Staff-Sergeant Bernard Black
Unit : No.22 Flight, "D" Squadron, No.1 Wing, The Glider Pilot Regiment
Army No. : 884545
A Glider Pilot's Story
By Bernard Black
This book has been a long time coming. It is not just the result of a flash of sudden inspiration or a desire to jump on the band wagon, thus adding to the proliferation of war stories which are appearing with increasing frequency. The recent writings, researches and reminiscences of many others have to some extent been due to the accessibility of war records and files released under the thirty-year rule. These have probably contributed to the crystallisation of my OWN ideas and the decision to commit them to paper.
My thoughts have been germinating over a very long period. Often private; sometimes spoken of with close friends - mainly as anecdotes arising from light hearted or very serious memories. These memories are deep-seated; lasting impressions which have lain dormant though ever-present; occasionally brought into vivid relief either by some inconsequential occurrence or as in February 1953 by the disastrous storm floods which swept and devastated many parts of Holland and once more dealt a heavy blow to the people of Schouwen - Duiveland.
My friend, Joop Thuring, recalls how as a small boy he was lifted up by an elder brother in the fateful days of September 1944 and watched the Airborne Armada taking part in Operation Market en route to Arnhem. He has told me how every year he suffers from the "September Fever". I know how he feels - I suffer from ''Schouw Fever" or "Dutch Fever". Like earlier soldiers of the British Empire, I never know when next it will strike for while dormant it is always there, akin to the malaria which many of them contracted while serving in foreign parts. My fever (just as Joop's) was contracted at tile same time but the incubation period lasted from 18th September until 15th December 1944 during which time I lived (or should I say survived) on the island of Schouwen.
I don't know yet how these writings will turn out or indeed if they will ever be completed. It is doubtful if they will fulfil my intentions. I have long wanted to set them down but was always uncertain as to the form they should take. Obviously there will be much autobiographical recall but I have always wanted to do a great deal more than trot out another book of wartime experiences.
Over the intervening years I have had many more experiences of Holland. The first of these was in August 1959 when I revisited after an interval of 15 years. These experiences of Holland have not cured the fever. They have renewed and strengthened old friendships; led to new ones; occasionally dampened the furnace but more frequently fuelled the smouldering desire to find out more for myself and to inform others what it was really like. Although we live now in an era of communication and media, so many people (perhaps understandably) know so little of so many aspects of the war. From day to day we are informed of world shattering events - or are they the trivia of everyday news? Today's news is tomorrow's history, but many facts of everyday life remain concealed and are rarely made known or understood.
I have often pondered over what might have happened here had we also been invaded and occupied in 1940. How would we have behaved? Who the friend and who the foe? Which of us who believes in liberty and justice would have compromised? How would we have judged or been judged? I would have liked this book to inform people in this country of what life in Holland was really like under German occupation. We know so little of it and yet there is so much to know. Professor de Jong and his staff at the Rijks Instituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie have been gathering and studying information for more thirty-six years and so far some dozen or more volumes have been published covering different aspects of the occupation. The mammoth task is unending. Many individuals and groups are researching and writing but little of this is published or read in this country. Oh yes, there are many worthy stories and accounts of individual exploits and happenings. Sadly, some have been glamorised, commercialised or even televised and straying from the facts fail to give true impressions of wartime life in occupied Europe. My own efforts may also fail in this respect but will certainly, in so far as lies within my power, be founded in truth.
One of the difficulties is that of strict accuracy. Human beings are fallible and our minds are prone to distortion, exaggeration, and even to self deception. Sometimes we are just confused and forgetful. Although I have tried to minimise the possibility of error, the responsibility for any errors is mine. There are documented dates which give fixed points and then of course there are memories of others from which I have drawn. Where discrepancy or confusion has arisen, I have preferred to act as sole arbiter, and while many given dates are accurate, there are periods and episodes which though happening as chronologically reported, cannot be given absolutely fixed dates. Many people have stimulated me and encouraged me to write this story, among them Phil and his wife Pat, and Joop Thuring. Moreover, Phil and I, are very much aware of the rapport between us, then and now, and the overriding fact remains that this is also his story and that of my friends in Holland.
We knew it was on. Yesterday morning we had seen the first lift on its way. Today it was our turn and we all knew that this time it would really happen. It was early in the morning of Monday, 18th September 1944. A typically autumn morning, it was rather still with quite a bit of mist about.
Disturbing the stillness there came all those sounds of preparation whose crescendo would gradually reach a sustained climax at about 1130 hours only to follow a diminuendo which forty minutes later would give way to an eerie silence as those left behind stood staring into the distance until the last combinations of tug and glider had disappeared from sight and sound.
Things had started at 1300 hours on the 16th in a way that was almost becoming familiar. The camp R.A.F. Keevil near Trowbridge was sealed and a briefing was called for all crews at 1430 hours. The plans were revealed. We were to take part in operation Market; the airborne part of operation Market-Garden. The intention was to seize the river bridges at Grave, Nijmegen, and Arnhem using the newly formed 1st Allied Airborne Army. This consisted of two American Airborne Divisions (the 82nd & the 101st), the British 1st Airborne Division, and the Polish Parachute Brigade. Then 21st Army Group would race along a narrow corridor, cross the Rhine at Arnhem, and would thus be poised for the final assault into Germany.
Some days earlier, we had attended a similar briefing for the aborted operation Comet whose objectives were broadly similar except that the forces did not include the two American Divisions. So it was that the previous day we had watched some fifty Horsas, flown by pilots of D Squadron, the Glider Pilot Regiment and towed by Stirlings of 196 299 Squadrons, R.A.F. Their target was landing zone 'Z' to the west of Arnhem.
Our Horsa, DP956, loaded after the briefing with a Jeep and trailer, was in its place on the runway. It stood there with forty other Horsas in staggered pairs. Each one had its towrope already connected and snaking forward parallel with the others to a point at the side of the runway ready to be coupled to the respective tug when the marshalling was completed.
There were still some details to attend to but there was plenty of time. The pre-flight checks and an examination of the load to see that it was secure. A short brief of the passengers for their flight positions and stowage of kit. There were four of them: a driver from the R.A.S.C., a trooper from Para H.Q., a private from the South Staffs, and a Dutch Commando, Herman de Leeuw. Then of course there was my co-pilot Sgt. Philip Hudson and me, Staff/Sgt. Bernard Black.
Phil and I had met just before D Day. I had been posted to D Squadron at Keevil on the 1st June and we had been put together as a crew in 22 Flight. For the invasion of Normandy we had been listed as a reserve crew and had not been required. In the intervening period, we had been posted on detachments at Harwell, Sleap and Ramsbury, returning to Keevil after each occasion. The posting to Ramsbury was to an American Air Force Base and was for the purpose of taking part in operation Transfigure, a landing to the south-east of Paris. This operation too was aborted after we had stood to with loaded gliders for 72 hours. This time it looked as if we were going somewhere.
The marshalling was completed, most of the crews, glider and tug had spent some time outside their aircraft standing around chatting. Then it was nearly time to go. With good wishes all round we rejoined our aircraft; the tugs started up their engines once more and at the appointed hour, the towmaster gave the signal to the first combination, "Take up the slack". The Stirling lumbered slowly forward until the glider began to roll then at a signal from the towmaster, full power was given and the combination began to accelerate along the runway. At the same time the right hand combination had already started its forward movement and was beginning to accelerate by the time the first pair was airborne. "Another three to go": "Now two": "One more": "Now it's our turn!". We begin to roll forward and the towmaster waves his bat overhead and we are gathering speed along the runway; now we are airborne and flying just above the ground until the tug becomes airborne also.
The early morning mist had not completely cleared and as we climbed we gradually turned towards the north until we were over the Bristol Channel before setting course to the east. This early part of the flight was completely uneventful. The cable link was working well and giving good communications with the tug pilot. There was some chatting the tug crew and the pilot congratulated us on our station keeping, telling us that the glider he had towed the previous day had parted company near Norwich.
As we travelled eastwards, we could see combinations from other bases joining the Armada. We crossed the east coast and our main impressions were one of wonder and awe at the sheer size of the operation. As far as we could see in any direction there were combinations of aircraft. Ahead of us one glider came down in the sea and by the time we reached it the crew were on top of the wings and one of the many rescue launches was closing rapidly.
After we had been flying for about three and a quarter hours we were nearing the Dutch coast. The stream of aircraft began to converge and the air was becoming quite congested. Below us we could see the flooding with many farms and cottages surrounded by water. Then another combination going slightly faster than we were, began to overtake us just overhead. I called to the tug to tell him, then I hit the slipstream of the overtaking tug. Momentarily the glider was difficult to control; the port wing dropped and while I was trying to correct this, one of two things happened.
Either my tug hit the other tug's slipstream as it descended in front of us or my tug pilot chose that moment to take evasive action. Whichever actually happened, the result was the same - my tug dropped his starboard wing and began turning to starboard. This at the moment when I was swinging to port. This was the dreaded untenable situation for a glider on tow. The more out of position to the left that I should go, the more I would compel the tug to go to the right, by pulling his tail round. This situation only lasted for a few brief seconds and I took the only course of action for which training had prepared me - I released the towrope.
Then with Phil looking out for overtaking traffic, I began a cautious clearance from the stream of aircraft, gradually turning to starboard and also hoping to reach the mainland. The German gunners in three ships in the Keeten Mastgat had other ideas and began firing at us. While I was taking evasive action two or three Typhoons dived and strafed them. I was also busy turning back to port and looking for a suitable landing ground. One field was only muddy and while I was making my approach, I told Phil to tell the passengers that we were not landing where we should have done. We landed safely in this field (the surrounding area was flooded) which was part of the farm belonging to Keiser Romeijn near Nieuwerkerk, and we disembarked. In the distance we could see columns of smoke on the horizon in the direction of the ships that had fired on us. While we were sorting ourselves out, the Typhoons flew low overhead, waggled their wings at us and continued on their protective way.
We were grateful to the Typhoons as we had also been grateful to the Rescue launches on station in the North Sea. They were real evidence of the supremacy of our forces and the sight of them was reassuring, as if symbolically guaranteeing the success of the operation. The first task was to assess our own situation and to decide on a course of action best suited to the new circumstances. Our briefing had included guidance which was based on overall success. "If you should have to force land in occupied Holland, lie low for a few days."
As we jumped down from the glider, three of the passengers had already taken up positions near the wheels. Leaving them there, Phil, Herman and I, made our way across the field towards the farmhouse and its buildings. Standing in the lee of the house was a group of locals whose attention was now diverted from the sky and focused on the strangers so dramatically thrust upon them.
Soon Herman was chatting to the farmer and his family, with Phil and I standing by - our ears unaccustomed to a language that has been described as the sound of people talking with hot potatoes in their mouths. Reminding Herman that we needed to find out as much as possible, I was suddenly surprised by a new arrival. A rather breathless young man, with a shock of brown hair over his forehead was speaking to me in English. "You are the officer, here? Perhaps I may help you?"
We detached ourselves from the group and walked round to the other side of the house. Taking out my map, I held it spread against the side of the building and invited him to show me our exact location. This he did pointing in the direction first of Nieuwerkerk and then of Ouwerkerk. Then he gave me a warning - "you must not trust this farmer, he is an N.S.B.'er". Seeing my puzzled look, he traced a swastika with his finger on the wall. I asked him where the nearest Germans were and from which direction we might expect to be attacked. It appeared that the nearest German post consisted of about a dozen men at Vianen. Before long I knew where all the German fortified positions were on the island and the dispersal of their troops.
The main fortifications were in the western coastal area with troops also stationed at Zierikzee, Brouwershaven, Bruinisse and Zijpe. "Yesterday," he said, pointing to the map and indicating Dreischor, "another glider landed here." "Where are they now ?" I asked. "They have had a battle," he answered. "They have killed and wounded some Germans and then they were captured." I asked him how many there had been and he said that he thought there were about sixteen. My new friend introduced himself as Jan Romeijn whose farm, Grote Hoofstede, lay between our present position and Ouwerkerk. (It was nearly a week later when I discovered that the N.S.B.'er he had warned me against was his own half-brother Keiser Romeijn.)
After thanking him I rejoined the others and told Phil to keep an eye on things while I had a look round. Taking with me the private from the South Staffs we walked about 200 yards in the direction of Ouwerkerk paddling ankle deep in water until it became deeper and we reached a makeshift bridge made from planks and posts. This appeared to span deeper water for about 50 feet. I decided that if the Germans were coming, then this would be the likely direction and that it was also a suitable place to hold them off for a while. I put this to my companion and told him to take his post by the side of the cottage nearby. I also told him that I would send one of his mates back with the heavy machine gun to set up covering this possible approach. Then I returned to the farm, told Phil what I had done and sent him with the Paratrooper to put up the gun.
This done I had a look round in the other direction. Here the road towards Nieuwerkerk seemed to be under water to a greater depth. There was no intention in my mind that we too would be "having a battle". My idea was that our best plan would be to disappear and lie low - after all we expected Market to be successful. In that case, German resistance in Holland would crumble in the face of the threat to Germany itself. However, that wasn't going to happen for a while yet. It was the immediate future that had to be decided on.
Nieuwerkerk itself appeared to be completely evacuated and deserted. At first sight it appeared to offer cover and a possible place to hide. We could hardly stay where we were but there was action needed in respect of the glider and its contents. There was no point in unloading the Jeep and trailer since we were on an island, mostly flooded. The first alternative was to destroy it on the spot but I felt that though this would deny to the Germans the use of its contents, it would also draw attention to us and pinpoint our position. In the end I instructed the driver to immobilise the Jeep and drain off all the petrol. The ammunition for the Lewis gun we would take with us.
Just before taking a look at the approaches to Nieuwerkerk we had discovered a flat-bottomed, home-made boat. We loaded the gun and ammunition into the boat together with our rucsacs and set off along the road, pushing the boat as we went. Our progress was somewhat slow and rather hesitant as we didn't really know what we were looking for. Most of the way we were walking through water which varied in depth between ankle and chest. One reassuring thought was that the Germans who came looking for us would have to suffer similar discomforts. Eventually we stopped and looked around. We were still some way from the middle of Nieuwerkerk and the water was becoming shallower. We made an entry into one of the houses on the left of the road. The ground floor was just above water level. Hiding the boat in the barn, we took the cargo in with us.
The day was wearing on and each of us tackled his own problems over what to do about wet clothes. We also had a brew. It was the first time we'd had the opportunity to talk quietly together about our present predicament and possible future. We were reasonably safe for the time being - we had shelter for the night - we carried with us enough rations for 48 hours - we also had some apples given to us by the people at the farm. Our first duty was obvious, we must avoid being captured for as long as possible. To achieve this we would need food and shelter and possibly help with both. For the time being we would share out very carefully what food we had until we could obtain further supplies. Tomorrow we would have to move on and find a better hiding place where we could hope to remain concealed. The machine gun was an encumbrance - we would have to leave it behind. However that could wait, tomorrow was another day.
The night passed in fitful rest - that is with an absence of physical activity. I don't think any of us slept much, though there were periods when we dozed. The best of these periods was around dawn, by which time our battle dress trousers had dried on us. I don't know how long after daybreak it was when we were disturbed by some activity outside. There on the roof was a Dutch farm worker, tapping on the skylight. He had been told by the Germans to tell us that if we did not surrender they would open fire on us. We thought this was a bit optimistic on their part as we were of the opinion that they could not have known our exact location. We were however a bit concerned about him advertising our position by lying on the roof and talking to us. Through Herman we suggested that he should go back and tell them that they could open up whenever they wanted. Probably at that moment the Germans were at the Keiser Romeijn farm and uttering threats which the Dutchman had duly passed on to us.
We moved out, on the way disposing of the ammunition and the M.G. firing mechanism in deep water. Then we carried on in the same direction as the previous evening along the road towards the middle of Nieuwerkerk. The level of the road rose gradually until we arrived at the middle of the village where it was high and dry. Here, we were in the middle of the village square in which there was a large church and adjacent to it a tall, broad based, tower. It was so quiet; we had noticed before leaving the water that the only noise was that made by our progress through the water and now only the sounds of our boots on the cobbles broke the silence.
We carried on crossing the streets which ran parallel to the square and continued in the same direction. Soon the road we were on (the Molenstraat) fell away again and became covered with water as it reached a large windmill. Retracing our steps, we decided to investigate one of the houses which was now on our right. It was on the opposite side of the street to a small chapel. Going round the side of the house to the rear, we discovered a well in the back garden. The kitchen window was easy to open with a bayonet. The downstairs rooms were dark because the blinds were drawn. The furniture, a large table and some chairs, was stacked, and we went upstairs. The upstairs consisted of a large open space with two smaller rooms to the left and right of the stairs. In each of these was a built-in bed. There was also a door which led to an outside balcony.
This seemed to be as good as anything, at least for the time being. Mind you, at this stage we didn't know what sort of place would best suit our purpose. However we had left no obvious trace outside and so long as we were quiet and drew no attention to ourselves, there was the possibility that we could conceal ourselves successfully. A thorough search would be difficult for us but the Germans too had a problem as they had no way of knowing whether we had moved on beyond Nieuwerkerk and at least for the moment would not know where to start looking. In any case it would keep a few of them busy for a while.
Strangely, this seemed to work for the next three days, although there were problems. The most obvious was the shortage of food. We had to eke out what we had for as long as possible. The second problem was boredom and inactivity. In this we fell into two distinct groups. Phil, Herman and I were more or less wholeheartedly determined that the lie-low policy of evading capture was important enough to override considerations of boredom and discomfort and hunger. The other three were not so wholehearted in their support of the policy. One of them, the driver, worried about the effect the shortage of food would have on our health. The paratrooper, who had previously served in North Africa, was bothered about being discovered and trapped. The lad from the South Staffs wasn't such a moaner but was more inclined towards the other two.
To me, both at the time and even now it was quite understandable. We were an oddly assorted group of strangers, and the three of them had been prevented from being with their mates of Para HQ. Had we arrived at L.Z. "X", they would probably have behaved differently but here, in these circumstances, they were being asked to play a role for which they were ill prepared.
By the third day, we had nearly used up our rations. Phil and I had brought with us 24 hour ration packs. These contained three concentrated blocks; one was porridge, the second was for making a sort of stew, and the third contained tea, sugar and dried milk. In addition, if memory serves, were about half a dozen biscuits and a few boiled sweets. These were in a cardboard box measuring about the same as the inside dimensions of the mess-tins into which they fitted. They also contained some sheets of toilet paper. A most important adjunct of these ration packs was the "Tommy Cooker". This consisted of a folding metal stand which would support a mess-tin and held a block of naptha, sufficient to heat or boil a full mess-tin. These two ration packs formed the main constituents of our food supply and had served six of us for three days. They had been supplemented by some sweets and chocolate which we all seemed to have, and also by the apples which we had been offered at the farm. Our supply of cigarettes also was nearly exhausted.
We had some discussion and decided that Phil and Herman should go out into the village, see what was going on, and try to find some more food. A search of the house in which we were had yielded nothing. Off they went, returning in about half an hour. They had found in one of the houses some fruit and vegetables preserved in kilner jars. They also reported that things were quiet. Their return gave us all a bit of a boost. Not only was there the immediate supplement to our meagre diet but there was also a momentary dismissal of the boredom and inactivity. The others then wanted to have a go. I decided to go along with this after impressing on them the need for caution. Three more forays were made that afternoon, led in turn by Herman, Phil and finally myself. This meant that we had all been out into the village. It also meant that we added to our stock of food. We were all feeling better and the day ended in an atmosphere of euphoria and, for the time being, with less apprehension for the morrow.
The next day brought with it some degree of anticlimax. Our feeling of well-being began to dissipate. There was also a new mood influenced by the appetite for some activity. Yesterday we had broken out of our self-imposed captivity and we wanted more. There were other considerations too; bottled fruit like plums and vegetables like carrots were very welcome but we were going to be in dire need of more starchy foods as well. We would have to make excursions like yesterday but the proceeds of such jaunts did not go very far when shared six ways. There was still the need for caution.
Little did we know but other events were moving which would rapidly despatch the remnants of our new-found feelings of well-being. There were sounds from outside. We were quickly silent, alert and listening. "Jerries!" They were looking for us. There in the street below they were searching house to house. Heavy jackbooted footsteps passed along the side of the house to the back. We heard the kitchen window being opened and one of them clambering in over the sink. His footsteps echoed over the bare floorboards downstairs and he returned to the kitchen. He examined the downstairs toilet and had a pee. How he never deduced that the toilet had been in use, I will never know. From the garden next door came a shouted question - "Haben sie einigeschwein gefunden?" "Nein", came his reply as he returned to the back garden by the way he had entered, through the kitchen window. There were still some more disturbing noises to come - more heavy footsteps, some shouting. Herman and I tiptoed to the small window which faced onto the house next door. We could just see the street and the chapel opposite. A whistle was blown, more shouts, more heavy footsteps. There before our eyes, the searching detachment fell in and marched away. We breathed again.
We had been lucky. But we had also proved a point. It wasn't all that easy for the Germans to find us. The deserted appearance of the downstairs and the outside locality had not encouraged them to search thoroughly. Our greatest danger had been that of losing our nerve and thinking that discovery was certain. We had all been alarmed, which is a mild way of saying that we had been very frightened. One of our group had exacerbated this state by voicing his fears in hoarse whispers. These were to the effect that "You'll 'ave to pack it in sarge. If they throw an 'effing grenade up them stairs, we've all 'ad it." In the event we had all managed to stay calm and quiet enough to avoid being discovered. I think also that one of the things in our favour was that the Germans had already searched the rest of the village; we were at the back end and they were just about ready to call it off.
Our basic problems still remained. We decided to move out as soon as it was dark. We needed news; we also needed bread; for both of these we needed help. I suggested that we should make our way towards Ouwerkerk, to the farm of Jan Romeijn and seek his help. On the way we paused outside the farm of Keiser Romeijn, although up to that moment I did not know his name. I had not made the family connection, but Phil and Herman had. They had to show me the nameplate by his front door before I was convinced. We continued on our way, arriving about an hour after we had set out.
When we came to the farm we circled the buildings very quietly. Everywhere was quiet. It was a dark night and there was no sign of a light. We knocked quietly on the door. A few moments went by before a voice in Dutch asked quietly who it was. Herman answered for us and the door was opened. Jan stood there in the shadows. Closing the door behind him, he came outside to talk to us. Greeting us with a smile, he was quiet and calm as though a visit from the likes of us was not in the least unusual. What news he had was not encouraging. At Arnhem things were going badly. This was shattering.
All of us had close friends and comrades at Arnhem. We were concerned for them. Until then we had naturally been preoccupied with our own difficulties and although we had thought about them we had not been unduly concerned. It also meant that we would have to lie low for much longer than just a few days. Suddenly Jan broke off the conversation and went back inside. We stood around disconsolately - a forlorn little group. Apparently he had gone back inside to bring us some food. Soon he returned with some apples which he distributed amongst us. He also gave us two large loaves. We asked him if he had any ideas about where we could hide in reasonable safety. He suggested that the next farm might be all right. The farmer, Mijnheer van den Stolpe was not living there and it was deserted. After thanking him for his help we wished him goodnight and moved on.
The v.d. Stolpe farm was separated from Jan's farm by one large field. It was still very dark as we made our way across the field. We were still wet from our journey. The farmhouse and buildings looked deserted. We were rather unsure of ourselves and at first just walked around to get the lie of the land. By now it was quite windy and there was rain on the wind. There was the house and close to it a large barn. To the side was a large open structure with a roof supported by tubular steel poles. This was a covered rick which held a large number of straw bales. We climbed up and concealed ourselves among the bales. For some reason we were reluctant to enter the barn and at that moment thought that this open arrangement of bales offered a safer haven. With my jack-knife I cut half a dozen thick slices from one of the loaves. As we munched the bread and apples, we fidgeted and tried to arrange ourselves as comfortably as possible between the bales. That we were not very successful was due, I think, to the state of our wet clothes and the fact that it now blowing and raining hard.
I think it was another hour or so before we actually went into the barn. We were glad of the shelter; there was one area which had quite a lot of hay spread over the floor with enough room for all of us to burrow into and keep warm. The only drawback was the dust which not only found its way into mouth and nose but also produced a great deal of itching as it worked its way down the back of the neck. We found that our airborne camouflage scarves were quite useful in filtering much of the dust. Another part of the barn had been designed for the use of animals and we used this as a toilet. We passed the rest of the night in comparative comfort.
The following morning I rationed out the rest of the first loaf. There still remained the second one. During the morning we pottered around inside the barn. By moving around and peering through the cracks in the walls which ran lengthways it was possible to obtain about 300 degrees of vision, though there was not much to see. On one side was the gravelled farmyard between the barn and the hayrick. Beyond this was the field we had crossed the previous night. At the other side of the field was the Grote Ioofstede though it was not directly visible. Through the cracks in the barn door at one end, we could look out to the back of the farm house. Across the field in the other direction lay another farm and its buildings, and beyond it the village of Ouwerkerk. Outside the greatest activity was that of the jackdaws. Strutting, fluttering, chattering noisily, they concentrated mainly in the area of the hayrick.
Inside there was much less activity. Phil and I spent much of the time discussing the wisdom or otherwise of remaining in our present position. At some time later during the morning one of our group had gone to the "toilet". This part of the barn looked out across the nearby field towards Ouwerkerk. There across the fields we could see two German soldiers. Soon we were all observing carefully between the cracks. There were more than two - they were setting up a machine gun on its tripod close to a barn about 200 yards away. We continued to watch them for more than an hour. Occasionally one would have a smoke when he was apparently out of sight. At one moment another was obviously having a pee. As we watched, our main concern was in case they should come in our direction. It appeared to us, that having failed to discover us in Nieuwerkerk, they were now searching Ouwerkerk; the group we were observing were meant to stop us if we were flushed out.
However all this was really a diversion from the main problems - concealment and food supply. The two loaves we had been given the previous evening had been a generous gift but were not likely to last very long with six of us. Two facts stood out: successful concealment was less likely with six than with a smaller number; successful feeding was less likely with six than with a smaller number. Phil and I discussed this at length and eventually we came to a conclusion. It would be better if we split up.
The formula we hit on was to become three groups of two. (With hindsight I think we might have chosen two groups of three.) I called the others together. Putting our problems to them as clearly as I could, I outlined my proposals for improving our chances of evading capture.
a) We would split the group into three pairs.
b) Phil and I were a team and we would stay together.
c) The paratrooper and the driver were well known to each other - they would also be a pair.
d) The private in the South Staffs and Herman, the Dutch Commando were both rather the odd man out; they would be together and as a pair would have the advantage that one could speak the language.
e) Before darkness I would ration out what food remained among the three pairs.
f) The other two pairs would receive a copy of my map. I would retain the original.
g) We would draw lots.
The pair drawing number 1 would leave the barn as soon as it became dark enough. Pair number 2 would leave one hour later and pair number 3 would have the option of remaining where they were or leaving after another hour.
Having outlined my proposals and the reasons for them I invited comments; in particular over the pairings. There was general agreement and after making sure what our intentions were, I spent the next couple of hours in preparation.
As soon as it was dark enough, we sent the paratrooper and the R.A.S.C. driver on their way, each with a one-sixth share of the remaining food. This was no more than three ounces of bread and an apple, supplemented by a share of our emergency rations. These had been issued to Phil and me and consisted of concentrated chocolate in sealed tins on which were embossed the instructions that they were only to be opened when no other food had been supplied during the previous twenty-four hours.
We decided that the emergency was upon us. Opening the tins, we broke up the chocolate which was so solid that even with a jack-knife, it was difficult to apportion with any degree of accuracy. Each man's share amounted to about three ounces. In addition to these meagre supplies, each pair was equipped with a map of the island, assiduously copied by me on to toilet paper, together with a sketch map showing its position relative to Overflakkee, Beveland, Walcheren and the mainland. Phil and I retained the original. There was handshaking all round and they disappeared into the darkness accompanied by the only commodity which was not in short supply - our good wishes. We noted the time and after an hour, despatched the private from the South Staffs and Herman in similar fashion.
After the second departure, Phil and I passed most of the next hour discussing the options which were open to us. In accordance with the plan we had decided on earlier in the day, we had the choice of staying in the barn or leaving it. After due consideration we concluded that our best course of action would be to return to Nieuwerkerk where we would feel more confident in remaining concealed and obtaining food. On the way we would call on Jan and inform him of the new situation.
When the hour was up, we left the barn and headed for the Grote Hoofstede. On arrival, we were welcomed by Jan who was rather surprised that there were now only two of us. After we had explained our reasons for splitting up, he nodded approvingly and assured us of whatever assistance he could provide. We told him of our intention to return to Nieuwerkerk. We also arranged that we would visit him every four or five days. He was going to be our lifeline, keeping us up-to-date with news of the outside world and even more important, the provider of the staple elements of our diet.
Already it was beginning to look as though we had won the first prize in the lottery (for departure times), held earlier that day at the v.d. Stolpe farm. As we set off for Nieuwerkerk with our supply of food augmented by an additional gift of bread and apples, our morale was probably higher than at any time in the previous week.
The journey took about an hour and not even the discomfort of wading most of the way through cold water, varying in depth between knee and chest, could dampen our new-found high spirits. However we were relieved to leave the water at the back of the hotel, where the street level rose as it neared the square. On we continued until we reached the house on the Molenweg which was to be our sanctuary and where we had already survived a search by the Germans. Carefully stepping over the weeds which drooped across the path to the front door, we went round to the back, opened the kitchen window, closed it behind as we entered, and quickly went upstairs. Removing our wet clothes, we dried ourselves and crawled into bed, shivering. After some quiet conversation which reflected our present, good fortune we slowly warmed up and slept soundly.
The following morning we began to lay the foundations for a long-term survival routine of which the two main components would be concealment and a supply of food. We would scavenge the empty houses for food, resolving that whenever we broke into a dwelling we would take care not to leave traces of a forced entry which might attract the attention of either friend or foe. Our main housebreaking tools were the jack-knife and the bayonet with which we were not only able to open the catch of a sash window but also to close it behind us when we left. Having adopted this policy, we kept to it, even though there were occasions when we failed to obtain access to likely looking properties because of our reluctance to use undue force. Apart from the necessity for concealment, I think we also respected the property of the local inhabitants who had been forced to abandon their homes. With one exception we took only those things which were necessary for our survival. (The one exception was when we took a couple of glazed clay pipes which had a picture of Nieuwerkerk on the bowl. We thought they would make splendid souvenirs but we also used them to smoke fag ends two or three times removed.)
Most days we started with a 'brew' and then set out on an expedition, wearing plimsolls for stealth. Systematically we entered and searched many of the houses in the streets surrounding the middle of the village. Our roomy airborne smocks, belted around the waist, usually provided sufficient space to carry our 'shopping'. Beside removing foodstuffs we also took clean underwear of assorted shape size and colour. This meant that whenever we had made a visit to Jan, we would have something to change into when we returned. Then even if our uniforms were still damp, we could still be dry underneath.
One morning we were in what had been a corner shop. There we discovered a large churn with a capacity of about four or five gallons. On investigation it proved to be a receptacle for treacle or syrup. The remaining contents covered the bottom to a depth of about two inches. My arm was just the right length to reach the bottom of the churn. The top inch was still liquid and the bottom inch had become crystallised. Treasure trove indeed! While we were considering ways of extracting and removing the contents in a suitable utensil, we were startled to hear heavy footsteps outside. There, striding past the window, were three tall, uniformed men. They wore wading boots, long black leather overcoats with belts, holsters with pistols, and dark peak caps with blue roundel badges. Cowering behind the shop counter, we observed their passing and held a whispered conversation as to who they were and what we should do next. My first thought was that here was a U-boat captain and two of his officers.
We decided to give them time to clear the top of the street, then quietly slip back and lie low until later in the day. Out we went closing the window behind us and then back home, slinking along the streets. We reached our house without further incident and quietly twiddled our thumbs. Hours went by with sporadic outbursts of speculative whispering and ears pricked for sounds of activity outside. At one stage we did hear voices coming from the direction of the baker's shop which was a little way along the street. We peered through the little side window which looked out in that direction but could see nothing.
The time went by very slowly and as the afternoon wore on we felt that they must surely have gone by now, whoever they were. Another half hour went by and we prepared ourselves to go and collect the treacle. Off we set, this time with a small round tin, such as would hold a pound of sweets. With careful progress we reached the shop. I opened the window and slipped inside while Phil remained outside to keep watch from the doorway. It took ages to pour the liquid part into the tin. Just as I was coming to the conclusion that I would not be able to transfer much more, there was a shout from the street followed by the soft pitter-patter of Phil's plimsolled feet disappearing into the distance. Not knowing quite what was happening, I lowered the churn carefully to the floor and ducked behind the counter.
No sooner had I done this when I heard Phil return .... "Psst! Blackie - come on!" ...... By now the treacle had assumed a totally disproportionate value and I was reluctant to abandon it again. Taking my revolver in one hand and clutching the tin of treacle with the other, I made for the open window. "Where are they ?" I whispered. "Top of the street," came the reply, "get a move on." Hurriedly, I cocked one leg straddling the sill, wriggled awkwardly until my foot reached the ground, which was considerably lower than the floor of the shop. This left me considerably stretched with one leg left on the window sill and both hands full. With a backward hop that was more like a stagger, I freed the airborne leg, only to bring down the window sash with a crash that broke the pane. "Damn!" I thought, "there goes our rule of leaving no trace." "Never mind that now" said Phil, "come on." "Which way ?" I asked. "Round the corner and back up the other street" he replied. Cautiously we made our way. As I paused to peer round the next corner, Phil kept a wary eye to the rear. "OK, Phil," I said, "it's all clear." Then, just at the very moment when I stepped into the street, a dark uniformed figure started across at the other end. I hesitated and Phil bumped into me.
Seeing me, the figure hesitated and was about to go into reverse. "He's spotted me" I said, stepping forward and waving my revolver threateningly. At this, Phil hopped across the street and we advanced towards him, one on each side. He came down the middle towards us with his hands raised above his head. We met halfway and with hands still raised he said "Marechaussee." We exchanged puzzled glances, thinking to ourselves, "What the heck does that mean ?" "Politie, Nederlands Politie," he explained lowering his hands, "you are English?" He then surprisingly indicated that we move off the street on to a path which separated two of the houses. With signs and strange words, he told us that he had two colleagues with him, that his boss, the Luitenant, was N.S.B. (another swastika traced on the side of the house). He offered us a cigarette which we gratefully accepted and while we were smoking, we heard shouts and a whistle being blown - it was time for him to leave. Handshakes all round among new friends, then off he went in the direction we had come from and after a brief pause we went home the other way. We wondered whether we would ever see him again.
The pattern of survival continued. The following morning we secured the last of the treacle from the churn. We also tidied up the broken window which we had so hurriedly left and disposed of the broken fragments of glass. Our encounter did not perturb us - we probably felt less alone, having made a new friend, a policeman with red hair. (His name, though we did not know it then, was Jan de Waarde.) We wondered if he might turn out to be useful in the future. We didn't know how long we would have to wait on Schouwen. Our early hopes for relief had been dashed after the failure of Market-Garden and now the liberation of Holland would prove to be long and costly in terms of misery and famine for the Dutch people.
Besides the regular foraging expeditions, we were dependent on our regular visits to Ouwerkerk. The first of these took place about five days after we told Jan that there were just the two of us. We were invited in and we met Jan's mother and Adriaan de Valk who worked on the farm. As had been foreshadowed, the survivors of our division had withdrawn from Arnhem. Jan also gave us news of our immediate comrades.
Apparently, on the night we had split up, three British soldiers had gone into Ouwerkerk and asked a householder to inform the Germans that they wanted to give up. (Several weeks later we heard from Herman that when he and the lad from the South Staffs left the barn, they found the other two waiting down the road. At first he tried to persuade them not to give in and then he tried to persuade his companion not to join the other two. It was to no avail, and he retired some distance away and watched them call at a house. Then he disappeared on his own.) The news of their surrender was not really unexpected. By splitting up the group, I had given them the opportunity to do something which was already in their minds. Had I known with certainty what the outcome would be, I might have grouped us differently. However it had been my intention to give every one of us a better chance of survival and not handicap anyone. At the time that Jan gave us this news, he was unable to tell us what had happened to Herman. Before we left on this occasion, Jan had given us some more bread and also some tobacco and cigarette papers.
Two or three days after our encounter with the policeman Jan de Waarde, we again revisited the Grote Hoofstede where we were now always welcome. The nights were now rather cold for the soaking which was our lot whenever we waded along the road from Nieuwerkerk to Ouwerkerk. On arrival we would remove our boots by the door and dry out by the fire in the living room or by the Aga type cooking range in the kitchen. On each occasion we passed an evening in cosy companionship, made possible by Jan's English and hospitality, not least by his mother's concern for our welfare.
We talked and exchanged knowledge of Dutch and English customs. Sometimes we four men would sit at the kitchen table and play cards, mostly a form of whist or trumps in which Phil and I would occasionally have difficulties with the strangeness of some of the court cards. Jan patiently smiled away our problems, Adriaan mostly grinned from ear to ear making remarks and attempts at conversation in what I would now be able to distinguish as Zeeuwse dialect but was to us, then, only Double Dutch. The explanations would come from Jan 20 and when understanding dawned, we would agree or reply if it had been a question. Meanwhile, Mevrouw Romeijn would be sitting in the corner, watching all whilst sewing, usually smiling benignly. She was now more relaxed in our presence, her earlier fears dissipated by her obvious pleasure in providing for us what comfort she could. Perhaps her anxiety for us was matched by our worry that we were placing these people in danger. We could not help but admire them for their unselfish courage and their humanity.
On these visits prompted by the need for bread, we were also hungry for news and Jan would give us what information he could - usually not very much. There seemed to be very little movement on the mainland in our direction. Sometimes there was no electricity, and I remember very clearly Jan's quaint apology as he greeted us by the light of an oil lamp. "I am sorry," he said "but tonight the stream is off."
At the end of such evenings, when the time came for us to depart, we would be given a couple of loaves and some apples to sustain us until our next visit. In addition we often received a little butter and usually Jan contrived to provide tobacco and cigarette papers. After saying goodbye and trying to express our thanks, we would reluctantly set out for Nieuwerkerk again. One night we changed our routine. Phil and I had discussed this previously. We decided that after drying out we could avoid a second wetting in the same evening by spending the night in the barn at the v.d. Stolpe farm.
This proved to be a suitably successful ploy for a number of visits except one. On this occasion, the night was pitch black as we set out to cross the field. In order to cross the ditches it was necessary to go diagonally from corner to corner. It was so dark that I arrived at the ditch a few yards short of the crossing point, slid in, and was soaked all over again. Phil, a few yards behind me, realising that I had disappeared, whispered loudly, "Blackie, where the hell are you ?" The strange thing was that now I was standing in water up to my chest, my head was close to the level of the field and I could make out the shadowy figure of Phil close to the edge of the ditch. Wishing to spare him the ignominious discomfort which had befallen me, I told him to stand still. Instead, however, he edged forward with the idea of pulling me out but was soon in the ditch alongside me. Covered with mud, we crawled out like a couple of drowned rats and continued miserably on our way.
It wasn't far but we were very annoyed with ourselves. The mishap had cancelled out any advantage in spending the night at the v.d. Stolpe farm. Once in the barn we undressed and spread out our wet clothes; dried ourselves as well as we could and changed into the drier underwear we carried in our rucsacs. Then, shivering and cursing ourselves and each other, we burrowed into the hay with the resolve to be more careful in the future. Apart from this minor disaster, these visits to the Grote Hoofstede were more than welcome breaks from the monotony of bare existence.
On one of our earlier visits to Jan, we had given him a whistle and told him that if ever he had important news for us, he could make contact by blowing the V-sign near the bottom of Molenstraat. Imagine our surprise one morning when we heard him doing so. Going quickly to the end of the street, we found Jan and Adriaan with the horse and cart. I don't know whether he was breathless from blowing the whistle or from excitement.
"Good morning, Bernard .... Philip. I bring you good news .... Tilburg is falling .... Breda is falling .... Bergen op Zoom is falling .... s'Hertogenbosch has fallen .... and also this morning the Marechausse are coming to see you." As each fragment of news was imparted, Phil and I rose in expectation and then fell with anticlimax, heaved a sigh of relief at the definite news of s'Hertogenbosch and then asked why the Marechaussee were coming to Nieuwerkerk. "They are coming to bring you food." said Jan. "Where will they come from ?" we asked. "From Zierikzee" he answered.
At this we climbed the tower and sure enough, across the flooded fields in the distance we could see a small boat with three occupants being rowed towards us from the direction of Zierikzee. Mindful of the fact that Jan de Waarde had previously warned us that the Politie Luitenant was not to be trusted, we asked Jan if he could recognise the occupants. He was not sure since they still had some way to row. We then went down to street level and walked along the street to show Jan and Adriaan where we were hiding. We suggested that it might be better if he met them alone. If they proved to be those he was expecting, then he could bring them along. If not and they turned out to be men he was doubtful about, then he would do nothing and no harm would be done.
We then left Jan near the church and went back to await the outcome. Our spirits rose with anticipation and in conversation we discussed the probability that one of the three policeman would almost certainly be our red-haired friend from the previous encounter.
Some twenty minutes later there came a rat-a-tat at the door. We were more than a little surprised to find that it was not as we had foreseen. Jan introduced us to Luitenant Schaap, the chief of police in Zierikzee, and his two henchmen, van Doeselaar and Visser. Then he took his leave and left us to it.
We all went upstairs to our living quarters where we had set a small table with chairs around. As I recall we also put on the kettle to make a cup of tea - but first the formalities. Lt. Schaap had brought a bottle of Vruchtenwijn which he gave to me. He had also brought a pocket dictionary, probably used by his son at school. Then Doeselaar and Visser began to unpack the attaché cases which they carried. They presented to me each item of the contents which I, in turn, passed on to Phil who carefully placed each in the cupboard. There was an air of ritual about all this. For Phil and I, there was also a sense of reverence and wonder for although, by today's standards, it was hardly a week's shopping, to us, our cupboard was beginning to look like Aladdin's cave.
I cannot remember every article of the contents but I am sure that there were three large loaves, some butter, rundvlees, apples, tobacco and cigarette papers. The piece de resistance came from Visser - carefully removing from his case a circular, dish-sized package wrapped in grease proof paper, he presented it to me with the words, "English cake, for the English men, from my wife!" This time before handing it to Phil, I carefully unwrapped it to reveal a freshly baked Victoria Jam Sandwich Sponge Cake, the top liberally sprinkled with sugar.
I suppose Phil and I accepted this embarrassment of riches with an aplomb which totally concealed our true feelings. We certainly made the right sort of grateful noises but we could hardly believe our good fortune. There we were, in a deserted village on a flooded island in mid-October, hungry hunted scavengers in an enemy occupied unfriendly landscape, with friends who could be counted on the fingers of one hand, about to sit down and entertain three new friends. And with a cupboard full of food as well. It was like having birthdays and Christmas all at once.
Then we all sat down at the small table on which we had placed our map. We drank tea (artificial without milk or sugar), we smoked cigarettes, and we talked to try to discover what progress the allies were making on the mainland. There were of course communication problems, partially solved by the use of the dictionary and a school English (Dutch) Grammar book which I had discovered on an earlier foraging expedition. In addition there was some spin off from some German classes I had attended at Tilshead where I had mastered a few verbs, nouns, and 'useful' military phrases, learned by rote. This was hardly the basis for great linguistic achievement.
I think also, my manual dexterity in rolling cigarettes left much to be desired. My first efforts produced not only a barely smokeable cylinder but also considerable mirth and comment from our visitors - one of whom said, "Staff-Sergeant Black - he rolls a cigar!" It must be said however that in the following weeks, my skill in this department improved considerably whenever the necessary materials came to hand.
This had been a morning of surprises; Jan's whistling; the arrival of the Marechaussee with the notable absence of de Waarde and the presence of Schaap the N.S.B.'er; and last but not least the stocking of our food cupboard. But there was more to come. When rather more than an hour had passed, Lt.Schaap produced his diary and after establishing that today was Monday, proceeded to make an appointment with us, saying that they would return on Thursday. The question which followed in Dutch, was at first not understood by us and when it finally was, seemed unbelievable in the circumstances.
He wanted to know what we needed and was offering to supply our requirements on their next visit. This new situation placed Phil and me in a quandary. Our first exaggerated reaction was that by our recent standards we had enough food for a month and that it was scarcely fitting for us to be offered the chance of living in the lap of luxury in a country impoverished by occupation. We did however seriously discuss our needs. On our expeditions we had by now an established routine of break-in and search. In the cupboards of the empty houses, we quickly came to recognise which packets contained remnants of starchy foods, mostly made from potato flour. Bottled fruit and vegetables preserved by thrifty housewives seemed more plentiful than was suitable for our diet and under the kitchen sink usually proved to be the place where paraffin oil was stored, mainly in minuscule quantities.
This latter we used in a paraffin stove for heating bottled vegetables and making tea. And so, turning from Phil, I tentatively asked for paraffin. This request produced consternation and the following pantomime:
"Waarvoor hebt U paraffine nodig?"
"For cooking; on the stove."
"Nee! U moet geen paraffine gebruiken. Met paraffine .... BOUMF! U hebt petrolie nodig."
"Petrol? You must be joking. Petrol in this .... BOUMF!"
The following Thursday on their next visit, along with other things, constable Visser handed me a bottle and said, "Petrolie, voor de koken." I uncorked it, sniffed the contents, passed it to Phil who also had a sniff. We both said "Paraffin!" and everyone laughed.
During the next three weeks or so, we did not need to go to Ouwerkerk. The police came to us on six or perhaps seven occasions. Each time they replenished our supplies and sustained our morale. They literally helped us to keep body and soul together not only with the food they brought but also because these meetings, eagerly anticipated, enlightened our otherwise drab existence. They provided us with topics of conversation and conjecture. Some little incidents almost came to the point of hilarity.
Our guests who were also our hosts were totally dissimilar. Lt.Schaap as chief of police was obviously the boss; he it was who would lead the conversation especially when it came to making arrangements for the next visit, and asking us what our future requirements might be. When it came down to it and we had made some request, he would turn to his subordinates to enquire whether they could fulfil our wishes. They would then seriously discuss the where and how of satisfying our needs.
Doeselaar appeared to be the fixer. He was somewhat heavily built, a middle-aged man, whose round face and glasses gave him a rather owl-like appearance. Characteristically not far removed from a pre-war, English village bobby, he was in fact the Wacht-Meester for Nieuwerkerk and we were living on his patch. (I discovered later that J. de Waarde was Wacht-Meester for Ouwerkerk). Once, Phil and I asked about the possibility of some sugar. Schaap turned to Visser and Doeselaar saying, "They need some sugar." Doeselaar appeared to lapse into a kind of Dutch monologue with interjections; by Visser. It is impossible for me to write exactly what he was saying. The word 'suiker' cropped up several times and also a number of rhetorical questions. I feel sure that had he been speaking English, the following fictitious account would not be far of the mark.
"Sugar! Where the heck do you think I'm going to get sugar ? Don't you know there's a war on ? Sugar! Bloody ridiculous! I don't know anyone who's got sugar to spare. Everyone I know doesn't have enough for themselves. I suppose I could try ..... who did you say? .... No! That's no use. I suppose I could try so and so. 'mm ... yes. He's a pretty good scrounger. I'll try him, he's probably the best bet. After all his brother in law is married to the grocer's wife's sister. If he can't get sugar then I don't know who else can. Ah well, I suppose it will be all right. Go on then I'll get some sugar." Most of what he said was muttered, half grumbling, the remarks seemed to be addressed to himself as though he was arguing himself out of the impossibility of what was expected of him. Eventually he seemed to convince himself that maybe he could after all bring some sugar and at the end needed to reassure himself rather than his listeners. As an anticlimax Schaap indicated to us that the matter was settled.
Visser was tall, slim and blond. He was calm and quiet of speech. Sometimes serious though often smiling, he took an obvious pleasure in being able to help us. Any detailed recollection of him is overshadowed by the sponge cake baked by his wife. He too must have been a quiet fixer, otherwise where would his wife have found the eggs to make the cake.
On their last visit to us at Nieuwerkerk, our friends made only a conditional arrangement for a further visit. Their trips had been 'official' in order to review the extent of the flood damage and to generally supervise the security of the buildings. It was becoming obvious that they could not continue with the same excuse for much longer. I think also at this time the line had reached as far as Steenbergen and plans were moving for the invasion of Beveland and Walcheren .
For us things were now becoming more difficult. Autumn was giving way to winter. Sometimes we ate the bottled fruits and vegetables cold, at other times we would warm them over the little paraffin stove, eking out the bread and any other remnants of potato-flour products we could find on our expeditions. Eventually we succumbed to an uncomfortable bout of diarrhoea which lasted a couple of days. We decided that it was again time to visit Jan and his mother. There we were made welcome as usual and given another supply of bread. Phil mentioned my upset tummy which provoked some concern at the time and an unexpected result which I will refer to later.
On our return to Nieuwerkerk, we continued much as before with regular cautious housebreaking expeditions for supplies. Most of the proprietary foods we found were substitutes (surrogaat) or artificial (kunst). So we would often find Sago, Rice, or Tapioca made really from potato flour (ardappelmeel); tablets or herbal mixtures described as tea. Some of these were not unpleasant, all were welcome. None were in great supply, usually perhaps an ounce or less remaining in a half pound packet. The instructions for use (gebruiksaanwijzing) and the description of the contents provided at least a visual Dutch lesson when used in conjunction with the dictionary. We could only guess at the pronunciation with the help of the grammar book. We learned from Jan how to say please and thank you and the usual daily greetings.
Sometimes on our forays we thought we had hit the jackpot but more often than not, it was not so. Once we found a large packet containing a yellow powder described as 'kunsteigeel'. It was edible when mixed with water and cooked, the result proved in appearance to resemble a sort of Cremola pudding - extremely light weight, all froth and bubbles. We eventually realised that it was probably meant to be used as a colouring additive for cakes rather than a food in its own right. On another occasion, in the upstairs storeroom of the bakery, we found a sack half-full of what appeared to be very coarse flour which smelled a bit musty. The outside of the sack bore the German crest and we presumed that the baker had been baking bread for the Wehrmacht. After some unsatisfactory trials with it, we finally concluded that it was sawdust.
Upstairs in one house, we found a couple of bunches of tobacco leaves hanging to dry by the side of the fireplace. We removed them and took them back 'home' with us. Carefully stripping the leaves from the stalks, we rolled them into a cigar shaped cylinder and then with a razor blade cut up the roll into thin slices. This gave us a smokeable shag. Finding a suitable paper was more difficult but by and large we obtained several smokes each of which gave us much satisfaction.
A less than successful venture was the discovery in one shop of a large number of packets of cigarettes. The resident mouse population had been at many of the packets but there were still enough undamaged to make us think that we were really in luck. They looked like cigarettes and they lit well enough although they were a bit dry. However a couple of puffs had us both coughing and spluttering. We did make two or three attempts to smoke these monstrosities but finally we gave up. We had failed to take notice of the description on the outside of each packet - "Tabak Surrogaat". Though finely shredded and nicely rolled and packed, the substitute proved to be wild flowers and plant material. Useful for a botany lesson but for us completely unsmokeable. It was like sitting inside a smouldering haystack. They did not even bear a worthy resemblance to the herbal cigarettes we had seen on sale in England.
These minor disappointments were for us "all in the day's work." We accepted them as part of a roundabouts and swings situation, even with a certain amount of wry humour. There was never any feeling on our part that we had wasted our time, in fact time was what we had in plenty. For diversion we would sometimes play battleships, with long serious discussions over the number of squares we would make available and at the composition of our battle fleets. Also we would gravely consider the number of permissible shots in each salvo and the number of direct hits required to effect the sinking of the ships in each category. Another pastime arose out of an attempt to reduce the mouse population on a competitive basis. We each had a conventional mousetrap with which we caught several mice. These we put outside on the balcony which overlooked the back garden. They were usually removed, either by the local kestrels or owls. I don't know which because we never saw the final disposal. Sometimes in the night we would be awakened by one of the traps being triggered and we would investigate immediately to see who had made a catch. Sometimes neither of us had, the mice becoming adept at removing the meagre bait and then escaping. For bait I think we used dried peas which had been soaked. We also tried to invent our own Heath Robinson type of traps with a ramp leading up to a precarious walkway across the top of a large biscuit tin - these were not very successful either.
There were some nights when we couldn't sleep very well and would lie awake chatting. More often than not these conversations had about them an element of nostalgia over our shared experiences and mutual friends. We would also talk about our homes and families, wondering how long it might be before we were reunited. We realised that although we knew that we were all right, our loved ones would only know that we had been missing since September 18th. They would be suffering a great deal of worry.
Occasionally our nights were disturbed by the rumble of distant gunfire from the direction of the mainland. Two or three weeks after the last visit by the Marechaussee, there was one night when the gunfire seemed to go on all night, this time from the direction of Beveland and Walcheren.
As I recall, there were barrages lasting over several days. We were quite excited about it for if Beveland Walcheren fell to the allies it meant that Schouwen would be next on the list. A few nights later we heard quite different noises and so we went along and climbed the tower and sat there in the dark, listening. What we could hear was the continuous movement of horses and carts rumbling and splashing along a road some distance away. We concluded that the Germans had been expelled from Beveland and Walcheren and they were making their way from Zierikzee to Brouwershaven. All this was a mixture of guesswork and hope in which we wondered whether the invasion of Schouwen and our liberation would soon be upon us. The next few days were full of uncertainty for us - would it be safe for us to venture forth from our hideout and would there now be many more German troops on the island.
However we decided to stay where we were and continued to go out each day in search of food. Although this was by now a thoroughly established and familiar routine, we did not neglect caution and stealth. And so one morning we set out rather later than usual and as we came to the end of the Molenstraat we heard voices. Slowly we reached the corner and paused to listen and look. Halfway down the street leaning against the wall outside a shop were two rifles. We hastily turned back around the corner to weigh up the situation. We listened and whispered.
Our conclusion was that we had two unexpected visitors to Nieuwerkerk and that they were almost certainly German soldiers. Nervous and alert, we traversed the top of the street and went some distance along the parallel street to listen again and confirm our suspicions. We decided that they were probably alone but we couldn't be sure. We thought also that they were doing a bit of private looting - it seemed unlikely that they were part of a group searching for us.
We made our way back to the top of the street at Molenstraat from where we could see the rifles again. Another whispered discussion took place in an attempt to resolve our dilemma - without doubt we could have taken care of them but it would not have improved our position. In fact it would have increased the risk of the Germans discovering our whereabouts. We made the same decision as on the occasion of our first encounter with the Dutch police and quietly returned to sit it out and hope to continue with our evasion tactics.
Quietly, we sat, and listened, and spoke only in whispers. This time however we determined not to go out again that day. After what seemed an interminable age we heard the sound of Jackboots and German voices in the street outside. The heavy footsteps paused, started again and then stopped. We could almost hear them wondering which house they were going to break into. Our fervent hope was that they weren't going to choose ours. Then came the sound of their heavy footsteps along the path leading to the back of the house. Next we heard the kitchen window being opened and knew that they were clambering through it. Quietly, we released our safety catches and concealed ourselves behind the doorways at the top of the stairs awaiting their ascent.
After a cursory inspection of the downstairs rooms they began to mount the stairs, talking as they came, completely unaware of our presence. As they neared the top, Phil and I sprang out of our places of concealment shouting "Hande Hoch!" In a considerable state of shock, they immediately responded by raising their hands and calling out fearfully, "Nicht schiessen! Kein Waffen" (Don't shoot, no arms.) Gesturing with our weapons we brought them into the upper room which had been our home for so long.
Here was a pretty kettle of fish. We had certainly observed that they were indeed unarmed. We could make a fair guess where their rifles were and we were secretly surprised at their carelessness. While they were still in a state of shock, I ordered them to sit and demanded their soldatenbuchen. Phil and I scrutinised each in turn and then tried to question them to see what information we could elicit. They told us that they had come from North Beveland fleeing from the British. They also claimed that they had had enough of the war, each having been wounded on the Russian front. Their pay books corroborated this statement.
We asked them how they had come over to Schouwen and where they had landed. They said that they had come on their own in a small boat and landed near Vianen. According to them, they had no wish to report to their German superiors and were in fact deserters; they hoped to make their way back into Germany. The strange thing about this yarn was that it could have been true. Their pay books also disclosed that for both of them, their civilian occupation was "Stuurman" which I took to mean "Helmsman" - they also told us that they had worked the Rhine barges.
Our next enquiry concerned their arrival in Nieuwerkerk and their method of transport. They said that they had come in a boat and one of them offered to show us where it was. I decided to accept this offer and just as we were about to go, Phil quietly reminded me of the probable whereabouts of their rifles, saying, "Keep your eyes skinned for their bondooks." This precautionary use of slang was just in case our prisoners understood English.
We had said very little to each other in their presence and in the matter of the rifles we had not let on that we knew of their existence. Leaving one of the Germans in Phil's custody, I set off with the other. Turning the corner of the street, I waved my revolver indicating that he was to walk on the right-hand side. Sure enough, halfway down on the left-hand side stood the two rifles against the wall of the shop. As we passed by, I scooped them up, slung them over my shoulder and continued along the street with hardly a break in my stride. Near the south-western edge of the village at the water's edge, lay a small flat-bottomed boat. After a brief inspection we returned.
In low voices, Phil and I held a quiet discussion as to our predicament. By now, our captives had completely recovered their composure having long realised that we were not going to shoot them out of hand. They had probably realised that the present circumstances presented more difficulties for us than for them. Two of the choices open to us were: either we could kill them, or we could encourage them to think that we had swallowed their story and were prepared to make use of them in leaving Schouwen by boat. In any case we could hardly hang around with two unwanted prisoners and we had to decide on a course of action. For obvious reasons we ruled out the first of these choices and elected to develop the second with due caution and aware of the need for some improvisation.
We knew that there was a German post at Vianen but were prepared to accept the possibility of a suitable boat being obtained there. Our needs were for something stout and seaworthy. Such boats were under guard in the harbours along the coast; any other suitable craft might be on the inland side of the dikes but were too heavy for the two of us to haul up the dike and over the sea wall. With the two Germans under close supervision it might prove possible to find a boat or to use their extra strength to haul one up and over.
They professed willingness to help us to get to North Beveland. Since they claimed to be deserters there was some indication that they might be more inclined to become prisoners of war than we were. Aware of the risks and the need for vigilance, we made our decision and awaited the onset of darkness.
Soon our preparations were complete and we started out, Phil and I on the flanks and the two Germans a couple of paces ahead of us. We arrived at the boat. It was perhaps eight feet long, home made, flat bottomed and with a beam of about four feet. There was a seat across the beam amidships and another thwart seat in the stern. We opted for the Germans to row while we sat in the stern facing them and able to see where we were going. Leaving the shelter of the village we headed in a direction which would take us to the west of Ouwerkerk.
The wind was now blowing from the west and in the open water the ripples were becoming small waves. The boat was not easy to control but for about a hundred yards our progress was quite satisfactory. Then disaster struck - the boat foundered on a gatepost concealed just below the surface. With the wind blowing across, it pivoted round and capsized sending all four occupants floundering into the water. After much splashing and commotion we reached a spot where the water was not so deep and we were able to wade in the direction of an isolated cottage which was set back some distance from the road between Nieuwerkerk and Ouwerkerk.
After a little while we reached the cottage. Our rucsacs had gone down with the boat but Phil still had his rifle and I still had my revolver. Breaking into the house was no problem. A search downstairs produced some candles and matches and we went upstairs. The top of the stairs opened into one large attic room in which there were two double beds, one at each end. We assigned to the Germans the one which was farthest from the stairs and kept the nearest one for ourselves.
We also discovered some jars of plums and under the bed was a biscuit tin containing about four pounds of sugar. With this unexpected treasure we shared a rather unusual meal by candlelight with our captives. We then held another long conversation and scrutinised the map. They were much taken with my prismatic compass which was more substantial than the light weight affair carried by one of them.
The evening ended with them in the bed at the far end and the two of us in the one at the top of the stairs. Phil and I took turns to clean and dry our weapons and when we retired the bolt of Phil's rifle was under his pillow. My revolver attached to a lanyard around my neck was under my pillow, very close to hand. We had taken these elementary precautions since we had no wish to have the tables turned on us. The behaviour of the Germans was somewhat puzzling. From the outset, they had been co-operative and complied with our every command. At no time did they show any sign of wanting to make their escape. In fact they were quite friendly and we reciprocated this whilst remaining alert and determined to maintain the upper hand. We discussed the fact that we still had a problem to solve - namely what to do with our unwanted prisoners. Perhaps this was the explanation for their behaviour; they probably realised that the problem was ours and not theirs. We decided that we would have to be rid of them but as yet didn't know how to do it. "Ah well, we would see what the morning would bring." We relaxed; they slept; we slept.
The next morning found us refreshed but hungry and thirsty. We indulged ourselves with more plums and sugar. In yet more conversations they tended to emphasise that if we could get to Vianen we would be able to find a boat. Though we tried to give the impression that their information was just what we wanted, we were nevertheless quite suspicious. We formed our own plan that we would appear to relax our grip on them but remain vigilant and when the opportunity arose we would quietly disappear.
Outdoors everything was quiet and still. The strong wind of the night before had completely died down. We took stock of our surroundings. The cottage and a small patch of land was fairly dry, and was marooned like a tiny island in a sea of flood water. In one direction lay a few houses which skirted the flooded road to Ouwerkerk and some distance away we could see the centre of Nieuwerkerk. From the upstairs window I examined the lie of the land and tried to estimate where the water was shallowest. The most likely route seemed to be back into Nieuwerkerk by way of the cemetery since the gravestones gave a guide to the depth of water. Once through this we could disappear in the streets and houses and then make our way to Jan in similar fashion. We agreed that this was our best course of action - the only problem was opportunity and timing so that we could slip away unnoticed.
Meanwhile we had all been outside a couple of times and towards the middle of the afternoon we had made no attempt to stop the two Germans as they wandered towards one of the nearest houses. They then returned after a while, cavorting about in high spirits and wearing trilby hats which they had discovered. We made ready to do our disappearing act and a little while later, when they were once again out of sight, we made off exactly as planned. As we came into the streets of Nieuwerkerk we broke into one of the houses, found enough dry clothing for our needs and then returned to the house in the Molenstraat. We were free of them and it now remained for us to make for Jan's farm as soon as it was dark enough.
Suddenly we were startled by loud knocking on the front door. Going down and opening the door we were amazed to find Jan and a smartly dressed man with him. Smilingly, he introduced the doctor who had brought some charcoal biscuits and a small medicine bottle containing jenever. Hurriedly cutting him short, I said, "Get to hell out of here, there are two German soldiers at the other side of the village. We'll come and see you tonight." We waited anxiously for darkness and then we set off. Reaching the water's edge by the hotel we waded as usual along the road towards Ouwerkerk.
Seeing a light we paused. There, set back some distance from the houses at the side of the road was the cottage where we had spent the previous night and most of that day. Candlelight flickered in the window - our ex-prisoners were still there. Perhaps they wondered where we were. Maybe they were deserters. More probably they were taking advantage of the fact that we had held them captive and would return to their unit when it suited them. The explanations for their absence would give them a neat little tale to tell. We continued on our way and reached Jan's farm without further incident.
Our departure from Nieuwerkerk had been forced upon us by the fortuitous entry on the scene of the two Germans and the subsequent capsizing of the little boat. It was a remarkable coincidence that Jan should have brought Dr. Schutter to see us at that particular time. It transpired later that they had used as an excuse the doctor's need to collect some medical equipment from his surgery at Nieuwerkerk. For them both there was considerable personal risk involved and their excuse for knocking on our door would not have withstood an enquiry since the surgery in question was several streets away. It does not require much imagination to envisage the possible consequences of a more untimely visit. Conjecture apart, we had taken for granted Jan's constant support, past, present, and future. My immediate reaction to their visit had been twofold. First to ensure some measure of safety for them by telling them so unceremoniously to go quickly; secondly in telling Jan that we would visit him later that evening.
And so when we arrived at the farm, we were able to explain to Jan in more detail, the events which had forced us to leave. We were about to begin a new routine of survival. Finished were the excursions on the streets of Nieuwerkerk with occasional visits to Ouwerkerk. From that moment the v.d. Stolpe barn was to become our sole dwelling. It would remain so until the early weeks of December.
Whereas previously we had appeared to be in control with the support of Jan and the Marechaussee, we were now to become totally dependent on Jan, his mother, and Adriaan. This particular evening at the Grote Hoofstede was very much like our earlier visits. It was to end in similar fashion when we left and went to the barn belonging to Jan's neighbour.
In some respects however it was totally different. The following evening would not see our return to Nieuwerkerk - instead Jan and Adriaan would cross the field with hot food cooked by Mevrouw Romeijn. On that following evening not long after darkness, there came a gentle but persistent tapping at the barn door. We opened the door quickly to let them in and closed it behind them. We exchanged greetings and shook hands. Adriaan carried a shopping bag and Jan took from it a lidded saucepan filled with steaming potatoes and cabbage. Resting on top of the vegetables were two small pieces of bacon.
Phil and I ate this magnificent meal sitting side by side on the sloping lids of the fodder bins near the entrance to the barn. One of us ate directly from the pan and the other used the upturned lid as a plate. Close by stood our two friends, Adriaan silent, Jan at times speaking quietly while we ate. Having consumed the contents of the pan, there remained a second course. This consisted of two hefty pancakes containing slices of apple (appelkoeken). They were wrapped in kitchen paper and were still warm. We did not finish these but decided to save them for breakfast. We finished eating and murmured our thanks. The bag was re-packed and they took their leave having assured us that they would return after dusk on the following evening.
Until the 4th December, this scene was repeated many times. The only time it did not happen was when they had previously arranged otherwise. Our first intimation of a change came while we were eating one night and Jan said quietly, "Tomorrow we will not come. You should come to the farm." Thus, after every five or six visits by them, we would be invited to come over the following evening.
These social calls were even more congenial than our earlier visits had been. From now on we did not arrive wet and dripping after our journey. We were however quite scruffy although we shaved whenever we could. The rest of our toilet was usually effected by using a small amount of water and a face flannel. It must be said though, that our uniforms were dirty and dusty from our full-time life in the barn. We slept in the loft using hay and straw to keep warm often with rats for company. One place where they reared their nests of young was in the fodder bins.
During the day we spent most of our time peering through cracks in the wall for any signs of activity. The only regular activity was at the beginning and end of each day when a young woman passed by. Early each morning she was to be seen coming from the direction of Ouwerkerk and going towards the Grote Hoofstede and making her return journey in the afternoon before dusk. Her passing was usually marked by the speed of her footsteps and often by the musical accompaniment of her whistling. I think she was the domestic help for the farm and was totally unaware of our existence. Her speed seemed to indicate that she was not very happy at passing the deserted buildings. This notion may be just my imagination but it is also possible that the early morning gloom caused her some disquiet. In the evening her homeward journey signified for us the approach of darkness and food.
One evening while we were eating, Phil and I nearly choked, when Jan quietly observed, "Last night the British came ...... but they have gone away again." There were no details of the landing except to say that it had taken place on the south coast somewhere towards the western end of the island. We didn't know the source of Jan's information. Most likely it was one of those pieces of news which the German occupiers were unable to suppress and was quickly circulated. For us it confirmed beyond doubt that the Beveland peninsula and Walcheren were under Allied control. It also induced in us a sort of impatience. When we had first arrived on Schouwen there was really nowhere to go. Now our own people were just across the water. Several times we asked Jan about the possibility of obtaining a boat. We did not know to what extent there was any organised underground movement or if in fact Jan was in contact with anyone in such an organisation. He had brought the Marechaussee to us and he had brought the doctor as well. We trusted him completely and were totally dependent on him. So when he told us that he wasn't very hopeful about a boat but would do what he could, we accepted his assurances and tried to control our impatience. Sometimes though we secretly wondered if he wasn't hoping the island would be liberated before we could escape from it, then he would really be able to give us some news and produce us like rabbits from a conjurers hat.
In the days that followed it seemed sometimes as though the only variable factor in our lives was that Phil and I used to take it in turns to use the pan lid as a plate. It was a period of stability and comparative security. We knew where our next meal was coming from or where we would go to receive it.
One evening, it was the 4th of December, we had already had the accustomed visit and eaten our meal. An hour or so later we were disturbed by the sound of footsteps passing the barn. It was too dark to see who it was although there was a torch flashing from time to time. About three quarters of an hour later we heard more footsteps. This time there was a knocking on the door accompanied by Jan's voice calling our names. We opened the barn door to admit Jan accompanied by a policeman. In the gloom, we recognised Jan de Waarde our red-haired friend from the first encounter with the police in Nieuwerkerk. We were quite pleased to see him without realising at first that there was a significant reason for his presence.
Jan explained, "We have to leave. We must go to Zierikzee." We exchanged friendly greeting with de Waarde whose unpleasant task had been to call on the householders still living in the Ouwerkerk area and deliver the German order that they must abandon their homes. Even in the midst of his own adversity Jan had not just come over to tell us the bad news but also to give us the opportunity for brief renewal of our acquaintance with de Waarde.
We took our leave of him and Jan said, "Come over to the house." We walked with him across the field to the Grote Hoofstede, saying very little. We were heavy hearted but I don't think we were feeling sorry for ourselves so much as grieving that our staunch friends should have to pack a few belongings together and leave their home at short notice. They were to report the following morning.
Jan's mother was very upset. She held my hand and said sadly, "Ik kan niet meer uw warm eten koken." She repeated this and probably for the first time, I understood some Dutch straight away other than a daily greeting. She was saying that no longer would she be able to cook hot meals for us. At the moment of being forced to leave her home, she was worried about what the future would hold for us. We had shared with them food and friendship which they had given to us freely in love for their fellowman.
It was more than an hour later before we said goodbye. During this time Jan suggested that we would perhaps like to live in the house after they had left because it would be warmer. We didn't like to tell him that it would also be more dangerous because there was every likelihood that it would prove to be an attractive target for German looters. He showed us the attic where he had some apples and wheat stored. He told us something we were to recall later; that in the barn was a small home-made boat. It was as though he was bequeathing to us all his worldly possessions.
Whilst all this was going on Jan's brother called. He had with him another man, a rather breezy individual who spoke English. It seemed to us that he was over friendly. Phil and I were polite but restrained. We found that he was a fruit farmer from Goes. He had left Beveland when the British had taken over and had come over to Schouwen. He too was a member of the Dutch National Socialist party (N.S.B.) and was staying with Keiser Romeijn. He was going to stay on there in secret and seemed to have the idea that together we would all be able to return with his help. Phil and I didn't object to this in principle but we had the feeling that he would not be welcome there on his own and that he needed us more than we needed him.
On the morning of the 5th December we were heavy hearted for we knew that we may never see Jan or his mother again. We were alert however and before long we could see from the barn, signs of the activity we suspected would happen. Wandering pairs of German soldiers in the locality. Two came into the farmyard and broke into the v.d. Stolpe house. Two more went in the direction of the Grote Hoofstede and in the distance we saw several travelling along the top of the dike. One group were pulling a hand-drawn artillery piece. In spite of this activity we felt there was no immediate threat to our personal safety.
Early in the afternoon from the direction of Ouwerkerk we saw a man with a dog approaching. He was in plain clothes, breeches and woollen socks, leather boots. He wore a warm jacket with a woollen scarf around his neck and on his head was a peaked cap set at a jaunty angle. His stride was lively with the air of a man used to walking. The dog ran in front of him, hither and thither, occasionally walking to heel in response to a word or a whistle. In less time than it takes to describe he was beyond our sight and we rapidly crossed the barn to observe his progress across the other field. He did not appear however - instead there came a loud banging on the door of the barn accompanied by a voice calling "Bairnard Blek .... Pheeleep Hodson."
As quickly and quietly as we could we let him in. I think we felt that if we left him there too long the whole world would hear his banging and calling for us. As we let him in we were saying to each other - "Who the hell is this bloke?" He introduced himself in a mixture of French and Dutch. His name was Jan Ringleberg and the dog was a working dog for he was a shepherd. He had been sent to give us a message from the underground. We were to meet Herman de Leeuw and a man called Jan Schoenmaker that evening in Nieuwerkerk. Then the four of us would make our way to the Wijde Linie on the Oude Polder Dijk where he would be waiting with his brother Joost, also a shepherd. From there they were to guide us to Zierikzee and we could expect to be taken off the island by the British on the following night. We were to have nothing whatever to do with the man who was hiding in the farm of Keiser Romeijn. De Leeuw and Schoenmaker would wait for us at the back of the hotel in Nieuwerkerk until 9 p.m. and the Ringleberg brothers would wait at the Steensdijk until 3 a.m. We would need a boat but he thought de Leeuw and Schoenmaker would have one.
Suddenly it seemed that the whole outlook had changed dramatically. Within a few short minutes from the appearance of this dashing fellow we were contemplating a completely new future. Gone were all the uncertainties and ahead of us lay a decisive plan of action with just a few difficulties in the way. Jan Ringleberg had been chosen to come to us because it was known that we had some knowledge of French. Jan Romeijn had known where to drop his little titbits of information. Before he left us he told us that Herman had been discovered earlier hiding in Sirjansland; that he and his brother had special permits which they exploited to the full, saying when challenged that they were going to move their sheep or that they were looking for strays. He took his leave in the expectation of seeing us a few hours later at the Wijde Linie and departed, striding boldly in the direction from which he had come.
We were beside ourselves with simmering excitement and expectation. After all the dreary weeks the sunshine had arrived. Scarcely able to believe what we had seen and heard in the previous half hour Phil and I talked over what we had just gathered from Jan Ringleberg. Partly I think to reassure ourselves that we hadn't been dreaming and also we compared notes to be certain that we had each understood fully what our visitor had told us. Had he really said the British were coming to take us off? Well, not specifically for us but to take off some Dutchmen whose papers weren't in order.
We couldn't get over the way that this character had breezed up to the barn and hammered on the door calling our names. He had been so cheerful and confident as befits the bearer of good tidings. In recent weeks our spirits had been raised on numerous occasions as when Jan had come to Nieuwerkerk to tell us that the Marechaussee were coming and at those times when Jan and Adriaan had brought food for us. The friendship of Jan and his mother had maintained our morale at a very high level but this latest Jan and his news had lifted us to cloud nine.
As darkness fell we became calmer. We decided to have another look at the boat which we knew was in Jan's barn. We crossed the field and went to the barn. There in one of the stalls stood the boat which Jan had shown us before he left. After our capsize with the two Germans, Phil and I were far from happy with the idea of trusting ourselves again in a craft with such a shallow freeboard and flat bottom. We decided to go to Nieuwerkerk without it and hope that Herman had something more suitable. We set off to wade along the road in the direction of Nieuwerkerk. It had been some weeks earlier when we had last made such a trip. Somehow it didn't seem to matter that it was cold and windy and we were going to be soaked above as well as below the waist.
As we reached the village and the road began to leave the water, two dark figures detached themselves from the back of the hotel and a voice in English whispered "Sarge?" We were reunited with Herman. We shook hands warmly with each other and with his companion who was introduced to us - Jan Schoenmaker. After these introductions were completed and our delight at seeing Herman once more had subsided he asked us if we had a boat. We replied that we thought he would have one but that we knew where there was one. We also gave our opinion that it was scarcely suitable for four. Herman and Jan said that it would have to do and so we set out once again for the Grote Hoofstede.
This time the water through which we waded felt much colder. Maybe it was psychological but Herman and his companion were better equipped for wading than we were. Since our last meeting Herman had managed to equip himself with fisherman's rubber waders. We reached the barn and showed them the boat. They agreed with us that it left much to be desired but there was nothing else available. Perhaps it could be modified.
After some discussion we decided that we would wade back to Nieuwerkerk with it and see what could be done. Back once more along the road between Grote Hoofsted and Nieuwerkerk, this time we remembered the possibility that the undesirable companion of Keiser Romeijn may still be in residence at his otherwise deserted farm and leaving the road for that part of the journey, we waded along the other side of the hedge at the side of the road. This gave us rather more difficulty than we had anticipated since not only was there a line of trees at the side of the road but also a drainage ditch which meant that we had put ourselves in deeper water.
Eventually we left the water and carried the boat up the street into the middle of the village. There, Jan Schoenmaker, who knew the place better than we did, guided us to the local joiners workshop. Breaking in proved to be no problem and there we found tools and timber to modify the boat.
The boat was similar in design and size to the one described in Chapter 8. Being flat bottomed the sides consisted of two planks which met at the sharp end. When being used for one or two people in fairly calm conditions the water came only part way up the sides but Phil and I knew from bitter experience that with four of us aboard the water would be perilously close to the top of the sides.
Some discussion as to the best way of overcoming this problem took place and eventually it was solved by Herman and Jan working together to double the depth of the sides. This they did by using two more planks on top of the others and making them clip over the original sides by fixing short battens to each side, rather in the manner of making giant clothes pegs which gripped the sides and were also nailed through. It was a bizarre scene, the four of us around the work bench, Phil and I providing the light from our carefully conserved torches while Herman and Jan sawed and hammered.
Finally, it was finished and Phil and I agreed that it was now in a much more 'seaworthy' condition than it had been. I think we also agreed that while we were willing to travel across the polder in it on this occasion we were far from enamoured with the idea. Looking round, we found ourselves a couple of small pans to be used as bailers. We then manhandled the boat off the bench and into the street and guided by Jan soon found ourselves going along the Molenstraat and passing the house which had once been so familiar to us.
We stopped and, more from curiosity than anything else, left the boat in the street and went inside. It was a sorry sight and had been well and truly turned over. Whether by casual looters or by our two 'deserters' returning with others who had decided to search the place thoroughly, I have no idea but most probably the latter. Descending to the street again we picked up the boat and carried on, reaching the water near the old mill.
Soon we would know how successful the modifications to the boat were. Jan sat in the bow so that he could see where we were going. He it was, a native of Nieuwerkerk, who knew the polder well and would guide us to the Wijde Linie on the Oude Polder Dijk. Hopefully we would find there the brothers Ringelberg waiting for our arrival. Sat amidships was Herman with the home-made oars ready to row and guide the boat in whatever direction he would hear from Jan. And in the stern side by side, Phil and I, pans poised, ready to remove any water which found its way over our newly doubled freeboard.
My recollections of the voyage that followed are strangely encapsulated in time. Some of the memories are clear such as the whispered instructions from Jan to Herman as to whether he should change direction or stop rowing for a moment while he listened or fended off some obstruction.
On more than one occasion the instruction would be relayed by Herman to stop us bailing and we were told that a large farmhouse in the vicinity was thought to be used as a post by the Germans. It was a cold night and the wind had dropped. In its absence the sound of the oars and our occasional bailing seemed at times to defy all our cautious attempts for quiet progress through this watery waste. During our occasional pauses even the gentle lapping of the water against the sides of the boat seemed quite loud.
It was one of those nights when we would have welcomed more darkness. Each distant building and tree seemed to be clearly silhouetted against the skyline which helped Jan to guide us to our rendezvous. On the other hand it seemed to me that we also were silhouetted and exposed to the gaze of any potential observer.
How long this part of the journey lasted is difficult for me to say with certainty - probably an hour and a half but it could have been less. Its conclusion was signalled by our approach to a farm and its buildings which seemed to lie in the shadow of a high dijk. We skirted the buildings and approached the dijk from which two dark figures reached out and held on to our little boat while we disembarked. One of them was Jan Ringleberg who had come to Ouwerkerk and the other was Joost his brother. Joost took over the oar as we scrambled up the side of the dijk. Paddling around the side of the building, he sank the boat in a shed at the back of the house, before returning. I looked at my watch and made some comment to Phil that it was half-past twelve and that we had managed to keep our appointment with some time to spare.
So far, so good. His reply agreed with the sentiments that I had expressed and pointed out that since it was half-past twelve we were now into the 6th December which was his birthday and that if the rest of the day continued successfully we should be in a position to celebrate it as a suitably memorable one. However the new day had only just begun. There were other difficulties to overcome not least getting into Zierikzee undetected before daybreak.
Our guides were now the Ringelberg brothers who set off to lead us along the dijk. Several times one or other would let out a cautious whistle and the other five would stop until it was indicated that we should proceed further, sometimes with a change of direction. After one of these pauses it became obvious that we were approaching the outskirts of the town and that we would continue along a metalled road bounded on each side with tree-lined footpaths.
Stopping once more, our guides told us to remove our boots and to carry them. They then went ahead of us on either side of the road and controlled our cautious progress. Soon we were skirting the town which seemed to have a canal around it rather like a wide moat. One of the entrances to the town went across a small bridge and through an arched building above which were two pointed towers; however we went in the other direction and crossed the canal by another little bridge.
Guided by our two new companions we were brought into a house where Jan Ringelberg was obviously at home though apparently he was the only occupant. Joost after a few words with his brother departed and Jan busy in the kitchen soon had us eating a welcome dish of braised mutton. After this Joost returned and escorted Phil and me to his own home, two or three streets away. Here we met his wife, Min, who also provided us with some warm food in the form of porridge and a cup of tea.
However we were not to settle here either, nor were the night's surprises over. Herman was to spend the day with someone called van de Beek who turned out to be another policeman. We were to spend the daylight hours in an unoccupied house in the vicinity. In this house was installed a deserter from the German army - Unter Officier Jork Mikkenian - an Armenian who on the 17th September had directed fire from his antiaircraft battery away from the allied aircraft which flew over. He had resisted attempts by other members of the Wehrmacht to take over his responsibilities but had finally been removed questioned and locked up. Helped to escape by his friends he had fled in an attempt to leave the island and reach the mainland. This had proved impossible and he had been discovered by Joost in the flooded area. Wild, starving and feverishly ill, he had been brought by Joost into Zierikzee and nursed back to health and strength by Min and Joost.
This was indeed a strange way to spend a birthday. In less than twenty-four hours we had received a visitor in Ouwerkerk, met Herman and Jan Schoenmaker, floated across to the Wijde Linie meeting Joost and after walking into Zierikzee his wife Min; and now here we were just after dawn with a Wehrmacht corporal who had previously been a member of the Red Army. There was no sign of his uniform, he was wearing a civvy suit made of dark blue serge. His hair was dark, thick and curly. He was rather short - about five feet five, had a sallow complexion and even with regular and frequent shaving soon showed signs of 'five o'clock shadow'.
We spent some little time in difficult conversation by means of our limited German. I remember that he was interested in the Smith and Wesson .38 revolver that I carried though it seemed to rather insignificant in comparison with the heavy Mauser automatic pistol that he had. This weapon he cleaned and cared for lovingly. It was probably a ritual of his lonely hours though apparently he had spent much of his time round the corner with Min and Joost. Although we were rather excited, Phil and I were somewhat tired having been without rest for more than twenty-four hours. After some more attempts at conversation, we stretched out on one of the two beds and tried to sleep.
I think all three of us slept for some of the time but not for very long. There was too much tension and excitement in the air although we were all outwardly calm. From time to time one or other of us would stand up and walk quietly across the room to look out of the skylight. There was nothing to see except the roofs opposite. More desultory conversation with occasional speculation by Phil and I about our prospective return to allied occupied territory with debriefing and return to UK. Such speculation was mainly indirect as though we were unwilling to tempt providence but mostly preceded by "I wonder...." In the weeks previously we had always hoped that we would eventually leave the island before or after an allied invasion but it had always seemed remote and we had been more concerned with day to day survival and had never really put our hopes into words.
The day wore on and late in the afternoon Joost arrived with two raincoats and two trilby hats. He gave us these and indicated that we should wear them over our uniforms and return to his house in the next street when it became dark enough. This was in fact what we did very soon after he left. I remember thinking as we followed Jork to the end of the street and turned the corner, "he doesn't seem to be walking but rather slinking round the corner." It may just have been fanciful imagination or the effect of the dark streets. We were welcomed by Joost and Min who had prepared some food for us. She had also prepared an attaché case for Jork in which were some spare clothes and underwear.
The tension was still there - it would soon be time to go - we didn't know where or how. We were in their hands. It would be their show to make contact with those who were to take us off - more than likely a squad of commandos; maybe Dutch commandos like Herman. Phil and I indulged in some light-hearted banter. This was our usual manner with each other but it may have been a subconscious attempt to relieve the tension. It was probably also due to the sight of each other in raincoats and trilbies. We were still wearing battle dress and our airborne smocks underneath. Phil's rifle we would leave behind.
There was a quiet knock at the door. It was Jan Ringelberg. Time to go. Between them they guided the three of us out of the town by the way we had entered but then we went in a different direction. Soon we came to a large barn which we entered quietly. Herman was already there. So were a dozen or so more other people. Two of them were Dutch police; one of these introduced himself as van de Beek. He it was who was in charge of the arrangements. The other policeman was accompanied by his wife. We would soon be on our way, there was a hum of low excited conversation. Van de Beek was saying to us in English that it would soon be time but that we still had to wait for some others to arrive before we continued on our way to the dijk. He also explained that the password consisting of the challenge "Queen" was to be answered by "Wilhelmina".
When it was time to go we left the barn in small groups and continued to walk away from the town until we reached the dijk along the top of which ran a small concrete wall. The party spread itself on the seaward side of the dijk. Van de Beek and the other policeman went down to the water's edge and began to signal at intervals, with their lamps, alternately red and white. It was cold and dark. There was some drizzle in the air and the visibility was rather less than the previous evening.
Lying next to me on the dijk was a young man who spoke to me in English. His name was Marius de Glopper; he told me he was a medical student. He asked me if I thought that the British would let him join the R.A.F. and I remember that I replied to the effect that it was more important for him to continue with his studies but that it would probably be possible for him to enlist in the R.A.F. if that was what he really wanted. After this quiet conversation we strained our ears for the sound of a boat's engine above the noise of the waves.
We thought we had heard the sound of an aircraft some distance away. There had been some talk that an aeroplane would be flying overhead to give the Germans something to listen to. Jan Ringelberg had mentioned this when he came to Ouwerkerk. Time passed. Besides listening everyone was peering into the darkness for some sign of the long awaited boat. But there was nothing. It was long overdue and soon the tide would start to ebb, making a landing impossible in these difficult waters. Van de Beek and his colleague ended their signals and rejoined the rest. There were whispered instructions and the party began to disperse in small groups. One of these consisted of Phil, Jork, Herman, van de Beek and me. Cold and disappointed we cautiously made our way back to Zierikzee, to the house of Joost Ringelberg.
We sat around the table in the kitchen and Min gave us hot drinks. Jork was badly demoralised and angry. He banged the table and complained "Tommy nichts komen, Tommy bang (afraid)." It was difficult to argue with his first statement, the British hadn't come but I couldn't let the remark about British cowardice pass. "Tommy nichts bang" said I. Van de Beek was still quite optimistic that perhaps another attempt could be made the next evening but he knew that there were difficulties. He left saying that he would be back in half an hour or so.
In the kitchen there was some more conversation with the Armenian continuing his complaints about the British and their non-arrival. I continued to keep my end up but it appeared that he wasn't just referring to that evening but to the fact that he had sent the British full details of the German defences on the island and that if only the British had put in an appearance it would have been easy for the Armenians to take over from the Germans. More table thumping "... bunker hier .... bunker hier .... Tommy nichts komen .... Tommy bang!" Once again I put in my two pennyworth .... and hoping that van de Beek would be able to set up another attempt, said "Tommy nichts bang .... Tommy komen!"
Van de Beek returned and also another member of the resistance group called by Joost "Cor". He had also been a guide that night but was not part of the group who were trying to leave the island. They wouldn't know until tomorrow whether another attempt could be made. Meanwhile it had been decided that I should explain to the British the danger that this group of would be escapees were in since it was now four days that they had been in hiding after the last German proclamation when all men between the ages of 17 and 40 must now report to the Germans.
We had managed to leave Zierikzee without too much difficulty and we had returned and dispersed the group. If another attempt was to be made it must succeed since it was unlikely that we could return a second time. There was also the danger that some of the local population who remained in the vicinity and worked for the Germans might have noticed some of the unusual activity after dark.
I expressed my willingness to do whatever was required of me and van de Beek, Cor and Joost, continued a discussion of the details in Dutch. Min was also included in this discussion. Finally, van de Beek explained what would happen. Herman would spend the night with him; Jork and Phil would return to the empty house where we had spent the daylight hours; I would spend that night with the Ringelbergs; tomorrow at midday Cor would come for me and I would follow him to the meeting place where I would be able to talk to the British.
So much then was settled and there was nothing more that could be done until the following day. The others left at intervals and I was left alone with Joost and Min. It seemed quite strange for it was the first time that Phil and I had been apart since taking off from Keevil some eleven and a half weeks before. It was still the 6th December and his birthday was drawing to a close without the fulfilment of those aspirations which had seemed so promising less than twenty-four hours earlier.
There were some compensations for me. I was to sleep in a bed with sheets and I was able to have a good wash before going to bed. I lay between the sheets determined to enjoy this unexpected luxury but sleep did not come quickly. So much had happened in the last couple of days, my mind was still active and two unanswerable questions buzzed around inside my head: "Why hadn't the British come for us? What would tomorrow bring?"
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