In 1991 I moved to Arnhem and in 1992 I participated in my very first Airborne march. This is the annual commemorative march around Oosterbeek, the biggest one-day walking event in the world with up to 30.000 people participating.
Since that very first time I only missed one march, making a total of 26 marches up to 2020. Unfortunately in that year the Airborne (as we call it) had been canceled due to the Covid restrictions. For this year the organizers quickly realized that a normal Airborne wasn’t possible but they didn’t want to cancel it outright. The solution was that in stead of walking the march all on the same date we had the option to pick any day between early August and the end of September. When you registered you’d receive your medal (or number) through the mail.
After putting it off to the last possible moment the family and I drove over to Oosterbeek for our 2021 Airborne march. It wasn’t going to be the standard route we’d always take, we would start at the Oosterbeek railway station and end there, skipping the Hartenstein museum. However we were going to include the “White Mile”, making further changes to the route.
Walking with just 6 persons is very different than walking with well over 25.000 and I have to admit that on some sections in the woods I was at a loss where to go. Walking like lemmings for 26 years I never paid any attention on where to go exactly. This did not do my ego any favors I can tell you.
Different from virtually all my previous marches was our coffee break at the Westerbouwing Heights. Normally we skip the restaurant and march straight past the restaurant and on to the Oosterbeek Laag church where we have our penultimate rest stop before heading for the finish on the Hartenstein sportsground. However this year was different, but that should not be a surprise anymore. Today with no crowds and no queues we sat down for a good cup of coffee and enjoyed the views and the monuments.
On the night of 25/26 September after 9 days of near constant combat the men from the 1st Airborne Division and the Polish Parachute brigade were at the end of their strength and the decision was made to evacuate to the river. White engineering tape was used to mark out the routes to the River where mostly Canadian engineers were ferrying the men across the river and into safety.
A monument has been erected on the river bank in 2003 however it is normally impossible to visit this because it is on the other side of a farmers field. Since it is rather pointless to have a monument on a location that nobody can visit the “White Mile” is re-created between 17 and 26 September allowing access to the monument.
The Oosterbeek laag church wasn’t on our schedule this year but driven by a full bladder we decided to visit it anyway which turned out to be a very good idea. The local volunteers were present and immediately started to point out many the interesting quirks and features of this very old building, being one of the oldest churches in the Netherlands. A very well interesting video for the kids gave them even more information and then we were all ready for the last bit.
The stretch from the church at the river to the Hartenstein grounds up on the hill is quite steep (for us Dutch) and when we reached the broad Utrechtseweg normally taking us to Hartenstein we felt we had done a fair bit of exercise. Following the original route for a bit, the 10km notification arrived on my watch quickly and having done what we had set out to do, we walked the quickest route back to the car and headed home.
All in all a great day spent on the battlefields and I completed my 27th march, something I’m secretly proud of!