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A Hazard of Group Travel

This is a bit of a shaggy-dog story, but it has a travel-related point at the end.

I am interested in military history. Lately I've been reading about the campaign to clear the Scheldt Estuary in World War II. After the Allies landed in Normandy, they had trouble securing ports to bring in supplies. They captured Cherbourg, a small port, and they built artificial harbors in Normandy. However, the Germans destroyed the facilities in Boulonge and Calais before retreating. In early September, the Allies captured the great port of Antwerp relatively intact. However, it couldn't be used for shipping until the Scheldt, which leads from the sea to the port, was cleared of German shore batteries and minefields. After the failure of Operation Market Garden ("A Bridge Too Far") showed the Allies that the war was not yet over, General Eisenhower directed Field Marshal Montgomery to get serious about clearing the Scheldt.

The task fell to the Canadian 1st Army, which included Canadian, British, and Polish troops. It was a fairly miserable campaign, in early winter with much of the terrain deliberately flooded to impede their progress. The final stage of the campaign was a landing on Walcheren Island, with a major battle at Vlissingen and some fighting near Middelburg.

As I read about this, parts of it seemed strangely familiar. Then it finally clicked with me. I got out my files from our first river cruise in 2006, a Viking "Tulips and Windmills" trip. There it was: I had been on Walcheren Island. The ship had docked at Vlissingen. The activities had been a walking tour of the medieval charms of Middelburg and then an excursion to look at the post-war engineering wonders of the storm surge barriers. Although I knew something of the Scheldt campaign even then, I never realized where I was.

So here's the travel point: If you go on a group tour, you let someone else decide your agenda and activities. That's not always a bad thing, but you need to keep aware of where you're going and what else is around you, just in case there is something special you would rather experience. I was inexperienced at the time, and the waterways of the low countries are hard to keep track of. I think I would do better today. Still, I'm kicking myself for a lost opportunity.


Posted by
2252 posts

A lesson learned, Dav. I also have learned that even when you're going on a group tour, do your research for the very reasons you mention-and (with RS tours, anyway) to discover interesting things to do during your free time. Thanks for the reminder; that's a fascinating story!

Posted by
786 posts

Fascinating stuff, Dav, well and clearly written. I'm interested in WWII history, but didn't know anything about that campaign, either. Thanks greatly for sharing the information, as well as the moral of your story.

Posted by
2261 posts

Great advice, like the thread the other day on driving to Highclere Castle where someone was kind enough to point out that Avebury is along the route. Your topic is extra interesting to me as I read All The Light We Cannot See-again ;-)

Posted by
9420 posts

Thank you Dav, I found your post fascinating as well.

Posted by
2454 posts

Yes, good to keep in mind -- so many of the Provence guides shine the spotlight on its Roman colonial history and then leap to the Impressionists when there is so much more to be found there, especially regarding military events, from the Wars of Religion to the British bombing campaigns of WWII. True also of industrial revolution (textiles, mining, metallurgy) --
so much more to the region than aqueducts and Van Gogh!

Posted by
3950 posts

Dav- the following happened to me in your neck of the woods several years ago. I was a chaperone on our 8th grade trip to the D.C. area and other cities. We had just left the Dulles hotel where we were staying when the coach driver pulled into a parking lot because he said we needed to wait for another guide. I looked over at the building and it said Manassas Park. I realized that we were at the location of the Battle of Bull Run so I asked him how long we were going to wait, would we be seeing it when the guide showed up (no) and could I run in for 5 minutes. It blew me away that we were on the site of this important event the kids had just studied. When I saw how powerful the exhibits and grounds were I ran back to the bus and asked if I could take any students in who were interested for 20 minutes. Most of the kids jumped up and ran in with me as we tried to absorb the dioramas and terrain as fast as we could. It was exhilarating to think about the historical significance of where we're sitting just waiting for someone to meet up with us. I'm glad the kids got to see this important Civil War site, one of the few on this D.C. to Williamsburg trip.

Posted by
14507 posts


Very good points made. If you check the map prior to "Market Garden," you will notice the remnants of the German 15th Army under von Zangen escaped easily into Holland since the Allied line had not closed all the way to the coast. The tour didn't tell you that you were on Walcheren Island? The British had been there once before when they launched an expedition there against Napoleon in 1809, believing that Napoleon would be too preoccupied in Spain and now Germany since the Austrians had declared war on him. It failed operationally, the assumption misguided, and the force had to be withdrawn. It would have been interesting to be on Walcheren.

Posted by
112 posts

Dav ... I say this is not so much a "hazard of group travel", but rather a hazard of "the Disneyland mindset" or mindless travel of many people. Those responding here have read about the history through which they have or will be traveling, which gives much more depth and appreciation to the experience. Educating yourself on the history of the area and people is a key component of any trip. It adds depth and richness to the trip. Even with a good RS guide, you should not expect to be spoon fed all the time. I've visited with people returning from overseas journeys and some haven't a clue about the realty, history or people of where they were or what they saw. They have experienced very little other than a bus or boat ride Disneyland like trip. Dav, you were one of the aware ones.

Posted by
2469 posts

Very interesting post. My first RS tour was Paris & the Heart of France and our guide had a phenomenal grasp of French and European history and shared so much with us I realized how little I knew. You see, I did no reading in advance of the trip. But, I bought a book in the Paris airport and read about the relationship between England and France over a 1000 years on the flight home. I was inspired to read about the countries I am visiting from that point on. And, doing this enriches my travel experience.

Judy B

Posted by
971 posts

I'm a history buff and enjoy reading about different historical periods and I am only too familiar with what Dav describes. Sometimes you read about something that fascinates you and realize you have been to that exact place and been completely oblivious to it.
To be fair I don't think this is just a hazard of group tours, though I would guess independent travellers in general would tend to do more research than tour travellers.
Europe has several thousands of years of history and any given area have seen several interesting events throughout the centuries. If you only focus on a given era, you are bound to miss something from another era. If you look at this forum you will see an overwhelming focus on not only WW2, but also on the most famous campaigns like the D-Day landings and to a lesser extent the Ardennes, and Market Garden.
However there is so much more to European history when you start to peel back the layers. I get a sense from forums like this, that a lot of people from fairly young countries like the States, Canada and Australia fail to grasp this depth of history. You can see it in a lot of these itinerarys where people want to drive from one end of the continent to the other to see the big name sight, but they fail to realize the sheer amount of interesting and historically significant places they will pass along the way.

Posted by
4516 posts

I understand what Morten is saying, that a lot of travel is inspired by motion picture scenes and iconic images so seems superficial. But such trips are a start.

It's really hard for a non-European to cut through the morass of European history, especially when it seems to be presented as personalities. Is anyone even listening when guides are droning on about Charles XYZ and his young wife, the bastard half cousin princess from Portugal? "And to their left in the painting we see the fourth Earl of....". Not listening. Don't care.

Posted by
14507 posts

Maybe not Charles XYZ, but if it were the Archduke Charles (whose statue is at the Heldenplatz and the second one in front of the Hofburg) being discussed by the tour guide or Charles XII at the battle of Poltava on a tour in the Ukraine, I would be all ears.

Posted by
504 posts

Fred: The Viking literature referred to that location as Zeeland. That's correct, but it didn't catch my memory the way that Walcheren would have. Yes, I am aware of the bungled British campaigns that wound up there in the Napoleonic period. I've just finished reading a book about life in Britain during that time, and those incidents were mentioned.

Morten: Yes, you make a good point. There have been times when, a year or two after a trip we see something that makes us say, "What? We were near that?" and we hadn't realized it at the time.

Jrmeier: I don't know that it's so much "Disney" as the fact that group tours have to cater to general tastes. What we saw on that day was certainly interesting, especially the storm surge barriers (which was something I knew nothing about beforehand). The World War II campaign was not something that the rest of the group would have found as interesting.

Posted by
417 posts

Group travel will always be directed toward trying to reach a broad number of interests. A case in point: on the best of England tour we had about 2 hours to visit Bodnant Gardens. The rhododendrons were blooming and it was beautiful. I could have spent several more hours wandering those beautiful gardens. At another stop, Avebury, we had about 3-4 hours to walk around the prehistoric stones. I was finished in about 30 minutes. I talked to another tour mate who wanted more time at Avebury and would have skipped the gardens altogether. The tour mate was a history teacher, whereas I had owned a garden center and landscape business. I had done research before I started the tour and actually planned my whole trip around visiting the Chelsea Flower show in London. Just because you're on a tour, you still need to do your homework before you go. Read books (in addition to the RS guide book), watch movies, talk to friends and always quiz "TheForum"!!! That's half the fun of waiting for your next tour to get here.

Posted by
14507 posts

@ Dav...Thanks. I am envious of you for having been on Walcheren Island.