Thursday, 11 August 2016

Operation Market Garden (in a day)

A Bridge Too Far ?
Last year I was lucky enough to spend my summer holidays in the Normandy region of France and my post on that vacation and my search for sites from the Panzers in Normandy book provided remarkably popular, in fact it was the third most viewed of 2015 (Still available here).

This year's little adventure has taken us deep into the Belgian Ardennes region and from there we are in striking distance of a number of historical sites (Waterloo, Bulge, Verdun etc).

Right on the edge of our visitation range is Arnhem and the Market Garden Operation area (September 1944), 255 km or 160 miles from our holiday home, at those distances it would be a bit of a challenge to go back day after day so a compromise had to be made. The best guide book for me is the one above, the mix of directions, explanations and personal accounts brings the events to life in a way that could only be bettered by a really good guide and the book is a fraction of the cost of such a person, but the five tours included in the book were beyond the scope of our limited time frame.

As is was with XXX Corps time was of the essence, we where already 3 hours from Arnhem without looking at anything so I formulated a simple plan which was to drive as closely as we could XXX Corps route, reaching Arnhem in time to visit the Airborne Museum at Oosterbeck.

Preparation was completed the evening before the "Big Push" by watching the brilliant "A Bridge Too Far" film. One of my favourite war films with a cracking cast and many of the actual Commanders acting as advisers on the movie.

So with the theme tune going round my head we set off to our start point Leopoldsburg in Belgium.

Still a few miles from XXX Corps jump off point this small town was the scene of the briefing by General Horrocks to his officers the day before the operation. Made famous in the film by the portrayal of the CO by Edward Fox with the classic opening line of "This is a tale that you will tell your grandchildren, and mighty bored they'll be". Anyone who has sat through a detailed briefing will know how mind numbingly dull they can be. Horrocks excelled that day and many present spoke if the briefing for years afterwards.

There is a Sherman tank outside the Train Station commemorating the event, the barrel of the gun points to the site of the former "Cinema Splendid" where the briefing took place.

It's a short drive from there to the start line for the advance, located just outside Lommel on the N715 where the bridge crosses the Bocholt-Hetentals Canal. Known now as JOE'S Bridge, after J.O.E Vandeleur Commander of the first troops over the bridge and played by Michael Caine in the film.

Although the road has changed since the battle, being wider and with many new bordering houses you can get a feel for it, sections are raised above the natural ground level and with open fields to one side or the other it was easy to see how vulnerable vehicles would be to hidden German AT Guns.

We were getting into the XXX Corps urgency pushing forward through the town of Valkenswaard on to Eindhoven. Here rather than German Forces slowing us down we had Dutch roadworks, one Diversion led to another set of roadworks and another Diversion, things were made harder as we needed to exit the City on the right road to get to our next bridge.

The modern Son Bridge
The village of Son was next up, in the battle the Germans had blown this bridge and British Engineers had to build a temporary "Bailey" Bridge in its place, a mighty task as the equipment required had to get to the front of the column through the hordes of celebrating Dutch citizens back in Eindhoven. Completed overnight on the 18/19th September, Guards Tanks were rolling across the bridge at 06.15. Thankfully we didn't have those problems and after a quick moment to take a photo we were off again.

We made our way along the N265 through Veghel and Uden and onto the N324 to the Grave bridge which was captured intact on the day of the battle. It was at this point we had to deviate from our plan. It was getting on and we knew that the museum in Oosterbeck closed at 5pm. XXX Corps route deviated here during the battle the more direct route which ran parallel to the railway line from Vught had been the original plan however the bridge in that direction was unusable so the main column diverted East through Nederasselt and Heumen and into Nijmegen on that, longer and slower route.

Neither choice offered a realistic chance of reaching the Museum via Arnhem and THE bridge in time, so sadly we had to leave XXX Corps behind and jump on the Motorway and into Oosterbeck from the West.

With 2 hours to spare we landed at the Hartenstein Hotel, HQ for the British Airborne troops during the Arnhem operation and now a Museum to the battle.

The Museum is well worth a visit, the lower level is dedicated to the Airborne Experience with films and walk through dioramas. Upstairs there is a film describing the battle along with the expected relics / uniforms etc. I particularly enjoyed a short film featuring a Polish Veteran who now lives in Yarkshire and his story of escape from Poland, training in Scotland, active service in the war before deciding to live in Bradford.

A short journey towards Arnhem is the Commonwealth Cemetery, a must visit to pay our respects to the brave men who took part in the operation and didn't come home. Signs litter the car park warning visitors to not leave valuables visible in vehicles as thefts are common ! Sound advice but what sort of low level scum nicks stuff from people who have come to remember soldiers who have given up there lives to free the country from Nazism. I am fairly left of centre on my politics but this sort of stuff makes my blood boil.

So a short while later we arrived at the bridge now known as John Frost Bridge. The area is vastly different from how it was in 1944. There is a small information centre next to the bridge but it was closed when we arrived.

Access to the Bridge is by a set of steps, the railing painted Airborne Red.

There is a memorial on the Bridge to the brave stand made by Frost and his men, it was sad to see quite a bit of graffiti on the bridge, the whole area was pretty run down.

We did find this weird "sculpture" next to the bridge, there was no information board with it, anyone have any knowledge?

We returned from our visit via Nijmegen Bridge, but no photos as I was driving, that and if you remember from the film those naughty Germans have unexploded munitions under the structure so I wasn't hanging around ;-)

Home was reached 13 hours and over 300 miles later. A cracking day out in which I finally got to visit one of the iconic British sites from WW2, sadly I didn't have time to pay more attention to the American Airborne sites but our XXX Corps mission was paramount.

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