Sgt. William Bill Fulton
Sgt. 4124666 William Bill Fulton
2nd BATTALION THE PARACHUTE REGIMENT
THE FIRST MAN ON THE BRIDGE AT ARNHEM
Born: 2nd May 1919
School: Woodlands Junior School and Conway Street Secondary School,
First Job: Apprentice Painter and Decorator
Bill left school at the age of 14 years, and became an apprentice painter and decorator and joined the Territorial Army.
Bill Fulton, transferred to the Regular Army at the age of 20 at the outbreak of war in 1939, and enlisted into the Cheshire Regiment. He was a member of that Regiment when he landed at Dunkirk with the ill - fated Expeditionary Force in 1940. On the formation of the Parachute Regiment he volunteered like so many did hoping to pass their rigorous entry tests, which were both mental and physical. He was one of the lucky few that gained entry at the very start of the Regiment. He served in North Africa, Sicily and Italy. At that time Bill and his colleagues were based at Grantham in Lincolnshire.
With only ten days to prepare, finally, on the morning of the 17th of September 1944 Operation Market Garden was in full swing. Bill remembers “ There were 16 operations planned before that day, and twice we were in the Dakota's taxiing along the runway, and the operations were both cancelled”. “It was a brilliant sunny day that Sunday the 17th, and there was no opposition during the flight whatsoever, and when we dropped Dutch girls came running over to collect the Parachute silk off the DZ” Elements of the 2nd Battalion reached the Bridge at Arnhem, whilst their American counterparts were busy trying to secure both Nijmegen and Eindhoven bridges some miles away. The aim of the operation was to hold the bridges and link up with British armour units, so they could proceed into Germany across the Rhine to shorten the war by 6 months.
The 2nd Battalions struggle to get to the bridge under the command of Lt.Col. John Frost, met with fierce resistance from two strengthened SS Panzer and armoured units in Arnhem, who were enjoying a spot of R & R in the town, completely contrary to Intelligence reports provided to units before they left England. Their briefings stated that they would meet little or no resistance in the town and its surrounding countryside. How wrong they were, and it transpires that Intelligence were indeed aware of their presence in the Town before the troops left England, but did not want to compromise or damage the potential of the whole operation.
“A “COMPANY 2 PARA PHOTO :
Bill and A Coy were dropped 8 miles from Arnhem, scattered all around the town of Heelsum, where they set off towards the bridge reaching it after dark.Bill recalls “ We were under the bridge and an officer said to me “Take your section and capture this end of the bridge” I said “ I've only got seven men at the moment” but the officer told me to go ahead saying that he would send more men up as they came along.
Bill Fulton who was 25 years old at the time, he was the first Paratrooper to set foot on Arnhem bridge in an attempt to capture the defences securing both ends. Their aim was to surprise the guards on the bridge at both ends and secure the bridge until they were relieved, by Light and Medium armour units who should have made ground and achieved their objective of reaching the bridge in 48 hours of the drop at the very least.
Bill set foot on the bridge and was shot in the leg and was taken to a school cellar where he stayed for three days with 200 other men. He recalls vividly “ As soon as I put my foot on the bridge I was confronted by a German soldier, I could see he had levelled his gun at me, so I to, trained my sights on him and fired, but he shot me as he fell ” He got me at the top of my legs and I almost ended up losing my legs and I've still got the scars to prove it” he exclaimed. The rounds he believes were ricochets off the road surface which caught him as the German sentry met his fate.
Of the 10,000 men that were dropped at Arnhem, Bill has always been proud to have been the first man to have stepped on the bridge. After his initial capture, he was taken to a German dressing station, in Apeldorn, where he remained until being taken to a POW camp to recover. It was whilst he was in the dressing station, that he was told just how close the Military operation came to being a success. He remembers “a German Officer brought me a tin of Libby's milk and said: “ if you had dropped three days later, those Panzer Divisions wouldn't have been there. They would have gone from Holland and been back in Germany” Bill then went onto to say “ We dropped into the middle of them and it was just bad luck that they happened to be there”
He weighed just nine stone at that time. Bill spent the rest of the war, until his discharge in December 1946 from Stalag X1B, when the camp was liberated by the Queens Regiment. The bridge had been held for a total of nine days, well past the 48 hours envisaged before the armour were supposed to link up at the bridge. With little food and water, or indeed sleep, medical supplies or ammunition, and not withstanding the men never withdrew through defeat, their courageous stand is seen to be one of the greatest in modern Military history.
Bill and Emily his wife of 58 years make the emotional pilgrimage each year to Arnhem, and are continually moved by the warmth and love they receive from the people there. Bill's life has moved on from those dark days in Germans hands, with five great grand daughters, and one great grandson his life is kept really busy.
His view of the current situation that OUR Regiment finds itself is simply put "You forget what you are bombing, it is always the innocent that suffer in everything ”. Bill has had a knee replacement, also a kidney removed, he has two hearing aids and is registered partially sighted……….in his own words “I am coping fine” A typical response from someone who has been through so much.
Bill has specifically asked for his ashes to be spread at Arnhem upon his death, where he left many good friends and comrades.
Written and compiled by Gil Boyd BEM Oct.2006