The Dutch man who has been tending Portsmouth paratrooper Thomas Bedford's grave for almost eight decades

Gently kneeling down, the elderly Dutch gentleman solemnly places a bunch of flowers on the grave.

Sunday, 5th September 2021, 2:20 pm
Updated Sunday, 5th September 2021, 8:09 pm
Mr Schuurmans of Osterbeek in The Netherlands has tended the grave of Corporal Thomas Bedford, who died on September 18, 1944, for 77 years. Cpl Bedford died during Operation Market Garden and his grave was one of many adopted by local children as thanks for the efforts to defeat Nazism Picture: Stefan Meekers

It’s an action he has carried out at least twice a year for 77 years, even though he never knew the man buried there – and by doing so he cherishes the valour of a Portsmouth paratrooper.

The act is part of a ‘grave adoption’ scheme that is widespread across the Netherlands, through which the Dutch remember and thank foreign soldiers who perished as part of the effort to liberate Europe from Nazism.

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Mr Schuurmans of Osterbeek with the 'adoption papers' for the grave Picture: Stefan Meekers

Lieuwe Schuurmans of Oosterbeek, near Arnhem, was only 12 when he was allocated the grave of Corporal Thomas Bedford, and now, aged 89, still goes at least twice a year – on the paratrooper’s birthday and date of death – to pay his respects.

This weekend he was placing flowers when he bumped into Stefan Meekers, a Second World War historian from Zwolle, a town about an hour away.

Because of his interest in the subject Mr Meekers started a conversation with him, and said he would see what information he could find out about Cpl Bedford.

Through his research he quickly learned that Cpl Bedford, whose service number 1432862 is on his grave, was born in Portsmouth on January 16, 1922, the son of Edgar and Ada May Bedford of Fratton.

Thomas had a younger brother John, who was born in January 1924, and older brother called Robert, and three sisters – Monica, Rosalind and Julia.

He served in the 11th battalion of the 4th Parachute Regiment, and died on September 18, 1944, as part of Operation Market Garden – the push into Germany which saw thousands of British and US paratroopers dropped into the Netherlands, with the aim of capturing key bridges and allowing Allied troops to advance upon Berlin. While the bridges were captured, the land reinforcements took too long to arrive and the offensive was ultimately unsuccessful, although it did lead to the liberation of large parts of the Netherlands. The British lost more than 7,000 troops.

Mr Meekers, 32, said: ‘The elderly man putting flowers on the special grave told me his name was Mr Schuurmans and that as a child they were all given a grave to adopt. He has been doing it for 77 years and he still does that, and he keeps the “adoption papers” in his diary so they are always by his heart. He said these were bonus years for him compared to the young men who are buried in the cemetery.’

‘This triggered me to find out everything I could for him. I’m hoping to track down family members and find a photo of Thomas Bedford so we can give this grave a face.’

All graves in Oosterbeek’s war cemetery are adopted, and every September tributes are laid by the so-called ‘Flower children of Oosterbeek’.

September is known as Airborne month in the Netherlands, which is why Mr Schuurmans was at the grave several days before the anniversary of Cpl Bedford’s death, and many houses fly flags to commemorate Operation Pegasus, the evacuation after the Battle of Arnhem, which followed Operation Market Garden.

Anyone who can help Mr Meekers put information together, or any family members wanting to know more, can conatct Mr Meekers via his Facebook page at facebook.com/oorlogsbegraafplaatsen