Obituary: Brig Michael Dauncey DSO, war hero who took part in ill-fated operation immortalised in A Bridge Too Far

Obituary: Brigadier Michael Donald Keen Dauncey, DSO, DL, soldier. Born: 11 May 1920, Birmingham. Died: 23 August 2017, Uley, Gloucestershire, aged 97.

Brigadier Mike Dauncey was known as the “sixth Arnhem VC,” following his part in Field-Marshall Montgomery’s ill-fated Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne operation up to that point in the Second World War, with the goal of capturing bridges, canals and tributaries in eastern and northern Holland; the operation was later turned into the Hollywood film A Bridge Too Far.

Although only five VCs were awarded at the battle, Dauncey was put forward for the sixth, only to have the letters VC (Victoria Cross) changed on his citation and amended to DSO (Distinguished Service Order) by Montgomery, who felt that, heroism or no heroism, five VCs were quite enough for one debacle. Although the unassuming Dauncey was surprised to receive any recognition, he deserved better. His citation described his “indomitable courage, initiative, coolness and selfless devotion to duty”.

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Born in 1920, Michael Dauncey was the only son of Thomas and Alice. Educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, he knew from a very early age that he wanted to enter the military. Thus, in September 1940 he joined up and in 1941 was commissioned into the Cheshire Regiment. Two years later, tired of training new recruits, he volunteered for the Glider Pilot Regiment, and was assigned to G Squadron in January 1944.

Disappointed to have missed out on the D-Day Landings, Lt. Dauncey was thrilled when the regiment was told of a special mission, which would see them landing west of a town called Arnhem. On 17 September 1944, his Horsa glider, flown by S/Sergeant Alan Murdoch, flew to Holland on the first day of Market Garden, carrying a jeep, ammunition and six gunners of the 1st Air Landing Light Regiment, Royal Artillery. They landed safely just beyond Oosterbeek, three miles west of Arnhem, the final river crossing of Montgomery’s “airborne carpet” to the Ruhr.

Montgomery’s plan was to capture crossings over a series of westward-flowing rivers: the Maas, Waal and Rhine, which would allow them to turn eastwards into the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s industrial heartland, and end the war by Christmas 1944. Montgomery and other chiefs of staff ignored vital intelligence on German troop movements, including movement of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions to Nijmegen and Arnhem; this created enough concern for General Eisenhower to send his Chief of Staff, Lt-General Walter Bedell Smith, to raise the issue with Montgomery; he, however, dismissed Smith’s concerns and refused to alter the plans for the British 1st Airborne Division’s landing at Arnhem. Aerial photographs of the SS Panzer Divisions at Arnhem, taken by a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire XI from RAF’s No. 16 Squadron, were also ignored.

All-in-all, the 1st Airborne Division and Glider Pilot Regiment lost 1,393 men, with 6,414 missing, out of a force of more than 10,200 troops.

Upon disembarkation, Dauncey organised other pilots, parachutists and infantrymen separated from their battalions to arm an area of the Oosterbeek perimeter, as the infantry battalions headed eastwards to capture the Arnhem Bridge.

Lt-Col John Frost’s 2nd Parachute Battalion held the northern end of the bridge for three days under extreme pressure from German panzers, 88mm anti-tank guns, artillery and mortars. Deciding that offence was the best means of holding off the enemy, Dauncey led two paratroopers on a flanking move to deal with a group of Germans in a house 40 yards beyond the perimeter. He flung in a grenade, rushed the house and took eight prisoners, a machine gun and several Luger pistols. Their return boosted morale.

By 21 September, the Oosterbeek perimeter, with Major Hibbert’s divisional HQ at the Hartenstein Hotel and defended by units, including Dauncey’s small detachment, was also under severe pressure. To compound matters, in the face of fierce resistance, RAF bombers had trouble dropping supplies, and 190 Squadron lost seven of its ten aircraft. The same day, Dauncey was shot at, with the bullet passing through his beret and grazing his head. Elated to have survived, three days later he went with a paratrooper searching for a sniper, but the sniper spotted him first – his bullet hit a nearby pipe and a sharp metal fragment flew into Dauncey’s left eye. The paratrooper tried extract it using two matches as makeshift tweezers but failed.

Temporarily blinded, Dauncey was placed in “Angel of Arnhem” Kate ter Horst’s house along with many other badly wounded men. Such was the strain on the medical staff by now that he received no treatment, but having slept overnight, he discharged himself in the morning and returned to his position. Although now blind in his left eye, armed with a gammon bomb, he set out with another airborne soldier to ambush the advancing German tanks. Eventually when they came into sight, he threw his bomb, immobilising the tank. The pair then held off an infantry assault with light machine gun fire until Dauncey was hit in the thigh. As he took cover in a trench, a stick grenade landed and exploded, breaking his jaw in two places.

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Dauncey was carried back to ter Horst’s house where he was left in the garden with the dead and dying, waiting for treatment. As the battle ended, survivors of the 1st Airborne Division withdrew overnight and the wounded were left. Dauncey was sent with five other officers to a Dutch eye hospital to have his wounds treated. He said, “We were a motley bunch and only had four good eyes out of six people.”

Thereafter, he went to a German prison hospital in Utrecht where he met Major Gordon Cunningham from 5 Black Watch, Royal Regiment of Scotland, who had been wounded in both legs. After careful preparation, they decided to escape. Accordingly, fitting in with the guards’ movements, they lowered themselves down from the first floor on knotted sheets. Despite the pain, they scrambled over the barbed wire perimeter fence and, with the help of some extraordinarily brave Dutch people, they stayed at a vicarage until 4 February 1945, while the town was under German occupation.

Over the months, Cunningham’s legs were treated by a Dutch doctor and plans were made with the local underground for them to return to the Allied lines. They left Utrecht on bicycles with forged papers, disguised as doctors with two female companions as guides. After almost two weeks of “ducking and diving”, they crossed the River Waal in a rowing boat and were met by Belgian troops before returning to England.

Back home, Dauncey married his fiancée Majorie Neep, whom he had met at a tennis club in Birmingham. After recuperation and despite his loss of sight, he was given a commission in the Cheshire Regiment and served from 1946-47 in Greece and completed a tour in Suez in the 1950s. After 1957, he became an Instructor at Sandhurst’s Officer Training School. He was later selected to command 1st Battalion The Cheshire Regiment in Germany, and in 1963 took it for a tour of duty with the UN in Cyprus, where it excelled in keeping the peace between the Greeks and the Turks. He was also commandant of the Jungle Warfare School in Malaysia. His final serving appointment was as defence attaché to the British Embassy in Madrid (1973-75).

Upon retirement, Dauncey worked briefly with a housing association, before it was taken over. Then followed a year with Hambro Life Assurance. He did much charity work and continued as colonel of the Cheshire Regiment. He was president of the Glider Pilot Regimental Association, 1994-98, and colonel-commandant of the Gloucestershire Army Cadets. During a field exercise in pouring rain, he brought smiles to the faces of a group of downhearted cadets by appearing with two handfuls of ice-cream cones. The gesture was typical of such a mild-mannered gentleman.

Dauncey is survived by his children, John, Gill and Joy.

Martin Childs

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