Memories of a Small Boy
I was born on the Dutch island of Walcheren in the Scheldt estuary on the 5th of April 1934 in Middelburg, the capital of the province of Zeeland. Life quietly ebbed and flowed to the rhythm of a small town in pre-war Europe and there was no indication of the decisive role history had set aside for our island community.
Author and his grandchild
My father worked as a shipyard mechanic in Flushing about 8 kilometres away. He cycled to work when the weather was good otherwise he took a tram. Summer weekends were often spent at the seaside and as was usual in those days we cycled the 12 kilometres or so to the beaches. Our bicycles were left unlocked and unattended as we played happily down by the water. My childhood memories of this time include a huge pageant to commemorate the birth of our Princess Irene and the annual August fair in the marketplace where there was plenty going on to interest children. As the 1930s drew to a close life in these relatively innocent and carefree times was to change for ever.
• Walcheren - a brief description
Walcheren is a roughly saucer shaped island about 15km north to south and 18km east to west protected by sand dunes and in lower lying areas by sea-walls. The most westerly point of the island (and indeed of the Netherlands) is Westkapelle and the most easterly is the Sloedam causeway to the mainland.Close by is Arnemuiden and to the south Vlissingen with a Dutch Navy base (now a Dutch Navy reserve station), a shipyard and, until some years ago, a ferry to the English ports of Harwich (pre-war) and Sheerness (post war).
North is Veere, an old merchant and fishing town. In the centre of the island is Middelburg the capital of the province Zeeland
The economy of the island was mainly farming in rural areas and in Middleburg governmental jobs and a variety of factory work. One major employer was the firm of Vitrite, a part of the Philips group. The 1000 labour force made caps for lamp bulbs which were exported world-wide. Another large employer, this time located at Flushing, was the shipyard "De Schelde" with nearly 3000 employees. They built ships for the Dutch Navy, merchant ships, passenger ships and parts for aircraft such as wings and fuselages. On the outskirts of the Flushing was an airfield in use by the Dutch KLM airline and the Dutch Royal Air force, who in 1940, escaped with their planes to England. The airfield facilities were later used by the German Luftwaffe and for that reason they became a legitimate target for RAF bombers. Not surprisingly many 'dikers' lived and worked in the Westkapelle area to build and maintain the huge sea-walls which were to play a vital role in the assault on the island by Allied forces.
Walcheren wasn't called "the garden of Zeeland" for nothing. It was frequently visited by English tourists via the mail boat on the Vlissingen to Harwich route. Most visitors stayed in Vlissingen hotel "Brittania" on the seafront. In November 1944 it became the German H.Q. and was, some years later, captured by the Royal Scots after very heavy fighting.
As a 6 year old child I had no understanding of what war really meant although I heard my family talking about the warmongers in Germany. I recall a birthday-party before the occupation of our island, most likely my grandfather's party on the 7th of May 1940. I heard the adults talk about the 'barbarians coming.' The apprehension and tension in that conversation made the word Barbarians extra threatening to me. I felt sure that as the Germans arrived life was going to take a turn for the worse.
However the imagination of a small child was easily distracted. The Dutch army was mobilized in 1939 and so was the garrison of Middelburg. Most soldiers there were trained in paymaster duties and as such had less real military experience than other units. It was a time of adventure for me because the soldiers were billited at the local sports ground about 50 metres from our house. The grounds were surrounded by a ditch of about 4 metres width with prickly hawthorns on both sides to discourage intruders. Across the ditch the soldiers built 3 pinewood pile-bridges. For a little boy this was a magical place to live and play. I remember the evocative smells of pine-wood, hawthorn, military uniforms and equipment, and 62 years after the events these smells immediately trigger vivid memories of those far off times.
Many people had no clear idea how war and the appearance of invading German forces would affect their lives. My mother was busy with the spring-cleaning in the early days of May 1940 – a good Dutch habit at that time. On Friday May 10th she was putting the finishing touches to her work with a view to completing the work by Sunday May 12. On the 10 th my father set off as usual on his bike to work at the shipyard in Flushing - the morning of that day German troops crossed the Dutch border! Meantime mother was working when a neighbour came round and said 'Mrs. Wigard, stop working the war has started!' My mother's answer was 'That might be so but first I have to finish my job!' I cannot remember if my father went to his work in the coming days as we waited for the inevitable arrival of the German forces on our island..
One eyewitness who lived at Flushing went with his brother to the airfield near the town and watched dog-fights between Dutch and German fighters - a rather foolhardy venture borne out of imprudent curiosity as they were old enough (about 35) and well educated and should have known the risks! On another day around that time anti aircraft shells exploded over the town and he recalled taking shelter, under a sunshade-awning outside a shop, as shell splinters fell to the ground! These were early days in the conflict when some local residents did not fully appreciate the dangers of war or the wisdom of taking sensible precautions against injury. This was despite guidance put out by the various authorities. This situation was to change dramatically before the end of the occupation in November 1944 by which time everyone was expert in living under bombardment.On the 15th of May 1940 a German bomber plane was hit and had to drop its load of 13 bombs as it attemp- ted a crash landing. The result was 6 civilian deaths and the crew of the plane as it came down just out of the town of Middelburg. One of the inhabitants and his wife, aged 77 and 78 years, died at 9.15 am that morning from the random bombing . They had a son aged 51 who was a patient in the local hospital located some distance from the house of his parents. Remarkably he also died at precisely the same time but this time of natural causes . Confirmation of this strange coincidence can be seen in the form of the death certificates of both parents and son located in the town archive .
The period between the 10 th of May, when the Germans crossed the Dutch border, and the 17 th when they arrived on the island, was a strange and terrifying time. Local authorities introduced many wartime measures covering all aspect of life. One was about safety in case of bombardments. One example of these special measures could be seen at the entrance to gardens at the back of a nearby block of houses. Access to the gardens was through small gates where sandbags were stacked up on each side as a shelter against shell splinters for anyone caught out in the open during air battles. There were of course periods of air inactivity when these shelters served as playgrounds for us children. Inevitably one day the accident waiting to happen …. happened! Without warning a wall of sandbags tumbled down trapping one of my friends and breaking his leg. For me he was the first casualty of war. Little did I realise how many more victims I would see in the years ahead.
I was too young to remember clearly what life was like in the period before the war or perhaps many memories I had were replaced by the more vivid ones of the occupation. However I remember several frightened and stressed soldiers, low ranks as well as officers, forced westward as the well equipped and trained German forces advanced from the east. They told horrendous stories of unequal battles - a veritable David and Goliath story with no happy outcome in the short term. The Netherlands had not been involved in a war for 110 years and successive Governments had not given defence a high priority. Guns dating back to 1870 were called into service which is one extreme example of the lack of investment in the country's defences.
An atmosphere of rumour and suspicion prevailed at this time. We heard stories of treachery, the existence of a "5 th column" as well as German soldiers in Dutch uniforms. Our soldiers did not trust anyone and the situation was not helped by the inability of French troops to distinguish between German and Dutch military uniforms. Members of the Dutch National Movement (N.S.B) and their families and those with German nationality (Reichs Deutsche) were detained. Many of them had lived in The Netherlands for many years but such was the fear there were few exceptions. Stories were told about signs on walls and light-signals emanating from certain houses in the darkness to communicate secret messages to the Germans. Most of this was hearsay there being little or no evidence to substantiate the claims. Alarming though these stories were they were also very exciting to a little boy who did not understand the significance of what was happening.
There were a lot of troop movements and the time came when only the paymaster students were in residence on the nearby sports ground. They were young, poorly trained and equipped and understandably scared. One day a German plane came over and the soldiers could do no more than to take cover close to the houses. I took cover under a hedgerow which did not please my parents! That was the last time I was allowed to play in our garden for a very long time!
In the meantime family members from Flushing came to live with us in Middleburg. The burgomaster of Flushing had advised the inhabitants to leave the town for security reasons. In and around Flushing there were many targets for German bombers such as docks, shipping, the airfield and coastal batteries. Most people followed the advice and left hearth and home with some clothing, personal ID-cards, ration-cards, food and water. Unfortunately the burgomaster of Middelburg had issued the same advice to its inhabitants because the town was the administrative centre including command and control of military affairs of the province - another possible target for German bombers!
Strict blackout conditions were introduced covering windows, street lighting, vehicle lights and even bikes. The control of that order was the task of the A.R.P. and, during the occupation, by German soldiers and their Dutch friends of the Nazi-movement and their Quisling militia.
Friday the 17 th of May dawned like any other with the exception that there was an air-raid alarm. My parents must have known that German forces were closing in since the whole family, including our Flushing evacuees, took shelter under the staircase in the hall. We were told this was the safest place in a house if hit by a bomb. We covered our heads with pans, a strainer and similar kitchen equipment and waited there in fear and trepidation.
During the afternoon, we heard the unfamiliar, terrifying screaming noise of shells and bombs dropping nearby. The war we had expected for so long had at last come to our hometown! What happens now? Are we safe? Are the the Barbarians outside? These were the thoughts foremost in our minds. We took comfort from each other and from the seclusion of our shelter. Hour after hour we stayed in the hall until it the activity outside stopped. About 18.00 hours we ventured outdoors to an unfamiliar smell of burning buildings and explosives. Not knowing what had happened, or the danger of walking about, we stayed at home that day.
The next day my father and I went to the centre of Middelburg since there was a rumour about a house destroyed by bombing and fire. We passed by a little park close to a drill-ground which was being used for temporary accommodation. There were tent like structures made from carpets, blankets and similar materials. The people occupying them were most likely displaced by the bombing. A car drove in with a woman in near hysterics standing on the running board yelling 'fire, they will kill us!' The car was loaded with furniture, personal possessions and things essential for civilised living. I instinctively knew that something very, very serious had happened and that danger was everywhere. This was perhaps particularly the case for someone rich enough to own a car. She must have wondered what terrible fate awaited her in the uncertain days ahead. On the other hand my father looked calm to me but he too must have wondered what lay ahead. These opposite reactions to the danger - the despair of the woman and the apparent coolness of my father, defined the new situation for me and clarified my thoughts on our rapidly changing situation; our future may be uncertain and frightful but I could trust my Dad!
We did not go far that day but the smell of the burning houses was everywhere - a smell that hung around for the next month. It later became clear that German Heinkel bombers and SS artillery fire from South-Beveland caused the total destruction of the heart of our beautiful town including many medieval and 17 th century houses. Eight hundred families had lost their homes!
Over the next few days a clear picture of the sequence of events emerged. Following the German attack on May 10 the poorly equipped Dutch Army faced an irresistible force. With the exception of French and Dutch troops in Zeeland the Government ordered the surrender of Dutch forces after the bombing of Rotterdam. The Zeeland forces continued their resistance against the Germans until the bombardment of Middelburg on Friday May 17. By the evening the island of Walcheren was in German hands.
Despite the occupation the local authority continued to function but not in the magnificent town hall. It had been destroyed in the bombardment on the 17th of May. My father and I found ourselves in the temporary accommodation of the town clerk's office in 'de Dam' square. As my father attended to his business with an official I waited in the hall and saw German soldiers strolling around outside taking in the beauty of the old patrician houses. To all intents and purposes they could have been tourists but I knew they were 'The Barbarians' who were capable of anything. What would they do to me? I was terrified and an Alderman, who recognised me and heard me sobbing, comforted me until my father returned. This was my first frightening encounter with the occupying German soldiers.
In those early days of occupation there was a great deal of activity as the German forces established themselves. It was towards the end of May when my father and I cycled in the direction of Vlissingen. We followed the shortest route over the canal to the harbour - the same route our retreating forces had taken just a short time before in an attempt to reach the mainland and thereby to England. The road was full of abandoned military equipment such as sabres, rifles, helmets, horses both dead and alive, cars etc. These obstacles impeded the progress of anyone using the route but my deepest concern was to collect as much as possible of the discarded material. Incomprehensibly my father forbid it but, as I grew up, I realised his decision was correct. Such was the impression of these visual images that my life long interest in military history was born and later sustained by my father's discussions with me about the war.
For a few weeks my father's work at the shipyard was uncertain so he was drafted as a foreman to help clear the town centre of around 45,000 cubic metres of rubble. This was important work since it helped to create a sense of order out of the chaos and I felt proud that he had been involved in it. After that he returned to the shipyard and life, from the perspective of a young boy, took on a feeling of normality.
On the quays new shops were built to replace those destroyed in the town centre. They were constructed of wood and painted green and white but one department store, called Vroom en Dreesman (V & D), was mostly built of stone. How times had changed this area of town where in former times merchant ships from all over the world plied their trade.
So me time in June “Reichskommisar" Seyss-Inquart came to Middelburg to inspect the damage to the town. He was appointed by Hitler as the highest official for civilian affairs in Holland - a kind of beneficial Governor. He soon became a figure of mild ridicule and acquired the nickname "six and a quarter" (zes en eenkwart) which was phonetically close to the pronunciation of his name! He had a lot in common with Hitler - he too was Austrian and for years a fierce and loyal Nazi. In each of the 11 Dutch provinces he had an assistant called a “Beauftragte” . In Zeeland the post was occupied by W(illy) Münzer. Seyss-Inquart was later prosecuted at the Nuremburg War Trials.
Some weeks before his visit, “De Telegraaf,” a national Dutch newspaper, printed a grossly distorted article which blamed the French and English troops for the destruction in Middelburg. My parents were so disgusted with the printing of German propaganda in such a well respected newspaper that they immediately cancelled their order. The only British troops in our region had been a small demolition unit with orders to destroy the harbour and cranes of the ship yard. Forty-five years later on a visit to Torquay in Devon, England, I was attracted by the sound of military music. One of the old soldiers there explained that they were having a reunion of Army Engineers. He had been in Vlissingen in May 1940 and had travelled as far afield as the Sloedam! We were so amazed with our meeting that we forgot to exchange addresses - an oversight I have regretted ever since.
At the conclusion of his visit to Middelburg, Seyss-Inquart undertook to rebuild the medieval Abbey and other important buildings and monuments. Whilst reconstruction work was carried out the hidden agenda was to convince the Dutch population that the Germans respected Dutch heritage and culture while the Allies inflicted wanton destruction upon them.
It was the intention of Hitler to offer the Dutch people, also of Germanic origin, a safe and protected life “ i ns Reich” - within the Third Reich. However, despite this intent, the behaviour and conduct of the occupying forces was far from perfect in the period to the end of 1940. However measures were taken by higher authorities and the situation improved thereafter.
During his inauguration on the 29 th of May 1940 in the Dutch government building “De Ridderzaal" (the Knights' Hall where the Dutch monarch traditionally opened the parliament each year) Reichskommisar Seyss-Inquart said that “he would respect the rights of the Dutch population”.
The controlling measures started on the 16 th of May 1940 with the introduction of German summer-time in the Netherlands. At this stage such a simple order was a relief to many who had expected much more draconian restrictions. A part of the population felt that it could have been worse and that Seyss was as good as his word. For some of them a feeling of trust in the German regime emerged but would it last?. By the 1 st of June tea and coffee were rationed to a monthly allowance of 50 grams of tea and 250 grams of coffee per person over 15 years of age. Other rationing followed in close order - 15 th of June, bread and flower; 13 th of July, oat, rice, butter and margarine; 20 th of July, vermicelli and the 14 th of September, meat.
It was not long before virtually everything was rationed and the allowances were reduced again and again. Not surprisingly people adapted by making their own substitutes and of course a thriving black market emerged to service the needs of those who could afford to pay exorbitant prices even for the essentials of life.
The Dutch Parliament was disbanded on the 21 st of June and trade unions were brought under Nazi supervision which caused my father to resign his membership. On the 9 th of September a curfew was introduced in coastal areas from 22.00 until 04.00 hrs. and movement across the boundary of our Province was restricted to those in possession of a written travel permit issued by the German authorities. A few weeks later, on the 1st of October, ID cards (Persoonsbewijs) had to be carried by all persons aged 15 and over and shown on first demand to the Dutch police or German authorities. These cards identified Jews and workers with skills needed by the Germans. However it was not long before the Dutch Resistance made perfect copies with false information for their agents. This allowed them go about their clandestine work with less risk of capture. By the 23 rd of November the process of removing Jewish inhabitants from the labour-force had begun. The benign and simple measures introduced in May were now but a fond and distant memory - the German grip on Dutch society was increasing weekly.
There was little in life to make it interesting or enjoyable - no sweets, no toys, no new clothing or shoes and no nice presents on birthdays. As time went on I experienced a confusing mixture of fear and excitement Of course I had no understanding of the importance of such things as freedom of speech and freedom of movement whereas my elders were deprived of what they regarded as basic human rights. The adults in my family were gravely troubled by the situation they found themselves in.
My life took a new direction in August 1940 when I started school. This brought some structure and organisation into my daily routine. It took about fifteen minutes to walk to school and during the first few weeks my mother accompanied me, no doubt ensuring that it was safe for me to travel alone, which I later did. For a short time we received a quarter of a litre of milk on an irregular basis. That year was the last time for some years that we celebrated St. Nicolaas on the 5 th of December - similar to Santa Claus. Despite the deprivations of war we had as traditional a festive season as was possible under the circumstances. Baked fritters and apple turnovers were on the menu and there was a Christmas tree with real small candles. In the following years there was nothing to celebrate as a result of the rationing and general restrictions. Life was rapidly turning into existence.
1941 was a terrible year. Rations continued to be reduced, registration of Jewish inhabitants became compulsory and admittance to cinemas and theatres was forbidden. In Amsterdam many Jews were rounded up and transported out of the country. There was little the population could do against such a well armed force but a mass strike took place in protest against the increasingly punitive measure against the Jewish population.. The Germans needed to impose their will on the Dutch population and 18 civilians were gunned down as an example to others. Each year the anniversary of this tragic event is remembered.
In an attempt to erase the memory of the Dutch Royal Family the use of their names was forbidden. Streets bearing their names were renamed and the use of Royal names for new born children was outlawed. The Dutch coinage, bearing the portrait of the Queen, was replaced by German equivalents made of zinc and stamped with Nazi symbols. Notes above 1 guilder were replaced by ones signed by Nazi officials. These measures met the German objective of removing all Royal images and references and gave the Germans a valuable source of much needed bronze, silver and even gold. Later, as the supply of metals failed to meet demand, household goods made of metals such as brass, nickel, bronze, copper, aluminium etc had to be handed over for the German war effort.
Censorship regulations were introduced to forbid the population listening to radio stations other than those controlled by the Germans. There were heavy penalties for those who transgressed including concentration camp for the most serious offences. Newspapers only published material approved by the Germans and details surrounding deaths or damage caused by Allied air bombardment was forbidden. Only meaningless descriptions were published such as "by a fatal accident was killed." The latter approach was to thwart Allied intelligence gathering in assessing the effectiveness of bombing raids. In addition to all this t he duties and responsibilities of Local and Provincial Government were redefined and political parties disbanded.
My worst moment in my war occurred on the 16th of February 1941. My friend Henk and I were playing in the park behind our houses. Our parents were friends and both our fathers bred canaries. It was a spring like morning and at about 10.15 hrs. Henk's father took him away to visit his grandparents who lived nearby. My disappointment was obvious and while Henk's father was happy to take me along my parents had other plans, so Henk and his father set off together. It was such a nice day that they took a detour along the town's ancient defensive walls - a decision that was to cost them their lives. Unbeknown to them earlier that morning, from 08.22hrs onwards, 8 Blenheims of 139 Squadron left RAF Horsham St. Faith near Norwich in southern England on individual missions to destroy coastal targets in Holland, Belgium and France. One of them flew over Walcheren and despite encountering intense anti aircraft flak it dropped 4 H.E. bombs around the area of the Middleburg gas works. Sadly 3 civilians were killed and 2 seriously injured.* Amongst the dead were my friend Henk and his father Piet Scheijbeler ...
(* Source: Mr. M.v.Dijk & W.de Meester)
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