The experiences of a Nijmegen host family
By Jaap Been
I had the idea before, to write down my experiences of the 50th anniversary. I had enough material for a book and although English is not my native language but that was not the problem either. My problem was that publishing the story would put some people in a favourable light, including myself, and this certainly was not my intention. But not recording would mean telling the stories over and over again and not knowing to whom the stories were told. One day I sat in the bus next to Len Hill. We had a nice chat about old maps of the area which he, as a despatch-rider during the war, still possessed. I told Len about my intention to write and he convinced me to do it. So here I go as there is no second 50th anniversary of “Operation Market-Garden”.
For us the preparations for the 50th anniversary of Operation Market-Garden started a long time ago, in fact at the AGM at Bognor Regis in March 1993. Dennis Sear asked me to take his poem to Holland. This of course was no problem as there was enough room in the bus for the framed poem. Afterwards I had the poem reframed and I made a Dutch translation.
One of the projects I committed myself too was a photo album concerning 5 years of Market-Garden reunions. I collected about 80 of my most beautiful photos and provided them with dates and text. Unfortunately the programme of the 50th Anniversary was too rushed and too split up to show it.
In June I received a request from Bert Viggars of Chelford, for a possible visit to Megen where he was billeted during the war. We had visited the place last year but as Bert’s wife Vlo was ill that time, he wanted to visit the place again, to show Vlo the Monastery and the steps in front of the Gymnasium where he was on guard in 1944. To arrange a visit in September I contacted brother Otho of the Fransician Monastery at Megen. Brother Otho however, had moved to another Monastery but he gave me the address of an elderly inhabitant of Megen, Henk van Gisteren, an artist who also used to live in Megen during the war. Henk’s enthusiasm was inexhaustible. I had told him about a ten year old girl who gave Bert a cross and medallion while he was on guard on the steps of the gymnasium and Henk spent a tremendous amount of time trying to trace her. In the end it was a pity to hear that he did not succeed in finding her. But Henk managed something else instead, he managed a reception by the local band and a word of welcome by an alderman, a secret we carefully cherished all the time.
Another visit we planned was the one to Ravenstein where Dennis Sear was billeted during the war. We also had visited the place before and the English speaking sister, sister Antoinette Moerkerken, with pleasure wanted to meet Dennis again although she also was moved to another Monastery in the mean time.
In June one of our local newspapers reported the visit of Lieutenant Brownlee from 82nd Airborne Division to a strategic hill near Plasmolen where he lost many of his men. Many of them are registered as MIA. The paper also contained a photo which was taken next to an old concrete water-tank. According to Lieutenant Brownlee the place has not changed since the war. Furthermore the article reported that they also had found the remains of an old mill which was shot to pieces during the fierce fight on the hill. A week later I passed the place with a friend during a training march for the Nijmegen four-day marches. The road we passed was called the “Molenweg” (Mill road). So I told my friend about the article in the newspaper and we had a quick look at the place. We easily found it, although it was carefully hidden in the wood. After our visit we returned to the Molenweg again and it was there where we found some old bones, possibly human, probably from one of the soldiers of the 505 PIR, one of the regiments of the 82nd Airborne Division. A week later we returned to the place and we brought back some bones. I am still waiting for the police to show them the bones and the place where I found them.
Not always did things go smoothly and without effort. However, the insertion of an article I wrote in the past about Monty’s old radio in our national Philips magazine was one of these exceptions. A copy of the article and a note in which I told the editors to use the article now or never was enough to trigger them. Within a few days I was interviewed and photos were made. The story about Monty’s old radio tells about one of the first transistor radios, which was specially made for Fieldmarshall Montgomery, and was presented to him at Philips Nijmegen during an inspection journey through different European countries in 1956.
In August of this year the Kent MGVA branch organized the re-dedication of the MGVA branch standard and Nijmegen host families were invited to come over to attend the parade and ceremony. My brother-in-law and I were very well looked after by the family of Dennis Sear who live near Canterbury. A tense moment for me was Dennis’ old photo album, which only was found again a few months ago, after more than 25 years. Dennis had told me that it even contained photos of Malden, the place where we live. He lent me the album and back in Holland I showed it to an elderly citizen of Malden who even recognized one of the people on the Heumen lock bridge. I also showed the album to the local Photo club. It was a big surprise as they had once asked for war photos of Malden in a local paper for an exhibition, not many photos had turned up so they asked for permission to make copies for the exhibition. The exhibition would be opened by our burgomaster and we were invited to be present with Dennis at the opening on 17th September.
At the beginning of September David Dobson phoned me and asked me to arrange 10 large photos of Dennis’ poem. The presentation of the poem to the burgomaster of Nijmegen at the St.Stevens church was altered and now would take place at the Nijmegen town-hall on Thursday afternoon 15th September. The 10 photos were intended for burgomasters of surrounding municipalities. The photos were ready just in time.
A further shock to our nerves came after a phone call from a big commercial TV station, RTL (Radio Television Luxembourg), a station which covers Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland. Our address was forwarded by Margreet Jansen Reinen, the PR officer of Nijmegen. RTL wanted to film a Veteran and a host family with young children. Filming was planned on Friday 16th September. We were given a day to decide, a time we did not need. We were very honoured with the invitation and accepted with pleasure, although we were aware of the additional bother. In the mean time the busy programme of the 50th anniversary of Market-Garden became known and I and my wife Maud more and more became worried about the transport. We had invited both Dennis Sear and Bert Barlow with their wives and also wanted to visit Megen with Bert Viggars and his wife. My colleague at work, Peter Taylor who’s father is a Veteran too, came up with a solution. He said: “Jaap, why don’t you try to arrange one of these Philips buses which are used for the transport of shift workers”. So, I went to the PR officer and asked him if he wanted me to do some Philips promotion. To make a long story short, he liked my idea but our plant manager rejected it. They already did enough Market-Garden sponsoring. But, I did not give up and asked for an interview with our plant manager. He found some spare minutes and I told him my story. He came up with a sermon and I abominated my big mouth. “Jaap” he said, “it is very noble of you to be a host family and to help Veterans but, don’t ask us to solve your transport problems”. Then I told him that I already arranged two cars and that …. . He did not want to hear my defence and continued talking. “Jaap”, he said again “Montgomery, was not he responsible for that slaughter at Arnhem ?”. I nearly collapsed and had to admit it. After another difficult ten minutes he said: “Let’s stop this puppet show”, took up the telephone and within a minute a bus was arranged for a whole week, including petrol.
Thursday 15th September. On Thursday morning we were welcomed by burgomaster d’Hondt in the St.Stevens church. Then after the presentation ceremony, the AGM commenced. At the end David Dobson asked me and Reg Cartledge to accompany Dennis to the Limos barracks as Dennis would fly by helicopter from the Limos to the Goffert Park for the presentation of the photos of his poem. Unfortunately the weather was too bad and the helicopter could not take off so we went by Reg’s car to the Goffert Park. After a marching display of the Grenadier Guards band, the photos were presented to several bus representatives, who would give them to the burgomaster of the surrounding municipalities (you all wanted to be a representative). The presentation took place after a wild jeep ride. Afterwards Dennis and I were brought by Margreet Jansen Reinen to the Nijmegen town-hall where Dennis recited his poem and presented it to burgomaster d’Hondt of Nijmegen. Except for a slight incident we had a quiet evening. The incident concerned a canary that was walking around behind our house. It was more dead that alive but after some whisky from Bert Barlow’s hip-bottle the bird quickly recovered. We now have two canaries, Tweetie and Vettie.
Friday 16th September. Friday started at 6.00 hrs for us. We wanted to be ready before 6.30 hrs, before the arrival of the television crew. So, everybody, including our guests, were ready at 6.45 and the film crew only turned up at 7.15 hrs. After apologies from their side they immediately started filming. From the 30 minutes filming at the breakfast table only about 20 seconds was broadcast which was found too short especially by my wife Maud after all the preparations and after placing the tea pot three times on the breakfast table. Another part not being broadcast was an interview with Bert Barlow in which Herman van Gelderen (the reporter) asked Bert how long he had known Dennis. “Not so long”, he said and in front of the camera he told how they had first met at Sandwich a month ago. At the end he said that Dennis was not too bad but that he was a bit of a pain. We all had a good laugh.
For Dennis the day could not go to pieces any more after they filmed him at the Mook war cemetery. He was filmed behind and in front of a row of headstones. They also asked him to recite some sentences of his poem. This was done in the music tent as it was still raining. Afterwards we saw the result on television: Dennis walking behind the headstones, simultaneously reciting the last six sentences of his poem while he stopped in front of the headstone of Robert Rose. I had asked the film crew to make a respectable film and they certainly did so.
In the afternoon some final filming was done at the Goffert Park where an authentic British army camp was set up. It was here where old memories were revived when Bert and Dennis were filmed at the moment a 25 pounder was fired. Some old photos were shown to imitate soldiers.
Saturday 17th September. While Dennis & Maud were invited for a parade with modern army equipment and music groups at Grave, Bert & Eva would visit the varied programme at Groesbeek and I had decided to join them. It was cold and it rained most of the day and we felt sorry for the organisers after all the preparations. After about two hours we went back to the bus and had a nip of Bert’s whisky. We were numb with cold. In a dry moment I went back to the tent to buy some first day covers. At one time I stood next to a Veteran who talked about his participation in the Nijmegen 4-day marches this year. After hearing this I said: “So, you must be Stan George”. We had never met before and Stan was really amazed. I informed him that Dennis had told me about his participation in the Nijmegen 4-day marches this year. As I attended the Nijmegen 4-day marches myself I had tried to find him in the crowd of over 30,000 people. Dennis had also told me that Stan was wearing a fierce red beret, but, as the weather was rather hot last summer he was bare headed and that was another reason I could not find him. So, I never could find Stan George till we met at Groesbeek, in another crowd, by accident, in the cold, and in the rain.
Back home, late in the afternoon, we already found Maud and Dennis there. They had decided not to go to Grave as Dennis wanted to go to the service at Beek where he would meet friends early in the evening. They were brought home by Rene Hengeveld and my wife Maud was surprised to see them back in the morning again. As the photo exhibition at Malden was still open she went with Maud and Dennis to the exhibition. It was a real surprise for the organization and Dennis was the guest of honour. He recited his poem and received a large framed photo of the Heumen lock bridge.
In the evening we went to Overasselt for a liberation concert by the harmony of Nederasselt and Malden. As my Maud plays the clarinet we did not want to miss this. The evening was dedicated to the liberation of the municipality of Overasselt. The stage was decorated with flags and an old red parachute which was used during the droppings above Overasselt. Also war time stories were told and the music of course was of the war time. The two Veterans present, Bert Barlow and Mr. Willett, were asked if they could remember Overasselt from the war time.
Sunday 18th September. The memorial service in the Molenstreet church for Veterans and host families was impressive, also for our daughters Afke and Marin of three and eight years of age. They do not often go to church but the service was so impressive that they continued the service in their own way at home. They prayed for the Veterans, asked for peace in the world and broke biscuits which according to little Marin was the body of a Veteran. I accompanied our guests to the Waalkade where we had lunch at the Missippi Queen and where Bert and Eva discovered that they had left their bag with belongings at the entrance of the Molenstreet church. So I quickly finished my lunch and went back. However, no bag was found there nor at the police station. The police was so kind to make a note, a privilege only given to Veterans they told me. I went back with nothing achieved and Bert and Eva were in a blue mood till one of the Red Cross ladies turned up with their bag in the evening. It had hung all day on a wheel-chair.
After lunch and the presentation of the book “Remember and Reflect” and Market-Garden medallion, we had a walk along the Waalkade, where we listened to the Postharmony band and had a look at the old army vehicles. The MGVA stand of Les Bernstein and George Drinkwater was favoured by Dennis as they sold his poems and he was asked to sign them. The VIP tent next to it was not accessible for Veterans. One moment some VIPs came out. It happened to be burgomaster d’Hondt followed by Lord Carrington and our minister of defence, Joris Voorhoeve. I quickly took a photo and Lord Carrington winked, as if he wanted to say: “to my satisfaction”. There was also a back door at the VIP tent and Bert and Dennis went in. They both came out with four cans of Market-Garden beer. I asked them how they got this and the answer was: “we just had a word with another Veteran we knew”. “When he tells you that they have free beer somewhere you can bet that it is true”. At the end of the afternoon we went to the buses. However, there were no buses there, so we climbed the stairs to the Nijmegen Waal bridge and saw the delayed Corridor tour. After some time we continued our way to the city centre and found our buses at the Burchtstreet. We went to the Limos again where we had the opportunity to go to the parade at the Goffert stadium or to stay at the Limos. It was late already and we were all tired so I phoned Maud to pick us up. We then had a quiet evening and saw the recording of the impressive service at the Oosterbeek war cemetery.
Monday 19th September. For us a special day, it started at Milsbeek military cemetery. Probably never so many Veterans, relatives and residents ever visited that little war cemetery. After the service the lunch was served in the village hall next to the cemetery. The lunch was very good and graced by the local church choir. I was glad to meet some more acquaintances, among others our former guests Tom and Peggy Fenlon. After lunch hundreds of local school children were waiting outside to shake hands with the Veterans and to wish them good bye. At the Vereniging we met Bert & Vlo Viggars and we decided to skip the film as we were expected in Megen at 18.45 hrs and Maud already had prepared us a nice dinner at home.
Our visit to Megen was overwhelming. We were received in Henk’s back garden where he showed us his work of art made of useless material. I thought it a bit strange when Henk offered his guests some chairs outside, but this was not without reason. In front of the house the Megen band would draw up and he wanted to keep this a secret. When the neighbours gave Henk a sign we walked around the house and when they turned the corner of the Kloosterstreet we faced the band and the villagers who followed, as Bert’s reception had been announced on local television. It was a moving experience, specially for Bert & Vlo. After a few tunes we followed the band to the centre of Megen, to the spot where Bert had been on guard fifty years ago, on the steps in front of the old Gymnasium.
After the band played God save the Queen and a happy birthday, a fantastic speech was given by alderman Ulijn. Bert received a nice copy of the speech of which more copies were made at home, for his daughters who certainly will cherish it after they heard the story. Bert furthermore received an old slate from the roof of the Gymnasium which was decorated with the coat of arms of Megen. From Henk he received a painting of the Church and Chapel of the Monastery opposite the Gymnasium. Also the ladies were not forgotten. They all received a nice bouquet of flowers. After the ceremony Bert was too emotional to speak and on behalf of him I thanked everybody for making the visit so memorable. At the end we had a drink and a guided tour around the Gymnasium also the Church and Chapel of the Monastery. It was obvious that our liberators were not forgotten. This was also demonstrated in Megen, that unchanged little place along the river Maas.
Tuesday 20th September. On Tuesday morning we were invited to Afke’s school which is not far from our house. The children from Afke’s class were sitting in a circle and chairs were reserved for Bert & Eva and Dennis & Maud. Half an hour was reserved for questions that were prepared by the children beforehand. They asked Bert and Dennis if they had been afraid, about their task in the army, about their age, the military vehicles, if they could remember Malden etc. Children can be very honest, they even asked Dennis about the bumps on his head. We had a good laugh and the bumps were the subject of conversation that day
The ceremony at the Jonkerbos cemetery in the morning was a bit chaotic as we arrived too late and the ceremony had started already. Afterwards we read in the paper that there was a misunderstanding about the organization. Also the higher authorities had ordered some more rain and because of the umbrellas we hardly saw anything of the service. But there were no complaints from your side and once again the patience of Veterans was proven. After the service Bert and Little Marin laid flowers at the cross of sacrifice and I took a photo to record the moment.
In the afternoon we visited Dennis’ Monastery at Ravenstein. Sister Antoinette Moerkerken had come over and the prioress brought tea and biscuits. We showed the sisters Dennis’ old photo album, which because of the photos of the Monastery and of Ravenstein were of particular interest to them. At the back of the Monastery we compared the photos with the actual situation and although the Monastery was converted we found similarities. Next to the Monastery we found the place of Dennis’ old cook house. Thereafter we visited the civil graveyard which was also visible in one of the old photos. The photo I took there was not much different from the old one with the wind mill on it. The four military graves at the back of the civil graveyard are a quiet witness of the war in Ravenstein.
The farewell party for Veterans and their host families was in the Mallemolen at Groesbeek. Initially it looked more like a theatrical performance than a farewell party. I was a bit depressed as there was no time for a chat and many other Veterans we knew were at farewell parties elsewhere. But the long break offered us the possibility for a chat and also for the distribution of the Groesbeek liberation posters which we had received from our neighbour. After the break Dennis took the initiative to thank everybody for the warmth and friendliness that was given. The “Land of hope and glory”, sung by the Groesbeek choir, made everybody stand. Finally it had been an unforgettable evening, very well prepared by the citizens of Groesbeek.
Wednesday 21th September. The day of your departure. Like the other years we had to get up early as the buses for Hoek van Holland with our guests would leave at 8.00 hrs. It was busy as usual and we were glad to be in good time, to say good bye to all of you. The silence after you left was extreme after that busy week although not everybody had yet gone. Suddenly David March came to us with a plastic bag full of presents for us and the children. A little gift from him and Jack. In fact we had received many presents already and I was glad I made a note about it to thank people afterwards. Of course all the presents are very much appreciated but it certainly is not the reason why we went to so much trouble.