Operation Market Garden began 75 years ago tomorrow. Killed at the Battle of Arnhem, Christa Laird’s father died before she was born. She went to meet the man who buried him.
My perspective on the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden – which came to be known as the Battle of Arnhem – is entirely personal.
I am the posthumous daughter of Rudolf Falck, one of the soldiers killed during the retreat in the dark, rainswept final hours of the battle on the night of 25th-26th September 1944.
The son of a German-Jewish architect who had emigrated to Amsterdam in the early years of the Third Reich, Falck had been sent to Oxford at the age of 17, first to improve his command of English and then to read jurisprudence at Balliol College. Not long after graduation in 1940, he was, like so many ‘enemy aliens’, interned on the Isle of Man for three months before being allowed to join the Pioneer Corps. He served with them in various capacities before, in 1943, volunteering for the airborne forces, so as to contribute very directly to the fight against Hitler.
He was commissioned into the Parachute Regiment – much to my mother’s dismay – and eventually this was to lead him to Arnhem, or more specifically to Oosterbeek. There, as a native German-speaker, he was the lieutenant responsible for the German prisoners of war on the tennis courts behind the Hartenstein Hotel, site of Divisional HQ. He was also the unit Intelligence Officer.
Unaccountably, I was already well into my 40s before I started to explore what specifically had happened to my father in his final days. I first went to Arnhem only in 1994 for the 50th-anniversary commemoration events, when I stayed with kind volunteer hosts, a very hospitable Dutch couple who at the time of the battle had been teenagers.
They well remembered the skies going black as what has been described as the greatest airborne armada in history flew overhead. They remembered, too, the general but misconceived jubilation at the prospect of imminent liberation.
My grandparents and my father’s twin sisters were still in Amsterdam, trapped after their American immigration papers had gone up in flames during the bombing of Rotterdam in 1940. They, too, watched the planes and gliders fly overhead, little suspecting that their beloved son and brother was among them. The wonderful Red Cross messaging service which had, if sporadically, sustained the family’s hopes during the preceding war years could of course never convey specific information about my father’s whereabouts.
By this time, the late John Hamblett, an extraordinarily helpful former corporal, who co-authored The Pegasus Patrol, a history of the Parachute Regiment’s Provost Company, had undertaken some exhaustive research on my behalf. It was through him that I learnt about my father’s being in charge of the prisoners.
Crucially, it was also thanks to Hamblett that, in 1993, I met Stan Reast, the lance corporal who was near him when they were machine-gunned in an ambush during the retreat to the Rhine.
Reast had been slightly injured and knocked unconscious. But, later, from the dressing-station where he was being held, he saw my father’s dead body propped up against a lamppost. He knew him quite well as they had earlier served together in North Africa. So now he asked his German captors to be allowed to give my father a temporary burial, together with a fellow lance corporal who was lying dead beside him. A morbid yet rather touching detail is that the Germans even provided him with a couple of shovels. Before digging the temporary graves under guard, Reast retrieved my father’s chequebook stubs to submit to the authorities as proof of identity, his German surname having precluded him from wearing a dog tag.
Ironically, Reast, who had shown such consideration and respect for my father’s body, lived just 10 miles from my grandparents’ cottage in Devon, where my mother and I spent most of my childhood holidays. But, for some unexplained reason, his report never reached my mother from the authorities. It would have meant a great deal to her to meet this man, but she died aged 46, never having discovered exactly what had happened.
When I attended the 50th-anniversary commemorations, my older son was just a few weeks short of his 24th birthday.
My father was killed aged 24. I had known this on a factual level for a long time but now, what my grandparents must have gone through hit me like a physical blow to the stomach. I knew from my twin aunts that they had been a very close and loving family, and yet they had not been able to see their son and brother for the last five years of his life.
Later, it was a poignant pleasure for me to return to the Netherlands for the 60th anniversary in the company of my younger son, and then for the 65th and 70th with my husband, by then retired and able to accompany me.
In the mid-1990s, my ever-loyal acquaintance John Hamblett, chronicler of the Provost Company, had even arranged with the relevant Dutch authorities for the garden in which it was suspected my father’s body might still lie to be investigated with metal detectors. No remains were found and it is not known – perhaps because of the absence of identification – whether they were ever transferred to the Airborne Cemetery in Oosterbeek.
So we have kind of ‘adopted’, and on each visit attended, the grave of an unknown officer nearest to the one belonging to the lance corporal with whom we know my father was killed. It is only an educated guess.
We also lay a single rose at the foot of a lamppost which could just be the one where he was found. In all probability, it is not precisely in the same spot, given how the layout of houses and gardens must have changed since 1944.
Then we attend the moving memorial service in the Airborne Cemetery, during which children from schools in the neighbourhood lay flowers at every grave. This is an entirely voluntary gesture and at the expense of the families and their children – just one example of the gratitude and affection of the local Dutch people, the expression of which is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the commemorations.
Parachute Regiment flags fly in countless gardens in the area. When one thinks of the devastation the operation brought to the area, the loss of civilian life, the subsequent mass evacuation of Arnhem and the surrounding area, and the misery of the Hunger Winter that ensued, the forgiving attitude of the Dutch to the botched attempt to liberate them is humbling indeed.
Sometimes I wonder whether my profound dismay and foreboding at the inward-looking and visionless way we seem to be about to turn our backs on our European neighbours are in part due to the fact that my father’s remains lie forever lost in a corner of a European – and so friendly – field.
So I shall, probably for the last time, return to Oosterbeek for the 75th anniversary to pay my respects.
Numberless families suffered far worse tragedies in those fateful years. But perhaps other posthumous children – or those who, for whatever reason, have lost a parent before memory has been able to capture them – will understand when I say that the search doesn’t stop. Not necessarily for a body, but for the person who left an empty space that can never be filled.