Veterans remember a bridge too far

15th September 2004, Comments 0 comments

This is where John D. Frost and his men fought valiantly in the hope of ending World War II by Christmas 1944. Now 60 years later, his comrade-in-arms gather for what will probably be the last major commemoration of the Battle of Arnhem.

Montgomery ignored warnings about Market Garden

In the months after the D-Day landings in 1944, Britain and the US were still looking for the knock out blow that would end the stubborn German resistance in Western Europe.

In the east, the Russian steam roller was on course for Berlin after overwhelming the Germans in several pitched engagements, including the largest tank battle in history at Kursk in 1943.

Britain's Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery thought he had the answer: Operation Market Garden.

The first part, Market, involved a massive attack by over 30,000 British, Polish and US airborne troops who would be dropped by parachute or by glider behind enemy lines in and around Arnhem. Their objective was to capture bridges over rivers and canals on the border to secure a bridgehead into Germany.

Simultaneously, British tanks and infantry were to push up a narrow road leading from the Allied frontline to these key bridges. They would relieve the airborne troops and then cross the intact bridges in Germany. This part was code-named Garden.

Had the plan worked, the Americans and the British might have taken Berlin before the Russians, possibly changing the face of post-war Europe.

The plan didn't work.

Some critics, such as Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, say Montgomery's plan was faulty from the start.

Despite a heroic struggle, the bridge at Arnhem was held by the Germans

The drop on 17 September 1944 did not work as well in reality as it did on paper: there were too few planes and soldiers were dropped seven miles from Arnhem based on the assumption the anti-aircraft defences around the city would be too much for the gliders.

This took away the element of surprise.

There were also problems with the radios making it difficult for the Allied troops to co-ordinate their efforts. And crucially, Montgomery ignored intelligence that there were two heavily armoured Panzer divisions in the area.

Despite the odds, the British attackers reached the north end of the bridge at Arnhem over the Rhine. Other groups also reached their bridges only to find that they had been blown up.

The Allies were lightly armed and attempts to complete the plan and capture both sides of Arnhem Bridge proved costly. Once the German tanks and artillery came to bear, the airborne troops were totally outgunned.

Ordered to hold the bridge for two days until reinforcements arrived, Lt Colonel John Frost and his men of the 2nd Parachute Battalion doggedly held on for four days as their ammunition, food and water ran out.

A plaque on the bridge — renamed in Frost's honour — contains the following inscription:

"This is the bridge for which JOHN D. FROST fought
leading his soldiers persistent and brave
went a bridge too far which they tried to save
the bridge is now with his name proudly wrought"

The battle was immortalised in the 1977 movie A Bridge too Far by Richard Attenborough.

In all, an estimated 1,130 Allied paratroopers were killed and a further 6,450 were captured from the total force of 10,000. Frost was wounded and captured.

The rights and wrongs and the what ifs of Market Garden have been hotly debated to this day in books and on the internet.

It was the largest airborne assault in history

And on 14 September 2004, Prince Bernhard, commander of the Dutch forces in 1944, told a Dutch television programme that Montgomery had ignored warnings at the time that the operation would fail.

Now 60 years on — despite Prince Bernhard's characteristic bluntness — the focus is on remembering the sacrifice of the troops who fought and died to drive the Germans out of the Netherlands and end the war.

"For the first time in ten years and probably the last time taking in their advanced age", says commemoration organiser Jos Rouwen, veterans will march over the bridge on Thursday 16 September at 11am.

Dutch locals and businesses have raised EUR 650,000 for the four days of events to mark the battle. Some of the money is paying for 400 veterans, 350 from the UK and 50 from Poland, to attend the commemorations.

The Allies suffered terrible casualties

"For the local people, these men are heroes, we admire their courage. My parents, who lived close to the bridge during the war, always told us about the soldiers," Rouwen told news agency AFP.

Paratroopers, including four veterans, will re-enact the landing in Ede, near Arnhem on Saturday. And the official ceremony on Sunday will be attended by Britain's Prince Charles and Queen Beatrix.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende was also supposed to attend, but has to cancel his appearance due to a foot inflammation.

Despite the cancellation, the symbolism of the day is undeniable.

In honour of the courageous soldiers who fought and died for a bridge too far, as surviving veterans cross it for probably the last time on Thursday, they will be walking into a new era of history.

And we will remember them.

[Copyright Expatica 2004]

Subject: Battle of Arnhem

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