Operation Market Garden evokes images of the classic film A Bridge Too Far, where paratroopers led by Sean Connery fight a pitched battle against the German hordes, while hoping to be relieved by Allied ground forces advancing all the way from the Belgian border towards Arnhem. In September 1944 the Germans were on the backfoot and retreating. In the north of the Belgian borders, there was a huge gap in the German lines. The door to the Third Reich seemed open. Like water, an army attacks the gaps — the voids — and rather than trying to muscle trough the Siegfried line, Field Marshal Montgomery saw the opportunity to take the path of least resistance to bypass these defensive lines and attack the Rurh area, Germany’s industrial heart.
However a 24-hour pause not only made the allies lose momentum but also gave German commanders the opportunity to reorganize their retreating forces and send them right back to grind the allied advance to a halt. This and some other factors resulted in the what’s now called a magnificent disaster wherein more people lost their lives than during the landings in Normandy.
The week of 17th September 2019, exactly 75 years after the launch of the operation, the commemoration of the paradrops as well as the main thrust, which started from the bridgehead at Joe’s Bridge (Bridge No.9 on the Bocholt-Herentals Canal) in the Belgian city of Lommel to proceed through Eindhoven in the direction of Arnhem, received a lot of media coverage.
Lesser known are the two side flanks departing from Gheel, which is situated West of the city of Lommel and Sint-Huibrechts-Lille, which is situated east of Lommel. The operation launched by the British VIII corps from Sint-Huibrechts-Lille in the north east of Belgium close to the Dutch border was codenamed ‘Operation Hurry On’. Their goal: provide right flank cover for the main thrust to protect them from being attacked by reinforcements from Germany and clearing the area from German activity which could cause further delay of the main thrust. Launched on the night of 18th-19th of September 1944 the operation kicked off with an assault river crossing of the Meuse-Escaut canal by night. The assault was executed by the Royal Ulster Rifles, Lincolnshire regiment and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and was supported by artillery fire as well as a new lighting technique called Monty’s Moonlight or Artificial Moonlight where they cast beams of searchlights against the clouds resulting in the effect of a clear night sky with as the name already mentions moonlight. This was provided by the 474th searchlight division. The pitched battle resulted in many casualties. Eyewitnesses compared the scene with a scene from Dante’s inferno, with mortar fire, tracer fire, flares, the light from burning farm-houses in the distance.
Immediately after the direct area north of the canal was cleared of the German presence, engineers started building bridges to get the 11th armored division across. The signalers started to set up communication lines. They were covered by machine gunners by the 2nd Middlesex regiment.
In the afternoon of the 19th of September 1944 the VIII Corps got orders to cross the canal at the right from the position where the RUR and Lincolns had crossed the canal the night before. The VIII Corps faced more resistance than expected. East Yorkshire’s A-compagnie found themselves in a pitched battle against some German cadet officers who saw this battle as an opportunity to prove themselves worthy. Both compagnies entrenched themselves near the railroad and the following day on 20th of September the village of Achel was liberated by the KOSB and Hamont by the Suffolks.
Reading the books for research you can’t but notice that the operation was massive, involving many regiments including the 2nd Lincolnshire regiment, the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles, the 1st KOSB, the 3rd reconnaissance regiment, 474th searchlight battery; 2nd East Yorkshire, the 1st Suffolk Regiment, the 1st South Lancashire Regiment, the 2nd Middlesex Machine Gun Company, Royal Corps of Signals, Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery and the 11th Armored Division. Amongst the fallen there was also a Canadian CANLOAN officer which was a program where Canadian junior officers could volunteer to serve in the British army.
Similar events took place in Bocholt (B) , Budel (NL), Kaulille (B) Neerpelt (B), the city Lommel (B) where the main thrust was launched from and Bree (B) from where another thrust by the first Belgian Infantry Brigade was launched.
To commemorate these events, which also resulted in the liberation of our area, the historical and heritage groups of the villages of Achel (B), Bocholt (B) , Bree (B), Budel (NL), Kaulille (B) Neerpelt (B), Sint-Huibrechts-Lille (B) and the cities of Hamont (B) and Lommel (B) met monthly over a period of almost a year to set up a program to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the area as well as pay homage to the people who liberated and honor the sacrifices. Additionally a brochure was put together telling the different stories of the different villages and cities. It’s full of interesting facts about the liberation but also about local life.
Each group also had set up their own events starting with a lecture by researcher and author Jack Didden who came to explain the background of Operation Market Garden, the people that played a leading role in the events, Operation Hurry On and some interesting facts on what caused the failure of operation Market Garden.
On Friday 20th of September there were ceremonies in the participating villages and cities at the different monuments honoring the sacrifices of the people that liberated our villages. These events were well attended by representatives of the communities, representatives of the army, war veterans, as well as family members of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for our freedom, schoolchildren, many local people and the people from the various history groups as well as people from a reenactment group. Also present was Gary Weight, battlefield tour guide and author of the book Mettle and Pasture which tells the account of the Lincolnshire regiment during the liberation.
Each ceremony consisted of the representative of the local history group giving a speech followed by a speech by the mayor or other representative of the local community, the last post by a military trumpet player, the reading of the names of the fallen by the school-children and in the case of Sint-Huibrechts-Lille and Achel five rounds of canon fire with a 25-pounder canon provided by a reenactment group representing the field artillery wing of the first Belgian Infantry Brigade better known as Piron Brigade.
The ceremony in Achel was held at the Grevenbroek museum which is located at the Simons house which during the operation functioned as the operational headquarters of General Miles Dempsey himself. Another prominent visitor of the house was no less than commander in chief General Eisenhower who later became president of the United States. This place had a rich history, while some people enjoyed the local beers and cheese others went to have a look at the exhibition the local history groups had set up to show different artifacts and explain what happened in the different villages and cities involved. I had a chance to talk to some of the British people that were present and was told that they could really feel the appreciation and gratitude we had for the people that liberated us and for those that had paid the ultimate price.
The front garden of the museum was turned into an army encampment for the field artillery reenactment people for the duration of the weekend.
The following days other events were organized. In my hometown, Sint-Huibrechts-Lille, there was a walk organized which passed through various locations that were historically connected to the war. Like the place where the river assault across the canal took place, the farms that were burned by the Germans during the operation, the location of the graves some of the fallen soldiers before they were moved to the military graveyard, the house where a local resistance member lived before being betrayed and arrested and some other places. At each of these locations members of the local history group told a story.
Like the day before and the rest of the weekend, it was a nice day, and the area was very tranquil. Nothing that hinted of the chaos that had taken place 75 years prior. Some of the guys that fell casualty during the operation were only 19 years old. Looking around the area it’s hard to imagine lying and waiting for the order to go, carrying canvas Goatley boats first across a stream then right up the steep dyke, all the while under mortar fire from the Germans. As soon as your head gets across the dyke you come in the direct line of the machine gun fire so it was a matter of getting over it as fast as lightning and then making a 6 feet jump into the boat in the canal. The people at the right side of the operation were also under fire from a machine gun which was set up at the bend of the canal. Cross the canal, get out of the boat and engage the enemy!
The following day there was a small exhibition in the old village hall where now the local history group has a small museum.
Nick Engelen is a Belgian martial artist (among other things) who has taken a keen interest in the relationships between the individual martial arts and Boyd’s philosophy of conflict.