A Bridge Too Far
John & Susan Simpson
Sun 21 Aug 2022 20:40
When it comes to planning trips away I’m normally the booking clerk but for the Dutch cycling trip John wanted to have a go. I must say he’s done such a fabulous job that I may have to hand over the baton for future trips!
John was keen to include a visit to Arnhem to see the location of the WW2 Operation Market Garden and the ‘bridge too far’ of the 1977 war film. So having made our way south from Amsterdam through lovely canalside countryside and towns, through Leiden to Rotterdam to Utrecht and on to Gouda, we turned east and headed through Ede (pronounced Ada) and on to Arnhem. The hotel in Ede deserves a mention for its ‘Tropical Terrace’. Advertised with colourful signs promising waving palm trees, a beach bar, tropical cocktails, sun beds, it all seemed very unlikely in an empty conference hotel in an otherwise non-descript town in central Holland. We followed the signs through the basement area of the hotel, winding our way between plastic undergrowth and ‘pools’ teeming with flamingoes, ducking our heads under the fluffy monkeys swinging by their arms stapled to the ceiling tiles above, whilst monkey and parrot calls played from amongst the bushes. Eventually we emerged to an area between the hotel and conference hall behind where there was indeed a beach bar in a pink painted shipping container, a sand pit with bucket and spades, beach umbrellas and palm trees in pots. Someone had gone to a lot of effort to create something out of nothing and we had to applaud their creativity. Best of all though was sitting watching people emerge onto the Tropical Terrace with a look of incredulity on their faces. No one could quite believe what they were experiencing!
Anyway, back to more serious stuff and a bridge too far….
Between Ede and Arnhem the scenery changes from fertile farmland edged with dykes to sandy heathland and pine trees. We cycled all the way across Ginkel Heath where, in September 1944, thousands of allied airborne troops landed in an attempt to capture the bridges across the Rhine at Arnhem and pave the way for Allied troops to proceed into Germany to end WW2.
Ginkel Heath was an impressive extent of open land in itself and the memorial to the parachutists made it very poignant, depicting the sky full of planes and parachutists. German troops in the area retaliated with much greater force than expected and one can only imagine the terror felt by those brave parachutists and glider crews landing into a barrage of enemy fire.
We visited the Airborne museum at the bridge in Arnhem, now named the John Frost Bridge after Major-General John Dutton Frost who commanded the British forces that did manage to reach the bridge and defend it for four days. Sadly Operation Market Garden was not a success and the Allied ground forces that were supposed to relieve John Frost’s men never arrived.
Arnhem suffered terrible bombing and artillery fire from both sides as the Allies and the Germans fought to keep control of this strategic river crossing.
The John Frost Bridge from the Arnhem side
The bridge from the other side, held by the German forces
The town’s population hadn’t had any warning of the impending battle and civilians were forced to endure the fighting and destruction alongside the troops. We visited the museum at nearby Oosterbeek, housed in the former Hartenstein Hotel which became the HQ of the 1st Airborne Division during the Battle of Arnhem.
This gave a fascinating insight into civilian perspectives of the battle. Holland had been under German occupation for four years by 1944 and the Allied troops were greeted as liberators by the civilian population. As the Operation didn’t succeed the British commanders felt a huge sense of failure and thought the Dutch would resent the Allies for putting civilians at such risk. Major General Urquhart, who had commanded the 1st Airborne Division, returned to Arnhem to pay his respects at the war cemetery after the war and expected to do so anonymously in order to avoid offending the local people. The Mayor of Arnhem got wind of him being in the area and jumped on his bike (of course) to cycle over to thank the General for all the Allies had done to try to end the war. Regular memorial events have taken place since then and there was a beautifully worded plaque from the 50th anniversary which recognised this unique relationship.
It may just be coincidence but we experienced the most amazing hospitality in Arnhem where we had booked an Airbnb for the night. The apartment was the ground floor of a three storey house and the hosts lived upstairs. The house was fairly new and built close to the John Frost bridge so it’s likely the original properties there in 1944 were destroyed in the battle. Our hosts could not have done more to make us welcome, from providing every possible comfort in their immaculate home to delivering a freshly cooked breakfast to our door in the morning. We watched ‘A Bridge Too Far’ in the apartment that evening and felt ourselves enormously grateful to all those brave people, civilian and troops, for enduring what they did for the sake of peace. All in all it was a very moving few days.