Day 12: The End

After Operation Market Garden failed to establish a bridgehead across the Rhine, Allied forces launched offensives on two fronts in the south of the Netherlands. To secure shipping to the vital port of Antwerp they advanced northwards and westwards, the Canadian First Army taking the Scheldt Estuary in the Battle of the Scheldt. Allied forces also advanced eastwards in Operation Aintree to secure the banks of the Meuse as a natural boundary for the established salient. This attack on the German bridgehead west of the Meuse near Venlo was for the Allies an unexpectedly protracted affair, which included the Battle of Overloon.

In February 1945, Allied forces in Operation Veritable advanced from the Groesbeek heights which had been taken during Market Garden, and into Germany, crossing the Rhine in March during Operation Plunder. As a result of Operation Plunder, the city of Arnhem was finally liberated by I Canadian Corps on 14 April 1945 after two days of fighting. A surrender of the remaining German forces in the west of the Netherlands was signed on 5 May

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Day 11 had been wet and windy and as I was ahead of schedule I decided to sit still for a day. That’s difficult to do when you’re tired and just want to get to the end but I just about managed. So Day 12 became the final day, another one on fantastic Dutch cycle roads, 43 miles up to Arnhem Bridge. Dan coughed and spluttered his 1939 motorbike which had come out in a van from the hotel the Project 71 group were staying in up to the bridge to meet me.

The ride’s been tough, I think it was carrying the extra weight which I found the hardest part. My route planning, which I’d spent hours doing generally worked quite well and where it didn’t, like when it seemed to take me down grassy or gravelly tracks, I’d just carry on past and hope I was heading in roughly the right direction. I’ve ridden somewhere in between 600 and 650 miles I think. I shall add it all up when I get the chance!

A huge thank you to Dan who has researched and written most of these blog posts for me, and to everyone who has donated to Project 71. If you could even spend 5 minutes with this group you would see how worthwhile the effort is. To have things to look forward to, friends to spend time with and plenty of smiles from both veterans and volunteers. I’ll end with some photos showing the fun and antics the group gets up to and show just how much your donations mean and some of the very special people Project 71 supports.

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500 miles to victory. Day 10

Operation Market Garden

In the summer of 1944 General Bernard Law Montgomery came up with an ambitious scheme to cross the River Rhine and advance deep into northern Germany and shorten the war.

Codenamed ‘Market Garden’, his plan involved the seizure of key bridges in the Netherlands by the 101st and 82nd US Airborne Divisions, and 1st British Airborne Division who would land by parachute and glider.

Then the British 30 Corps could advance over the bridges and cross the Rhine and its tributaries. The bridges were at Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem, as well as two smaller bridges at Veghel and Grave that lay between Eindhoven and Nijmegen.

If successful, the plan would liberate the Netherlands, outflank Germany’s formidable frontier defences, the Siegfried Line, and make possible an armoured drive into the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland.

On 17 September the airborne divisions landed. Eventually all the bridges were captured in what was one of the largest airborne operations in history.

The plan failed largely because of 30 Corps’ inability to reach the furthest bridge at Arnhem before German forces overwhelmed the British defenders. Allied intelligence had failed to detect the presence of German tanks, including elements of two SS Panzer divisions.

Around 10,000 men from Major-General Roy Urquhart’s 1st British Airborne Division and the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade landed at Arnhem. But their landing zones were 11 kilometres (seven miles) from the bridge at Arnhem. Only one battalion reached the objective while the remaining soldiers were squeezed into a pocket at Oosterbeek to the west.

Apart from a few anti-tank guns and howitzers, modified to fit inside gliders, the lightly armed airborne troops had few heavy weapons with which to resist tanks.

Although units of 30 Corps captured Nijmegen Bridge in conjunction with the US 82nd Airborne Division, they could not reach the furthest bridge at Arnhem. Much of its advance was along a single narrow causeway, which was vulnerable to traffic jams and German counter-attacks.

In some places the advance was hindered by marshes that prevented off-road movement. Throughout the battle the Germans also showed a remarkable ability to put together scratch battle groups that fought to delay the armoured columns.

Operations were also hampered by a shortage of transport aircraft. The airborne troops were flown into the Netherlands in three lifts rather than all together. Arnhem’s wooded landscape severely restricted the range of wireless sets, so communication failures also reduced the chance of success. Thick fog in England and low clouds over the battle zone hampered both resupply and the air-lifting of reinforcements.

On 24-25 September about 2,100 troops from 1st Airborne Division were ferried back across the Rhine. Another 7,500 were either dead or made prisoners of war.

The crossing of the Rhine and the capture of Germany’s industrial heartland were delayed for six months. Now, the Allies would have to fight their way into the Reich on a broad front. There would be no quick victory.

A costly failure, Operation Market Garden remains a remarkable feat of arms. This is not because of its strategic ambition, but because of the determination and courage shown by Allied airborne troops and the units that tried to reach them.

It also led to the liberation of a large part of the Netherlands at a time when many Dutch people were close to starvation.

The trips.

I couldn’t write these posts without mentioning the trips that I’m raising money for. This year Project 71 has run trips to Normandy, Bastogne and Arnhem (well, they’re on their way as I type!) which are provided at no cost for any veteran who wants to go.

I volunteered to go on the Normandy trip this year and when my Grandad, who was in the Navy and landed in Normandy on D-Day, found out I was going he said “I’m up for it if you are”. Project 71 gave him the chance to go back to his beach, Juno, for the first time in 74 years.

I’m so pleased he had the chance to go back, but it was also the adventure of going away, being led astray by Henry, talking to Joe about working on power stations post Navy and eating moules frites like a local which made the trip.

The group love having trips away and days out to look forward to, and doing this ride to help pay for them to go is the least I can do.

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Day 10. Today I reached the first of the bridges taken as part of Operation Market Garden, ‘Joe’s Bridge’.

The day started off well, as on Day 9 I’d had a conversation* with a man in Lidl who looked at my map and pointed out an off road cycle path for the first 20 miles of the day, which was built along an old railway line. So I changed my route and it was brilliant, welcome to riding in Holland! I then stayed on cycle paths all day, although paths completely underplay them. They’re a whole road network of their own, you have right of way at roundabouts, junctions, your own traffic lights. It made for a good day, and after 50 miles I rode right past a campsite and stopped for the night.

The forecast for the next day was awful with rain and high winds so once I’d set up my tent I got back on my bike and rode a couple of miles to the closest town to stock up on food so that I didn’t have to venture out the next day. I was ahead of schedule and there was no need to ride in rough weather. So I sat it out on Day 11, the campsite had a communal room so I could sit in the dry, I read my kindle, which had been my usual evening entertainment, and even treated myself to an afternoon nap! By late afternoon the weather had mostly cleared so I cycled to town in search of anything that wasn’t pasta in soup for dinner.

Total so far: 600ish miles

*a conversation consisting mostly of charades.

500 miles to victory. Day 9

Day 9, Belgium Liberation

With northern France won, Allied troops pushed into Belgium in early Sep 1944. Major cities of Brussels and Antwerp were liberated quickly, and the V-1 rocket launching bases nearby fell along with the cities. German troops attempted to hinder the usefulness of the Antwerp port by attacking with V-1 and V-2 rockets, but the rockets were not accurate in their attacks and the port facilities remained standing. The city itself, however, bore the burden of the rockets that ran astray.

Liberation of Belgium Timeline

2 Sep 1944 Canadian troops crossed into Belgium.

3 Sep 1944 British Second Army captured Brussels

4 Sep 1944 British 11th Armoured Division captured Antwerp, Belgium.

5 Sep 1944 British forces reached Ghent.

7 Sep 1944 British 11th Armoured Division crossed the Albert Canal.

8 Sep 1944 US Army capture Liége & Canadian forces capture Ostend.

10 Sep 1944 Allied patrols crossed the German border.

11 Sep 1944 Scottish 15th Division crossed into the Netherlands near Antwerp.

2 Nov 1944 Canadians captured Zeebrugge, the last pocket of German occupation.

4 Feb 1945 Belgium was reportedly free of German forces as of this date.

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Derrick

Derrick watched the Battle of Britain as a teenager and said “I want to do that”. As soon as he was old enough he signed up for the RAF. He was sent to join 112 Squadron and flew Kittyhawks off a beach in Italy, until he was shot down and taken prisoner of war. In the harsh winter of 1944 he was forced to march, along with thousands of other prisoners, hundreds of miles with very little food or water, to flee from the advancing Red Army. Once the war was over Derrick continued his RAF career, becoming a Squadron Leader.

His story is truly fascinating, a story of hardship and endeavour. Project 71 were lucky enough to be able to work with Derrick and get his memoirs into a book. He has kindly donated all proceeds from the sales to Project 71. For more details please go to http://www.project71.co.uk/shop.

Day 9. Today was a straightforward day, mostly following cycle paths at the side of very straight roads. Which would be fine apart from Belgian roads being awful! Block paving with sunken blocks, huge potholes, concrete slabs and brain shaking cobbles. It was another long hot day, but 52 miles closer to Arnhem and it saw me pass the 500 mile mark. Still not quite in Arnhem yet though. I arrived at the campsite and reception was closed so I loitered for a bit before someone came over. He didn’t know where the boss was so told me to set my tent up and someone would come over if they wanted any money. They didn’t, so I had a free night next to the lake. Again, the bar was closed for winter so it was another pasta in soup for dinner night.

 

500 miles to victory. Day 8

Belgium Border, Valenciennes.

This lovely town has been rebuilt twice in the recent past due to conflict. The battle for Valenciennes was part of the 100 Day Offensive that occurred at the end of the First World War. It took place on 1-2 November and saw heavy fighting against the Germans by British and Canadian Forces.

As the German Army advanced on its occupation route of Europe the town’s inhabitants fled by road and it was abandoned on 10th May 1940. As the French Army battled against the Germans a huge fire devoured the heart of the town, fuelled in particular by a fuel depot.

French troops entering Valenciennes, and the burnt out City Hall.

German troops then occupied the ruined city on May 27. As the Allies advance the Germans held fast in Valenciennes but after serious bloody fighting, on 2nd September 1944 American troops entered Valenciennes and liberated the remains of the city.

With the Allied Forces gaining ground the military commanders were in a position to head into the next phase and cross the border and start the liberation of Belgium.

Royal Naval Command Remembrance Service, HMS Excellent.

Every year some veterans of all ages and from all conflicts are invited to attend the Naval Command Remembrance Service. The volunteers of Project 71 are mobilised and organise transport for the veterans we look after, if they wish to attend. One of the veterans, escorted by serving naval personnel, lays a wreath on behalf of the veterans present, last year Molly had this honour. After the service the veterans are given transport back to HMS Excellent’s Mess, where they enjoy a few drinks and a fabulous meal.

Day 8. I was always going to have at least 1 tough day on my ride, and day 8 was the first. My route took me along gravel canal paths, the temperature tipped 30degrees and because of a lack of campsites on this stretch, it needed to be a 75mile day. Fortunately I chanced upon a campsite 5 miles before my planned one, never have I been so happy to see a site. Aside from that, I passed through some beautiful towns and crossed into Belgium, definitely making progress now. It was nice to see another cyclist arrive at the campsite, he looked as frazzled as I did when he arrived. We had a chat, he was cycling across Belgium and was keen to tell me about how much training he had done. I soon got back to eating my pasta in soup and any other goodies I had that were stashed away. Packets of chocolate biscuits would only melt in the heat if you didn’t eat them in one go.

 

500 miles to victory. Day 7.

Day 7, Arras and Lens Region

The area I am cycling through today was torn apart by the fighting as the German Forces retreated in 1944. However it was nowhere near as devastating as the fighting had been in this area during the World War 1.

The area I am in had the Hindenburg Line stretching through the middle of it. This was defensive barrier improvised by the German army. The Battle of Verdun had been a costly failure for the German Army and with their losses against the Anglo-French offensive at The Battle of the Somme, they needed some time to regroup.

The Hindenburg line was constructed in the winter of 1916/1917 and had concrete pillboxes armed with machine guns as the start of an extended defensive system up to eight miles deep. The Hindenburg Line resisted all Allied attacks in 1917 and was not breached until late in 1918.

During 1917 and 1918 the Allies tried to break the line. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of these offensives. It took place from the 9th to 12th April 1917 at the beginning of the Battle of Arras, The main combatants were the four divisions of the Canadian Corps. The fighting was heavy and the Canadians suffered many losses. Once they took the German held high ground of Vimy Ridge it allowed forces further south to complete their objectives.

The Canadian losses in these battles are remembered on The Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge.

Henry

Henry is the youngster of the group, he is only 93. Henry was in the Royal Navy joining his ship in the summer of 1944. After the war Henry worked on cruise ships and later became a fireman in his home town. He is the life and soul of the party where ever we go.

“I am amazed with Project 71, they are such a wonderful group of people, and we have such a great time whilst we are away”.

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Day 7 was another hot one, but with another campsite who’s swimming pool had closed for winter. It was also the first one I’d stayed on with a bar which did food – I was so excited about not having pasta again. The bar was closed on Mondays, another night of pasta in soup.

Although this post says about the Canadian losses in this area, it is always sobering to see the German cemeteries too, somewhat different to the commonwealth ones.

 

 

500 miles to victory. Day 6

When the German army advanced in 1939 the Somme area around Vignacourt was still recovering from the devastation of First World War.

During the First World War Vignacourt was occupied by 2 Casualty Clearing Stations, this is reflected in the cemeteries. Vignacourt British Cemetery contains 584 First World War burials. There are also two burials from the Second World War.

During The Second World War the V1 was one of Hitler’s secret weapons that he had told his generals would turn the way the war was going in 1944. The V1 was first launched against Britain in June 1944, just one week after D-Day.

The V1 is best described as a winged but pilot-less fuel propelled flying bomb. The V1, officially called the FZG-76, was also known as the ‘doodle bug’ or ‘buzz-bomb’. It was 25 feet long and had a wing span of 16 feet. Loaded with fuel, it weighed 2 tons and it had a warhead of 2,000 lbs of explosives. The most common way of launching the V1 was by ramp. It could also be launched by a modified Heinkel III aircraft. Originally, the V1 had a maximum range of 150 miles this was improved to 250 miles to allow for it to be launched from Holland. About 10,500 were launched at Britain, 8,800 by ramp and the rest by plane.

HMS Nelson, D-Day Meal

During the summer, as close to the 6th June as it can be, HMS Nelson holds its D-Day Meal. Veterans are invited to join and be hosted by the Mess Members at this black tie occasion. The Veterans love it! Project 71 organise an escort for each veteran who wishes to go and work with the mess to make the event is a success. The escort’s role is to make sure the veteran has transport to and from the event, and to make sure they have drinks and have a thoroughly good time. It is a wonderful event that allows serving military personnel to mingle with the veterans; everyone always goes home with a smile on their face.

Day 6: Finally, the last of the big hills! My routine is sorted now; wake up by 7, leave by half 8 whilst it’s still cool and then hopefully finish by about 4 in the afternoon. It seemed to be fete day in France as I passed a country fayre full of tractors, a town where the streets were full of a visiting fair and a third one which I don’t know what it was but it meant the road I wanted to go down was closed. It was actually meant to be a short day of riding but to cut down on some of tomorrow’s miles I found a campsite further on, and online it said it had a jacuzzi. The thought of that kept me going all afternoon, but when I got there it turned out it was closed for winter. Winter?! It was 26degrees! After I got over my disappointment I made friends with a resident cat and chickens and got an early night.

 

500 miles to victory. Day 5

During the Second World War the occupying German forces in France were constantly undermined by the operations of the Allied Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the French Resistance. One such story of these brave people working deep behind the enemy lines is that of Robert Artaud.

Robert Artaud was a member of the French Resistance group known as the Physician circuit and probably one of the last survivors of all those brave men and women who worked in the SOE-sponsored Resistance circuits during the Second World War. Robert was born on October 30 1925 in Etrépagny, where he lived all of his life. As a teenage boy Artaud helped his father on several operations.

The first occasion, on the night of November 17/18 1942, the first of several dozen “parachutages”, codenamed Physician 1 and organised by Suttill after a local gamekeeper had suggested a suitable location for a drop of arms and sabotage material. Raymond Artaud helped to hide the parachuted containers in a nearby ditch, while young Artaud was posted as look-out. The containers were collected the next day by the Artauds, in a lorry normally used to carry the contents of septic tanks, and taken to a Paris-bound barge.

In June and July 1943, however, the Physician-Prosper circuit and many of its sub-groups were betrayed, and scores of fighters were rounded up by the Gestapo assisted by some Vichy French police. The Artauds slipped through the net and the young Artaud lay low for a year until he enlisted in the French 5th Armoured Division, which helped to liberate Alsace.

He was awarded the Médaille de la résistance by the post-war French government, in 2015 he was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. Robert sadly died on 30th August 2016 aged 90.

Molly

Molly has been coming to Project 71 lunches and days out for a year now and is a lady I will never tire of talking to.

Molly was a WREN in the war and was stationed at Bletchley Park as secretary to the Chief Naval Cryptographer, whilst there Molly knew Alan Turing. Molly remembers that it was so cold at Bletchley that she slept in her great coat, at one point her hands cracked and bled with the cold so she had to have them bandaged so she could continue her work.

At the monthly lunch when I left for my ride, Molly was given a cake to celebrate her recent birthday. Happy Birthday Molly. X

The Day 5 ride was the way I liked it, a hilly morning when I had energy and a flatter afternoon when I didn’t. I woke up to a beautiful sunrise after a cold night and got going early, half of the miles done before an early lunch. I seemed to manage to avoid any main roads today and rode for miles without even seeing a car. The night was spent in Picquigny, which finally had a shop near the campsite so a very welcome break from pasta in soup. Going to a supermarket full of French goodies after a long ride when I was hungry was a dangerous move and my food shop filled a whole pannier bag. Fortunately my stomach was a bottomless pit after the last few days so not too much to carry on to Day 6.

Total so far: 285 miles (I think!)