Saturday, September 22, 2007

Logbook: BeNeLux Wars II

Beneluxwarsii1Greg and I were up and out of Bastogne early Thursday morning, headed toward a museum that had been very highly recommended. Cruising through the beautiful Ardennes, we came upon a little town with an open market so we stopped and had some fun checking out local life of the area. A short while later we found the museum we were looking for and were encouraged by the sight of some tanks and trucks in the field out back. As you may have come to expect by now, the museum was closed for the season! Undaunted, we got back in the car, continued on our way north and just happened to find the "December 1944 Museum" in the small town of La Gleize. If it wasn't for the huge, rare and intact German Tiger II tank out front, we might have driven right past, so we were delighted to stumble upon it. We spent a very satisfactory hour in what turned out to be an excellent little museum with a remarkably large collection of artifacts and authentic displays packed into a surprisingly small space.

Beneluxwarsii2Next, we continued north and visited the American Battlefield Cemetery of the Ardennes near Liege. I have great difficulty trying to describe the experience and emotions I have when visiting one of these cemeteries, so I will just say that it is profoundly moving, bordering on overwhelming. The central memorial of this cemetery holds a chapel with exquisite mosaics that tell the story of the war, and the field of grave markers that flows out behind it is astonishing. As always, I was particularly moved by the proportion -- about one in ten -- of grave markers with no names on them. I've written more about our experience at the cemetery in the Musing entitled "Then And Now" which you can find below, so here I will just say that our visit was a sombre but perfect way to conclude our "Battle of the Bulge" exploration.

From one perspective, the beginning of our "Operation Market Garden" exploration was a complete fiasco. From another it was simply perfect. Our plan had been to drive a bit north of Liege to right near the Netherlands border where XXX Corps began its actual ground assault sixty three years ago, then get a room for the night and be ready to start following their route early in the morning. What happened was quite different in that we got completely lost among the little border towns of Belgium, our maps were useless at such a small scale, we couldn't find anyplace to get local information and none of the towns were hospitable or had any places to stay. For almost three hours we raced around until we were lost, confused, tired and hungry -- a very modest version of what the Allied forces experienced, but without all the shooting. Perfect! Our only option was to keep making our way up the route on Highway 69 -- "Hell's Highway" -- until we reached the outskirts of Eindhoven and found a place to spend the night. I've been through this kind of frustration before, but it was a new experience for Greg and he now has a new appreciation that things aren't always simple and easy on The Voyage!

Beneluxwarsii3We got a slow start yesterday morning and made our first stop at the information office in Einhoven where we got the lead on the Bailey Bridge story you can read below and a recommendation to visit the "Wings of Liberation Museum" not far away in Best. After another session of misleading road signs, poor maps, missed turns and getting lost, we found our way to the museum and had a great time. Set on a large property in the woods, a series of large buildings house a wide variety of displays, original equipment and authentic artifacts. By this time we had seen a lot of the stuff before, but so far each museum has been bigger, better and more comprehensive than the last and we profited from our visit. By mid afternoon we were headed to Nijmegen for the night when we stumbled across a nice little place called the Eurohotel in Venray and decided to take advantage of it.

Beneluxwarsii4Well rested this morning, we were on the road pretty early and made our first stop at the British Cemetery in Venray. I have been intrigued to find out that there were several differences in the British and American approaches to battlefield cemeteries. For one thing, the Americans tended to transport their casualties for burial in a few large cemeteries while the British tended to bury their soldiers closer to where they died in many smaller ones. For another, the American cemeteries all have white markers showing the soldier's name, rank, unit, home state and date of death while the British headstones have all of this information plus the soldier's serial number, age at date of death, the crest of his unit and in most cases a personal inscription from his family. So, the smaller size of the British sites plus the additional information makes them seem somehow more personal and "intimate."

Beneluxwarsii5From Venray we headed up the Market garden route to yet another highly recommended museum called "Liberty Park" in Overloon, and it turned out to be the biggest and best yet by far. In a sprawling complex of huge buildings spread out across several acres, the park has an extensive series of galleries about WWII and an absolutely incredible collection of military equipment and materiel. After more than two hours of walking around with our mouths agape -- almost constantly saying "Can you believe this?" to ourselves and each other -- we felt fully informed and more than a bit overwhelmed. If you only go to one WWII museum in your life, "Liberty Park" is the one to visit.

We spent the afternoon driving more of the Market Garden route, stopping at a variety of important sites along the way. Cornelius Ryan -- in his book "A Bridge Too Far" -- does an extraordinary job of describing the complexity of the Operation, but it isn't until you drive the route, see the actual drop zones and bridges, experience the distances and logistical challenges between them and get lost a couple of dozen times that you realize just how complicated an Operation it was. It makes you wonder, honestly, how the planners ever thought it would work in the first place.

Beneluxwarsii6Late in the afternoon we drove into Arnhem across the most famous bridge -- the bridge "too far" -- which was the site of the British disaster. We had some trouble finding a place to stay because it turns out that we have arrived in town during the weekend of the annual memorial events of the British First Airborne. There are several thousand veterans -- some of them actual participants in the Arnhem battle! -- and their families. We finally got the last rooms in a hotel where many men of all ages are in full dress uniform, spilling out of the bar and boisterously telling war stories. We don't know what tomorrow will hold in store for us in Arnhem, but we suspect it will be very, very interesting.

1 comment:

Michael F Kennedy said...

I envy you.