THE WAR YEARSThe start of the Second World War for me, as a young boy of 9 in Holland, was the marching of German foot soldiers through the main street. Some people were actually cheering but most were sullenly silent. Already then there were collaborators. This was quite a feature at later stages. I reckon many a person had the attitude that if you cannot beat them you may as well join them.
My father had a role in the underground as one of their leaders, which did not become apparent to me until much later. It did seem strange that he was not sent to Germany to work as forced labor in one of the many forced labor factories as was the case with every able male between 16 and 60. He was however an officer with the civil police which took the role of the police which had been disbanded. As it happened, he and his mates used this base as their informal underground headquarters
As one only saw women, children or very old men on the street, many a comment was made about my father with the inference that he must be a collaborator, not having being picked up by the Germans. However it was generally accepted that people working for essential services were excluded.
Secondary school years were an odd mixture because of the war years. Can't even remember where I started secondary school. It was in numerous locations. We had school for a period in a church. We sat in the pews and the teacher spoke to us from the pulpit. Being winter then it was cold in the large building and we were sent home on numerous occasions for that reason as there was no heating. We had school for another short period in the adjacent kindergarten and later in a large shop in the town.
One day we had a visit from the Germans, again, as they did regular searches, house to house for one reason or another. This time they did a particularly good search of the large painting workshop—my father running his own master painting business—and he made a fatuous comment, 'Why not look in all the paint pots?'—which were numerous, some full and many partly used— or 'Look in the rafters for spies,' which caused a good belly laugh by the Germans.
After the Germans had departed there was a considerable amount of activity to remove all the bikes, radios and other gear which had been procured (pinched from the Germans) and temporarily stored in the rafters by my father's mates from the underground—a very stupid thing to have done according to my father as he had other things to worry about. A couple of years later I discovered that many of the partly filled paint pots had illegal documents in them, sealed in plastic covers, covered with paint. Must have been interesting to get them out.
No one had electric power although the Germans had. We were on a live circuit the Germans needed for themselves but with a sealed and disconnected meter. My father had broken the seal and restored access to electric power. It was always a scramble to disconnect the power, re-fix the seal, replace all the light bulbs, which had been on and replace them with cold ones on the knock on the door for the many searches or few visitors we had.
I well remember the episode with the rifles. We (us young boys) had found several rifles with broken butts and after another search located somehow the bullets to go with them. We loaded the .303s—or what was left of them— with the bullets, tied a string to the triggers and from a distance pulled. They went off with a satisfying bang but our parents were onto us like a shot and we received the benefit of a long lecture as to the wrongness what we had done and the danger we caused not only to ourselves but other people as well. The worrying aspect for them was where had we got the rifles?
Around that same time we had located a small supply of flares. Other boys had beaten us to it and removed the tiny parachutes from them—a great prize—but what remained was great to make fireworks out of and very colorful indeed. We also managed to get the tops off the large artillery shells using the sticks of cordite (gunpowder) to make trails and lighting these.
It was my job to assist in supplementing the larder by going out for the day and beg farmers for food, I was supplied with plenty of money which the farmers were not interested in; the many people from the larger cities who called on them had jewelry and other goods to offer them.
I had a push-bike without tires, riding this on the steel rims. My father had removed the tires otherwise the Germans would repossess the bike. For that same reason I was not allowed the solid rubber tires either, that other people seemed to have. I was loaded up with several containers in case I was lucky to obtain any fresh milk, grain, butter or eggs. I never got a great deal, not having the rings, gold, silver or jewelry to trade. I was on the road from dawn most days for five hours or more.
We had food coupons; father through his underground connections was able to supply the extras. Mother's job included the making of bread, unleavened black rye, heavy as lead; we longed for the fluffy white bread. The mean, self-serving farmers and their homemade bread made a life long impression on me.
During my last trip of this sort I escaped with my life without realizing it. The allied forces had broken through, rushed through and past our city 'Ede', ignoring the German occupying forces for later mopping up. I was somewhere on the outskirts seeing the army convoys going past and chatting to the English soldiers who inquired where the Germans were and a bit later in a parallel street on the way home chatting to the Germans who likewise wanted to know where the English were. This lot had a bazooka trained down the street intending to knock out any tanks appearing, not realizing that a couple of streets away the tanks and army vehicles were roaring past. All this taught me the power of diplomacy and I was glad to take their advice to get home quickly.
The Arnhem invasion was a major war event, not just for our region but the war effort in general. The general idea of the effort was to shorten the war by six months or more. The start of this battle was the low level pattern bombing of the outer edges of the forest close to Ede which were saturation bombed for many kilometers. Interestingly not a single German was killed or had any intention to be in such an exposed situation and had much better strategic skills than the English and Americans had.
The Dutch population although being pro-allied in a big way had very poor regard for the accuracy of the English and American bomb-aimers and their bosses more so, having plenty of feed back from the Dutch underground as to German troop movements and what they should bomb and what to leave alone—all of which they tended to ignore.
For some unknown reason the powers that be had decided to aerial bomb the main road almost parallel to the street where I lived, Op den Berg, with fighter planes. This was a long lasting project over a number of years in fits and starts. Why there is still a mystery to me, as even if they had demolished the whole road there was ample room to create a bypass and in any case they never actually hit the road significantly.
We boys were often caught trying to cross the road into the forest, being caught in a hail of large tracer bullets. But we got used to evade that problem. About three kilometers up the main road were large military barrack buildings, build by the Dutch Army and taken over by the Germans. Perhaps the fighter planes got their coordinates wrong, but surely not for that length of time and having had feedback that their target was wrong.
More worrying were the aerial fights so high up in the sky that you could hardly hear or see the planes. The flak, the small pieces of white-hot metal, hit the ground at supersonic speed unseen—unless you were hit. A graphic example was when as usual we kids refused to go down to the cellar until it was all over as indicated by the wail of the sirens.
During one of these raids we noticed a cyclist going past and one second later seeing him fall flat on his face spread out like an eagle. What had happened was that a sliver of white-hot metal had sliced through the frame of the bike in at least two places severing the bike in several pieces. The man was lucky that it was the bike and not him that copped the shrapnel.
There were large radar detection screens at the edge of town just beyond the fringe of the forest. Lancasters used to fly very low over the tops of the trees to avoid the radar and occasionally crashing because of this. On one such occasion one of them had crashed at the edge of the forest and we came across this very recent event. The plane looked huge and surprisingly hardly damaged. All the crew had been thrown out of the plane, all over the place and all apparently dead—not maimed but they all had a deathly white pallor.
During the Arnhem parachute landing, the Red Berets as they were called, got as far as the forest near Ede, way off target. One night we heard their whistles, calls, as they reorganized their forces. Although some of them were able to withdraw back to the bridge on the Rhine in Arnhem, many kilometers away, most were killed. Several days later we saw German doctors fully suited in protection gear and gas masks removing the dead soldiers. Those not wearing gas masks heavily smoking cigars no doubt to get rid of the smell.
We came across vast quantities of paper foil strips all over the road through the forest which were a puzzle to us and it took some time for this mystery to solved. Speculation was rife what this was all about. Eventually we were told that the planes dropped vast quantities of these strips from a great height to confuse the radar detection units used by the Germans.
In our investigation of the by now abandoned battlefields across the heath we came across many gliders used in the airborne landings. Most had landed in one piece but without exception so completely peppered with holes that from the inside you could see straight through and every soldier in them must have been killed. Jeeps and military equipment were still in them as if they had just landed. All over the place were very thick gray-blue ropes made from nylon; these were the towing ropes used to tow the gliders across the English channel to the invasion point intending to secure the bridge over the Rhine.
The Dutch underground had warned them at the last minute that the Germans had not withdrawn but regrouped and were on the way back but this advice was ignored and there was a lot of wishful thinking that the Germans were on the run and securing the bridge over the Rhine would cut the war effort by six months at least. When desperate pleas by the underground to take notice of their intelligence they were advised that by then planning had advanced to the point that the exercise had to continue.
In Brisbane I came across an ex British paratrooper working as a real estate agent in the same firm as I was. He constantly talked about the war and particularly the Arnhem invasion 'botch-up' as he called it. It was forever in his mind even after all these years. Very few 'Red Berets' survived this catastrophic event and in his case he was one of three or four who survived out of many hundreds in his platoons, which understandingly made him very bitter. At one stage it became very plain that the bridge could not be held and moreover the advancing army was held up; thus the planned backup never materialized. Requests to withdraw to the other side of the Rhine were refused time and again and the net effect was a total wipe-out of personnel.
The civilian population was affected too. On becoming liberated, as they were for a few days, a couple of villages nearby were jubilant, adorning houses and streets with English and Dutch flags. But when the troops gradually withdrew to the bridge itself with the Germans in hot pursuit the villages again were under German rule. To punish the population for their support of the English the Germans razed all the buildings and killed every living soul there.
September 1944 - Operation Market Garden http://www.rememberseptember44.com/rs44.htm
Later during the war when the allied forces were nearing Ede, one day, father, brothers and I traveled on foot to the other side of town, a distance of about five kilometers to visit our grandparents—everyone being concerned about them. Phones did not operate at that stage of the war and public transport had been out of action for years. You never saw cars, other than German ones, and German soldiers commandeered push bikes as soon as they appeared on the road. Earlier private cars had these huge boilers at the back, which created gas by burning wood in them.
With the allied forces advancing not a soul was about, not even Germans. There was that quietness which was eerie when one walked along the center of the long straight main road through the City and beyond. All of sudden the trouble started. I still remember that distant boom, boom, boom, an interval of silence and next the facade of one of the large homes slowly falling to the ground, ever so slowly, like you see in a film production—no sound, nothing at all—but by the time we'd walked along the road to the next house, hearing the sound of the artillery shell arriving and the explosion. Another house further on and the same all over.
I well remember the debate, go back or walk on, run or walk. As we were about halfway we decided to walk on, in the middle of the road. We could see electric wires coming down snaking along the road sparking. Things were flying around too. This was one of my longest walks in my life, anyway it seemed like that.
The shells were coming over from many kilometers away and although hitting different houses all were the same distance, they must have set the equipment on automatic. The Germans having a better intelligence service than the English had temporarily left town only to return to take repossession of the place.
We survived all this and arrived at the oldies' place. By this stage there were many planes in the sky. Small planes, pathfinders, were spotting targets by dropping flares to indicate to the large bombers where to drop their bombs. Feeling relieved to have arrived and ready to make a bee line for the family shelter in the cellar I was asked by grandmother to go out and 'get grand dad' as he was unwilling to come inside being still in the garden shed in the adjacent vegetable garden.
A most amazing thing greeted me in the backyard. The tall old man was standing in the middle of the garden with bomb craters all around him, each no more than ten feet apart, clearly they were targeting him as a moving object, without success, although the garden shed had disappeared altogether. The old beggar refused to come inside. According to him his day had not yet come to die and he did not fancy to be buried before being dead. Cellars had been hit in the past he said. He was right about that. He did survive the war and died of old age living past his 100th year.
In the latter stages of the war the Germans released their secret weapon they had been talking about. This was their beetle bomb. Low flying rockets, which blew up on impact. These had been evolved as a high tech project with view to hasten and win the war. These were launched all over the place and one such launch site was near Ede. Rockets were send on their way to England every few minutes or so, starting off relatively slowly on a low flight path skimming the trees gradually gaining height. The dud ones of which there were quite a few tended to circle over the town and crashing down, often on one of the houses in the town and to a lesser extend around the town. There were bomb craters all around the place.
Investigating the wreckage of the beetle bombs the most unusual feature were the very large balls, about a meter and a half in seize, the outside seemed to consist of metal wire wound around them close together like a tightly wound wool ball, to this day I don't know what they were for.
In town you could hear the rockets starting of, and approaching overhead, they made a din like an oversized tractor. All was safe as long as you could hear the noise, once it stopped it was a rush for the shelter. One never knew whether the rocket would continue on a downward flight path, crash there and then or circle and come back and crash then.
Near the end of the war more sophisticated versions were evolved—the V1 and V2 versions. The V1 flew at a maximum speed of about 400 kilometres per hour, the V2 flew straight up into the stratosphere reaching supersonic speed, not many of these crashed near us.