It’s 70 years since Operation Market Garden came to an unexpected end in Arnhem; the infamous Bridge Too Far. The events of that time have left a deep impression on the area, commemorated recently with memorial services and reenactments to mark the 70th anniversary.
The plan was to take a number of bridges from Eindhoven up to Arnhem and then march on into Germany; the aim to end the war by Christmas of 1944. Tens of thousands of American troops were parachuted into landing zones from Eindhoven to Groesbeek, with the British dropped into fields outside Arnhem on the other side of the rivers.
Although I learnt about World War Two at school, and visited the trenches and the battlefields of World War One at Ypres, it’s often difficult to grasp exactly what these events were like to live through, not only for the soldiers but for the people on the ground. And the Nijmegen area is one I’ve come to know a little of over the years, without really understanding its history.
On the edge of Arnhem, in a wooded residential area that overlooks the Rhine river, the Hartenstein villa still stands. From this site the British commanded the troops of the 1st Airborne Division as they fanned out towards the river, en route to take the final bridge. Due to the strength of the German resistance, only 700 made it as far as the bridge, which they defended for four days before they were finally overcome. Thousands of soldiers were captured and taken to detention camps.
The Hartenstein villa has been turned into an evocative and powerful museum (the Airborne museum) which serves as a memorial to all those who were affected by the battle. While the two floors on the battle itself were interesting, what really struck me was the basement floor, dedicated to the evacuation of Arnhem’s residents. Following the city’s capture by the Germans, it was declared out of bounds and a mandatory evacuation was ordered. Thousands took to the roads out of the town, with only what they could carry, taking shelter in farmhouses, in woods, or wherever they might be welcome (which wasn’t everywhere).
The museum is presented in Dutch, English and German, and really opened my eyes to the reality of World War Two and its effect on ordinary people. If you can read Dutch, this website is a great place to start; a ever-growing collection of memories from local people about how the events of Operation Market Garden and its aftermath affected them.
The Airborne Museum is found in Oosterbeek, a suburb of Arnhem. To reach the museum, take the number 1 or number 52 buses which start just outside the railway station.