Battle of Arnhem veterans return to Netherlands for 75th anniversary commemorations

British Second World War veterans have returned to former battlegrounds in the Netherlands to mark the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden.

The controversial allied initiative in September 1944, which saw some of the war’s bloodiest fighting, claimed the lives of more than 1,500 British soldiers and saw nearly 6,500 captured.

About 35,000 British, American and Polish troops were dropped behind enemy lines in a bid to capture eight bridges on the Dutch and German border and open up an attack route for allied forces.

A host of commemorative events are being held this week in and around the city of Arnhem, the site of prolonged fighting which was depicted in the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far.

On Thursday afternoon, British veterans gathered at the city’s Hartenstein Airborne Museum where a photography exhibition is sharing the faces and stories of the last survivors of the Battle of Arnhem.

In a short ceremony, a military standard was handed to emotional museum staff who paid tribute to the small group of veterans present.

Veteran Raymond Whitwell, from Malton, North Yorkshire, was just 25-years-old when he landed by glider into fighting in the Netherlands.

Now aged 100, he recalled the moments before going into battle: “I said to myself on the way out, what on earth am I doing here? But when you’re there your training takes over.

“I was on the perimeter and we were told not to let any Germans pass and we didn’t.”

The planned two day mission extended into nine, as Mr Whitwell and his colleagues battled to survive without food and sourced drinking water from a well.

“It was horrible at the start, we were hoping for the rest of the English soldiers to come and relieve us,” he said.

“We were promised every day they will be here tomorrow but they never came.”

Mr Whitwell, who started his service in 1939, was eventually able to get to safety by crossing the river Rhine by boat at night, but felt disappointed the British failed to secure the Arnhem bridge.

The veteran, who also fought in France, Italy and Africa, said: “I think I’m lucky, people tell me somebody was looking after me.”

He praised the commemorative efforts in the Netherlands, adding: “The Dutch people are really very, very nice, it’s wonderful to be back… to be able to come back and see the Dutch residents.”

  • Number of paratroopers who will jump out over one of the drop zones allied soldiers parachuted on to 75 years ago

Elsewhere on Thursday, the southern Dutch town of Brunssum bestowed unique honorary citizenship on 328 British soldiers buried in its war cemetery in recognition of their sacrifice to help liberate the Netherlands.

Early on Friday morning, flowers are due to be laid at a memorial at the Hartenstein museum.

Later in the day, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will launch its Voices of Liberation sound installation at the Oosterbeek War Cemetery where the public can listen to stories from the Second World War.

The CWGC maintains 23,000 memorial and cemetery sites around the world, helping to commemorate 1.7 million Commonwealth war dead.

Veterans are also due to be present for the planned internment of the ashes of two former soldiers at the cemetery.

On Friday evening, Arnhem city centre will be the focal point for a night of commemoration.

A wreath laying service, led by the city’s mayor, will be held at the Airborneplein monument, just north of the Arnhem bridge that allied soldiers fought hard to conquer during the war.

The bridge was destroyed in a bombing raid in October 1944, but rebuilt and named John Frostburg in honour of Lieutenant Colonel John Frost, commanding officer of the 2nd Parachute Battalion who held an isolated position on the bridge for four days during Operation Market Garden.

The memorial service will be followed by the Bridge to Liberation Experience, a public musical and visual show, that will use the bridge as a backdrop to tell the story of the battle.

On Saturday, 1,500 paratroopers from different nations will jump out over one of the drop zones allied soldiers parachuted on to 75 years ago.