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Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Bridge Too Far

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Holland, and I took a day to visit Arnhem and Oosterbeek, best known for the bitter fighting that took place there in September of 1944 during Operation Market Garden. Operation Market-Garden was perhaps the British Ariborne's most dramatic engagement of the war. In a book aptly titled 'A Bridge too Far' Cornelius Ryan tells the story of how the 1st Division -reinforced by the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade- held out for 9 days in the town of Arnhem and its surrounding area under intense pressure, waiting for the ground troops which were supposed to relieve them after only 2 or 3 days. Eight of the bridges leading up to Arnhem were secured, but the 9th one -the one across the Rhine at Arnhem- was not and out of approximately 10,000 men originally in the division, less than 2000 managed to get evacuated. So this post is not about toy soldiers, but about the sites and events that they represent. Seeing sites like this one first-hand greatly helps to understand what actually took place and can be a useful resource for anyone considering setting up a diorama about the battle.

Monument dedicated to the 1st Airborne Division, about 1 km north of the bridge.

The emblem of the Biritsh Airborne is found in several places, around the monument and on the bridge.

After the war, the bridge was renamed John Frost bridge, in honor of the commander of the 2nd Battalion, who held the bridge for 4 days until they ran out of ammo and had to surrender.

View of the famous bridge from the north side. This was the side defended by the British. On the first day they attempted to capture the southern side, but were unable to secure it. During the battle, the area in this picture was strewn with destroyed and burned out halftracks from all the armor that the Germans threw at the paras to dislodge them from the north end of the bridge. BTW, notice the Airborne's Pegasus emblem again.

Similar perspective of the bridge after the battle. Note how the metal structure is different. I later learned that shortly after Market-Garden, the bridge was bombed by the allies to prevent the Germans from sending reinforcements south. The bridge that stands today was rebuilt on the same site, but the metal structure is slightly different.

Side view from the north side. Many paras were defending the bridge from the houses on both sides of the bridge and would have had a similar perspective.

Stairwell and tower on the north end. There are actually two towers on this end which would have offered some protection. This also shows how high the bridge is, even after it has already reached ground. This is probably to allow for river traffic and as protection against the occasional flooding.

View from the southern side. This is the side that the Germans were using to counterattack.

Long ramp leading up to the bridge on the southern side.

View of the Rhine to the east. Gives you an idea of the obstacle that it represented without a bridge.

The Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, 6.5 km east of Arnhem. You can get there after a short 10-15 min bus ride, but to the paras it must have felt quite farther. This became the HQ of the operation and is where the rest of the 1st Division gathered, having failed to reach the bridge and trying to keep a supply drop zone open.

The Hartenstein Hotel has been converted into a museum dedicated to telling the story of the battle. Here you see some nice life-size scenes of events that actually took place in the Hartenstein.

These scenes are setup in the basement, in the rooms where these events actually took place. 

A canister showing the type of supplies that would have been dropped.

British equipment that has been found or dug up in the grounds of the Hartenstein.

Found German items.

British cammo jacket.

British uniform.

A variety of helmets representing the participants in the battle.

German insignia.

Somehow I doubt that the Kriegsmarine was involved in the fighting here.

These are nice to have as reference in case you care to paint this level of detail on your figures.

German uniforms.

British para in full jumping gear and RAF pilot.

The museum contains a nice weapons collection.

Helmet of the Polish Parachute Brigade.

Teh man on the right belongs to a panzer unit. Note the antitank weapons on the back wall.

Interesting flamethrowers hanging on the wall.

Mini mortar, with quite a shell in the background.

These mortars certainly offered a good degree of mobility.

German cammo pattern. Looks like platanenmuster to me.

I had always wondered about the color of the scarf worn by the British Paras.

The Hartenstein Hotel from the back. The Paras were deployed in a large perimeter around the grounds and woods that surround the hotel.

On the grounds of the hotel you find some additional points of interest. I don't see however what role a Sherman might have played in the battle. I suspect this one did not get there until '45.

British 17-pounder antitank gun. I wonder whether the British gliders were capable of carrying these. They could carry jeeps, so it is possible that they also brought a few of these along.

17-pounder with battle damage.

Close up of another knocked out 17-pounder.

Memoial on the gounds of the Hartenstein depicting the Ducth people welcoming the British Paras from the sky.

Nice meadow behind the Hartenstein with two additional memorials dedicated to the Airborne.

Detail of the column in the previous picture. Each side of the column is carved with a different motif. 

Close up of the other monument on that meadow. When the paras landed on the first day they caught the Germans unaware and for the first few hours there was little opposition. The paras walked from their landing zones through the Dutch towns enjoying the warm welcome of the civilians. That changed shortly after.

The Ducth people remain grateful. To this day they commemorate the event every year with a walk from the Hartenstein to the British war cemetery. The girls of the village bring flowers and care for the graves of the fallen paras. This is the arch where the walk will begin from on September 1st of this year.

The view of the British cemetery from the entrance gate.
The German war cemetery is located 66km south of Arnhem at a place called Ysselsteyn.

View from the northeast corner of the cemetery. It contains the remains of about 1800 men. I did not realize it before my visit, but many of the fallen are the RAF personnel who were trying to bring supplies and reinforcements during the 9 days that the battle lasted.

Each grave contains a quote from the family of the fallen soldier. Some of them celebrate the sacrifice, some of them criticize the senselessness of war. Many of them simply express the emptiness left behind.

Click here to see the British paras in action


  1. Thank you. It turned out a bit long but I'm glad you enjoyed it. I have pics of other battlefields I have visited in the past. Maybe I will upload some more of those if folks find them interesting.

  2. An awsome post TSG, thanks for sharing it with us.
    Best wishes, Brian

  3. Thanks a lot Brian. I am glad you enjoyed it, even though it wasn't strictly plastic toy soldiers...

  4. Wow! That looks great. It isn't much of a trip from the UK so next time I'm over the Channel I'll try and get there.

    Horsa gliders could carry 6-pounder anti-tank guns, but the larger Hamilcar gliders could carry 17-pounders and even Tetrarch tanks. As far as my memory serves, the scarf worn was not always 'regulation' but simply camouflage netting tied like a scarf or cravat.

    It seems that the prevelance of this is a bit overstated and, for example, the entire Airfix set is depicted wearing them, which is not in itself wrong but you might expect the officer at least to have his collared battledress on display.

  5. I guess that explains how the 17 pounders got there! And thanks for clarifying the bit about the scarfs. Based on the existing sets and pics, I thought it was a standard issue.

  6. The wartime photograph of the bridge is Nijmegen bridge 1944 after the bridge was conquered. The Arnhem bridge structure is still 100% identical to the wartime bridge.
    The top part of the two towers today are postwar. During the war the one on the eastern side was big part made out of glass designed as a toll booth, but never used as. The one on the western side was converted by the Germans into a standard FLAK tower. The German guards used a machinegun to repell the first attacks. The ammunition was stored in wooden huts that caught fire during an attack with a flamethrower.
    The Sherman tank was left by the Canadians in 1945 when they liberated that area.
    The scarf, a small camouflage net, worn is called a face veil green and brown coloured. You could wear it over your head so your face was camouflaged. It was standard issue to every airborne /commando soldier. Some infantry units also got them issued. Canadians also used them, according to some soures, the green in the Candian made types were lighter. After the war every British soldiers were issued with just green coloured scarfs.
    The 17pdr guns are all from the battle. You missed one much more hidden in the park. And already commented on,they came in together with their C8 morris truck in the much larger Hamilcar gliders. Some of these gliders also transported 2 Brencarriers. Only the 6th airborne division used tanks so no tanks during this operation.

    1. Thanks a lot for the fascinating, detailed commentary. I am sure the readers will also appreciate it. About the wartime picture, you are right, even the caption of the picture says so. Since I took it at the Arnhem museum I assumed it was the same bridge. Thanks for catching that!