Arnhem is the sixth largest city in the Netherlands. It was the scene of fierce and remorseless fighting between 17 and 26 September, 1944, following the successful invasion of Normandy in June, by allied troops, ships and airforces.
The idea for a parachute/glider-mounted attack in the Dutch Netherlands is said to have been General Montgomery’s, though it was backed by General Eisenhower, supreme commander of the allied forces, and Winston Churchill, Britain’s prime minister. The idea was a very good one, strategically speaking, but it failed to take heed of local advice about cleverly hidden German tank regiments between Nijmegen and Arnhem. In fact the allies decided to take no notice whatever of clear and accurate intelligence. Clearly, in the minds of the planners lay the idea that if Arnhem should prove successful, it would raise the morale of the inading allies tremendously – as indeed it would have – had the Arnhem plan worked.
The First Airborne Division (which included British and American parachutists and infantry, plus a stout Polish brigade) tried to seize and hold the important roadbridge across the Lower Rhine, in order to allow the British Second Army to advance and outflank the principal German forces (erroneously thought by the British to be weak in numbers and morale) along the central Rhine. This would be achieved by a gradually turning movement through Holland and into North Germany.
The invasion army was formed of paratroopers dropped from aircraft, and infantry landed by gliders. The drops were mostly successful, but the allies met unexpectedly strong resistance. At least, the resistance was unexpected by the allied commanders, who, led by General ‘Boy’ Browning (the husband of Daphne du Maurier the novelist), General Roy Urquhart (a fighting Scot), and the very popular Sir Brian Horrocks, later claimed they had not known that German armoured troops and tanks were busy regrouping in the Arnhem region at the time of the surprise landing. Casualties on both sides were intimidating, but the armies moved on, restricted by narrow roads and lack of knowledge of local geography and terrain.
The result was that the British were unable to hold the bridge for long enough for the Second Army to break through and complete their advance. The Dutch resistance fought heroically too, but were able to achieve little. Many of the German generals thought the attack at Arnhem a secondary and foolhardy move, designed to attract attention while much more important assaults took place elsewhere. The allies lost 7000 men killed or taken prisoner.
The battle of Arnhem was a courageous strategic gamble which failed. Had it been a success victory might have been achieved in the West before the Russians had reached Berlin, Prague or Vienna.
The Americans made a film in the 70s which caused a great deal of trouble. It was called A Bridge too Far, and maintained that the fault for the failure lay entirely in the laps of the British command, led by ‘Boy’ Browning, played by an ageing, soigné Dirk Bogarde. Sean Connery increased his reputation as an actor by playing the part of General Urquhart. Edward Fox captured the personality of Sir Brian Horrocks exactly. Michael Caine was a charismatic tank commander, and Anthony Hopkins played an exceedingly brave infantry commander (Colonel Frost), who succeeded in holding up immensely superior German tank forces at the bridgebefore being forced to surrender himself and his entire battalion to the vistorious German army.
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