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A Bridge Too Far 

Swindon's connection to the attempted liberation of Arnhem in September 1944
 
Most people these days know it as A Bridge Too Far, after the star-studded 1977 movie that dramatised it.

Grave of Cliff Wilson, Arnhem hero from Swindon
Fallen hero:
the Arnhem grave of Clifford Wilson,
who lived in Rodbourne
But the Allies’ attempt to liberate strategic parts of north-east Holland, which began on September 17, 1944, had a name that has gone down in military history: Operation Market Garden.

More than 70 years on, few people realise that Market Garden was two linked operations – Market being the airborne invasion and Garden the name given to the ground offensive to support the bridgeheads established by Market.

The Swindon area had a key role to play in Market, and soldiers from Swindon took a key role in Garden.

The overall objective of Market Garden was to shorten the course of the Second World War by backing up the huge advances made in the three months since D-Day and the liberation of Normandy with a second offensive that hit the Nazis much closer to home.

By parachuting in behind enemy lines and establishing a foothold in Holland at Grave Nijmegen and Arnhem, close to the German border, the Allies hoped to have a base from which they could strike at the industrial heartland of the Ruhr.

This would have proved a crushing blow that may have hastened the end of the war by several months.

Market was – and still is – the biggest airborne invasion ever mounted, and it began on Swindon’s doorstep.
 
RAF Blakehill Farm, Cricklade

The airfield at Blakehill Farm, Cricklade, which had already been a key location for launching gliders in the build-up to D-Day in June 1944, was again at the centre of the action, along with the Gloucestershire airfields of Down Ampney and Broadwell.

Only opened in February 1944, Blakehill had three Tarmac runways, and on the afternoon of September 17, the operation got underway with Squadron 233, as well as a newly arrived unit of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

In all, more than 600 gliders were despatched, their destinations being four landing zones close to Arnhem. But not close enough. No suitable sites could be found less than six miles from the town and its strategic bridge, and this distance ultimately proved fatal.
 
 
The Parachute Regiment somehow managed to capture the key bridge at Arnhem, despite getting little of the immediate support anticipated from other units, and they were able to hold it for a remarkable four days.

By then they should have been relieved by heading north east from the area around Nijmegen, but it never came.

By chance, two German Panzer units were in the area and were able to put up a ferocious defence, and bad weather didn’t help the Allies’ cause, either – as if the odds weren’t already against them.

Corps commander Lt Gen Brian Horrocks later recalled, in his memoirs, that “with its dykes, high embankments carrying the roads and deep ditches on either side, it was most unsuitable for armoured warfare… I pinned my hopes on the 43rd Infantry Division, which had been ordered up from the rear.”

This was the Wessex Division that was mostly made up of county infantry regiments from the West Country – including the Wiltshire Regiment, which had already distinguished itself in Normandy.
 
A bridge too far:
Arnhem today, more than six decades after it became the focus of action in the Second World War
 
Men from Swindon also fought in other units, and as well as many graves of members of the Wiltshire Regiment. On a stroll around the military cemetery just outside Arnhem, visitors can also discover the last resting place of other heroes, such as Private Arthur Gibson, of the Green Howards (Yorkshire Regiment) and Clifford Wilson, who lived in Rodbourne, Swindon, and was a member of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

Neither they nor the Wessex Division could make headway in what soon began to look like a hopeless situation.

By the morning of September 25, after eight days of bitter and sometimes desperate fighting, a withdrawal was ordered.

Even then, the battle was not over for many of the Wiltshires or their colleagues, who faced a difficult re-crossing of the rivers to safety, and this accounted for many of those who had not already been killed.

Many were killed in the retreat and even the lucky ones who were captured faced a battle against starvation as prisoners of war.

In all, of the 8,905 airborne troops and over 1,100 glider pilots who took part, only 2,163 were rescued.

The ultimate failure of Operation Market Garden – it really did prove to be one bridge too far - makes it no less glorious than any other campaign of the war, and, indeed, the name of Arnhem will always be more readily associated with heroism in the face of terrible odds.

It means the role of Blakehill Farm and those members of the Wiltshire Regiment who took part in Operation Market Garden provides Swindon with one of the proudest chapters in its history.
 
Final resting place:
the military cemetery outside Arnhem

Swindon man's grave:
Arthur Gibson lies among colleagues at Arnhem

Fit for heroes:
Clifford Wilson's grave at Arnhem
Family man:
a poignant reminder of those who were left behind,
on Clifford Wilson's grave
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