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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 September, 2004, 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK
Jumping back to Arnhem
By Liam Allen
BBC News Online

Ray Sheriff after the jump
Ray and his army tandem partner catch their breath after the jump

On the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem, BBC News Online talks to veteran Ray Sheriff who was blinded by a mortar bomb there.

To mark the occasion, the 83-year-old ex-paratrooper has returned to the Netherlands to make a tandem parachute jump.

When Ray Sheriff joined the airborne assault over Arnhem, he had already seen more than his fair share of action in the five years he had been in the Army.

Most notably, he had already survived "a bullet in the chest" from a German soldier after being dropped, along with his colleagues from the 3rd Parachute Battalion, into Tunis in 1943 in an attempt to "clear the Germans and Italians out of the hills".

I was a bloody mess. I just kept rubbing and then my eyesight went completely into black

His life was possibly saved by the ID tags and two school sports medals he was carrying in the chest pocket of his shirt.

He made a full recovery.

In 1944, the battalion returned to the flat ground of Spalding in Lincolnshire, or "little Holland " as it was dubbed, to train and prepare for Arnhem.

At about 1400 GMT on 17 September 1944, Ray, who lives in Rottingdean, East Sussex, joined about 16,500 other paratroops in jumping from their planes to descend on Arnhem.

Overwhelming defeat

"I had a good jump and my battalion had an unopposed landing," he says.

Ray and his colleagues began the eight-mile journey to the massive road bridge in Arnhem which spanned the Lower Rhine - the "bridge too far" as it became known - but, after making good progress, they became embroiled in a battle with German soldiers.

The next thing he remembers is being hit in the face by what he believes was an exploding mortar bomb.

"It knocked me over.

"It just felt as though someone had thrown a handful of gravel into my eyes.

"I started, wrongly, to rub my eyes but there were cuts all over my head.

The operation to take the bridge in Arnhem was a failure
Allied troops had to abandon their positions near the bridge

"I was a bloody mess. I just kept rubbing and then my eyesight went completely into black."

Over the coming days, the British tried desperately to ferry the wounded the eight long miles to St Elizabeth's Hospital in Arnhem.

By this time they were on their way to an overwhelming defeat at the hands of the Germans who had been tipped off about the attack - "We didn't stand a chance", says Ray.

The wounded were carried to Dutch houses where they hid out.

Whenever there was a break in gunfire, a Red Cross jeep would drive them towards the hospital until it resumed, when they would hide out again.

After three days of travelling towards help in this painfully slow manner, Ray was shot in the right leg.

He says that by the time he reached St Elizabeth's, the British dead and wounded had reached 75%.

Eye specialist

Upon arrival, the British troops were to find that the hospital was under German control.

He was treated at St Elizabeth's before being allowed by the Germans to be transferred to hospitals in Apeldoorn and then Utrecht, where he was treated by a professor who was one of the world's leading eye specialists at the time.

Ray Sheriff
After I got hit, I think I probably thought I would see again but when I got to the professor he told me I would never see again
It was here that he learned he would never regain his sight.

"After I got hit, I think I probably thought I would see again but when I got to the professor he told me I would never see again.

"But then he told me he said 'you should count yourself lucky you're not totally deaf as well', which I agree with because to be totally deaf as well, I would have lost the social side of it."

An operation on his right leg proved successful despite doctors initially telling him it would have to be amputated.

After being allowed some recovery time in Utrecht, he was taken to the Stalag XIB camp in Germany as a prisoner of war.

When the war ended in 1945, he returned to England and was firstly treated at Stoke Mandeville Hospital before moving to Church Stratton, in Shropshire, the then headquarters of the St Dunstan's charity.

St Dunstan's aims to provide "an independent future for blind ex-service men and women" and it was here that Ray learned Braille, typing and numerous other skills to prepare him for life as a blind man.

Unknown grave at Arnhem
Many British men were killed in the Battle of Arnhem

Ray is philosophical about what he has made of his life since being told he would never see again.

"When you're 23 and you've got your life before you, you've got challenges.

"You've got to make a living, you've got to make a family. If you're a normal person, you get on with it."

With the help of a loan from the charity, Ray was able to set himself up in business as a tobacconist.

He then worked as a telephony engineer in Gloucester until his retirement in 1980.

After his first wife died, he returned to St Dunstan's - which by then had relocated to Brighton - where he met his second wife Betty, a care assistant there.

Ambition achieved

Ray had harboured an ambition to parachute jump again ever since he was first blinded.

He realised this ambition on his 70th birthday in 1990 when, strapped to a "tandem master", he jumped out of a plane over Yorkshire.

Further jumps for charity followed and in 1994 he joined 60 other veterans, leaping into the same area of the Netherlands he did all those years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary of Arnhem.

Somebody said to me, do you go back there on the anniversaries to remember things? But I don't need to go

He said the 60th anniversary jump would "definitely" be his last "because when you get to my age you don't need so many challenges".

Parachuting has always made him nervous because, he says, "if a good actor is not nervous they usually don't perform so well".

And he said he was not going on the jump to remember the events of Arnhem 60 years ago.

"Somebody said to me 'do you go back there on the anniversaries to remember things?'. But I don't need to go.

"Every time I open my eyes in the morning I remember."

Ray jumped alongside nine other veterans from an American Dakota aircraft at 3,000ft on Saturday.

After the jump, he said: "It was an amazing experience. We had to come out of the plane very quickly and we did not have time for any drill. It was a bit of a scramble but it was very good.

"Today is a happy day because there are so many people here, though so many of us didn't make it and they can never be forgotten.

"They would for sure be jumping here today if they were still alive."

The Battle of Arnhem
15 Sep 98  |  UK News


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