Operation Market-Garden was the biggest airborne operation in World War II. On September 17, 1944, 10,000 paratroopers from the British 1st Airborne Division jumped into drop zones 15 kilometers west of Arnhem, in the Netherlands. Their goal was to capture the bridge over the Rhine, at Arnhem. They were 100 kilometers behind enemy lines.
An armored ground force of British XXX Corps was to link up with them at Arnhem, driving up those 100 kilometers in 2 days. Two other airborne divisions, the American 82nd Airborne and the 101st Airborne, landed 20,000 more paratroopers along that 100-kilometer route to capture vital river and canal crossings on the way to Arnhem. It was a dramatic, exciting plan.
The British 1st Airborne’s drop zones were too far from the Arnhem bridge. Of 10,000 British paratroopers, only a battalion of 600 got to the bridge. They held for 5 days instead of 2, then were wiped out – dead or captured. The remaining British were surrounded at Oosterbeek, and surrendered 3 days later.
By then XXX Corps’ tanks had fought 85 kilometers up to Nijmegen, just 15 kilometers south of Arnhem. But the entire plan was really a bridge too far.
The Arnhem bridge was never captured, and the Allies were left with an 85-kilometer corridor going nowhere. Of the 10,000 paratroopers at Arnhem, 1,500 died and 6,000 surrendered. Field Marshall Montgomery, the overall commander, called the debacle “90% successful”.
Incredible bravery in the field, catastrophic leadership at the top. Tragic proof that efforts don’t count – results do.
The Netherlands was not liberated until the war ended 6 months later.
Sixty-six years later, I stood on the same drop zone that was too far from Arnhem. Ginkel Heath would have been a meadow, except that it was sand. Purple heather grew on it.
I’d spent the afternoon watching one of the best airshows I’ve seen. Now came the best part.
Every young boy of my era knew Spitfires, Mustangs and B-17s. But in my 53 years, I had never seen a real Spitfire before, nor had I ever seen a B-17 in flight.
All my boyhood wishes were about to come true.
Enveloped by the famous snarl of its 12-cylinder in-line Merlin engine, a Supermarine Spitfire streaked over our heads and banked hard, showing off its famous elliptical wings and stabilizer.
A Spitfire! I flew that airplane all through my growing up years, dogfighting desperately with Messerchmitts over England, during the Battle of Britain. There were no computers then, no PC flight simulators. I flew all my missions in my imagination, with my first 1/72 plastic scale models.
The Spit performed several high-speed low altitude passes over the show line, then peeled off to the north.
YEEOOOOOWWW! Another 1,300 horsepower worth of snarling decibels from another Merlin engine shattered the air. P-51 Mustang, probably the most famous American fighter airplane from World War II!
I barely had enough time to pan and shoot a photo before the pilot whipped his mount low behind the trees. Then he was back, loud and fast as ever!
High-decibel awesomeness! In the DVD One Six Right, a former Mustang pilot reminisced about his World War II experiences by saying that nothing even came close to beating the magic of single-seat, single engine flying.
The next act in the airshow was nothing less than my most fervent childhood dream come true. The B-17 Flying Fortress is my piece of the True Cross, the icon of my boyhood flying dreams. I watched precious episodes of “Twelve O’clock High” in the 1960s, and built a 1/48 scale model of this prettiest and most graceful of airplanes, yet one renowned for its immense strength and tolerance for enemy fire.
What struck me at once was how quiet this airplane was. Four Wright Cyclone radial engines with nine cylinders each, and yet the B-17 overflew us with a restrained purr.
Ten crewmen, 12-13 .50 cal machine guns – the B-17 certainly earned its “flying Fortress” tag.
Indeed, many B-17s returned from raids on Germany with engines shot out, wings and tails riddled with damage, and yet flew all the way home to bases in England.
The only real B-17s I’ve seen in my life were the “Thunderbird” in the Galveston, Texas, flying museum, in 1997, and the “Nine-O-Nine” at Moffet Field in California last May. After countless episodes of “Twelve O’clock High”, hundreds of bombing missions in my imagination, and repeated viewing of the movie “Memphis Bell”, I finally saw a B-17 in its natural element – in flight.
I was ready to call this airshow the best I had ever seen. But the final act was to really win me over.
Posted from Prague, September 24, 2010