The return of the altar cross at the R.C. Bernulphus Church, Oosterbeek

Among the paratroopers and airbornes who jumped and landed on Sunday September 17th, 1944 was Eric Collinge, member of 1 Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. Eric was in Mortar Platoon. The landing was quite uneventful and it looked like an exercise in Britain. This, however, was to change quite dramatically.

Especially on that Tuesday morning, when an attack was started by the British paratroopers in the outskirts of West Arnhem, near Saint Elisabeth Hospital, the German resistance had become very strong indeed. The objective for the British paratroopers was: try to reinforce the troops at the bridge, mainly consisting of 2nd Battalion men, commanded by Lieut. Colonel John Frost. They had reached the northern end of the Arnhem bridge in the evening of September 17th.

But the Germans had organised their defensive position very well and the British troops went straight into that bottle-neck, and at the same time the Germans opened fire from the left, from straight ahead, and from across the river Rhine on the right. It became more and more difficult to make any kind of advance, and if they managed at all, it was at the cost of many casualties. The explosions of mortar and 88 mm were deafening, and soon no coherent action was possible. Those who were in that battle will never forget: they were only lightly armed – and they had lost most of their officers and NCOs. The only way to get out, was to go back into the direction from which they had started their attack. Battalions of hundreds of men were reduced to 40 or 50 men. They were battle-weary, deafened by the heavy explosions, they had lost many of their good friends.

In small groups they turned into the Lower Road, and when they came in the neighbourhood of the Old Church, an officer, Major Lonsdale was given the order to reform these remnants of several battalions into a fighting unit. They were known as “the Lonsdale Force” and were to hold these positions to the very last day. Among them was Eric Collinge. The next morning he was sent on patrol to the centre of Oosterbeek with four other airbornes. When he was in the church yard just east of this church, huge Tiger tanks opened fire with their heavy guns. Parts of the front of this church went down in the blast and Eric and his men ran into the church through the big holes in the front wall. In the debris around the altar Eric Collinge saw the altar cross, lying on the floor. Eric, who had just faced death, picked the altar cross up and put it under his smock. He kept it there, also when he swam the river, when the remnants of the Airborne Division were pulling out, after nine days and nights of terrible fighting. When he returned home in England, he handed the cross to his mother, a devout Roman Catholic. She was certain that the altar cross had protected her son and had brought him home.

When Eric’s mother died a few years ago, Eric kept and maintained it, but he tried to contact “that church in the Arnhem area”. A letter was sent to the Dutch Embassy in London – and the altar cross was given to a nearby museum awaiting the reply from London. It was not to come. But in the Branch Newsletter “The static line” a write-up plus photograph were published. Another member of Eric’s Branch happened to send his copy to a young schoolboy in Holland. This boy gave it to a local teacher, Mr Henk Duinhoven. The latter read the article and together with his friend Mr Gerard Böcker, a plan was made. They framed a letter, asking Eric whether he had ever considered the possibility of returning the altar cross to the church where he had found it. Eric’s reply came within a week, suggesting to send it by post. But his new-found friends in Holland asked him whether he would personally come and return it to the Bernulphus community. Eric had never been back: he had lost so many good friends and such terrible things had happened here. But he made up his mind rather quickly, and together with his wife Mary he handed the altar cross to Father A.J. Wissing, parish priest of the St Bernulphus Church, and everyone in that packed church will remember the moment when Eric placed “his” altar cross in a niche beside the main altar, on the right hand side. And this is the place where it is now. We shall never know whether the altar cross really gave the much needed protection to Eric. But it is nice to have the altar cross in that niche, as a reminder of the terrible days in September 1944. And we are towards Eric Collinge, who is now a regular guest in our church, in September.

Veteraan onwel bij herdenking (pdf)