Saturday, September 17, 2011

Out of ammo, God save the King

It's a cold, crisp but vividly sunny Sunday morning in November. Hatted, gloved and generally protected against the elements of the early Dutch winter, I'm walking amongst the dead.

Around me are the graves of soldiers. Captains lie next to privates, enlisted alongside conscripted, boys and men. All are casualties of one of the bravest, and yet most ill-judged operations of the Second World War, the Battle of Arnhem.

Known now as much for Richard Attenborough's star-studded 1977 film A Bridge Too Far, it erupted 66 years ago today on Sunday, September 17, 1944, when thousands of British troops landed by parachute and gliders into the fields north-west of Arnhem in the Netherlands.

The Arnhem mission was the final element of Operation Market Garden, a bold attempt to capture the bridges over the rivers Waal, Maas and Rhine, which would enable the Allies to push into Germany and end the war by Christmas. By the beginning of September 1944, Allied confidence was high: they had successfully invaded France on D-Day in June and then broken out of Normandy to liberate Paris and Brussels in the space of two months. Confidence was high, and General Bernard Montgomery, the enigmatic British military hero of the North African campaign, ambitiously devised Market Garden with the view that its penetration of Germany would make as good progress as the Allies had made from the beaches.

Market Garden's success relied on the deployment of over 30,000 airborne troops - many behind German lines - to take the Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Nijmegen as well as Arnhem, the furthest of the three. Intelligence reports had suggested that German tanks were hidden around Arnhem, but the British command - under political pressure to prosecute the mission - dismissed the information, infamously predicting that German opposition would be light - "old men and boys on bicycles". It was to prove to be anything but.

On the morning of the 17th, 2000 transport planes and gliders took off from England, laden with troops, vehicles and armour. Paratroopers of the British 1st Airborne Division landed just north-west of Arnhem, at Oosterbeek, from where they started for their main objective - the distinct arched bridge across the Rhine. The idea was to hold the bridge until tanks of the British XXX [30] Corps - commanded by the colourful General Brian Horrocks - arrived to shore up the crossing. However, logistics and German resistance along the road from Eindhoven slowed Horrocks' progress. Outside Arnhem, the Airborne troops encountered resolute German defence - far tougher than had been expected - taking casualties as well as German prisoners. Into the bargain, the British found that a large proportion of their radio equipment was either faulty or had perished in the glider landings.

Eventually, a Parachute Regiment force led by Lt. Colonel John Frost reached Arnhem and took up position at the northern end of the bridge. Although the Germans had been genuinely caught short by the Allied attack, the German area commander Field Marshall Walter Model mobilised the 2nd SS Panzer Corps under the battle-hardened General Wilhelm Bittrich. Armed with the latest, factory-fresh tanks and armour, Bittrich unleashed an astonishing barrage on the town of Arnhem in an attempt to demoralise and flush out Frost's troops. Over the next few days, the British Paras fought on bravely - sometimes with just their bayonets - but dwindling in number as casualties mounted up. Further down the road, the XXX Corps tanks were making slow, difficult progress from Nijmegen.

By the Thursday morning those who were left - the injured and those who had volunteered to fight on to protect the injured - were taken prisoner. A final message - transmitted by one of the few working radios in British possession - said, simply: "Out of ammo, God save the King". Arnhem had become a bridge too far.

Although some 2500 Paras managed to get out of Arnhem, 1500 were killed and a further 6000 taken prisoner, including Frost. Today the bridge over the Rhine  at Arnhem is named the John Frostbrug in tribute to the plucky British colonel who, with his huntsman's horn, gathered his troops with rifles and machine guns to take on some of the most powerful weapons in the German army, commanded not by old men and boys, but by elite soldiers.

War stories have a habit of celebrating heroism and triumphalism. The story of Operation Market Garden is certainly about heroic bravery, but also of epic military arrogance. Rather than shorten the war, it probably extended it: by December 1944, Hitler felt suitably confident to sanction the so-called 'Battle of the Bulge', the surprise counter-attack through the forests of the Ardennes in Belgium, leading to a miserable winter of terrible attrition which could, so easily, have reversed all the progress made since D-Day.

The Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Oosterbeek contains the final resting places of almost 1800 casualties of the battle for Arnhem. Walking along the well-tended rows of headstones, there is an eerie calm around the woods where the cemetery is located. It is also provides a fascinating snapshot of the sacrifice made by soldiers of both sides. The graves bear ages - 17, 20, 21, 25, 30 - and English, Welsh and Polish names, the occasional Star of David, as well as every conceivable rank and duty from officers to glider pilots, cooks to medical orderlies. Significantly, they also bear the dates - September 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25, 1944.

Operation Market Garden, in total, cost the lives of several thousand Allied soldiers and a large but undetermined number of German troops. More than 500 Dutch locals were killed in the fighting. The Dutch population paid a terrible price in the winter that followed, as they were deprived of food. But their appreciation of the doomed but brave effort of the Allies to capture the bridge at Arnhem and shorten the war in the process continues to be recognised even today. Every year local children from the Arnhem and Oosterbeek area join the few remaining veterans of the 1st British Airborne  to lay flowers at the cemetary. As World War 2 - and its survivors - disappears further into history, it's a genuine and heartwarming gesture of remembrance. Remembrance of an episode in military history some might prefer to forget.

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