Dutch City Nijmegen dedicates De Oversteek Bridge to WWII soldiers

Dutch City Nijmegen dedicates De Oversteek bridge to WWII soldiers

Photo story (Clockwise from top left): (1) Names of the 48 fallen WWII paratroopers are placed on the 48 pairs lampposts of the De Oversteek Bridge (2) Waves of paratroopers landing in Holland during Operation Market Garden in September 1944 (3) Tanks of British XXX Corps crossing the road bridge at Nijmegen during the operation (4) Four Paratroopers of 1st Paratroop battalion taking cover in a shell hole outside Arnhem, Holland on 17th September 1944.

British army officer, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery served in WWI and was severely injured. In WWII, he commanded the Eight Army in the battle of El Alamein during the campaign of Western Desert, also commanded them in Italy and in Sicily. He was in command of the overall Allied ground forces during Normandy Landings. Supreme Commander of the Allied forces was U.S. General Eisenhower, who later became the 34th U.S. president. After the successful previous campaigns, Montgomery was given the command of 21st Army group for the rest of WWII campaign in North West Europe. Eisenhower was persuaded by Montgomery to adopt the strategy of a single forceful assault to the German district Ruhr in September 1944.

This battle plan, uncharacteristic of Montgomery’s battles, is called Operation Market Garden carried out from 17th September 1944 to 25th September 1944. It was strategically a bold offensive but was poorly planned. The British Military Intelligence, ULTRA warned the Allied forces of the German armored unit’s presence near the targeted site. But Montgomery either ignored or did not receive the warning. The operation was the largest airborne assault till that time. Forcing an entry over the Rhine River into Germany was Montgomery’s goal. He wanted to entrap the northern portion of Siegfried line, the German defense line. Bridges across Meuse River and two arms of the Rhine River called Lower Rhine and Waal River were required to be seized by the Allies to surround Ruhr district, the German industrial heart.

Unlike drops at night in previous Allied operations where paratroopers were scattered by up to 12 miles or 19 kilometers, the day drops during this operation ensured 89% paratroopers of 82nd Airborne Division landing within 1 kilometer of the drop zones. But only half of the airborne soldiers were airlifted in the first phase. The Allied offensive was initially somewhat successful and several bridges between Nijmegen and Eindhoven in Netherlands were captured. British armored units, XXX Corps commanded by General Horrocks was behind the scheduled objective due to paratroopers of 101 Airborne division had failed to capture the bridge over the river Waal at Son before 20th September. A small force of 1st Airborne Division managed to capture one end of Arnhem Road Bridge and without ground force reinforcement they were overrun on 21st September. The rest of the allied division was trapped in western pockets of the bridge. They had to be evacuated on 25th September.

The Allies could not cross the Rhine forcefully enough and the Allied dreams of ending the WWII by Christmas 1944 were shattered with the failure of Operation Market Garden. British, American, Canadian, Polish and Dutch soldiers were part of the Allied troopers. The Allied forces had the support of 41,628 airborne troopers, 2 infantry divisions, 1 armored brigade and 1 armored division in the operation. The German strength in defending the Operation remains unknown. But according to a WWII note, German 15th Army in defense there had over 80,000 men and there were further reinforcements during the operation. The allied forces lost 15,326-17,200 soldiers, 144 transport aircrafts and 88 tanks in the operation. The estimates of German casualties vary from 3,300 to 13,300. The Germans also lost 159 aircrafts and 30 tanks & self propelled guns. Montgomery claimed that 90% objectives of the Operation Market Garden were successful. He also admitted the mistakes of underestimating the difficulties on the way.

Web edition of largest circulated newspaper in North & South Carolina, The Charlotte Observer, reported that Dutch City Nijmegen dedicated a newly constructed bridge over the lower Rhine River to WWII soldiers recently. It is named ‘De Oversteek Bridge’. In the Netherlands, the Operation Market Garden is known as De Oversteek. ‘De Oversteek’ means ‘The Crossing’. The main span of the De Oversteek Bridge is 935 feet, second largest in the Netherlands. In Europe, it’s also the largest single arch bridge.

Lu Malatras of Charlotte, North Carolina does not like to watch the 1977 movie ‘A Bridge Too Far’. But she still watches it time to time as the movie is based on the Operation Market Garden which claimed the life of her brother, Caine Jeter Clemons. Caine of Roanoke, Virginia was just 21 when he was killed along with 47 other paratroopers of 82nd Airborne Division while crossing the Waal River in feeble canvas boats under heavy German fire on 20th September 1944. The soldiers, who survived in the operation, captured the Waal River Bridge and liberated Nijmegen.

Names of the 48 fallen war heroes are placed on the 48 pairs lampposts of the De Oversteek Bridge which lights up every evening at dusk from south to north. Malatras said that she would be there for the De Oversteek Bridge opening ceremony along with her husband. Bernie Woodland of Cary, North Carolina will also be there with his wife. During The Crossing, Woodland’s uncle, Corporal Bernard T. Woodland died. Cpl Woodland was the only black paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne at that time.

Malatras said that it was great tribute to the young men. She also said that she thought it was a shame that the soldiers had to die. Woodland said that ‘It was tremendous’ that even after all these years the Dutch remembered what the Americans had done over there. He further said that it was a privilege and honor to go there.

Robert Citino, a WWII expert and a history teacher at the University of North Texas and a visiting professor at the Carlisle U.S. Army War College, said that Market Garden Operation had been highly complex and soldiers had fought heroically. “But Complicated operations in warfare break down” He added.

To greet about 30 relatives of the soldiers, Nijmegen city was getting ready. Nijmegen journalist Dorine Steenbergen along with Dutch local newspaper De Gerlderlander started to write a book a year ago about the 48 fallen paratroopers. The book in Dutch, ‘The Crossing, In Search of 48 American War Heroes’ has been published and dedicated to commemorate the inauguration of the De Oversteek Bridge. To interview the relatives of the fallen war heroes, Dorine visited the United States twice. She interviewed both Bernie Woodland and Malatras.

Malatras said in the interview that Caine Clemons was a tall, good looking, collected and clean cut person who had planned to marry his beautiful girlfriend after his service in the war. She also said that Caine had not let their mother know about his joining in paratroop squad. She further added that the family was completely heartbroken when they got the news that he had been killed. She also said that her brother ‘did what he had to do’.

Dorine said that the project was so special to her because it focused on the simple human lives. She also said that the intimate human stories and family lives behind the stories of every soldier were important to focus on. She further added ‘The boy could have been my brother’.

Video story: 44 minutes long documentary on Operation Market Garden

Mohammad Rafi Saad

Mohammad Rafi Saad is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE