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 Post subject: The Battle of Oosterbeek
Unread postPosted: 03 Jul 2015, 12:32 
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The Battle of Oosterbeek

By Spencer Lane
Co-authored by Oliver Thébault

Captain John Killick of the 89th Field Security Section leads a patrol through the streets of Arnhem on the battle's first day. Photo taken by Sam Presser, a Jewish civilian living (and hiding) in Arnhem.

To appropriate Winston Churchill’s words about the Battle of Omdurman, there was nothing quite like the Battle of Oosterbeek, before or since. The British Army fought their German enemies almost continuously from April 1940 until the end of the war in May 1945. Although the British fought countless battles, the ten day battle fought around the small village of Oosterbeek in Holland as part of Operation Market Garden may rank as the fiercest and most intense. The ten day struggle in Oosterbeek and the four days endured by the soldiers of Lt.-Colonel John Frost’s battalion in Arnhem was fought largely between men of the 1st Airborne Division and the 9th and 10th SS-Panzer Divisions. Casualties were exceptionally high on both sides, but on the Allied side it was especially tragic as many of the men landed north of the Rhine were unable to make it back to the southern side when it became clear Operation Market Garden would fail, and were subsequently captured by the Germans. Many succumbed to their wounds and died in captivity. The 1st Airborne took 10,000 men into Arnhem; barely more than 2,000 returned, and the division was so badly mauled that it never again saw combat in the Second World War.

The urban combat in Arnhem proper and the odd mix of suburban homes and rural parkland in the suburbs of Arnhem leading out to the landing grounds made for incredibly intense fighting in ‘close country’ and neither side had a clear advantage, even to the end of the battle. Despite having only 800 men (if that, different sources claim different numbers, but the accurate figure is probably between 650 and 800 men), Lt.-Col. Frost was able to hold a small pocket in Arnhem, centred on the north end of the infamous ‘bridge too far’ for four days and three nights, despite receiving no reinforcements or support of any kind, no additional supplies, and for most of the battle was desperately short of food and water. Yet despite having the paratroopers surrounded and cut off, the Germans could not evict them from Arnhem except by brute force—Arnhem, and with it the British positions, was gradually but surely reduced to burning rubble. In the meantime the German armour was useless against the fortified positions taken up in the town’s buildings and the British paratroopers proved extremely adept at house-to-house, street-to-street fighting.

In Oosterbeek, a smaller town about 8 kilometers from the bridge, things were different. Here the German armour had more room to manoeuvre and were less susceptible to British gammon grenades thrown from rooftops or PIAT rounds fired from hidden basement windows. Despite this, the British were still able to use the wooded country to great effect, holding out nearly to the bitter end despite enormous casualties, lack of supplies, and overwhelming German numerical superiority. By the end of the battle, despite receiving friendly artillery support from XXX Corps, which had by then nearly made it to the southern bank of the Rhine, 1st Airborne had to withdraw. In an extraordinary feat of soldiering, just over 2100 men (including not just men of the 1st Airborne and the Glider Pilots, but also included the First Polish Parachute Battalion, Royal Engineers, and a few men from 4th Battalion of The Dorset Regiment who had been ordered across the Rhine in a shambolic relief attempt just the night before) slipped across the Rhine in small boats, some even swimming, without the Germans realizing. They left behind scores of wounded along with all the medical staff and chaplains.

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Paratroopers in Oosterbeek, near their landing grounds, towing six-pounder (possibly 17-pounder) anti-tank guns on the road to Arnhem. Photo courtesy of the Airborne Museum, Oosterbeek, The Netherlands.

The one extraordinary aspect of the battles around Arnhem and Oosterbeek, aside from their intensity, is the truly remarkable humanity displayed by all involved, something scarcely seen in any other battle between the Western Allies and the Germans (and hardly ever seen between the Germans and the Soviets, let alone the truly ruthless battles fought in the Pacific Theater). Several ceasefires were organized during the battle, and the Germans allowed the British to evacuate their wounded into German lines and bury their dead. They may have had ulterior motives—during the two-hour ceasefires the German troops may not have fired on their British enemies but they did take the opportunity to reconnoiter and infiltrate British lines. But not all acts of mercy had a cynical aspect to it. Many survivors recount stories of close and very personal encounters with their opponents. Individual German soldiers advancing in on the British perimeter around the Hartenstein hotel would often encounter wounded Tommies left behind and would proceed to dress their wounds if they could, or allow the British medics and surgeons to continue their work uninterrupted. If nothing else, they would offer them cigarettes. One German soldier happened upon a cache of wounded paratroopers did just that. He sat beside a wounded man and offered him a cigarette with the words ‘It was a good fight, Tommy’ and before the man could even reach out to take the smoke, he died. Helmut Buttlar, an SS-Sturmmann in an anti-aircraft battalion of the 10th SS Panzer Division was wounded and taken to an aid station where he was placed beside a wounded British paratrooper.

He asked how old I was. When I told him proudly that I was nineteen and had fought in Russia in April and that summer in Normandy, he said he could not have been beaten by anyone other than the Waffen-SS. We shook hands and wished each other the best.

Horst Weber, an 18 year old Panzer-Obergrenadier with the 10th SS Panzer Division, was garrisoned in a Dutch home named “Het Duivelshuis” and which British soldiers renamed ‘the Devil’s House’. At one point, a bunch of wounded British soldiers approached the house and asked for shelter, which the Germans granted them.

Finally there were heavily wounded Brits lying everywhere on the cold stone floor. We gave our two first aid kits to this fantastic British doctor, who cared for his men unceasingly for two days and nights without sleep. His human warmth and presence stimulated us. We helped him where we could. That man deserved a statue.”

After the battle, an SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer, Egon Skalka, arranged transport for the more than 2,200 wounded British soldiers to proper hospitals. He was later taken prisoner when the war ended and imprisoned for two years but was released three years early in recognition of his humane behavior in the battle.

In another case, as recounted to Cornelius Ryan in the excellent book A Bridge Too Far, Lt. Michael Long of the Glider Pilot’s Regiment came face to face with a young German carrying an MP-40; Long fired his revolver and grazed the German’s ear. The German shot Long in the thigh. Long shouted at his men to run away—which they did—and the German sat on Long’s torso and fired after them, even taking Long’s grenades and throwing them at his erstwhile comrades! As he fired his submachinegun, the shell casings fell into the open collar of the paratrooper, burning him. He tugged politely at the German’s trouser leg and said “Sehr warm”. The German apologized, brushed off the casings, and resumed firing, though this time angling his weapon so the casings wouldn’t land on the wounded man beside him. The German later dressed Long’s wounded leg and Long bandaged the German’s wounded ear before being taken away into captivity.

What makes the battle even more extraordinary is the fact that this humanity was being shared by two elite units—two SS-Panzer divisions and the 1st Airborne Division. Despite fighting in an incredibly confined battlefield and in an incredibly intense, nearly non-stop 10 day battle in which the fighting could not have been any more desperate—the British fighting for their lives, their backs against the river, cut off behind enemy lines, and the Germans fighting to eliminate a bridgehead before it could be relieved and expanded by XXX Corps from the south—despite all this, ceasefires to care for the wounded were arranged, the Germans took British wounded into their care (and genuinely did their best to provide for them, even if their best was often meager), and nearly everywhere soldiers acted with compassion for one another when they did meet.

It was very much the case of two bodies of men acting as professional soldiers, that while they might do everything in their power to kill one another, as soon as the threat had been extinguished, the mutual enmity and animosity evaporated. One would expect far worse of an SS-panzer division, and one could understand paratroopers not taking prisoners, yet both sides were very scrupulous in their treatment of POWs. Even the civilians were shown some mercy, even as they were forcibly evacuated from their homes by the Germans. A 12 year old boy was walking out of town with his family when he noticed an SS-soldier standing in the ruins of a bakery. The soldier gestured for the boy to come to him, and he did so—despite the protestations of his mother and his own apprehensions (as he said, when an SS-man tells you to do something, you do it). He was surprised when the soldier shared with him some bread from the ruined bakery and some English chocolate (unintentionally dropped on the German lines by the RAF).

No less extraordinary is the bond forged between the local Dutch population and their would-be liberators. As soon as the British landed, the Dutch population flocked to their side, cheering them as they marched past, handing them flowers, drinks, even kisses to lucky few. It was a true ‘Hollywood moment’, exactly as one would picture a liberation, and it was happening despite the fact that Arnhem and other local targets had been bombed that morning, killing three hundred civilians or more while claiming very few Germans. The ecstatic civilians also hampered British efforts to reach their objectives, and the British knew all too well that the Dutch were not liberated yet.

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A plaque outside the Airborne Museum demonstrating the heartfelt sympathy the Airborne soldiers had for the hapless Dutch civilians caught in the midst of the ill-fated Operation Market Garden. Photo taken by author.

In the fierce fighting which followed, many more Dutch civilians would be killed, and the remainder had to cower in basements, often without food or water and often housing wounded British (and even German) soldiers. Infamously, when the commander of 1st Airborne, Roy Urquhart, was caught behind enemy lines, a Dutch family hid him and another officer in their attic, and a different family housed a wounded Brigadier Lathbury—each at the greatest peril, had they been found out by the Germans. After the battle, the entire Dutch population left in German occupation suffered very grievously in what became known as the “Starvation Winter”, when hundreds if not thousands of Dutch civilians starved to death. And for the residents of Arnhem—now the frontline between Axis and Allied troops—it was even worse, as they were forcibly evicted from their homes, and would not return until after the war, by which time their homes (those which survived) were thoroughly looted. Despite the hard times the Dutch had to subsequently endured, many ordinary civilians and resistance fighters went to incredible lengths to hide British paratroopers who managed to evade capture after Market Garden, and hundreds of Allied soldiers and airmen were returned to Allied lines with Dutch assistance.

The British who fought at Arnhem always remembered with fondness their Dutch hosts. Most veterans of the battle, however, felt great sorrow and guilt for many years after the war; instead of liberating the Dutch, they had instead brought only suffering and destruction while achieving nothing. Though it is true that the residents of the Arnhem area suffered greatly for having been chosen as the ultimate objective of Operation Market Garden, they have never felt any ill-will towards the men of the 1st Airborne. Indeed, when one visits Arnhem and Oosterbeek today, the strong bond forged in war remains very evident. Memorials, plaques, street names, museum exhibits—nearly everything reflects the sincerest gratitude of a people deeply affected by the sacrifices made on their behalf, a gratitude that has not faded in more than seventy years of peace. It doesn’t matter that the 1st Airborne failed to liberate the people of Arnhem; they tried. In addition to the well maintained memorials and museums, the Commonwealth Cemetery in Oosterbeek is regularly visited, wreaths laid, and reunions between veterans and civilians held (though understandably in recent years the ranks of the veterans have become thinner). In a tradition which is practiced throughout Holland, not just Arnhem, every Dutch family “adopts” a soldier who died liberating their country and is responsible for regularly visiting his grave, remembering his story, and keeping his legacy alive.

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Not all of the soldiers felt sympathy for their enemies. This is a section of original Hartenstein Hotel wallpaper which British soldiers used to keep track of how many "Gerrys" they had killed. Photo by author, courtesy of Airborne Museum, Oosterbeek.

Equally, the Polish contribution to the battle is not forgotten, though it is less prominent in Dutch memory. Partially this was a result of how the battle unfolded; by the time the Poles could land, the battle had been raging for more than three days and their drop zones had been overrun, compelling them to land on the south bank of the Rhine, across from Oosterbeek. Though some Poles—about 250—managed to cross the river and fought alongside the 1st Airborne in Oosterbeek, they never had the same level of interaction as their British allies. Their reduced standing is also a partial product of history. After the battle, the Poles, particularly their leader General Sosabowski, were made scapegoats for why the operation had failed. With Poland being ruled by Communists after the war, many of the Free Poles who returned to Poland were imprisoned or otherwise sidelined and were unable to participate in the reunions after the war, or form the veterans groups which have proved so crucial to furthering the bonds between soldiers and civilians. Although it is probably too little, too late, the bravery and valiance of the Free Polish soldiers is today given full recognition, and one can see many Polish graves buried alongside their British comrades-in-arms in Oosterbeek cemetery.

Another group of brave men who are often forgotten by history (but who are very well remembered by the Paratroopers trapped in Oosterbeek) were the RAF transport pilots. Flying large, slow C-47s on countless sorties dropping badly needed supplies for the Paratroopers, some were seen to circle over the dropping zones two or three times until all the supplies had been dropped, braving hellacious anti-aircraft fire. The tragic thing is that this was largely a futile effort; unbeknownst to them, the Germans had overrun the dropping zones and very few of the supplies dropped made it into Allied hands. Indeed, many Germans remember fondly the fighting in Arnhem because it was one of the few battles they fought where they were well fed and had plenty of American cigarettes and English chocolate. The RAF lost 368 men killed or who died of their wounds, with a further 79 missing or captured—a casualty rate of nearly 25%—and IX Troop Carrier Command, responsible for dropping the Airborne on Arnhem, lost 27 men, with 6 missing or captured.

It is truly remarkable that the Dutch population, who suffered so much, should still adore the men who failed to liberate them. Perhaps it was because the battlefield was such an intimate one. Not only was a battle taking place literally in their back gardens, in many cases for the Dutch the battle raged in their living rooms and bedrooms, with wounded men sheltered in their basements. Seeing the suffering of the British (and Polish) soldiers in such close proximity could not possibly have failed to leave a lasting impression. Certainly, the professional, courteous way in which the British troops conducted themselves helped. One Dutch family whose house was occupied by the British cowered for days in their basement, and eventually even that became a shelter for British wounded. When the fighting ended, their house was in tatters. Windows smashed, walls pockmarked with bullet holes, and—worst of all—bloodstains all over the floors. The only other thing left behind was a note: “We are very sorry for the mess we have made.—Tommy”
The British were polite even to their enemies at times. On the first day of the battle, a German soldier, Leutnant Joseph Enthammer—a member of the V-2 rocket programme—was taken prisoner by some paratroopers and marched back to the British HQ. The local population lined the road and began (understandably) spitting at the German and shouting abuses at him. The British soldier fired a few rounds into the air to make them stop and then apologized to the German for their behavior!

Looking around Arnhem today, one can scarcely imagine that for four days it was the scene of so bloody and fierce a fight (though if one has an eye for detail, the lack of old buildings is a tell-tale sign of the total destruction wrought 70 years ago). Similarly, Oosterbeek is today a tranquil suburb set in a park-like setting of trees and meadows, filled with nice, large homes, and the Hartenstein Hotel (General Urquhart's HQ for the entirety of the battle) continues to operate. The foxholes were filled in, buildings repaired or rebuilt, and the bodies were re-buried. Only the memorials and the occasional maroon flag of the Airborne flying from a house would ever reveal the fact that it was where thousands of men gave their lives in an ultimately futile attempt to liberate the Dutch from Nazi oppression and bring the most devastating war in Europe’s history to a quick conclusion. Yet despite the tranquility on the surface, one needs only dip slightly below the surface to find that among the people of Arnhem and Oosterbeek, the battle—and more importantly the bond forged between the liberators and the liberated—remains deeply ingrained in living memory.

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A section of the Oosterbeek Commonwealth Cemetery, as it is today. Many Airborne, RAF, Free Polish, and even some Canadian personnel are buried here, and the cemetery is regularly visited by the Dutch locals. Photo by author.

A special thanks to the "Battle of Arnhem Information Centre", which has recorded many survivors' testimonies and made them available to the public, and which is the source for all of the quotations reproduced here. Located at the foot of John Frost Bridge (the bridge too far), it is well worth a visit if one is ever in Arnhem. Equally, I would also like to thank the Airborne Museum, located in the former Hartenstein Hotel in Oosterbeek, which has an exceptional collection of original artefacts and photographs, one of which is reproduced here.

"War is hell."-William Tecumseh Sherman
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 Post subject: Re: The Battle of Oosterbeek
Unread postPosted: 05 Jul 2015, 09:54 
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I'm amazed at the kindness extended to both sides considering the units involved.

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 Post subject: Re: The Battle of Oosterbeek
Unread postPosted: 08 Feb 2016, 16:28 
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Yes, have to admit, it was a bit of a surprise to me as well.

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