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The Liberation of Nijmegen: A Tale of Two Men

It’s always said that there are two sides to every story. In the small city of Nijmegen, near the Dutch border with Germany, I learned that no story can be so black-and-white as that. When a story involves something as awful as war, each story has so many sides, so many shades of grey that they couldn’t possibly be counted.

Parachute Ceiling

Shades of grey visible in the ceiling of the Honorary Dome at the Liberation Museum in Groosbeek. It was made entirely of parachutes from paratroopers in WWII.

The winter of 1944 (the ‘Hongerwinter’) was a vicious one that was remembered long after its frigid cold gave way to a victorious spring. With the atrocities happening across the world, it couldn’t possibly be said that any one place was the epicentre of action, but Nijmegen was up there. Britain and the Allies were marching across Europe towards Germany, liberating all of the Nazi-held areas they crossed, and by winter, they had made it to the Dutch/German border.

Two men in particular were in Nijmegen that winter. One was a young man from Selsey, a small fishing village on the English Channel. When the war began, he wanted to be a bomber pilot, but thankfully, his eyes weren’t perfect so he wasn’t eligible. Like most young men of that time, he eventually ended up in the armed services; however, as a radar technician in the RAF, he never saw combat. That changed in 1944 when he was given a choice: march to Berlin or ship off to the Pacific. No way was he going anywhere near the Pacific, so Berlin it was.

The Bombing of Nijmegen

A mockup of what Nijmegen looked like the on February 22, 1944 — the night it was accidentally bombed by the Americans.

The people of Nijmegen welcomed the Allies with open arms. Having suffered through years of Nazi occupation, the Americans (who arrived first) represented freedom to them — even to those so young that they couldn’t remember life before the occupation. After all, what could be worse than the night in February 1944 (well before liberation) when Allied bomber planes, aiming for a city in Rhineland, unloaded their cargo on Nijmegen instead? 800 people died that night, and the railway station and the centre of town were destroyed.

The liberation of the city wasn’t something one little boy saw with trepidation. He didn’t view it as a dangerous exercise or as something that could possibly fail, leaving them even worse off than they were before.

No, to him, it was all fun and games — and why not? After all, he was a boy of only eight who was fascinated by the idea of freedom. The day the Allies arrived in Nijmegen at the beginning of Operation Market Garden, parachuting in from high above, he saw them as a rain of confetti falling over the city. Many, many years later, he showed us a photo of the paratroopers. They did, indeed, look like confetti falling from the rafters — as though the last note of a show was done. I couldn’t begin to imagine the sound that accompanied them as fighter planes roared across the sky.

Paratroopers Arriving in Nijmegen

Paratroopers jumping into Nijmegen on September 23, 1944. Photo courtesy of the Liberation Museum.

The paratroopers, the armies behind them, and the men marching behind them — including radar technicians from the RAF — were supposed to liberate the area and move on, crossing the Rhine by mid-September and finishing the war before Christmas. As history shows, that didn’t happen. Instead, Operation Market Garden wasn’t completely successful, and the Netherlands weren’t completely liberated. The British had arrived 72 hours too late, and 2000 of them had to turn back from Arnhem, which was ‘one bridge too far.’

The hilly corner that is home to Nijmegen stayed free, though, and with it the two men.

The English radar technician stayed in the Nijmegen area — eventually ending up in the small town of Erp nearby — for so long that he had to bunk down for the winter. The residents of the area, as excited as they were to be free, didn’t have a lot of resources to spare. Still, they gave what they could. One local gave a number of soldiers, including the radar technician, the loft of his barn to sleep in. The farm animals slept below, partially to stop from freezing in the biting cold outside and partially so their body heat could rise and keep the Englishmen warm.

He wasn’t thrilled to be there — I’m sure his flat in London would have proved significantly more comfortable for the long winter — but the young boy was over the moon that the Allies were there. His family opened their home to two paratroopers — paratroopers that he had watched drop from the sky and land near his house. By the end of the winter, there were 16 people staying in his house, all sleeping in a row in his basement. His first English word was ‘chewing gum,’ courtesy of those same American soldiers, who seemed to have quite a good supply of it.

The Liberation of Nijmegen

One of the exhibits in the Liberation Museum depicting the beginning of Operation Market Garden.

In fact, Nijmegen has a whole was given supplies of a lot more than just chewing gum. The rest of the country spent the winter and the following spring starving until they were liberated on the 5th of May, but the people of Nijmegen were lucky. Even though they spent 6 months on the front lines and accrued one million troops before the final march into Germany, they had food and freedom.

For the young boy, now a senior citizen and a guide at the Liberation Museum (Nationaal Bevrijdingsmuseum) in Nijmegen, that time of liberation meant the excitement of playing in Jeeps with soldiers that gave him chocolate. 

When he thinks of that time, he thinks of learning to drive, as an eight-year-old, in these jeeps. 

He remembers himself spending nearly the entire time wearing an army helmet and idolising his new soldier brothers. 

He thinks of how much fun it was to go fishing with hand grenades and blow the fish out of the water. 

He remembers scavenging in battlefields long after the battles were done, trying to find anything that could be turned into household items because they had none. German helmets made great colanders. 

German Colander Helmet

A German helmet that may or may not have been used as a household colander at one point.

He hears the music from England and America; it was bright, new music that he’d never heard before.

It’s no wonder that, when he grew up, he joined the army and trained in paratrooping himself. Those experiences, those friendships — including a lifelong one with a paratrooper’s family in Scarborough — shaped Jan van Helden’s young life. 

Now life is a bit calmer, but he relives those days regularly as he guides visitors around the riveting Liberation Museum in Groosbeek (located in the hills just outside Nijmegen). While the museum is one of the most interesting I’ve visited in a long time, Jan was still the star of the show. He didn’t seem to realise that we were fascinated by his account, his personal telling of the museum’s tale. To him, there wasn’t anything special about it — it was just his life. But to us it was so much more.

Jan van Helden

Jan van Helden, explaining the particulars of the Liberation as we toured the Liberation Museum.

As for the English radar technician? He could remember the cold of Nijmegen like it was yesterday. 

The arch of the bridge across the river Waal in Nijmegen looked strange to him when I showed him photos; after all, when he was there, the bridge was a tangled mass that had collapsed into the river. 

He remembered the march as he followed the Rhineland Offensive into Germany, eventually finishing in Hannover. 

The memories were not as pleasant for him as they were for Jan, but they were just as strong.

That radar technician? He was my grandfather. When he found out I was going to Nijmegen, his stories of the war began to pour out — stories I had never heard before. Now that he’s passed away, I am so thankful that I chose to spend a few days in this hilly town; otherwise I would have missed out on his (and Jan’s) unique side of the incredibly multi-faceted story of the liberation.

The Radar Technician

My grandfather, the radar technician.

My visit to the Liberation Museum was sponsored by RBT KAN (The Regional Tourist Board for Arnhem and Nijmegen) but all opinions stated here are my own. The Nationaal Bevrijdingsmuseum is located in Groosbeek, which is near Nijmegen and only a few kilometers from the German border in eastern Holland. It is open Monday-Saturday from 10am-5pm and on Sundays from 12-5pm. Individual tickets cost €10 (€5.50/child) or €55 for a group guided tour. 

The Liberation Museum is part of the larger Liberation Route, which was opened in early 2014 and serves as a guide for visitors across northern Europe interested in the Allied march to Berlin. More information can be found on the official Liberation Route website.

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