The price of liberty in the Netherlands
In advance of Armistice Day, part two of Ron Smith’s travels in the Netherlands focuses on the stories of those who lived through the war years
Celebrating 75 years of peace and freedom in the Netherlands by following the advance of the Allied troops across the country was a remarkable experience. It is the personal stories that really bring home to you what it was like. Operation Market Garden – the Arnhem bridge battle that the Allies lost – resulted in the “Hunger Winter”, when the Germans removed all food from the Netherlands to send to Germany.
Between 20,000 and 25,000 Dutch people died of starvation over the 1944-45 winter.
As Allied troops retreated, the position was hopeless. At Oosterbeek, troops had to cross a river at night. Parachutes were shredded to create a one-mile white tape. The men had to wrap their boots and move quietly, following the tape to the river then attempt to cross. Many lost their lives. In the village, every single house has an Airborne flag on display, paid for by each householder. The old church, which has Roman stonework, has a bullet hole in the big Bible on the lectern.
There is a large war cemetery at Arnhem/ Oosterbeek, with many Polish graves. While I was there, a bus load of Polish guides and scouts were placing a Polish flag on each grave, with a picture of that particular solider. They were the 7th Scouts, with red berets, named after General Sosabowski, commander of the Polish parachute brigade. They told me they have been coming since 1986 – and explained Poland was still under Russian control then and it was actually illegal to leave the country. Keeping the war alive to young people is essential. Not because of the war, but because of freedom. It is normal but not automatic, it must be appreciated and guarded.
In Oosterbeek, 88-year-old Jan Loos spoke of the war. It started with Germans walking through the town one day, he said; life continued, he went to school as normal. He learned not to draw attention to himself and watch what he said. Then, in 1944, paratroops landed. There was shelling and bombing, and with neighbours, his family took shelter in a cellar. After three days without food, water, toilets, electricity or heat, a German voice shouted to them to come out.
The bridge at Nijmegen, which 48 Americans lost their lives taking. Every single sunset, the 48 street lights on this bridge light up one after the other