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When teacher Wilhelmina Schouten saw Allied paratroopers floating from the sky 50 years ago, she thought they were bringing release from the terror and hunger of Nazi German occupation.

"I thought we were free at last," said Schouten, now 86.She was wrong, and so were the paratroopers taking part in history's biggest airborne assault on Sept. 17 and 18, 1944.

About 6,000 veterans of the Battle of Arnhem and 100,000 other visitors are returning next weekend, including members of the Dutch royal family and Prince Charles, colonel-in-chief of Britain's Parachute Regiment.

"I was on my way back from picking up food from a farm, when I saw the parachutes. It was fantastic. Unbelievable," said Schouten, recalling the fierce hunger wrought by Nazi plundering of Dutch food to feed Germany.

"I didn't realize then that we'd have to wait more than half a year more for liberation," she said.

In a military miscalculation that historians have mulled over and Hollywood has immortalized on film, paratroopers landed near Arnhem, a city of 90,000 people, and tried to capture the Arnhem bridge across the Rhine.

Military strategists hoped Operation Market Garden would end the war by Christmas by providing a springboard for ground forces into Germany's industrial heartland. But it ground to a halt at Arnhem - the bridge too far.

Instead, as described in Cornelius Ryan's book "A Bridge Too Far," the Allied troops found themselves outnumbered and outgunned by German soldiers.

More Allied troops - about 7,500 British, 4,000 Americans and 85 Poles - died in the nine days of Operation Market Garden than in the D-Day landings.

Under the command of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, more than 30,000 soldiers with 4,500 aircraft carrying tanks and artillery pieces tried to capture five bridges and push into Germany.

The attack aimed to force a corridor into Germany by taking the bridges leading northeast through the occupied Netherlands.

The first four bridges were taken by American paratroopers landing near the southern cities of Eindhoven and Nijmegen and by British troops advancing on the ground from liberated Belgium.

But they couldn't cover the 37 miles from Eindhoven in time to help about 13,000 British troops cut off at Arnhem.

There, the 1st British Airborne Division faced overwhelming odds, including a German panzer tank division the Allies didn't know about.

The Germans were defending a crossing recognized as the doorstep to Germany's industrial heartland in the Ruhr valley.

The British were stranded.

In fierce close-quarters combat, the center of Arnhem was nearly leveled as a small band of British paratroopers tried in vain to hold the northern end of the bridge.

Schouten spent that time hiding in the cellar of her school. She remembers hearing the town clock tumble from the blazing spire of Arnhem's largest church.

When 40 British soldiers arrived at the school carrying their wounded, Schouten and her colleagues sheltered and nursed them.

When the battle was over, the Germans took back the town.

Six Dutchmen hiding in the school were later executed by the Germans for sheltering the British troops, said Schouten.

About 800 Dutch people were killed during Operation Market Garden.

"There are so many reasons for the failure at Arnhem," said Adriaan Groeneweg, a trustee at the Airborne Museum in Oos-ter-beek, 31/2 miles southwest of Arnhem.

"The Germans got very fanatical in their defense as the Allies got closer to Germany's borders," said Groeneweg.

For some of the veterans, just being back isn't enough.

A hardy band of British and American former paratroopers have decided to arrive the way they did back then - by parachute.

British vets will re-enact their original landing at Hinkel Heath near Arnhem, while American paratroopers will drop near Eindhoven and Nijmegen.

Half a century after she took shelter from the bloody battle, Schouten will hang out her Dutch flag - an act banned under Nazi occupation - and take time off from gardening to watch the celebration.