How dirt beat the Allies at the battle of Arnhem

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The Independent Online

For 60 years, Arnhem - the Allies' last major defeat of the Second World War - has been a byword for military over-ambition, poor intelligence, faulty equipment and the courage of the airborne troops.

Immortalised in popular imagination by the film A Bridge Too Far, the battle was depicted as men fighting impossible odds after they were dropped, with radios that would not work, in an area dominated by two German Panzer divisions in September 1944.

But a new study has found another reason for the defeat: the high metallic content of the soil around the little Dutch town. This, not any intrinsic fault with the radios, could have caused them to malfunction, leaving troops and their headquarters unable to communicate. As a result, critical supplies fell into German hands, and of the 35,000 British, American and Polish troops in Operation Market Garden, 17,000 were casualties. Of the 10,000-man British division, 1,500 were killed, 6,500 captured and only 2,000 escaped.

The risky gamble by then General Bernard Montgomery was meant to take and hold five bridges deep in occupied Holland until the British First Army was able to win through and link up to cross the Rhine and sweep into Germany. Many believe that the plan could have finished the war by the end of 1944.

The soil's effect on radios was discovered by chance by a local historical expert, Adrian Groeneweg, who helps to run the museum dedicated to the battle. He said: "We heard about the iron from [Dutch] soldiers who were on exercise near by. When they tried radios in the drop zone it was very unclear and there was lots of static.

"In medieval times, there was a large iron-ore industry in the area and there was a lot of iron in the soil and that got me thinking. We [made] tests using the same type of radios as they had at the time and the interference was so strong they were unable to communicate."

During the battle, desperate British troops resorted to carrier pigeons or lone runners through enemy lines, but without a reliable link to headquarters the battle was lost. During the planning of the operation, the British commander, General "Boy" Browning, is supposed to have uttered the immortal line: "But sir, I think we may be going a bridge too far."