For my last Sunday post from the Netherlands, I have reached Arnhem, the final bridge in the chain of bridges that were to be taken during Operation Market Garden, and by doing so, clearing a path across the rivers to a point where the Allied forces could turn east with an unobstructed path into the heart of industrial Germany.
As well as Arnhem, I will also visit Oosterbeek, a suburb to the west of Arnhem that became the centre for British forces during the operation when German attacks prevented the majority of the airborne forces from fighting their way through to the bridge.
Operation Market Garden involved the landing of airborne forces that would capture key towns and bridges from Enindhoven in the south through to Arnhem. Capture of these towns and bridges would allow the British 2nd Army to break out from the Belgium border and drive north along the corridor of captured land through to the final bridge at Arnhem.
The 101 US Airborne Division would capture the city of Eindhoven and key points north where they would meet up with the 82 US Airborne Division which would capture the route from Grave through to the bridge at Nijmegen. This would allow the British 2nd Army to move on to Arnhem and the bridge that was to have been taken by the 1st British Airborne Division and the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade.
The plan was that the bridge at Arnhem would only need to be held for two to three days before the ground forces reached the airborne forces, however delays along the route, as well as the failure to immediately capture the bridge at Nijmegen and the fighting in the town before the bridge could finally be taken resulted in significant delays.
The expectation was that only light German forces would be found in Arnhem, however the quick reactions of the occupying forces along with SS Panzer Divisions being in the area meant that the British airborne troops faced much stronger defending forces than expected.
The British Airborne forces also had to land several miles to the west of Arnhem. The area chosen was the only flat land suitable for both parachute and glider landings, as well as being away from a German airfield to the north west of Arnhem, with significant anti-aircraft fire.
The operation started on the 17th September 1944 with parachute drops and glider landings to the west of Arnhem. Troops were organised to hold the landing grounds for future drops and to move forward to capture both the bridge and other strategic locations around Arnhem.
The following map from the book Arnhem by Major General Roy Urquhart shows the Drop Zones and Landing Zones to the west of Arnhem along with Drop Zone K to the south for the later drop of the Polish airborne. The map shows the intended plan to capture the bridge and the defensive positions to be taken whilst waiting for the 2nd Army to reach them from the south. The suburb of Oosterbeek can also be seen just to the west, alongside the river.
The German forces were much stronger than expected, with more, experienced and better equipped opposition both already in the area, and hastily assembled.
The 2nd Battalion led by Lt. Col. John Frost reached the bridge on the first day and took the buildings either side of the northern end of the bridge, however stiff resistance prevented the rest of the 1st Parachute Brigade from reaching the bridge, and fighting would take place from the landing zones through to Arnhem as the Germans pressed in on the attacking force.
The small force from the Parachute Brigade would hold the northern end of the bridge from Sunday 17th to Wednesday 20th September. Intensive attacks on the occupiers over the four days with a gradually shrinking perimeter and occupied buildings being demolished by German tank and gun fire, as well as very high numbers of dead and wounded and running out of ammunition resulted in the remnants of the parachute battalion being taken into captivity in the early hours of Thursday 21st September.
My father only took a few photos of Arnhem, not as many as Nijmegen, so I am not sure if Arnhem was to the end of the route he was taking through the Netherlands and he was running low on film.
The first is of the bridge, and includes his two friends and their bikes:
During my visit I walked over the bridge to the same position:
The bridge as seen from the east, just in front of a new, and very busy “Airborne at the Bridge” visitor centre:
The view from the bridge looking north east into the city. The buildings that originally stood here were occupied by the parachute brigade:
Fighting took place at several sites across Arnhem as British forces attempted to get to the bridge. On the right in the above photo can be seen the tops of two church towers. My father took the following photo of the church in 1952. Whilst the church had been repaired, the surrounding land has been cleared of buildings damaged during the fighting.
I could not get the same view of the church today, as buildings obscure the view, so the following shows the front of the church as it is today:
Back to the bridge – on the lamp post on the left can be seen a sign with the Pegasus symbol of the Parachute Regiment and that the name of the bridge is John Frostbrug.
After the war, the bridge was named after John Frost, the commanding officer of the Parachute forces who lasted so long on the northern end of the bridge.
On the right, there is a small building, again with the Pegasus symbol and a plaque:
The plaque reads:
“On the 17th of September 1944, the 1st British Airborne Division began to land some eight miles to the west of Arnhem with the object of forming a bridgehead north of the lower Rhine.
The 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment fought its way into Arnhem and occupied the buildings which commanded the site of the bridge. Here it was joined by elements of other units of the division.
For three days and four nights the bridge was held against far greater numbers of the German 2nd Panzer Corps, until with ammunition expended, with few survivors unwounded and all the buildings destroyed around them they were finally overwhelmed.
The gallant defence of this detachment, cut off by enemy action from the remainder of the division had a marked influence on the conduct of the campaign in Holland, and the delay imposed on German reinforcements moving south to stem the allied advance enabled crossings over the Rhine at Grave and Nijmegen to be firmly secured.”
Another plaque alongside the bridge gives some background as to the naming of the John Frost Bridge, finishing that “the bridge with his name in now proudly wrought.”
One of my father’s photos shows one of his friends looking at what appears to be a monument in Arnhem with the 17th September 1944 date engraved on what looks like a damaged pillar from a building. There were no identifying features so I was dubious that I would find the location of this photo:
However walking north off the bridge and through some pedestrian tunnels under the roundabout at the end of the bridge revealed the same monument:
I have no idea if the monument is in the same position today as in 1952. The area around the bridge has been significantly altered and rebuilt with a number of large roads converging on the spot.
The Imperial War Museum have a number of photos showing the bridge during the battle. The following two photos show the northern end of the bridge in the early days of the battle. The debris of the initial German attack over the bridge can be seen.
The buildings either side of the bridge are occupied by the Parachute Brigade. In the coming days, German tanks and guns would systematically destroy these buildings.
After leaving the centre of Arnhem, we then traveled out to Oosterbeek.
After the initial success with the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment reaching the bridge, German defences responded quickly and built a blocking defensive line between Arnhem and Oosterbeek to prevent further British forces from reaching Arnhem and the bridge.
The main body of the 1st British Airborne Division therefore started to collect around Oosterbeek, building a defensive perimeter leading up from the river to north of the main road from Utrecht into Arnhem.
Adjacent to what was the main Utrecht to Arnhem road through Oosterbeek was the Hartenstein Hotel. When the airborne forces were landing, the hotel was being used by the German General, Field Marshall Walter Model. Thinking he was the target of the airborne attack he quickly left the hotel.
The hotel was taken over by Major-General Roy Urquhart as his headquarters for the 1st British Airborne Division operations in Oosterbeek and Arnhem.
The hotel continued to be used until the point where the airborne forces were running out of ammunition and the number of dead and wounded were severely reducing the numbers available to fight and hold and gradually reducing perimeter. On the evening of Monday 25th September, 9 days after the initial landings, those who could were finally withdrawn from Oosterbeek across the Nederrijn as by then allied forces had reached the river bank south of Oosterbeek.
My father’s 1952 photo of the Hartenstein Hotel:
The building today:
In 1978 the building opened as the Airborne Museum, a role it continues to this day, indeed in a much expanded format.
Directly opposite the hotel, across the original Utrecht to Arnhem road is a memorial to the events of September 1944:
During my 2018 visit, the memorial was decorated ready for a major annual commemoration which I will cover in a mid-week post. The flag of the Netherlands, along with the flags of the United Kingdom and that of Poland fly together at the base of the memorial.
The Polish flag is in recognition of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade. The Polish brigade’s flight from England was delayed due to weather and when they did land they were met with heavy fire from German forces and suffered significant casualties.
A number of Polish forces did make it across the river to support the 1st British Airborne Division and they also helped with the link up to the advancing British army from the south.
Around the base of the memorial are representations of the participants in the events around Oosterbeek (the bright background sunlight resulted in the two photos on the right being in shadow).
From left to right:
- the attention given to the wounded by the women of Oosterbeek
- the landing
- the support of the Dutch underground resistance
- the last stand in Oosterbeek
The original Hartenstein Hotel building has been magnificently restored and recently considerably extended to add additional displays to tell the story of the events around Arnhem and Oosterbeek. The view of the rear of the building:
During Operation Market Garden, the building was used as headquarters for British operations. It was constantly under attack with shelling, mortar fire and snipers who had infiltrated into the surrounding woodland.
In the first days of occupation of the building Major-General Roy Urquhart was photographed standing at the rear of the building. The photo is from the Imperial War Museum archives:
The same view today:
The Airborne Museum provides a very comprehensive overview of Operation Market Garden and the events around Arnhem and Oosterbeek, using a mix of display items from the time of the battle, as well as multi-media recreations of the events. The museum was very busy during our visit and is a perfect example of what a small museum can achieve.
The following map from the museum provides an overview of the battle and the location of British, Polish and German forces.
There are several rooms full of weapons used during the battle, uniforms, documentation as well as items recovered from the battlefield, including this piece of wallpaper from a house at Pietersbergweg 34 in Oosterbeek showing the dark humour of the battlefield:
There are recreations of the rooms within the hotel during the battle, including this view of how the cellars were used as the headquarters offices during the battle:
And there is a large multi-media recreation of street fighting during the battle. A single photo does not recreate the intensity of walking through with the sounds of battle all around.
A large memorial outside the museum, erected in 1994 on the 50th anniversary of the battle. The memorial is from the British and Polish forces in recognition of the impact that Operation Market Garden had on the people of the area, the support of the women of the Oosterbeek and Arnhem in helping the wounded and the Dutch resistance who supported the British and Polish forces during the battle.
After the battle had ended, the Dutch people continued to help by hiding members of the Parachute Brigade who had escaped capture and there was a slow trickle of soldiers returning back to allied lines as soon as it was safe to do so.
The Imperial War Museum has a number of photos from the battle in Oosterbeek. Along with the fighting troops, three Army Film and Photographic Unit photographers landed with the 1st Parachute Brigade and documented the fighting as it took place in the days leading up to the withdrawal across the river. Despite taking photos in the front line, all three survived.
The following photo shows Sgt D M Smith, Sgt G Walker and Sgt C M Lewis the day that they arrived back at the Army Photographic Unit at Pinewood. Sgt. Smith had been wounded in the shoulder.
A small sample of photos, the initial advance along the road entering into Oosterbeek from the west:
The same street today, the area is wooded, there are trees lining the streets and houses set back from the road. Very different to when the perimeter was roughly across this photo in September 1944:
A 6-pounder anti-tank gun of No. 26 Anti-Tank Platoon, 1st Border Regiment, 1st Airborne Division, in action in Oosterbeek, 20 September 1944. The gun was at this moment engaging a German PzKpfw B2 (f) Flammpanzer tank of Panzer-Kompanie 224 and successfully knocked it out:
The German forces had over run the planned drop zones for resupply of the airborne forces. The aircraft were under instruction to ignore signals from the ground as they could have been enemy diversions so the majority of dropped supplies landed in German held territory. There was also significant loss of the aircraft dropping supplies.
1st Airborne Division soldiers use parachutes to signal to Allied supply aircraft from the grounds of 1st Airborne Division’s HQ at the Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, 23 September 1944.
The same view today is shown in the photo below. The grounds have been beautifully landscaped. The large construction extended from the ground is the recent extension to the basement which holds the multi-media exhibitions.
Another example of front line Photography by the Army photographic unit during the battle. Troops of the 1st Paratroop Battalion take cover in a shell hole in Arnhem, 17 September 1944.
There are reminders of the battle to be found all around Arnhem and Oosterbeek, from superb museums, to memorials large and small and bullet market buildings.
Of the 8,905 officers and men and the 1,100 glider pilots who had originally landed west of Oosterbeek, only 2,163 would escape. Over 1,200 officers and men died in the battle and the rest would be taken into captivity.
There is a major Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Oosterbeek – I will report about my visit to the cemetery in a post later in November.
I will also have a mid-week post on the major commemoration held in Oosterbeek in September.
Next Sunday I will be returning to London, and hopefully for my long suffering e-mail subscribers, shorter posts (thanks for bearing with me during my visit to the Netherlands.)