Histourism: traces of Operation Market Garden

I’d had the date marked on my calendar for weeks: 16 and 17 September, Market Garden weekend. On 17 September, 1944, many a Dutch citizen in the south of the country looked up to the sky to see ‘falling angels’, aka Allied paratroopers, taking part in the largest airborne operation of the entire war.

Though my interest in the Second World War was kickstarted way back in 2013, I didn’t have the chance to attend any of the events surrounding the anniversary of Operation Market Garden until this year. To sum it up quickly, Market Garden was a failed Allied operation to enter Germany via the Netherlands and push through to Berlin, hypothetically ending the war by Christmas 1944. It was spearheaded by the First Allied Airborne Army, which consisted of mainly American, British and Polish troops. The airborne forces were to seize certain strategic bridges over the Lower Rhine, Maas and Waal rivers – the Market part – so that British ground troops, including tanks, could advance rapidly and group together on the German border – the Garden part. German resistance in the Netherlands was much higher than expected; plus, the operation had been planned with such tight deadlines that any unplanned delays would cause a chain reaction of disasters. And that is what happened: the failure of the American 101st Airborne Division to capture the bridge near Son, just north of Eindhoven, and the 82nd Airborne’s failure to capture the bridge over the Waal near Nijmegen, plus the stiff resistance the British encountered when trying to capture Arnhem, gave the Germans enough time to regroup and launch a fierce counterattack that the Allies wouldn’t recover from.

You’ve probably guessed it by now: my trip was another pilgrimage to the battlefields portrayed in Band of Brothers. After seeing the places where they fought in France and Belgium, it was extra special for me to visit the places they’d fought in my own country.  Sunday would be a Band of Brothers day; on Saturday, I went to see the yearly celebratory parachute drop on the Ginkelse Heide, which is not far from where my mother lives.

Saturday

It rained pretty much constantly the week before, and we burrowed in our raincoats, staring up at the dramatic, lead-coloured clouds. The morning drop, which was to take place around 10 am, had been cancelled due to the heavy cloud cover, but we were in luck: the afternoon drop was to go on as scheduled. Not long after we arrived on the moors by shuttle bus – we were on military training grounds, so no cars allowed – the roar of the airplanes (Dakotas) became audible. Close by was a loudspeaker through which an invisible narrator described the fighting that had taken place 73 years ago on that very spot between the Germans and the British, the Queen’s Own Scottish Borderers to be precise. The parachutes swayed gentle in the breeze, looking, as I thought they had in Normandy, like dandelion seeds borne on the wind, scattered across the clouds of purple heather. At least the airborne soldiers had a less stressful jump than on D-Day, when they jumped at night under heavy German anti-aircraft fire. It must have been a rather welcoming sight, the flat, green landscape coming up to meet them in the daytime, without any flak flying about. Still – one can imagine how vulnerable they felt.

 

There would be another drop the next day, at Groesbeek, near Nijmegen, with a ceremony attended by several veterans who’d jumped in the area, but that was to take place at 10 am, which was too early for me. The organisers of this drop had evidently planned on receiving ten times the number of visitors who, in the event, were walking rather despondently on the muddy paths with their raincoats pulled up to their noses. The raindrops clattered on wooden tables in the picknick area, which was surrounded by food stands, military vehicles from the 1940s (real and fake) and a tent where two women singing 1940s hits did their best to keep their audience outside. The freshly landed paratroopers didn’t seem to mind it, though, and immediately set about packing up their chutes. There were a few book stands and stands with war souvenirs, some 1940s military vehicles, and a large stage on which a military orchestra played the Imperial March – rather incongruously. It was all on a much smaller scale, compared to what I’d seen in Normandy and Bastogne. Still, the atmosphere was lively, most of all because of the dozens of foreign soldiers walking around, eating snacks and taking pictures. They were obviously there by invitation of the ministry of defense. We spotted Germans, Brits, Italians, Frenchmen, Americans, Canadians, and even a lone Greek.

 

Sunday

The next day was sunny and warm – a blessing, because I planned on cycling from Arnhem to Nijmegen, two significant theatres of war during Market Garden, loosely following Hell’s Highway (the stretch of road between Arnhem and Eindhoven) but taking  a roundabout route across the Island. The Island, as it was nicknamed during the campaign, is the area between the Maas and Waal rivers, of which Arnhem and Nijmegen form the eastern border, and its northern- and southernmost points, respectively. This is the area where Easy Company was transferred to after their battle further down south, near Eindhoven, where they’d had to secure the bridges at Veghel and Son. The Island is the setting for my favourite episode of Band of Brothers, ‘Crossroads’, and therefore I was keen to explore it.

I started out in Arnhem, where I rented a bicycle. I made a quick stop at the Bridge to Liberation Experience, a small, free museum along the banks of the Lower Rhine. There’s plenty more to see around Arnhem, like the Airborne Museum and the cemetery in Oosterbeek, but as I’d visited these before, I wasted no time and crossed the John Frost Bridge on to the Island. I was planning to visit two memorials, as well as the former regimental headquarters of the 506th Parachute Infantry, with plenty of time for pictures and detours. My route took me along the northern side of the Island on top of a dike, with fine views of the Lower Rhine and the wooded hills behind it. It was just as PFC David Webster of Easy Company described it in his book: high dykes, with low-lying farmland in between. No wonder a soldier couldn’t light a cigarette without German artillery, perfectly zeroed in from a high location across the river, landing on his head. It was difficult to imagine the frenzied fighting that took place around here; the kilometres I did in 20 minutes would have taken many troops days to cross. All I ran into were cows, horses, sheep and other cyclists: a postcard-cliché image of Holland.

 

My first stop, and my lunch spot, was the memorial for the 101st Airborne Division just underneath a viaduct, close to the village of Driel. The Americans had been dug in for close to a month from late October on. As Ambrose’s book says, “[M]ovement by day was impossible. The platoons in the front line lived in foxholes. The rain was all but constant. No one ever got really dry. No shaves, no showers, no relaxation. A miserable existence.” The static situation and the miserable weather made the whole scene reminiscent of a First World War battlefield. Further away from the front line, the men listened to the German propaganda brought to them by ‘Arnhem Annie’, who played American songs and invited the ‘Yanks’ across the river to surrender. It was impossible to imagine these glowing green fields turned into a muddy trench. The heavy clouds scudding across the blue sky, however, were a reminder that rainfall wasn’t far away.

When they were replaced at last by Canadian units and being driven back across Hell’s Highway, they were cheered by the liberated Dutch citizens of Nijmegen, Uden, Veghel and Eindhoven. The rest of the Netherlands, due to the failure of Market Garden, would remain occupied until May 1945, and would suffer through a cold and harrowing hunger winter, leading to the deaths of more than 20,000 people.

 

I cycled on to the next monument, which was located just past the village of Heteren. Where Easy Company had been dug in close to Driel towards the end of October, this place, between Heteren and Randwijck, was where their fight really began. Their lines were spread very thin, allowing Germans to frequently slip through and assess whether the Americans were building up their strength. October 5 saw the unit in action here for the first time; a nightly patrol towards the crossroads had discovered a large contingent of Germans in the vicinity, supposedly a breakthrough of Easy’s lines. Company commander Dick Winters decided to launch a bayonet attack, caught the Germans by surprise, and the scene turned into a ‘duck shoot’ for the American soldiers, who could fire freely at the Germans cooped up against the side of the dyke. Later, Winters wanted to chase the Germans to the ferry crossing to Renkum, the village across the river, but ran into too much resistance; while retreating, German artillery zeroed in on the crossroads and injured 18 men in a matter of seconds. The bayonet attack has become one of the most famous scenes from the show, and was considered an outstanding feat of military strategy. It was the reason for company commander Dick Winters to be promoted to major. (I mention this because it plays a big part in the episode’s emotional landscape.)

While they were dug in here, Easy Company, now run by first lieutenant Heyliger, was ordered to assist in the rescue of 125 British troops, several members of the Dutch resistance and five American pilots who were hiding out on the north side of the Lower Rhine, just across from Easy Company’s position. Colonel Dobey of the 1st Airborne Division made contact with Colonel Sink of the 101st by swimming across the river. The operation took place on the night of 22-23 October, and the prisoners ferried across using collapsible canvas boats, while Easy pointed two machine guns to defend against a German attack across the river. They were never spotted – though according to Ambrose’s book, the British apparently had a hard time refraining from repeating “God bless you, Yank” over and over.

 

At the crossroads, I ran into a Brit who recommended a museum in nearby Heteren to me. Having an hour to spare, I decided to pay a visit. Betuws War Museum ‘The Island’ 1944-45 is definitely the smallest museum I’ve ever been to: it was in someone’s backyard. I was welcomed by the owner’s wife and shown through the kitchen to a brick shed, which was filled to the brim with WWII memorabilia. The owner, whose father had seen Polish airborne troops landing right in front of him during the war, told me put on a different exposition every few months; now, around Market Garden, he was focusing on all 30 (!) nationalities who took part in the operation, and had dressed up mannequins in their original uniforms. He urged me to come back in November, when he’d do an exhibition about the Americans fighting in the area, and told me he would showcase a little note written by captain Ronald Speirs (of Band of Brothers fame), permitting six boys to go and milk the cows at such and such an hour. What I was looking at, he told me, was about 40 per cent of his collection. Besides road signs, weaponry, uniforms, and rations in glass cases, the tiny space was packed with visting Poles, Brits, Germans and Dutchmen.

The last stop I wanted to make before heading on to Nijmegen was at Landgoed Schoonderlogt, the headquarters of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment (to which Easy belonged) during the campaign. I first knew it from a photograph Dick Winters had had taken there, which has become rather famous. I cycled along the country roads in the beautiful golden afternoon light, surrounded by cows, horses, the occasional bird of prey, sheep and geese; I bought a kilo of apples from a local orchard for a euro; nothing about the landscape screamed ‘war’ to me. The last few miles towards Nijmegen were less picturesque, until I crossed the Waal and had a magnificent view of the bridge that the Germans tried (and failed) to destroy, even when they used divers they called ‘frogmen’ (in Dutch: ‘kikvorsmannen’) to attach explosives to the base from the water level.

 

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