Military history

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AT THE FERRY LANDING STAGE in the little village of Driel, seven miles southwest of the Arnhem bridge, Pieter, the ferryman, prepared for his first trip of the day across the Lower Rhine. The early-morning commuters, who worked in the towns and villages on the northern side of the river, huddled together in small groups, chilled by the morning mist. Pieter took no part in the talk of his passengers about the fighting going on west of Arnhem and in the city itself. His concern was with the operation of the ferry and the daily schedules he must maintain, as he had done for years.

A few cars, and farm carts filled with produce for stores and markets to the north, were loaded first. Then men and women pushing bicycles came aboard. At exactly 7 A.M. Pieter swung out into the river, the ferry running smoothly along its cable. The trip took only a few minutes. Edging up to the ramp below the village of Heveadorp on the northern bank, passengers and vehicles disembarked. Above them, the Westerbouwing, a hundred-foot-high hill, dominated the countryside. On the northern bank, most commuters set off on roads leading east to Oosterbeek, whose tenth-century church tower rose above groves of oaks and lupine-covered moors. Beyond was Arnhem.

Other passengers waited to cross back to Driel. There, once again, Pieter took on northbound travelers. One of them was young Cora Baltussen. Only two weeks earlier, on September 5, which would always be remembered by the Dutch as Mad Tuesday, she had watched the Germans’ frantic retreat. In Driel, the conquerors had not returned. For the first time in months, Cora had felt free. Now, once again, she was apprehensive. The joy of the news of the paratroop landings the day before had been diminished by rumors of the intense fighting in Arnhem. Still, Cora could not believe the Germans would ever defeat the powerful Allied forces that had come to liberate her country.

At the Heveadorp landing on the north side of the river, Cora pushed her bicycle off the ferry and pedaled to Oosterbeek and the local baker’s shop. She had given her meager hoard of sugar rations to the pastry shop for a special occasion. On this Monday, September 18, the Baltussen preserves factory was observing its seventy-fifth year in business and Cora’s mother was celebrating her sixty-second birthday. For the first time in months all of the family would be together. Cora had come to Oosterbeek early to pick up the birthday cake, which would mark both the company’s anniversary and Mrs. Baltussen’s birthday.

Friends had tried to dissuade Cora from making the trip. Cora refused to listen. “What can possibly happen?” she had asked one friend. “The British are in Oosterbeek and Arnhem. The war is almost over.”

Her trip was uneventful. In these early hours Oosterbeek seemed peaceful. There were British troops in the streets, the shops were open, and a holiday mood prevailed. For the moment, although gunfire could be heard only a few miles away, Oosterbeek was tranquil, not yet touched by the battle. Although her order was ready, the baker was amazed that she had come. “The war is all but over,” she told him. With her parcels, she cycled back to Heveadorp and waited until Pieter brought the ferry in again. On the southern bank she returned to the somnolent peace of little Driel, where, as usual, absolutely nothing was happening.

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