With the sun shining through the trees on the edges of the meticulously groomed park, it is hard to imagine the events that transpired on these fields in the not so distant past. But if you look closely amid the landscaped grounds, you’ll find overgrown fighting positions reminding you it wasn’t always such an idyllic setting.
Operation Market Garden was the Allies failed attempt to bring WWII to an end by Christmas 1944. It remains today the largest airborne operation of all time. The objective was to secure several key bridges and push the Germans back over the Rhine. The US 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne were to secure the bridges from Eindhoven to Nijmege in the south, while the British 1st Parachute Brigade and the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade secured the bridge over the Rhine in the north, in the city of Arnhem.
British forces landed 6 miles outside of Arnhem, the town of Oosterbeek was between the drop zone and the objective. The Hartenstein Hotel, located 3 miles from the bridge, became the Headquarters building. For nine days, from September 17 – 26, 1944 the fighting in Arnhem continued, with Allied forces eventually retreating. This battle is famously depicted in the British docudrama “Theirs is the Glory”, Cornelius Ryan’s book “A Bridge too Far”, with the movie of the same name, and is the inspiration for Richard Adam’s “Watership Down“.
On the day of our visit, we arrived slightly before the museum opened, so we took the opportunity to walk over the grounds. To one side of the museum is a small deer enclosure, which kept the children occupied for a while. We then followed a trail through a meadow dotted with wild red poppies, before we returned to tour the museum.
The museum’s upper floors have an interesting display of battlefield artifacts and detailed descriptions of the operations. It is a relatively small museum, but remarkable for its size. There are two displays in particular that are worth the visit. The first is a collection of oral histories from civilians and military participants of the battle. Unfortunately, while interesting and worthwhile to listen to, they were of very little interest to our three and four-year-old children, so our listening time was severely limited. The second display takes you into the battle.
Because the docent recommended that we not take our children to the battle display, we took turns travelling between sunlight and darkness, between laughter and fear. As I began descending the stairs I was still fully bathed in the light of the warm spring afternoon. At the bottom, the sunlight disappeared, the transformation began.
My tour started aboard the shell of a C47, and much like the soldiers arriving to battle, I was uncertain of what lay beyond. I stepped from the plane to the landing zone, and continued on, finding before me the city as it appeared during the battle. Alone in the basement surrounded by the constant noise of battle, it was easy to allow my imagination to transport me, to allow me, momentarily, to experience the confusion, the terror that is war.
Even the return to sunlight did not immediately dispel the darkness that settled over me in the basement. Looking around the field again, imagining the battle, wondering how the men here felt, surrounded, outnumbered, and under supplied. I thought of all of the lives lost over the course of those nine days, and of the days before and after.
Without a direct to connection to a war, it’s easy to overlook the complete destruction, to reduce the horrors to scenes depicted on film. It’s easy because you weren’t there. Those that were will never forget, for the rest of us places like the Airborne Museum Hartenstein ensure we won’t either.
Just outside the museum there is a stone commemorating the 50th anniversary of the battle. This is what is inscribed there:
To the people of Gelderland:
50 years ago British and Polish Airborne soldiers fought here against overwhelming odds to open the way into Germany and bring the war to an early end. Instead we brought death and destruction, for which you have never blamed us.
This stone marks our admiration for your great courage, remembering especially the women who tended our wounded. In the long winter that followed, your families risked death by hiding Allied soldiers and airmen, while members of the Resistance helped many to safety.
You took us into your homes as friends, we took you forever into our hearts. This strong bond will continue long after we are gone.
I highly recommend a visit to this museum, but it is not the best museum to visit with young children. While there are several sites and memorials in the area, we only toured the museum. We had lunch at the restaurant next door before heading back to the hotel. The restaurant was lovely, and the food, especially the cheese plate, was delicious. We would have liked to visit the Allied Cemetery, and the town of Arnhem, but after the Airborne Museum, the children were in no humor for further historical explorations. You can find more information about the museum here.