“If you don’t cry then, you never will.”
That’s how Arnhem veteran Des Page from Maidstone feels about a moving service where schoolchildren lay flowers and whisper the name of a serviceman next to their grave on the anniversary of the battle each year.
Ninety-one-year-old Des, from East Farleigh, made the journey to Holland to mark 70 years since he took part in the bloody battle which became known as a Bridge Too Far and of which he still has vivid and moving memories of.
At 21, he became a fully operational glider pilot two months before D-Day. Six months later, he was landing and coming under enemy fire immediately.
Despite being under sniper fire, he and 1st Airborne Division embarked on an eight-mile trek to Oosterbeek, near Arnhem.
“As we got towards Oosterbeek we came across British dead on the verges at the side of the road. The Dutch people had crossed their hands and laid flowers on them,” he said.
He got a lift with a truck driver, but the man was killed by a sniper and he was thrown out, but carried on walking and met his unit, only to discover they were outnumbered.
“There were far more Germans than there were supposed to be. We were totally outgunned, outmanned, everything.”
They then faced a fierce battle in which he lost 30 comrades, and the fighting continued into the night.
At 3am, he said, they came across a woman who was in the middle of the road with a suitcase, but her toes had been shot off.
“My officer ran out into the road and picked her up. I shouted to him to drop her in the trench next to me,” he said.
“I talked to the girl, she spoke English. Her toes were gone - it was a bloody mess. I gave her a morphine injection and shouted for a medic...we managed to get her to a regimental aid post. I laid her down in a small space, kissed her hand and told her not to worry. It was later said that I was the ‘only romantic bloke at Arnhem’.”
Falling back into the woods, despite being taunted to surrender by the Germans.
Des was part of the Allied evacuation on September 25 and 26, which brought those left of 1st Airborne across the Rhine and effectively ending Operation Market Garden.
Since then, he has been back almost every year, and attended the Flower Ceremony at Oosterbeek Cemetery at Arnhem, where local schoolchildren line up at the graves, wave their flowers and, at 11 o’clock, they bend down to the headstone and whisper the man’s name.
He said: “There are nearly 2,000 graves. If you don’t cry then, you never will.”
He was helped to return on the 70th anniversary at the weekend, thanks to funding through the Big Lottery Fund’s Heroes Return programme.
Peter Ainsworth, chairman, said: “As we commemorate the historic 70th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, the generations who have benefited are proud to remember and honour the immense debt of gratitude owed to those veterans who played a vital role in the European conflict.”