Pegasus article by Phil Hannah, January 2017
“CHECK EQUIPMENT!” No matter how many times you check your strop on the cable…there is always the final last glance to be absolutely certain! Good drills at the time and also good drills when leaving home for the ride to Arnhem. So, one last check of the passport was appropriate.
We were riding from Stourbridge in the West Midlands to meet up with Titch Cornish in Gloucester, then on to Old Windsor for an overnight stop. We three, we merry three, then rode, in the morning to the pre-arranged RV. Three became eight. Riding down to Folkestone for the tunnel was smooth and disciplined and it was great fun. Don’t get me wrong, I love solo riding, that feeling the freedom, of no structure, no planned route, no destination, but this was different. We were locking back into our airborne days and I relished being “in position”, staggered with the man in front, so that my stopping distance was, effectively, doubled. Once more my “mukkas” were with me. I felt that glow that you get from knowing that the other riders were airborne too. They had been through the furnace that turned them from mild into hardened steel. I could rely on them! At Folkestone, our eight became fourteen ready to cross through the tunnel heading for Arnhem.
Trains under the channel tend to be fairly boring but the banter that was going on was far from that. My civilian friend (we call them “Supporters”) remarked “they don’t seem to like each other very much”. I explained that, in our “Airborne” world, the greater the insult, the more derogatory the comment, the greater the respect. He didn’t understand but then I guess he never will…idiot! (Can still do irony, even at my age)
Talking about age, we tend to be a little older than the average airborne warrior. If you want a benchmark to use, then just think of your Section Commander when you joined your unit. In my case, he was aged 25 and looked ancient. I wondered how, at that great age, he got out of bed in the morning! Of course, I learnt that not only was he fitter, stronger and more experienced than me but also he was wiser. Well, for us, our average age is slightly older than that, but only because we started the Airborne Forces Riders (AFR) just a couple of years ago, and have yet to encourage the serving soldiers to join us.
Enough history! Back to the trip. Four hours plus riding saw us arrive at the site, tired but happy and ready for a refreshing shower, I mean, beer (priorities first as the old RSM used to say). Suitably refreshed it was time to take stock. We had twenty plus riders settling in to the camp. Billeted in chalets, at the cost of 30 euros each for the four days, we had enough “European Drinking Vouchers” left (euros) to see us through the weekend. But the trip was to be a mixture of fun and respect so just a couple of cans and off to bed we went (apart from Titch, he’s one of those strange teetotal type chappies, very odd indeed! He went early to bed.
By the bye, we awoke on Friday morning ready to meet the local Dutch motorcycle club. They had recced the sites of the graves of the men who had been killed during the withdrawal phase of the battle while crossing the river. These poor chaps had died in a foreign land and, because of how they died, were interred wherever their bodies were dragged out of the river. This meant that, at each graveyard, there may be one, two or more airborne warriors and the graveyards were miles apart. But, thanks to the diligence of the Dutch Riders we had our targets in the crosshairs. We were going to ride to them and pay our respects.
Now, I’ve always followed the maximum that each man has his own religion, or none at all, and it purely a matter for them. But I defy anyone to stand at the head of the graves of men who, you know we’re just like you, keen, fit and eager, had paid the ultimate price without feeling some sense of fellowship and empathy. So, we did what all old soldiers are superb at…we paid our respects. We said a few words, bowed our heads and contemplated the silence. Then on we rode to the next graveyards and repeated the moment. Very moving for all concerned.
Back to base for a quick shower and a taxi into town to watch the parade across the Frost Bridge, the most famous location in the battle (and the film !). The Pipe band and drums followed by the standards didn’t let us down. A stirring march over the bridge was in the finest traditions. Equally, in the finest traditions was our move to the Unibar to sample the local beverages. Serving beer by the jug was a dastardly trick that caused us all to consume copious amounts. Unfortunately we inadvertently broke one of our greatest rules…’never leave a man behind’. Ted Tedman had decided he’d had enough to drink, so he said “I’m gonna sit down for a bit, give me a shout when you leave”. “Righto Ted” say I, whilst necking a pint of Amstel. After an hour or so, being responsible adults, we sorted our taxi and we drove back to the site. As soon as we exited the taxi, we all let out the cry “Teeeeeddd, he’s still sitting in the bleedin chair!!” An urgent Chinese Parliament was called. Thankfully we all agreed the plan of action very quickly and promptly swung it into action….we went to our beds and got the head down! We had decided that this would leave us all in a much better state to go down town in the morning to pick him up. As it happened, Dave Pusey and Curly Davis brought him back so our decision was vindicated. We saw Ted in the morning and I must say I didn’t realise he could still swear that well and that loud!! Oh ! how we laughed (Ted will eventually see the funny side)
So it’s now Saturday morning and we are met at the gates of the site by twenty members of the Red Beret Riders, led by Arend Brinkman (Maj retd). They are joining us, and leading, the ride to Ginkel Heath for the commemorative parachute drops. The Red Beret Riders are the Dutch version of the Airborne Forces Riders, veterans and serving airborne warriors who ride motorbikes. In fact, this year we had a serving 2 star General riding. The route to the Heath was extended as we wanted to ride over the Frost Bridge in Arnhem. What a buzz…riding in pairs we crossed the bridge to the sound of the theme from “A bridge too far” blasting out of the sound system. Made the hairs on the back of the neck stand up. This was followed by a superb ride to the Heath. Lines of cars were slowly edging towards the Heath, as it’s a very popular day out for the locals, but we were waved past them. It was a sight to behold, forty plus bikes in pairs roaring past. (Have a look at this link on YouTube
At the Heath, the Red Berry Riders treated us to their usual superb hospitality. Convivial conversation, a massive nosebag and a drink. Excellent!! The parachuting this year was excellent and stirred loads of memories for us all. Saturday evening was spent at the site on what was supposed to be a quiet evening sitting outside the chalets enjoying the fresh air. As with all airborne gatherings, it turned into a beer supping, laugh-in. Bob Russell mentioned Libya so many times that it was agreed by all that he could not use the name. He talked instead of “that sandy place”. I must admit I had forgotten the fun and laughter that can be had pulling up sandbags and swinging the lamp. Magnificent, with sore ribs from laughing so much.
We knew that Sunday morning would be a sobering event. The service at the Oosterbeek Cemetery is always a deeply moving experience for all concerned. Local schoolchildren laying flowers on the graves of the fallen who jumped or flew in to bring freedom and lost their very young lives in the attempt. An event not to be missed by anyone who has had the honour of wearing their red beret.
Monday morning we bomb-burst to ride home. Small groups of very satisfied motorcyclists heading home. All of them refreshed but tired, elated but reflective, happy but sombre. It was a superb weekend that grounded everyone who rode into Arnhem. We rode in as civvies and reconnected with our roots. The biggest benefit being pride. Not the puffed up false pride of those who talk the talk but the deep, earned and hard fought pride that comes from shared, hard experiences.
Roll on Arnhem 2017. I urge everyone to go, at least once, to pay their respects. You will get a great deal from the experience.