Battlefield Netherlands by Jonathan Ball

In the autumn of 1944, the Allied forces found themselves advancing on a wide front across the Netherlands. The famous Operation Market Garden, leading to Arnhem, took place but there were many forgotten battles along the eastern corridor of Holland. Find out first hand about our brand new tour, Battlefield Netherlands, from our specialist guide Jonathan Ball.


Operation Blackcock was a large scale methodical mopping up operation. It was not planned to make any deep thrust into the enemy defences or capture large numbers of Prisoners of War. It proceeded from stage to stage almost entirely as planned and was successfully completed with minimum casualties.

That was the official 21st Army Group take on the events of February 1945. Lt-Col Frank Coutts of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers held a slightly different point of view…

I would very much like to meet that staff officer from 21st Army Group sitting in his caravan or chateau outside Brussels with a large whisky and soda on his table. He had the cheek to add ‘with minimal casualties’. What in Heaven’s name is minimal? One mans life is precious and XII Corps suffered over a thousand killed and wounded.

For our BRAND NEW four-day tour, Battlefield Netherlands, we aim to take our guests very much off the beaten track in the Netherlands which to most British minds ends on the banks of the Neder Rijn at Arnhem. On the recent recce, we looked at the Battle for the towns of Overloon and Venray as the Allies pushed eastwards from Nijmegen towards the River Maas and beyond to the borders of the German Reich. First attacked by the US 7th Armored Division, the Americans found Overloon too tough a nut to crack. In 7 days they advanced little more than 2 kilometres suffering 452 casualties and having 35 Tanks destroyed, 13 of them in quick succession in just one day by a solitary German 88mm Anti Tank Gun. Following the withdrawal of the ‘Lucky 7th’ the task of taking Overloon was given to the British in the shape of the veteran 3rd Divisions’ 8th Infantry Brigade. The Battalions involved lead the British assault on D-Day in Normandy landing at 0730 hours on Sword beach and it’s their fortunes we followed. Firstly with the Suffolks on their start line north of Overloon. We looked at the story of Nelson Brown, a Dunkirk veteran and a bit of a character. The night before the attack on Overloon he shaved a swastika in his hair. By the next morning, he was dead. Scythed down by German machine gun fire literally yards from where he emerged from the trees at the beginning of the attack.

Overloon Cemetery
Overloon

We followed the Suffolks to the site of a windmill, destroyed during the fighting on the Oploo road. All around the fire-swept, flat terrain gives the visitor a first-hand impression of what it must have been like on that October day to advance under heavy fire with so little cover. George Rayson, a Suffolks veteran was later to remark of the fighting around the Windmill “It was bad enough on D-Day but this was one of the worst days of my life, why I’m still here today I don’t know”

After the Suffolks, we followed the story of the East Yorkshire Regiment from the perspective of the defending German Paratroopers. In a wood, there is what a colleague of mine described as some of the best-preserved trenches of the Second World War he’d ever seen. Amongst these trees took place bloody, hand to hand combat as the East Yorks battled through to their objective.

Suffolks start line - CWGC Cemetery in Overloon
Suffolks start line – CWGC Cemetery in Overloon

Then it was on to the beautifully maintained CWGC Cemetery in Overloon before lunch and a visit to the superb museum in the town. There’s lots of original battle damaged kit recovered from the Battlefield in there that again illustrates the ferocity of the fighting.

After lunch, we walked in the footsteps of George Eardley. A Sergeant whose actions in destroying 3 German Machine Gun Posts was to culminate in the awarding of the Victoria Cross. After that, we travelled to the crossing of what is today the peaceful Loobeek River. It was no easy objective in 1944 and for good reason did the locals later know the river as the ‘Bloodbeek’.

Loobeek River
Loobeek River

Venray CWGC cemetery visited on the Battlefields Netherlands tour

Later, after paying our respects to the boys in Venray CWGC cemetery who fell liberating the town we moved on to end the day at Ysselsteyn German Cemetery. The only statistic you really need to know here is the number of men buried, 31,598. Everything else pales into insignificance after that.

The following day took us around what was known as the Roer Triangle with Operation Blackcock, arguably one of the most interesting series of battles you’ve probably never heard of?

We started at Brunssum CWGC cemetery with Brigadier Gerald Mole, killed when 700 mines that had been lifted detonated next to his Headquarters. When Mole was buried the British guns fired in salute using live ammunition on carefully selected targets across the border in Germany, an act that Gerald Mole would no doubt of approved of and incidentally our next destination on the tour.

Brunssum CWGC cemetery with Brigadier Gerald Mole

We crossed the border to look at the Battle for Geilenkirchen and in particular the fight for the woods west of the village of Tripsrath. What took place in these woods was described by one senior officer as being akin to scenes from the First World War. The assault was made by 5/Dorsets and the wood with the trenches and dugouts which remain to this day was named in their honour as Dorset Wood.

Following our brief foray into Germany it was back across the border and to the Dutch town of Sittard for lunch. We took time at the towns CWGC cemetery to look at the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross to its youngest recipient of WW2, Fusilier Dennis Donnini, just 19 years old. Think about what you were doing at 19?

After lunch, we moved along the eastern bank of the River Maas to the town of Susteren. A superb and very original German 88mm Anti Tank gun awaited us there plus the scene of the bitter street fight for control of the town.

Leaving Susteren, we headed on to take in the site of another VC action, the only VC of WW2 awarded to a man of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Eric Harden, the Commando Medic. When men from 45 RM Commando were pinned down Eric Harden went out unarmed on at least three separate occasions to bring in the wounded. On that fateful third trip out he was shot and killed. As Derek-Mills Roberts was to write to his widow later, “it’s easier to be brave with a rifle in your hand than a stretcher”.

Eyewitness WW2 Museum visited on the Battlefield Netherlands tour
Eyewitness WW2 Museum

WW2 Museum visited on the Battlefield Netherlands tour

So those are some of the less explored Battlefields of the Netherlands. We finished with a flourish though at the simply staggering Eyewitness WW2 Museum in Beek. It’s a private collection, beautifully presented which tells the story of the war in the Netherlands and doesn’t shy away from some uncomfortable truths from those years of the German occupation.

Jonathan Ball – Specialist Battlefield Guide for Leger Holidays

If you’d like to join us on this tour, click here for more information.

Paul Reed: The Legacy of Passchendaele

This year marks the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele, a name that will be forever synonymous with our knowledge and understanding of the First World War, but more than that it is part of our collective consciousness of the war. When we think of that conflict we imagine endless miles of water-filled shell craters, thick glutinous mud, and everything from men, mules, guns and tanks disappearing into this mud.

All of this happened at Passchendaele; at times the landscape was as dangerous to soldiers as was the enemy shooting at them. Arguably it was the worst battlefield on which British soldiers served between 1914 and 1918; both in terms of the physical conditions and also the terrible scale of the fighting.

Hell Fire Croner 1917

What made Passchendaele such a terrible battle? It is not widely known that the first day of the battle, 31st July 1917, was a success. Most objectives were taken, and the Germans pushed off the high ground at both Pilkem and Bellewaarde. But it was a costly day, too: more than 6,000 British soldiers died at Ypres that day, one of the worst in Flanders during four long years of war.
Success, but at a cost: but another factor came into play that first day: rain. It began to rain that evening and pretty much did not stop raining for a significant period of the rest of the battle. It was the wettest summer in living memory, with huge amounts of rainfall. That in combination with the unparalleled use of artillery by both sides, the shells just destroyed the Flanders landscape.
Trenches, buildings, and the drainage systems all pulverised by warfare on an industrial scale. The water had nowhere to run except into the holes in the ground occupied by soldiers, or into the lunar landscape of shell craters. The mud became glutinous, in places almost liquid; and everything from men to every man-made object disappeared into it.
Shell Smashed Landscape at Passchendaele

Attacks failed, and the bodies of the fallen could not be recovered; with the mud and shell-fire, all trace of them was lost and Passchendaele is a battlefield that has one of the highest levels of soldiers with no known grave, now commemorated on the Menin Gate or Tyne Cot Memorial.
A century later it is easy to think that the mud, and men disappearing forever are one of the many myths of the First World War. But I have witnessed both in my work with archaeologists in Flanders.
On a dig in 2012 I saw how liquid mud, even after minimal rainfall, could drag us down and how the effort of dealing with a mud-filled landscape was almost impossible at times; and we had modern clothing, tools and no-one shooting at us!
A Century Later, Archaeologists Still Bailing Out an Old Trench

Back in 2001 I saw how the work of The Diggers at Boesinghe demonstrated that Flanders is still one large cemetery; and every year since more and more soldier’s remains are found. It will be one of the almost permanent legacies of the Great War at Ypres, along with the Iron Harvest of shells which are still being found by farmers on the old battlefields.
Archaeologists Working in the Mud of Ypres

To understand more of what Passchendaele was and what it means to us a century later you can travel to Flanders with Leger Holidays on several different tours in 2017. Join us for the actual anniversary commemorations at Tyne Cot on 31st July, or take the They Called It Passchendaele tour which looks at both Messines and Passchendaele in some depth.
You can walk the Passchendaele battlefield on Walking Ypres, and see it from ground level in some detail, and in November we commemorate the end of the battle with a special Passchendaele themed Armistice tour.
The Iron Harvest

The war poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote, ‘I died in Hell… They Called it Passchendaele’. A century on we owe to the generation which marched to Flanders in 1917 to understand that Hell and never let it happen again; and that is perhaps the real legacy in an ever changing world.
 
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Paul Reed: Arnhem and Its Forgotten Battles

This month marks the annual commemoration of Operation Market Garden, a battle fought in Holland in September 1944.

And, normally associated in most people’s mind with the Dutch city of Arnhem, where the Airborne forces battled on bravely for nine days until it was clear the ground troops would never reach them, and just over 2,000 out of 10,000 men who were dropped on Arnhem got away over the Lower Rhine, either swimming through the rapid currents or evacuated in assault boats.
But what is the Battle of Arnhem? What is it about this aspect of Operation Market Garden we should remember and are there some forgotten battles of Arnhem during the Second World War?

Veterans at Arnhem70 in 2014
Veterans at Arnhem70 in 2014

Anyone of my generation, born in the 1960s, grew up on a diet of Airfix kits, battle action comics and war movies. One of the defining war films for me was always A Bridge Too Far and I went to see it countless times at our local cinema.
From an Arnhem point of view the focus is on the bridge, the final of the road bridges that need to be reached by the ground troops of XXX Corps to allow Operation Market Garden to be a success.
Arnhem Bridge 1944
Arnhem Bridge in 1944

But, is Arnhem just about the bridge? John Frost and his party of Airborne troops, which defended the bridge, went beyond the call of duty in holding on. But, the bigger battle, and the often forgotten one was that to the west of Arnhem, in Oosterbeek.
Walking round Oosterbeek today, it is a quiet suburb just as it was on the eve of WW2. There are some nice houses and clearly some wealthy people live here.
Go back more than 70 years, and this was the real Arnhem battleground. Bitter hand-to-hand fighting took place in gardens where children play, grenades tore apart front rooms now full of books and music, but you don’t have to look far to find railings bent by shrapnel or bullet nicks in the brickwork.
Battle damaged railings Oosterbeek
Battle damaged railings Oosterbeek

Here, in some respects, was the real Battle of Arnhem: urban warfare in and around the Oosterbeek perimeter, the place where most Arnhem veterans fought and where most of the casualties in the battle occurred.
Walking just beyond the Oosterbeek Perimeter you cross a railway bridge and follow a tree lined road to what many call the Airborne Cemetery.
Airborne graves at Arnhem
Airborne graves at Arnhem

More than 1,700 British and Commonwealth soldiers lie here, in a quiet glade, the majority of them the ‘Airborne carpet’, men of 1st Airborne Division who guard the dropzones for ever more. But, to the rear are other graves, from the final and perhaps most forgotten Battle of Arnhem: the one from April 1945 when Canadians supported by British troops liberated this part of the Netherlands.
This was the moment of victory and among the blood and sacrifice of Arnhem Bridge, it should never be forgotten and no trip to the battlefields here is really complete without following in the footsteps of all those men of Arnhem who passed this way in the last year of the war.
Arnhem Drop Zone
Arnhem Drop Zone

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A battlefields tour and a journey to a 'free Europe'

Paul Prendergast shares his experience of the D-Day Landings in Normandy tour, his second Battlefields tour with Leger.

DAY 1
The first day of our Battlefields tour started with a noon pick up at Pease Pottage service station. It was a smooth journey down to Dover where we had the changeover onto our coach onward to the Battlefields of Normandy. Whilst at Dover I had the chance to have a quick chat with Paul Reed, the Leger Head Battlefields Guide – this man is without a doubt a great Military Historian and his knowledge is boundless. It was a real pleasure to meet him and shake his hand. We arrived in Calais with no problems. On the four-hour drive to the beaches of D-Day the journey was quick and pleasant and Mark and Dave – our drivers – were friendly, smart and willing to help. Our guide for the trip was Bill McQuade. He told us what to expect on each day of the tour. Again, his military knowledge was boundless and he answered any questions with no problems.

DAY 2
We set off at 08.30am to Pegasus Bridge. It was great to actually walk on the bridge – just to think, this was the point that the heroes started to fight to free Europe and get back the freedom to the people of France. We also went to visit the Gondrée Café which was the first place to be liberated in France. I found it quite remarkable that a small band of men risked so much on this bridge. We stopped for lunch at a small café just next to the bridge before going to Sword Beach – Queen’s sector. This is where the British landed. We also stopped to see a statue of a piper who led the soldiers into battle playing – this was at Hermanville which is twinned with Tangmere in West Sussex where a Battle of Brittan RAF squadron was based. We then visited the Juno Sector of the beach which is where the film D–Day was actually made and then went to see a memorial to the 7000 Canadians that landed on the beach, before moving on to the Juno Centre – a fantastic place to look around at pictures and artifacts. I sat in a small cinema with a small group of people from our group and also a group of children from Canada. The film showed actual battlefield dead and casualties, and as we left the cinema I found some of the children crying. I asked if they were OK and one of them told me that it had brought it home to them what really happened. I found it quite touching that children from today realise what these men gave up. We then visited an underground bunker which was in very good condition – it still had the small stove and cots in it. We then went to Mulberry B. We couldn’t see a lot due to the mist on the sea, and can only imagine how it was on 6th June 1944.

DAY 3
Our day began with a very misty drive down to Bloody Omaha, the American sector of the D-Day landings. We started our day at the American War Cemetery at Omaha. I have never visited any other cemeteries apart from the British ones and I didn’t know what to expect. On arrival there were immaculate white headstones as far as the eye could see. Buried in this place are a few people who I would like to mention: Robert A Niland, killed 06/06/44 and Preston Niland, killed 07/06/44 – two brothers killed within a day of each other and on whom the film Saving Private Ryan is based. Also, Theodore Roosevelt Jnr., killed 12/07/44, son of the American President.
Walking around this place bought chills to me and brought home the price that these men paid for my freedom today. Then it was on to the Overlord Museum. This had some fantastic pieces of kit in it to look at close up, ranging from a Panzer Tank to Sherman Tank and personal belongings of British and American soldiers. We then went down onto the actual Omaha Beach. I can’t imagine the mayhem and slaughter the Americans must have gone through on the landing day. I went up a small path which lead to a small German bunker which likely held a machine gun because of the vantage point down on to the beach. We then went to Utah Beach to a fantastic little place where you could have look around and actually see what happened on the day. My favourite part of Utah Beach was when I found a few German bunkers that you could actually go into. We then stopped at a statue of Dick Winters – he was one of the Band of Brothers. We stopped at a tribute to the 101 Airborne Division, otherwise known as Easy Company, made famous by a TV series by Stephen Spielberg.
Unknown Soldier Headstone
The last trip of the day was to a German War Cemetery. I didn’t know how I would feel about this because I’ve never visited one before. It contained about 8000 soldiers of all ranks. What was also shown to me by our guide was the grave of Michael Wittmann and his tank crew. He was one of the most daring commanders of his time and he died and was buried with his crew. I walked around the cemetery and noticed no headstone standing upright and the lack of flowers on any graves. I asked Bill, our guide, why this was. He said it was that a ‘Spirit of the Forest’ approach is taken to death in Germany, hence the lack of flowers – only firs and ferns on some graves. In the British cemeteries, any soldier that is not known and buried is marked with the words ‘Known But To God’. Here nothing. All it said was Ein Deutscher Soldat – A German Soldier. I found it simple but quite touching. A very thought-provoking end to the day.

German Grave


Day 4
We set off on another misty day to visit Jerusalem Cemetery, a very small place with only 48 buried at the cemetery. I found a grave of J Banks DLI who died on the 21st July 1914 aged just 16. How can a child die like that because he wanted to do the right thing for King and Country? We stopped to take some photographs of a memorial to the 49th West Riding Division and then onto the Scottish Corridor and Hill 112 to look at a Cromwell tank. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see much from the top of the hill due to the mist. We stopped off in a town called Falaise for lunch – this town is famous for being the town where William the Conqueror was conceived – before going to Mont Ormel, known as The Polish Battlefield. We also went to a small but fantastic museum which had great artifacts and also a fantastic view of where the German retreat took place. The group’s last stop was at a National French monument which is a tiger tank abandoned by its crew. We had a group photo taken by Bill.
The thoughts on my first Leger WW2 trip? Simply fantastic. Our guide, Bill McQuade’s knowledge was amazing and all our questions were answered. His passion for his subject is simply wonderful. Our drivers, Mark and Dave were safe drivers, always helpful and well turned out. With the 70th anniversary of D-Day fast approaching, I would recommend this trip without a doubt.
This was my second trip with Leger in under six months – my first was All Quiet on the Western Front – and I’ve enjoyed them both. Which one next? Verdun? Fritz? Tommy? Who knows, but whichever one I book, I know it will be great.