The Liberation Route
As Europe celebrates the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Flic Everett follows Holland’s own Liberation Route and discovers Operation Market Garden, A Bridge Too Far - and a sky filled with falling men.
The army jeep comes to a halt by a ridged asparagus field somewhere in Gelderland. In the distance, unmarked, is the German border - a cluster of farmhouses, a row of trees.
The loudest noise is the breeze across the flat land. Seventy years ago, in September 1944, this is where the Allies dropped from the sky- 20,000 men, parachuting from gliders made from linen and plywood, carriers of jeeps and guns roaring overhead.
Operation Market Garden was supposed to liberate Holland from the German occupation. Field Marshal Montgomery intended to invade Germany via the Netherlands- and three airborne divisions were sent to capture the bridges over the rivers Maas, Waal and Rhine, at which point, the army would advance to Arnhem and then on to Germany. The war should have been over by December ‘44.
But it wasn’t. Bert Eikelenboom, who runs the Liberation Tour around Groesbeek in the original US dodge truck he lovingly refers to as “Beep”, explains that the Allies were under-prepared- a lack of aircraft and crew spread the landings over three days, which gave the German Command time to react, and defend the bridges.
This sort of history is well traversed in films with desperate-looking uniformed actors on the poster – 1977’s A Bridge Too Far, starring Sean Connery, was based entirely on Operation Market Garden, with a little artistic license thrown in.
But we are standing in the real mud, where thousands of soldiers- from both sides- died. Beyond this bleak field is Groesbeek, a village of tree-lined streets where a statue commemorates the exodus of October 22nd 1944, when the villagers were forced to leave their homes with what they could carry.
“When they came back, everything else had been stolen,” says Bert. “All their history, gone.” One house still has bullet marks by the door.
We rattle through wide, green countryside, past little churches and striped fields, to another farmhouse where a charming wishing well stands by a field of horses. “And this is where the Nazis got their water...” says Bert.
The landscape has barely changed since- and back at the traditional Hotel Sionshof, in Nijmegen, it’s remarkably easy to imagine its incarnation as the SS Press Centre during the War.
It’s lucky the restaurant is excellent, and the bedrooms are comfortable and stylish- because it’s hard to ignore the weight of history within its walls. At 3am, the clacking of typewriters, tread of heavy boots on stairs, and barking of orders reverberate through the darkness.
Outside, there’s a wood-carved parachutist, and a Liberation Route boulder, which offers an audio presentation of what happened here. Similar ones are found at key locations through the region.
"...It’s hard to get round it without weeping..."
It’s dramatic- but it’s less poignant than the National Liberation Museum, at Groesbeek, between Nijmegen, Arnhem and the German border, which tells the story of the Occupation and Market Garden.
You had to carry a passport, so the Germans knew who you were,” says our guide. She indicates the star which Jewish people were forced to wear. “They also made a rule, saying that Jews could only marry in the zoo.”
Whilst a sickening (and still timely) reminder of the brutal psychopathy of Fascism, the museum also serves as a memorial to bravery and grief- a pram with holes cut in the base for weapons, a secret picture of Hitler, with a rope round his neck, a grim reproduction of a basement where householders hid from air raids…and a picture of the field where the allies dropped food parcels, and the Netherlanders wrote ‘thank you, boys’ in the earth beneath their planes.
It’s hard to get round it without weeping, particularly in the memorial area, which commemorates fallen soldiers, under a white ceiling constructed to resemble an airy parachute.
It still lacks the visceral punch, however, of the war cemeteries- at Reichswald Forest War Cemetery, just across the German border, there are 7672 soldiers buried- almost all aged between 18 and 30. For those seeking relatives, there are books listing every name. Whole battles are represented by the same death dates, the loving inscriptions- ‘well done, our lad, love Mum, Dad and Auntie Jean..’ on identical white slabs stretching into the distance, row after row, like dominoes waiting to fall.
"Now, the bridge is crossed by traffic and cyclists, while cows graze beneath..."
The bridges are, of course, vital to this part of the Liberation route. At Nijmegen. the Germans set up powerful defences over the River Waal, and sent one- person submarines beneath the water, along with iron nets- but the bridge was captured by the Allies, after US paras had crossed the water in canvas boats.
Now, the bridge is crossed by traffic and cyclists, while cows graze beneath.
But it’s at Arnhem where the story culminates. Arnhem was the Bridge Too Far, where Allied hopes were crushed, and the future of the war defined. This modest structure- now rebuilt- is also known as the John Frost Bridge.
The British airborne officer was one of the few hundred men who made it to the Northern side of the bridge during the violent Battle of Arnhem.
The British hoped to take the Southern end, using a flame thrower- but ammunition caught fire, and the sky above the Lower Rhine glowed crimson, as the British were forced to abandon the attempt.
They held out for another four days before being overwhelmed. The bridge was bombed three weeks later, to stop the Germans using it for reinforcements.
The information centre now at the bridge shows a sea of faces- soldiers, Generals, ordinary people who were caught up in the fighting - and their recollections. “I was regularly losing consciousness,” said Private Tom Carpenter of the Royal Engineers. “Everything around me looked unreal… I was aware of whistles, explosions, screaming… the Germans gathered the wounded up. I was carried away on a stretcher.”
After all this, lunch at the beautiful Jachtslot Mookerheide hotel is the only sensible thing to do. Another German headquarters in WW2, firing broke out inside the hotel in 1944- though now, its glowing stained glass, wooden galleries and velvet cushions offer a significantly gentler experience, in preparation for an afternoon at the remarkable Airborne Museum Hartenstein at Osterbeek.
This grand villa was once a hotel, briefly used by the Allies’ General Urquhart as his HQ, before the Germans swarmed back and took it- proof lies in the bullet hole just by the porch.
Now, it’s a superb museum, telling the stories of the Allied airmen who fought here, with a huge trove of artefacts, pictures and photographs- including the piece of wallpaper on which a soldier in hiding was moved to scrawl ‘F*** Jerry’ in pencil.
There’s also an immersive ‘airborne experience’ underneath the building, where walls shake to the sound of aircraft and life-size street scenes recreate how it might have felt to be at the heart of battle.
Before our return, there is one other place that it’s essential to see – the War Cemetery at Arnhem/Osterbeek. Here are the graves of those killed during Operation Market Garden, and later during battles in the area- 1, 680 commonwealth servicemen are buried here.
There are flowers and trees, memorials and on one grave, touchingly, a bottle of port and a small bunch of flowers. Like following the Liberation Route itself, it’s one way to honour the fallen soldiers of Operation Market Garden- and a reminder that, even seventy years on, it’s still not too late to say thank you.
For more information: www.marketgarden70.nl
To get to the Liberation Route we travelled by Stena Line from Harwich to the Hook Of Holland. You can either drive or go by train on the "Dutch Flyer" from London Liverpool Street.
TRAVELLING FROM HULL OR NEWCASTLE TO HOLLAND?