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Arnhem Odyssey 2023-2nd (NI) Battalion ACF

10 October 2023

On the 31st August, a group of 25 Cadets from Ballygowan Detachment, supported by 7 CFAVs from across F Company, 2nd (NI) Battalion ACF, departed Northern Ireland and set course for the Netherlands to conduct a 4-day Battlefield Study and take part in the annual Oosterbeek Airborne March – held each September as a way of remembering the Battle of Arnhem and Operation Market Garden. The trip was was made possible, with support from ACCT UK grants.

Below is an exhilarating report from Lt. Gareth Townley, who vividly recounts his awe-inspiring experience during the remarkable 4-day journey

After traveling through the night, the first stop for Day 1 for the group was to visit Langemark in Belgium, where they saw the sheer scale of loss that occurred in the First World War with a visit to the German War Cemetery. This location also placed the group on the German front line of September 1917 where two Irish Guardsmen – Lance Sergeant John Moyney and Private Thomas Woodcock – were awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions in holding their post for over 96 hours with little water and food before leading a charge through enemy territory and covering the rest of their men while they escaped to safety. From Belgium, the group made its way to Arnhem, where it joined with the only other UK Cadet group taking part in the Airborne March this year from Gads Hill CCF. After settling into the accommodation, the evening was spent making new friends and swapping stories with our CCF colleagues.

Day 2 saw the group up early and into kit to take part in the 96th annual Oosterbeek Airborne March. This event is the world’s largest single-day marching event and is held each year, with over 35,000 people attending and taking part either as individuals or as formed groups. Many military teams from across the UK and Europe join them over distances ranging from 10 km to 40 km. As many of the Cadets taking part this year were at the 1 and 2 Star levels, the group set off to march the 10 km route. However, by the end of the march, they had actually covered just over 17.5 km and would have happily kept going! The march is an amazing experience with a carnival atmosphere as the people of Oosterbeek come out to cheer you on, and there is great camaraderie among all the many nationalities taking part. There was much interest in who our Cadets were and why they were there, which all the Cadets took great pride in letting everyone know about 2 NI ACF. During the march, the group made a point of stopping at the Commonwealth War Cemetery to pay their respects and place a remembrance poppy.

Day 3 started with a well-earned lie-in and a late breakfast before the group set out for a scenic drive through the Dutch countryside, making the most of the brilliant weather we had been very lucky to have. The focus for the morning was following in the footsteps of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division – the famous Band of Brothers. The group visited the Schoonderlogt estate to the south of Arnhem, which had been Easy Company’s headquarters during their time in the area shortly after Operation Market Garden sadly failed to achieve its objectives. It is here that their inspirational leader, Captain Richard Winters, last commanded his company before promotion to a Battalion Command post. The group then traveled the short distance to the site of the Crossroads battle where Richard Winters fired his final shots of the Second World War when Easy Company took on a much larger enemy force and, through his leadership, won the battle.

After a further short drive, the group visited the amazing Overloon War Museum, which contains thousands of artefacts, pieces of equipment, and vehicles from the Second World War, including a replica of the Horsa Glider used to deliver many of the British Airborne troops into Arnhem during Market Garden. The museum also tells the story of the impact the war had on the Netherlands and also has a poignant display about the Holocaust, reminding us all why the Second World War had to be fought and had to be won.

Day 4 took us to the famous Bridge Too Far, today called the John Frost Bridge in honour of Colonel John Frost who commanded the British Airborne unit which reached the bridge on 17th September 1944 and held it for four days under extreme German attack and only surrendering when they had no ammunition remaining. The Cadets enjoyed some shopping time in Arnhem where it is hard to imagine what it must have been like during the battle. The airborne Museum at Oosterbeek however helped with this with its brilliant experience which after boarding a glider, saw the group land in the middle of the battle for Arnhem, walking through the ruined town and the fighting taking place. Before departing Arnhem the group visited the Commonwealth Cemetery again. Each Cadet was given a poppy to place on the grave of their choice, only they would ever know why they choose that Soldier and it was humbling to see them take the time to walk along all the rows of graves before finally stopping and placing their poppy. A short act of remembrance was held as LCpl Ryan Haughey who was on his final ACF event before aging out, placed a wreath on behalf of the Battalion.

We had one final job to do however and as we headed back to Calais for the long journey home we stopped at Valkenswaard Commonwealth Cemetery on the Dutch/Belgian border. Here 16 Irish Guardsmen killed in the opening hours of Operation Market Garden are buried side by side. As proud Mini Micks with the honour to wear the Irish Guards Cap Star, the group placed remembrance poppies on the grave of each of the men some of who to this day are still unknown. It was a fitting way to finish Exercise Shamrock Pegasus, remembering these men and all those who lost their lives 79 years ago. Since returning home the group has been contacted by the granddaughter of one of the men, LSgt John Watters, to thank us for remembering him and all the men from both her and her mother, LSgt Watters daughter, who now 80 was only 1 year old when her father died in 1944. A touching end to what was an amazing trip for all the Cadets and CFAVs involved.

Our sincere thanks go the ACCT UK, RFCA NI and our Battalion for all their support in making this trip possible. The impact it has had on the Cadets involved has been enormous and it will live in their memories long after their time with us in the ACF has come to an end.

Lt Gareth Townley, OIC Ex Shamrock Pegasus 23, 2nd NI Battalion ACF

This trip was support by ACCT UK Grant. If you are looking to take part in a similar expedition and need to fund your trip, you can apply today, here.

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