The History of the Airborne March Oosterbeek

By Drs. Willem H. Tiemens


The Police Sport Association ‘Renkum' organises an Airborne March on Saturday September 6, 1947 at Oosterbeek.
The route runs along the main battle areas of September 1944.
Participation is open to members of the police, the military, scouts, civilians, youth clubs and individuals.
The distance is approx. 25 kilometres; for the under aged approx. 15 km.
Everyone who reaches the finish will be awarded a medal with the Airborne emblem, as was agreed by General Urquhart.
Group prizes are available for groups of at least twelve persons (not counting the group leader)


- The start

The previous lines were published in the local paper 'Hoog en Laag' of August 15, 1947.
It provides an insight on the beginning of this marching event, well known across our borders.
No one could foresee that this event would grow out to be the world's largest one day marching event.
There are a few points that have contributed to the success of the Airborne Marches.
The enormous military participation is one of them, because to the world that has been the vital image of the marches.
More reasons than ever to keep alive the remembrance of the Battle of Arnhem and those who lost their lives with this "outsider" amongst all commemorations


- The first

The idea of a commemorative march that originated in the womb of the Police Sport Association "Renkum",
carried the seed of success, which made the event to grow in the years to come.
The organisation was in the able hands of policemen.
Initially there were two routes, that would take the participants along the places and landmarks that had played a role in the Airborne history, such as:

-Hotel Hartenstein, which used to be General Urquharts' headquarters
-the newly constructed Airborne Cemetery
-the drop zones and landing areas at Wolfheze
-the stopping place "Westerbouwing" on the hill above and overlooking the river Rhine
-the old church at the Benedendorpseweg, the symbol for the brave, but retreating British and Polish soldiers


The routes also ran through various woods and other places of natural beauty of which there is so much in this part of the area called the "Veluwe". The participation of military units was well appreciated.
The marching took place in a neat manner. It was a pleasure to watch the disciplined troops pass by, well trained and in correct manner.
It reminded us of the days when we watched military troops march through the streets.
The military training looks perfect. Also the other groups and especially the youth were very much inspired by the same spirit.

So far the report in the newspaper 'Hoog en Laag'.
Leaving the pathos of those days for what it was, it must be said that the first march was very successful.
The organizers had planned on approx. 750 participants, but were taken by surprise when over 2100 showed up.
There were not enough medals, so most participants had their medal sent to them by post.
The mayor of Oosterbeek said: "This was not a traditional march, but I do not think that anyone thinks it is bold to say that we have laid down the foundation for the traditional Airborne Marches in Oosterbeek".
And so it happened: tradition was born!


- The Next

A year later the Airborne Marches turned out to be a success again.
Over 2500 participants, accompanied by 8 bands.
In front of Hotel Hartenstein a parade was held.
Many higher authorities were welcomed by corps commander of the municipal police of Renkum, commissioner J.H. de Groot.
Many of them wanted to march along in the long queue.
The author states here that he hopes that from this an appeal will arise amongst the many authorities on the lawn in front of the hotel nowadays, to participate again, in stead of observing the crowd with a drink in their hands).
Awarding group prizes is preceded by extensive judging. "Winning an award is not achieved by finishing first, but by showing the right attitude and discipline during the full march.
All along the routes inspectors could be watching the troops to observe and judge moral.
In three successive years the Brigade of the Dutch Military Police from Apeldoorn won the first prize.
The Police Sport Association managed to gain some profit.
That enabled them to transfer the sum of 1000 guilders to the Dutch Wargrave Committee "under the restriction that the money was to be spent on the coming over from England of next of kin, who want to visit the graves of the buried allies at the Airborne Cemetery at Oosterbeek during the annual Pilgrimage on September 17.


- And so on

The increase of participants meant an increase of funds for this purpose.
A new route of 10 km was added in 1953 to the two existing routes, to enable young families with children to participate.
For those who are eager to do more and find no more challenge in 25 km, a new distance of 40 km was introduced in 2001.
In 1955 a ban was declared on children under 14 participating.
This had tot do with the outbreak of a contagious disease (meningitis?).
In 1957, ten years after the start over 16.000 attended.
The groups (approx. 500) were still very much participating.
Participant numbers stabilized around the 26th edition around 25.000.
The composition of participants was gradually changing.
Increasing individualism in ordinary life reflected on the marching legion.
More and more single participants exceeded the groups. The military participation was decreasing.
On the other hand the interest from abroad began to increase. Brits, Belgians, Danish, Americans, Norwegians and Germans applied.
The growing popularity could not avoid that participants stayed well aware of the special meaning of the Airborne Marches.
The many wreaths and flowers that stayed behind after the marches on the Airborne Cemetery were a vivid proof.
After 30 years the number of participants grew to 32.000 and the amount of money transferred for the pilgrims in need exceeded 8500 guilders.
Nowadays the number of participants varies, depending on weather conditions, between 29.000 and 34.000.


- Dark clouds

To ensure a well organized flow and an undisturbed course of the marches, it was unavoidable to take drastic traffic measures.
The Renkum police corps could always depend on assistance of other police corps and the military police.
Without all this voluntary assistance the marches could not be held.
It was a good thing that the Police Sport Association organized the marches, because a better authority to do some "wangling" was unthinkable.
But it was just because of that, that dark clouds were accumulating above the international renowned sporting event, with the reorganisation of the Dutch police force into regional workforces.
And the association was facing a loss of the basis of their existence, the Renkum police force.
In 1992 it was decided, because of the Airborne Marches, to prolong the existence of the association.
The Police Sport Association "Renkum" will only organize the marching event, so that the future of this event is ensured for years to come.


- The first Saturday in September

In august the first signs appear alongside the roads to Oosterbeek.
They mark the start of the new edition of the Airborne Marches, traditionally held on the first Saturday in September.
The official commemoration cyclus in September starts with the laying of the wreaths on the Thursday morning preceding the commemorative weekend, at the "needle", the Airborne Monument opposite the Airborne Museum, which once was Hotel Hartenstein.
For many the Airborne March means the start of the commemorative period.
That is also the period were veterans fill the street of Oosterbeek.
They are recognized by their blue blazer and red berets.
When the commemoration weekend approaches their number increases.
As life goes on their number declines. Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.


- We welcome you . . .

It is clear that the Airborne Marches have a special charm and atmosphere.
Many fall for it. It is no rarity that nowadays the third generation of families out of the Arnhem-Oosterbeek area attends the march.
Many Airborne "habits" survived all these years.
The old routes hardly changed over the years and a new distance was added in 2001.
The parade is still held in front of the museum.
Groups still compete for a place of honour in their category.
Still large amounts of flowers are laid on the cemetery.
And still those who attend the first march participate every year. Remarkable?
Yes, at first sight. But once you have attended, you will understand!

The only thing I want to say, dear reader: if you have never experienced the distinctive atmosphere of the Airborne Marches, it is high time you did.
You will never regret it. On the first Saturday in September you are welcome in Oosterbeek.
Make sure you arrive on time, because it is crowded.
And I wouldn't be surprised if you returned the next year.