“After leaving Amsterdam, we spent the first full day in Nijmegen,” I replied when asked about my recent trip down the Rhine.
My friend responded with a shrug of her shoulders and a quizzical expression.
Not unexpectedly, she, like most Americans, was unfamiliar with this mid-sized city in The Netherlands. It was also unlikely that she knew what happened there during World War II…over eighty years ago. In all honesty, there were significant gaps in my understanding as well. So I decided it was time to do a little more investigating…to put the pieces I had into a usable context.
I have visited Nijmegen, the oldest Roman city in the country, several times in the past sixteen years, always approaching it from the Waal River, a branch of the Rhine. From the river, it is a short walk uphill to the market square. A few of the oldest buildings in the city center, destroyed by war, have been reconstructed alongside modern buildings and streets lined with popular businesses and shops.
The tall steeple of St. Stephens Church was heavily damaged during the war, but one Mother’s Day, I sat in the back and listened to the sparsely attended Sunday service. Of course, the little Dutch I know didn’t help me understand much of what was transpiring, but it was a delight simply to be a member of the congregation.
On another occasion, my rudimentary Dutch language skills enabled me to have a friendly exchange with a young man selling Dutch street foods. We both smiled and were quite proud of ourselves as I successfully ordered a delicious oilebollen, warm and covered in powdered sugar. He, in turn, used his minimal English to complete the transaction. And twice I have found myself near the Roman ruins that sit atop the hill overlooking the river. From this vantage point, there is a magnificent view of the Waal and the bridges that cross it.
Today, there are several bridges from Nijmegen across the Waal, but in September1944, there were just two…a rail bridge and a vital road bridge; both were objectives in the ill-fated military operation known as Market Garden, the subject of the star-studded 1977 movie, A Bridge Too Far, based on the novel by Cornelius Ryan.
I don’t often watch war movies. Following the logistics is usually a challenge, and I find it upsetting to watch death, destruction, sadness, and pain as entertainment. I remember catching bits of this movie, though, some years later when my husband watched it on television. The focus of the film was reaching the final bridge in Arnhem. I remembered the tragic conclusion…but Nijmegen, I’m sorry to say…a challenge on the way to the goal…failed to register. Maybe, it just wasn’t one of the bits I saw. Then again…during the Battle of Nijmegen, there were only two reporters with the 82nd Airborne Division, and they were both busy covering the actions about 10 kilometers away on the Groesbeek Heights. Therefore, the contemporary British and American press did not pay much attention to what was happening in Nijmegen either.
I’ve since learned that Operation Market Garden was one of the most significant Allied operations of the Second World War. The goal was to secure the key bridges over three wide rivers in the Netherlands… the Maas, Waal, and Rhine… to outflank the heavy German defenses and to open a route into the heart of Germany. It was hoped that by controlling the bridges, the Allies could mount a swift advance toward Berlin and end the war before Christmas.
The Nijmegen Railway Bridge, the first bridge crossing the Waal, was built in 1879. An additional road bridge, the Waalbrug…Waal Bridge…was completed in 1939. At the time, it was the longest tied-arch bridge in Europe and was considered a remarkable feat of engineering. Unfortunately, when the Germans invaded The Netherlands in May of 1940, the bridge was demolished by the Dutch themselves to prevent the rapid advance of the Germans. It must have been heartbreaking to destroy this treasure. During the occupation, the Dutch were forced to rebuild the bridge, which reopened in 1943.
The occupation was hard enough, but on February 20th, 1944, due to terrible miscalculations, the Allies dropped bombs intended for the Germans on the city center of Nijmegen, killing almost 800 citizens. After years of suffering, nearly seven months to the day after the bombing disaster, the inhabitants of Nijmegen found themselves at the center of one of the war’s deadliest battles.
It took nearly four days and hundreds of lives…both military and civilian, for the Allies to secure the bridge, putting the daring but tenuous plan critically behind schedule. Finally, on September 20th, twenty-six ill-equipt, collapsible canvas boats were launched in a final attempt to secure the bridge’s northern side. Due to previous delays and the imperative to take the bridge, the crossing was made in broad daylight. The smoke laid down as cover was blown away by the wind, and the men, some using only their rifle butts as oars, were sitting ducks. Of the twenty-six boats launched, sixteen made it across the river, laying phone lines and establishing communications.
Operation Market Garden is considered a colossal failure. The audacious proposal was not well thought-out, and preparations were hurried and lacking. The entire undertaking was doomed to failure from the very beginning. To make matters worse, everything that could possibly go wrong…did. The final objective…reaching and holding the bridge in Arnhem, would prove beyond reach. Given the timing, the weather, and the resources, it was simply a bridge too far. The massive loss of life and equipment made this operation one of the most costly in the war.
However, for the people in Nijmegen, Eindhoven, and the other small villages the allies passed through on the way to Arnhem; this battle was about liberation and freedom. The Dutch celebrated these four days as joyful deliverance and continued to mark September 17th…the day of the Allies’ arrival…for many years.
How does one measure success in war? What is an acceptable cost? How many lost lives are bearable? Who can claim victory when everyone loses? Will the next generation remember the sacrifice? Will it even matter when decades hence they’re drinking beer together after a soccer match?
Brig. General James Gavin : So that's it. We're pulling them out. It was Nijmegen. Lt. Colonel J.O.E. Vandeleur : It was the single road getting to Nijmegen. Lt. General Horrocks : No, it was after Nijmegen. Lt. General Frederick "Boy" Browning : And the fog, in England. Maj. General Stanislaw Sosabowski : Doesn't matter what it was. When one man says to another, "I know what let's do today, let's play the war game."... everybody dies. A Bridge Too Far, 1977, Conclusion of film
Last month as I walked the Waalstraat along the river, I saw nothing to indicate the lives lost during those four days in ’44. Instead, there is life… restaurants, apartments, and even a casino and pancake house line the shore…and the Waal bridge less than 500 yards away…still standing and intact, a silent witness, bravely arching across the water.
In 2013, a new bridge was opened across the Waal…‘De Oversteek Bridge…The Crossing’. The bridge is near the launch site of those canvas boats and is dedicated to the 48 American paratroopers killed in the attempt. The bridge is lined with 48 pairs of streetlights illuminated each evening at sunset, one by one at the pace of a slow march. Each night a veteran makes a silent march across the bridge in step with the lights. Others often join them following one simple rule. The march is done in silence and respect for these 48 among the thousands who gave their lives during this campaign.
If my path once again finds me in Nijmegen, I’m pretty sure I will find a way to join this silent procession.
My pacifistic beliefs are often challenged, and I admit to being very conflicted at times. I hate war…the despair, the loss, and the utter futility…but paradoxically, I also believe we need to support those fighting in Ukraine. I am rather pessimistic that we’ll ever find another way and that war and hate will be a thing of the past, but I find hope in the small everyday acts of kindness, love, compassion, and the quest for understanding as we keep trying to realize a way to peace.