75th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem in the Netherlands

CHJ Business Development Manager Chris Thornley attends the commemorations for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem in the Netherlands

Ever since I went to the cinema to watch the epic movie ‘A Bridge Too Far’ in 1977, the Battle of Arnhem & Operation Market Garden has fascinated me and held a special place in my heart.

I was so looking forward to returning to Arnhem to honour and pay tribute to the men of the British 1st Airborne Division who had taken part in Operation Market Garden - the largest airborne operation in history. They had fought so courageously for 9 days against over whelming odds and in many cases made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom we enjoy today.

The first event we attended on 21st September was the commemorative service at Ginkel Heath, this was one of the main landing zones used by the 1st Airborne Division during the operation. Guests at the service included HRH Prince of Wales and HRH Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands along with many of the surviving veterans of the battle. After their Royal Highnesses had both laid wreaths, an estimated 150,000 people watched a magnificent spectacle as over 1,500 paratroops floated down from the clear blue sky in wave after wave of parachute drops onto the heath which included 97 year-old veteran Sandy Cortmann and soldiers from The Parachute Regiment, of which The Prince of Wales is Colonel-in-Chief.

From Ginkel Heath, we headed to the beautiful village of Oosterbeek which is just over 3 miles from Arnhem. Oosterbeek was the scene of some of the most ferocious fighting in the battle which lasted for 9 days. On display adjacent to The Airborne Memorial was a marvellous full size replica Airspeed Horsa glider which was built by enthusiast volunteers at RAF Shawbury between 2001 and 2014, it was transported to the Netherlands in July 2019 for the anniversary. The glider has now been relocated to the War Museum Overloon Netherlands where it will go on permanent public display.

Across the road from the glider is the fantastic Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’ formerly the Hotel Hartenstein, during the battle it served as the 1st Airborne Divisional HQ and a pivotal part of the important Oosterbeek perimeter defence. After the Second World War, plans were made to open a museum to commemorate the battle and on 11th May 1978, Commander of the British 1st Airborne Division Major General Roy Urquhart officially opened the Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’. Situated In the basement of the museum is the must visit ‘Airborne Experience', a series of dioramas of the battle. The display was awarded the Gouden Reiger (“The Golden Heron”) a Dutch award for audience interaction in the category "three-dimensional media interaction". The grounds of the museum are beautiful with many small memorials along with several 1st Airborne Division Ordnance Quick-Firing 17-pounder anti-tank guns that were damaged during the fighting. When walking around this tranquil setting, it is difficult to imagine the bitter fighting that took place here 75 years ago.

On Sunday 22nd September we attended the memorial service of remembrance at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery. The beautifully kept Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery contains the graves of most of those killed during the September landings, and some of those killed in later fighting in the area. There are 1,684 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War buried or commemorated in the cemetery and there are also 79 Polish graves (of the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade) and three Dutch graves. The cemetery was filled to capacity, with many thousands more paying their respects from outside. After a very emotional service, local children entered the cemetery and laid flowers on each of the graves - a tradition that dates back to 1945, which was an extremely moving event to witness.

After the service had concluded we made our way to the Oosterbeek Old Church, the church first featured in the fighting at Arnhem on 19th September 1944, when Major Richard Lonsdale, second in command of 11th Battalion Parachute Regiment, gathered the survivors of the fighting around St Elisabeth Hospital. Wounded himself, he climbed in the pulpit, and delivered his now famous speech:

"You know as well as I do there are a lot of bloody Germans coming at us. Well, all we can do is to stay here and hang on in the hope that somebody catches us up. We must fight for our lives and stick together. We've fought the Germans before - in North Africa, Sicily, Italy. They weren't good enough for us then, and they're bloody well not good enough for us now. They're up against the finest soldiers in the world. An hour from now you will take up defensive positions north of the road outside. Make certain you dig in well and that your weapons and ammo are in good order. We are getting short of ammo, so when you shoot you shoot to kill. Good luck to you all"

The defenders of this sector of the Oosterbeek Perimeter became known as 'Lonsdale Force' and the church soon known as 'Lonsdale Church'. The exterior walls of the church are still riddled with numerous cannon shell and bullet holes, there are also a number of small airborne memorials within the grounds. The houses close by, although rebuilt and repaired, often show signs of battle damage from September 1944. It was close to here that Operation Berlin - the evacuation of 1st Airborne Division - took place from Driel on 25th/26th September.

Close by is Kate ter Horst's house which was used as an aid post during the battle. Kate was a Dutch full-time housewife and mother who tended wounded and dying soldiers during the Battle of Arnhem. Her British patients nicknamed her ‘the Angel of Arnhem’. In 1980, the British ambassador to the Netherlands decorated Kate and her husband as Honorary Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE).

Our final destination of the day was the iconic road bridge in Arnhem, this is where the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment along with other elements of the division under Lieutenant Colonel John Frost heroically held out against vastly superior German armoured forces for 4 days until they eventually ran out of ammunition and had to surrender. These events were dramatized in the 1977 movie ‘A Bridge Too Far’ (the bridge scenes in the movie were shot 28 miles away in Deventer, where a similar bridge over the IJssel was available, as the area around Arnhem Bridge had changed too much to represent WWII-era Arnhem). As a tribute, the rebuilt bridge was renamed 'John Frost Bridge' after the commander of the paratroopers.

The current bridge is the third almost-identical bridge built at the same spot. The Dutch Army destroyed the first bridge when the German Army invaded the Netherlands in 1940. The second bridge was destroyed by the United States Air Force in October 1944.

The bravery of the men of the British 1st Airborne Division against overwhelming odds in the battle is reflected in the awards they received. The Victoria Cross (VC) which was founded in 1856 to honour those who show exceptional courage with the enemy in site is the highest award a British soldier can receive. A total of four VC’s were awarded to airborne soldiers who fought at Arnhem, 3 of them posthumously. Another recipient of the Victoria Cross posthumously for his gallantry at Arnhem was Flight Lieutenant David Lord of RAF Transport Command.

“What Manner Of Men Are These That Wear The Maroon Beret?

They are firstly all volunteers and are toughened by physical training. As a result they have infectious optimism and that offensive eagerness which comes from well-being. They have 'jumped' from the air and by doing so have conquered fear.

Their duty lies in the van of the battle. They are proud of this honour. They have the highest standards in all things whether it be skill in battle or smartness in the execution of all peace time duties. They are in fact - men apart - every man an emperor.

Of all the factors, which make for success in battle, the spirit of the warrior is the most decisive. That spirit will be found in full measure in the men who wear the maroon beret”

Quote by Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein about the British airborne soldier

It was an honour and a privilege to have been able to attend the 75th anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Arnhem, one which I will never forget. The people of Arnhem & Oosterbeek have never forgotten and we must never forget what the men of the British 1st Airborne Division did 75 years ago.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them