In a particularly beautiful part of the Netherlands, just outside the town of Sint-Oedenrode, a local teenager looked out the window to see American paratroopers drop into the field just outside the family house.
It was September 17th 1944, and Martin (referred to as Opa to his family and so I shall too from hereon) was in the middle of the largest airborne operation ever attempted. An audacious assault meant to bypass the fortifications of the Maginot and Siegfried lines on the French and Belgian borders with Germany. The Netherlands had been under Nazi occupation since May 1940. Had Operation Market Garden succeeded the Dutch would have been liberated earlier, but also victory in Europe day could have been before Christmas 1944.
Martinus Alphonsus van Rooy, now 88, recounts the experience of having World War Two so close at such a pivotal age. “I still don’t like the Germans,” he murmurs reflectively. it was clear by 1944 that the Nazi war machine was slowly collapsing. The initial surprise of Market Garden confused the enemy, so when they came after the paratroopers they thought they were after the British. Even so the SS put Opa’s family against the wall of their house and demanded to know where the “tommies” were. The SS left soon after empty-handed.
The Americans had asked for cans to hang on wires which would rattle and alert them to intruders at night. They had dug in; coming out in the day and disappeared at night. Over the next week Opa and his family were strangely poised, living with World War Two happening out the window. At one point an older SS man came to the house looking for somewhere to sleep. He slept in the kitchen. Opa’s sister took the man’s rifle and wouldn’t give it back.
The German morale was evidently poor, and they were spiritually a spent force. “The Germans didn’t want to go to the Eastern Front. Oh no, they didn’t want to fight the Russians, they were scared [of them].” Opa recalls witnessing gunfights between the Allies and the Nazis, and got as close as to be in real danger when a hand grenade went off nearby. He remembers that the Germans were genuinely surprised, “They thought the British were above where they were.” The Allies had landed over such a wide area in order to create a corridor for ground forces in France to advance through. This did have the effect of surprise, but made the operation vulnerable to counterattack. The German Panzer divisions were able to defeat the operation, but it was to be their last victory of the war.
As the days passed the Operation became more and more futile. It depended on speed and surprise to seize the key roads and bridges forming a corridor from Eindhoven to Arnhem, which the British XXX Corps would use to bypass the fortifications of the Maginot and Sigfried lines (reinforcing the border between Germany, France, and Belgium). This was an audacious attempt to bring the war to a close before Christmas 1944.
Today, Operation Market Garden has disappeared from memory as the events of D-day and the Battle of the Bulge which burn more brightly have taken attention. They were gruelling, and devastating operations, but they were victories, and much more satisfactory stories for Hollywood to tell.
On this ANZAC day, I think it is worthwhile to seek out the lesser known tales from military history, not least because we are steadily losing those that can tell them first hand. Now in his late eighties, the teenage boy from Sint-Oedenrode who saw the flash of guns and felt the shock of a grenade, recalls his experience with a twinkle in his eye.