Hell's Highway

At a time when most of France and Belgium had been liberated, Operation Market Garden (September 17-25, 1944) was to create a 103 km (64 miles) push from the Belgian/Dutch border into enemy occupied territory over 'Highway 69'. After reaching Arnhem, its first objective, the next step would be to create an Allied corridor into the industrial Ruhr area of Germany, avoiding the strongly fortified Siegfried defensive line.

The operation consisted of an airborne component (called 'Market'), undertaken by the First Allied Airborne Army (US, English, and Polish military personnel), and a land operation (called 'Garden') headed by XXX Corps of the British Second Army.

Market's goal aimed to drop airborne forces over multiple drop zones in occupied territory to quickly secure the bridges over key water crossings. In an orchestrated plan, the Garden troops would advance forward from liberated Belgium into the Netherlands at Lommel, help secure the bridges, and thus 'easily' push on towards Arnhem. This combined air and ground offensive was to create a 103 km (64 miles) long corridor for the Allied forces.

The ground operation -headed by XXX Corps of the British Second Army- had to travel along Highway 69. Not a highway according to modern standards. However, for the pre-war era, this was quite an infrastructural project, but some parts where not yet ready when Holland was invaded on 10 May 1940. After the invasion, many parts were provisionally opened and remained in that state when the Allied ground forces rode up north in September 1944.

Highway 69 was in fact the N69 (now A15) that ran from Rotterdam to Nijmegen. In short, the southern part of the Hell's Highway route was formally not even the N69, but an accumulation of local roads.

Picture taken during Market Garden. Clearly visible are the destroyed military vehicles blocking the road and thus the advancement of the XXX Corps. Ironically, a Dutchman easily passes by with his bicycle.

The narrow route north from the Belgian border went along a two-lane road and was at times very exposed. This made the advance of the ground forces slow as they were under constant and murderous fire by the defending forces that were well camouflaged and snuggly dug in.

The six major water obstacles were: the Wilhelmina Canal at Son en Breugel that measured 30 meters (100 feet) wide; the Zuid-Willems Canal at Veghel measuring 20 meters (80 feet); the Maas River at Grave with a full 240 meters (800 feet) and now known as the J.S. Thompson Bridge; the Maas-Waal Canal with 60 meters (200 feet) of length; the Waal River at Nijmegen with a stunning 260 meters (850 feet); and the Nederrijn at Arnhem with 90 meters (300 feet) and now known as the John Frost Bridge.

On their route north, the XXX Corps had to deal with fierce opposition and frequent counterattacks, like the blown up bridge in Son, and the bloody battles in the low hills near Sint Oedenrode and Eerde. It is also noted that further delays were due to the local population holding up the soldiers in celebration. As a result, vital reinforcements could not reach the Arnhem bridge in time and Operation Market Garden failed.

The route taken by the liberators quickly became known as ‘Hell’s Highway’.

XXX Corps Sherman tanks in Valkenswaard, September 17, 1944.