The Taxi Charity organised two trips to the Netherlands during September 2019.
The first was for the annual Airborne Walking March, known as Wandeltocht; the second was to attend various commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem.
Two extraordinary trips, which for all those involved, made it a September to remember. These were our highlights…
Wandeltocht - 73rd Annual Airborne Walking March
Friday 6 September - Memorial Dreyeroord and Replica Horsa Glider
We attended the unveiling of a memorial at the site of the Dreyeroord Hotel, commonly known as the "White House".
Those present included two veterans who fought in the hotel and surrounding grounds during the Battle of Arnhem and engaged in a desperate struggle involving hand-to-hand fighting and bayonets.
Hundreds of British soldiers were buried in the hotel’s grounds, their remains being moved to Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery after the war.
Ron Johnson, Glider Pilot Regiment, and Geoff Roberts, King's Own Scottish Borderers, both spoke to the gathered crowd, which numbered over 100 and included local dignitaries, before the memorial was officially unveiled after a ceremony and wreath laying.
Later that day, in the grounds opposite the Hartenstein Museum, a full-size replica of a Horsa glider was unveiled by former glider pilots Frank Ashleigh and Ron Johnson, who afterwards spoke to the invited guests about their wartime experiences.
Saturday 7 September - Airborne Walking March (Wandeltocht)
The town of Oosterbeek has hosted this commemoration march since 1947 to honour the memory of the airmen of the 1st British Airborne Division, the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade, Allied soldiers and airmen, who gave their lives in the fight for freedom.
Wandeltocht is the largest one day march in the world, attracting around 35,000 participants, who pay a registration fee, the funds of which help Allied soldiers and their dependants participate in the Arnhem commemoration services later in the month.
Our eight WWII veterans were escorted to a private marquee in front of the Hartenstein Airborne Museum where they could view the thousands of marchers as they passed by, many of whom could not resist the opportunity to take photographs of themselves with these heroes and shake their hands.
Many drivers and companions from our group took part in the march including the family of the late Ian Bonner, whose remains were carried by ex-Para Chris Wilmott on his 40-kilometre route, accompanied by Ian’s granddaughter, Tessa. At the final section they were joined by Ian’s daughter, Fiona and other family members. A poignant moment indeed.
Our veterans joined the march by travelling in three taxis along the main streets of Oosterbeek, much to the delight of onlookers lining the route and those walking alongside.
Sunday 8 September - Tetlet Aerodrome, Ian Bonner and Ray Whitwell
Fiona took Ian Bonner’s ashes on a final glider flight in tribute to her father.
Amongst those watching this emotional event was Arnhem veteran Ray Whitwell, 100 years-old, who decided this was an opportune moment for him to once again take to the skies.
After landing and re-joining our group, a beaming Ray exclaimed: "That was fantastic!"
The excitement over, the majority of our group headed back to the hotel. For the Bonner family, however, it was time to say farewell to their beloved Ian.
Within the grounds of the White House, Ron Johnson paid glowing tribute to his fellow glider pilot, after which Ian’s ashes were buried beside those of his dear friend, and fellow Arnhem veteran, Des Page. RIP.
Commemorations and events marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem (Operation Market Garden)
Thursday 19 September - David Lord Memorial, Wolfheze and Arnhem Boys Exhibition
Our group attended the unveiling of a monument in memory of Flight Lieutenant David Lord VC DFC and the crew of RAF Dakota KG 374, who died exactly 75 years ago.
On 19 September 1944, Lord and his crew were attempting to resupply the 1st British Airborne Division, who were fighting for the bridge in Arnhem.
Lord’s Dakota caught fire after being hit by German anti-aircraft guns. Lord had the opportunity to make an emergency landing or bail out, but refused and risked everything in order to drop the urgently needed supplies.
He then ordered his crew to parachute out of the stricken plane before it crashed in a huge ball of fire in the field where we stood. Lord was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Later that day, we attended the official opening of the Arnhem Boys exhibition of photographic portraits and personal interviews with veterans, which were displayed in the grounds of the Hartenstein Airborne Museum.
This was followed by a small ceremony to lay down the Arnhem Veterans Club standard.
Friday 20 September - Talking Bench and Commemorative Evening
Ron Johnson, Ray Whitwell and Geoff Roberts were invited to inaugurate a talking bench at Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery, an initiative of the CWGC.
In the afternoon, veterans attended a reception and commemorative service at Eusebius Church, Arnhem, before being driven in golf buggies, followed by the congregation who walked in a silent march, towards the Airborneplein, known as the "Bearpit", where a commemoration ceremony and wreath laying took place.
Returning to their buggies, the veterans were driven along a route lined by an honour guard, towards the River Rhine for an evening concert of reflection and celebration beside the John Frost Bridge.
Saturday 21 September - Ginkel Heath, Ambassador's Reception and meeting Prince Charles
Veterans were guests of honour at a ceremony on Ginkel Heath and greeted by HRH Prince of Wales and Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands.
This was followed by a parachute display from the Red Devils, though unquestionably the highlight was their tandem jump with 97-year-old Sandy Cortmann, who was just 22-years-old when he last landed here in September 1944.
The many thousands watching, applauded as the Arnhem veteran landed, including Prince Charles, the Parachute Regiment's Colonel-in-Chief.
An impressive mass drop followed with 1,500 volunteers parachuting from several Dakotas.
At an evening reception at the Hartenstein Airborne Museum, hosted by UK Ambassador to the Netherlands, Peter Wilson CMG and the Colonel Commandant of The Parachute Regiment, Lt. Gen. Sir John Lorimer KCB DSO MBE, the veterans were introduced to HRH Prince of Wales. Taxi Charity Vice President Dick Goodwin and I were also honoured to meet HRH, providing us with the opportunity to speak about the work of the Taxi Charity.
Sunday 22 September - Airborne Memorial Service and Dinner with RAF
Many veterans commented that in all the years they had attended the annual Airborne Memorial Service they had never seen such large crowds.
Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery was full an hour before the service began. Many hundreds more lined the outside perimeter area to pay their respects. The total number was estimated to be over 12,000 people.
Arguably, the most moving moment of this astonishing occasion was when hundreds of Dutch children simultaneously placed flowers next to each immaculately tended gravestone.
It was announced that several of the original Flower Children, who participated in the 1945 service, had returned for this 75th anniversary.
The gratitude and respect the Dutch have for our brave veterans has been passed down the generations.
Our veterans will always be remembered here.
And those of us accompanying them are well aware of how incredibly honoured and privileged we are to be in the company of those who fought here 75 years ago.
For our final evening we attended an RAF dinner hosted by Squadron Leader Steve Parlour and Group Captain Mark Smith at the Restaurant Westerbouwing, the grounds of which overlook the Rhine and surrounding battlefield areas.
A fabulous way to end another unforgettable trip.
Special thanks to: Ambassador Peter Wilson, Paul Raison (Secretary of the Parachute Regimental Association), Frans Ammerlaan (Treasurer of the Market Garden Foundation), Roger Beets (Chairman of the Airborne Commemoration Foundation), Monique Hekman (Liaison, MOD, NL), the Wandeltocht Committee and the British Army media team.
Taxi Charity for Military Veterans