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Dreams from my grandfather on the bridge too far

I walk along the edge of the field towards the hedge of trees. Hidden behind the hedge is a caravan park, and behind the caravan park a sports centre. In September 1944 this was all a vast, open, flat potato field, which is why it was chosen by the military planners as the Landing Zone L for the gliders of the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade. It lies about a kilometre and a half from the centre of a little village of Wolfhaze, and is bordered on the south by a railway line and on the north by a road, but there is no noise and little movement. An overcast sky stretches over the sea of grass, and not one leaf stirs on the trees. But all these years ago it was a hell of gunfire, confusion and death.

Tomorrow is the 72nd anniversary of the beginning of the Operation Market-Garden, better known for the courageous but ultimately failed attempt to capture the bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem by the British and Polish airborne troops.

So this is where my grandfather landed, I think to myself. I’ve been trying to imagine this place for decades now, but it’s difficult to picture a place based on a simple hand-drawn map that my grandfather sent me a few years before he died and that I’m now holding in my hands. There are a few solid lines, a few dotted lines, a few circles and a few symbols. And then there is this, an expanse of land in front of me, all dark colours and shadows, like a still autumnal landscape by van Gogh.

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The field and the hedge of trees – in 1944 the whole landing zone would have looked like this.

How did a very young working class boy from the Polish-Czech borderlands end up in the fields of western Netherlands in the middle of the bloodiest conflict in human history?

My grandfather’s wartime anabasis might read today like an extravagant adventure story but it was far from unusual during these dark and turbulent years; there are millions like it. He was 16 and a half years old when the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and spent two weeks of the campaign criss-crossing the countryside attached to an anti-aircraft battery. A month after Poland capitulated, and desiring to continue the fight against the Nazi, he and his friend walked across Slovakia and into Hungary, both at that time allied with Germany. Hungary, in particular, had to walk a tightrope, as it has been historically very friendly with Poland. Thousands of Polish refugees were effectively interned but given a lot of freedom as long as they agreed to finish their war then and there. This was not what my grandfather had in mind and in February 1940, with the assistance of the French consulate, he managed to escape and eventually reached France, where he joined the just forming Polish 10th Motorised Cavalry Brigade, commanded by General Maczek.

The Poles were only transferred to the front and given weapons nineteen days after the German blitzkrieg first rolled into Belgium and Holland. Between 11 and 21 June, the Brigade fought a series of blocking engagements as it kept retreating south under the Wehrmacht’s onslaught. After the tank fuel run out, what remained of the various sub-units broke up into small groups to try to make it to the unoccupied southern France. While many succeeded, my grandfather was captured trying to cross the Burgundian Canal and interned near Dijon. Two months later he escaped again, walked seven days to Lyon and from there travelled by train to Marseille. There, in the bustling port city, he became I believe the first foreigner to be signed up to play with the city’s famous soccer team Olimpique (happy to be corrected by any historian of French football) with no intention of ever playing but to use the up-front wages (30 thousand francs for a five-year contract) to pay for him and three fellow Poles to get on-board a ship out of France and eventually to Great Britain (sorry Olimpique, I guess I owe you some money).

They sailed in late November on a little merchantman “Diable Rouge” but their escape to England was cut short in the port of Algiers where they were discovered by the customs officials of the collaborationist French regime and interned again, first in Saida and then, in November 1941, after an unsuccessful escape attempt, deep in the Sahara Desert. My grandfather and other Allied soldiers spent the next year building a railway line from Colombe-Bechar in Algeria to Oujda in Morocco. When the northern Africa was liberated by the American and British troops in November 1942 during Operation Torch, grandfather was freed and transferred to Casablanca, then to Gibraltar, and eventually to Glasgow, Scotland, where in December he signed on with the then forming Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade.

He spent the next year and a half in training all around Scotland; parachute jumping, driving motorcycles and jeeps, as well as heavy vehicles, anti-armour artillery, small arms, small unit tactics. In June 1944, grandfather led two 100-vehicle convoys from Scotland to southern England, as the Brigade (and many other Allied unites) were being transferred in preparation for the liberation of Europe. There, at the airstrips in the south, they waited for their orders.

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Soldiers of the 1st Parachute Brigade in training; my grandfather is second from the left.

The Operation Market-Garden was a gamble borne out of fierce competition, if not outright enmity, between Montgomery and Patton, either of whom believed he should be in charge of a single and decisive thrust into Germany, as opposed to a slower, broad front approach agreed to before D-Day. Had Montgomery managed to reach and cross the Rhine at Arnhem that September in 1944, he would be near impossible to refuse the manpower and resources he wanted for his subsequent attack through the Ruhr onto Berlin, which might have ended the war by Christmas, as Germans had had no time to strongly entrench themselves on their western frontier.

To succeed, Market-Garden required three airborne divisions (two American and one British) to leapfrog retreating Wehrmacht and capture three separate crossings at three different rivers, with the Rhine bridge at Arnhem being the final one, a bridge too far, as it was later christened. This was the task given to the British division, with the support of the Poles. At the same time, an armed thrust unfolding over the three days following the airborne landings would open a corridor through the three captured crossings for the bulk of Montgomery’s army to pass onto Germany.

It was a risky plan, depending on too many variables and too many different elements all falling into place in correct order. Critics and doubters were overruled. General Sosabowski, commanding the Polish Brigade called it “disastrous”, but he too had to fall into line, as normally over-cautious Montgomery staked it all on a chance to roll the dice all the way to the Rhine and win the war all by himself.

At first, things went well – on 17 September the Americans managed to capture several of their objectives – after that, nothing did. The Brits landed kilometres off target, without their motorised transport. Controversy still rages to what extent Montgomery knew and disregarded the intelligence that far from being undefended, two SS armoured divisions were recuperating and refitting near Arnhem after seeing action in Normandy. In any case, alerted to the mass airborne landings, the Germans got to the bridge first. By the 19th, the Allied tanks have only managed to reach the first crossing held by the American paratroopers; they were nowhere near Arnhem where outnumbered and heavily outgunned British were desperately holding under fierce German counter-attacks. The Poles of the 1st Parachute Brigade were delayed by heavy fog. The airborne elements were finally dropped south of the Rhine on the 21st, near a village of Driel, while their jeeps, motorcycles and light artillery managed to land days earlier, north of the river, across several landing zones, which at that stage were already in the process of being retaken by the Germans. The Poles were too late to swing the battle but not too late to fight and to die.

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The aerial photo of the first two waves of Polish gliders.

The first gliders, carrying medical supplies and spare radios, landed on the first day of the operation, in the area between Renkum and Wolfhaze, two village just west of Arnhem. The second wave of gliders arrived on the 18th with anti-tank guns. The third wave landed the next day on the “Johann Hoeve” farm, near Wolfheze, on a heavily furrowed potato field. This was the Landing Zone L, the smallest of the three zones designated for the Poles. This was where my grandfather touched down on September the 19th.

Today there is a small Glider Museum nearby, located in a large shed and run by local volunteers. Inside, a collection of war artefacts and photographs, as well as two sections of an authentic reconstructed British “Horsa” glider like that used by the Poles. It must have been cramped and claustrophobic for the soldiers and their equipment, all stuffed inside a twenty-metre light wooden tube, first towed by a light bomber and then released close to its target, particularly if under an anti-aircraft fire, as many would have been on approach to the ground.

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The sections of the glider at the museum.

 

Grandfather recalled many years later:

“I was unloading the equipment from the gliders and then I was ordered to jump on a motorcycle and drive around to all the other gliders – there were 8 or 10 in our particular group – and point all the soldiers and crews to the new assembly point. I was driving away when some 200 metres away from my glider I was wounded. There was a German machine gun hidden in the trees on the edge of the field. Got hit in my right thigh, fell off the bike, hit my head and lost consciousness. When I came to I saw a line of German soldiers walking abreast across the field as they were starting to retake the landing zone. They were sticking their bayonets in the ground before them looking for landmines. I started crawling away.”

There are two motorcycles in the museum like those that my grandfather was briefly riding that day. I would like to think that one of them is his, but the odds are remote. After the Wehrmacht recaptured the landing fields they burned all the gliders so that they could not be salvaged by the Allies, and took all the abandoned motorcycles and jeeps. They were used a few months later in the German counter-attack further south in the Ardennes, at the Battle of the Bulge.

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“I crawled west. It took me two hours to crawl a kilometre or so, but eventually I managed to find other soldiers from my Brigade who landed the previous day with the anti-tank guns. They patched me up and sat me at one of the guns. It only had 3 shells left. I shot all three at two German Panther tanks, which appeared at the Wolfheze crossroads. The tanks fortunately quickly retreated.”

Grandfather managed to reach the edge of Landing Zone S, on the other side of a small country road that runs roughly north to south through Wolfhaze. It’s a small village to this day, famous only for a large mental institution. The crossroads my grandfather mentions are at the railway crossing (the line goes from Amsterdam and through Arnhem) and the tanks were coming in from the north, the same way I came in earlier today.

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Standing at the crossroads, looking down the train line to Amsterdam.

“Out of ammunition, we removed the firing pin from our gun, so that it couldn’t be used by the Germans, and two colleagues took me under arms and as the night fell we started hobbling along the railways line to Arnhem. After some 700 metres we crossed the line and headed south through a forest, where we had to zig-zag the whole night to avoid Germans who were resting all throughout the woods. What helped us to avoid them was that they were very noisy, talking aloud the whole night.

“We have only managed to make about 1 kilometre through the forest during the whole night. Fortunately, in the morning we hit a road on the outskirts of Oosterbeek, and run into a convoy of 20 Willis vehicles from the British 4th Airborne Brigade. There was some 100 of us, and the whole day, 20 September, we kept repelling four German attacks at the Arnhem-Wolfheze-Utrecht crossroads.

“We couldn’t go on any more by the time the Germans started hitting us with mortars. By that stage most of us were wounded. Only those who hid under the cars survived; anyone out in the open when the mortars hit was torn to shreds. We were taken prisoner and the wounded ones were taken to the psychiatric hospital in Wolfheze. There I lost consciousness, and when I woke up I was lying in the University Hospital in Utrecht.”

Eastern parts of the Netherlands can still be quite wooded, unlike the largely open fields of the rest of the country. There is a forest on both sides of the road, making it the only open way of movement. The attackers are funnelled into a narrow avenue of death, and the defenders can put a cork in – until they are finally overwhelmed.

A steady stream of vehicles trickles in both directions, unaware they are traversing the scene of another past skirmish, one of the tens of thousands of small forgotten engagements of the war, another place on no one’s map where unknown dozens of mostly British and German soldiers met their end in their own valley of death, carved through the forest by a simple country road.

I try to imagine twenty vehicles, most of them probably positioned along either side of the road, providing cover for the now mostly wounded soldiers armed with light weapons. There might be a machine gun or two, but no artillery of any sort. It is not a sustainable position. The Germans, too, creep forward along the edges of the woods, staying away from the clear avenue of fire on the road itself. Bushes provide some limited cover, but not much. Both sides are fighting in a foreign field, far from their homes, each a tiny cog in the machines that will determine the future of the continent and the world, but no lofty ideas, no fascism, no democracy are on their minds right now, only their comrades next to them and the sheer survival, kill or be killed. Despite the traffic, the road seems so peaceful; it’s difficult to imagine all the violence, noise, chaos and death.

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The intersection, where the traffic lights are now.

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Looking from the intersection towards Oosterbeek, from where the German attacks kept coming all day on the 20th of September.

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The hand-drawn map from my grandfather…

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…and the lay of the land: 1) Landing Zone L where my grandfather landed and was wounded, and the route he crawled to 3) the crossroads where he chased the German tanks away, on the edge of 2) Landing Zone S. Then the route my grandfather was half-carried by him comrades, first along the railway line to Arnhem and then through the forest to 4) the intersection of the Oosterbeek-Wolfheze-Utrecht roads, where my grandfather and the Brits fought off the Germans all day on the 20th before being taken prisoner of war.

After two weeks in Utrecht, my grandfather was transferred to a hospital in Munster, and when he healed enough to Stalag XI B (POW camp) Falken Posten near Hannover, then Luft-Stalag III C (for airmen and airborne troops) near Sagan, and finally Stalag IX A near Kassel. As the camp was being evacuated by the Germans on 2 April 1945, grandfather once again escaped and spent the next three days and nights hiding in a nearby forest with a group of about 50 other military escapees, until they were all liberated by the Americans on the 5th. The Yanks convinced my grandfather and another Pole in the group to join the Military Police and help organise a camp for compulsory agricultural workers from Poland and other Slavic countries in the Melsungen district on Fulda. Three days before the war ended, grandfather, his job in Germany done, was back in London, and from there for three months back in Scotland for physical rehabilitation at the same camp he trained in two years earlier. After returning to form it was back to Germany for the occupation duty with the Brigade – and soccer, representing his unit – demobilisation in June 1947.

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My grandfather, as a young soldier of the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade, and (below) as a veteran, participating in the commemorations with his colleagues in the early 1990s (he’s second from the right).

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Oosterbeek, where the Brits and the Poles held off against the German onslaught, is a lovely little town on the outskirts of Arnhem. Once a year it wakes up from slumber to remember the horror of war. Thousands of tourists, mostly Dutch, British and Polish, arrive to participate in a series of commemorations. The arrivals crowd the Airborne Museum, set up in a building that was a temporary headquarters of General Urquhart, the commander of the British 1st Airborne Division. They crowd the sidewalks and the few cafes and restaurants too. There are still some of the original veterans among them, but fewer and fewer with each passing year. My grandfather was once a regular attendee, from the 40th anniversary celebrations in 1984 onwards, when the political climate finally allowed veterans to travel from Poland, only stopping when age and illness finally slowed him down over a decade later. Large number of current and past soldiers of the 1st British Division come to pay respects to their predecessors. Up and down the street cruise fully-geared up reenactors in their authentic war-era jeeps and motorcycles. For a fraction of a second it feels eerie, like a time slip, but this time around the mood is much lighter; many of them wave, I wave back.

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British tank outside the Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek, and below some of the many reenactors.

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Finally onto Arnhem itself and to the bridge too far. A large stage has been constructed, floating on the slow moving Rhine next to the bridge. Tomorrow it will be the venue for official commemorations. The bridge itself doesn’t look very special. The original was destroyed by the Dutch engineers in 1940 to slow the German advance and then rebuilt by the Germans. The work was finished only a month before the Operation Market-Garden. It survived the battle but was destroyed yet again soon after, this time by the British bombers, to once again prevent the Wehrmacht from using it. It was rebuilt after the war as an exact replica of the war-time bridge, and named after Lt Col John Frost who commanded the 700 or so British paratroopers who for a few days bravely and against all odds held the northern end of the bridge.

Another bridge is planned, a few kilometres down the Rhine, at Oosterbeek, to be named after the Polish commander, General Sosabowski. After the battle of Arnhem was over, Montgomery and the British military hierarchy outrageously blamed the Poles for the failure of the whole Market-Garden, but by the early 1960s this calumny has been rightly consigned to a dustbin of military history. In reality it was an extremely complex and risky, ill-thought out operation, which seemed very clever on paper but one where just about everything that could go wrong did in the cold hard light of reality. The Sosabowski Bridge, when finally built, will be a great living monument to the courage of the Poles, like my grandfather, dropped into the fray too late to affect the outcome, and bled senselessly for the vision and the glory of Britain’s greatest commander of the war.

By now the sun has come out from behind the clouds and against all weather forecasts the day has turned unseasonably warm and light. The Rhine shimmers as it leisurely rolls under the bridge and onto the North Sea. On the bridge itself, cars and trams pass in a continuous stream of traffic. Seventy-two years seems such a long time ago.

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