Recently, I was lucky enough to visit Arnhem, a beautiful, medieval Dutch town that was, for a week or so in 1944, the centre of world attention as one of the most vicious and bitterly contested engagements of the Second World War erupted in and around it. The events of that tumultuous, tempestuous week were relived in the epic, all star film, A Bridge Too Far, back in 1977.
Today, Arnhem is a thriving centre of film, fashion and commerce. It is a pretty little town, with a gorgeous, river side promenade that flanks the rolling. mighty Rhine. The cobbled squares are awash with outdoor cafes, filled with live music, and hanging flower baskets, fresh and beautiful in the first, vibrant burst of spring, are everywhere.
And yet, over it all, there still looms that same, famous bridge that acted as a magnet for the most ambitious, amazing airborne operation of all time- Operation Market Garden.
By September 1944, Germany seemed to be on the verge of military collapse. With the Wehrmacht broken and reeling after the bloodbaths of Normandy and Falaise, Field Marshal Montgomery devised an uncharacteristically bold plan to seize a chain of bridges over the Rhine in a series of massive airborne drops using British, American and later, Polish paratroopers. Once the bridges were seized, the paratroopers would be relieved by a massive, advancing column of Allied armour. This huge force would then be poised to strike, like a fatal dagger, right at the black heart of Hitler’s doomed, tottering Reich.
After several attempts to get their parachute troops into action were aborted because of the rapid speed of the Allied ground advance, the airborne commanders were desperate to get their troops some of the glory before the inevitable collapse. Convinced that the Germans were finished and broken, they ignored potent warnings from the Dutch Resistance on the ground. These were to prove fatal.
The veteran, battle hardened Second SS. Panzer Corps had been sent to refit in the forests around the Arnhem and Oosterbeek areas by the German high command. Though initially bereft of tanks, it still had a large number of mobile armoured personnel carriers and armoured half tracks- deadly against lightly armed paratroopers descending from the sky. Though some warnings of it’s presence near the drop zones reached the Allied high command, these were discounted and ignored.
The scale, scope and massive spread of the series of staggered drops took the Germans by surprise, just as intended. Key to the success of Market Garden was the capture of the penultimate bridge over the Rhine- the one at Arnhem. The scene was now set.
A battalion of British paratroopers, under the command of Colonel John Frost, managed to outstrip all the other units, and seized most of the bridge in a lightning dash, though the Germans retained control of the far bank. At the same time, violent German counter attacks and hit and run raids-together with faulty radio sets- prevented other advancing units from linking up with Frost.
The Germans organised a hasty armoured counter attack to try and ‘bounce’ the paratroopers off the bridge that ended in a blood bath, with a slew of blackened, mangled German vehicles left burning on the bridge like so many smashed toys. Still believing they would be relieved from the south, Frost and his men dug in against increasing odds, taking shelter in houses, cellars and defiles along the banks of the river.
Meanwhile, that same relief column was being repeatedly held up by desperate German ambushes. Realising that the loss of Arnhem would mean the breaching of the Rhine- the last natural defensive barrier left to Germany proper- the Germans poured every last reinforcement they could into the area.
This included the only available battalion of King Tiger tanks anywhere in western Europe. These lumbering, sixty eight ton monsters were impervious to almost any weapon, and now forty five of them arrived to confront the paratroopers. Both sides were desperate for a win at this stage.
Now the fighting became really desperate. Whole districts were levelled as the Germans threw in everything to retake the bridge. As their food, ammunition, and hopes of relief ran gradually out, the embattled, now surrounded paratroopers fought a desperate, bloody delaying action in the forlorn hope of rescue. The result was some of the most savage and intense fighting of the entire war.
They held out for two full days against increasingly impossible odds. The Germans were able to get their tanks across the bridge, and these simply shot up the buildings, one after another. Though Frost himself was able to slip through the net, the surviving rump of his brave, battered paratroopers were eventually obliged to surrender.
The defeat at Arnhem rendered all the other, hard fought gains of Market Garden strategically pointless. Though Montgomery himself declared the operation ‘ninety per cent successful’, the Dutch retorted tartly that they could ‘never again afford the luxury of another Montgomery success’.
They were right. The Germans carried out savage reprisals against the Dutch civilian population, both during and after the fighting. The devastated city itself was still in German hands until April of 1945. One of the survivors was a young girl by the name of Audrey Hepburn.
More pointedly, what the Germans called the ‘Miracle of Arnhem’ put new heart and raised false hopes in the battered Wehrmacht at the worst possible time.
The bridge itself- contested at so much cost- was destroyed by Allied bombers on October 7th, 1944, ironically to stop the Germans bringing over armoured reinforcements. It was rebuilt in the exact same place- and in the same style- in 1947. In 1977, it was renamed the John Frost Bridge in honour of the gallant stand of Frost and his paratroopers.
This year, Arnhem commemorates the seventieth anniversary of those bloody days of September, 1944. You can stroll casually over the rebuilt bridge now, without fear of being fired on by anyone. And, if you ever should happen to find yourself in this proud, pretty little town, then it is definitely worth a few days of anybody’s life. Enjoy.