Written by Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Steve Colling.

Some years ago, pre-pandemic, I thought about cycling Montgomery’s route From Normandy to the Baltic (Field Marshall Montgomery, Hutchinson, 1946) with a view to arriving on Luneberg Heide on VE Day. It wasn’t Covid-19 that stopped me from following-up but the logistics involved with covering such a distance unsupported.

However, the Royal British Legion Cycling Branch has put together a ride from the Cenotaph, London to the Neue Wache, Berlin arriving VE Day 2022. There are just eleven cyclists aiming to cover the ground in nine days. The twelfth man is driving the van carrying the kit!

Not quite the right cycling jersey!

We assemble at the Cenotaph early on Saturday morning and the first day’s ride takes us to Calais. 

It’s been 6 months in the planning and preparation. Now it’s time to saddle-up!

Day 1 - Saturday 30 April

An early start leaving our accommodation in London to be at the Cenotaph for the 8 am departure. After meeting up with the other members of the group and a short ceremony we headed off for Dover.  

We are 11 riders including 2 over from the States, one Frenchman and one Irish lady.  

The first couple of hours were slow. The group is begging to gel and function as a team. It will be a few days before we know if all the preparation and training has paid off.

Judith lays a wreath at the Cenotaph.

The weather improved for the afternoon and the pace picked up. The Canterbury Branch of the Royal British Legion hosted us mid afternoon for tea, sandwiches and cakes which sustained us through until we boarded the ferry.

By ferry to Calais then a short ride to our hotel for the night.

The day’s ride was not to difficult despite ‘undulations’ though I did manage an unscheduled dismount on boarding the ferry!

Day 2 - Sunday 1 May

A relatively easy ride planned for our kin first day in Europe of just 57 miles over almost flat uncluttered roads through the Pas de Calais and Flanders.

It was cold and dry during the morning and we made good progress to the main square in Ypres. We stopped a couple of times, once at a WW2 memorial to soldiers who died during the retreat to Dunkirk in 1940.

The afternoon was spent visiting some of the many Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) sites and the German site at Langemark.

The highlight of the day was the opportunity to take part in the evening ceremony at the Menin Gate, the walls of which name the many soldiers who died but have no known grave. As a group we laid two wreaths and paraded a RBL Standard.

Day 3 - Monday 2 May

The plan for day 3 was to be guided by a local cyclist before heading towards Brussels and then Leuven. Kurt (Biking Box), took us to the Canadian Memorial at Hill 62 and then on to the new Brothers in Arms Memorial. The memorial is close to the site where a soldier of the First World War fell and was placed in a shroud by his brother prior to burial. The brother survived the war and returned to look for his dead brother buried near the bend in the road.

Cyclists at the Brothers in Arms Memorial

The course of the road changed and by 1918 the burial site was lost in the mud, until a few years ago when the body was unearthed when the road was re-laid. Sadly, by then the surviving brother had died.

After hearing the story told by the man who exhumed the body, we began our day's journey some 2 hours later than intended.

We did our best to meet challenging speeds through to the centre of Brussels where I picked up a stray staple and we spent a few minutes in a team effort changing an inner tube which rivalled a F1 pit stop (almost). We eventually arrived at Leuven (the home of Stella Artois) just before 9pm.

We were met and welcomed by Embassy staff at the end of a long and tiring day.

Day 4 - Tuesday 3 May 

Leuven to Moenchengladbach (MGB).

Breakfast in Belgium, lunch in Holland and supper in Germany!

Several falls today, another puncture (not me) and one rider taken out by a local. No permanent damage but a trip to hospital for a few stitches and a check-up.

Supper, eventually, with MGB RBL.

David Marsh (late RAOC) and Steve Slater (late REME), Tech Storeman, Dog Handler, now MGB RBL Treasurer.

Day 5 - Wednesday 4 May

A quick breakfast and we’re on the road again. Unfortunately one man down. Chris is suffering following his collision yesterday and though his finger appears ok, his ribs and legs do not. I’m particularly sad that he has had to pull out as he salvaged my bike on day one after my fall boarding the ferry. If not for his efforts I would have been out of it from from the start.

From MGB to Minden...

We crossed the Rhine and a little later the Ruhr.  We particularly enjoyed the short stretch of cycle path laid on a redundant railway track on the Ruhr valley.

So Essen, Mulheim, Bochum and then Dortmund where we stopped for a very late lunch. We were met by a retired Grenadier.  We left and headed North to Munster. It was quite late when we got there but the RBL we’re excellent hosts and Kim provided a delicious hot supper. We bedded down in a Bundeswehr barracks.

The group is starting to tire.

Day 6 - Thursday 5 May

Munster to Minden

We were joined for breakfast by a couple of members of the RBL.

Graham Wilkinson (late REME) of Munster RBL.

Our first stop was the CWGC plot in a Munster cemetery where we laid a wreath.

There are quite a few REME gravestones from 1946-47 and both cap badges are represented.

The route took us over familiar Cold War ground and we approached Minden under the gaze of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial.

The countryside was at it’s best and the weather perfect for cycling. But despite best efforts we have been unable to achieve more than 10 miles in the hour. The loses we’re due to occasional stops and negotiating towns and traffic lights.

Supper was Italian - again!

The RBL Support at Osnabruck: Tom Wilkinson (late REME) opened the bar for us (and the loos).

Day 7 - Friday 6 May 

Minden to Bergen-Hohne

Joe (late REME) and Heidi Roberts of Minden RBL saw us off.

From Minden we headed for Hannover where we had lunch then North to Bergen Belsen. We took the scenic route through the forest otherwise we would have been at Belsen much earlier!

We spent an hour or so at Belsen, laid 2 wreaths and visited the exhibition. Having recently researched a REME soldier who served there immediately after VE Day, I was able to gain a bit more detail and make a useful contact in their research department.

It was just a short run in then to the RBL Clubhouse where we were fed and entertained by a large number of club members.

Another tiring 11 hour day completed.

Day 8 - Saturday 7 May

The Bergen Hohne branch of the RBL fed us an excellent breakfast and we were across the start line before 8am.  But bodies are beginning to ache!
I enjoyed my tour as Brigade EME of 22 Armoured Brigade in Hohne back in the 80s. My day job was to ensure all equipment in the brigade was maintained to the appropriate standard. Judging by the image below, standards are beginning to slip!

After a couple of hours at a fair pace we crossed the former Inner German Border (IGB).

The sign marks the spot and the only thing that remains of the border is a service road.

We arrived at Tangermunde on the Elbe at a sensible hour having achieved over 10 miles in the hour for the entire journey. There were few hills and no towns to negotiate.

Day 9 - Sunday 8 May

Tangermunde is a very pretty town and we found a decent restaurant serving German fare and beer.

After 8 days we finally managed a decent speed of 13 miles in the hour for the 3 hours to Brandenburg along the B1. We crossed the Elbe and the Havel (several times) and stopped a couple of times as last night’s dunkel bier (dark German lager) took effect on a couple of riders.

We stopped for coffee and a cake then cracked on to Potsdam. We arrived to find the streets packed with people enjoying the sunshine.

After an ice cream, we left Potsdam passing the former BRIXMIS house and crossed the Bridge of Spies at Glienicke. Then past the House of the Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution was initiated, through Grunewald and on to the CWGC plot.

CWGC Plot Berlin

Unfortunately, there was no time for the Olympic Stadium.

It was then a straight run down Heer Strasse, past what was Edinburgh House, and the Victory Column up to the Brandenburg Gate - big photo opportunity.

After about 20 minutes we left for the Neue Wache and another wreath laying ceremony.

The Kathe Kollwitz Sculpture at the Neue Wache, Berlin. 

So we have achieved our aim and arrived on VE Day.

 

Bikes were stripped down and packed into a minibus for the return to the UK. Hopefully, without issues on leaving the EU. Then after a civilised shower we had our last supper together in a restaurant on Alexander Platz.

 

Day 10 - Monday 9 May 

The bikes have gone and the team disbursed. I’m having a couple of days to revisit the city after a 5 year absence.

The weather has been fantastic and the terrain mostly flat. Notwithstanding all but one of us has come off our bike at some point and we’ve got the bruises and scars to show for it; some have sun burn.

It has been a challenge and the daily distance has left little time to see the sights. Covering the distance in 14 days would be more relaxing and avoiding Brussels and Hannover would have made sections less stressful.

Berlin Cathedral and Former East German TV Tower.

Finally, I must thank Paul Harding for organising the trip and making everything work.