2014 is a special year and after my recent visit to the Netherlands I am reminded that every year should be special. This year we remember the Liberation of parts of Europe, towards the end of the Second World War, and the heroism not only of servicemen but of civilians.
This was a bitter-sweet trip. I love Holland and I am there as often and for as long as possible. I have enjoyed its delicious and underpublicised food (there is much more to delight the palate than cheese). I have photographed modern and historic architecture and have appreciated the relaxed and vibrant lifestyles of those lucky enough to call the Netherlands home.
But I have a very personal connection with this friendly land. You might say that my family own a small part of it. My Uncle Bill rests there, and not by choice. He was killed over Holland in 1942 – yes, a couple of years before the start of the official Liberation Route, but that route could be said to have started back in 1939 when invasions and aggression made war inevitable.
So the tomb of my unknown soldier, for I never met my uncle, focused my mind. There is a formal Debt of Honour Register which states: In Memory of WILLIAM JOHN BARKER Sergeant 75 Squadron, Air Force Volunteer Reserve who died on Saturday 6 September 1941. Age 33.
This man didn’t have the blessing of a long life but he was a decade or so older than those others who died with him. Ironically I even know the name of the German pilot who shot down my uncle’s plane. One might suppose I would harbour ill-will and be heaping curses upon that man’s house. But it’s the nature of war that people are obliged to kill and others are obliged to die. All these young men were just doing their jobs.
During this Liberation Route visit I had the privilege to interview Jan Loos who was just a teenager living near Arnhem in 1942. His country had been under occupation for years. He explained that there was a big difference between regular servicemen and the SS, for instance. He became friends with a German officer who had a son of Jan’s age. There are no winners in war: the Liberation Route serves not to revel in victory but to celebrate the freedom that cost so many so much.
The Liberation Route does truly exist. It’s not just a strategic process but a physical path that crosses The Netherlands with noteworthy stops along the way. It is a route that takes you to over 80 significant spots, each marked by a large stone and each one illustrating a particular event – stories of civilians and soldiers who lived or fought there between 1944 and 1945. The audio versions can be downloaded as MP3s from the Liberation Route website. They are historic milestones and they become more important as there are fewer and fewer eye-witnesses still alive.
Don’t expect a landscape scarred by warfare. Nature is gentle, forests are dense, and fields softly undulate. One listens to the whistle of birds rather than shells. One is refreshed by the perfume of dew-laden foliage rather than fuel and fire. There are poignant reminders: a shrapnel-pitted house wall, statues of evacuating women and children, monuments to the fallen.
But Holland is famed for flowers. Tulips provided food in the lean days at the end of the war, they have been immortalised in song, and those ubiquitous blooms are the icons for the tourist board – a far more beautiful logo than that of a ball of Edam or a bottle of gin. There can surely be no finer and no more apt celebration of Liberation than a brand new tulip.
Major (Retd) Kenneth George Mayhew RMWO, is the bearer of the highest Dutch military Medal of Valour. He was the guest of honour at the London Residence of the Ambassador of the Netherlands, Ms Laetitia van den Assum. Major Mayhew is now 97 years old and was not only the guest of honour in word but honoured in deed, as worthy military men of a new generation respectfully saluted him. I am touched that Dutch people continue to demonstrate their care for those who contributed to Liberation and those who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War II. Cemeteries are immaculate and often tended by school children who adopt a soldier or airman and look after his last resting place. It’s a source of comfort to us, the families of those servicemen.
Major Mayhew officially baptised the new Liberation tulip and wetted the ‘baby’s head’ in champagne. The striking red and yellow flower was cultivated by celebrated Dutch bulb-grower JUB Holland for this important and unique occasion, which marks the first step in commemorating the liberation of the Netherlands which started with the ill-fated Operation Market Garden in 1944. The tulip was presented on behalf of all Allied Forces who took part in the liberation. Distinguished representatives of Australian, British, Canadian, Polish, New Zealand, and US forces attended, along with Major General Hoitink for the Dutch Chief of Defence Staff.
Members of the general public will be able to see the new tulip next year as two flower mosaics will be planted in the autumn. Kew Gardens in London will have one display and the other will be in Lincolnshire, from where the RAF launched Operation Manna which was a relief initiative to feed civilians. The Liberation Route and the tulip are not about glory. They are about memories and future. They are about lessons learnt and hope, about partnership and new-forged alliances. They are about peace, and offer reminders of the fragility of that treasure.
Holland offers so much; but the prospect of a trip to mainland Europe has us musing on a little bistro in Paris, although Holland has an exciting contemporary dining culture. We crave the arts, so that must be Rome, even though Holland has the Dutch Masters. There are few language barriers in Holland and that, even for this world traveller, is a bonus. We British feel at home in The Netherlands and there is always a warm welcome. That’s nothing new: it started 70 years ago.
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018
Picture of Chrissie Walker by Farrukh Younus