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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 September, 2004, 18:17 GMT 19:17 UK
'For us they are heroes'
By William Horsley
BBC European Affairs correspondent

Veterans march across the bridge
Allied veterans have always been welcomed by Arnhem locals
For the past week the people around Arnhem have opened their hearts and their homes to ageing British veterans who fought one of the bloodiest battles of the western front in the second world war.

It lasted from 17 to 25 September 1944 - its goals were to liberate Holland and break through Nazi Germany's defences - it ended with a high death toll on both sides and a serious Allied defeat.

Thousands lined Arnhem's bridge over the Rhine - made doubly famous by the war film A Bridge Too Far - to cheer the veterans as they marched across it or drove in World War II-style jeeps.

Tens of thousands gathered, at one of the drop zones used in the massive Allied aerial assault of September 1944, to watch 10 British veterans parachute safely to earth - the oldest was 85.

That was part of a spectacular re-enactment on Saturday by 800 parachutists of the landing 60 years ago which ended in heroic failure and the loss of about 2000 British and Polish troops. Many more were injured or taken prisoner.

They tried to liberate us - it's a pity they failed, but they tried and lost many, many comrades
Ria Klompmaker
The memories have been flooding back, reinforcing the special bond created by that legendary battle.

"For us they are heroes," said Ria Klompmaker, one of many local Dutch people who regularly welcome British veterans to stay during the annual commemorations.

"They tried to liberate us - it's a pity they failed, but they tried and lost many, many comrades."

'Hot reception'

One of the hardy parachutists, Arthur Winstanley, had his mind on his fallen comrades on the day of his big jump.

"We had a hot reception," he said. "The Germans were waiting for us. We lost half our men. You can't fight tanks with Sten guns."

The Arnhem anniversary is especially poignant because failures of command and tactics on the British side meant a great military prize was lost, despite the heroic stand of 600 British paratroops on the north end of Arnhem bridge for four days.

Thousands of Dutch people actively took part in the wartime underground resistance against German occupation.

They sheltered and cared for wounded Allied soldiers and escaped prisoners of war, at the risk of their lives.

This week there have also been poignant reunions between some of the old soldiers and the families who saved them.

Tragedy of war

Remarkably, Dutch children from schools in Arnhem and nearby have also played an enthusiastic part in the commemorations.

They've performed music and written poems themselves, in honour of the veterans and what they've learnt about the tragedy of war.

A poem printed in an Arnhem Church newspaper on this anniversary reads:

In our memories you will remain,

And we will gather in remembrance,

You failed but still it gave us hope,

That one day soon,

Holland would be free again

The south of Holland was freed by the Allies in September 1944 and the rest of the country was liberated in spring of the next year.

The Dutch people have again shown their gratitude. The main memorial service for the dead of the battle of Arnhem is being held there on Sunday morning.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Click here to watch veterans re-enact the air drop



SEE ALSO:
The Battle of Arnhem
15 Sep 98  |  UK News


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