While 72 years ago may seem like a long time past in a modern army’s life, for an agile, intelligent and adaptable force it remains a poignant and important piece of our history that continues to teach us key lessons. The battles and wars fought by our predecessors and the strategic and tactical decisions taken by generals and junior leaders alike can demonstrate ways of thinking that can prove immensely useful to our trade. That is exactly why the British Army continues to support battlefield studies and last week the KRH travelled to the Netherlands for a study of Op MARKET GARDEN.
In September 1944 one of the most daring operations of WWII was launched with the intention of opening a corridor into the heart of Germany and breaking the will of the German Army. Op MARKET GARDEN was a two part operation that would see the Allies land troops in consecutive drops from the air while a force on the ground were to drive hard to link up with the paratroopers.
The battlefield study in Holland followed a successful study of Monte Cassino and the battles that raged in the mountains of Italy in 2015 and began in a similar light with a coach ride from Aliwal Barracks. Aimed at the same target audience of officers, senior NCOs and crew commanders, the party this time included soldiers and officers of regiments and battalions that would be working with us in the following training year.
We crossed the Channel in good time, and with thoughts of the lorry blockade quickly behind us, we arrived in a Dutch Airborne base that was to be our home for the week. The next day the battlefield study was introduced by the Commanding Officer and we began in the site where XXX Corps massed in preparation for their advance up the single road that linked all three key towns that would become the airborne missions. During the stands it became abundantly clear that the task of driving a whole corps up a single road was gargantuan, and fraught with risk, and we discussed the loss of life that some of the fighting caused as the German Army ambushed the leading Sherman tanks.
On Wednesday the day similarly focused on the efforts made by XXX Corps to keep pushing north, over key bridges such as the one over the Waal River, Nijmegen. Made famous by the film, the bridge was taken by a heroic action after Sgt Robinson lead a breakout over to the far bank while the Germans failed to blow the bridge. In the blazing sunshine the personnel on the study went to the man-made island (that didn’t exist in 1944) to discuss the crossing by 82nd Airborne in boats that offered no protection from enemy fire and subsequently produce a plan of how they might fight the battle to take Oosterhout.
The final full day began with a change of focus from the actions of XXX Corps to the key landing sites of the airborne campaign – the MARKET part of the Operation. We began in the peaceful fields that in 1944 were the jump zones of the British Airborne troops. Before the main bridge at Arnhem the stand was aimed at the concept that has become so poignant in a modern army’s thinking – synchronization. The study walked the area of the north bank of the Nederrijin where the Parachute Regiment suffered heavy casualties in their attempts to link up with those who had secured the bridge. There were two forces split with no radio communications and a half an hour delay on one half meant the attack was not quite as well executed as it could have been. On the way through the town those on the tour were shown how hard it must have been to fight forward as the German guns cut the bodies of men in half as they came into sight, the fog lifted and the German forces in front of them could halt their advance through the streets. The final stop for the day was the north side of the bridge that those troops never managed to link up with and the infamous last radio transmission was sent; “Out of ammo, God save the King.”
Our final day on the Continent began at the hotel, which was initially General Model and the German Army Officers’ Mess before being taken into Allied hands and used as HQ for the battle. As we reached the last moments of the British influence on the fight, we finished the tour with a service in the Arnhem Oosterbeek Cemetery. Led by Padre Archibald, KRH and Padre Jepson-Biddle, the service took the format of a traditional British Army service of remembrance, except during the two minutes all of the personnel were asked to read a name of those in the Cemetery, which was a fitting reminder that those who fell had sacrificed their lives for the freedom of the future.
Everybody congregated back on the coach to make the return journey to the UK on the Friday afternoon and as the bus pulled up at Aliwal Barracks everybody dispersed with the feeling that they had learnt something new and rewarding on the study.
KRH Association and serving members of the regiment.