In a two-part post, Battlefield Guide Jonathan Ball talks with us about his recent trip to Holland for the 71st Anniversary of Operation Market Garden.
I’ve been fortunate enough to guide three Operation Market Garden tours this year for Leger Holidays but undoubtedly the most poignant trip was this one, which coincided with the recent 71st Anniversary of the Operation. The following is a photo journal of that weekend…
DAY ONE – THE BRIDGES TO ARNHEM
As a bonus, we had amongst our ranks a 94-year-old Veteran, Gordon, who was at the very spearhead of the XXX Corps advance along the ‘airborne carpet’. Gordon was a Sapper Subaltern attached to the Guards Armoured Division and delivered the kind of eloquent and vivid personal insight that even the best book at times simply cannot. It was an easy decision to give him the microphone and let him deliver an account which had passengers, guide and drivers listening with rapt attention on the road to our first stop at Joe’s Bridge.
So we started our tour at the Bridge over the Meuse-Escaut Canal and named, depending on your point of view, after either Lt-Col J.O.E. Vandeleur, C.O of 3/Irish Guards or 615 Field Company, Royal Engineers who were known as ‘Joe’s Troop’. Nobody really knows for sure so I’ll leave you, the reader, to take your pick.
What is known is that this vital crossing of the canal was taken on 10th September 1944 by a dashing attack by the Irish Guards and that just one week later it was the jump off point for the advance of XXX Corps in Operation Market Garden. At 14.35 on 17th September and with the order ‘Driver Advance’, the Sherman Tank of Lt. Keith Heathcote led a column, numbering 20,000 vehicles which, if all went to plan, would deliver XXX Corps to the Bridge across the Neder Rijn (Lower Rhine) in ‘2 to 3 days.’
So it’s along Club Route, the road the armour had to follow, we headed. It was narrow then and it’s not much wider now. Classic defensive terrain in which at times due to the woods bordering the road made it impossible for Armour to deploy to the flanks should the need arise.
Passing the point at which 9 Irish Guards Sherman Tanks were quickly knocked out by German 75mm Guns we made our next port of call at the small, intimate setting by Club Route that is Valkenswaard CWGC Cemetery. It’s the final resting place of 220 men and was a poignant stop for two parties within our group who were making first ever visits to the graves of their relatives.
From there it’s onwards to take in the view from the other side of the hill at the German Cemetery at Ysselsteyn. This vast, 72 acre site is the last resting place for 31,598 men. As we are a Market Garden Tour, I invited the Guests, if they chose, to visit the graves of Freidrich Kussin, Josef Willeke and Max Koster. Their fate in Wolfheze is, thanks to both photos and newsreel, very well-known having had the misfortune to run into men of No.5 Platoon, ‘B’ Company, 3rd Parachute Battalion making their way along the Utrechtseweg, codenamed Tiger Route by the British.
Now everyone likes a bit of Armour and it would be frankly irresponsible having been in the area not to visit the quite superb museum at Overloon. Fabulous amounts of kit and a rivet-counters idea of Heaven.
After lunch we moved back on the trail of XXX Corps heading along the route named, with your typical level of American dramatism, ‘Hells Highway’. Our next stop was an objective of the US 82nd Airborne Division, the bridge across the River Maas at Grave. It’s an imposing structure at over half a kilometre long yet in the end it was captured by just one Platoon of ‘E’ Company, 2/504 Parachute Infantry Regiment.
This Bridge was the only one in the Operation seized in a Coup de Main attack, that being it was to be attacked from both ends simultaneously. One stick from Easy, thanks to the quick thinking of their Officer, Lt. John S. Thompson, delayed jumping by a few seconds and as a consequence landed much closer to the Bridge than the rest of the Company. By this deed did Thompson’s Platoon quickly overwhelm the Defenders and seize the Bridge intact.
Thanks to the efforts of a local group of enthusiasts the two casemates, originally built by the Dutch pre-war as a defensive position around the Southern end of the Bridge, are open to the Public to visit. Our Guests explored these positions for the princely sum of 1 Euro and the views afforded are ones to last long in the memory.
Our final stop of the day took us to the Biggest Bridge of all during Operation Market Garden and perhaps its biggest controversy, the Road Bridge over the River Waal at Nijmegen. For reasons never satisfactorily explained its seizure was not the primary objective of the 82nd Airborne.
Somewhat dubiously that honour goes to the capture of the Groesbeek Heights overlooking the City. What followed however became a mini-epic. The assault crossing of the Waal by boat of the 3/504 PIR, made famous by Robert Redford in A Bridge Too Far and the dash across the bridge by a Troop of Sherman Tanks from the Grenadier Guards. Both are stories involving incredible bravery and made a fitting end to the day’s events.
Day Two of Jonathan’s recent tour will be published on the journal next Tuesday evening.