It is the eve of the First World War centenary, but a Cumbernauld-based armed forces
organisation is gearing up to recall a very different conflict - and a battle which has gone down in history as “a bridge too far”.
Operation Market Garden in September, 1944, was one of the most daring - many say foolhardy - operations of the Second World War.
Seeking a decisive breakthrough against the Nazis in Europe the Allies had sanctioned a plan by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to drop 20,000 men far behind enemy lines in Holland.
These airborne troops were to seize key bridges on the main road through Holland to the German border, and over that “carpet” the allied armoured divisions would drive hell for leather through the enemy’s “back door”.
They would be across the Rhine and into Germany before the Nazis had a chance to react.
Market Garden could have shortened the war by six months, and might even have seen British and American troops entering Berlin before the Russians - but it ended in
Airborne Forces Association Scotland secretary James Colquhoun says his 40-plus membership are all well aware of the importance of the forthcoming 70th anniversary of the epic defence of Arnhem Bridge and town.
It’s a story some will recognise from the 1970’s all-starcast film A Bridge Too Far, based on the book by Cornelius Ryan.
It tells h o w lightly-equipped parachute and glider troops found themselves facing SS tanks and panzergrenadiers, not raw reservists as expected.
The Allied tank reinforcements the paras relied on for support couldn’t force a way
through to link up, because the Germans were able to block the narrow, easy-to-defend road to Arnhem.
Nijmegen, the last bridge between the Allied relief force and the encircled town, could
not be taken, and the British in Arnhem were finally overwhelmed by massively superior forces.
The Ist Airborne Division lost three quarters of its strength in the bloody battles which raged over the polder fields, hedgerows and farmsteads of the Netherlands.
Allied forces included the gallant Free Polish parachutists, dropped in too late and in
the wrong place, who died battling to aid their beleaguered British comrades.
They are all remembered with reverence and gratitude by patriotic Netherlanders today.
“We were at a previous Arnhem commemoration, and found the Dutch people’s generosity overwhelming,” said James Colquhoun.
“It isn’t a hazy memory or just a lot of old history for them, because their country - within living memory - was occupied by the Nazis. This campaign was about liberation.
“To this day the school children at Oosterbeek (one of the flashpoint battle zones of
the route to Arnhem) tend the graves of the British soldiers in
the military cemetery there.
“The Dutch will never forget. It’s impossible to say how much it means to them.”
The people of the Netherlands have never blamed their liberators for failing at the first attempt.
Many who thought the nightmare of German occupation was finally over were to suffer cruelly when the Germans regained control.
Thousands died in the winter of 1944 when the Nazis, in a savage act of murderous spite, cut off food and medical supplies to communities that had flocked to welcome the Allies.
Meanwhile the story of how the heroic Dutch Resistance carried on the struggle until
the Allies achieved final victory has still to be told in full.
For James and his comrades, who have served all over the world in post-1945 operations, Arnhem has an almost mystical significance.
“We no longer have anyone with our group who was at Arnhem - and there are very few left anywhere,” said James.
“But they will never be forgotten”.
A small group of Association members will make the trip to Holland in September, and later they will compile a story guide for use in any of the area’s 26 secondary schools.
They’ve been given a nominal grant by North Lanarkshire Council to help with basic expenses.
“We will make our story of Arnhem available for any school which wants it, and although we are not professional film-makers we’ll try our best to get over what it was about,
and how important it was.”
He doesn’t say so, but the extra ingredient they will bring to the project is inside knowledge.
None of the group is old enough to be an Arnhem man - most are veterans of far more recent conflicts, for example the 1982 Falklands war and after.
But they are steeped in Market Garden’s legacy, and from their own military experience
may appreciate, as perhaps few others can, what the paras and glider assault troops were really up against back in 1944.
Formed a few years ago to bring together all former airborne personnel (in whatever service) Airborne Forces Association Scotland Branch number one meets regularly in
the Jack Snipes bar in Glenacre Road, North Carbrain.
It supports members of the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces by giving help as
and when it’s needed.
The aim is stated as being “our duty is to promote and support the good name of the
Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces, not only for today but for the future.”
In August its members will join many others in grieving for the millions of lives consumed by the First World War, and will honour the memory of the local men whose lives were destroyed.
But, come September, they hope people will join them in remembering Arnhem too.l