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Battle of Arnhem: 75th Anniversary

Volume 666: debated on Monday 14 October 2019

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Rutley.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of those who fought at Arnhem 75 years ago as part of Operation Market Garden, which began on 17 September 1944. Before I go any further, I should say that this debate was due to take place last month, prior to the commemorations, but the proroguing of Parliament meant that it did not go ahead. I would like to thank you, Mr Speaker, for agreeing to grant this debate and for the chance to commemorate this historic milestone.

From 17 to 26 September each year, we remember the anniversary of the battle of Arnhem—nine days of some of the fiercest fighting witnessed in the second world war, and the largest airborne operation ever conducted. Arnhem would indeed prove to be a bridge too far, but the story of those who fought there is one of immeasurable bravery and unspeakable tragedy. It would come to define our airborne forces, forging an enduring legacy.

Buoyed by victories in northern France and Belgium after the D-day landings, Operation Market Garden was a bold plan devised by Field Marshal Montgomery to end the war in 1944. Following its conclusion, he predicted that

“in years to come it will be a great thing for a man to be able to say: ‘I fought at Arnhem’.”

Montgomery was indeed correct, but, of course, not for the reasons he originally envisaged.

As part of the operation, the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions were ordered to secure key bridges and towns in Son, Veghel, Grave and Nijmegen. To the north, the British 1st Airborne Division, supported by the Polish 1st Parachute Brigade and the Glider Pilot Regiment, were tasked with capturing the bridges at Arnhem and Oosterbeek.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I sought his permission to intervene beforehand. While there are some fantastic examples of heroism, does he agree that the role played by the Irish Guards in the battle of Arnhem should be a source of considerable pride, especially for the people of Northern Ireland? Not only did they lead 30 Corps into the battle, but by the time the war had ended in May 1945, they had been awarded 252 gallantry medals, including two Victoria Crosses—heroism above and beyond the call of duty.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman and thank him for his intervention. I have proud and happy memories of serving alongside the Irish Guards. They are a regiment with a long and proud tradition. I seem to remember that they were fond of describing themselves as being at the more relaxed end of the Household Division, but he is right to reference their outstanding service in this and many other campaigns.

Had Operation Market Garden been successful, the allied forces would then have prepared an assault across the Rhine, but a combination of poor planning, lack of intelligence and bad weather contributed to a catastrophe at Arnhem. The human cost of the operation was colossal: more than 1,500 allied troops were killed, while nearly 6,500 were captured. The damage was lasting, and the division would not fight as a collective unit in the war again. Despite German success, casualties on their side were put at 3,300, although some estimates are as high as 8,000. The ambition of ending the war by Christmas was met with failure, and the people of Arnhem would have to wait another seven long and desperate months for liberation.

Arnhem would, however, come to define what it meant to be airborne, and still today it is a story recounted to every fledgling paratrooper in training. The bravery and mettle shown by those who fought against all the odds is the standard to which everyone who served in an airborne unit would subsequently be held. That is because, facing unrelenting assault from German armour and infantry, the allies held firm. The British and Polish paratroopers at Arnhem were outnumbered, increasingly running low on ammunition, food and supplies and cut off from support. Despite the overwhelming adversity, they did not falter. It was a lesson in true solidarity and one from which we can all learn.

The past year has been a poignant one for remembrance in our country. As we have shown on numerous occasions, most notably during the centenary of the Armistice and the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, it is our collective responsibility to honour the dedication and professionalism of those who have served in our armed forces.

This year, the Parachute Regimental Association co-ordinated a series of commemorative events, at which thousands paid their respects. Our nation was privileged that a number of veterans of world war two were in attendance. For many, the 75th anniversary will be the final time that they will gather together. As such, it is important that we cherish these men while we still have the opportunity to do so.

Many of us will have had the privilege of meeting veterans from Operation Market Garden. I am proud to know Tom Hicks, one of my constituents in Barnsley. As a sapper in 1st Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers, Tom was a veteran of operations in north Africa and Sicily. He was dropped in to Arnhem and after nine days’ fighting he was injured, taken prisoner by German forces and spent the rest of the war in a forced labour camp. It was with great pride that our community congratulated Tom on another milestone earlier this year: his 100th birthday. He typifies the very best of our country and our airborne forces. Whatever else is going on—and let us be honest, there is a lot going on—we should never lose sight of the fact that the freedoms we enjoy today are a direct result of the determination that Tom and so many others showed throughout the second world war.

The act of commemorating this battle now, and over the years, is particularly important to me, not least because I had the great honour of serving in the Parachute Regiment. I also hope that in 75 years’ time, we will not only continue to commemorate the sacrifice of those who fell in the second world war, but commemorate the sacrifice made by my friends and comrades in more recent conflicts. As well as reminding us of our past, the act of remembrance is an opportunity to be mindful of the present and to think of those who have fallen in more recent conflicts around the world.

I am reluctant to interrupt my hon. and gallant Friend, who is making an extraordinarily powerful speech. However, I am extremely grateful to him for mentioning the contribution of the Polish forces, which is very often overlooked. Will he join me in placing on the record our appreciation for the absolute gallantry of the Polish forces? Their nation had been invaded and they were not to experience freedom for many years, yet they fought with exemplary courage, shoulder to shoulder with our paratroopers. May I also say that it is an honour to sit on the same Benches as my hon. and gallant Friend, who is a distinguished former member of the regiment?

I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend, who speaks with great eloquence on these matters. I did not expect his intervention. He is absolutely right and I completely agree with him. I do not want to say anything further because I may struggle to get through it, such was the eloquence with which he expressed himself. I am grateful to him for his intervention.

I was reflecting on the fact that commemoration is, of course, about what has gone before, but it is incredibly important that we also think about what is happening today. It is in that spirit that we reflect not just on the heroes of the past and those who have served previously, but on those who serve today. The environment in which our armed forces operate has changed significantly over the years, but it is just as important to champion those who serve today.

While serving with the regiment, I made the pilgrimage —I use that word deliberately—to Arnhem on a number of occasions. I remember standing in front of the graves of those who fell. I felt humbled and inspired by their courage and their service. As was rightly said, they are, in fact, men apart—every man an emperor.

I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for giving way. He is fully aware, as I am, that five Victoria Crosses were awarded at Arnhem: two to members of the Parachute Regiment, one to a Royal Air Force officer, and two to members of my regiment, the South Staffords. A sixth VC got away. Mike Dauncey’s VC was downgraded by Montgomery because he thought that five was enough for a debacle, which the battle had turned out to be strategically—nothing to do with the courage of those involved, but strategically.

I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for making that point. He is absolutely right to make reference to the outstanding courage and valour of those who served; I will do so in a bit more detail myself in just a moment.

I was reflecting on the fact that each year a commemorative service takes place at Oosterbeek cemetery, during which local schoolchildren emerge from the woods to lay flowers on the graves of those fallen allied soldiers. It is, without doubt, one of the most moving scenes that I have ever witnessed; the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up right now as I recall the reverence with which those schoolchildren and the whole Dutch community pay respect to those who lost their lives, to whom they feel a debt of gratitude for their service. That remembrance service has taken place every year since 1945, and of course it took place again this year. Marking the anniversary of Arnhem is an important tradition to our friends in Holland; the reverence that the Dutch have for those who served is truly inspiring and hugely appreciated.

For those not familiar with the story of Arnhem, it may seem incongruous that it is held in such esteem, given that German forces saw the battle as such a major success. But there is a reason why it is the most important date in the calendar for our airborne forces. Arnhem is the moment when they wrote themselves into the pages of history.

As the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned, among many acts of valour five Victoria Crosses were awarded during those nine days of fighting. They were awarded to: Lieutenant John Grayburn, of the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment; Captain Lionel Queripel, of the 10th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment; Lance-Sergeant John Baskeyfield, of the 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment; Major Robert Cain, of the 2nd Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment; and Flight Lieutenant David Lord, of 271 Squadron, Royal Air Force.

One of the most powerful testimonials given following the battle was delivered by General Eisenhower, who, in writing to Major-General Urquhart, the British commander at Arnhem, said:

“In this war there has been no single performance by any unit that has more greatly inspired me or more highly excited my admiration, than the nine days action of your division between 17 and 26 September.”

On the anniversary this year, I thought of Tom Hicks, all his comrades and all those who served on Operation Market Garden and at Arnhem—not celebrating, but commemorating. In doing so, I tried to understand the heroism and tragedy and how they shaped the lives of so many, including myself. We will forever be in their debt.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing us to have this debate this evening.

I start, of course, by congratulating the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate on the famous Battle of Arnhem as we mark its 75th anniversary this year. As a former paratrooper, his passion for this subject is unsurprising. I know he worked tirelessly to champion those heroes in his own constituency who took part in that brutal conflict. None of us can truly know what it must have been like to have been a British airborne soldier dropping into the danger zone amid a hail of anti-aircraft fire, but the hon. and gallant Gentleman is one of the few Members of this House with the experience to offer us a window into that world. For my own part, having once dropped out of an aircraft—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Leo Docherty.)

I can only say that I found the whole experience utterly terrifying and vowed never to repeat it. And that was without a single shot being fired at me.

I doubt that even the most starry-eyed historian would recall the Battle of Arnhem as an unmitigated success. Indeed, it is a curious quirk of British history that we tend to memorialise our defeats as much as our victories, from the charge of the Light Brigade to Dunkirk. But as we have heard, there are strong reasons why Operation Market Garden merits such an important place in our modern history.

First and foremost, Arnhem has become a byword for bravery. An extraordinary 59 decorations were handed out to the men who escaped from the carnage, while, as we have heard, five incredible individuals received the Victoria Cross. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) made the point earlier that maybe it should have been six. Among them was Major Robert Henry Cain, from the Isle of Man, who, on more than one occasion, single-handedly faced down enemy tanks, immobilising one vehicle and forcing others into retreat despite sustaining multiple wounds. But, in a battle where conditions were horrendous, where the food first ran out followed swiftly by the ammunition, all were heroes. We can only imagine what it must have been like for men such as Major Tony Hibbert watching in horror as German tanks roamed

“up and down the street, firing high explosive into the side of the building, to create the gap, and then firing smoke the phosphorus from the smoke shells”

burnt his comrades out of their positions. Yet still allied fighters persevered. In the words of veteran Tom Hicks—a constituent of the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central and, I am very proud to say, a fellow sapper—they

“fought until they had nothing left”.

We are privileged that some of these hardy souls are still with us today. We should cherish them while we can, just as we should continue paying our respects to all the troops on both sides who fell.

Next, Arnhem is remembered because of the boldness of the enterprise. This was the largest airborne operation in history, with some 35,000 troops dropped behind enemy lines. Indeed, it was the biggest military operation on Dutch soil in world war two. Yet its ambition was greater still: to use paratroopers and glider-borne infantry to seize a series of nine river and canal crossings between the Dutch-Belgian border at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem, then to employ allied tanks and troops to secure the great road bridge over the lower Rhine at Arnhem, and from there to drive straight into Germany. That was Field Marshall Montgomery’s plan. Had it worked, Arnhem would have shortened the war.

I am most grateful to my right hon. and gallant Friend. Does he agree that what is even more remarkable is that for many of the units—I include 2nd Battalion South Staffordshire—this came after they had been involved in the invasion of Sicily and Italy? Now they were involved in this tremendous operation. Many of these people had seen action almost continuously for several years.

My hon. Friend makes the very powerful point that for many this was not a one-off operation, but the culmination of what had been an incredibly long and tough war. By the standards of today we can only begin to think about the mental impact on so many of those who had served for such a long period of time. We deal with exactly the same mental health issues today, but I hope we are in a much better position to be able to support our veterans today.

Even though Operation Market Garden proved a “bridge too far”, there is a third reason why it has passed into legend: it earned the UK the admiration of its allies. It set the stage for an unparalleled example of international partnerships as British forces worked hand in glove with their Polish and US counterparts. I absolutely agree with the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) about highlighting the role that the Polish armed forces played in this operation. Even today, as we continue to have a UK battle group as part of the enhanced forward presence in Poland, that relationship continues.

Eisenhower wrote:

“In this war there has been no single performance by any unit that has more greatly inspired me or more highly excited my admiration, than the nine days action of your division between 17 and 26 September”.

The hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central also highlighted the most poignant legacy of the friendships forged during those times. That can be found in the Netherlands, where local “flower children” gather each year, laying bouquets of flowers at more than 1,500 graves at Oosterbeek cemetery. He did not say, however, that in 1969, 25 years after Arnhem, some suggested that the ceremony should be cancelled. So vociferously was the proposal rejected that it continues unabated today.

The hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) will agree with me on this point. Outside the Airborne Museum Hartenstein is probably the most poignant memorial of them all: a stone that thanks the people of Arnhem for their heroism and gallantry in looking after the people who were badly wounded, at great risk to themselves. That memorial was the one that really hit me hard.

My hon. and gallant Friend makes an incredibly important point. Indeed, this is about the contribution of so many who were involved in that operation on that day, both military and civilian, and because of that partnership we see that relationship continue today, as we have highlighted.

Despite the appalling deprivations suffered during that battle and after, the Dutch continue to see those British personnel as their liberators. They still talk in the Netherlands of the “Arnhem spirit”. It is no wonder that in the midst of last month’s commemorations, citizens from across the Netherlands made a pilgrimage to Arnhem and swelled the city centre.

Given the significance of Operation Market Garden, it was only right that the British Army played a prominent part in working with Dutch municipalities to mark the offensive, whether that was at Oosterbeek war cemetery, Ginkel Heath, one of the drop zones used during Operation Market Garden, or at the Airborneplein monument, where the 2nd Parachute Battalion held firm for three days and four nights, isolated and alone, under incessant enemy attack. Among the many highlights was a parachute drop performed in the presence of the Prince of Wales, featuring 1,500 British, Dutch, French, Belgian, German, Italian, Polish and US paratroopers. Among those descending into the drop zone, in tandem with a Red Devil, was Aberdeen’s Sandy Cortmann, just 75 years after his original descent, at a mere 97 years young—a testament to the boundless drive and energy of that remarkable wartime generation.

Yet this was not just an exercise in nostalgia. The descent was also the culmination of Exercise Falcon Leap, hosted by the Royal Netherlands Army, to train NATO airborne forces in planning and executing an airborne operation together. Many of the paratroopers used another country’s equipment and aircraft to earn that nation’s parachute wings. Significantly, the Royal Netherlands Army is part of our Joint Expeditionary Force of like-minded nations. Our historical closeness is strengthened by modern ties, proving in a more dangerous world that Britain will have the skills and the allies that give us the edge over our adversaries.

At Arnhem 70, five years ago, when I had the privilege of doing the job that my right hon. Friend now does better than I ever did, I attended the celebrations on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. I well remember the Oosterbeek remembrance services when, as he says, young children came forward and laid flowers. As he also knows, families bequeath the responsibility for the graves to those who follow them to remember British soldiers. I confess, I welled up. Like the Minister, I have been to many remembrance services, but that was the most unique one I have ever attended. Does he agree that one of the fundamental points about Arnhem is that to this day the Dutch people go out of their way to honour the British and, indeed, the Polish troops who came to liberate them?

My right hon. Friend makes the point more powerfully than I could. He is right that it is those relationships that have been among the enduring benefits of what happened 75 years ago. There is no shame in welling up at these events. Indeed, it is important that we do, as it shows just how much we care and how big an impact those events continue to have on us.

Historians still debate the merits of Market Garden. Monty believed the operation was 90% successful. But even if his is an optimistic take, there is little doubt that the Battle of Arnhem signalled a turning point. It was the Nazis’ last roll of the dice. It drove a wedge into their positions, tied up their supply chains and stopped them counter-attacking. Thereafter they lost every battle they fought against the British, American and Canadian Armies.

Arnhem has rightly become a symbol of British bravery, boldness and partnership. The famous bridge is now named after John Frost, the legendary commander of the 2nd Parachute Battalion. The title of the famous film that told the tale of those events, “A Bridge Too Far”, has passed into the lexicon. Above all, the deeds of the previous generation continue to inspire our present brave forces to even greater heights as they defend our interests across the world. Monty famously said:

“In years to come it will be a great thing for a man to be able to say, ‘I fought at Arnhem’.”

History has proved his spinetingling words correct. But, as those nine days in September retreat further into the annals of history, the responsibility on all of us here today grows—a responsibility to keep telling their stories and to keep the “Arnhem spirit” alive far into the future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.