British infantry in Arnhem
The Dutch and the British have a long tradition of both rivalry and friendship, yet it is striking how little we know of their country beyond Amsterdam.
The Netherlands, situated right in ‘the cockpit of Europe’, is rich in history for visitors looking for more than just a gentle break among the peaceful countryside for which it is also known.
When the Dutch were not fighting us for mastery of the seas, England sometimes supported their bitter struggle in the wars of religion against the Spanish Empire of the Hapsburgs.
In 1586, the poet-warrior and Elizabethan hero Sir Philip Sidney fought at Zutphen alongside the Dutch against the furia española of the Castilian infantry.
When gravely wounded and offered water, he gestured to another victim lying close by and uttered the immortal line: ‘His need is greater than mine.’ Sidney died of his wounds in Arnhem on September 22.
Exactly 358 years later, far more British soldiers were dying there in one of the most savage battles to liberate North-West Europe from the Nazis.
This year is an important one for the city of Arnhem and its surrounding area, especially the village of Oosterbeek.
It marks the 75th anniversary of the battle in 1944, when Field Marshal Montgomery launched Operation Market Garden, his ill-fated attempt to shorten the war by jumping the lower Rhine at Arnhem.
Market Garden’s legacy draws thousands of veterans and interested visitors to this eastern city and the surrounding region.
But you don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy Arnhem and its environs. It offers much more than just poignant memories of World War II.
Peaceful: But in 1944 Kasteel Henkenshage was the HQ of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division
The city, with its many hotels and friendly restaurants, is the ideal base for exploring the surrounding area.
On the northern edge of Arnhem lies the Royal Burgers’ Zoo, founded in 1913, and situated in the wonderful woods of the De Hoge Veluwe.
It is probably the best and the most imaginative of all the zoos in Europe, showing animals in their natural habitat.
They have a walk-through oceanic aquarium, with the biggest coral reef outside Australia; a desert; a tropical rain forest; and the largest indoor mangrove swamp in the world, with Caribbean manatees.
The national parks of De Hoge Veluwe and the Veluwezoom, with their forests and heaths and miles of cycle routes, can be explored on free-to-use white bikes or on foot.
There is also the Netherlands Open Air Museum, with farms, ancient cottages and windmills; artisans, blacksmiths and others there recreate rural life in the Netherlands over the centuries, with the visitors allowed to lend a hand.
North of Arnhem at Apeldoorn is the royal palace of Het Loo, built by William III, our ‘King Billy’.
Among the ravishing moated castles of the region are Kasteel Slangenburg, which was where SS-Gruppenführer Wilhelm Bittrich, the commander of the II SS Panzer Corps, had established his headquarters just before the battle.
Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model rushed there on September 17 when British paratroopers began dropping near his headquarters in Oosterbeek. Model was convinced they were coming to capture him, rather than the great Arnhem bridge over the Rhine.
Today, the castle is used as a guesthouse by a nearby monastery, and its grounds and beautifully restored buildings are open to the public and well worth visiting.
Further south, the manor house of Kasteel Henkenshage on the western edge of St Oedenrode was the headquarters of Major General Maxwell Taylor, the commander of the American 101st Airborne Division.
His ‘Screaming Eagles’ were desperately holding off German counter-attacks on ‘Hell’s Highway’ — the route north towards Arnhem along which the British Guards Armoured Division had advanced in vain.
Kasteel Henkenshage is now a wedding and function centre and may not always be open, but its gothic-style architecture and moat make it a charming visit for many tourists nonetheless.
Later this year, over the weekend of September 21-22, political leaders, royalty, generals, British, American and Polish paratroopers, local dignitaries and above all the remaining veterans of this, the greatest airborne operation of all time, will congregate to commemorate the dead, both military and civilian.
Every September at the time of the anniversary, houses in Arnhem and Oosterbeek are decorated with flags bearing the Pegasus symbol of the British airborne forces.
It is an incredibly moving sight, and it is well worth making the journey to see it.
Triumphal arches will be erected to welcome the veterans. At 10am on Saturday, September 21 this year, a parachute drop will once again take place on Ginkel Heath, along with all the other ceremonies of remembrance.
On the Sunday at 11am, at the memorial service in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery on the edge of Oosterbeek, local schoolchildren will lay flowers on the graves of those buried there. It is hard to imagine that this quiet and peaceful village was almost totally destroyed in the bitter fighting 75 years ago.
Oosterbeek lies along the north bank of the Lower Rhine, on rising ground, with trees and beautiful views over the river and beyond to the polderland flood plain of the Betuwe.
Anyone interested in the events of 1944 must visit the Airborne Museum housed in the Hartenstein Hotel, in Oosterbeek, which became the British headquarters during the battle, thus making the actual museum as noteworthy as its content.
For British troops, the failure of Operation Market Garden led either to prison camps or produced a sense of anti-climax made worse by the relentless autumn rains.
Antony muses how little we know of the Netherlands beyond Amsterdam
For the Dutch, the consequences were incomparably worse. More than 3,600 civilians were killed in the fighting and its aftermath, with tens of thousands more severely injured.
About 20 miles south of Arnhem in Nijmegen, which had suffered so much from German shelling and fire-raising, 2,200 civilians are estimated to have died, 5,500 were disabled, and 10,000 wounded. Some 22,000 houses were destroyed (only 4,000 remained unscathed). Nijmegen, the oldest city in The Netherlands, is still worth a visit. Though few old buildings remain, there are fragments of the original Roman city wall and Valkhof hill features an 8th or 9th-century Carolingian chapel and the remains of an imperial castle demolished in 1798.
In late September 1944, after the failure of Operation Market Garden, the German revenge for Dutch assistance to the Allies in the battle was vicious. Some 200,000 people, including the whole population of Arnhem, were forced from their homes, which were looted and destroyed.
In the summer of 1945, the communal efforts to clear rubble and restore essential services were not enough to revive Arnhem and the devastated towns around it. An appeal was launched to the rest of the country to help.
Amsterdam virtually adopted the city, and craftsmen arrived to help rebuild Arnhem.
The story spread — thanks to the public relations skills of Burgemeester Chris Matser, the working-class son of a mason, appointed mayor in 1945 — and assistance came from all directions.
The reconstruction of Arnhem, with its fine buildings and churches, was finally completed in 1969.
For me, the most poignant moment of last year was when the Mayor of Arnhem, Ahmed Marcouch, launched the Dutch edition of my book on the Battle of Arnhem in its equivalent of a cathedral, the beautifully rebuilt St Eusebius church, known as the Grote Kerk.
Large photographs of its destruction in 1944 were displayed on the walls around us. The city’s rebuilding into the tranquil haven of today must be little short of a miracle —and the generosity of its inhabitants is undeniable.
Although the Dutch had much to forgive for the disastrous failure of Operation Market Garden, their kindness to Allied troops at the time and ever since towards the airborne veterans has been, for the British, one of the most moving legacies of World War II.
Antony Beevor’s Arnhem: The Battle For The Bridges, 1944 is out in Penguin paperback, priced £8.99.