Battlefield Tour 2017

The tour this year was to Holland, a country where our own county regiment did much campaigning during the last war. Four RNA members went this time, Reg and Bernahdette McGuire, Pat Whiley and me.

Travelling via the Channel Shuttle and then through France and Belgium made it a long journey. Leaving Norwich at 05:15 on the Friday, we arrived at our destination twelve hours later. However, this did include a two hour stop in Brugge.

Brugge is a beautiful city often referred to as the ‘Venice of the North’ owing to its many waterways. Its prosperity was based on the cloth trade and no doubt in the 16th and 17th centuries had dealings with Norwich. Unfortunately, coaches are not allowed within the city limits but have to be parked on the outskirts. This means there is a good twenty minute walk into the centre on cobbled streets. I suppose the ban is understandable, some of the streets are very narrow and there are the horse-drawn tourist vehicles to contend with.

Hotel Van Der Valk in Tilburg is very large and modern. At first it is not easy to find your way around. We were lodged in the Royal Wing which entailed a lengthy walk through many corridors to get to the dining room. The hotel seemed popular and at dinner the restaurant was always full. The staff were friendly and helpful. Although we had a set menu they were prepared to change it where necessary to suit our tastes. This is the best hotel that we have stayed in on our trips.

The first visit on the Saturday was to the Hartenstein-Oosterbeck Airborne Museum. It is situated at the entrance to an attractive park which even has a herd of deer. The story of the Battle of Arnhem is well known (Operation Market Garden) and the museum houses many artefacts associated with the conflict. In addition to the usual exhibits, on the ground floor, diaramas have been created depicting both British and German troops in action. Accompanying everything is the constant sound of battle. Film shows give even a more graphic sense of action.

The Arnhem-Oosterebeek cemetery contains 1,678 British and Commonwealth dead together with some Polish and Dutch. Sadly there are 26 unidentified. One sobering thought as you walk around is the age of some of the troops. Eighteen, nineteen and twenty is not uncommon. We held our first remembrance and wreath laying ceremony here. Just as we were finishing another coach party arrived. Amongst their number were some Australians. One had served in the Aussie navy so we shared a ‘tot’ from Reg’s flask with him.

Next was a ride over the John Frost bridge, the famous ‘Bridge Too Far’. It is not the original of course, it has been replaced at least three times. One has to use a great deal of imagination to conjure up the scene of mayhem that was occurring in 1944.

The Jonkerbos cemetery, near Nijmegen, has the grave of a Royal Norfolk, Private Stanley Bennett who was killed on the 15th October 1944, aged 23. The bridge at Nijmegen was another which had to be captured before the Rhine could be crossed.

The highlight on Sunday was the visit to the Overloon Vehicle Museum. The first part tells the story of Holland under German occupation. Life under the Nazis was not pleasant. One difficulty was that the dialogue on the films and the captions on the exhibits were only in Dutch and German but I was told that by using a smartphone an English version could be obtained.

The centre-piece of the complex is the magnificent collection of military vehicles. Over 200 of them are displayed in a building the size of two football pitches. They are mainly from World War Two and from many countries. A few represent the Cold War etc. There are tanks of various sorts, guns of different size and calibre (and ordnance to fit), lorries of every description, aircraft and even some big landing craft. There is enough material to start a battle. The museum is set in a park covering 35 acres. For those with an adventurous nature there is a Tarzen assault course high in the trees.

The battle which took place here was fierce, some 1878 men, forty tanks and three aircraft were lost. Not since June in Normandy had such opposition been faced.

The battle of Molen Beek was fought on the 15th and 16th October 1944 and in which the 1st Battalian Royal Norfolk Regiment took part. A memorial has been erected to them in the field where they campaigned. It takes the form of a pyramid made of Norfolk flint. We laid a wreath and observed a short silence.

Venray Military Cemetery has the graves of eleven Norfolks but there is no record of where they came from. An RAF sergeant named Kenneth Kemp is here. His name appears on the Old Catton war memorial.

The Norfolks liberated the town of Helmond and a memorial has been created in their honour. It is a stone set in an open space with plants around. The space itself is surrounded by nine oak trees. They represent the 9th Regiment of Foot, a former name. We said a few words of remembrance and placed some small crosses.

Miele cemetery has 664 British and Commonwealth graves, thirteen of which are Norfolks. We held the second and last ceremony of the weekend here and I was given the honour of laying the wreath.

Back to the hotel for our last dinner. As a parting gesture the staff placed sparklers at the end of each table. Whether this is normal routine or whether were were considered special it is impossible to say.

Monday came and time to start the long journey home. The ride to Calais was quicker because we returned via Dunkirk and did not have a stop. Some time was spent in the City of Europe buying gifts and goodies before boarding the shuttle for home.

Once on our side, Barry had arranged a visit to the Battle of Britain Museum of Hawkinge. Here there is an extensive array of memorabilia from the battle. It is claimed to be the most important collection of artefacts from this time on display in the country. I found the most interesting items the remains of the aircraft, both British and German, which had been recovered from crash sites. These objects were the very essence of the battle. The amazing thing is that the whole museum is run by volunteers. It does great credit to them.

Apart from a stop at the Welcome Break for refreshments, this was the end of the tour for this time. On reaching Norwich it was time to say goodbye. A good number of us will not meet again until next year. Speaking of next year, looking at the replies to Barry’s questionnaire, most votes seemed to be for the Western Somme.

RNA Norwich

The Norwich Branch is one of 300+ branches of the Royal Naval Association world wide. It was commissioned in 1979 and today has a membership of just over 90. It is a registered charity in its own right - the Registered Charity Number is: 1068699

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