A Bridge Too Far: Remembering Market Garden
A trip to Holland takes Al Murray to the scene of a famous World War Two battle where he finds a community that still remembers.
Descendant of the 19th-century novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, Al Murray is best known as his alter-ego ‘The Pub Landlord’ and has recently written a book: part memoir, part obsession titled ‘Watching War Films With My Dad‘.
I’ve been to Arnhem in Holland three times in my life now, drawn there by the story of Operation Market Garden, which you might know from the movie A Bridge Too Far, a film that has filled many a bank holiday afternoon. A tale of British pluck, American derring-do and Allied over-optimism in the face of implacable German defence, it’s a movie with a heady brew of stars and set piece battles. I grew up on the story of Arnhem – my father was an airborne soldier in the 50s and knew many of the men who had fought at Arnhem – so going there as a tourist, which might well seem odd to you, seems completely normal to me.
When I was a kid we would visit battlefields, particularly World War Two sites (though one Easter we did go to Waterloo) and survey the scenes of the titanic struggles of the past. Normandy is a great place to visit, fully geared up to the débarquement tourist, with museums, gun emplacements and battlefields that are clear and easy to understand. The beaches, well, it’s obvious how that all adds up, the bridges on the eastern flank, the towns and causeways along the exits to the beaches pretty much explain themselves. In the summer the weather can be balmy, complete with convoys of re-enactors, barmy too. But Arnhem is far more complex, a battle described by one of the protagonists as “not a tidy battle at all”.
The present day A50 – known as ‘Hells Highway’ during World War Two
Image by rhodes via Flickr
The first time I went was when I was fifteen and writing an O Level history project. Dad, who worked at British Rail, normally took us everywhere by train, but this trip was an exception as we had to drive the length of “Hell’s Highway”, the road from the British front line some sixty miles to the south of Arnhem, a road “carpeted” by parachutists and glider soldiers, that British tanks and infantry then fought their way up. (Honestly, you don’t want me going into more detail about this, or we’ll never get to the bit where I drove to Arnhem last). What is striking about it is how close to Germany this part of Holland is, and this goes some way to explaining why the Germans, who’d been on the run for many weeks since their collapse at Falaise in Normandy put up such a fight. Dad and I drove from Eindhoven up through Nijmegen to Arnhem, trying to stick to the original road rather than the Dutch mega highway that has replaced it. I had been to the National Archive to read the battle diaries of the men who’d fought at Arnhem, so getting there, walking the scene, was thrilling, spooky and incredibly rewarding. Though there’s a cycle lane where John Frost and his men fought at the bridge in Arnhem (now named after him) and I almost got run over by a furious Dutch cyclist, which shattered my moment of reverie somewhat. This trip also included drinking cider with my dinner and the delightful teen buzz of illicit Euro-booze.
We drove from end to end of the battlefield, through the commemorations and preparations in the centre of the town, to the heaths and fields outside the town that were the drop-zones, never once getting the chance to pause and take it in.
The second time I went to Arnhem was when I was filming a programme called Road To Berlin (it gets repeated a lot because it was a buy-out deal, I don’t get a penny dammit). Filming somewhere means you are on a tight schedule, only get to go to the places where you need footage, always in a rush and often worrying about the next thing. Arnhem was no exception, as we drove from location to location, I was either being filmed driving the Jeep or sitting in the unit car learning the next piece to camera. We drove from end to end of the battlefield, through the commemorations and preparations in the centre of the town, to the heaths and fields outside the town that were the drop-zones, never once getting the chance to pause and take it in. Even on the Sunday when I jumped from a Dakota into the one of the drop zones, there wasn’t time to go for a pint and celebrate not having broken my neck (like everyone else seemed to be doing) I had to film a piece to camera about troop deployments and the battle’s progress after the landings, then drive up and down to furnish shots for voice overs. I sat rather gingerly in the Jeep as I’d landed really heavily on my arse and was feeling it. So, that evening, as we wrapped and headed back to London, I decided I’d visit the following year for what would be the sixty-first anniversary and take my time.
So the next September I made the trip to Arnhem with an old friend Gavin. Gavin had got wind of my frustration with filming there the year before, and suggested he come along; I could explain the battle for him and we’d get some time to catch up. I gave him a reading list (of course I did).
WHAT IF’S AND MAYBE’S
Image by Walter Watzpatzkowski via Flickr
We flew into Schiphol, and picked up a VW Beetle, a convertible. The dashboard flowerpot vase thing seemed to be mocking us on our war trip, there was also a tinge of shame that we were making the journey in a German car. Ah well, that’s modern Europe I guess. Gavin and I caught up, gossiped, and were stuck in indecision about whether to put the roof down or not; it was a sunny but showery day, and our timing wasn’t in sync with whatever the Dutch clouds had in mind. It’s not a long drive to Arnhem, Holland is surprisingly tiny, and crisscrossed with (flat) motorways, so it took us little more than an hour to get there, uneventful to be honest. And then we got into driving around the battlefield.
About eight miles outside Arnhem are the drop zones. They illustrate one of the reasons the battle went so wrong. They gave the Germans plenty of time and space to react in. Once they’d figured out what the British were trying to do – capture the road bridge over the Rhine in the town – they set up blocking lines between the DZs and the Paras’ objective. Today they’re pretty much as they were, heaths to the north and huge fields to the south, sugar beet and rape seed oil waving in the September breeze. Gavin and I pulled up and I explained where we were and why we were so far from the bridge. For the third time of going there I felt my heart sink at the folly of landing so far from what they had gone to capture. Because the battle of Arnhem, if it had gone according to plan, seemed to offer a chance to break into Germany quickly it is surrounded by what ifs and maybes. What if they’d landed nearer the bridge? What if they’d been quicker about getting to the bridge? When I read about it I sometimes wonder if I’m not willing events to turn out differently, impossible as that might be.
An old man in a red beret was stood outside the church… he’d been coming every year since 1946…
It was a beautiful afternoon, the rain had cleared; sunshine and blue skies greeted us at the largest of the drop-zones. They’re huge open spaces – you can see why the air-planners picked them as they offered everything needed for landing thousands of men and hundreds of gliders in a hurry. As we turned onto the drop-zone near Heelsum we ran into a convoy of re-enactors, dressed in 1940s uniforms, driving Jeeps and the like, probably twenty vehicles in all, three or four men to each Jeep. Gavin raised an eyebrow, we weren’t part of this were we? I don’t know why but their presence felt like an intrusion – we were there to commune with the ghosts of the past not their imitators here in the present. What I noticed was how old they all were – the men at Arnhem weren’t middle aged, and weren’t there for a commemorative jolly. We drove past them, Gavin muttering to himself about how he thought they were out of order, and headed into town, following as best we could the route taken by John Frost and his men on 17th September 1944.
As you drive into Arnhem you go through Oosterbeek, the village halfway between the drop-zones and the bridge, where the men who’d failed to get to the bridge fell back into perimeter and held on until they were evacuated. At the base of the perimeter is a church, which sits between the village and the flood plain of the Neder Rhine. We pulled up there and walked into the church. It was from this pulpit that Major Dickie Lonsdale had told his men to shoot to kill, because they were low on ammo, and the Germans hadn’t been bloody good enough for them in North Africa and Italy and they weren’t bloody good enough now. An old man in a red beret was stood outside the church. We went up to him and shook him by the hand and thanked him for everything he’d done. He started talking, he’d been coming every year since 1946, a family had remembered him from the battle and he’d stayed with them every year – now he was staying with their children. He told us about a German sniper who’d been “in that tree over there – and no one bloody likes snipers – and one of our lads shot him and he screamed all afternoon”. The battle was coming alive around us.
The front line of the low countries after Operation Market Garden
Image via Wikipedia
We drove along the southern route into Arnhem, which Frost had taken, past the railway bridge which the Germans blew a few hours after the landings and into Arnhem itself. All the routes into the town meet in a narrow strip about a mile and a half from the bridge, with a railway line dissecting the town as well. It was in the housing estate here, around the old St Elizabeth Hospital that there was terrible confusion and bitter fighting. It’s also where the British man in charge – Major General Urquhart (played by Sean Connery) found himself cut off from his men and hiding in an attic. These houses, with their rat run of oaths through their gardens and laundry hanging everywhere are exactly as they were when Urquhart got lost (he’d gone forward to try to find out what was going on). We parked around the corner from his house, and as we got out of the car and I explained where Urquhart had broken cover, been fired at by a German machine gun at the other end of the estate dug in at the railway line, a Jeep load of re-enactors pulled up and got out. They’d come to see the sights too. A woman looking through her net curtains made pistols with her fingers and shot at them. I got her point perhaps. A flag hangs on the house where Urquhart was holed up. It always looks bashful to me. What a cock up.
I was trying to explain to Gavin what had happened sixty one years before and found I was getting us in a tangle. In other words it was time to go for a beer. We checked into the hotel and walked into the town, to a restaurant in the lee of the bridge. After our meal I suggested we find somewhere to drink, and went into the part of the town that was untouched by the battle, and is just as it was in 1944. We found a bar full of Paras of differing vintages, amongst them someone who’d served in my dad’s squadron in the 1960s. I called dad and put him on the line, the old soldier standing oddly at attention when talking to my dad. A peculiar moment all right. We drank some more beers and then turned in. The next morning was an early start.
The Sunday morning of the anniversary weekend at Arnhem usually sees some parachuting of some kind. The previous year it had been an enormous display, hundreds of men and women from all over the world jumping, including me landing on my arse. The drop-zone for this is the Ginkel Heide, a heath nine miles north west of Arnhem – even further from the bridge than the DZ at Heelsum. Mind bogglingly odd planning. Anyway, we drove out to the Ginkel Heide, through Oosterbeek again, Gavin now comfortable with the landscape of the battle, making it much easier to explain. We parked up and walked out onto the heath, heather and bracken everywhere, DZ marshals on horse-back riding out onto the heath. There were hundreds of people out on the Ginkel Heide, waiting for the parachuting to start, flags everywhere, men in uniform, veterans in long dark coats, medals glinting in the autumn sunshine. We didn’t have to wait long, the low drone of the approaching Hercules aircraft got louder, then over the heath the men came thick and fast from the ‘plane – some ninety men exiting as quickly as they could, from either side of the plane – I’ve been told sometimes the boots of the man opposite go right past your face as you come out of the ‘plane. The canopies blossomed against the blue sky, but they were dropping so low they weren’t in the air for long. The men scooped up their ‘chutes and ran to their RV. Then almost as miraculously as they had landed form the sky, they were in the pub. We drove back into Oosterbeek for the memorial service.
By now we’d passed the re-enactors several times and Gavin’s mutterings had got darker. As we pulled up at the Commonwealth War Cemetery it was clear that for all the men in khaki, the parachuting and the late night carousing, this was the focus of Dutch remembrance in Arnhem. Kids from locals schools are given a grave to tend for the year, they research the soldier, find out about his life story, write to him. At the service in September they hand it onto the next kid. It’s beautiful, touching, sad. A Dakota flew over very low, the last post was played. Instead of going back to the car we walked the rest of Oosterbeek perimeter – stopping at a crossroads in the north of the perimeter where a Para recognised me. His father, he said, had fought here. When he’d visited Oosterbeek with him his dad asked him how he’d have laid out his section on the crossroads. “Machine gun here, mortar pit there” and so on. His dad said he’d got the machine gun in the wrong place, but yeah, that was pretty much it. “That really brought it home to me,” he said, “they were blokes just like us.”
We walked back into the centre of Oosterbeek – the perimeter was less than half a mile wide at its narrowest – at one point a German vehicle drove pretty much all the way through – to eat in the bar of the hotel around the corner from the Hartenstein Hotel where Urquhart had, eventually, made his headquarters. We met some Paras who’d just got back from fighting in Sangin province in Afghanistan, they described where they’d just been as unimportant compared to Arnhem; “this here” they said “was the battle for the galaxy.”
Kids from local schools are given a grave to tend for the year, they research the soldier, find out about his life story, write to him.
That evening we watched as a Red Devil jumped into the triangle of park opposite the Hartenstein, sailing in to land right by the war memorial. The gaggle of re-enactor Jeeps drove back into town as we drove in the opposite direction out to Schiphol to get the last flight home, little to say after a day’s remembrance.
Image by FaceMePLS via Flickr