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 U.S. flags.
“(The memory) is really kept alive,” said Bart Verhulst, an avid cyclist and history buff who’s long been fascinated with Operation Market Garden, which took place Sept. 17 -25, 1944.
It was the largest airborne drop in history and most extensive U.S. military deployment in the Netherlands, according to the U.S. Embassy in the Netherlands.
Verhulst grew up in Eindhoven, a city along the route of Operation Market Garden, and now lives in Amsterdam. Believing that cycling is the best way to absorb historical landmarks, Verhulst recently launched a website, marketgarden.cc, for those interested in doing that along the operation’s route.
The goal of Operation Market Garden was to sidestep the Siegfried Line, the 390-mile defensive wall built by the Germans, by seizing a 64-mile stretch of territories and bridges in the Netherlands, and crossing the Rhine River to advance into Germany.
The operation had a massive airborne component — called Market — undertaken by the First Allied Airborne Army, which comprised the U.S. Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the British 1st Airborne and the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade; and a land operation — called Garden — headed by XXX Corps of the British Second Army.
The Allies captured the bridges along the route, except the last one, later named John Frost Bridge, in Arnhem. The events were depicted in the 1977 movie “A Bridge Too Far,” whose all-star cast included Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Anthony Hopkins. Arnhem finally was liberated in April 1945.
Verhulst’s website features five different cycling routes, ranging from 83 miles to 137 miles, along the path of Operation Market Garden. He says all can be done in a day “at a moderate pace” by cyclists of all levels. All his routes set off from Leopoldsburg, Belgium, and end just over the bridge in Arnhem.
Each route has stops at different markers and points of interest related to Operation Market Garden, including bridges, monuments, memorials, museums, drop zone sites and even World War II military gliders and tanks, he said. There are also links with background information, videos and podcasts, he said.
“You need to make history accessible these days, especially to young people,” Verhulst said. “It really is a ride through history. It’s absolutely amazing all of the things you can see on this route that are still there. And it’s really beautiful, as well.”
While Operation Market Garden technically was a failure, it was life-changing for the local population, Verhulst said. Nazi Germany had occupied the Netherlands in May 1940.
“(The Allies) liberated most of the south of the Netherlands in 1944,” he said. “People still tell the stories of plowing the fields and all of a sudden thousands of men dropped from airplanes.”
Local battlefield tour guide Joris Nieuwint is always busy in September, giving tours often attended by relatives of soldiers who fought in Operation Market Garden.
“It’s about the men who fought and gave their lives for our freedom,” he wrote via email. “To me, that is the most important thing.”
The personal connections are the most fascinating aspect of his work, Nieuwint said. For example, this year he led two tours that included Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, the only American military cemetery in the Netherlands. The graves and names of missing U.S. soldiers were adopted by Dutch families, Nieuwint said, and relatives of soldiers buried there had the chance to meet the local adopting families.
“(That) made for an incredibly powerful ceremony at the gravesite,” he wrote. “To be able to help and arrange these meetings is the most beautiful thing, and is one of the reasons I’m a tour guide.”
Verhulst said he first found out about Operation Market Garden while cycling at age 14, when he stumbled upon 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 tanks rolled by and how they were shot, and the fierce resistance,” Verhulst recalled.
A few years later, Verhulst’s father dug out old photos of himself as a baby on the hood of an Allied military vehicle during Operation Market Garden, and his lifelong interest was sparked, he said.
Over the years, Verhulst read books and did research on the operation, and eventually had the idea of cycling its route, which he’s done every year since 2017. This year, a buddy from Chicago — where Verhulst lived for a few years — had planned to join him, but was sidelined at the last minute by a cycling crash injury.
Verhulst, who runs a software company, said his aim is to disseminate information, with no commercial gain for himself.
“It is just to say, ‘Hey guys, there is this amazing route through history,” he said.
Thinking of young American soldiers fighting so far away 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 above a country whose location he probably doesn’t exactly know, whose names he cannot pronounce,” he said. “Many of them enlisted because of the sheer idea that a country was dominated by another force, and they strongly felt they should liberate them. I think that is just one of the bravest things there is.”Read comments