I peddled into Arnhem around 6:30 pm on Saturday evening. I’d made the 60 km or so from Bunnik in about 9 hours, including a few breaks. I was exhausted, but in good spirits overall.
The weather has continued to be hot and humid, but it’s been blustery off and on with occasional rain. This hasn’t been much of a problem so far but was serving notice that things would eventually suck if it continued. Mostly though, the ride to Armhem had been pleasant and pretty, with more well-fertilized Dutch countryside and various distractions. On the way out of Bunnik, as soon as I was sure I wasn’t accidentally heading back to Amsterdam or something, I put on my headphones and listened to Ekova as I rode through the forests outside Austerlitz.
There’s a long national park area there near the battlefield where Napoleon kicked Prussian butt all over the hills, and it was a stunning ride. At one point I was overtaken by, and in fear of my life from, the Dutch equivalent of Boy Scouts (about 30 of the buggers), but they outdistanced the overloaded American and I was left alone again.
Finding my way around is still a little hit and miss. There are bike path signs scattered around, but sometimes they’re missing in the most awkward places. The worst are towns. Invariably going through a town takes three times as long at least as going through open country, because I spend most of my time trying to figure out how to get the hell out of town without heading to Belgium. In one town I made the mistake of following a sign that promised to take me via the national bikepath of central Holland, by which they meant “The Scenic Route.”
45 minutes later I’m toodling along a dirt path in the middle of fucking nowhere, Holland, and I’m getting passed by blue-haired littlie old Dutch people who apparently had already won the Tour De France and were now cooling down with a nice little afternoon jaunt. Since the Scenic Route included no other road signs whatsoever aside from those the promised More Scenery Ahead, I stopped a park ranger (I’m assuming he was a park ranger. He was in a cop-like uniform and driving and official looking jeep. Which might have meant he was Michigan Militia, but I was playing the odds), and asked him how to hell to get to Groaterbekep (or whatever).
He looked at my map, scratched his head. Looked around for a bit. Pointed at the map, drew a line towards Denmark. Scratched his head….
I was beginning to get the picture that this particular park ranger had lost a few too many picnic baskets over the years.
Eventually he confessed, via sign language and three words of English, that he had no idea where
I continued east, eventually finding the town I needed, while drinking copious amounts of water and supplementing my protean diet with occasional flies. It was quite romantic.
As the day wore on I was definitely experiencing some pain. I’d adjusted my backpack the night before (it had been set up for someone Bill’s size) and it was no longer putting all the weight on my lower back, but the left shoulder (the most recently operated on) was still giving me grief. After a couple hours it would start to ache, and the only relief was riding one handed and upright with the left arm in my lap. Not crippling, but not fun either.
I ran into other cyclists occasionally, and the reaction was mixed. Some people looked at me like I was planning to eat their daughter, whether I was or not. Others were really cool. One older Dutch couple, well into their 60s, pretty much paced me for about half the way from Bunnik to Arnhem. I’d stopped them for directions and they took me under their wing, usually getting ahead of me when I’d take a break (I was faster on the straight-aways, but needed more pit time), and then stopping when they reached a fork in the road where the signs weren’t especially clear .
This was unexpected and
About 15 km west-northwest of Oostebeck I came across a war memorial of some sort, dedicated to WWI by the dates, in the middle of an area of sand dunes. The land was very uncharacteristic of Holland, and would have looked like a mudflat if had in fact been flat. The memorial was a piece of rock with some Dutch engraving (I took a picture for later translation). Nearby where a few pieces of concrete that had the look of fortifications, thought there was almost nothing left so it was hard to tell.
Children fly kites there now.
As I approached Arnhem and Oosterbeck I begin to see more memorials of one sort or another to the battle that had happened here in 1944. In September of that year the Allies tried to end the war quickly by dropping paratroops on a series of bridges. If they’d captured the bridges intact, they would have been able to rush regular troops through to the Rhine valley, where most of the German war production was.
The problem is that, first off, it was a reach under the best of circumstances, since it required that lightly armed troops take a total of something like six bridges intact in a couple of days, and then required the regular troops to get to the paratroops fast enough to keep them from getting smashed flat by pissed off Germans. Secondly, the idea became so important to those who came up with it that they ignored critical information, like intelligence data that indicated that the target drop area for the British Paratroops just happened to be where the Germans had parked a couple of hundred tanks and a couple of thousand soldiers while they were resting.
The American units, the 101st and 82nd airborne divisions, went into the south, closest to friendly lines. Both units got hurt, the 82nd more so, but both survived pretty much intact. Thankfully, since the 101st was my grandfather’s unit on my mother’s side.
The British 1st Airborne Division and the Polish independent paratroop brigade went into Arnhem, in the far north of the operational area and about 100km behind enemy lines. Of 10,000 men in the British 1st Division, only 2,000 made it out. The rest died, were captured, or hid amongst the Dutch population. The towns of Arnhem and Oosterbeck were the scene of the fighting. The Poles had fewer men, but suffered just as badly. The Dutch civilians were homeless through the winter.
Wolfeheze is the small village west-northwest of Oosterbeck where the initial British landings happened. There is a memorial here to the brave British and Polish troops who died trying to liberate the area. I stopped in Wolfeheze and then rode my bike to Oosterbeck, where the British 1st Division had walked that first night. It took 10 minutes by bike in broad daylight and with a paved path to follow. At night, with full kit and in the woods…
In Oosterbeck is a memorial put up by the local Dutch to the British airborne in 1946.
300 meters away, at the airborne museum, is this:
“To the people of Gelderland; 50 years ago British and Polish soldiers fought here against overwhelming odds to open the way into Germany and bring the war to an early end. Instead we brought death and destruction for which you have never blamed us. This stone marks our admiration for your great courage, remembering especially the women who tended our wounded. In the long winter that followed your families risked death by hiding soldiers and airmen while members of the resistance helped many to safety. You took us into your homes and treated us as friends. We took you into our hearts. This strong bond will continue long after we are all gone.”
These words are engraved beside the building which served as the command post for the division as it fought and ultimately died here.
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