I’m just back to Brighton after a meeting in London so I hope you will excuse me for my brevity on this occasion. On the other hand I feel obliged to note an important anniversary.
Seventy years ago today, on 17th September 1944, the largest airborne operation in military history began. Operation Market Garden (as it was called) saw about 35,000 Allied troops dropped by parachute or landed in gliders behind German lines in Holland, with the aim of seizing key bridges in order to allow infantry and armoured divisions to advance, eventually into Germany. Of more immediate tactical importance was that capture of the Northernmost bridges over the Rhine at Arnhem would prevent German reinforcements from moving South to confront the advancing troops and armoured vehicles of XXX Corps whose job was to punch a hole in the German defences and link up with the airborne troops.
Motivated by the belief that German armies in the West were exhausted and on the brink of collapse as well as the desire if possible to finish the war before Christmas, Operation Market Garden was daring and imaginative, but began to unravel right from the outset and ended as a disastrous failure, with the loss of many lives.
I’m not a military historian, so am not competent to add anything significant to the huge amount that has been written about what went wrong, but I will add a personal note. A cousin of my Grandfather flew to Arnhem with the 1st British Airborne division whose job was to take and hold the bridges over the Rhine that would open the door to an invasion of Germany. Sadly, he was one of those many troops who never even made it to their objective. In fact he was dead before he even hit the ground; his unit was dropped virtually on top of heavily armed German forces and had no chance of defending themselves. I had always been told that he had been dropped by parachute, but the records at the cemetery revealed that was wrong; he was on a glider which was badly shot up during its approach.
In fact the action at Arnhem involved two bridges, one a railway bridge at Oosterbeek and the other a road bridge in Arnhem itself. British paratroopers did manage to capture one end of the road bridge, but never succeeded in securing both ends of the structure. Cut off from the much larger force pinned down near their landing zones they were eventually forced to surrender simply because they had run out of ammunition. The other units that landed near Arnhem never made their objectives and had to dig in and hope for reinforcements that never came. They fought a brave but desperate defensive action until 25th September when some were successfully evacuated across the Rhine. The original battle orders had specified they were to hold their ground for 48 hours until relieved by armour and infantry advancing from the South.
Some years ago, after attending a conference in Leiden, I took time out to visit Oosterbeek cemetery, where 1437 soldiers lie buried. Such was the chaos at Arnhem that bodies of fallen soldiers are still being discovered in gardens and woods; as there were so many dead that there was only time to bury them in shallow graves where they had fallen. As remains are discovered they are removed and reburied in Oosterbeek. When I visited the cemetery about 20 years ago, there were several brand new graves.
The local people looked on in horror as their potential liberators were cut down. It must have been deeply traumatizing for them. I think it is telling that when, in 1969, the British Army proposed bringing to an end the annual ceremonies in commemoration of these events, local Dutch civilians insisted that they continue.
As I stood by the grave I couldn’t help thinking of how lucky members of my generation are that we have not been called on to make such a sacrifice. The failure of Operation Market Garden had other terrible consequences. The winter of 1944/45 was a bitter one for Dutch civilians in the part of their country that had not been liberated, with many thousands dying from hunger and cold.
And of course had the Allies succeeded in penetrating into Germany in 1944 the post-war map of Europe would probably have been very different. Had Market Garden been successful would there have been 45 years of Cold War?Follow @telescoper