Article by C J Harvie Photo Journal Here
As someone who has made a hobby of the study of history, particularly 20th Century European conflict, it had long been a desire of mine to take a pilgrimage vacation to see some of the actual areas I only had the ability to read about. In the fall of 2009, I was fortunate enough to have had such an opportunity.
The 17th of September 2009 marked 65 years since the start of Operation Market Garden, to date the largest airborne operation ever undertaken. The aim of the operation was to land, by parachute and glider some 34,600 Allied troops to secure an overland route through Holland in order to enable an armoured column to pass through and invade the industrial Ruhr region on the Northeast of Germany.
Crucial to this plan was the capture of bridges along the route, perhaps the most critical of all being the bridges spanning the Rhine River at the town of Arnhem, the furthest objective and responsibility assigned to the 1st British Airborne Division. Keeping the Arnhem bridges intact and open would allow the supporting armour to effect an invasion of Germany. Being so far separated from the column’s start point in Belgium meant that the 1st Division would be required to hold their objectives for at least forty-eight hours before relief could be expected. That is, of course, if everything went to plan.
I planned on travelling to the battlefield at Arnhem that September to observe the remembrance ceremonies for the 65th anniversary. I also felt it would be pertinent to contact veterans of this battle to speak with them about their personal experiences all those years ago. I was fortunate enough to be put in touch with Les McCreesh who had been there as an anti-tank gunner and who now lives in retirement with his wife in Oakville, Ontario.
My first idea was to interview a veteran who also planned to attend the ceremonies. Les regretted that such a trip would be a bit much of an undertaking, and I admit to having been disappointed. During our chat it was Joyce who suggested I might travel and observe the memorials on their behalf if I would agree to share my own experiences with them upon my return. Considering the openness and hospitality the McCreesh’s had shown me, it was a small favour to ask.
By the time he jumped into Holland in September 1944, Les was already a veteran of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns. He landed with his Battalion eight miles from their objective bridges, kitted out with rations and ammunition to last the forty-eight hours before their relief was expected to arrive.
Setting off along the river road, the 2nd Bn encountered minor enemy resistance as they moved towards the town. Les’ unit ran into trouble when they reached the embankment on the North end of the bridge, and became involved in a firefight with a German patrol. Two of Les’ platoon mates, Waddilove and Murray were fatally wounded, and he received a shrapnel wound to his right shoulder from an enemy grenade. The fragments are still there to this day.
Fighting through the patrol, Les’ Battalion reached the bridge by nightfall on the 17th, a force of approximately 350 men strong. Due to enemy strengths that had been grossly underestimated, the other two battalions were stopped short, leaving the 2nd Bn to defend a position intended to be held by the entire Brigade, a force three times the size of that assembled at the bridge.
Les and his mate, Arthur Rattray set up their PIAT launcher (a shoulder fired antitank weapon) in a window on the first floor of the Department of Public Works Building in a position overlooking the bridge and its approach road. Their job was to protect Battalion Headquarters (BHQ) in the same building, from enemy vehicles. During the next two nights and three days, right up until their ammunition ran out and the building on fire, not a single German vehicle was successful in crossing the bridge. All this time, Les was performing his duty without the full use of his right arm.
In all the fighting and confusion, I asked Les what stood out most in his memory. Near the end of the battle, the small force surrounded, cut off from support and re-supply, “the shelling was constant. There was a great crash in the ceiling; plaster was everywhere. I looked behind me and there in the floor was an unexploded mortar bomb.” Had it been live, Les would have been blown to bits. With a modest casualness, he describes the event as a “lucky break for me, that one.”
The armour relief that had been expected within the second day had been held up and delayed by enemy action, and while it was trying to break through to the 2nd Bn, time was running out for
the stalwart paratroops at the bridge. Soon after Les’ close call with the dud mortar, with so many of the unit wounded and out of ammo, BHQ was set upon by a Tiger tank. With no way to defend themselves further, the acting commander, Major Digby Tatham-Warter (the Battalion’s Executive Officer who had taken command after Lt. Col John Frost, CO, 2nd Bn was wounded) made the decision to surrender. Les was taken with the other wounded to the local cathedral, St. Eusebius, where he was to begin a harrowing experience as a Prisoner of War. In the last moments of the fight he lost contact with Rattray who was later reported killed in action.
Considering the need for me to be in Arnhem on specific dates, and the few days I was able to take away from my work, this trip would have to be planned with great attention to both time and cost effectiveness. I booked my flight at my local Flight Centre store, knowing that I would be able to get the best price and quick turnaround with Air Transat, which flies several times a week from Toronto’s Pearson Airport to Amsterdam Schipol. On all the previous trips I had taken to the European Continent and the UK, I had always flown Air Transat. The price, service and convenience of this airline had always suited my needs. I booked my hotel stay for the four days I’d be in Holland with the Arnhem branch of the StayOkay, the Netherlands outfit of Hostelling International. The Arnhem location is nestled atop a secluded wooded rise in the north east edge of the city. The accommodation would prove to be sparse, dormitory style and expectations for service should be kept low due to the budget nature of the price. However, even amenities I’d come to find at other StayOkay locations in the Netherlands were lacking. The bar didn’t open until early evening and the kitchen was particularly restricted in the variety of meals it could serve, and a desire to eat at the hostel would require an advanced booking. Knowing this going in, I had planned to take my meals in the city itself, preferably in the area known as the “Old City” a pedestrian district of shops, bars and restaurants found just south of the main rail station and abutted by the Rhine.
I had, upon reflection the easiest trans-Atlantic flight I’d ever had. I love travelling, but I don’t necessarily enjoy long flights. It has mostly to do with the anticipation of reaching my destination and the adventure that lay beyond that can’t allow me to relax and enjoy the journey. This particular flight, I was well looked after by cabin staff, the in-flight entertainment wasn’t abysmal, and for once I was able to get a little sleep on an overnight flight. I got through passport control and baggage claim at Schipol in record time and just missed my train to Arnhem by seconds. Overall, I could have cleared the airport and been on my way west inside of forty- five minutes. As it was, I only had to wait a further half hour for the following train.
A pleasant stillness presided this early Saturday morning, the landscape drifting past my window. There was very little traffic on the motorway and a thin veil of mist clung to the water’s surface
and moved slowly through the grass and trees as the train moved closer to the tiny glass and
concrete metropolis of what is visible of Amsterdam from the train line.
I had to change trains at Utrecht to continue towards Arnhem, and grew a little concerned about that as they had not been announcing the stops. Tired from the long flight, I resolved to be more attentive to my surroundings, should it be that I miss my stop. The maps that I had brought with me, carefully printed and cropped to fit easily in my notebook turned out to be slightly better
than useless. I had, in the weeks prior to leaving, pored over these maps, lovingly staking out points of interest for the various events I planned on attending. The difficulty was that no map I carried with me had a small enough scale to represent the Old City inclusive of street names, which
made the prospect of finding specific addresses nigh on impossible. In fact, it took me several attempts to find my hotel. I had managed to get out there by the directions given on the website, taking a trolley bus from the rail station to a stop just opposite the hospital and attempted to follow
posted road signs to the StayOkay. It turned out that there was a secluded stairway set in the rising contour of the hill, and this made getting to the hotel at the top a little like trying to get into Narnia the hard way. Each of the large steps I would later observe was set in tiny cobble like bricks, each stair worked into a unique pattern from the next. For my efforts at finding the hotel, I was rewarded with much more comprehensive map- a photocopy one which had on one side the city street plan, the opposite side was a good layout of the city centre including the Old City. This made it much easier to reckon getting around. The trade off was that I couldn’t take possession of my bed before three o’clock, something the reservation service had neglected to mention. So, in lieu of getting a nap in, I hopped on a trolley bus back to the city and got a few great shots of St. Eusebius, the church where Les had been taken after the British units at the bridge surrendered. It was undergoing restorative work at the time, and much to my disappointment was covered in scaffolding that obscured the majesty of the recreated tower. Getting around Arnhem and its environs is fantastically easy, and quite cheerful considering the system of trolley buses, wheeled vehicles like any other type of city bus that derive their motive power from overhead electric cables. The routes are easy to understand, the conductors are wonderfully helpful and fares are relatively inexpensive for the amount of travelling that could be had. I grew quite fond of this unique transit system while I was there, and it is something to be seen. Arnhem has the only remaining trolley bus system in Holland.
After returning to the hotel for a quick nap in the afternoon, I showered, dressed and made my
way out towards Oosterbeek, the town just west of Arnhem where the main landings had
occurred. Laid on at the Radhuis (Town Hall) that night was a tattoo, a display of military bands. There was a festival attitude, and large crowds taking in the evening’s entertainment. I didn’t stay too long as I was quite tired so I headed back to Arnhem, alighting near the Old City to change busses, when I went in towards the Korenmarkt, an open square on which a great number of bars were located. The scene was hoaching with currently serving members of the British Airborne, enjoying a night out on the town. I shared a couple of pints with them and began to feel a bit nostalgic for my own days of service in the Canadian Forces. I marvelled at the absolute similarity of the camaraderie and felt a wave of nostalgia hit me, an air of sadness not unlike homesickness.
The lads had done a jump that afternoon, to commemorate their progenitors landing 65 years ago. According to the young lad who spoke with me it was a drop from one thousand feet in excellent conditions, landing on soft ground and no known serious injuries. Les had related to me that his landing in Holland had been quite similar, the best jump he’d ever had, training or operational. It was nice to know that the ground hadn’t changed much. Having the memorial service to get to early the next morning, I bid farewell to the youth and headed off to my hotel.
It was a very nice service, held in the quiet solitude of the last resting place for the fallen of the battle. There was a fair bit of prayers and hymns, both in English and Dutch, and the laying of wreaths by veterans. The most touching moment, though was the presentation of flowers by local children to the gravesites. Schoolchildren have done this every year since the cemetery was dedicated, and will continue to do so in eternium. It was a tremendous crowd and a solemn, cool misty morning. The Airborne museum was being rededicated that afternoon, but I opted to return later in the week when it might not be as busy. During my time at the Airborne Cemetery, I was able to use the research I had undertaken through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to find the resting places of Les’ mates, Cpl. Rattray and Pte. Murray.
I had walked through the Old City that morning prior to heading to the service, ostensibly to get change for the bus. The drivers do give change but I didn’t want to break a €10 note for a €2
ride wind up with a pocket full of shrapnel. I was hoping for a cup of coffee, but it was a Sunday morning with no hope of anything open at 9:30, not even MacDonald’s. The streets were abandoned save for the street sweepers. The Korenmarkt looked a touch ironically, like a war zone with the detritus of last nights bar-goers scattered across the pavement. I wondered if that was the normal fallout from an Arnhem Saturday night, or if a couple hundred thirsty Paras tipped the scales to outrageous proportions.
For being a cool morning, it heated nicely, the earlier mist driving into an increasing humidity. On my way into Arnhem after the service, I settled into a light lunch at Bloopers Cafe. I ordered a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, known locally as a “tosti”, a simple and filling affair to be found at any bar or cafe in the Netherlands. It’s best eaten with a little chilli sauce for dipping. Talking with the barman confirmed that the last night’s revels, and Friday’s besides, were well above the normal volume. I enjoyed a couple of frosty beers in the increasing and unseasonable heat of the early afternoon before heading
back to the hotel to plan the rest of my day. I had been planning on taking myself to an Indian restaurant I had looked up before leaving Canada, but touring around the Old City I failed to find it. It turned out that this particular place had closed down not too long before, but a search of the “Gouden Gidjs” the Netherlands Yellow Pages turned up the Royal Indian Restaurant. Not only did I manage to find it easily enough with the aid of the map the hotel had furnished me with, I had an excellent dinner for what amounted to $28 CDN. It was none too expensive, a prospect quite common when dining out in Holland, but the food was aromatic and flavourful, with the customer given the option of the amount of spice the desired dish is served with. The staff was attentive and friendly, and I tipped above the 15 percent that is usually expected by restaurants in the Netherlands. On my way back to the bus station, by way of wandering without aim, I came across another Indian restaurant, and wondered about the odds of this occurring considering the day before I couldn’t find one.
I was very excited to tour the actual battlefield the next day, and was really hopeful to get some good photos of the bridge itself. Like most of the city, the bridge is no longer the original, but had been rebuilt after the war. It is quite beguiling to be in the Old City and regard all the classical architecture and to be in awe of such age and grace until it’s realised that most of Arnhem was razed during the battle, and all that is actually seen is a faithful recreation of the city as it was. Monday morning found me sitting down to a coffee at “Le Cafe”, another mark of simplicity in Dutch place names. It’s on the eastern edge of
the Old City, where Bovenbeekstraat becomes Beekstraat. It was a gentle morning, a little cool but as it happened, it would warm up as the day went on. Overhead was another clear sky, with no sight of the rain that was promised to come, and just the occasional breeze. Sitting alone with my thoughts, I was reminded of the trolley bus ride I had on the way back to the hotel after
dinner the night before. The conductor was a young woman, the first female trolley driver I had seen. In between the stops for Paulkreugerstraat and Graaf Ottoplein, Jacobkremerstraat is a quite narrow, steep incline. The driver hit the brakes quite hard and seemed to have a little trouble getting going again, with a couple of false starts and rolling back a bit. I admit to having chauvinistic thoughts at that moment. However, she outdid my expectations by running the gauntlet of Jacobkremerstraat at a bewildering speed and gentle negotiations of the street’s slight bends, weaving morning shave close to one set of parked cars to avoid another bunch on the opposite side.
Presently I finished my coffee and made my way down to the bridge. I got some good shots of it from ground level, but it had been my intention to get a photo from the approximate location where Les would have been all those years ago. Some searching led me to the building that now stands where 2nd Batt. HQ had been located. It is marked by a plaque stating the fact quite plainly. From outside, I could easily see that a new building, still under construction would obscure the view of the bridge from the first floor. Determined to see it through, I popped in and asked at reception if my
request was possible. The building, I was told, was a highly secure government office. A picture taken from inside would not be allowed. In a moment, I was crestfallen, my brilliant idea for a photo op dashed. But when it was suggested I could be escorted to the roof to get my pictures, I jumped at the chance. A security officer, Raymond, was dispatched and led me to a key controlled elevator and then to a steep set of steel stairs to the rooftop. The pictures I got were not, perhaps what Les would have seen, but in fact more closely resembled the view Lt. Colonel Frost would have commanded. It was an unforgettable experience. Later that afternoon, I would begin to realise that I was coming down with a cold. I had begun to think about getting a hotel room closer to the train station for my departure date on Thursday, and feeling ill as I was it began to look more and more of an attractive option due to the communal living I had endured thus far. That night turned out to be quite possibly the worst evening I’d had in a very long time. The cold had come on full strength, and was aggravated by the conditions of my room. The room in which I stayed held seven beds, in three sets of bunks and a single rack which lay below the only window. While rather large, this portal could only be opened slightly by a transom section at the top, but this aided little as no breeze seemed to reach it. The lack of outside air, dry heat from the radiator and that generated by bodies in close quarters was unsettling, and made further fetid by the propagation of strong body odours from at least one of the other guests. The snoring of the man closest to me was an annoyance against sleep.
I had arrived back at eleven, and gone to bed just after midnight. Two hours later, after a fitful attempt at sleep, I felt the compulsion to head outside for fresh air. Even though I was becoming quite stuffed up, I could still smell the foul odour of filth and old sweat that clung to the room. During that time outside, I made the decision to find another hotel, no matter the cost. After returning to bed, and perhaps three hours sleep combined, I made my way into town and presented myself at the VVV, the Netherlands tourist bureau. Just as I was crossing the threshold of the office,
there was a terrific bang from across the street. Turning to look, I saw that it had been a trolley bus leaving the covered station losing contact with the overhead wires with one of its conducting poles.
I made a quick and direct inquiry with the agent, telling her I needed the lowest priced single room, which had to be close to the central station. Told there was a vacancy at Hotel Rembrandt, a budget accommodation, I could have a single room without bath for €40 a night, including breakfast. This was more than acceptable as I had resolved in the wee hours of the morning that
I would pay as much as €100.
As I couldn’t take my room until four in the afternoon, I decided, despite how I felt, to press on and get to the Airborne Museum at Oosterbeek. Seeing this outlying suburb of Arnhem just days after the vast crowds had been gathered for the memorial was dichotic. There was nothing going on save for a few elderly pedestrians going about their day and very light motor traffic along the
main road of Utrechtsweg. I alighted from the trolley a few stops beyond the Raadhuis and followed the well posted signs directing me to the museum.
The Airborne museum is established in what had been the Hartenstein Hotel, a family run business that just prior to MARKET GARDEN had been German Field Marshall Model’s headquarters. He’d abandoned it the first day of the attack, certain that he alone was the target of the British Paras landing nearby. General Roy Urquhart, commanding the 1st British Airborne Division established his headquarters here, and it was from Hartenstein that the battle of Arnhem was directed and where the eventual withdrawal was executed. The building itself is mostly a replica of how the hotel looked before the battle nearly destroyed it, fully restored to its former stature of a plain white building which dominates the open grounds surrounding it. A recent addition has given the museum a new entrance, an incongruous frosted glass steel framed extension that’s just as out of place as the Crystal Annex that juts defiantly from the Edwardian majesty of the Royal Ontario Museum.
The displays were few and sparse, though a lot of attention had been put into dioramas and video presentation outlining the details of the battle, and special attention was paid to make aware the cost of the fight in human terms, listing the numbers of wounded, dead, missing and prisoners of not just the British, but Germans and Dutch citizens besides.
Perhaps the most striking exhibit was the “Airborne Experience”, a series of displays in the basement that take the visitor from the hold of a Horsa Glider, to the road march towards Arnhem, and finally to a recreation of a street corner hotly contested in battle. The use of light, sound and at certain points, film to enliven the experience was particularly well done, if not perhaps a little too intense to those who might be sensitive to such attention to realism. There are signs just prior to the entrance warning of this and instructing visitors how to make a quick exit should they be disturbed or overwhelmed. In all, the entire museum took less than an hour to walk through, and I don’t quite feel that the admission price of €8.00 was value for money, unless a large portion of that fee is donated to causes benefitting veterans. In which case, I didn’t pay enough.
The Rembrandt turned out to be all that I could expect. When I was allowed in at four, the hotelier invited me to examine the room and let him know if I found it suitable. I trekked upstairs and into the room, having decided before even seeing it that I would take it. At this point, the room would have had to be on fire for me to refuse, and even then I’d have to think about it. It was basic and sparse, just a single bed, a wardrobe, desk, TV table a couple of chairs and a wash basin. There was a window that opened wide, despite not offering a view and plush carpet throughout. Within minutes I was back downstairs happily paying for two nights stay. I popped out briefly to get some water and juice, returned to my room, turned the television on and promptly fell asleep for three hours.
The next day I completed my itinerary by having a look inside St Eusebius. Very little of the original structure still exists, even the classical tower is no older than 1970. A large piece of stained glass art is hung within the church’s cafe having been placed there when the cathedral it had previously been in was taken down. The scene depicted in the work is the destruction of Jerusalem, and has become synonymous to the destruction of Arnhem, commemorating the civilians killed in the battle. Inside the church itself is a stone memorial into which is set the names of Dutch resistance members who died in concentration camps. There are perhaps a dozen names, many of who were in their early twenties. Just walking through Arnhem one comes across subtle reminders like this, many of which are plaques marking the exact spot where poignant events had taken place; like the one I saw just by chance in a doorway, remembering Dutch citizens who had been summarily executed for aiding the escape of members of a British Reconnaissance squadron. After the visiting the church, I found myself taking a pint in a lovely little pub called Uni Bar, tucked away on a little side street in the Old City. There was a great amount of Airborne memorabilia in the window, so I decided to pay a visit. The bar, according to the owner, Gis Harmsan (who runs the bar with his brother Peter) that the establishment had run some twenty-eight years as a day pub. This means that they normally closed at six in the evening. One time, many years ago, four veterans came by after closing and knocked. The senior M. Harmsan, (Gis and Peter’s father) opened the bar for these four men and with his wife “made a party, with only six people.” Gis told me ‘the next night, ten people came, and twenty more the next. Every September it is like this.” He assures me “this is the Airborne Pub.” The photos and other memorabilia are a great tribute, but Gis was certain to point out to me an original oil painting of the bridge during the battle. I’m not quite certain of its accuracy in depiction, but it’s indicative of the romanticism of the naked desperation of the action at the bridgehead. It was quite a typical small pub on a mid-week midday. There were regulars telling what can only be the same stories told time and again in places like this across the world, a long standing camaraderie of those with no place else to be.
It was a very early start the next morning for me to get the train back to Schipol for my flight home. The train station at Arnhem was nearly abandoned at this predawn hour, and only automated machines were available to dispense tickets, and they did not have the ability to
accept cash payments. Without seeing much of an alternative, I climbed aboard a train without a valid ticked. The hope was that perhaps the honour system would be in effect and I wouldn’t have to try to explain myself.
Ten minutes later I was explaining myself to the conductor. I offered him money at fair value for the ticket, and he advised me to get off the train at Utrecht. It was just as well, as I had to change trains there in any event. A dash around the station with heavy bag in tow revealed more automatic ticket machines, but at least some of these accepted coins, if not bills. The new problem was that I hadn’t enough change to get to the airport. A coffee and a croissant later, a complex interaction with unfamiliar technology, and I was a paying passenger on my way to Schipol. And on that second train, no one requested to inspect my ticket.
What does Arnhem show today that reflects what happened there sixty five years ago? In certain ways, the solemnity of the remembrance of the event is marred by advantages taken by
businesses which revel in the high tourist volume. Less and less are these visitors actual veterans and more increasingly it’s those with Regimental connections, genuine or tenuous as well as hangers on. Les had warned me off about these types, whom he called “cowboys.” Having been in the Army myself, I’m well familiar with the specimen of individual who will falsely claim connection to the military. Those that do so despoil the principles of those that genuinely served.
The town itself is a tiny pocket of Europe, a place full of charm and homeliness. At the same time, its prophetic location over the Rhine has thrust it forever more to be guardian of a
particularly renowned bit of history. This places it, every so often, into the role of a tourist attraction, one that doesn’t best suit its parochial nature. The town has taken great measures to never forget the sacrifice of those that fought here, though I sensed that it’s collectively embarrassed by the attention shown it, and would prefer to live anonymously, as demonstrated by how quickly the place settled into a status quo after the memorial weekend was over.
Here, just as in many thousands of other places, men bled their last in a purchase of emancipation. Even though the operation failed its objective, it gave the people there the hope which had been absent after four years of occupation that their ordeal was almost over. That the devotion of those that died here should be remembered, their courage recorded is the least to be done, and the citizens of Arnhem have done their utmost to maintain that connection with the past. It’s
very easy to become disassociated to history when many tangible features have gone, but the essence is kept alive in the hearts of the people. This becomes more important today as now there are few who remain who have living memory of such a terrible conflict.
For the past five days I’d immersed myself in an area of pastoral quiet, off the usual path of tourist hoopla. I’d attempted to connect to a monumental piece of history, and had found it more alive than plaques or plinths or glass-encased museum displays. It’s in the way a government employee will bend the rules for a stranger so that a veteran will be able to have a special photograph; in the delight of an old lady who remembers the joy of hearing the church bells ring when it was learned the British had come; in the solemnity of a dense crowd moving away from the cemetery grounds, dispersing silently, reflectively into a gently warming Sunday morning; in the dedication of a business owner who decided to keep open after hours to give back by show of courtesy to veterans.
Less visible is what is generally, but should never be taken for granted. The people of Arnhem and by extension the Netherlands live without fear of oppression. Sixty five years may have gone, but they by no means have forgotten and will continue to express the gratitude for their freedom, as we all should in a perpetual act of remembrance from the old to the young.
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