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As we mark our 75th anniversary, we are looking back at the penultimate year of the Second World War and the circumstances surrounding our founding. This time, we tell the story of Operation Market Garden – the doomed Allied attempt to establish a crossing over the Rhine in the Netherlands. Meanwhile, in London, the NAAFI kickstarts the Army Benevolent Fund’s grant-giving activities with an enormous £1.5m donation.

 

September 1944. In Europe, Allied troops are massing on the Dutch-Belgian border, preparing for a decisive push into German occupied territory. At the helm is Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, hero of El-Alamein and the Normandy landings.

Montgomery’s plan – codenamed Operation Market Garden – is for a combined force of paratroopers and land troops to create a 64-mile salient into the Netherlands, securing a crossing over the Rhine. The plan was ambitious – so ambitious that one senior officer is said to have remarked that Arnhem – the northernmost bridge the Allies were required to capture – will prove “a bridge too far.” The phrase would be immortalised in Richard Attenborough’s 1977 film A Bridge Too Far, becoming synonymous with the tragic heroism of the men who fought and fell there.

The fighting in and around Arnhem was ferocious. Only the 2nd Parachute Battalion, under Lt Col John Frost, succeeded in reaching the road bridge. For four days, a few hundred men held the bridge while troops from other divisions were pinned down. All were reliant on heroic parachute drops by Air Despatchers for food, water and ammunition.

With them was Corporal Sid Sallis, an RASC Air Despatcher from 1st Airborne Division 63 Squadron. Sid had joined the Army two years previously as a driver. When an injury sustained in the boxing rink put him out of action for D-Day, Sid joined the 1st Airborne Division and on 20th September found himself flying over Arnhem dropping supplies to British troops on the ground. Referring to the fierce anti-aircraft fire, Sid remembers: “The Germans were all around us during the drop, and although we couldn’t see them, they could see us. We lost 19 men on the very first day.” All in all, 79 Air Despatchers would lose their lives during the operation.

Operation Market Garden is viewed as one of the greatest Allied failures of the Second World War. Of the 10,000 men who landed at Arnhem, only 2,100 troops from 1st Airborne Division were ferried back across the Rhine; leaving the remainder dead or captured. The operation will forever be remembered for the tenacity and courage of Allied Airborne troops and the units who tried to reach them.

The survivors, widows and children of Arnhem would be amongst those to benefit from the newly formed Army Benevolent Fund (ABF), which had just begun to direct its grant-giving activities. One such beneficiary was Corporal Sid Sallis, who in later life would receive funding for his care home fees. Sid Sallis still receives an annual grant from the charity – 75 years after his service. None of this work would have been possible, however, without a substantial cash injection of £1.5m from the NAAFI – estimated at an astonishing £65m today.

The NAAFI – the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute – was established by the British Government in 1920 to provide recreational establishments for the Armed Forces and their families. During the Second World War, it grew exponentially to support troops on active service, with employees rising to 110,000 and the number of trading outlets growing from 1,350 to nearly 10,000.

NAAFI was run as a not-for-profit, meaning that any surplus was returned to the state. In 1944, it opted to donate £1.5m of its profits to the ABF. The charity’s first annual report states that the donation was intended: “to ensure that those men and women who have thus indirectly subscribed to the assets of the (Army Benevolent) Fund shall reap the greater part of the benefits distributable, especially during the immediate post-war years when it is expected that help will be most needed.” The NAAFI’s donation enabled the ABF to begin supporting the nation’s soldiers, veterans and families – many of whom had paid a heavy price for freedom.

While there is a British Army, there will be The Soldiers’ Charity.

[1] According to the Office for National Statistics composite price index, today’s prices in 2019 are 4,297.73% higher than average prices throughout 1944. The pound experienced an average inflation rate of 5.17% per year during this period, meaning the real value of a pound decreased.In other words, £1,500,000 in 1944 is equivalent in purchasing power to about £65,966,001.78 in 2019, a difference of £64,466,001.78 over 75 years.

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