The Taxi Charity for Military Veterans would usually be in the Netherlands each September with a group of veterans for the annual Wandeltocht in Oosterbeek, where over 30,000 people walk a selection of routes to remember the Battle of Arnhem, in 1944, when over 1,700 British and Polish soldiers and airmen lost their lives.
This year the Covid restrictions meant the 74th organised Airborne March event for thousands of participants would not be possible, but ex-paratrooper and Taxi Charity supporter, Chris Willmott (59), from Bexley, had a very special reason to want to complete the full 40km walk this year.
Accompanied by Eveline Kroot, a captain, and Anne Haveman, a reservist in the Dutch Army, Chris set off at 7:30am on Saturday 5 September to walk the route carrying the ashes of 7th Para Battalion veteran, Frank Pendergast, who passed away earlier this year and always loved attending Wandeltocht with the Taxi Charity.
Frank and Chris originally met through the Parachute Association and they formed a great friendship. Chris was a regular visitor to Frank’s home and was soon accompanying him on Taxi Charity events throughout the UK and across the continent.
Frank was a 6th Airborne veteran, not an Arnhem veteran, but he loved the Taxi Charity visits to the Netherlands as much as those to France, as it gave him precious time with other veterans and the opportunity to remember the sacrifices so many had made.
After Frank’s funeral, his son David asked Chris if he would carry Frank's ashes on the Wandeltocht before they are interred in Ranville next year.
Eveline and Anne mapped out the route and Frans Ammerlaan from the Dutch Market Garden Foundation, who helps the Taxi Charity to organise its visits to the Netherlands, supported the three walkers with lunch and encouragement on route. They completed the 25 mile walk just before 4:00pm.
Chris Willmott said: “Although the official event had been cancelled, the Dutch anticipated that a few hundred people would still participate in some way, with many walking small sections of the route. It was important to me that I walked the full route and I was delighted when Eveline and Anne said they wanted to join me on this special occasion. This was my fourth Wandeltocht and I fully intend to complete the walk every year until I am no longer able to.”
Dick Goodwin, Taxi Charity vice president, said: “This year has been very difficult for our veterans with all our planned activities to mark the anniversaries of D-Day, VE Day, VJ Day and the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, as well as our annual trip to Worthing, having to be cancelled. Wandeltocht is a much-loved occasion for our veterans and the Dutch hold these WWII veterans in such high regard, and they meet and often stay with the extended families of those they liberated during WWII.”