“Let there be sung Non Nobis and Te Deum, the dead with charity enclosed in clay”
Henry V, William Shakespeare
Oosterbeek War Cemetery, Netherlands. 21 September. A lone Spitfire barrel rolls over the assembled veterans, a C-3 Dakota transport aircraft rumbles overhead in splendid salute. Russet autumn leaves float to the ground from the giant American oaks that surround this place of sanctuary as if the souls of the paratroopers who lay interred herein are making one final drop. Amidst the browns, greens and greys of an ageing year airborne maroon on young and old runs like a proud seam between then and now, in a great jump across the seventy years that have passed since the great battle of September 1944. This is a day of proud men, real men for whom the ranks of Portland stone are not just the names of young men but real people, real comrades, fallen friends. It is these brave men many weighed down in old age by their own bemedalment who can tell the real story of the real battle for Arnhem, not Richard Attenborough’s “Oh What a Lovely War with Parachutes”, false ‘epic’ “A Bridge Too Far” that so ill-defines those fateful days between 17th and 25th September, 1944.
Seventy years ago today Operation Market Garden had been underway for four days. A massive combined airborne (‘Market’) and land (‘Garden’) operation in which British, American, Canadian, and Polish forces fought together with the Dutch Resistance and the Dutch Princess Irene Brigade to capture three vital bridges. If successful Field Marshal Montgomery’s brilliant but risk-laden operation would have seen Britain’s XXX Corps under the command of Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks cross the Rhine and open the way into Nazi Germany. The plan came close to succeeding and no doubt would have but for the unexpected presence of the II SS Panzer Corps and the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions under the command of Lt General Wilhelm Bittrich. The key to the battle was the bridge at Arnhem which is today called Johnny Frost Bridge in honour of the British colonel commanding the 1st Parachute Brigade and who came so close to succeeding.
On 17 September, 1944 41,628 airborne troops launched the largest airborne operation in history. The airborne force consisted of the British 1st Airborne under the command of Major-General Roy Urquhart, the US 82nd Airborne under the command of Major-General James M. Gavin, and the US 101st Airborne under the command of Major-General Maxwell D. Taylor with the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade under the command of Major-General Stanislaw Sosobowski held in reserve.
The strategic aim was for the airborne forces to to enable General Dempsey’s 2nd British Army to enter Germany quickly, capture the Ruhr industrial belt and so end the war by crossing the rivers Waal, Maas and finally the Rhine at Arnhem. However, for Market Garden to work XXX Corps would need to reach Eindhoven in 2 to 3 hours and cover the 65 miles/104kms between its jump-off point at Lommel, Belgium and Arnhem in 2-3 days to relieve British 1st Airborne.
To assist XXX Corps in its drive north the US 82nd Airborne would land in the Nijmegen/Grave area and take the bridge over the Waal and the US 101st Airborne would land in the Eindhoven/Son area closest to the September 1944 front line and seize the bridge over the Maas. Seven bridges in total had to be seized. Simultaneously with the drops XXX Corps would punch a hole through the German front lines from their start in Belgium and then drive quickly north to link up with the lightly-armed airborne forces. Having taken the bridge at Arnhem.
The operation began well. At 1435 hours on 17 September behind a creeping artillery barrage XXX Corps began its drive north with the Irish Guards in the lead under the command of Colonel J.O.E. Vandeleur. However, the presence of Bittrich’s forces close to Arnhem placed the British 1st Airborne in a very precarious position indeed and increased the pressure on XXX Corps to make rapid progress northwards.
However, the US 101st Airborne failed to take the bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal at Son before it was demolished by the Germans. This led to a delay of some thirty-six hours for XXX Corps until a temporary British Bailey bridge could be constructed. Moreover, the narrowness of the roads and the scale of liberation celebrations slowed XXX Corps significantly. On 20th September the US 82nd Airborne after a river-borne crossing seized the north end of the bridge at Nijmegen just as a Tiger-killing Sherman Firefly tank under the command of Sergeant Peter Robinson of the British 2nd Grenadier Guards stormed across the bridge from the south.
British tanks paused at Lent north of Nijmegen due mainly to logistical reasons and the vulnerability of tanks to German Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons, which were particularly effective given that most Dutch roads are on dykes. The delay effectively meant that 1st Airborne in spite of an attempted reinforcement by Polish forces on 21st September into drop zones that has been overrun by the Germans. This led to the slaughter of many of the Polish airborne troops. On Saturday, 25th September 1st Airborne received orders to withdraw the remnant of that gallant force back across the Rhine. Some wag at headquarters gave the operation the ironic title Operation Berlin.
Operation Market Garden had failed. However, the Allied front-line had advanced over 65 miles/110kms and large parts of the Netherlands had been liberated. Allied losses were probably around 17,000, of which some 13,226 were British, whilst it is believed German forces suffered up to 6,000 killed. It is believed between 500 and 1000 Dutch citizens were killed.
This morning I had breakfast with Major-General ‘Mick’ Nicholson, commander of the US 82nd Airborne and Brigadier Giles Hill of the British Parachute Regiment. We met to discuss ‘strategy’. However, the meeting although important was not the main event. We were all really here for the veterans. Today is their day; a day to remember the sacrifice that has given my life the freedom I never take for granted. There was another group of guests among us, modest in number and modest in demeanour from Germany. This is as it should be; allies, friends and partners standing in solidarity and paying respect for the ultimate sacrifice that made liberty possible.
Today I saw a past reconciled with a present in which a new generation of children offered us all a bridge to the future. It is a bridge of liberty that must always be defended and can never be too far - then, now and into the future.
“I was there, you know”. One brave soldier says to me, tears in his wise eyes. “I know”, I say. “For it is for you I have come”.
Thank you, Gentlemen.