I hate inauspicious starts to my journeys. I had a plan, head to Arnhem in Holland for the 70th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, before a 10 hour drive back home to west France.
No more than three minutes from my daughters house, and I’ve got a puncture. It’s dark, all the local tyre places are closed till the morning, only option is to put the run flat on, and head to Dover for the ferry.
Up early, I wanted to find a tyre place before getting on the ferry, but no doing, so off to Arnhem I was, with the run flat. Or so I thought. Coming through Dover customs, I got the dreaded rubber glove treatment. Well, not quite but pretty much. Car emptied, carpets out, you name it, it happened.
As soon as I got on board though, I could sense that things were going to be ok. I was just a single speck of maroon in an entire airborne sea, all heading to pay homage to the fallen of 70 years ago.
Three hours later and I arrive at the hotel. Check in, shower, change and a taxi into Arnhem centre. On the way in I saw this:
It may have taken place 70 years previously, but the people of Arnhem really still do understand and appreciate the efforts and sacrifices of the British forces in their town. 9000 men went in, less than 2000 came out, a staggering statistic.
The aim of the trip was to pay homage, but the secondary goal was to see friends, and share a quiet beer or 27. This was duly done, friends I’ve not seen in years, including those who have since left British shores to live elsewhere. Old friendships renewed, new friends were made and 27 appears to have been a very very poor underestimation on my part.
A trip to the Oosterbeck cemetery on Saturday put the whole visit into perspective. This is why I was here, the beer was great, the friends were superb, but these row upon row of impossibly smart and tidy gravestones, including two brothers, with their army number just one apart, together in death as they were in life, deserve, in fact demand, to be walked through, with a tear or two falling.
I have always been convinced, having visited Arnhem many times, that the education of what happened here is continued, and nothing, absolutely nothing proves this more than seeing the local school children stood in front of the graves on the Sunday morning service. Its one of the most moving things i’ve ever seen, and leaves tough gnarly old ex paras with itchy and leaky eyes.
The memorial is festooned in poppies and maroon decorations on the Sunday, and seeing the veterans marching in, being absolutely venerated by the inhabitants of all ages of this wonderful Dutch city shows once again just how much they still “get” what happened here. My personal highlight was seeing a British veteran talking to two young French soldiers, with the two listening to his tales with mouths totally agog.
Ultimately, whether Market Garden was a success or a failure still remains a hot debate between military historians. I’m not really sure myself but what I do know is that as long as the people of Arnhem continue to revere those that came all those years ago, I shall continue to go, as often as I can, to pay my respects and enjoy the joint camaraderie that holds dear between British Paras and the citizens of this small town in Gelderland.
To the people of Arnhem, thank you for continuing to hold dear the memory, you’ll never truly know how much its appreciated.