9 things you (probably) didn’t know about the battle of Arnhem

The battle of Arnhem (17–25 September 1944) was a bold – but ultimately failed – attempt to outflank German defences in north-west Europe by establishing a bridgehead across the lower Rhine river at the Dutch town of Arnhem. Author Iain Ballantyne reveals nine lesser-known facts about the battle…

Soldiers at the battle of Arnhem

The plan was for Allied paratroopers and land forces to launch a combined attack, which would break through German defences in the Netherlands. But the bridge at Arnhem was never captured – the plan ended in failure just a week later, resulting in thousands of casualties. Codenamed Operation Market Garden, it was the largest airborne operation in history and one of the biggest disasters of the Allied war effort.

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Here, Iain Ballantyne, author of Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron, reveals nine lesser-known facts about the battle immortalised in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far

During the battle of Arnhem in September 1944, great valour was shown by lightly armed British Airborne troops in the face of German panzers [tanks] and other heavy weaponry. Meanwhile, the people of the town on the Lower Rhine, and its suburb of Oosterbeek, suffered terribly as the combatants grappled to the death in their streets and even in their homes.

The prime objective of using 30,000 British and American paratroopers and glider-borne infantry to seize multiple river and canal crossing between the Dutch-Belgian border and the Rhine was to enable tanks and troops to dash up 64 miles of highway deep into the Netherlands. The British Second Army was then to make a right hook into Germany and take the Ruhr – the heart of the enemy war industries – intending to force the collapse of Hitler’s military machine.

However, another urgent priority was to capture territory in the Netherlands from which V2 ballistic missiles were being launched in an attempt to devastate London and other parts of southern England. That terrifying missile blitz had only just started in September 1944 when Operation Market Garden began, and the Allies badly wanted to snuff out the V2 threat.

Search for snipers at Arnhem
Sergeants J Whawell and J Turrell of the Glider Pilot Regiment of the 1st Allied Airborne Army search a bomb-damaged school in the Netherlands for snipers during the battle of Arnhem. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

When looking at this famous episode in the Second World War, I decided to focus on the struggle at the very tip of the lunge into the Netherlands. In writing Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron, I was able tease out of the stories of individual soldiers and civilians caught up in the chaos and destruction of a savage battle, including some remarkable aspects that offer a more nuanced understanding even 75 years on.

1

Three Bridges Too Far

The decision to extend the attack so far behind enemy lines was famously described by Lt General Frederick ‘Boy’ Browning – top field commander of the Allied Airborne forces – as possibly “a bridge too far”. This remark was made to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the overall commander of the British-led 21st Army Group and mastermind of Market Garden, when he and Browning were discussing the plan.

When Montgomery asked Browning if the 1st Airborne Division could take and hold the road bridge at Arnhem for two days, Browning suggested his troops could do it for twice as long – but added a telling caveat about the wisdom of the plan’s final objective: “I think we might be going a bridge too far,” said Browning. This famous response inspired the title of Irish reporter and historian Cornelius Ryan’s classic book on the operation, A Bridge Too Far, which was itself made into a spectacular star-studded Hollywood war movie in the mid-1970s.

Robert Redford in the film 'A Bridge Too Far'
American actor and director Robert Redford in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’, 1977. Redford played Colonel Julian Cook, who received the Distinguished Service Cross for his role at Arnhem. (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio by Getty Images)

In fact, it was a case of three bridges too far. Not only were the British Airborne troops asked to capture the road bridge over at Arnhem, but also a railway bridge and pontoon bridge. The former was blown up as paratroopers ventured onto it, while the latter had been dismantled.

2

Germans v Germans

The first soldiers of the 1st Airborne Division to drop into the Netherlands on 17 September 1944 were the 21st Independent Parachute Company, the pathfinders who marked out the Drop Zones (DZs) and Landing Zones (LZs) and set up homing beacons. Among them were Germans and Austrians who had assumed fake British identities in order to fight the Nazis. They were Jewish refugees who had fled persecution in their homelands and were determined to exact payback on behalf of loved ones and families who had suffered so much under Hitler.

They were very fierce soldiers and, despite the fact they would probably be shot as traitors if taken prisoner, they made no secret of their identities, shouting insults at their foes in German.

3

Dutch bullets, Dutch kisses

On 18 September, when the second lift of 1st Airborne Division troops was going DZs and LZs beyond Arnhem – leaping from their Dakota troop transports or coming to earth in gliders – they were shot at by Dutch soldiers. Those troops belonged to Landstorm Nederland, a unit of the Waffen SS composed of Nazi collaborators. Dutch SS troops even fought soldiers of the Free Netherlands Army’s Princess Irene Brigade during earlier battles, in northern Belgium.

No sooner had some British soldiers survived the experience of being shot at by the Dutch SS near Arnhem than they were being embraced and kissed by overjoyed locals. The civilians came out to the DZs and LZs to greet the British soldiers with water and wine, to celebrate liberation, which sadly proved short lived.

4

War among the people

The majority of Dutch civilians of course hated the Nazis and yearned to be free of a brutal occupation after more than four years of oppression. They greeted the arrival of British troops with great joy, but, in the subsequent battle, thousands of them were trapped in the cellars of their homes in Arnhem town and neighbouring Oosterbeek.

As the Airborne soldiers shot at the enemy from rooms in houses on once-pleasant and pristine streets, beneath their feet civilians sheltered in the cellars and miserably awaited their fate. Enduring terrible conditions for days – going short of water and food, their homes destroyed above them as exploding artillery shells, machine gun fire and grenades roared all around – they were often terrified. Hundreds of civilians were killed during the fighting, but the astonishing thing is that thousands of those who took refuge in cellars survived.

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Anthony Beevor

On emerging from the cellars, they were told by the Germans to leave and not come back: anyone who did not evacuate themselves from Oosterbeek and Arnhem would be shot.

Despite the British bringing ruin to their homes, the Dutch people to this day salute the sacrifice of the Airborne soldiers who tried and failed to lift the yoke of fascist oppression.

5

Suffer not the animals

Suffering alongside the humans as the battle raged in the streets, fields, woods and gardens were animals — some of which fought back. One British soldier who threw himself into a slit trench to escape death under German bombardment found he was sharing it with a fierce little squirrel. It proceeded to attack him and had very sharp teeth. Hurling the animal out, the soldier found the squirrel determined not to yield. It bolted back into the trench and burrowed underneath him.

During the battle at Oosterbeek, a Dutch girl (who could speak English) pleaded with a British paratrooper to help her care for a horse, which was in a barn behind her house. He reluctantly took her out to feed and water the animal, fearing they would be shot down. Yet the Germans held their fire while Corporal Harry Tucker and the girl cared for the animal. Tucker later said: “I told the girl to hurry up with feeding and watering the horse. We then went back across the yard and she thanked me for helping her. The thing that still amazes me is that not a single shot was fired at us during the whole episode. Maybe the Germans were showing us some mercy, or maybe they were just temporarily out of ammo.”

The bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem
The bridge over the Rhine at Arnhem, Netherlands, c1943. (Photo by Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One British officer even brought an animal with him to Arnhem from England. This was Myrtle the (so-called) parachick, a hen who jumped into battle strapped to the shoulder of paratrooper Lieutenant Pat Glover in a special canvas bag. Sadly, during a skirmish Myrtle was exposed to fire and killed.

6

Just pick up the phone

The radio problems suffered by the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem are well-known. The radios may have worked sufficiently in carefully controlled exercises on Salisbury Plain, but they did not function well in the tree-lined suburbs, woods and polder of Holland [lowland reclaimed from a body of water by building dikes and drainage canals]. However, the British could have just picked up the phone. Much of the local telephone system functioned throughout the battle and was used to great effect by the Germans, who had seen a lot of their radio equipment destroyed during the retreat from Normandy. The British made limited use of the telephones as they did not trust them to be secure.

The famous episode in the 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far, in which 1st Airborne Division commander Major General Roy Urquhart (played by Sean Connery) is forced by radio problems to race around in a jeep, trying to speak to his commanders face-to-face, is absolutely true. Not only was Urquhart at one point trapped in an attic while evading enemy patrols, but he really did shoot dead a German soldier who made the mistake of peering in the front window of another house the general was hiding in.

7

Vera Lynn and other psychological warfare

Radio contact was established with higher command headquarters and even between some units, when ranges were short. As part of normal practice, both sides listened in to each other’s radio broadcasts and tried to interfere with them. They exchanged insults over the airwaves, sometimes also masquerading as each other in attempts to glean intelligence or trip up their foe.

The Germans tried to break the British troops’ spirit by broadcasting loudspeaker messages suggesting their sweethearts were missing them and that senior British commanders had been taken prisoner. They even tried to make the British homesick by broadcasting Vera Lynn songs, which, rather than break the Airborne troops’ morale, raised their spirits. The British replied with loud curses and used their weapons to destroy the offending enemy loudspeakers.

Vera Lynn
British singer Vera Lynn, nicknamed “the Forces’ sweetheart”, 1945. (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Getty Images)

At the Arnhem bridge, the senior Waffen SS commander thought he could persuade Lt Col John Frost, commander of the British force, to surrender by sending a captured Airborne soldier to tell him resistance was useless. They best give up or die! Frost decided such a tactic was evidence of enemy desperation. He and his troops became even more determined to keep on fighting, hoping Allied tanks and troops charging up the highway would soon reach his besieged force.

 

8

For the Allies, the war was not over

Eventually, with very few weapons left to fight the panzers, the British at the Arnhem road bridge surrendered. When the 1st Airborne Division – trapped in a cauldron of fire at Oosterbeek, with its back to the river ­– withdrew across the Rhine, it left behind several thousand wounded and/or captured soldiers, in addition to 1,200 dead.

Many of these elite troops were determined that this was not going to be the end of the matter. Hundreds of them evaded the enemy, or almost immediately escaped captivity to go on the run and into hiding with brave Dutch hosts. Some escaped from prison camps in Germany. As the Reich collapsed in April and May 1945, many of the remaining PoWs found themselves left to their own devices by guards who disappeared to avoid capture by the Allies.

British soldiers return from Arnhem
A group of British soldiers, survivors of the battle of Arnhem, reach the relative safety of Belgium, September 1944. (Photo by Dewhirst/PNA Rota/Getty Images)

One of the most remarkable escapes was by Major Tony Deane-Drummond who, after being taken prisoner in Arnhem, hid in a book cupboard for two weeks, surviving on a lump of stale bread and a little water. Once he felt the coast was clear of enemy troops, Deane-Drummond emerged and eventually made it to sanctuary and then home thanks to help from the Resistance and other Dutch people.

Along the way, while hiding out with a Dutch family, Deane-Drummond would visit nearby homes to listen to secret radios in an attempt to keep up with news from the outside world. During one listening session he met Baroness van Heemstra, whose family came from Arnhem, mother to 15-year-old daughter Edda – who would after the war be known to the world as the Hollywood actress Audrey Hepburn. The future movie star’s mother later sent a bottle of champagne to the house where Deane-Drummond was hiding to cheer him up.

Working with the SAS, Dutch Resistance and British intelligence operatives, some fugitive 1st Airborne Division officers organised a mass escape over the Rhine in late 1944. The British escapers were organised into fully armed units and, with assistance from American paratroopers and Canadian assault engineers, finally got out of enemy territory.

9

Hitler’s last victory in the west

Arnhem was the last time the Germans inflicted a major defeat on the Allies in the west. From then on, they lost every battle against the British, American and Canadian armies, while the Red Army steamroller shattered German armies in the east. At Arnhem, and also during the subsequent Ardennes offensive of December 1944, the Germans expended their last military capital in the west. While the fighting remained hard in the west, the British-led forces in the north were able to send a massive airborne and amphibious assault across the Rhine in spring 1945. The Reich was finished.

It would be going too far to say the western Allies could have perhaps taken Berlin if the Germans had lost at Arnhem. It was not in Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D Eisenhower’s endgame plan to do so, as he preferred to leave that bloody job to the Russians. Yet, the effort involved in achieving victory at Arnhem and staging the Ardennes attack helped sap German forces at a time when they needed everything they could get to defend the Reich itself.

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Iain Ballantyne is a journalist, editor, and author who has written several military history books, including those on the Second World War and the Cold War. His latest book, Arnhem: Ten Days in The Cauldron, is his second title for Agora Books, following on from Bismarck: 24 Hours to Doom (2016).