surprise at first, it didn't take them long to counter. Soon a division of Panzers came rolling down the bridge towards Digby and his men. Undeterred by the threat, Digby inspired those around him by leading a bayonet charge at incoming enemy infantry - pistol in one hand and umbrella in the other with recently required bowler hat completing the look. The Brits successfully repelled the German attack.

Legend also has it that Digby wielded his umbrella with devastating force, on one occasion poking it through the observational slit of a German armoured car and incapacitating the driver. Not many people in military history can claim to have stopped an armoured vehicle with a collapsible shade. The umbrella's work was far from done though. After noticing the battalion padre Father Egan pinned down by enemy fire, Digby sprinted to his aid and sheltered him under the umbrella. He then guided him back to safety uttering the words, ‘Don't worry, I've got an umbrella.'

Lieutenant Pat Barnett would later question the usefulness of the umbrella in the given situation, to which Digby replied, ‘Oh my goodness Pat, what if it rains?'

Digby's cool unflappable demeanour combined with his sense of humour encouraged those around him for the next few days. He would calmly stroll around, nonchalantly directly men left and right as sniper fire whistled past his ears. As Gerald Lathbury, Digby's brigade commander, once remarked, ‘Every battalion needs a Digby!' He helped keep spirits elevated enough that the small posse of Brits grittily held onto their position for four days until they finally ran out of bullets. When the radios started working again the men learnt that they were truly on their own.

With no relief in sight and ammo spent, Digby sent out their final radio message, ‘out of ammo, God save the King'. Not long later he was captured and taken prisoner. He was sent to a nearby hospital after suffering several minor wounds during the battle. He wouldn't stay there long. Shortly after arriving, he snuck out of a window when the nurses had left his room. His second-in-command, Captain Tony Frank, accompanied him and the two of them hid out in a nearby farmhouse before connecting up with the Dutch resistance.

They soon discovered that there were a great number of airborne men who had evaded capture or escaped captivity. The local resistance was having a hard time keeping them all under wraps and so Bill Wildeboer, the man in charge of the Ede Resistance, asked if Digby would help him coordinate and organise things. Digby moved into the Wildeboer resistance and his new home was a hidden dugout on the property.

Digby was provided with a bicycle, a clean set of civilian clothes, given a haircut and a forged identity card. His new name was Peter Jansen, who just so happened to be the deaf and mute son of a lawyer in The Hague. Demonstrating the same coolness he'd shown on the bridge, Digby ventured out every day on his bicycle to boldly ride around the countryside meeting up with dozens of fellow paratroopers in hiding.

The area was swarming with Germans and not once was he stopped or questioned. His casual demeanour allowed him to hide in plain sight and his confidence knew no bounds. One time he stopped to help push a German staff car out of a ditch. Even when enemy soldiers were billeted at the Wildeboer residence, Digby dared to show his face and walk amongst them.

The Ede Resistance set Digby up with radio communication so that he could speak with British Intelligence back in England. Over the coming weeks, he arranged with the RAF to drop supplies and equipment for his men. Weapons and ammunition were buried at designated spots.

At first, the plan was to create a hidden force behind enemy lines, to pop up and attack German targets to aid any future attempts by the Allies to cross the Rhine. When it became clear that no such attempt was coming anytime soon, Digby and his men looked to escape across enemy lines and back into home territory.

The evacuation became known as Operation Pegasus and Digby played a pivotal role in its organisation and execution. On the night of 22 October 1944, the operation was given the go-ahead. It was a roaring success and in the early hours of the 23rd, all 138 men that set out to cross the Rhine did so in one piece.

For the role he played in both the Battle of Arnhem and Operation Pegasus, Digby was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

After brief service in both Palestine and Kenya, Digby retired to run two large estates that he'd recently purchased in Kenya. It has been claimed that he is the father of modern safaris, as he introduced the idea of his guests shooting the animals they encountered with cameras instead of guns.

Richard Attenborough's 1977 film about the Allied defeat at Arnhem, A Bridge Too Far, famously depicted Digby, forever immortalising him on the silver screen.

In 1993, Digby passed away at his home in Kenya aged 75, leaving the world a far less colourful place.