Visiting battlefields: The Bridge of Arnhem – Operation Market Garden
Posted by Denny Koch on October 19, 2011
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.
Getting to Arnhem
Arnhem is located at the Rhine river, close to the German border. The city is easy to reach by train or car. We went there by car and were somewhat shocked about the fuel prices in the Netherlands which are even higher than the prices in Germany (1 liter for 1,69 Euro which is 9 Dollar per gallon… welcome to Europe ;)). In addition, parking is nearly unpayable in the Arnhem city center (where our hotel was located) – one hour costs 2,50 Euro and there are no free public parking lots anywhere. On our first day, we managed to get one of the ultra-rare private parking spaces behind our hotel, but since we left next day for a trip to Oosterbeek, our parking space was gone when we returned. We then parked our car on one of the public parking lots and decided that we didn’t understand Dutch and that we didn’t understand how the ticket machine worked… we were lucky, and didn’t get a parking violation ticket, but the situation wasn’t very satisfying.
Our Hotel, the Best Western Hotel Haarhuis, was located right in the center of Arnhem, next to the train station, the entertainment district, and the pedestrial shopping area. The weather on day 1 was horrible, it was cold, stormy and rainy and the wind blew our umbrellas away. Fortunately, the sun came out and days 2 and 3 were perfect.
John Frost Bridge
Nevertheless, we didn’t have time to lose, so after checking in, we faced the horrible weather and walked to the John Frost Bridge, the Bridge of Arnhem which was rebuilt in the original fashion after WWII.
On our way to the bridge, along the Rhine river bank, we reached the first Airborne Memorial, a plateau with several information boards, a viewpoint to the bridge together with a photograph of the original bridge, a bomb and a Canadian Fickes-Armstrong 25 pounder.
Close to the bridge is the “Slag of Arnhem / Battle of Arnhem Info Center”, which is not a museum but, as the name suggests, a place which offers information about the bridge and the battle. There is no entrance fee but you can donate money if you want to. The staff consists of unpaid volunteers. You can freely take pictures with flashlight.
When we entered the (small but very interesting) information center, we were greeted by a very friendly dutch woman who was addressing us in Dutch. When she realized that we were German, she switched to German and welcomed us to the center. She then gave us a short introduction and explained to us how to visit the exhibition. She then turned on a beamer which projected a cinematic overview over the events on Sept 17-27, 1944 onto a large table. Projected on the table was a map of the Arnhem region with animated arrows and icons showing the movements of all units (very informative, especially for a wargamer!). In addition, there was an (English) commentary from hidden speakers.
After the introduction (about 5 minutes), we were free to explore the exhibition. The large room was divided into several sections, portraying the participating parties – the US, the British, the Polish, the Germans, and the Dutch civilians. There were quotes and pictures and life careers and eyewitness testimonies of individual people, and short movies with original material on small screens with headphones.
All information on the boards is printed in English and Dutch, but the guide gave us a printed handout with a German translation of all material of the exhibition. Great service for German visitors who are not so fluent in other languages, for example old German WWII veterans (who became friends with British and US veterans after the war and who also contributed pictures, interviews, and equipment to the information center and to the museums around Arnhem).
Everything is multi-lingual and the guide adapts to each visitor. At first, we were alone in the information center, but after a short while, a British couple entered the room and was greeted in English by the guide who gave them the same introduction we got some minutes before. Then, more people came, some Americans, some Dutch.
All in all, we met no Germans on our tour. Apparently, Germans tend to visit the Netherlands for cheap shopping and vacation at the North Sea, but the Netherlands as a historical site appears to be fairly unknown. The historical sites were highly frequented by visitors from English-speaking countries (even the mandatory annoying, disinterested, marauding school-classes from Great Britain we had also encountered at the Remagen bridge) and by Dutch tourists. The British, Canadian, American, and Dutch visitors were very friendly and highly interested and we didn’t have the slightest problem with being from Germany, on the contrary. The museum staff always made an effort to explain everything in German to us (which isn’t one of the easiest languages!), and they were very relieved when we talked English with them. With the beginning of the second day, we directly approached them in English to spare them the cruel effort of translating everything into German for us.
But back to the information center… Outside, the weather became worse and it was storming and raining. The center became quite crowded but the guide still tried to welcome each visitor personally and in a language of their choice. Admirable!
After spending some time in the exhibition, we left the building and decided to climb the John Frost bridge (which is heavy with traffic). The rain was lashing and there were strong gusts, so it was somewhat difficult to revere the historical place we were standing on, but we tried our best. All over Arnhem, you can find the Pegasus symbol, the divisional emblem of the British airborne, so the bridge was no exception. Next to the bridge was a little memorial remembering John Frost, the bridge’s namesake.
More memorials in Arnhem city center
With our city map we had received in our hotel, we took a short walk to the next memorial. It consists of a bridge pillar of the old bridge and was erected on the 50th anniversary. Each year in September, Dutch, US, British and Polish flags are hoisted next to the pillar.
We then moved on to the Sint Walburg Basiliek (Saint Walburg Basilica). There is a stone relief memorial outside the church which depicts the destruction of the church and the city in 1944.
The church was empty, except from two older women who were sitting at a table and appeared to be selling brochures. We took a look around and also visited the treasury of the church. There were also some historical pictures of the church in ruins.
When we returned to the outside, the rain had ceased and we moved on to the pedestrian zone with all the typical shops and stores we also know from German cities.
Arnhem night life
We were somewhat irritated by the fact that there weren’t any restaurants in the city (apart from very small fast food snack bars, serving the Dutch national dish: greasy Dutch fries). We were quite hungry, so we returned to the Hotel, took a shower, and then prepared for the Arnhem night life. The hotel website promised a “pulsating entertainment district in close vicinity to the hotel”, so we followed the groups of young people towards a main street next to the railway station and close to the pedestrian zone.
There we discovered why we hadn’t seen any restaurants before: Arnhem had a second pedestrian zone, entirely dedicated to eating and drinking and entertainment with bars, restaurants, and pubs. You could find all kinds of foods from all over the world, from US giant burgers, to Sushi, Greek, Italian, Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, African, Turkish, or Arab cuisine. Since it had become quite warm and sunny (!), people were sitting outside all over the place in front of the restaurants and music was playing everywhere. There were so many restaurants that we couldn’t decide where to eat! In addition, we were quite irritated about the prices – even small dishes were quite expensive and a regular meal was very expensive, compared to Germany (which isn’t a cheap country, either!). We were interested in the “Nashville steak house” and an American restaurant offering giant burgers, so we decided to eat the giant burgers today and visit the steak house tomorrow.
We took a seat outside the burger restaurant and drank Dutch and Belgian beer (Belgium is famous for strange and exotic beers with various flavors and is closely behind Germany concerning beer variety). The announcement outside the restaurant was true, the burgers were really gigantic (and we only took the “small” ones, there was also “extra-large” available, but the waitress warned us that “extra-large” meant “extra-large”.)
After eating the burgers, we were quite thirsty and decided to explore the Dutch world of beers. We discovered a little bar named “Cafe Elsas” with a promising beer card, from Dutch to Belgian to French to Japanese beers… we took a seat outside in comfortable rattan chairs and started with strong Belgian monastery beers. The evening was very funny, the staff was helpful in recommending the next drinks, and the atmosphere was very relaxed.
Around midnight, we returned to the hotel. For the next day, we planned to visit two war museums and Oosterbek in the Arnhem outskirts.
Armhems Oorlogsmuseum 40-45
After a very rich breakfast buffet in the hotel, we gave up our precious parking space behind the hotel and drove to the Arnhems Oorlogsmuseum 40-45 (Arnhem War Museum 40-45) in Arnhem-Schaarsbergen, located in the Arnhem outskirts in a former village school. It is a private museum which was opened in 1994. It contains a vast collection of material, ammunition, uniforms, documents, and weapons collected in Arnhem and the surrounding areas.
The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm. The entrance fee is 6 Euros.
The Oorlogsmuseum is maintained by very engaged volunteers and each visitor is accompanied by a personal guide. In our case, it was a young man who strived very hard to explain everything in German to us and to point out the most interesting exhibits and to tell the story behind them.
You can walk through the exhibition on a circular path, including a second floor, and virtually each inch of the museum is stuffed with material from Operation Market Garden and from civil live during the war. From vehicles to weapons and ammunition, to a parachute, German, British, and Polish uniforms, equipment, up to soap and shaving cream, passports, photos, and little sceneries with mannequins dressed as soldiers – a very overwhelming experience!
We were the only Germans in the museum, most other visitors were from the Netherlands, UK, and USA. You can take pictures, but flashlight is forbidden. Fortunately, our guide was very relaxed in this regard, so we could take all the pictures we wanted.
Outside the museum, a large group of Dutch people were gathering on a clearing in the small forest behind the museum and we discovered that they were model makers reenacting the Battle of Arnhem with fully functional, remotely controlled tank models. They had built a miniature version of the area around the John Frost Bridge with terrain, roads, and small hills where they placed their tanks and moved them around, shooting their MGs and ordnance, some even with muzzle flashes and quite loud noise projectors.
After watching them for a while, we returned to our car and drove to Oosterbeek in the Arnhem perimeter. Oosterbeek is a beautiful little town, very well-kept, with tiny little houses within a large forest-like park with little rivers and lakes. We were quite enthusiastic about this pleasant place. The weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot, so we were really lucky.
The entire Oosterbeek area is full of Airborne memorials, information boards, and places of interest, so be prepared to spend an entire day or two here.
Airborne Museum Hartenstein
Our first stop was at the Airborne Museum Hartenstein, the number one Market Garden museum, located in Hotel Hartenstein, the former Allied HQ under the command of General Major R. E. Urquhart. Visiting this museum is a unique experience because it offers 1,700 square meters of exhibition space. In addition, you can visit the “Airborne experience”, a simulation area in the basement, where you can experience what it feels like to be right in the middle of the battle.
The Hotel is located in a very nice park with walking paths. Outside the Hotel, there are several tanks and guns as well as some more memorials.
The Hotel is beautifully renovated and the exhibition displays weapons, equipment, documents, photographs, and films. You can listen to authentic stories told by eyewitnesses – British, Polish, German soldiers and Dutch civilians. Everything is multi-lingual, and you can choose the language of the subtitles for the eyewitness reports.
The museum is open from April 1st to November 1st from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm (Sundays from 12:00). From November 1st to April 1st, it opens from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm (Sundays from 12:00). The entrance fee is 8 Euros.
In contrast to the very cluttered Oorlogsmuseum, the Hartenstein Museum is very well-spaced. You visit the exhibition on a circular path, starting in the upper floors, and then moving down until you reach the cellar.
After visiting the exhibition, the Airborne Experience awaits! Outside of the simulation area, there is a warning sign which informs visitors that the experience will be quite real, noisy, and authentic, so that traumatized or anxious people get the chance to skip this part of the museum and return to the Museum entrance via an alternate route.
The Airborne Experience is in English, with Dutch subtitles. You are supposed to be a paratrooper. After a briefing (with original footage) in a kind of briefing room, you enter an original glider and then you walk through the destroyed city of Arnhem. There are projections at the walls, so that you get the impression that you are flying in the glider, or being approached by German tanks. It is very noisy, there are surprising moments when you enter the houses, doors banging, shouts, shots, and German or English voices. There are impressive light effects, and sometimes things are getting very chaotic in the dark streets of Arnhem close to a mortar emplacement or next to a road block – it’s much more impressive in real than in the movie above. All in all, we thought it to be a very cool and innovative idea.
We spent some time in the Museum shop where you can buy tons of Operation Market Garden memorabilia – cups, t-shirts, glasses, key rings, caps, jackets, postcards, books, DVDs, tank models – you name it, they have it. In addition, you can buy books and DVDs about other WWII battles. I usually cannot resist when I’m in a museum shop, so I bought an Airborne t-shirt and an Airborne mug.
Memorials in Oosterbeek
Afterwards, we went into the Hartenstein park where we visited the memorials and took a look at the tanks and guns outside. Then, we crossed the main street (which is the starting point of the annual Airborne March) and moved over to another little park with the largest Airborne Memorial. It is a column with four sides, on each of which is a relief depicting: the landing, the assistance of the women of Oosterbeek to the wounded, the collaboration of the underground forces to the Airborne divisions, the last heroic resistance. The top of the column is crowned by five figures and the the figure of liberty appears above the other figures. The other figures symbolize Belief, Justice, Home, Hope, and Love.
We then took a walk through Oosterbeek (you can also follow the “perimeter route” there, where informational boards tell you about the historical events in the area) and visited several more memorials which are hidden all over the town, in front yards, the little forests and parks.
Again, we were very impressed of how well-maintained all memorials are. All memorials were decorated with fresh flowers, garlands, and the little wooden crosses with the red flower in the center (and sometimes with very personal notes) you can find on War memorials all over Western Europe (we also discovered them in the Huertgen Forest). We learned that the local school classes take care of the memorials and the graves on the Allied war cemetery, placing fresh flowers on each grave on a regular basis.
We spent some time in the Oosterbeek central forest (because we took a wrong turn and got lost :P), before we returned to the car to search for the Oude Kerk (Old Church). The Oude Kerk was one of the last strongholds of the British 1st Airborne division and heavily damaged during the fightings. There are rumors that inside the church there are also some reminders to the role of the church during the Battle of Arnhem, but we didn’t manage to enter the church, because it was always closed when we got there. We tried again on the next day, but the church was still (or again) closed.
Outside the church is a monument dedicated to the soldiers who fought in and around the church. It contains the inscription: “In September 1944 British Airborne Soldiers and their Polish comrades with the support of brave Dutch men and women fought a grim battle around this ancient Church in the struggle to liberate The Netherlands from Nazi tyranny. This stone commemorates all who took part in this action and above all those who died. Not one shall be forgotten!”
Commonwealth War Cemetery Oosterbeek / Airborne Cemetery
Last but not least, we went to the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Oosterbeek. Unfortunately, we were still haunted by an annoying British school class we had met in the Hartenstein museum before, but we managed to reach the cemetery minutes before they got there by bus, so we got the chance to enjoy the quiet and solemn atmosphere of this place for a short while.
The war cemetery contains 1,680 graves of Allied soldiers who were killed during the September landings and fightings in the area. 245 soldiers are still unidentified. (The German soldiers are buried on the large war cemetery Ysselstijn, which is the only German war cemetery in the Netherlands. It contains the graves of 31,598 soldiers). Every year, a memorial service is held on the first Sunday after September 17.
What catches the eye on the Oosterbeek cemetery is the fact that each(!) grave is decorated with fresh flowers. We walked along the rows of graves and then sat down on a bench while the British pupils swarmed all over the place. Fortunately, they were almost quiet and much less annoying than in the Hartenstein museum. When they were gone, we took some photos and then left our greetings in the visitor’s book inside a small brick building.
After visiting the cemetery, we moved along a farm track to a large field where another memorial was located: The monument for the Air Dispatchers, in honor of the men who supplied the troops with food, ammunition and medicine. Since many drop zones were in German hands, the Air dispatchers risked their life by flying with their slow aircraft through Flak fire, trying to reach the Airborne troops. Many were shot down during this attempt.
Arnhem night life, part II
We spent the entire day in Oosterbeek before returning to our hotel in central Arnhem. Our parking space behind the hotel was gone, of course, so we got into serious trouble of parking our car somewhere where we didn’t have to pay 2,50 Euros per hour. In addition, traffic in Arnhem is somewhat complex (in the eyes of an outsider) and while we were circling the city center, we made the mistake of missing an entrance to a public parking lot and were forced to cross the Rhine on another bridge which led us right into an industrial area and something which looked like a ghetto district. Fortunately, our satnav knew the way back across the Rhine and we reached a remote parking lot close to the city center. Since the instructions on the vending machine were in Dutch only, we decided that we were tourists and didn’t understand that we had to pay 2,50 per hour and risked getting a parking violation ticket.
After taking a shower in the hotel, we again moved to the Arnhem entertainment district where we went straight to the Nashville steak house. The beer was good, the steaks were great, this restaurant is highly recommendable (despite the shockingly high prices). Then, we went to Cafe Elsas again, where we had spent the evening before – but there will still beers on the card we hadn’t tasted yet. We sat down in the same Rattan chairs as the day before and continued drinking.
Around midnight, we returned to the hotel. The next day was my birthday, so at midnight Andreas prepared a mini-cake with a candle for me and gave me a birthday present. It was a very nice evening in a very relaxed and hospitable city.
On our last day, after another opulent breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and did another short walk through Arnhem city and the pedestrian shopping zone – which appeared to be closed on Monday mornings. This was entirely new to us and it felt strange to walk along ghostly, deserted shops and stores.
We made our second attempt to visit Eusebius church which is located at the Arnhem market place because we were very interested in the parachutist sculpture. According to our guidebook, the church was for the most part destroyed during the Battle of Arnhem. Several monuments in the church commemorate this. On the 50th anniversary of the Battle in 1994, a sculpture group at the ceiling of the church was unveiled, depicting 19 parachutists descending on the city of Arnhem; their parachutes are formed by the church’s ceiling. Unfortunately, the church was closed again, so we could only visit the sculpture “Man against Might” outside the church, symbolizing the sorrows of war.
When we returned to our car, we found out that nobody had discovered our parking violation (or bothered with giving a parking violation ticket to foreigners). We then drove to the small city of Heelsum to visit another famous Airborne Memorial.
Heelsum is located at the southern edge of the dropping area. The Heelsum memorial was the first memorial erected after WWII. It is made of several pieces of equipment, supply containers, and a British 6 pounder AT gun. Above the gun is the silhouette of a paratrooper. The text on the monument says: “On the 17th of sept. 1944 about 1 oclock in the afternoon the 1st airborne division landed on the heath around this point and began from here its grand operation.”
We took a short walk around the monument to enjoy the great weather and to say farewell to Arnhem before we drove home.
There is still so much to discover in and around Arnhem and we greatly enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, the open-minded and friendly people, and the historical awareness of an entire region. We will certainly return to Arnhem and Oosterbeek for another visit, that’s for sure!