Return of a Humble Hero

Jan Davis, her sister Judy, and their father WWII Arnhem veteran Bill Larder, from Melton Mowbray recently went on a Taxi Charity trip to the Netherlands for Wandeltocht. This is Jan’s account of the experience.

The first time Dad went to Arnhem he flew in on a twin-engined turboprop Dakota. This time he arrived in Harwich in an electric Tesla and was taxied to Arnhem in an electric London cab. How times have changed! To add to the excitement of his first return trip to the Netherlands we had to detour as the M11 was closed due to an accident, but this also meant we drove past the Imperial War Museum, Duxford where we were treated to an unplanned fly-past by a spitfire, not once but twice over our taxi. It was quite symbolic of the days ahead. More than seven decades ago Dad took a leap into the unknown. Prior to the outbreak of the war, he looked destined to a peaceful life as a farmer.

The war changed that, with him joining up as a young man, initially in the RAF (for which he was later forgiven by his father) for a few short months before enrolling in the Wiltshire Regiment (earning his father’s forgiveness, approval, and a pint). Claiming it was on the promise of extra pay he then joined newly formed Parachute Regiment. This led to the biggest step he could possibly have taken when, on the afternoon of 18 September 1944, he stepped out of the Dakota into the abyss of rain and hails of gunfire to play his part in the defeat of the scourge that had destroyed the lives of so many people of the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. In the following years he married, had five children and a variety of jobs, often involving travel and long hours with little chance of time off. In some ways his wartime experiences became a distant memory, but in others they continued to haunt him. He outlived his wife, siblings, and most of his friends, maintaining his health and a level of fitness that even at the age of 98 means he can do things that many people half of his age would find difficult. Much of this is down to his positive attitude.

My siblings and I have always been aware that Dad’s war time service involved him being a paratrooper involved in Operation Market Garden and being sent to Palestine, but not a lot more. Dad had sometimes spoken of meeting a Dutch woman who, when she learned of his connection to the battle for Arnhem, hugged him, a stranger, like a long-lost friend who had rescued her, thanking him profusely. He discovered she had come from the district but didn’t understand why she was thanking him for what he considered to be a failure. Many years later, in 2019, shortly after the 75th   anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem, with Dad’s permission, I’ve applied for the Arnhem Veterans’ Medal. Little did we know this would lead to a whole new world of recognition and special friendships, particularly with Gerrit Pjipers and his wife Johanna, with whom Dad feels an amazing bond of friendship.

So, after spending a lifetime trying to distance himself from his wartime experiences, he took the most recent huge step and attended the 2022 Airborne Wandeltocht with the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans accompanied by myself and my sister Judy. The visit was incredible and the welcome indescribable. He has thoroughly enjoyed his experiences, especially kisses and hugs from the ladies!!

Dad has been transformed by this visit in a good way and was even singing a song to us that they used to sing whilst waiting to jump. The song was sung to the tune of Red River Valley and goes: Oh, come and sit by my side if you love me Do not hasten to bid me adieu But remember the poor paratrooper And the job he is trying to do When the red light goes on, we are ready For the Sergeant to shout “Number One” Though we sit in the plane close together We all tumble out, one by one When we’re coming in for a landing Just remember the Sergeant’s advice Keep your feet and your knees closer together And you will reach mother earth very nice When we land in a certain country There’s a job we will do very well We will fire old Goering and Adolph And all of those blighters as well So, stand by your glass and be ready And remember the men of the sky Here’s a toast to the men dead already And a toast for the next man to die. Although the old romantic used to replace the final verse with: Oh, come and sit by my side if you love me Do not hasten to bid me adieu But remember the poor paratrooper(adding) Whose love, it will always be true.

Dad has become quite the celebrity, but most importantly he now realises that what he had thought had been an unsuccessful military attempt had provided hope to a whole generation and their descendants, although he still maintains it was nothing special and he was just following orders just like other soldiers! “I was just doing my job”.

He is humbled by the welcome and out flowing of love and thanks from the Dutch people he has met on this trip, saying, “…we’ve always been friends”. He is still singing this morning, walking tall and is very happy. We are all so very grateful to those who have made this trip possible and hope to see you all again.

Brian Heffernan, Chairman, Taxi Charity for Military Veterans, said

“It was an absolute pleasure for the Taxi Charity to take Bill back to Arnhem for the first time since 1944 for the Airborne celebration march. We were also joined on our weekend trip by fellow Arnhem veteran Geoff Roberts and four other WWII veterans. Bill is now part of the Taxi Charity family and we hope he will join us on future trips across the UK and the continent.”

To find out more about the support the Taxi Charity offers to veterans or to donate  visit www.taxicharity.org

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