Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Arnhem/Oosterbeek I - Introduction






So, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Chris and I had just over a week in Amsterdam at the beginning of the month. Lovely city and very nice people without exception. We did most (but deliberately not all) of the touristy things and nipped across to Haarlem for a day, but a bone of contention was a suggested expedition to Arnhem by yours truly. I’d take a couple of guide books for the famous ‘Bridge too Far’ battle, but I wasn’t convinced it was a good idea. My objection was that, as Chris is still working and doing an increasingly stressful job, the break was for her rather than me and it should be geared accordingly. Her view was that Arnhem was only about 60 or so miles away and easily doable with the excellent Dutch railway system and I’d been interested in the battle since I was a kid. Common sense prevailed and off I went. I’ve been around the block a few times and don’t get fazed easily, so the prospect of a trot across Holland raised barely a ripple. However, I ignored one of my long held principles which is “never assume”.



We’d decided on Saturday 12th as the best day to go because there was a barbecue at the apartment complex which Chris could attend (amongst other things) and travel would be quieter at the weekend. It would also avoid any reduced rail service on Sunday. Arnhem is only just over an hour away by train, I knew which buses to get and the weather was lovely. What could go wrong?




I’ll tell you what could go wrong. Dutch national railways (Nederlandse Spoorwegen – ‘NS’) are in first class condition because of regular and preventative maintenance which they do most weekends: the Dutch have a bit of a giggle about this I found out later. So, instead of Weesp – Amsterdam – Utrecht – Arnhem as planned, it was Weesp – Zwolle – Arnhem which is the Dutch equivalent of travelling from Manchester to, say, Stafford via Leeds. Approximate travel time of, say an hour plus extended to two and a half hours. Still, plenty to look at and Holland is an attractive place. It also meant travelling through Apeldoorn which was the location of the ‘Airborne Hospital’ set up by the Germans and where Dad was based for a short time during the War.




To be honest, I wasn’t that bothered. Because of the everlasting ankle problem, I’d only planned to visit the bridge in Arnhem and then shoot out to Oosterbeek to see the Hartenstein Museum and sniff around the Divisional Admin Area and adjoining locations (if the ankle held out).




So, for the uninitiated, what’s this Arnhem thing then? It was the furthest point of airborne phase of Operation Market Garden (17–25 September 1944), an only partly successful Allied military operation fought in the Netherlands and Germany in the Second World War. It was the largest airborne operation up to that time, the idea being that a carpet of airborne troops would capture a series of bridges between the Allied bridgehead over the Meuse-Escaut Canal at Neerpelt and the Neder Rijn (Lower Rhine) at Arnhem (‘Market’) over which the ground forces would advance into Germany (‘Garden’).It was the culmination of the broad/narrow front argument between Eisenhower/Bradley and Montgomery whose aim was to batter his way into Germany over the Lower Rhine and head for the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland.




Several bridges between Eindhoven and Nijmegen were captured at the beginning of the operation but Gen. Horrocks' XXX Corps ground force advance was delayed by the demolition of a bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal, an extremely overstretched supply line at Son, and failure to capture the main road bridge over the river Waal before 20 September. At Arnhem, the British 1st Airborne Division encountered far stronger resistance than anticipated. In the ensuing battle, only a small force managed to hold one end of the Arnhem road bridge and after the ground forces failed to relieve them, they were overrun on 21 September. The remainder of the division, trapped in a small pocket west of the bridge at Oosterbeek, had to be evacuated on 25 September. And the rest, as they say, is history.




Arnhem has been pretty much rebuilt after the squabble for the bridge and the later attentions of the Allied airforces so, although many of the street lines are broadly similar to before the war, the only thing to see is the bridge, now called the ‘John Frost Bridge’ which has been rebuilt along the lines of its predecessor which was finally bombed by the Allies in October 1944 to stop German reinforcements moving south. However, my first objective was the Hartenstein, so off to the bus station. Be careful, there are two!



To try to make some sense of all this I’ve broken these notes into five sections: this introduction, a talk about Oosterbeek, a description of my adventures in Arnhem at the bridge, some things to think about regarding the Arnhem element of the campaign and ending with a few wargaming ideas. It’s certainly not a history of Operation Market  Garden or even the Arnhem phase of the operation. It’s rather an outline of what I saw and something about those who fought there. I haven’t gone into detail about the British, Polish and German units because there simply isn’t the space (or time). Nevertheless, anyone even slightly interested in this battle to read some of the excellent books which have been written about it. I’ve listed a few in the final part, but they’re what I consider a minimum. This is a complicated affair filed with continual movements and reorganisations, conspiracy theories, bad generalship and bitter recriminations so do read more about it.

(Yes, I know the paratroops in the photo are American and as for the formatting, we  can only pray!)

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