Tom Schaffer, paratrooper who was one of the last survivors of the Battle of the Bulge – obituary (2024)

Tom Schaffer, who has died aged 97, was one of the last men surviving to have served in the 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion, Army Air Corps (13 Para) during the Battle of the Bulge.

The Battalion, part of the 5thParachute Brigade, 6th Airborne Division, was reorganising and retraining in England after the Normandy invasion, when on Christmas Eve 1944 Field Marshal Montgomery rushed the division to Belgium to support the Americans against Hitler’s Ardennes offensive, which became known as the Battle of the Bulge in reference to the shape of the Allied line under pressure from the Germans before they were pushed back.

On January 3 1945, 13Para was ordered to capture the Belgium village of Bure. Resistance was expected to be light, but the village was held by the Germans in strength, including tanks. As the attack went in, the forward companies suffered heavy casualties but managed to capture and hold half the village.

The enemy counter-attacked on numerous occasions, and during the battle the Paras had to use their fighting-knives in house-to-house fighting, and even call for artillery on their own positions. Finally, after a three-day close-quarter battle, 13 Para cleared Bure of the enemy, with support from Sherman tanks of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and a reinforcement company of glider infantry.

Casualties were heavy and the battalion lost a third of its strength, including more than 60 killed in action. At the end of January 1945, 6thAirborne Division returned to England to prepare for the March 1945 airborne assault across the Rhine.

Tom Schaffer was born in Edmonton, north London, on April 25 1926, the eldest of three siblings. He left school at 14, apprenticed to a butcher in Winchmore Hill. Too young to join up at the start of the war, he volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service on the home front.

He joined the Army on May 4 1944, aged 18, and enlisted in The Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment), completing his infantry training in Canterbury.

There, he saw a notice asking for volunteers to join the elite airborne forces of the Parachute Regiment, founded by Churchill at the beginning of the war. Schaffer had a yearning for adventure and in a school notebook had sketched British Paras descending on German forces, in a cartoon which he kept his whole life.

After rigorous medical and fitness tests he was sent to Ringway Airport in Manchester for parachute training from old Whitley bombers, affectionately known as “flying coffins”.

On March 24 1945 he took part in Operation Varsity, the assault on Germany across the Rhine designed to bring the war to an end. In the largest airborne operation in a single day, several thousand aircraft dropped 16,000 parachute and glider troops of the British 6th Airborne and US 17th Airborne Divisions behind German lines in broad daylight, disrupting enemy defences and securing bridges for the advance of the 21st Army Group.

It was a hazardous operation and 13Para faced some difficulties on the landing zone owing to enemy fire and poor visibility, but rapidly secured its objectives. Schaffer later told his daughter that he had landed on a firtree, and had had to cut himself out of his parachute and shin down the tree before joining the battle.

Afterwards, 6th Airborne Division was ordered to move quickly to Wismar on the Baltic Sea, meeting the Russian army advancing from the East.

With Europe liberated, Allied Forces were sent to the Far East to prepare for the invasion of Japan, but the dropping of the atomic bombs in August 1945 brought hostilities to an end. As the post-war settlements were worked out, 13 Para were diverted to Singapore, Malaya, and Indonesia, where, in December 1945, Schaffer was part of a force sent to Java to disarm Japanese troops and help restore law and order until the Dutch forces arrived.

This brought the British into conflict with Indonesian nationalists intent on independence. The 5th Parachute Brigade secured the town of Semarang, where Shaffer had clear memories of people dying of hunger in the streets and of helping to organise food and water for their relief.

The brigade then returned to Singapore in early 1946, and later in the year was sent to Palestine to rejoin 6th Airborne Division.

However, 13 Para was disbanded in Malaya and its personnel dispersed to other units, Shaffer being posted to the Mid-East Training Centre in Palestine. He was demobbed in 1947 in the rank of lance corporal and returned to England as a butcher in Winchmore Hill, where he remained for 42 years.

He became a founding member of the London branch of the Parachute Regimental Association (PRA) and was later appointed to the position of honorary president, which he held until his death. He joined the 10th Battalion, Parachute Regiment, of the Territorial Army, but left in 1952 for family reasons.

Cheerful, modest and “ready for anything”, Schaffer devoted himself to voluntary service to support veterans and to honour those who had fallen. He also retained a fondness for drums and drumming, having spent time in the drums platoon during his service.

He attended funerals and anniversary events in the UK and Europe, and for 12 years was the national standard bearer for the PRA. He formed a close bond with the Dutch people and in December 2019 was presented with the Netherlands Liberation Medal.

Always immaculately turned out, with a well-groomed and luxuriant moustache, he became the “face” of the PRA and other military charities.

He spent his last years living in Mill Hill, London.

Tom Schaffer was married three times: his first marriage was dissolved and his second and third wives predeceased him. His second wife died after a bee sting to the neck during a battlefield pilgrimage to Arnhem; they had been married for only three and a half weeks. He is survived by three daughters from his first marriage.

Tom Schaffer, born April 25 1926, died March 16 2024

Tom Schaffer, paratrooper who was one of the last survivors of the Battle of the Bulge – obituary (2024)
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