The history of Operation Market Garden and the Battle for Arnhem during September 1944, is something every British person of a certain age knows. The epic film, A Bridge Too Far, recounts the story and features a stellar cast. So visiting the sites of the battle, and cycling over Arnhem’s all important road bridge, held a lot of meaning for me. The road bridge, and the nearby railway bridge, were deemed so critical to Allied plans for the invasion of Germany that 35,000 Allied troops were committed to the operation.
Had it succeeded the war might have been shortened by a year. After the successful D-Day invasion and rapid success in France and Belgium, the Allies had run out of steam. The plan was to flank German defences and attack from the Netherlands. The British chose to ignore intelligence reports that two German tank divisions were stationed near Arnhem. Airborne troops were ill equipped to fight tanks and support from ground troops took too long to arrive. Hoped for victory turned to tragic defeat.
I started the day with a visit to the excellent Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek, a small village outside Arnhem where much of the fighting was concentrated, and where British troops would form a defensive pocket before being overrun by German forces. The museum is based at the former Hotel Hartenstein, which was used as the British HQ. The top floors recount the backdrop of the battle, including original film footage and photographs, as well as recorded testimonies from civilians and soldiers, from all sides. It’s well done and incredibly poignant.
On the lower floors, the museum has recreated realistic battle scenes from the streets of Arnhem and the trenches around Oosterbeek. After the museum I visited the Allied cemetery where many of those who died were buried after the war. It’s a tranquil spot. I cycled through the village to Oosterbeek’s old church, which was the scene of intense fighting. The church suffered significant damage, as did many of the village’s buildings. It’s a sleepy, prosperous looking place today, the events of 1944 were devastating.
My route along the banks of the Rhine took me away from Arnhem before crossing over a modern road bridge and returning me along the other bank of the river back towards the legendary Arnhem bridge. This involved cycling 20km into a headwind in sub-zero temperatures. By the time I crossed it my feet were little more than blocks of ice, the side of my face most exposed to the vicious wind was numb, my nose ran and my eyes streamed. In the town are more reminders and memorials to the battle that took place here.
The offensive that might have ended the war a year earlier, ended in failure. Allied troops would be pushed back, the Germans would launch their counter-offensive in the Ardenne, and the people of the Netherlands would be forced to endure a brutal occupation for another eight months. The consequences of defeat would be severe. Swathes of Arnhem were destroyed and hundreds of Dutch families were refugees in their own country.
Dutch civilians, under German occupation for four years, had greeted the paratroopers ecstatically, believing this was the start of their liberation. The reality afterwards was extremely bitter. The German command extracted reprisals against the Dutch with impunity and, during a harsh and unforgiving winter, Germany blocked food shipments to the occupied parts of the Netherlands. Dutch civilians were deliberately starved.
This became known as the Hongerwinter, the “Hunger winter” or the Dutch Famine of 1944-45. Starvation and malnutrition were widespread, with an estimated 22,000 people dying before the country was liberated in May 1945. Many of the soldiers who took part in Operation Market Garden blamed themselves for inflicting these horrors on the people of the Netherlands. The memorial outside the Airborne Museum pays testimony not only to this, but to the fact that the Dutch never held them responsible:
“50 years ago British and Polish Airborne soldiers fought here against overwhelming odds to open the way into Germany and bring the war to an early end. Instead we brought death and destruction for which you have never blamed us. This stone marks our admiration for your great courage, remembering especially the women who tended our wounded. In the long winter that followed your families risked death by hiding Allied soldiers and airmen while members of the Resistance helped many to safety.“