ARNHEM, THE NETHERLANDS - The old soldier, aided by his proud family, shuffles toward the granite monument and with trembling hands salutes his fallen comrades for whom the monolith honours. As the survivor of war slowly returns to his seat, the crowd breaks into thunderous applause. Most are left to wonder, though, if the old man will be back again next year.
Time, you see, is thinning the ranks of those who fought in World War II. Less and less veterans appear at commemorations held across Europe each year. Death will soon silence them all.
Who then will tell their stories?
That’s a question a 19-year-old Dutchman named Sarel Tempelman asked while working as an intern at the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek, near Arnhem, a handsome city of grand homes and shaded streets whose citizens know only too well the pain and agony of war.
Above: The Liberation Route Europe tour visits the Allied graveyards in Holland.
Templeman wondered: Why not make a marked route showcasing the path taken by the Allies from southern England, through France, Holland and Belgium and finally into Germany, where they put an end to Adolph Hitler’s rein of terror?
His answer: Liberation Route Europe (LRE).
While originally a Dutch initiative, Liberation Route Europe has quickly grown into a cooperative effort between some of Europe’s biggest war museums and veterans’ organizations and offers modern-day travellers a unique opportunity to follow the Allied march across Europe and into Nazi Germany. Even two German-based war museums — the Alliierten Museum in Berlin and the German-Russian Museum in Berlin — asked to be part of the Liberation Route. And more are coming on board each year.
Many are calling LRE a form of “remembrance tourism” because it connects the dots between battlefields, cemeteries, monuments and places that played important roles in the Allied victory. Arnhem, for instance, is a key stop on the LRE because it was the scene of one of the fiercest battles of World War II, the ill-conceived 1944 Operation Market Garden, in which over 3,000 British and Polish troops were slaughtered in a failed attempt to capture the city’s all-important Rhine River bridge. The battle was later immortalized in the epic Hollywood film A Bridge Too Far.
Above: After all these years, the Dutch continue to salute those who liberated them form the Nazis.
“I wish we had time to follow the entire route from start (Portsmouth, England) to finish (Berlin), but for the next few days we’ll concentrate on the route the Allies took through Holland,” Jeroen van Wieringen, the well-versed press and communications officer for LRE, says while driving a small army of media to a fascinating little war museum in Coudorp, a sleepy village on an island in the province of Zeeland.
As we near the Bevrijdingsmuseum Zeeland (Liberation Museum Zeeland) — it remembers the Battle of the Scheldt — Van Wieringen points to an “audio spots” on the side of the road and tells us the LRE uses the juke-box-like devices to inform passersby of important facts relating to battles fought in that particular area.
“We currently have 160 audio spots along the route but eventually there will be 300,” says our guide as he turns into the entrance of the compact Zeeland museum where a steel-jawed man with snow-white hair is waiting.
Kees Traas, a local collector of memorabilia from the 85-day Battle of the Scheldt, greets us like liberators and ushers the group inside where he has hot coffee and local treats waiting.
Traas has contributed many of the 40,000 objects now on display in the museum, including his prized “Canadian helmet,” which his farther “found on the battlefield and I played with it as a little boy.” Traas later found out the helmet belonged to a member of the Calgary Highlanders, a Canadian unit that fought so valiantly here.
The museum honours those who died trying to capture the Scheldt estuary, which had to be secured before the Allies could use the all-important port of Antwerp to supply their advancing troops.
Above: Reenactments of the Allied air drop into Holland are held annually.
Often called the “Forgotten Battle” because it did not receive the same recognition as the flawed British-led Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Scheldt cost Canada dearly — 5,000 of the 7,600 Canadians killed trying to liberate Holland died at the Scheldt.
“The people of Zeeland owe our freedom to the Canadians and this museum shows how much we appreciate their sacrifice,” says Traas, who says the Canadian Ambassador to the Netherlands is traditionally the museum’s patron.
Over 25,000 Canadians have visited the Zeeland museum and a 30,000-square-foot outdoor addition, which will showcase the battle in miniature, is under construction and is sure to draw many more tourists when it opens in 2018.
One of the wonderful things about the LRE is that it allows you to learn some fascinating facts about the war, the people who fought in it and the civilians who suffered so greatly because of it.
Each stop we make along the Dutch portion of the route is more interesting than the last:
Above: An old soldier remembers a battle while modern-day soldiers and actors mingle at celebration.
• In nearby Woensdrecht, for instance, we eat at a restaurant that was a former abbey. Apparently German and civilians hid in the sprawling complex unbeknownst to each other.
• In neighbouring Bergen op Zoom we visit a street that was renamed “Canada Lane” after the war because it marks the spot where Canadian troops entered the town on Oct. 27, 1944, and liberated it from the Germans. A local resident invites us into his lovely home and over coffee proudly tells us “we celebrate our freedom each year on that date by flying Canadian flags” and the street has a giant party. We also visit the Canadian war cemetery here and are moved to see how lovingly the Dutch take care of the graves of our fallen heroes.
• Den Bosch, in Brabant province, is where we learn the Nazis set up a concentration camp, known as Camp Vught, which later served as a prisoner of war camp for captured Germans and Dutch traitors. Brabant is also the area where the Overloon War Museum, which remembers one of the largest American battles of the war, is located.
• Arnhem’s Airborne Museum, located in the former Hotel Hartenstein, which served as British headquarters during Operation Market Garden, is hallowed ground for the Brits and Poles. Over 100,000 people visit the site each year and the lovely Allied graveyard nearby. It appears to be a right of passage for active members of Britain’s famed Airborne Regiment to come here and pay homage to their fallen comrades, because we see many in uniform mulling about the wonderful museum. We also meet one of the last survivors of the battle, the 90-year-old wheelchair bound Louis DiMarco, who served as a signalman during the fight. He regales today’s soldiers with stories of the battle and there’s not a dry eye in sight. The last two years, Arnhem has held a giant multi-media event called the “Bridge to Liberation Experience” on the shores of the Rhine, which we attend, and it appears to whole town comes out for the moving tribute.
Above: The Dutch can never forget the sacrifices made to preserve their freedom.
• At a Dutch military installation in nearby Ginkel Heath, we join thousands to watch 1,100 paratroopers from various Allied countries reenact the WWII drop very near where the actual Market Garden operation took place. The thick forest surrounding the drop zone, which provided the Nazis with perfect cover, gives us an idea why so many of the young paratroopers were killed before they even reached the ground.
• In the lovely little town of Driel, where Polish paratroopers entered the Market Garden battle, we join the last few remaining survivors and their grateful compatriots to salute the fallen Poles at a moving ceremony in the town square. What’s so uplifting is that at each of the commemorative events we attended along the way, including this one, we see many young faces in the crowd. The LRE also extends into Poland (Gdansk to Berlin
• In the small farming community of Ysselsteyn, located near the German border, we’re reminded of the cost that country paid for Hitler’s madness. The sombre German war cemetery located here contains the bodies of over 35,000 German soldiers and civilians — the slate grey stone crosses that mark the graves stretch for as far as the eye can see. Thankfully, Liberation Route Europe does not dwell on the defeat of the Nazis but rather it celebrates the Allied liberation of Germany.
• Our LRE tour also includes stops in handsome Nijmegen, which was totally demolished by “friendly fire” during WWII as it was mistaken for a German city by Allied pilots.
• The nearby town of Groesbeek is home to the National Liberation Museum and the residents here keep memories of the war alive by dressing up as Allied soldiers and ride around in vintage jeeps, most of which are holdovers from WWII.
Our final LRC stop is, fittingly, at the Canadian War Cemetery just outside Groesbeek. It’s the largest of the three Canadian war cemeteries in Holland and the 2,610 granite headstones there are arranged so they are looking into Germany, which is just over a hill.
Sadly, this place reminds us that those who are now the living history of World War II will soon join their comrades in eternity. Thankfully, Liberation Route Europe will keep their stories alive.
Liberation Route Europe is one of the most fascinating and worthwhile projects ever undertaken and should be recognized and supported by all the governments who made up the Allied resistance to Hitler’s Nazis. For more information on Liberation Route Europe go to www.liberationroute.com
/ KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) and Air Canada offer direct daily flights to Holland from most Canadian cities. / To find out more about the Dutch towns and cities highlighted on the fabulous Liberation Route Europe tour, go to www.holland.com