POIGNANT John Frost Bridge in Arnhem, scene of heavy fighting during Operation Market-Garden in World War II, and inspiration for the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’
Danny does the bridge too far
THERE’S a scene in the Second World War movie ‘A Bridge Too Far’ where a German soldier suggests discussing terms of surrender. Despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned on the eponymous bridge, British Colonel John Frost is in no mood to capitulate.
“Tell him to go to hell,” says the man played by Anthony Hopkins, and a British major shouts to the German: “We haven’t got the proper facilities to take you all prisoner! Sorry!” The confused SS man seeks clarification and is told by the Briton: “We’d like to, but we can’t accept your surrender! Was there anything else?”
Ever since reading the book on which that movie is based (by Dublin-born author Cornelius Ryan), Arnhem in the eastern Netherlands has been on my to-do list. The town was the scene of heavy fighting in September 1944 during Operation Market-Garden, an ambitious but ill-fated Allied plan to end the war by Christmas.
The first stop on my recent tour of the area was the infamous bridge. It now bears the name of Colonel Frost, whose lightly-armed group held out for three days and four nights against overwhelming odds. The view from the bridge is nothing special, but the walk across is laden with symbolism.
After overnighting in Arnhem, I took a bus to nearby Oosterbeek, which houses a war cemetery and an excellent museum. The cemetery is in a quiet, secluded spot, and the inscriptions on the headstones make for poignant reading. Among the many soldiers buried there is Pat Harrington, described on his memorial as “an Irish hero from Co Cork.”
The Airborne Museum, housed in the former British Army headquarters, tells the story of the battle through striking photographs, artefacts and quotes from soldiers and civilians. Operation Market-Garden included the largest airborne operation in history, and Private Joe Watts was worried when he saw the name of the Dutch town in which he was due to land: Grave.
Some of the video testimony in the museum is fascinating. British engineer Tom Carpenter was wounded and ended up in hospital, beside a badly wounded German soldier who reached out and squeezed his hand. Thea Bouhuys, a child in 1944, remembers that her grandparents – whose house was on the front line – made regular phone calls as their situation changed. “We’re British,” they would say in one call, only to ring again to announce: “We’re German again.”
Despite the hardship which followed the military disaster, strong bonds were formed between Allied soldiers and airmen and the Dutch civilians who cared for many of them. And 64 years after the battle, the British and German ambassadors played the piano together at an Arnhem symposium. Truly, times have changed.
Daniel Carey, a Mayo News reporter, has taken a year out to travel the world. His addiction to the keyboard remains, however, and this column will carry his reports from life on the outside.