During my recent trip to the Netherlands I couldn’t help but think of my my old friend Syd Davie who was part of the forces that liberated the lowland country in between September 1944 and April 1945.
Syd took part in Operation Market Garden which was launched on Sept. 17, 1994. The objective of the operation was to create a bridgehead over the Rhine River into German territory. “Market” was the airborne part of the operation aimed at seizing several key bridges, while “Garden” referred to the ground attack that would whose the bridges to advance across the Rhine and into Germany.
Syd was a member of the Irish Guards which formed the vanguard of the British Army’s XXX Corps’ advance into the Netherlands and eventual liberation of Eindhoven and Nijmegen. The Corps’ mission was to push through the two Dutch towns using bridges that were to be seized by elements of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and continue on to Arnhem where they were to relive the British 1st Airborne Division.
It took two days for XXX Corps to reach the Waal Bridge in Nijmegen. Unfortunately, that was as far as they got. They never made it past the town due to heavy resistance from the Germans. The liberation of Arnhem would have to wait another six months when the First Canadian Corps took the city during Operation Anger.
Syd never spoke much about the battle for Nijmegen. His unit fought through a series of skirmishes and engagements over the course of four days before they were finally relieved on Sept. 21. The one thing he did tell me is that he was lucky to be part of the ground attack and not the airborne assault which was carried out using gliders which were semi-jokingly referred to as “flying coffins”. They were slow, cumbersome and made out of wood with no armor or armaments.
Operation Market Garden ultimately failed to achieve it’s intended mission of liberating Arnhem and establishing a bridgehead into Germany, but it did succeed in liberating several Dutch towns.
Unfortunately, liberation is not always what it’s cut out to be. After the Allies liberated Nijmegen on Sept. 19, 1944, it became part of the front line and was bombed multiple times over the course of the next five months by the Germans. More than 1,000 residents were killed, 5,000 houses (nearly a quarter of the city) were destroyed and another 13,000 were heavily damaged.
Historians still question why the Allies never evacuated the local population. It’s just a further lesson that it’s always the innocents who suffer the most in war.
Syd was born in 1924 and was already a seasoned 20-year-old veteran by the time he took part in Operation Market Garden.
Personally, I can’t imagine, even for a second, what it would be like to take part in a protracted war like he did, or any armed conflict for that matter. He would often say that it was a great adventure punctuated by moments of fear, heartbreaking loss and unspeakable horror. “You didn’t dwell on the difficult moments, or even think about them for more than a minute. You didn’t have time,” he said.
It wasn’t until the war was over that the demons would sometimes creep into his thoughts and dreams. Even then, he didn’t allow them to prevent him from having a long and fulfilling life. He was the last of his kind and I miss him dearly.