AN INTERVIEW WITH MAJOR PETER SMITH 133 PFA
From notes taken at his home on the 18th April 1980.
By Tony Barrett.
I knew Peter Smith for some years in Eastbourne, and it took many
requests to persuade him to talk to me about the Arnhem campaign.
He was not a boastful man and what he said came straight from his
heart, quite matter of fact.
He made one stipulation that I did not use this information until some
years after his death. I have abided by his wish.
19.06.1941 Commissioned into the Royal Army Medical Corps
(09.1944) Specialist Surgeon, 133rd Parachute Field Ambulance.
Before the Arnhem Operation Peter Smith did his Parachute
qualification at Ringway as the 133 Parachute Field Ambulance had
been converted to the airborne role at Kabrit, on the Suez Canal in
Peter Smith recalled that the qualification jumps took place in high
winds and half their number sustained sprains and fractures, he
himself landed in a tall tree (An Elm he thought) where upon two RAF
types tried to extract him by ladder, but the continuing high winds
kept the canopy taught thus making it difficult to hit the release.
Finally he was rescued by a local fire engine.
His kit for Market Garden included a kitbag that contained his small
pack, pouches with his basic surgical kit, forceps etc, and a water
bottle, plus some food. R.A.M.C officers were issued with revolvers but
he chose not to carry arms.
Of his uniform for the campaign he does not remember wearing the
sleeveless jump jacket but did have a Red Cross armband.
The 133rd Parachute Field Ambulance came in on the second lift, and
the paratroopers in the Dakota’s thought it best to sit on their
On approach to the drop zone the pilot somehow forgot to put on the
green light and two Dakota’s dropped their sticks of 20 paratroopers a
few miles north of the anticipated drop zones.
Captain Smith and Major Brian Courtney, an Australian and second
in command of the 133rd, who sustained a broken nose on landing
with the 38 paratroopers started to move towards the designated LZ,
until the came across ‘a bit of a battle going on’. Knowing that they
were probably behind the German lines the two officers went forward
to see what was going on and waited in a ditch until things got a bit
quieter. Returning to where they had left their men to continue their
advance they discovered the men gone. In fact they had ‘deserted’ and
made their way back over the Rhine to meet up with the oncoming
Disregarding his helmet, which he found very uncomfortable and
donning his red beret, Peter Smith pushed on.
Finally ending up at the paratrooper’s perimeter, Captain Smith
found himself at a deserted dental surgery, and it was there he set up
his ‘aid post’. To this day he cannot remember how he got there but
eyewitnesses saw him crawling under heavy fire past the Tafelberg
Hotel towards the crossroads at Oosterbeek.(He had always wondered
how he got to Oosterbeek and I was able to tell him!!)
It was while operating under extreme difficulties that a Tiger tank
with its 88mm gun stopped outside his makeshift aid post, ‘and
started banging away’ firing into the British perimeter. Each shot
brought down plaster from the ceiling onto his operating table, so he
went outside tapped on the tank and demanded they move, and much to his surprise the tank moved further down the road. It was while he
was operating at the dental surgery that he was assisted by Father
Daniel McGown, a catholic priest attached to the HQ of the 133rd, who
to quote Peter Smith, ‘had his heart in the right place as he was
armed with a sten gun’.
Peter Smith believed Daniel McGown lost his faith during the Battle of
Moving from the temporary aid post Captain Smith moved to the Tafelberg Hotel where he continued to perform surgery, “if you could
call it that”, dressed in a raincoat as there were no operating gowns to
be had. Captain Smith said that he could not even remember what the
place looked like, apart from the bodies everywhere. Another shortage
was that of blankets that were not brought in by the medics as they
expected to ‘liberate’ them from local houses, for the 48 hours they
anticipated to be there until the ground forces arrived. The number of
casualties was much heavier than they expected.
Peter Smith admitted that he never saw the front façade of the
Of the many operations Peter Smith carried out he can remember only
three. The first was his own cook who came in with his arm hanging
on a thread, the second a Polish Paratrooper with a dead white leg,
with no sign of trauma but with no pulse. The third was when he was
at St Elizabeth’s hospital where he was operating on a paratrooper
with mortar shrapnel wounds to the lower abdomen and a smashed
pubis. After removing shrapnel from the soldier’s bowel, RAF
Typhoon’s came in on a rocket attack, which shook the hospital,
smashing glass from the ceilings. Major Smith clambered under the
operating table and waited until the attack was over, then went back
to his patient still on the table, now having to remove glass shards as
well as continuing the surgery.
Peter Smith also remembers when ‘Shan’ Hackett was admitted with a
stomach wound, and putting up a drip. The Germans at this time
tended to just give a large fatal dose of morphine for such cases,
rather than operate.
As an aside Captain Smith commented that Graeme Warrack, the
ADMS of the 1st Airborne Division,” just got in the way and was of no
Lack of water was a major problem, Peter Smith kept a bath filled but
this was never enough for the large number of wounded, there not
being sufficient to sterile the instruments or even to wash his hands.
The rainfall during the battle at least provided a small quantity of
clean drinking water.
Another problem was the intensity of the noise caused by the constant
firing of mortars from morning to night. It was during the hours of
darkness that it was possible to move about and the surrounded
paratroopers could reoccupy the houses they had been forced to
abandon during the day.
Most of the time Peter Smith had to act as an anaesthetist as well as a
surgeon, although this task was often carried out by dentists who had
often had some experience in this field. Another vital piece of
equipment missing was any suction apparatus, but he did have a
supply of Plaster of Paris, which was heavy to carry about and jaconet.
R.A.M.C privates carried supplies of plasma in their pouches.
Another memory concerned the shell dressings that bulged out of his
trouser pockets, “very good for bulling up your boots.” He recalled. Not
anticipating a long engagement some had been used for this very
purpose to present a fine appearance to the young Dutch girls!
Certain individuals remain in Peter Smith’s recollections of the
Arnhem campaign, Lt.Col M.E.M Herford the Commanding Officer of
163 Field Ambulance who came across the Rhine to negotiate with the
Germans with reference to the wounded he held in very high regard.
Eric Townsend the Commanding Officer of the 16th Field Ambulance,
an ex-member of the LRDG and the MO of the 156th Parachute
Batallion ( John Edward Buck) who when the Polish Paratroopers
landed in the middle of a pitched battle, took command of a bren-gun
carrier displaying a Red cross flag to pick-up wounded, 5 or 6 times.
Some of the jeeps used as stretcher carriers were non-regulation and
had been converted in the field.
After the battle was over Captain Peter Smith was sent to a Dutch
Army barracks at Appledoorn, some 15 miles north of Arnhem and
converted into a hospital. Initially he was locked in a room, listening
to a soldier near by crying ‘help me’, by morning and he gained access
to the man, he was dead.
It was at Appledoorn that Warrack made his escape, but as he was of
little use anyway, it made little difference. Peter Smith felt it was his
duty to stay with the wounded and as being a non-combatant he felt
escaping ‘and hindering the Germans’ was not his priority.
The first wounded to be shipped out of Appledorn were packed into
cattle trucks for their journey to Germany, but after complaints were
made a German hospital train arrived which was better equipped. The
only drawback was that the Germans parked an ack-ack train
alongside the ambulance train.
By this time the German commander at Appledorn has lost grip of the
As the prisoners moved further from the front lines their treatment by
rear echelon troops and Gestapo got increasingly worse.
The conditions at Stalag XIB were terrible, with severe shortages of
food and medical requirements, but by this time in the war the
Germans had little enough for themselves let alone their prisoners,
which numbered some 7,000 including 500 Arnhem survivors.
In the latter days of the war, the Canadians drove through the lines
carrying vital food for the camp, unimpeded by the Germans who had
lost control of the situation. Peter Smith to this day considers these
soldiers the ‘unsung hero’s’ of the war.