This weekend, the southern cities of Arnhem and Nijmegen will commemorate Operation Market Garden, the biggest airborne operation of World War II, which took place 70 years ago.
It is exactly 70 years ago that allied forces, in a daring attempt to prepare the way for a major invasion of Germany, tried to seize several bridges behind enemy lines.
Operation Market Garden involved 34,600 men, 1,700 vehicles and 260 pieces of artillery which were dropped from the skies by glider or parachute.
In the event the operation proved ‘a bridge too far’: Germany successfully defended a strategic bridge at Arnhem and the attempt failed.
Nevertheless, the events of those fateful eight days in 1944 still resonate strongly with the Dutch people and veterans alike. Ben Kooijmans was a five year old boy when the battle of Arnhem started on September 18. The first thing he remembers – and never forgot – is the wail of the grenades.
‘”Into the cellar with you Ben”, my mother cried. At that moment the house was hit and if my mother, who was carrying my younger sister in her arms, had been that much closer to the living room things would have been very different,’ Kooijmans recalls on website Airbornememories.nl.
English veteran paratrooper Jim Clement told his local paper: ‘We were told we were going to take part in a massive operation called Market Garden. Our job would be to seize bridges in Nijmegen and Arnhem in Holland.
‘We would join forces with the American airborne divisions and it would begin the following week, Sunday September 17. While we prepared for action, we were confined to barracks. I can’t remember feeling nervous. I was a strong soldier. I was prepared.’
Clement is one of a number of old soldiers revisiting Arnhem this year. The visit, he says, ‘is to remember everyone who lost their lives. This year, 2014, is the 70th anniversary. I am glad to still be alive. I am glad to be able to go and pay tribute to the soldiers who died there.’
The battle of Arnhem was one of the biggest and most important battles to be fought in the campaign and the city of Arnhem is planning a special event on Friday in which the John Frost bridge plays a central role.
After a commemorative ceremony in the presence of a number of veterans on the Airborneplein, a multimedia spectacle called the Liberation Experience will take place on the bridge at 20.30 hours. It tells the story of Operation Market Garden through a mix of images, dance and music.
The city of Nijmegen commemorates the fact that on Wednesday September 20 American paratroopers of the US 82nd division managed to cross the river Waal in 26 canvas boats and, in spite of the considerable odds against them, successfully secured the bridge and effectively liberated Nijmegen.
The city is now preparing a celebration on a bridge called the ‘Oversteek’, or Crossing, built in memory of those who lost their lives. In total, 48 lampposts on the bridge symbolise the lives of the 48 soldiers who died. Every evening when darkness falls the lights on the bridge are lit one by one, from south to north. In this way the crossing is repeated symbolically every day.
On Saturday 20 and Sunday 21 Nijmegen will stage a number of military shows. At 14.00 hours a re-enactment of the historic Waal crossing, in which veterans are invited to take part, will be put on by the Dutch armed forces and the present 82nd division.
Programmes for the 68th commemoration of Operation Market Garden can be found on http://www.bridgetoliberation.nl and http://www.centrumnijmegen.nl/agenda/20/21-sep-70-jaar-market-garden
A comprehensive programme in English is available at http://www.airborne-herdenkingen.nl/en/