After meeting up in UK we take a scheduled ferry crossing from Dover to Calais. En route to Arnhem we stop at the Belgian-Dutch border to consider the strategic situation in North-West Europe in September 1944. Standing on the banks of the Schelde-Maas canal we will look at the daring armoured coup de main mounted by the Guards Armoured Division. The successful seizure of the Neerpelt Bridge secured a vital crossing point that was nicknamed ‘Joe’s Bridge’ after the commander of the operation, Lt Col J.O.E Vandeleur, Irish Guards. It was the capture of this vital bridge that created a viable launch pad for Operation Market Garden. From Lommel Bridge we will head North often in the tracks of XXX Corps along ‘Club Route’, dramatically described by US Airborne soldiers as ‘Hells Highway’. Check in to our Arnhem Hotel.
To truly understand Operation Market Garden we have to consider the fighting around the many bridges to the south of British 1st Airborne Division’s objective at Arnhem. On our second day of touring we again follow XXX Corps as they progress along the ‘Airborne Carpet’ linking up 101st US Airborne Division and 82nd US Airborne Division. We will visit Grave Bridge, captured in textbook style by the 504th PIR of 82nd US Airborne Division, a shining example of how to take a bridge. We shall then visit Groesbeek War Cemetery and the memorial to the missing of the campaign, which sits amongst the Landing Zones of the American Airborne. We then head to Nijmegen where things did not go well for the Americans. There are a number of myths and legends to be considered from our vantage point overlooking one of the most important objectives of the entire operation. The assault river crossing across the Waal by 504th Regiment was a truly heroic action and we visit the site of the “Hail Mary Crossing” before returning to our Arnhem base.
Today we will follow the British landings and have two different routes taken by the Airborne troops after the successful drop on Sunday 17th September 1944.
Walk 1 –Having first looked at the open Landing Zones we will then follow the route taken by the Jeeps of Major Freddie Gough’s Recce Squadron as they attempted their dash for the ultimate objective of the entire operation – Arnhem’s Highway Bridge. This daring Coup de Main operation was doomed from the outset, we will find out why when we walk their route and stand in the middle of the killing zone were the jeeps were ambushed by skilled SS troops. The walk continues through the various woods in which the Para’s advance was slowly driven to a halt amidst the rising casualty figures and mounting confusion of battle.
Walk 2 – Our second walk of the day looks at the route selected for Lt Colonel John Frosts’ 2nd Parachute Battalion for their 8 mile march into Arnhem. The southernmost route “Lion”, took them along the banks of the river near the railway and into the City. We walk the last segment, where casualties mounted amidst the close city streets. We also study the struggle by the other units around St Elizabeth’s’ Hospital and see where General Urquhart went into hiding surrounded by Germans. We end at the Bridge and learn of the struggle to defend the Northern ramp against mounting German pressure and ultimately the fall of the British position.
Our last full day of touring will be centred in and around the prosperous Dutch town of Oosterbeek. We will focus on the events following the collapse of 2 Para at the bridge and the bitter fighting that followed the loss of Arnhem Bridge. Our day will include two very different battlefield walks that will allow us to consider the role of 1st Airlanding Brigade in the battle. We will talk about the Gunners, the Medics, the Sappers and the men of the Glider Pilot Regiment. All of whom played their part in 1st Airborne Division’s battle to hold onto a tiny Airborne bridgehead at Oosterbeek. Clinging on in the hope that the tanks of XXX Corps would arrive in time to relieve them.
Walk 3 – In the morning we will be walking the frontline of the Northern Perimeter of the Oosterbeek battle, where remnants of British 1st Airborne Division clung on in the face of repeated German attacks. We will visit the sites of desperate bayonet charges, parachute resupply DZs, battered medical aid posts, ambushes and the scenes of what many battle hardened SS veterans described as some of the most bitter house to house fighting of the war.
Walk 4 – After lunch and an opportunity to make a visit to the famous Hartenstein Airborne Museum we will be setting out on our final battlefield walk to study the Southern perimeter and the final evacuation across the river. Passing visible mortar pits, sites of VC actions and many personal stories we begin to head to the River and the “Old Church” now synonymous with the Airborne defiance and final stands. Finally we will talk about Operation Berlin – General Roy Urquhart’s detailed plan to collapse the perimeter and evacuate what was left of his shattered division across the Rhine. See the route taken first by walking wounded, then the remainder as they used the cover of darkness and heavy rain to extract themselves from almost under the gun barrels of German tanks and make their way silently down to the riverbank. Also we will talk about those who refused to surrender and remained at large for weeks and months after the battle. Those that were lucky made it back to friendly lines with help from the Dutch population. The Dutch Resistance and Allied Forces evacuated many others during Op Pegasus.
Our final day in Holland, before we travel home will be a pause for reflection. There were of course thousands who did not survive and we will visit the Arnhem Oosterbeek Airborne Cemetery to pay our respects before heading to Calais and GB.