Major General John Frost is best remembered as the battalion commander of a British airborne infantry battalion during Operation Market Garden. Frost’s battalion was part of the famous “Bridge Too Far” operation and his unit was able to capture one side of the famous and final Arnhem bridge and holding it for several days before being overwhelmed and captured by numerically superior German forces.
But Frost’s life was full of adventure from the time he was a little boy. He served with distinction throughout the Second World War and eventually retired as a Major General before passing away on this day in 1993 at the age of 80.
Childhood and Early Life:
Frost was born in India in December of 1912. His father was a Major in the British Army. According to his obituary, when he was just eight months old, his father shot a snake that was attempting to crawl in his crib. When he was just eight, he was riding a train in Baghdad, where his father was stationed and the train was attacked by men mounted on camels. While he thought it was great adventure, it was written that he took great delight in the fact that his governess was terrified.
He graduated from the British military academy at Sandhurst in September of 1932 and was assigned to the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) Regiment. He was promoted to First Lieutenant three years later in 1935. Frost was assigned to the unit’s 1st Battalion and served in Palestine during the early stages of the Arab Revolt.
From 1938 to 1941 Frost served in Iraq and was promoted to Captain.
Early World War II Duty and Fame:
Upon returning to England during 1941, Frost was assigned coastal defense duties and was itching to get into the action. He volunteered for the Special Air Service and was sent to the Parachute Training School. After completing his required jumps, Frost was assigned to the new 2nd Parachute Battalion of the Parachute Brigade and given command of C Company.
Frost’s men were given the job of parachuting into the northern French coastal town of Bruneval and destroy a German radar installation there. They conducted “Operation Biting” flawlessly on February 27-28, 1942. The troops jumped in, took down the radar installation and brought back parts of the radar and were successfully exfiltrated by boat on the coast. They captured a German technician who was able to inform the British on the German advances of radar technology. Frost was decorated by Winston Churchill with the Military Cross for his actions there.
During the fighting in North Africa, Frost now the acting battalion commander was ordered to attack a Tunisian airfield and destroy the aircraft there. When his troops arrived, however, they found no aircraft but heavy German armor. In the ensuing melee, Frost’s men were able to get away but suffered heavy casualties, 16 officers and 250 men were lost. Frost was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for that action.
Frost with the remainder of the 1st Parachute Brigade took part in the invasion of Sicily where the troops, like their American counterparts, were hopelessly scattered and forced to attack their targets piecemeal, and later in Italy, part of the 1st British Airborne Division.
Operation Market Garden:
After the invasion of Normandy, the Allies broke out of the hedgerows and began to push the Germans back across France. Field Marshall Montgomery proposed a bold, ambitious plan to knock the Germans out of the war by the end of 1942.
The Allies would lay an “airborne carpet” of paratroopers and seize several bridges over the Waal, Maas, and Lower Rhine Rivers. Then the British XXX Corps under General Horrocks would travel quickly thru the Dutch countryside, across the bridges and into Germany where they would invade the German Ruhr industrial area and cease the ability of them to supply the German war machine.
The intelligence was faulty from the start. Originally thought to be inhabited by “old men and boys”, Holland was, in fact, the exact spot that the Germans sent their SS Panzer units, battered in Normandy, to rest and refit. This development was later thought to be have been kept deliberately from the lightly armed paratroop units.
Frost’s battalion was to be the spearhead of the British 1st Airborne Division, commanded by Roy Urquhart. They were to take the final bridges at Arnhem over the Rhine. But due to antiaircraft positions near the bridges, the RAF was forced to land the British eight miles away. Their dropzones located in Oosterbeek would prove to be a major issue as they’d lose the critical element of surprise.
Still, the prevailing thought from the Allied side was unbridled optimism. Frost was so sure of quick success, he had his Batman pack his shotgun and golf clubs.
The Allied paratroopers landed in Holland on a beautiful Sunday in daylight hours without a cloud in the sky. Frost’s battalion landed without opposition but in moving thru Oosterbeek, they were slowed by thousands of Dutch civilians who came out in jubilation that they’d been delivered, it seemed from the German grasp. Soon, however, Frost and all of the men in the airborne carpet came to realize that the intelligence estimates were wrong. The airborne troops were encountering much stiffer resistance than was thought to be in place.
Just before dusk, the British paras of Frost’s battalion reached the southern end of the bridge and established a headquarters in buildings beside the bridge. Frost sent a force to take the opposite end but they ran into a pillbox and armored vehicles. The British paras knocked the pillbox with flamethrowers but more German vehicles stopped their advance cold.
Early the next morning the British were shocked to see an armored element of the 9th SS Panzer Division, which attacked the bridge. The British troops held but infantry on both sides of the river began taking a toll on the lightly armed paratroopers. German prisoners compounded the desperateness of the situation by telling the Brits that they were with the 2nd SS Panzer Corps which was placed in Holland.
Frost was an inspiration to his men, moving between positions, and encouraging them as their casualties mounted while ammunition, food, and water ran low. The Germans sent heavy armor across the bridge but the British anti-tank gunners stopped them once again. Despite their bravery, Frost’s men were cut off and isolated at the bridge from the rest of the division. They were in increasingly desperate fighting around Oosterbeek.
Frost was then wounded in both legs. His men held on for another day but then were nearly completely out of ammunition. German tank shells had set fire to the building. His battalion surgeon told him that they couldn’t douse the fires and the 200 wounded men in the cellar would likely burn to death. Which is when Frost requested a truce with the Germans and they surrendered.
The SS then helped the British evacuate their casualties. Frost spent the remainder of the war in a POW Camp until he was freed by American troops. He was awarded a bar to his DSO for his bravery at Arnhem.
Frost resumed command of the 2nd Parachute Battalion which was stationed in Palestine. He later attended the Staff College and was made a General Staff Officer (GSO 2) with the 52nd Lowland Division.
He served in Malaya in 1950 as a GSO 1 with the 17th Gurkha Division. He later commanded the 4th Airborne Brigade. He retired in 1968 as a Major General. During his time in Palestine in 1946, he met his future wife and they had two children.
During the filming of “A Bridge Too Far”, Frost served as a technical adviser and was portrayed on the screen by Anthony Hopkins. The bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem was renamed John Frostbrug (“John Frost Bridge”) in his honor in 1978.
Frost passed away on May 21, 1993, at the age of 80 and was buried at Milland Cemetery in West Sussex.
Photo: British Archives