This summer, we decided to visit the battlefield of the largest airborne operation in Europe during World War II: The Arnhem region in The Netherlands, scenery of “Operation Market Garden” in September 1944. As a guide-book, we used “A Tour of the Arnhem Battlefields” by John Waddy.
The main idea behind Market Garden was the seizing of the most important bridges across the rivers Rhine and Maas which would allow the advancing Allied ground forces to flank the Siegfried Line and to march straight towards the important industrial areas in Germany.
British, Canadian, Polish, and US paratroopers got the objective of capturing bridges between the Dutch cities of Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem. The first bridges could be seized successfully, but the bridge in Arnhem was “one bridge too far”, so that the Allied forces suffered a disastrous defeat and had to retreat under heavy losses – which prolonged the war and led to the “Hungerwinter” of 1944 where 18.000 Dutch civilians starved to death due to the fact that the Germans cut off the supply to the Netherlands as a retribution for the Dutch support and aid of the Allied landings.
What went wrong in Arnhem? Well, the most important mistake was to underestimate the German presence in the area. Allied intelligence suspected that the German forces were scattered, poorly equipped, and that some of the spotted tanks were dummies or decoys. As a matter of fact, the German forces around Arnhem were the II SS Panzer Corps, consisting of the 9th and 10th SS Panzer divisions who were drawn back behind safe frontlines to be resupplied and refitted. So the Allied forces met some of the few remaining German elite forces at Arnhem, restored to full strength and equipped with all kinds of heavy equipment.
The British paratroopers of the 1st Parachute brigade became trapped at the Bridge of Arnhem and surrounded by heavy German troops. The trapped soldiers were shelled by mortars, artillery, and tanks, while most of the attempts to relieve or even evacuate the men were in vain. Lt. Colonel John Frost and his troops defended the Bridge to the last bullet for several days, until they ran out of ammunition.
In and around Arnhem, Operation Market Garden is still very present. You can find memorials all over the area, even in private front yards, and all memorials are well-kept and decorated with fresh flowers or small wooden crosses with personal notes like “we will always remember”. Each year in September, the “Airborne Wandeltocht” (“Airborne March”) takes place which is the world’s largest 1-day marching event. The march is attended by civilians, visitors from all over the world, military, veterans, and police. The route is along the drop zones and battlefields of Market Garden in the area around Arnhem and Oosterbeek.
There are two important museums, and you can even follow the “Liberation Route” around Arnhem which leads you to the most important sites which are extensively described on information boards in English, Dutch, and German. The boards also show photos from the era and of the respective location during the war. In addition, there is the “Perimeter route” around Oosterbeek which is also well signposted.
The area around Arnhem is so rich with history that you should bring enough time. One or two days certainly aren’t enough if you want to visit all important sites and memorials. We spent three days in Arnhem and we will certainly return there one day to see more of this very interesting and fascinating region with their friendly and open-minded people.