During times of conflict, countries would produce and send disciplined men chained to the rhythm of military rules, principles, and disciplines. That is not a bad thing at all, as this is one key to ensuring the optimal success of whatever missions these soldiers would be sent to do along the way. However, at times, it was those eccentric ones who could save the day with their rather amusing and unusual ways. If anything, Britain had produced quite a fair share of those characters, like Mad Jack, who dove into the battlefield of WWII with his sword, bow, and bagpipes (read his full, exciting story here.) Another man who stood out with his unconventional ways was Major Digby. His weapon of choice? His trusty umbrella.
Following His Dad’s Footsteps and More
Allison Digby Tatham-Warter was born in Atcham, Shropshire, England, during World War I. The second son of Henry de Grey Tathan-Warter, who owned several estates in the southeast part of England. His father was called to fight in the trenches, where he was severely gassed while serving with Artists Rifles. Regardless, he managed to survive and went back home to his family. However, the damage to his body caused his early death when Digby was just 11 years old.
When Digby grew up, he followed in his father’s footsteps by obtaining his education from Wellington College in Berkshire before getting accepted into the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in 1935. After graduating as an officer, he was deployed to India and commissioned into the Unattached List for the Indian Army as a 2nd Lieutenant. Due to his family connections, he was viewed to join the Indian Army.
In late 1942, Digby’s brother, John, died at the Second Battle of El Alamein. Upon hearing of this news, he volunteered for the airborne forces. He was transferred and became the company commander of the A Company of the 2nd Battalion of the newly formed Parachute Regiment.
The tall 27-year-old Digby built his reputation as an aggressive commander with a cool head and a wicked sense of humor. Many people knew about his tiger hunting exploits, but what enhanced his reputation was when he managed to get an American Dakota aircraft and fly his whole company of officers from Lincolnshire base to a party at the Ritz in London.
During the training for Operation Market Garden, his innovative way would shine. Operation Market Garden was the largest airborne operation in history, of which Digby’s regiment was tasked to be a part.
The mission aimed to seize several strategically crucial bridges in the Netherlands under German control. If they succeeded, the Allied forces would get a hold over the River Rhine, thus allowing them to bypass the Siegfried Line, which was the German defense line. This could also shorten the war and end it by Christmas of 1944.
During the training, he taught his men how to use bugles, the instrument that the British of the Napoleonic Wars used a century ago. His reason? He felt that the radio sets could let them down, so he implemented that the company’s primary method of communication would be their reliable bugles.
What’s more, he would also be seen around carrying an umbrella. His rationale was that since he often forgot military passwords, he would use the umbrella as his identification. According to him, “it would be quite obvious to anyone that the bloody fool carrying the umbrella could only be an Englishman,” which, to be fair, was not a lie.
Operation Market Garden
The day of September 17, 1944, arrived. Just before 3 PM, Digby and his Parachute Regiment were parachuted into Holland, where they landed at their designated drop zone about 7 miles west of Arnhem. As planned, they stuck to the residential gardens and away from the main streets, and they successfully did so.
At 8 PM, they had successfully captured the northern end of Arnhem bridge with very few casualties while they managed to kill dozens of Germans. Unfortunately, the bridge was impassable due to mortar fire and multiple burning trucks. Because of this, the 2nd Batallion had to stop and wait for backup before attempting to capture the whole bridge. Lo and behold, as Digby predicted, the radio signals were cut off. The good thing is his men had their bugles and used them to inform other platoons of each other’s positions.
On the other hand, the Germans were surprised, but they immediately recovered and started moving. They sent a division of Panzers down the bridge toward Digby’s company. However, that did not stop him from leading a bayonet charge at the rolling enemy infantry. Holding his pistol in one hand, umbrella in the other, and looking splendid with his bowler hat, he charged and successfully stopped the German attack along with his men.
His umbrella was not without a significant use at that moment, as Digby used it to poke through the observational slit of a German armored vehicle. Not only that, but when he noticed their battalion priest, Father Egan, was pinned down by the enemy fire while trying to cross the street to get to the injured soldiers, he rushed to help and shelter him… under his trusty umbrella. He reassured Father Egan, “Don’t worry, I’ve got an umbrella.”
Upon seeing Digby and Father Egan under his collapsible shade, Lieutenant Pat Barnett stopped dead in his tracks and questioned its usefulness (or uselessness) in shielding the priest from the bullets. Digby responded, “Oh my goodness, Pat, what if it rains?”
The Brits held their positions for four days until they ran out of ammunition. Soon, they found out that no help was coming their way. So they made their evacuation plan known as Operation Pegasus, which involved them moving into the Wildeboer resistance and Digby pretending to be the deaf and mute son of a lawyer in The Hague.
They all made it out and crossed the Rhine, with Digby being awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his role in the Battle of Arnhem and Operation Pegasus.
After retiring, he ran two large estates in Kenya, advocating shooting animals with cameras instead of guns. In 1977, a film titled A Bridge Too Far by Richard Attenborough was released, about the defeat of Arnhem. Digby passed away in 1993 at 75, leaving the world with his eccentric and astonishing actions.