On the south side of the Nationaal Park de Hoge Veluwe, about 25km from Apeldoorn, Arnhem was once a wealthy resort, a watering hole to which the merchants of Amsterdam and Rotterdam would flock to idle away their fortunes. All seemed set fair until World War II, when, in what was an unmitigated disaster for the town, hundreds of British and Polish troops died here during the failed Allied airborne operation codenamed Operation Market Garden. Much of Arnhem took a pasting and although some of the key buildings were subsequently rebuilt, today’s city centre can’t but help seem a little dreary: only on its leafy outskirts do you get much of a sense of what Arnhem was like before the war. Perhaps inevitably, the city is still something of a place of pilgrimage for British visitors, who congregate here every summer to visit the crucial sites of the battle, including Arnhem’s John Frostbrug. Despite this, it’s also a lively town with a good selection of restaurants, bars and hotels. What’s more, Arnhem makes a first-rate base for visiting a number of neighbouring attractions, most memorably the Airborne Museum Hartenstein at Oosterbeek, the Nederlands Openluchtmuseum, the country’s largest open-air museum, and Burgers’ Zoo, with its sizeable menagerie of animals housed in sensitively re-created habitats.
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Operation Market Garden
Operation Market Garden
By September 1944, most of France and much of Belgium had been liberated from German occupation. However, fearing that an orthodox campaign to roll back the German army further would take many months and cost many lives, Field Marshal Montgomery decided that a pencil-thrust north through the Netherlands and subsequently east into the Ruhr, around the back of the heavily fortified Siegfried Line, offered a good chance of ending the war early. To speed the advance of his land armies, Montgomery needed to cross several major rivers and canals in a corridor of territory stretching from Eindhoven, just north of the front, to Arnhem. The plan, codenamed Operation Market Garden, was to parachute three Airborne Divisions behind enemy lines, each responsible for taking and holding particular bridgeheads until the main army could force their way north to join them. On Sunday, September 17, the 1st British Airborne Division parachuted into the fields around Oosterbeek, their principal objective being to seize the bridges over the Rhine at neighbouring Arnhem. Meanwhile, the 101st American Airborne Division was dropped in the area of Veghel to secure the Wilhelmina and Zuid-Willemsvaart canals, while the 82nd Division was dropped around Grave and Nijmegen, for the crossings over the Maas and the Waal.
The Americans were successful, and by the night of September 20, sections of the British army had reached the American bridgehead across the River Waal at Nijmegen. But the landings around Arnhem ran into serious problems: Allied Command had estimated that opposition was unlikely to exceed three thousand troops, but, as it turned out, the entire 2nd SS Panzer Corps was refitting near Arnhem just when the 1st Division landed. Taking the enemy by surprise, 2nd Parachute Battalion, under Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost, did manage to capture the north end of the road bridge across the Rhine, but it proved impossible to capture the southern end. Surrounded, outgunned and outmanned, the 2nd Battalion held their position from September 17th to the morning of the 21st, a feat of extraordinary courage and determination. Meanwhile, other British and Polish battalions had concentrated around the bridgehead at Oosterbeek, which they held at tremendous cost under the command of General Urquhart. By the morning of the 25th it was apparent that reinforcements in sufficient numbers would not be able to get through in support, so under cover of darkness, a dramatic and supremely well-executed withdrawal saved 2163 soldiers out of an original force of 10,005. There has been controversy about the plan ever since, with many arguing that it was poorly conceived, while others claim that it might have worked but for a series of military mishaps.