by Ed Storey
Travel and adventure are no strangers to my family. Both dad and I are retired from the Canadian Armed Forces. As a parachute-qualified combat engineer, dad had two NATO Germany tours and a six-month UN Cyprus deployment. When he left in 1982, after 28 years, he was the Canadian Military Engineers Branch chief warrant officer. I was also an engineer, but a cartographer; my career took me on two tours to Yugoslavia, one for a year in the early 1990s with the UN and another with NATO. Deployments to Honduras with the DART (Disaster Assistance Response Team), Uganda and then Afghanistan rounded out my 35-year career.
Naturally, dad and I both share an interest in Canadian military history. It started in 1973 when stationed in Lahr, Germany, and it has continued over the years via trips to Europe and the United States. My son Charles inherited the joy of travel and history and accompanied us to the United Kingdom and France in 2006 and to Gettysburg in 2007.
In recent years, dad and I have been heading to Europe each spring for short adventures. Last spring Charles was again able to join us, so I set to work planning a ten-day itinerary to northern Germany, with a quick side-trip to the Netherlands. The plan was to fly to Frankfurt, then on to Hamburg where we’d rent a car. From Hamburg we would head west to visit a friend in Nottuln and then spend a day in Arnhem. After Arnhem we would drive east to Berlin for a couple of days to explore the city and then make our way northwest to Wismar for a day. Returning the car at Hamburg, we would fly to Frankfurt to spend the day and then head back to Canada where my understanding wife would collect us at the Ottawa airport.
In Hamburg we visited Miniatur Wunderland, the largest model railway attraction in the world. Featuring a series of working model railways, road networks, canals and an airport, it is housed on three long floors of an old 19th century warehouse. From there, we went on to visit a massive Second World War concrete flak tower that was constructed to help defend Hamburg from the Allied bombing raids. After the war, many of these towers were destroyed by the victorious Allies, but two remain in Hamburg and this one, which is open to the public, now houses a solar generating station.
Heading to the Netherlands, our destination was the site of one of the most famous battles of World War II. Arnhem is located on the banks of the Rhine River and Arnhem Bridge, made famous in the 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far, was the objective of the 1st British Airborne Division in September of 1944. The plan was to capture it during the ill-fated Operation Market Garden. For nine days the paratroopers fought hard to hold their position but were eventually surrounded and driven off by a superior German force. We visited the Oosterbeek Hartenstein Hotel that served as the Airborne headquarters during the battle. It is now a first-rate museum and fitting tribute to the battle.
After the museum we paid our respects to those buried in the Arnhem-Oosterbeek War Cemetery, which contains 1759 graves. Over 30 of them are Canadian, and dad made a point of placing a poppy at every headstone he could find. In the cemetery we spotted members of a wedding party who, in a sign of respect, were leaving flowers at some of the gravesites. An older lady in the group noticed we were Canadian, and Charles listened intently as she recounted her experiences of having grown up in Arnhem through the German occupation. She talked about the battle for the bridge, and the city’s eventual liberation months later by the Canadian army.
Berlin, a half-day trip across northern Germany, is a beautiful walkable city with many fantastic restaurants and numerous museums. The city has a storied history. As the centre of power for Hitler’s Nazis, it was a regular target of the Allied airforces and, following some intense street fighting, it was captured in May 1945 by Russia’s Red Army. Occupied after the war and eventually divided with a wall constructed by the Soviets, the city was the centre of Cold War tensions until the reunification of Germany in 1989.
Our last stop was Wismar, a UNESCO world heritage city on the Baltic Sea. This port was the final objective of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion during the closing stages of the Second World War. The Canadians, along with the 6th British Airborne Division, dashed from the lower Rhine across Germany to Wismar in order to stop the advancing Red Army from steamrolling across the North German Plain into Denmark. The plan worked and the Soviets were not pleased to have their way barred by the Canadians who held their ground in the face of intense pressure. Although relations between the two Allies were initially cordial, the mood soured and weeks later the paratroopers withdrew from Wismar as it had been ceded to the Soviet occupation zone. I brought copies of wartime photographs taken while the Canadians were in the city and we spent the better part of a day photographing the locations as they appear today.
It was only a short drive from Wismar to Hamburg and our flight back to Canada via Frankfurt. Travelling with family allowed my father to get away from the snow and enjoy some German cuisine. Charles experienced a valuable lesson in remembrance and was happy to visit some historic locations about which he had only read. For the three of us, it was a chance to share a history-related travel experience and to walk in the footsteps of giants.
Edward Storey is a military veteran with a passion for history and travel. He has written several magazine articles and three books on Canadian military collectables. He is also internationally recognized for his knowledge of uniforms and equipment and how they were used.