They don’t make them like this any more
EVEN IF the 25-year-old Captain in the Grenadier Guards had wanted to say a prayer, his voice would have been drowned out by the throbbing of the five Chrysler engines that powered his 40-ton Sherman tank.
The young officer would have had good reason to call on the Almighty, because his troop of Shermans was about to cross the most dangerous bridge in Europe.
There was a strong likelihood he would either be killed by rifle or machine-gun fire, annihilated by an anti-tank gun, or be sent plummeting with his crew into the river below, after the bridge had been blown up by its Nazi defenders.
The young captain’s name was Peter Carington — and he survived his ordeal. But only after displaying leadership and courage of such distinction that it won him the Military Cross.
Peter Carington — perhaps better known today as Lord Carrington — went on to become one of our most impressive post-war politicians, holding office in the governments of six successive Conservative Prime Ministers, starting with Winston Churchill.
His death this week, at the age of 99, is a reminder of how Britain’s political class has changed. For in stark contrast to so many of today’s self- centred politicians, Peter Carington’s behaviour was ruled by duty, both to his fellow man and to his country.
His extraordinary courage in war was matched by an integrity in public life that has all but disappeared today. His resignation as Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher three days after Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982 is still regarded, nearly 40 years on, as the last honourable political resignation.
An official report absolved him of all responsibility, yet he refused to blame anyone else — not diplomats, intelligence agencies or underlings.
As he wrote in his memoirs: ‘ The nation feels there has been a disgrace. The disgrace must be purged. The person to purge it should be the minister in charge.’
Lord Carrington was also uncommonly modest. For what he conspicuously failed to mention in those memoirs was the story of how he won his MC fighting the Nazis — can you imagine any politician being so retiring today?
It is a story that should be told, however. For it reveals so much of what we have lost with his passing, and with the passing of his generation. Despite his youth when crossing that bridge in his tank, Peter Carington had been a peer for six years since the death of his father, Rupert, the 5th Baron Carrington, who had also served in the Grenadier Guards.
His father’s service to King and country had been in World War I, during which he had fought with distinction and was wounded twice.
THE 6th Baron had a lot to live up to. He also just wanted to live. The bridge he was hoping to cross was in the Dutch town of Nijmegen, and it spanned the mighty river Waal.
The date was September 20, 1944, and Carington and his tanks were a key component of the bold Operation Market Garden, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s audacious plan to seize nine strategically vital bridges that led to the Rhine, culminating in the bridge at Arnhem.
If the plan succeeded, the war — in that now notoriously over-optimistic phrase — could be over by Christmas.
The bridge at Nijmegen was just ten miles from Arnhem, where British paratroopers had been holding out for days. If the British and the Americans could cross the Waal and link up with them, then Operation Market Garden might be a triumph.
If not, then it would be seen as a total failure. The stakes, Captain Carington well knew, could not have been higher. The pressure was visible to those who saw him that day. ‘I can still see Peter Carington’s face as he looked down from the turret of his tank before going over,’ recalled Lieutenant Tony Jones of the Royal Engineers. ‘He looked thoughtful, to say the least of it.’
At around four o’clock, the tanks moved forward. The lead tank was commanded by Sergeant Peter Robinson, and as soon as he started crossing the 700-yard bridge, he came under attack from an 88mm anti-tank gun positioned on the far, northern bank.
Even though he had been warned the bridge may also have been mined, Robinson pushed forward along with Carington and the rest of the troop.
‘It was pretty spectacular,’ recalled one onlooking colonel. ‘The tank and the 88 exchanged about six rounds apiece, with the tank spitting .30 tracers all the while. Quite a show in the gathering dusk.’
What the observing officer did not know was that Carington’s small column was being fired on by another 88, as well as by anti-tank rockets and small arms. The Grenadiers were literally charging into a hail of lead.
‘I followed him over,’ Carington would later laconically recall. ‘And I thought they were going to blow the bridge up at any moment.’
Thankfully, he was not to die that day. In fact, he was to enjoy another 74 years of life.
His death this week represented the end of an age of a whole generation of politicians — from, it should be stressed, both the Left and the Right — whose teeth were cut getting a Military Cross and fighting for the country against the scourge of Nazism.
They were a generation of giants compared with today’s men and women in the Commons, whose only experience of the real world amounts to a spell at university studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics and working as a policy wonk.
In all the tributes to Lord Carrington, the most common expression of admiration is a variation of the words ‘they don’t make ’em like that any more’. Indeed they do not. Today, we have Corbyns, Camerons, Cables and Coopers, but no more Carringtons.
Of course, today’s generation of politicians have never had to wear khaki and fight for their country.
But there is no doubt that those who did fight in the hellish theatres of the world’s first truly global conflict brought a quality to public life that is lacking in those who followed.
In all the obituaries of Lord Carrington — the very model of a Tory hereditary grandee — it is hard to find an unkind word.
This was a man who gave himself to public life, in a variety of hugely impressive roles, including High Commissioner to Australia, Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and Secretary General of NATO. He had a whole alphabet of letters after his name, and was universally admired.
This was a man who had all the qualities lacking in so many modern politicians — true talent, natural diplomacy, panache, humour and above all, modesty.
These did not derive simply from a patrician sense of noblesse oblige, but were indisputably forged during his experience of war and soldiering.
HOW many of today’s politicians, at the age of 20, have been forced to display genuine humility, not just for a few minutes, but for a matter of months?
For that was what happened to Carington, who despite already being a peer of the realm, found himself ignored for three whole months in the Officers’ Mess of the Grenadiers after he had joined the regiment as a second lieutenant fresh from Sandhurst.
‘This was intended to knock out of the newcomer any false feeling of grandeur or achievement,’ Carington later wrote in his memoirs.
‘No word spoken, no glance of awareness that one existed. To break the silence oneself, to say “Good morning”, would have been regarded
Missing from the memoirs of Lord Carrington — the last minister to resign on a point of honour — was that he won the MC in the Bridge Too Far battle. With his death, we reveal the story he was too modest to tell and contrast his values with those of today’s preening, venal political class as insufferable impertinence. One moved like a ghost.’
Because officers in his regiment under the age of 21 were not allowed to go to war, Carrington had to wait until 1944 before he would see combat.
With the Guards Armoured Division, he joined the campaign to liberate france in June 1944, and saw his first action in Operation Goodwood, which aimed to capture part of Caen in normandy and a vital nearby ridge.
REGARDED by some military historians as the largest tank battle fought by the British, Carrington was right in the thick of it.
‘Very soon, our tanks were being hit by German dug-in tanks and anti- tank guns,’ Carrington recalled, ‘ sited skilfully and in considerable depth on the edge of the villages, by the barns, and in the coppices.
‘What we did see was our own blazing hulls [tank bodies] — our battalion lost over 20 tanks from one cause or another in the first hours — and very soon we found ourselves halted.’
Carrington would be lucky to survive the operation, during which 314 British tanks were lost.
Partly because of those losses, he would never have much love for the Sherman tank.
‘i think looking back on it, all through the war, our tanks were really inferior to the Germans,’ he later admitted in an interview. ‘right to the end, we were inferior. the Panther and the tiger tank were very, very much better.
‘the Sherman also had a rather distressing habit of catching fire
very easily and you know a lot of people “brewed up”, as we said. It was a horrible thing, the Sherman tank, when I look back on it.’
Just think, that understated expression ‘brewed up’ means being burned alive.
However, Carington had little choice of what tank he was to serve in, and it was in a Sherman that he found himself on that fateful day of September 20, 1944 crossing the bridge at Nijmegen.
Despite his dislike of the tank, it did not let him down.
The troop steadily advanced, their Shermans gruesomely running over the bodies of the men they had mown down.
As Antony Beevor writes in his latest book, Arnhem: The Battle For The Bridges, 1944, the Grenadiers ‘later found their tank tracks covered in blood’.
Much to Carington’s amazement and relief, his tanks reached the far side, and better still, without the bridge being blown up by its defenders.
‘My sense of relief was considerable,’ Carington would later write in his memoirs. ‘The bridge had not been blown, we had not been plunged into the Waal, we seemed to have silenced the opposition in the immediate vicinity, we were across one half of the Rhine!’
If any evidence were needed of Carington’s modesty, it is the fact that his memoirs do not mention what happened next — the action that won him a Military Cross.
Such reticence is certainly admirable, but also maddening for historians, and about the only account we can draw on is the recommendation made for the award that can be found in the National Archives.
WHAT appears to have happened is this. When Carington and his troop of tanks were on the northern end of the bridge, he learned that the Germans were trying to cut them off back at the southern end.
‘On his own initiative, [Carington] crossed the bridge in his tank and engaged the enemy, driving them off, and remained holding the far side of the bridge until relieved by another tank,’ the recommendation states.
Unless another account emerges, we cannot know precisely what Carington did, but it was undoubtedly exceptionally brave and gallant.
He risked the necks of himself and his crew in order to save the men under his command, and he would have shown exceptional leadership.
In an interview, Carington would only say: ‘We had a certain amount of fighting.’ Again, that characteristic modesty.
By the time Carington rejoined his troop, he found himself linking up with some soldiers from the United States 82nd Airborne Division, who had paddled across the Waal in canvas boats and had suffered horrendous losses.
Later, one of these Americans would claim that he was frustrated by Carington’s unwillingness to proceed immediately up the road to Arnhem and link up with the British paratroopers.
‘I cocked my Tommy gun, pointed it at his head and said: “Get down that blankety-blank road before I blow your blankety-blank head off,”’ Captain Moffatt Burriss later said in an interview, in which he would also claim that Carington then ‘ducked into his tank and locked the hatch’ .
The story seems a little tall, and even if it is true, no blame can be attached to Carington, whose orders were clear — he had to stay where he was so the hold on the bridge could be consolidated.
Furthermore, there was a real risk that his entire troop could be knocked out by an anti-tank gun that was thought to be nearby — and, had that happened, the Germans could have easily retaken the Nijmegen bridge.
Even though Operation Market Garden would be a failure, Carington had certainly done his bit. The rest of his war would be quieter, however.
‘We had one or two skirmishes, or battles, with the 15th Panzer Grenadiers and I distinctly remember being more unwilling to stick my head out of the turret than I had been a month before,’ he later said.
‘You know you felt at the end of it it’d be awfully silly to get killed just as the war was ending.’
Peter Carington, of course, survived, and shortly after the war he left the Army and started his illustrious political career.
As he would later write, he was motivated by a ‘resolve that if disunion, weakness and complacency contributed to the horrors that we witnessed, they never shall again’.
In days like these, we need the likes of Peter Carington more than ever.
Soldiering on: Operation Market Garden, as depicted in the film A Bridge Too Far and, inset, Captain Peter Carington, who fought in the battle, with Iona McClean on their wedding day in 1942