Home   News   Article

Arnhem and a bridge too far

By Ron Smith

Register for free to read more of the latest local news. It's easy and will only take a moment.

Click here to sign up to our free newsletters!

Travel writer Ron Smith heads for Arnhem in the Netherlands, famous the World War 2 battle immortalised in an epic movie starring Sean Connery, Robert Redford and Gene Hackman. He explores the wartime history and the many other attractions that this city by the Rhine has to offer...


ARNHEM is indelibly marked by the battle in World War 2 to secure the bridge over the lower Rhine. The complete story of this would take more than this article to tell.

Briefly, the Allied armies were advancing from the Normandy beaches towards Germany. The strategy was to push up through Belgium and the Nijmegen and Arnhem areas of the Netherlands to cut off the German army in western Netherlands and rush on to Berlin – to do this, it was essential that important bridges over rivers were captured before they could be destroyed.

On the 17th of September 1944 the largest airborne landing of the war was launched, operation "Market Garden". Unfortunately, at Arnhem a minority of our soldiers arrived at the bridge, others were too far away, and unexpectedly strong German resistance was encountered. Finally, on the 21st of September, our remaining men were out of ammunition and were forced to surrender.

By now, most of central Arnhem was destroyed. The Nazis expelled the population from the city, plundered it and took everything to Germany. As part of the repercussions, the Nazis cut off all food to the Netherlands, around 20,000 Dutch died of starvation, before being finally liberated in early 1945.

The famous "bridge too far" was bombed by the Americans and finally blown up by the retreating Germans. It has been rebuilt and today is the "John Frost Bridge", named after Lieutenant Colonel John Frost who, with his men, actually reached the bridge and fought so bravely to hold it.

There is the Battle of Arnhem Information Centre at the end of the bridge. A more modern bridge here is called "Nelson Mandela Bridge", as they say there; both bridges are named after fighters for freedom.

There are many well documented memorials and trails, such as the "Freedom Trail" to take you to all the sites where fighting took place. In what was a bomb crater, and today is a sunken roundabout, is the Airborne Memorial, a broken pillar, all that is left of the old Provincial Government Building (Arnhem is the capital of the Gelderland Region).

Close to Arnhem, just a dozen minutes away by trolleybus (3 Euros per adult each direction), is the small town of Oosterbeek. This also suffered during the airborne invasion. There is a large stately house, Hartenstein House, which was the headquarters of the Airborne Division during the battle. Today it is the main museum – www.airbornemuseum.nl – with displays of guns and grenades, weapons and uniforms, and startling cameos, like the holes in a wall through which you can see the wounded being tended to in a cellar.

The building is unusual in that there are several underground levels, the lowest being quite remarkable. You are warned that you will enter an area which may be disturbing. You actually walk through a street scene where the fighting is taking place – it is quite unnerving. There is also a shop, tourist information office and is all wheelchair accessible.

Oosterbeek is a pleasant town, all the shops are on one side of the main street, with cycle paths and pavements and a peaceful, clean, efficient air about the place. The people are friendly and helpful, as we found out when we wandered off the street into residential areas. Returning on the trolleybus (they run every 15 minutes) to Arnhem, the cleanliness of the streets and the tidy houses and parks are noticeable.

Arnhem has a new, very attractive and most handy railway station, attached to a building site which, when finished, will include the bus and trolleybus station – integrated transport as we in the UK have forgotten how to do.

This major project, as with so many these days, is over budget and running late, but when completed will be great. To one side is the tourist office, which is very welcoming and efficient. They can provide you with many brochures showing the Freedom Trail, walking and cycling routes and so on. Cycling of course is common and easy with the terrain being almost flat. It is made even easier as there are so many segregated cycle lanes alongside roads.

The town centre is mostly pedestrianised, but that means for cycles as well. For us it is an experience and you have to keep looking out for cyclists whizzing around in seemingly all directions.

There is a lot to see. I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express, a five-minute walk from the railway station, and off the main roads, so it is very quiet, and being quite new is probably the best Holiday Inn Express I have ever seen.

Opposite the front door is a huge remarkable "thing" – I am not sure how to describe it. A massive red aardvark asleep flat on its back, with its large ant eating trunk stuck up into the air. It is very popular with children and there always seemed to be some children running up. This was presented to the town by an artist to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the town zoo – the most visited zoo in the Netherlands, with many imaginative attractions.

Despite having to rebuild everything after the war, the Dutch did not make the common mistake of just rebuilding in concrete towers. The centre is full of streets of small shops – including some international chains – so that it has a human dimension to it.

Arnhem has won the "best shopping centre in the Netherlands" award fives times – and it is easy to see why. It really is a pleasant experience, and I say that as one man who hates shopping.

Arnhem is known for its fashion design expertise, which dates back to the time when it was a prosperous town with a growing middle class who demanded the best of clothes. Today this is apparent in a design college and many fashion shops in the town centre.

One landmark is the tower of the church of St. Eusebius, rebuilt after the war. This large church dominates a square where there is an open air market every Friday and Saturday. The church tower has an electric lift and you can go up and have great views over the town, the river, and the bridges.

The Provincial Government Building that was destroyed in the war was replaced with a modern structure in 1954 and it has a musical clock in the main wall. On the hour doors open, bells ring and figures parade to a Carillion of bells.

Next door is the Sabelspoort, or sand tower, the last of four city gates that were in the old walls. It was first mentioned in 1357 and is believed to have been called "sable" which means sand, relating to the sand bar that used to be outside it, next to the river.

The river is the Lower Rhine, a branch of the Rhine that allowed the citizens of Arnhem to join the Hanseatic League in 1443 as a maritime trading port. It is said that the Rhine didn't always run by the town, but a channel was dug and the river diverted so that it did.

It is difficult to imagine moving the mighty river – but a look at a map shows that it does take a loop towards the town, so maybe it is true. The Dutch certainly know how to tame water; they have to as the majority of the population live below sea level. There is a water museum in the town too, showing how the system of dykes has evolved over the centuries.

The Town Hall is a wonderful building. As everywhere, administration and bureaucracy has grown, and a modern "Lego brick" type building has been discretely added to the back. The original building was constructed by General Maarten Van Rossen, who had such a trouble with the Council, planning permission and so on, that he incorporated three "devils" into the doorway, and it has been known as the "Duivelshuis" (devil's house) ever since. It is where Arnhem people have to go to be married, so they say that to be married is to "go to the devil".

There are many lovely old buildings to come across, like the old Post Office with its glazed bricks and with monkeys (no-one knows why) moulded into the plaster work at each window. There are many merchants' houses with typical beams poking out at the roof level to haul up the goods into the loft – today these are mostly cafes.

Eating out in Arnhem is common and not expensive. In the Cornmarket square (Korenmarkt) I found the "Pinoccio" Italian restaurant where there was as much as I could eat for around £6. Other restaurants are similarly very good value for money. The local specialities are a deep apple pie (very filling) and "Arnhemse Meisjes", or Arnhem Maidens, large oval flat biscuits covered with sugar crystals. I was told that they are called "Arnhem Maidens" because like the girls in Arnhem they are very sweet and much sought after. I couldn't possibly comment.

Arnhem is a very friendly town (although it has a population of just over 150,000 people it feels like a small town). People are friendly – 100% English speaking. I was looking for a particular shop and just turned and asked the first person coming along, a lady with her grand-daughter. She knew the shop, but couldn't remember quite which street it was on, so pulled out her mobile phone and rang her husband – got the information, and insisted on taking me to the corner to make sure I was going in the right direction.

In every shop and restaurant people were the same, and also on the trolley buses where you pay the driver, who made sure that I got off at the right place for the Airborne Museum. Despite receiving a great many visitors every year to the battle sites and museums, it is not "touristy". In fact, I will tell you what Arnhem has NOT got – open top tourist buses, "trains" running round the sites, boat trips, beggars, people sleeping in the streets, tourist shops selling tat, or public toilets! I asked at the tourist office about this and was told that you use the toilets in the shops or museums – which are all of tip top cleanliness.

Arnhem is easy for us to get to. I flew from Inverness with Flybe to Amsterdam, as do KLM, who also fly from Aberdeen several times a day. Schipol airport has the railway station underneath the airport (once again – integrated transport – makes life easier) and trains run to Arnhem direct twice per hour, and also twice per hour changing at Utrecht (across platform – 5 minutes maximum wait), and the price is Euros 16.90 per adult each way. Dutch trains are super – put ours to shame.

As a holiday destination Arnhem is ideal, peaceful, interesting, prices about the same as here or slightly lower, friendly, with lots to see round about the town as well... but that is another story! You will find plenty to interest you apart from the famous "bridge too far".

More information is available from www.regioarnhemnijmegen.nl and www.arnhemexperience.nl. If you are interested in finding out more of the war, see www.liberationroute.com. For this 70th anniversary year, there will be over 200 events in the region, and on September the 16th it is planned that 50 British military vehicles will converge on Arnhem. For more details specifically about the events, go to www.marketgarden70.nl/en

Do you want to respond to this article? If so, click here to submit your thoughts and they may be published in print.

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More