The roots of this project began back in England more than 40 years ago. Like so many children of my generation I was fascinated by World War Two and devoured all things associated with it. It was the 1977 epic, ‘A Bridge Too Far’ about Arnhem that sparked my imagination and led to this lifelong fascination with the battle.
These men have felt a strong need to share their stories before they die. They had taken part in one of the Second World War’s bloodiest battles and invited me - a virtual stranger - into their homes and told me their fascinating and moving stories. Theirs is a tale not of victory but of defeat; it’s one that starts out with optimism and awe but turns very quickly into a desperately sad and frustrating story of disaster. Even after surviving the battle, many who I spoke to, were then packed into cattle trucks and sent to POW camps. Here they had to endure months of cold, hunger and deprivation until the end of the war in May 1945.
The work has also educated me in many ways. Polish veterans in particular opened my eyes to a side of the war I was ignorant about; the mass deportations by Stalin of the Poles to Gulags in the Soviet Union. After the hunger and brutality of these camps they then travelled thousands of miles south to reach the Allies in Persia; arriving in rags as just skin and bone. Amazingly they were then eager to recover their strength and join the fight to liberate Europe and their homeland. One veteran summed up his experience very well by stating, ‘He had lived a thousands years and wasn’t yet 25’.
The Battle of Arnhem, September 17 - 26, 1944: The bold plan – the largest airborne invasion in history – involved dropping 35,000 paratroopers and glider-borne troops up to 60 miles behind enemy lines in Holland to capture several strategic bridges.
Ten thousand members of the British 1st Airborne Division with support from the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade were to capture and hold the furthest point: the bridge at Arnhem. Because of bad planning, intelligence oversights, stronger than expected resistance, and simple bad luck, the operation that should have ended the war by Christmas quickly turned into one of the war’s most ferocious and bloody battles.
The lightly armed airborne forces held out for over nine days against overwhelming and heavily armed opposition. Their doggedness and bravery earned them a place in British military history. By battle’s end, of the 10,000 who went in only just over 2,400 managed to escape back across the river. The rest were killed, captured or wounded. Five Victoria Crosses were won at Arnhem.