A Street In Arnhem
A Street in Arnhem
The Agony of Occupation and Liberation
Driving east-west to Arnhem along the Utrechtseweg I am constantly reminded how much evidence relating to the events of September 1944 can still be seen left and right of the road. The first indication is the left turn into the Wolfheze Road just before Oosterbeek; this is where the German Arnhem Stadtkommandant’s car was shot-up by advancing paratroopers. Woodland left and right was over-flown by fleets of gliders and aircraft that were to disgorge thousands of airborne troops onto the Renkum Heath nearby. Within a couple of bends the leafy Arnhem suburb of Oosterbeek comes into view. Inside a minute and the entire one kilometre stretch of the ferociously defended airborne perimeter has passed. The grand mansion on the right overlooking green parkland was the embattled headquarters of the 1st British Airborne Division for those nine days. An obelisk memorial stands inside the triangular grass area on the other side of the road. Beyond the pillar are the houses that made up the northern edge of the perimeter.
Next to number 200 Utrechtseweg there is a cross-roads. Two British medical stations were set up here, inside the Hotel Schoonoord to the right and the Hotel Vreewijk on the left. They were fought over and exchanged hands several times. If you turn left into the Stationsweg and continue over the railway bridge, the Commonwealth War Cemetery, where the Allied dead are buried, can be seen to the right. Back at the hotel cross-roads the road continues into Arnhem. British soldiers marched and skirmished along that street, swamped by crowds of cheering orange-flag waving Dutch civilians. Two days later they limped back in defeat, dragging their wounded past wrecked trams and a road overlaid with downed wires and shot-down tree branches.
Fighting ravaged the Utrechtseweg for nine days. Superficial damage inflicted during the swift liberation became total during the siege. Dutch civilians had elected to stay in their houses. Like the British, they were to be caught unawares by the ferocity of the rapid German reaction. This one street saw or heard virtually every development that took place during the nine-day battle of Arnhem in September 1944.
Every year thousands of Dutch and English people gather to commemorate this pain and suffering at the Commonwealth War Cemetery just off the Utrechtseweg. The opening hymn ‘Our God in Ages Past’ can be confusing to follow with both nations singing in their own language. The poignant setting becomes especially atmospheric when bathed in the last rays of a weakening autumn sun, seemingly floodlit by Divine intervention. Hundreds of Dutch schoolchildren emerge during the ceremony, filing between the serried rows of white marker stones until there is a child opposite every grave. This is achieved amid fidgeting disinterest tempered by the mild curiosity that comes with all events organized by grown-ups. The assembly is done quietly and unobtrusively.
When the officiating clergy at last turn to the children, long bored with the lengthy ceremony, the mood becomes more serious and reverential. They are asked to read out the name of the soldier buried before them as they lay their flowers in an act of remembrance. Many of these soldiers lying before them, they are reminded, are still unknown. The act never fails to bring a lump to the throat, creating an atmosphere so tangibly emotional it could be cut with a knife. ‘Age shall not weary them …at the going down of the sun. We will remember them’.
A special bond exists between the people of Arnhem and Oosterbeek and the airborne veterans. As a professional Parachute Regiment officer I have experienced the link during many commemorative anniversaries. Little changes with the passage of time. Roelie Breman a fifteen year old girl in 1944 wrote in the preamble to her war-time Oosterbeek Diary:
‘Imagine how it must feel when your father or your brother is lying buried in a strange country and that you do not even know which grave to look for!’
Each year the school children are reminded about these ‘unknowns’.
‘You cannot even be sure if this is the right place to look for him, for even now the soil of our village hides the resting places of several unknown soldiers ‘Known unto God’’ .
This heart-felt reverence for the memory of soldiers killed defending this village in September 1944 has been passed onto subsequent generations. Dutch families have been known to pay English public school fees for sons of Arnhem veterans living in the United Kingdom. English families have ‘adopted’ Dutch children. The link has endured and even now associations are continually set up to perpetuate the memory after the last veterans have gone.
History of War Magazine.
‘An important contribution to the military history of World war Two, but a fascinating slice of social history to boot’.
I wrote a book about Operation Market Garden from the German point of view, although it was an original idea at the time, what more remains to be said? Many, many books are written about the battle of Arnhem. After speaking with Dutch, British and German veterans during many battlefield visits I have come to appreciate that nearly all of them stood on the Utrechtseweg at some time during the battle. Closer examination of this one road has started to unveil aspects of the battle not considered before. Interpreting all three national perspectives at this one street level has become conceivable with the wealth of material gathered over the years. What might these particular insights be?
The prevailing British view on landing was disbelief that an operation could ever go as well as this. Most of the soldiers had not been in action for some time, and many not at all. One of the parachute brigades was largely veteran, but average casualty rates of 50% on former airborne operations did not leave many amid the replacements. As the plan unravelled they became increasingly dismayed. Very few of them saw much at all. The street – the Utrechtseweg – was often remembered as the main thoroughfare from Oosterbeek to Arnhem. After a promising start the plan flopped. This tended to erode the men’s faith in leadership ‘from on high’ but they carried on. As it was obviously a cock-up in the making, they were not going to be blamed for not trying to fight it through. Just as well they were trained to be fighting fit because the battle became a very physical and cumulatively exhausting ordeal. Sleep deprivation had an insidious effect on psychological resolve. Information came via rumour control. Existence was at trench and cellar level. Tenacity saved the core and the heavy construction of the well built houses they defended did the rest. Although they were boxed in by the Germans, the buildings boxed the panzers out. I had not identified many of these threads before.
The Germans expecting a ground attack found that unexpectedly it came from the air. The much vaunted SS Panzer Division was actually a shadow formation, no tanks; indeed in some cases even small arms had been handed-in because they were entraining from Arnhem station to re-equip in the Reich. Some of the SS soldiers picked up sten guns from dead British paratroopers. The remnants of the 9th SS Panzer Division fought mainly without armour at 25% strength, supplemented by as many pioneers, sailors and Luftwaffe ground personnel that they could get their hands on.
Two battalions, a German and Paratrooper, fought each other to the death on the street. The Germans stood at the end because they had a few officers left; the British were pulled back having lost all theirs. At no stage were the Germans confident of winning. Every time they gained the upper hand on the street another air armada flew over and inverted the odds. Only when the Arnhem Bridge was recaptured did the situation appear to stabilise but by then the allied ground advance was in Nijmegen, just ten kilometres away, and then Polish paratroopers dropped in their rear. It was the German General Staff system and inspirational leadership by individual commanders that kept the Kampfgruppen together. They neither liked nor trusted the Dutch, so there were few qualms about wrecking the street, better here than in the Reich.
That the Dutch hated the Germans becomes abundantly clear from the street-level perspective. This disdain lingers beneath the surface even today among the war-time generation. World War had been kind to the leafy suburb of Oosterbeek thus far; it had been a pre-war tourist attraction. Tenacious resistance by the surrounded paratroopers destroyed it but the Germans got the blame. So remorseful were the ‘airbornes’ as the Dutch called them that when they returned in 1945 to recover their dead they were convinced the locals would resent them. On the contrary, they took them into their hearts where they have remained ever since.
The Dutch story of the Street was one of liberation with a few smashed windows followed by complete devastation when the Germans came back. Elation went through stages of optimism to shocked disbelief and then despair. Material damage became inconsequential against the more pressing need to survive pinned in cellars sheltering below the ground. The fortunes of battle overhead were discernible only through soldiers clumping across their floorboards, shooting, animal-like screams and then the sudden appearance of an armed German soldier at the cellar entrance. Or more often, a grenade tossed down the steps. The village became a devastated no-mans land. In material terms the Dutch lost everything and many family members besides. During this ordeal the bizarre became the norm and any form of domestic order odd.
The Street chronicles this deterioration for the first time through the perspectives of Dutch civilians and fighters in the form of a docudrama. Ordinary Dutch people are tracked as they sought to survive their appalling predicament as also the British and German soldiers fighting through their houses, all on this one street. Fighting and surviving happened on three planes. The British were ensconced at house level with trenches in the gardens outside; the Germans had to move at street level while the Dutch sheltered in cellars beneath. The participants had no idea about what was going on around them in big-picture terms. The individual horizon was left and right of the mark one eye-ball on the Utrechtseweg.*
The street is the personal story of what it is like to fight a modern war in your own back-yard.
*The street is referred to as the Utrechtseweg throughout to avoid potential confusion, even though some parts of it are referred to as the Utrechtstraat , depending on the date of issue of pre-and post-war local Oosterbeek street maps.
Robert Kershaw follows up his best-selling account of the Battle of Arnhem from German eyes – It Never Snows in September – to focus on the experiences the Dutch civilians and British and German soldiers in one street fighting to survive at the heart of one of the most intense battles of World War II.