Ardennes

Operation Nutz! (Heritage Article)

Operation Nutz! was our tour of the Ardennes in 2011. It took its title from the famous response from General McAuliffe to the Germans when they demanded his surrender at Bastogne – Nutz!

The Ardennes is a beautiful wooded area of south Belgium, and in some ways when you see the twisting roads, the steep hills, the deep valleys and the many river crossings, it is easy to understand why the Allies thought that the German counter offensive would not take place here.

Having failed miserably to make contact with any Belgian Scouts, we were unable to find Scout accommodation and were on the brink of opting for plan B, and going somewhere else, when we found a gite in a villa that accommodated 24 – just the right number for us in a near perfect range of sleeping accommodation.

Were to use the gite as our base and operate from there to visit various attractions and activities. Cost-wise, the gite was on par with Scout accommodation at Merkenvelde, but perhaps better equipped.

It was a long haul down to the Ardennes, easy for people living in the south east, but for us coming from Yorkshire it was a long haul, overnight to Dover, and then another long haul down to our destination.

The week was spent touring, visiting the European Space Centre, which turned out to be very interesting, and gave several Explorers the chance to try the weightless simulator and the human gyroscope used to train astronauts to control their hand/ eye movements in rapid out of control spins.

The full size Shuttle simulator was being used for real time training by children taking part in summer school at the centre, where they train as astronauts and get to fly a section of a real space mission.

There was an example of the satellite that sparked off the whole space race, the Sputnik, it was not much larger than a beachball.

One of the points that tickled the amusement of many was the space toilet, where astronauts had to hold themselves in place, because in space where they are weightless, the idea of every action having an equal and opposite reaction is critical! There were many jokes about wind powered flight…

Another visit was to Bastogne, where we partook of pastries from the patisseries, and visited La Mardasson, the monument built by the Belgians to thank the Americans for the liberation of the Ardennes. Seen from above it is a huge US star. From the ground the pillars tell the tale of the US forces from D-Day to Berlin, the points of the star are highlighted with the names of every US state.

We had made a point of booking a half day “mountain biking” and a half day kayaking. The cycling took us from the start point, to the embarkation point for kayaking. We then kayaked back down the river Lesse to the start. Well, it was the hottest day of the week, and as we set off, the guides shot off ahead of us, leaving some of us oldies trailing. A broken chain resulted in a bike swap and a further delay, that led to an Asthma attack at the bottom of a hill. I think only one Scout actually managed to cycle all the way to the top. But then, it wasn’t the top, we just kept on climbing, before a long and rapid descent along twisting roads to the embarkation point for the kayaks.

Here we joined the queues and our plan of a controlled group descent went out of the window. We all set off at different times and were spread down the river considerably. We counted some 2,300-3,000 kayaks at our departure point, and something similar at a second departure point on the opposite bank! Thinking that two of our Scouts had shot off ahead, Fiona and Ewan sped off down the river to find them… except it turned out that they were chasing complete strangers.

The following day we visited Luxembourg city and spent some time exploring the city and its defences. It is a very old city that has seen various conquerors come and go. Laterally the small nation has opted to offer no real resistance, what could this small nation do against it much bigger neighbours? That was not to say though that the Luxembougois did not play their part in ousting the Germans in 1944.

The weather was humid, and reputed to be the safest city in Europe, the day was broken by the wailing of sirens, as the Gendarmes cleared one of the city squares of people. The army was there, the police, the bomb squad. What was the incident? Someone had left an unattended briefcase by a street bench and they took no half measures in using this to display their professionalism in dealing with an incident.

We also went caving, well, we went on a guided tour of the show caves at Hotton. These are deep and cover many kilometres deep inside the hills above the town. The show caves give an idea of the extent of the network, which is still being explored by local speleoligists. On the way back down to Hotton, we stopped at the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery.  This is a medium sized cemetery, as neat as the others we have seen, but in some ways more moving than even Tyn Cot, for here lay bomber crews, side by side. In one instance, a crew of seven, one member from the UK, one from Canada, one from Australia, one from New Zealand and one from South Africa and one American, all killed when their plane was shot down over the Ardennes. We see the stereotyped multinational crews in the old movies, here was the real story right in front of us.

The Ardennes is littered with WW2 memorials, preserved tanks, stand guard in many towns, usually Allied tanks, like the two in La Roche, or the Sherman in Bastogne, or the Stuart in Arlons, but there are the odd German tanks, such as the Panzer at Houffalize.  This was salvaged after falling off the bridge it was supposed to be guarding, and after the war the locals decided to restore it as their memorial. Everywhere we went there were reminders of the conflict, plaques on walls, museums, and sometimes signposts to massacre sites. Beautiful though the country was, the past will never be forgotten here.

On our return to the UK we had elected to stop off at the Europa IYHA in Bruges. On the way we made a slight detour to Waterloo, which was interesting, but as a static exhibition somewhat limited – though we did get the impression that Napoleon won here, which isn’t surprising as the site is run by the a French government agency!

Bruges was it usual delightful self, and as we were there on the last night of Klinkers, the Explorers enjoyed the last night of the music festival.

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