Cllr Mike Renton tells of his visit to the 75th anniversary of Arnhem to commemorate the Darlington men who took part – and we learn more about paratrooper Sgt Peter Hill who was swept to his death as Operation Market Garden went wrong.

FOR me, the commemorations of the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden started last Sunday in a church, much like it did for the men of the 1st British Airborne Division on the morning September 17, 1944 – it was a habit for even those who weren’t churchgoers to attend the chaplain’s mass before a battle.

As I was leaving the special service at St James’s on Albert Hill in Darlington, I was introduced to two relatives of Staff Sergeant Peter Hill, the glider pilot from the town who died at Arnhem (see Memories 439 and 441).

They finished by asking me why I was going to Arnhem, and I had to think about it for a second. I’ve attended seven anniversary commemorations in the last 14 years, but I couldn’t adequately explain why.

So I went to Arnhem for the eighth time, representing Darlington Borough Council in the official ceremonies, with that question playing in my head.

The first port of call at Arnhem is the bridge. Although only four of the nine days of fighting took place here, it is the central pilgrimage, possibly because so many tried and failed to reach it during the battle.

When we arrived, the bridge was rigged with large screens ready for the main commemoration event, but as the sun had already set, the area had an eerie calm, without the hustle and bustle of the day.

It was difficult to imagine how 750 British soldiers tried to defend the bridge and surrounding buildings against innumerable enemy infantry and tanks.

Over the next few days, I visited the glider landing and parachute drop zones, some eight miles from the bridge on the edge of the town of Oosterbeek.

We ended up at the Hartenstein Hotel, which once housed the 1st Airborne Division but is now a museum set in beautiful parkland. Peter Hill, who landed a huge Hamilcar glider west of Wolfheze on the first day of the Operation, spent the majority of the battle in hellish conditions defending the Hartenstein, with mortar and tank fire raining down on him day and night.

The trees at the Hartenstein still bear the scars.

On Saturday, we joined tens of thousands of people on Ginkel Heath for the annual parachute drop, where Prince Charles laid a wreath. On Sunday, I stood among hundreds of schoolchildren laying flowers on the graves of the fallen, including that of Private Michael Hendrick of Darlington, and it began to dawn on me why I choose to remember.

The Netherlands had experienced four years of terrible occupation during the Second World War, but then 35,000 men dropped from the skies bringing hope of liberation. Of the 10,500 British and Polish men dropped at Arnhem, more than 1,500 perished fighting for the freedom of people they had never met.

Every year the children of Arnhem and Oosterbeek lay flowers on each of the graves, a gesture that not only shows respect for the dead, but also ensures that such profound gratitude is instilled in future generations.

The last, and possibly most important, part of my trip this year was visiting a civilian cemetery in the small town of Maurik, some 18 miles downstream from Arnhem.

As I walked past lines of Dutch names, I could see the light of the sun escaping through the leaves to shine on one plot, surrounded by immaculately attended flowers.

It was a white headstone, standing proudly to attention, with Peter Hill’s name carved on it. He had fought bravely to survive the entire nine days of the battle of Arnhem, through some of the most fierce fighting of the war, only to drown during the evacuation over the river once all was lost. How futile war is.

When I had asked Father Kenneth Crawford at St James’ Church to hold a special remembrance ahead of the anniversary, he said it was well timed as September 14 was Holy Cross Day. “The cross is the ultimate symbol of love,” he said during the service, “while war is the epitome of hatred.”

Peter made the ultimate sacrifice in the hope that there would be no more hatred, and it is our duty to make sure he is loved, and his memory lives on for evermore.

OPERATION Market Garden was meant to drop the paratroopers behind German lines so that they could capture vital bridges before the retreating Germans blew them up. This, it was hoped, would speed up the Allied advance into the Netherlands.

However, it was an over-ambitious plan with Arnhem famously being a bridge too far. After five days of fierce fighting, thousands of Allied men were forced to cross the fast-flowing Rhine to safety.

Sgt Peter Hill, whose mother lived in Starmer Crescent in Darlington, was one of those men pushing to the rescue boats. He was doubly worried as he could not swim.

In the silence of the queue, he met another Darlingtonian, David Hartley, who was an English swimming champion – but who had been injured in the shoulder. They made a pact to stay together.

They sat beside each other in the boat. As it left the bank, it was hit by a mortar shell, and the two Darlingtonians were catapulted into the river. David grabbed Peter, and in the rescue position, they seemed to be making progress against the current until David’s damaged shoulder gave out.

David made it to safety, but Peter was swept away. His body was recovered ten miles away, and so he is buried alone in Maurik.

Jan Hogendoorn from Maurik has been in touch to say how local people are still desperately keen to tend the grave. Hans van de Wal has been in charge of the flowers for many years, and this dry summer has seen him watering them every evening.

On Thursday, the 75th anniversary of Peter’s death, they held a service at the grave.

“Someone had put a poppy wreath with a little note on it which says: ‘From the people of Darlington. We will never forget your sacrifice’,” said Jan. That was Cllr Renton’s wreath.

Ironically, in Maurik they know more about Peter than we do in Darlington. On September 18, 1943 – a year before Operation Market Garden – he had flown his Horsa glider from Cornwall to Africa with two colleagues.

At 11am, at about 1,000ft, they’d been shot down by a Junker plane about 200 miles off Cape Finisterre on the Spanish coast, but they had made it into their lifeboat. The German plane circled around their little boat until it was joined by six other planes who fired on the survivors.

Miraculously, none of them were hit.

Hours later, a British Sunderland airplane flew over them and Peter let off a flare. It was spotted, and HMS Crane was sent to collect them. They came on board at 11.30pm that night, and had to stay aboard for a week as the ship completed its duties.

So Market Garden was 22-year-old Peter’s second major piece of action.

It cost him his life and his hopes of becoming a GP.

“You English are convinced that Market Garden was a failure,” said Jan. “But if I listen to those who remember it, they do not agree. It gave them hope. Hope that the war was going to an end.

“That’s why we think it is an honour to tend his grave. Pete gave

the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.”