Memories are everywhere in the house for Sophie ter Horst. The polished oak floors that wounded British soldiers were laid out on.
The lawn outside where troops dug trenches to fend off the Nazis and the rose garden at the back, where 57 corpses were hastily buried in unmarked graves.
The horse chestnut tree in the front garden, which saved the life of one British soldier by taking the force of a mortar bomb blast – and still bears the scars.
And the cellar where her mother hid her five small children from the horrors of war playing out just metres away – but from where Sophie could hear the injured soldiers’ groans and feel the force of artillery blasts as the Germans edged closer.
The Old Vicarage, next to a church in the picturesque village of Oosterbeek, Holland, had been an idyllic family home.
But then war broke out and the house was at the centre of one of the biggest
This week, exactly 75 years on, veterans have been returning, welcomed with as much warmth as they were all those years ago. Sophie still remembers the events of that week vividly. Now 80, she still lives in the Old Vicarage.
She says: “I cherish this house and feel privileged to live here. It’s where British men gave their lives to free Europe. I’ve lived with their memories all my life. I think of them all the time.”
Of the 10,000 men from the 1st Airborne Division who took part in Operation Market Garden in September 1944, just 2,400 would make it out again after a vicious nine-day battle. The rest were killed or taken prisoner.
The plan was for the troops to drop into the town of Arnhem and seize a key bridge on the Rhine, then cling on until an armoured column could arrive and reinforce them.
But German resistance was greater than expected and the Battle of Arnhem was the most devastating clash of the war, as portrayed in Richard Attenborough’s epic 1977 film A Bridge Too Far.
As they ran out of food and ammo, and ground reinforcements failed to arrive, the remnants of the force found themselves hemmed in on the outskirts of Oosterbeek.
Housewife Kate opened her house – just 500 metres from the front line – as a makeshift first aid station.
Within days it was packed with 300 men and she spent her days and nights offering motherly love, plus words of comfort and strength, to the injured and dying British troops who filled every room, even the attic.
Sophie recalls feeling at first exhilaration at seeing British paratroopers marching down their street following four years of Nazi occupation.
She says: “We went out and took a long time hugging the soldiers. We all kissed and embraced, and we were so happy, because we were free.
“My father, a resistance leader, climbed the church tower and raised a Dutch flag. We thought the war had come to an end.
“That was my first memory, that collective feeling of happiness at that moment.” But the mood soon changed…
Sophie says: “Mother put us in the cellar, with a nanny. She would come and go. We heard the noise and tremors of the grenades and mortars. We didn’t know what mother was having to deal with.
“She transmitted a sense of safety, so I never felt fear. She later told me the house was so full of injured soldiers there wasn’t space to walk. And all the time it was being bombarded.
“We saw the British just once, when she brought in a shell-shocked soldier named Lionel, as she thought it might help him being with us. He sat with us on the steps. I remember the feel of his jacket and that he gave me a piece of his chocolate.”
Kate, meanwhile, was earning her name as an angel, tending to the injured, often frightened, soldiers. One paratrooper is reported to have told her “You’re lovely, just like my mum” moments before he died.
General Frank King, cared for by Kate after being shot in the leg, wrote: “I noticed how the whole room brightened up at her arrival and how the soldiers hung on to her every word.” As men died, they were buried in Kate’s garden.
Under relentless sniper fire, the young Army doctor in charge was twice wounded. Orderlies were killed moving stretchers and some of the wounded were shot dead as they lay inside the house.
On the ninth day, the British got orders to withdraw and 2,000 escaped across the Rhine.
Furious at how Oosterbeek had helped the British, the Germans ordered everyone to leave the village.
Sophie remembers: “Mother took us out and put a blanket over our heads so we didn’t see the bodies of British soldiers. But a little further down the road the blanket fell off and I saw the bodies of four Germans.
“It affected me greatly. I pass that spot every day and every day for the rest of my life I’ve thought of them.”
After the war, Kate refused to accept she was a hero. When soldiers clubbed together for a plaque to honour her, she insisted her name be taken off. But in 1980, 12 years before her death, she accepted an honorary MBE.
Sophie’s younger brother Michiel, 78, says: “She thought anyone would have done what she did. She would say the real angels were the ones who fell from heaven, the brave men of the Airborne Division.”
After Kate, husband Jan and their children returned to the Old Vicarage in 1946, veterans and their relatives began to turn up, to thank her. Tragedy struck in 1947, when her oldest son Pieter was killed by a leftover anti-tank mine by the Rhine.
It did not stop Kate honouring the Brits who gave their lives to liberate Holland, making the house and its beautiful gardens a living monument to them. In the shade of a cedar tree at the bottom of her garden, she put a statue of Pegasus, the symbol of the British airborne forces.
Kate died in 1992, aged 86, after a car hit her and Jan outside the Old Vicarage. She was thrown into her garden, dying in the same place as so many soldiers she had cared for.
Jan, who broke both knees, was nursed back to health by the same doctor, named Martin, who ran the first aid post during the battle. He flew over from England as soon as he heard of the accident.
Since her mother’s death, Sophie has continued to receive British veterans, some of whom have become lifelong friends.
They include the family of Lt Roderick Pearson, a survey officer from the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment who led the troops holed up around the Old Vicarage. His grandson, Freddie Kemp, 41, often stays with Sophie at her house.
Freddie said: “Grandpa got to know Kate because he ended up having to bury most of his men in her garden. He told me the house was sniped at all the time. In the end, they had one gun they used to protect the house and keep the Germans away to evacuate.
“He swam across the Rhine three times, carrying injured. He became a vicar but never forgot Kate, even naming my mum after her. Our families have been close ever since.”
Another visitor was Lionel, the shell-shocked soldier.
Sophie says: “In 1996 he arrived in my garden. His grandson had literally dragged him. He said he had nightmares about that cellar and refused to come back.
“I remembered his name, even though I was only five at the time. At that, he burst into tears and fell into my arms. We both cried and I took him to see the cellar again.
“Later, I received a letter from him. He said that from that moment on his nightmares had stopped. He thanked me for finally giving him peace.”
And the gratitude of Oosterbeek has not waned. Airborne Forces flags and Union Jacks hang from houses and shops. Fashion boutiques display clothes and bags with the Pegasus symbol, while a sweet shop sells boxes of Airborne chocolates.
Sophie Pietersen, 37, whose family own the shop, said: “Gratitude to the British is very alive.”
Perhaps most poignantly, Kate’s husband Jan, as interim mayor after the war, began a tradition of assigning children the graves of fallen Brits to tend to, knowing their families were unable to do so.
Shop-owner Sophie added: “From an early age, we are taught we should never, ever forget what the British did for us.”
- This story has been updated to correct the name of Freddie Kemp’s grandfather. He is pictured with his father, not his father-in-law.
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