By Mark Barnes for War History Online
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Arnhem: You can’t help yourself; you try and be clever and ignore the references, but whatever you do it all comes back to the Bridge Too Far. Now whether it was a genuine quote or not is a moot point, it doesn’t matter, it has entered folklore. It is ours. Cornelius Ryan gave it renewed life a long time ago and the Attenborough film added to the mix. My dad gave me the book when it came out and I cherish my copy but it took me far too long to get to the scene of those dramatic events. What I am pleased about is I was able to do it in the company of Joris Nieuwint who knows the Market Garden battlefield so well. He has grown up there, it’s under his skin; so much so it’s almost like it belongs to him. So who better to conduct you on a tour of the Drop Zones?
We had two days cruising around the Market Garden story. On the Saturday we concentrated on the tragedy of the British 1st Airborne Division but also found time to take other sites essential to whole story. Geography dictates you do these things in a sensible way but it is important you have fun. My mates and I have been on the battlefield history trail for a long time now and we know our stuff and we appreciate good planning and having time to take in all the things we want to look at. Joris is a mate of mine and his offer to conduct us around the Market Garden battlefield was not to be sniffed at and we knew the only minus point of the adventure would be the drive from England, especially the bit around Antwerp; and so it proved. But it was worth the effort!
So we set out from our guesthouse in Veghel on Saturday morning in good heart and we had a fantastic day. We started at Grave at the magnificent bridge captured by the 82nd Airborne and moved on to Groesbeek Cemetery to see the Commonwealth Memorial to Missing for North West Europe where it was unseasonably cold. We passed along the Reischwald Forest and dipped a toe into Germany before working our way up onto Renkum Heath where the 1st Para and 1st Air Landing Brigades had hit the ground on the 17th of September, 1944. Joris’ knowledge and passion is outstanding – as is his human satnav!! How he finds his way round the small pathways and country tracks through lanes and woods is amazing. We quickly realised we could not do this on our own. It takes years to build up this level of knowledge.
We visited so many places; the magnificent Nijmegen Bridge, Ginkel Heath – where the 4th Parachute Brigade landed; Heelsum, with it’s unique memorial built with local passion. But the focus would always be on Oosterbeek and here we had a good lunch before finding our way via the inevitable memorials to the Airborne Museum at the old Hartenstein Hotel. It is stunning. From there we went to the cemetery and what can you say that hasn’t been said? We have visited many cemeteries in Europe and know the vista well with the inevitable rows of headstones. There was something almost familiar about the graves at Oosterbeek, having seen images of it so many times before. We just drifted around seeking out the well known heroes and many of the quieter names. It was that time for reflection we always fit in on our trips. From there we headed up to Westerbouwing for the panoramic view of the battlefield and it was magical. The little bike ferry was busy and trains crossed the bridge in the distance. It was quiet.
The drive into Arnhem offered a little of the chaos which must have been presented to the British battalions. When we finally got to the John Frost Bridge there were a couple of drunk women sitting on a bench making fools of themselves in the late afternoon sunshine. Up on the bridge the Saturday traffic was thundering over and it was busy. Justin Bieber was in town and there was football on. We were feeling very pleased with ourselves. We had enjoyed a classic day. We played the theme from A Bridge Too Far as we crossed the bridge. The Vitesse Arnhem fans liked it, but I’m not sure about the Beliebers!
Sunday brought sunshine and a brand new plan. Joris brought out his classic Dodge WC51 Weapons Carrier and we happily piled into it for a tour of the US Airborne operational area of Market Garden. His mate Paul followed on in a jeep and our little convoy headed out towards Heeswijk Castle to get things started. The whole day from there was just one big grin – how could it be anything else? Where else can you traverse drop zones of a major battle with an expert guide riding in an authentic vehicle? It was fantastic fun. Top spots for me were at the windmill at Eerde, such an iconic place – now beautifully restored, and then going off road near Son, exactly where the 506th PIR landed. “Band of Brothers” is in our conscious – here you are on their soil. Perhaps the most emotional moment was at Wolfswinkel, site of the former cemetery where the Americans had buried their dead. An old man came up and described how, as a little boy, he had stood on the spot and watched the parachutes opening on that on a another Sunday – nearly seventy years ago now – 17th of September, 1944. They were different colours for each unit I suppose. I’m no expert. And then a man pulled up in an ex-British Army Land Rover, he’d been one of the people who’d built the memorial for the cemetery we’d come to look at. He’d been out with a metal detector and showed us some buttons and a buckle from a para’s boots. We had Bill, a former US para riding with us, I wonder what he made of that?
You can buy guide books, some are very good; Joris contributes to one of them. You can go by bus. Buses can’t get down farm tracks. You can watch DVDs if you like. The only way to do it properly is to get up close. Feel it. You can certainly do that in the back of a Dodge! I’ve read A Bridge Too Far back to front and other books besides. Cornelius Ryan is my hero. Charles Whiting’s A Bridge at Arnhem is another favourite of old, too. The famous Zeno, Gerald Lamarque, wrote a classic of small unit action at Arnhem and you should read it, because he was there and he is something of a legend. The Cauldron is his testimony. You simply have to see the stunning “Theirs is the Glory” possibly one of the greatest unsung war films ever made. But none of this makes sense without walking the ground. Let Joris take you there.