The Battle of Arnhem - 75th Anniversary

Today is the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Arnhem, an integral part of the Allies failed Operation Market Garden in WWII. There is a tendency to see the European invasion as a simplistic series of events, one in which the Allies land on D-Day, the Germans are quickly pushed back, then a tough fight at the Battle of the Bulge. After that, we see the victory that was always going to happen. But that's not reality.

Artillery at the John Frost Bridge

The reality is that the victory in Europe was hard fought and that the failure of Operation Market Garden set back the effort by weeks, if not months, and cost lives that need not have been sacrificed - military and civilian.

View from inside the Arnhem Museum

In 1944 there was a thought that the war might end by Christmas, that the Germans were on the run from France and the Netherlands, and practically racing to get back home. British Field Marshal Montgomery felt that it might be possible to send men to the north, and let them push through the Netherlands and into the heart of industrial Germany. The concept, in a nutshell, was to send in paratroopers and gliders to secure bridges and footholds along the Rhine River, then have ground support follow up to help hold them. From there it would be a smooth ride to Berlin. That was the theory.

Memorial at Hartenstein Hotel

The reality was that thousands of German soldiers (seasoned and trained to defend against airborne attacks) had escaped from the coast and were able to reinforce the men who were already in the area. A further reality was that Germany had considered the fact that the Allies might try this type of invasion along the Rhine, and they were ready. The Dutch Resistance had, in fact, warned that the Germans were there in large numbers. British General "Boy" Browning discounted these reports and pushed forward with the idea, though the failure should be attributed almost wholly to General Montgomery.

Memorial at Hartenstein Hotel

On September 17, 1944 paratroopers from the U.S. 101st Airborne Division and 82nd Airborne Division began landing at their designated positions to the south, while British and Polish forces landed elsewhere, including Arnhem. There stood the most northern of the bridges they hoped to capture.

Cal at the John Frost Bridge
But it was in Arnhem where the Germans had the biggest advantage, and that advantage consisted of two Panzer divisions, which could fairly easily push against lightly armed paratroopers. The support that the airmen were looking for all along the front was often delayed as tanks and vehicles became parts of traffic jams along one-lane roads. Meanwhile, German General Model was rushing troops to the front in a fashion so as to quickly maximize his numbers. By the end of the fifth day the Germans outnumbered the Allies by three to one, and the ratio was only getting larger.

Kremer-Kingma House - Held by Allies on the perimeter

Simply put, the British and Poles at Arnhem were outnumbered and were not properly equipped to fight against tanks and seasoned infantry, and they showed extreme courage by holding out as long as they did. Almost 2,000 were killed at Arnhem, with almost 7,000 captured. The fortunate ones were able to fight themselves back to their own lines; some were rescued a month later from behind German lines during Operation Pegasus, while others remained in hiding for months more.

Entrance to Hartenstein Hotel

I would suggest that you find a book or two on Operation Market Garden, which teaches lessons about arrogance and about the inability to listen to your subordinates. General Montgomery offered that he felt that the operation succeeded about 90% and General Browning said that he felt that they tried to do too much, that they tried to go a bridge too far. (Hence the name of the excellent 1977 movie that was made about this battle.)

Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery
Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery - Polish Graves

This battlefield is just an hour and half by train from Amsterdam, and today in Arnhem there is a smaller, but very poignant and informative, museum near the John Frost Bridge (named after the British General who held the original), and in nearby Oosterbeek there is a larger and very nice museum at the Hotel Hartenstein, which was headquarters of General Urquhart. A couple years ago I had the opportunity to walk these towns and their battlefields with my son, Cal, and today I'm reflecting on the men who gave their all on that ground. Our final stop, before we boarded the train back to Amsterdam, was the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery. There lie the sons who will never return home, the real lesson that war teaches, the casualties of an attempt to go a bridge too far.

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