by Brian Gibb
Around 40 Friends of the Airborne Museum gathered once again in Oosterbeek on the last weekend of June for the 2015 “excursion”. Organised once more by Niall Cherry, the SFAM’s tireless UK representative, his itinerary for this tour was a bit special.
The weekend kicked off with an “advance party” gathering at noon on Friday in front of the Airborne Memorial whence a small fleet of eight cars took the motley crew to the perimeter of the Dutch Army base at Soesterberg. After some minor confusion on map references, we arrived at Gate 10 to be greeted by Lieutenant Geert Jonker, a very affable and informative officer in charge of the Dutch Army War Grave Recovery and Identification Unit. This specialist unit goes to amazing lengths to identify the remains of unknown soldiers, British, American, Canadian, other Allied, German, and civilians still being uncovered even now more than 70 years after the end of World War 2.
This unit is entirely funded by the Dutch Government at considerable cost and they are pledged to continue this support for years to come. The detailed scientific and forensic work undertaken by Geert and his compact team is matched only by their additional detective work as they piece together each clue in order to identify beyond doubt the remains, to return identity to that individual and then to re-connect that individual with their nearest surviving family for whom the memory of their loved one had previously been not only distant but uncertain. Tremendous, precise work and laborious in many ways – as Geert told us, immensely satisfying on completion and humbling with every successful outcome.
A view from inside the pumping station looking towards the Spindler blocking line -the area of A Company 10th Parachute Battalion
The Friends re-assembled in force on Saturday morning with about 50 Dutch and British members. Our tour began at the Leeren Doedel and our guide was Martin Peters, a Dutch expert on the 10th Parachute Battalion. Their action began in the early hours of 19th September, the third day, with an attack against the top end of the German blocking line near the Dreijenseweg in northern Oosterbeek intended to prevent any reinforcements getting through to the bridge some three miles or so away.
Martin Peters explaining the actions of the 10th Parachute Battalion in the woods south of the Amsterdamseweg
Martin led us across the Amsterdamseweg to the Pumping House where A Company led by Captain Lionel Queripel carried out an assault under continuous medium machine gun fire from the blocking line. This lasted five hours or so from 10.00 through to 15.00. At the same time, Sepp Krafft’s SS Training Battalion approached through the woods to the north.
At the pumping station La Cabine
By the trenches of the 10th Parachute Battalion near the Amsterdamseweg
One of the great things about these walks is the presence of so many experts, in this case Niall had arranged for a further friend Marcel Anker who had helped to reinstate a memorial to a water board official from 1944. In September 1944 and for a short time afterwards the site manager was a “local hero” providing work permits for Dutch resistance who would otherwise have been transported to Germany for factory work. He was of course found out in the weeks following the failure of Market Garden when the Germans realised that so many people could not possibly have been employed there. Marcel had saved a commemorative plaque that would otherwise have been lost and will feature by the main entrance to the new building and maintain this link to the battle for the liberation.
Brian Gibb explaining his father's experiences at LZ L on 19th September 1944
We moved south towards the railway embankment to the south side of Landing Zone L where the gliders of the Third Lift arrived as the 10th Battalion withdrew, with Krafft’s men in pursuit. Confusion reigned as the Polish paratroopers emerged into cross fire. Martin led us to the tunnel that runs under the embankment where many of the men from the 156 (who had been attacking the southern end of the blocking line) also joined the growing mass of men and jeeps and pointed out the likely area where Captain Queripel performed a rearguard action which allowed for the maximum number of troops to get through the tunnel. Queripel had been badly wounded during the course of the day’s actions, ultimately he remained behind with a pistol and some hand grenades. He was posthumously awarded the VC. A walk through the woods to the Hollow area and an explanation of the 10th Battalion’s men in the area of the Koude Herberg ended the day. To end Saturday on the Valkenburglaan the UK representative was handed a spent German bullet as a souvenir from one of the expert scavengers in the group.
Emerging from the culvert at Wolfheze
The Friends gathered on Sunday morning by the Kleine Hartenstein to be greeted by the awesome sight of two WW2 US troop carriers and a couple of jeeps warming up to act as our transport for the day. We were briefly introduced to our “pathfinder” for the day, Peter Gijbels, an expert on the 21st Independent Parachute Company and one of the authors of the book Leading the Way to Arnhem.
DZ X with Peter Gijbels
We “mounted up” and Peter led us quickly to our first stopping point on the road alongside Drop Zone X where he explained a little about the Eureka/Rebecca navigation systems that the Pathfinders employed to bring in the vast airborne armadas over the three landing days. Then on to Landing Zone S and onward to the initial (Ommershof) positions that the 21st took up within the developing “perimeter” around the Hartenstein from Wednesday onwards.
Sinderhof Farm DX X
Peter was able to offer us some interesting perspectives on the actions that took place in the “killing ground” to the west of their position which had resulted in some heavy casualties for the attacking Germans. As ever, it would seem that the haze of battle field decisions has been further confused by partisan accounts given after the event.
Peter explaining the role of the Eureka beacon on LZ S
The group then followed the movements of the 21st as they were re-positioned on the Friday to houses around and behind the Schoonoord crossroads with their HQ at the tip of the Pietersbergseweg and the Paasberg. This is where the real cat-and-mouse of close combat was fought to the final hours and Peter was able to vividly bring to account the actions of these men in those desperate few days, both the humour that allowed them to find a rare feast of stewed domestic rabbit and the deep trauma that pushed some men to the limit of personal endurance.
On the Ommershof estate in northern Oosterbeek
Both days were presented with the usual attention to detail and the stories delivered in an easily comprehensible way, underlining the ways in which the many disparate units of men worked together during those eight days to maintain the possibility of a successful operation despite the huge odds they were faced with. And, as usual, a very well-coordinated written guide for us to take home. Full credit to all involved.
Transport on Sunday
From the UK representative
I would like to thank the 40 or so members who took part in the 8th UK and Worldwide Members weekend between 26th and 28th June 2015 and I hope everyone who came enjoyed themselves. I would like to thank also those who took time out to help – notably Lieutenant Geert Jonker who allowing me to book a group into the barracks at Soesterberg to see the unique work of the Dutch Army War Grave Recovery and Identification Unit – I’ve probably used all my favours up with him and will probably not be able to get another group in there for many years. Also for Saturday Marcel Anker, Martin Peters and Brian Gibb for speaking at various locations which had the group spellbound with their passion and depth of knowledge. On Sunday I was able to persuade Peter Gijbels to take us various locations connected with the 21st Independent Company and again I feel we all found out something new. All in all an excellent tour and there was overwhelming agreement to run another in 2017 and 18 people have already expressed an interest in coming. If anyone wants to book a place for 2017 and the suggested itinerary they can contact me for more information.
Thanks again to everyone especially the first timers and I hope they enjoyed themselves!
The UK representative giving the orders for Saturday: blah blah blah.