Every September, residents of towns along “Hell’s Highway” in the Netherlands commemorate a famous World War II operation – Operation Market Garden – by lining their streets with American flags.
“(Memory) is really preserved,” said Bart Verhulst, an avid cyclist and history buff who has long been fascinated by Operation Market Garden, which took place September 17-25, 1944.
It was the largest airdrop in history and the most extensive US military deployment in the Netherlands, according to the US Embassy in the Netherlands.
Verhulst grew up in Eindhoven, a city on the Market Garden route, and now lives in Amsterdam. Believing that biking is the best way to absorb the historic landmarks, Verhulst recently launched a website, marketgarden.cc, for those wishing to cycle along the operation’s route.
The purpose of Operation Market Garden was to avoid the Siegfried Line, the 390-mile defensive wall built by the Germans, by seizing a 64-mile stretch of territory and bridges in the Netherlands, and crossing the Rhine to advance into Germany.
The operation featured a massive airborne component – called Market – undertaken by the First Allied Airborne Army, which included the US Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the British 1st Airborne and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade; and a ground operation – called Garden – led by XXX Corps of the British Second Army.
The Allies captured the bridges along the route, except for the last, later named John Frost Bridge, at Arnhem. The events were depicted in the 1977 film “A Bridge Too Far,” whose all-star cast included Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins. Arnhem was finally liberated in April 1945.
Verhulst’s website offers five different cycling routes, ranging from 83 miles to 137 miles, along the path of Operation Market Garden. He says it can all be done in one day “at a moderate pace” by cyclists of all skill levels. All its routes start in Leopoldsburg, Belgium and end just after the Arnhem Bridge.
Each route features stops at various landmarks and points of interest related to Operation Market Garden, including bridges, monuments, memorials, museums, drop zone sites, and even gliders and military tanks from the World War II, he said. There are also links to background information, videos and podcasts, he said.
“You have to make history accessible these days, especially to young people,” Verhulst said. “It really is a journey through history. It’s absolutely amazing all the things you can see on this road that are still there. And it’s really beautiful too.
Although Operation Market Garden was technically a failure, it changed the lives of local people, Verhulst said. Nazi Germany had occupied the Netherlands in May 1940.
“(The Allies) liberated most of the southern Netherlands in 1944,” he said. “People are still telling stories of plowing fields and all of a sudden thousands of men fell from planes.”
Local battlefield guide Joris Nieuwint is always busy in September, providing tours often attended by relatives of soldiers who fought in Operation Market Garden.
“These are the men who fought and gave their lives for our freedom,” he wrote via email. “For me, that’s the most important thing.”
Personal relationships are the most fascinating aspect of his work, said Nieuwint. For example, this year he led two tours that included the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial at Margraten, the only American military cemetery in the Netherlands. The graves and names of missing American soldiers have been adopted by Dutch families, Nieuwint said, and relatives of soldiers buried there have had the chance to meet the local adoptive families.
“(It) created an incredibly powerful ceremony at the grave,” he wrote. “Being able to help and organize these meetings is the most beautiful thing and it is one of the reasons why I am a tourist guide.”
Verhulst said he first encountered Operation Market Garden while riding a bicycle at age 14, when he came across a mural written in English along Hell’s Highway. A local man told him it was written by the liberators in 1944.
“He talked about how the tanks came through and how they were shot down, and the fierce resistance,” Verhulst recalled.
A few years later, Verhulst’s father unearthed old photos of him as a baby on the hood of an Allied military vehicle during Operation Market Garden, and his interest in life was sparked, he said. -he declares.
Over the years, Verhulst read books and researched the operation, and eventually came up with the idea of cycling his route, which he’s done every year since 2017. This year, a pal from Chicago – where Verhulst lived for a few years – had planned to join him, but was sidelined at the last minute by a cycling injury.
Verhulst, who runs a software company, said his goal was to spread information, with no commercial gain for himself.
“It’s just to say, ‘Hey guys, there’s this amazing road through history,'” he said.
To think of young American soldiers fighting so far from home is a humbling notion, Verhulst said.
“All of a sudden, a boy from Toledo, or Chicago, or Sacramento…jumps out of a plane over a country whose exact location he probably doesn’t know, whose names he can’t pronounce. names,” he said. “A lot of them joined because of the very idea that a country was dominated by another force, and they felt strongly that they had to free them. I think that’s just one of the bravest things.