Date issued: 17 September 2020
A service was held at Colchester Cemetery, today (17 September), to honour the heroism and sacrifice of the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Arnhem and to recognise the borough’s relationship with the Dutch town where the combat took place 76 years ago.
Dignitaries gathered at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Cross of Sacrifice for the 15-minute, socially distanced ceremony led by the Mayor of Colchester, Cllr Nick Cope.
Mayor Cope was joined by: Lieutenant Colonel Rob Arts, Military and Air Attaché of The Netherlands; Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Essex – Lieutenant Colonel (Retd) Hugh Toler MBE DL, and Lieutenant Colonel David Lord PARA of 16 Air Assault Brigade.
The Right Reverend Roger Morris, Bishop of Colchester, and The Reverend Richard Smith, Senior Chaplain, 16 Air Assault Brigade, led prayers, and a lone bugler from The British Army Band Colchester, standing 50 metres from the main group, played The Last Post and Reveille. A two-minute silence was then followed by the laying of wreaths and a blessing.
The Battle of Arnhem was at the vanguard of Operation Market Garden, which was expected to break into Nazi Germany by a combined airborne and armoured advance, striking a decisive blow that would bring the war in Europe to an end by Christmas 1944. The 1st Airborne Division landed by parachute and gliders at Arnhem, on 17 September 1944, to capture the final bridge across the Rhine. Anticipating they would be relieved within 48 hours, the soldiers instead held out through nine days of prolonged and brutal street fighting before withdrawing across the river on 25th September. Over 1,600 British soldiers were killed at Arnhem and nearly 6,500 captured, while five Victoria Crosses were awarded.
The soldiers of 16 Air Assault Brigade, which is based at Colchester Garrison, serve under the same Pegasus emblem as the 1st Airborne Division, with the badge a reminder of the bravery and commitment of their forebears.
Last year, Colchester Borough Council signed a bond of friendship with Renkum, the Dutch district that includes the town of Oosterbeek where soldiers landed and made their final stand, to mark their shared association with the British Army’s airborne forces. The Dutch and Pegasus flags will be flying from Colchester Town Hall, from 17 to 25 September, to mark the nine days that the battle lasted 76 years ago.
Speaking after the ceremony, the Mayor of Colchester, Cllr Nick Cope, said: “We give thanks today to those whose sacrifice during Operation Market Garden was not in vain but stands as an example of selfless commitment and heroic devotion to the cause of freedom.
“I was tremendously honoured to represent the people of Colchester during the commemorative service today and to be able to pay tribute, on their behalf, to the soldiers of the 1st Airborne Division who fought so bravely and against such impossible odds during one of the most intense and challenging battles of World War Two.
“We shall not forget their sacrifice in helping to defeat tyranny and secure the freedom in Europe that we all take for granted today.
“The suffering of the Dutch people must also be remembered. Their contribution to the efforts of our soldiers and airmen was significant and, just as importantly, the retributions they endured at the end of the operation from the occupying German forces should be recognised. The Dutch people have always been most appreciative and grateful for what our forces did, but we must likewise acknowledge their contribution and the hardships they endured, which we do today through our steadfast civic bond.”
Lieutenant Colonel David Lord, of 16 Air Assault Brigade, added: “The courage, fighting spirit and determination shown by those who took part in Operation Market Garden against overwhelming odds is legendary within airborne forces and sets a standard that we, as the current generation, aim to live up to.
“It is important that we have gathered today, 76 years to the moment that the first soldiers parachuted into action, to honour both their sacrifice and the sacrifice of the Dutch civilians of Renkum, who risked their lives to care for our wounded and assist soldiers to escape across the Rhine. Dutch civilians continued to pay a high price for the failure of the operation, with the Nazis blocking food shipments to occupied areas of the Netherlands and an estimated 22,000 civilians died in the harsh winter that followed.
“It is a huge privilege for 16 Air Assault Brigade to act as the link between our current home of Colchester and Renkum, the Dutch municipality in which 1st Airborne Division made their final stand and where more than 1,600 soldiers killed in the battle are buried at the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery. The strong bond forged between us during that battle will never be forgotten.”