It is September 20th, 1944, in a desperate attempt to capture the Nijmegen bridges, Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division have to cross the Waal river. They have to do this in broad daylight, in flimsy canvas boats and it will be the first time, they have never done anything like this before.
Operation Market Garden teeters on the brink of failure. The brilliant plan to capture the bridges across the major rivers and canals in Southern Holland by Paratroopers and then use the tanks of the British XXX Corps to drive into Germany has not gone as planned. The Germans have been stubbornly defending the bridges over the Waal River at Nijmegen for three days now, and the Allies are desperate to capture them and drive on Arnhem for the final link up with the 1st Airborne division.
General Gavin, commanding the 82nd Airborne Division told the British that the best way to capture the bridges is to attack them from both sides. The decision is made, and H and I companies from the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment will cross the River. Among the men in H company was Lt Megellas, he made it across the river, but 48 men died in this heroic action.
Fast forward 70 years, the road bridge at Nijmegen still is the only road bridge across the Waal river, and it can no longer handle the traffic. A second bridge must be built, and it will be built next to the location where the river crossing took place. The bridge will also serve as a monument; it is named “De Oversteek” (The Crossing) and every night the 48 streetlights on the bridge are switched on in pairs, marching across the river.
Shortly after they opened the bridge in 2014, a group of local Dutch army veterans decides to pay tribute to the men who died in the crossing and start marching in the pace of the streetlights being turned on across the river. They have done this every single day since October 18th, 2014 and yesterday, November 1st, 2017, it was the 1110th sunset march.
This one was different though, Lt. Col. Megellas, a veteran of the river crossing, would be attending the march.
Around 16:45 a group of people started to arrive at the foot of the bridge and then moved up the stairs to the first pair of lights. There we were joined by Lt. Col. Megellas who, being well into his 100th year, participated in a wheelchair.
Before we marched across Megellas told a story of the last time he was here, in 2014, when he had lunch with Dutch Queen Beatrix. He asked her if it was appropriate if he could sign a copy of his book for her, which she gratefully accepted. About four months later, he receives a special package from the Netherlands, in it was his own book, Dutch version, inscribed by the Queen and also a personal letter. He said this never happened to him in any other country and it shows the gratitude of the Dutch.
Sunset was 17:11 and we started to march across the bridge, keeping pace with the streetlights. At the far side of the bridge, on the dike, there is a monument. On it are the names of all the men who died in the crossing and in defending the newly formed bridgehead.
At the monument, we all gathered, and they played taps, then Megellas wanted to tell us two short stories. These turned out to be anything but short, but we were all hanging on every word as you don’t get to listen to these stories every day!
Never before, in the history of World War II was there a mission such as this, Megellas told us. “When we got out of that boat, and the 11 [remaining] boats turned around and went back. We were there, ourselves and in front of us was this dike, with the machineguns and fort Hof van Holland and snipers from the [nearby] bridges were firing on us. We didn’t have anywhere to go! There wasn’t any cover from machine gun fire; we were just racing through there.”
“I don’t think,” he continued, “there was another battle in World War II that was a suicide mission. Think about it; you can’t go back where you came from [because] the boats are gone. You don’t have any supporting weapons; you haven’t got any artillery, you haven’t got anything! In front of you are the machineguns and you can’t go back.”
Megellas told us many more stories before it was time to wrap up. It is not often that you are in the company of a hero, and last night we were a witness to something special, a once in a lifetime opportunity.
The ceremony over, we all walked back across the bridge, and we realized how far it was from the dike to the river’s edge. Then, looking over the side, we notice again how wide the river is and how fast it flows. Incredible, what these men did for our freedom is beyond belief.
The march is free for anyone to attend, for more information and the actual time of the march take a look at their website: http://www.sunsetmarch.nl
Hats off to the veterans of the municipality Overbetuwe who march across the bridge every night at sunset.