Nijmegen claims to be the oldest city in the Netherlands – but they’re not the only ones to claim that title. Whatever. It’s in Gelderland, one part of the Netherlands that’s actually above sea level. And it has several bridges over the Rhine river. Of the tour options, I decided to go to the battlefields at Arnhem. Unlike the tour director I knew this operation had been a disaster, not the battle which liberated Holland. There’s that history degree, you see. And a bit of family history. I went on my own. Pete wasn’t feeling well, so he pootled around town (avoiding the road closures and crowds for the Giro d’Italia which was being run here (don’t ask me why they weren’t running it in Italy)) to buy some Aspro and strepsils.
Anyway, back to Arnhem. In September 1944 the supply lines back to the Allied bridgehead at Normandy were lengthening. The Allied advance was stalled on the Dutch-Belgian border. In Britain someone came up with an audacious plan to set up a second front by landing airborne parachute troops in Arnhem to take the bridges over the Rhine, thereby opening up a new path to Germany, and incidentally, the major ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam. The movie “A Bridge Too Far” is based on the campaign. Our guide told us the movie is pretty accurate. Here’s the history.
It was a good idea, but it failed for a number of reasons. The troops were dropped eight miles from the bridges they were to take, forcing them to fight their way through thick wooded country to reach their objective; The locals, thinking they were being liberated, hampered the troops, greeting them with flowers and kisses; communications failed in the thick forest, and – most importantly – there were two SS Panzer divisions resting just to the east of Arnhem. To cut a slightly longer story short, twelve thousand troops were landed. They didn’t take the final bridge (the bridge ‘too far’). Only two thousand soldiers crossed back over the river in the final retreat. The German Panzer divisions trapped the lightly armed paratroops and regained any ground lost. It would be six more months before Amsterdam was liberated – and before that, the German occupiers came down hard on the Dutch, blockading food supplies. Many people starved to death in the ‘Honger Winter‘ of 1944/5. That’s a part of my own family history – my parents in Amsterdam survived through the war with five small children, and that final winter took its toll on all of them.
We visited the cemetery, where nearly two thousand British, Canadian and Polish soldiers. Rest in peace. The grounds are beautiful, and carefully tended. While the campaign itself failed, the Dutch people have never forgotten this heroic attempt, and the young lives lost.
Then we were taken to the fields where the troopers and their supply gliders landed, so far from their targets. After that we visited the museum, where we saw a short film describing the battle, before wandering through rooms filled with artefacts and stories of the soldiers – and the civilians – involved in the battle. Our 80-year-old guide was a child when the paratroopers fell out of the sky like some sort of strange confetti. It was fascinating getting an eye-witness account, especially since his father had worked for the Dutch resistance.
The drive back to the ship had its own dramas. This is a toffy part of the Netherlands, boasting large houses in lovely gardens – playground of the rich and famous. When we arrived back in Nijmegen the Giro d’Italia had been and gone, but the road closures were still in force. Our excellent driver eventually got us back at 6:30 – fifteen minutes late, but only just in time for the scheduled sailing. One has to wonder about the scheduling, especially given that the bike race wasn’t a secret.
But hey ho. We’re on our way to Maastricht