75TH ANNIVERSARY OF OPERATION MARKET GARDEN: DOM COLUMBA THORNE

17th September marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden and the Arnhem landings. This battle in 1944 saw a terrible loss of British troops, mainly in the Dutch city of Arnhem where British paratroopers were fighting. 

Part of this epic battle was an Anglican padre, Selwyn Thorne. After the war, he joined the community at Downside and took the name Columba. His experiences during Market Garden left a lasting impression on him but he rarely spoke of them, choosing instead to let films such as ‘A Bridge Too Far’ do the talking. 

Landing in a potato field in Holland on 17th September 1944, Padre Thorne spent the next week mainly tending to the wounded in the house of Kate ter Horst. As the fighting intensified, more and more wounded were brought to the house where Padre Thorne struggled to look after them as best he could. Despite all this, it was recorded that he always looked neat and tidy and worked tirelessly. At one stage, with dead bodies lying out in the garden, Kate ter Horst asked him if he could do anything about them. Despite the heavy firing raging around him, he buried fourteen men in the gardens. 

Another memorable incident was immortalised in ‘A Bridge Too Far’ when Padre Thorne gives Kate ter Horst a bible and asks her to read it to the wounded men. Later, a German tank approached the house, and with Bombardier ‘Scan’ Bolden, he ran outside and told the German officers that the house was under the protection of the Red Cross. Eventually the tank drove off. 

Padre Thorne remained with the wounded after the rest of the British troops evacuated, and was captured by the German forces. In the hospital in Arnhem he came across a Jesuit chaplain, Fr Bernard Benson. When Fr Benson died, Padre Thorne was given Fr Benson’s crucifix which he kept with him throughout his life until he donated it to the Army Chaplain’s Museum. Asking the future Archbishop of Rouen, who was also a prisoner, to be received into the Catholic Church he was told there were too many Anglicans who would need his spiritual care. He was advised to wait until after the war and go to Downside where the monks would look after him. 

Upon being freed and returning to England he came to Downside and was clothed as a monk in September 1954 after a period of training for the priesthood. He spent his time at Downside teaching in the school and was also chaplain to the nuns at Colwich for fifteen years as well as chaplain to the prison at nearby Shepton Mallet.

Although a quiet man, his actions during that terrible time in Holland 75 years ago serve as a reminder of his strong character. Dom Columba died in 2015, aged 101.