Family life torn apart (audio)

BY DION WOODFIELD
Last updated 05:00 24/04/2009

Jacobus Grootvelt talks about his experiences

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Southerners at War

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Born in 1927, JACOBUS GROOTVELD's memories of family life in Scheveningen, a fishing town in the Netherlands, are vivid: that family life was to be torn apart with the coming of World War 2.

He was 11 when the United Kingdom declared war on Germany and 12 when German troops marched into his quiet hometown on 16 May, 1940, a day after the Dutch surrendered.

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Earlier, the Germans had destroyed Rotterdam which was only 25 kilometres away from Scheveningen and they threatened more carnage if the Dutch did not give in.

The battle for Holland only lasted five days, in which time the Dutch royal family and government escaped to England.

Under German occupation life got worse for the next five years and this ultimately led to widespread starvation and destruction for the inhabitants of Scheveningen.

Despite the worsening conditions, Mr Grootveld remembers his involvement in the underground resistance which had formed by June, 1940.

Their presence continually frustrated the Germans war efforts.

Here, he describes his experiences.

My memories of family life in Scheveningen, Netherlands, go back to the kindergarten days, or pre-school on the West Duinweg.

I went to school there with my sister Nel, and two nieces, Riet and Bep de Lange.

It was about 1925 when mother married Pieter Grootveld, a merchant marine bosun, who worked on the freight ships from Rotterdam to the USA and Canada, on what was known as the White Star Line.

My sister Nel was born on the 2nd October, 1926 and I was born on the 5th November 1927.

We were then living on the Duinweg on the ground floor of a block of workers' three storey houses. When I was aged 4, we moved to 5 Terschellingsestraat, Scheveningen, and lived there with grandmother den Dulk and two aunties.

By that time mother had divorced my father, who lived in Rotterdam between his voyages at sea. From that time I have never seen my father.

Life was very good in those years from 1935 until 1940. We didn't have much in those days but we managed to get by.

I was at the Tabor School, which was around the corner from where we lived - a very good intermediate school. I was at this school about 1936-37 when one day we saw the airship Hindenburg fly over en route to London.

There were also elections at that time for Government and the elections were so fierce that there was shooting in our street.

Scheveningen was a fishing town in those days and we children knew all the fishing trawlers which went to the North Atlantic for 3-4 weeks at a time.

We used to wait at the harbour entrance for their return; if we sighted a trawler on the horizon, we knew by the rig which one it was, and we used to run to the houses where the wives and families of the crew lived and tell them of the return of the trawlers.

We used to get 5 cents for that, a big sum in those days.

In 1938 I also learned to ride a bike; it was quite a procedure. My grandmother took us to the beach with the bike. At the beach, I had to climb on the bike, and grandmother used to steady the bike and run alongside with her long black skirts flying in the wind.

I quickly learned to ride and bike and after that I used to go on bike trips in our province. That year, I also joined the Boy Scouts and enjoyed the experience.

The biggest event in 1938 was the celebration of Queen Wihelmina's 40 years on the throne.

The Dutch Navy warships laid off the coast of our town and played their search-lights; fireworks went off everywhere, and towns were covered in orange and red, white and blue flags.

1939 was the year when war clouds started to gather over our land. Everybody said that we would remain neutral like we did in the first World War.

That year we had our first radio and the news was all about Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, going backwards and forwards to Berlin to maintain peace.

Chamberlain believed in the empty promises made by Hitler. Germany, had, by 1939, already built up a vast army and airforce to conquer the Western Europe. Little did we know what we were in for.

The Dutch Army was equipped with outdated equipment, although it was mobilised when the UK declared war on Germany in September, 1939.

In the period September - April, life went along in normal fashion and we had moved house once again to 62 Roerstraat, 2nd floor.

It was now April 1940 and war was about to engulf us.

The rumour of pending war became stronger as the days went by from April 1940 to the beginning of May.

It was a quiet night on the 9th May, 1940, early to bed.

At approximately 4.30am all hell broke loose, with shooting in the street and people running about.

It was the 10th of May and the war had started for us.

German troops, with their highly mechanised army, smashed through the frontier. The pathetically equipped Dutch Army, who still relied on horses, were no match for them.

We listened to reports on the neighbours' radio of parachute landings in different parts of the country.

Anti-aircraft guns at the Dutch Air Defence shot down 50 Germans planes on the first day of the war. Plans were afoot to flood the country by opening the dykes to stop the invading Germans, but German paratroopers were dropped behind these defences making them useless.

On the 2nd and 3rd days of the war, the news became worse. Queen Wilhelmina and the entire royal family and Government escaped on a Dutch Navy frigate to England.

We were devastated.

In order to subdue the country, the Germans attacked Rotterdam with their Stuka bombers and flattened the city. Rotterdam was only 25km away from us.

The ultimatum was that if Holland did not surrender, The Hague, Amsterdam, and Utrecht would also be bombed. The surrender came into effect on the 15th May, 1940, and we heard of the losses of the Dutch forces and the destruction.

On the morning of the 10th of May to 15th of May 1940 were total chaos. German paratroopers were dropped everywhere in our country.

We heard that Rotterdam was obliterated by the German Air Force and more than 1000 civilians lost their lives. German planes were machine-gunning civilians who were fleeing the city.

Over our town, RAF Spitfires, and German Messerschmidt fighters fought air battles. Dutch soldiers were shot down form the roof tops by Dutch traitors who sided with the Germans. The ultimatum by the Germans, for Holland to surrender, was accepted by the Dutch High Command on the 15th of May 1940. The war, or battle for Holland, lasted five days. I was able to go to the beach and found it strewn with shot down German transport planes,and the foreshore littered with dead German soldiers and some Dutch soldiers.

German troopers entered our town on the morning of the 16th of May; we were totally devastated. The Germans posted edicts on the walls ordering a curfew for the population from 5pm to 7am. This was by order of the German High Command.

A few days later, the Germans appointed a Governor for Holland, a thug called Seiss-Luquart.

By June 1940, the underground resistance had already been formed; members of this force watched for RAF planes when they were show down, and spirited the surviving crew members to safe houses, to try to get them back to England.

Our lives at home were slowly changing. We had to do without electricity, and lived in total blackout.

Food was still available but rationed. We boxed on like this through 1940, and my 13th birthday, in November, of that year, was rather cheerless. The New Year was the same, our thoughts being on the dark times ahead. 1941 was now upon us. Many things were changing for the worse. The Germans had issued edicts that Jews were ordered to wear yellow "Star of David" cloth on their left breast at all times. Jews were forbidden to travel on trams or trains and they were ordered to live in a certain quarter in The Hague. Later, we found out that they were assembled there so they could be transported to concentration camps in Germany.

A great many acts of civil disobedience were beginning to appear. Black uniformed SS and other troops appeared on the streets, and went from house to house searching for underground resistance fighters. Those who were captured were shot out of hand. A secret ploy by the underground was to get young children in groups (of which I was one) to go to different road junctions and turn the road signs around, to confuse German convoys and send them in different direction. They put sugar in the petrol tanks of trucks to disable them. Slowly, resistance became total; train drivers refused to drive trains, and stealing German supplies became widespread. Consequently, German retaliation became more harsh.

At night time we heard the drone of the RAF bombers on their way to bomb German targets; there must have been hundreds of planes. Search lights lit up the sky all night.

Two boys of my age whom I knew very well, managed to get close to a search light and chopped the cable supplying it.

They were both captured and shot on the spot. A notice was placed on their bodies which were displayed on the footpath, which read that whoever sabotaged German military installations would be shot out of hand. Acts of sabotage carried on regardless. Clandestine radios were hidden under the floors of houses enabling news to come through from the BBC. Anybody discovered with a radio would be arrested by the German Secret Service, never to be seen again.

Family life during 1941, became very strained.

With 1942 at hand, we noticed that food rations became smaller, as most food supplied were allocated to the large German occupying forces. Mother had to go on her bike to farms on the outskirts of town to buy potatoes (black ones) with what little money we had. Sometimes she had to bike 20km to get a small bag of potatoes.

As I was approaching 15 years of age, it became more dangerous to move about.

Schools were closed and were requisitioned by the Germans to billet their troops. I managed to get a little job with an automotive firm as a message boy. When going to and fro to work I had to carry my Ausweis ID Card issued by the Germans.

At any given time, the Germans, would block off the streets with machine-guns and check ID Cards. They were after men of a certain age group, whom they marshalled into groups, then transported them by goods wagons to Germany to forced labour camps.

In 1942, there began the building of concrete bunkers along the Dutch coast and mines were laid on the beaches. The rumour went around that all coastal towns were to be forcibly evacuated to create a German defensive zone along the whole coast. These fortifications were called The Atlantic Wall defending Fortress Europe.

By the end of 1942 we were ordered to leave our house, and the family moved to a Protestant hostel in The Hague. We were now refugees in our own country.

Food was scarce, and life became very difficult. Tram and rail lines were ripped up by the Germans for their war industry; even ornate fences from houses and buildings were ripped out.

With the start of 1943 and going into the third year of the war ,we came to realise that the war was going to last a long time. Nightly the Allied bombers droned over to bomb Germany. Through the underground networks we heard that the Allies carried out one raid on the Krupp works in the Ruhr in Germany, with 500 fighter planes. They droned all night over Holland and returned from Germany via France to England.

We were now living in a small 2nd floor apartment in Ryrwyk, a suburb of The Hague. One morning ( I think it was April '43) the Germans had set up their machine guns on the corner of our street. The Germans were to carry out a house to house search for males between 15 and 50 years old. They came to our house and I was told to take utensils and go with them.

I was the only male member in our household. On the street I was told to go with the other men to a school around the corner, where we were assembled to be marched off to Delft, a city about 18km from our suburb.

Under armed guard we marched all the way there and we were locked up in a hall of the Delft University, where we were to be processed to be transported to Germany.

Some older men told us young ones that they had false papers for us, showing that we already worked for the German Army.

The next day during processing, I showed these papers to the German officer and I was let free with four other youths. We then had to walk all the way back to The Hague.

Arriving back home everybody was crying when they saw me safe and sound, I told my mother that things were getting so bad that I had decided to leave home with a friend of mine, and I would leave the family my ration card so they had a little extra food. My friend and I planned to walk to the town of Wolfhere, where I knew an aunt of mine was a nurse in a hospital for backward children. We hoped to reach there without being pi picked up by German patrols. It was very difficult to move undetected during they day in Holland as the country is flat, and mostly consists of farmland in small pots.

We moved along small canals, wallowing in water most of the time, and hiding in the needs when German mobile patrols passed on the road.

For food, we called at farm houses and asked for something to eat; in most cases we were able to cadge some food.

So we plodded on through 1944, and after arriving at the emergency hospital where my aunt was the matron, we were taken on as Red Cross workers with false Red Cross papers. We were advised not to venture outside the building as the area was infested with Germans and we were likely to be picked up and transported away. We were thus, in effect, confined and restricted of movement.

In June 1944, news from secret radios filtered through to us and on the 6th of June, we were told that a vast armada, of Allied Forces had landed at Normandy. We were shown pamphlets strewn by Allied aircraft, with a message from Queen Wilhelmina and Winston Churchill, exhorting us to keep up hope and carry out as much sabotage on the Germans as possible. The news electrified everybody. Rumour circulated that liberation was near. In hindsight, it was to be another year before the liberation of three quarters of Holland would become a reality. That year, the rest of 1944 and the beginning of 1945 would see tremendous losses in human life and starvation in the cities.

We heard that the Allied armies had broken out of their beach-head at Normandy and were smashing their way to Paris. France was liberated at a fast pace.

Canadian and Polish forces liberated Belgium; the news came through so thick and fast, that we could not believe it. We, above the rivers Maas and Rhine, were still under the boot of the Germans.

It was the last week of August 1944 when a German Panzer division moved into our area and there were signs that something big was afoot. Nymegen, over the Rhine bridge had been freed by the Allied Forces; this was 40km from where we were. On the 17th of September 1944 all hell broke loose at first light. The sky was black with planes, parachutes blackened the sky, and the battle of Arnhem had begun.

To capture the second rail and traffic bridge over the Rhine, the airborne troops fanned out and one large patrol reached us at Wolfhere. The hospital was advised by the Allied troops to get out of the area as fast as possible. We packed up our small belongings and we, and the staff and patients started walking across the area called Veluwe towards Nykerk, still in occupied country.

On arrival after a two-day walk we were put up in a disused factory which was to be converted into an emergency hospital. I noted that we had brought along with us some wounded Allied soldiers. We were not to talk about that, and keep it secret from the Germans.

We settled in well in the factory, the farmers around us gave us milk and eggs;bread was baked with flour given to us and we were well looked after.

It was, however, a tense time because of the news we were receiving. The landing at Anrhem had at first been partially successful, but the Allies did not know that there was a German Panzer division in the area. We heard that this division had smashed the airborne force, with the loss of 7500 men. It was said that Montgomery had over reached himself, and now the winter had started and everything was bogged down. Still no liberation in sight for us. Winter 1944 was now upon us. It was a very severe winter with snow and ice for weeks on end. My thoughts went back to the family in The Hague. How were they surviving? We heard that people in Amsterdam were starving. Some people had resorted to eating rats; no end in sight to the suffering.

During the day RAF fighter planes were in the air and anything that moved on the roads was shot up. At night, thousands of American bombers droned over on the way to Germany to obliterate the cities. The BBC kept up your hopes but we learned that the front line was now stalemated at the rivers Rhine and Maas.

One morning I was asked to go to a farm and collect the milk for the hospital. Walking along the road I walked straight into a German roadblock and was asked to present my papers. The false Red Cross papers I presented were not accepted and I was taken to a collection centre where males gathered under armed guard. We were marched off in the snow to Amersfoost, a city some 30km away. On arrival there, we were put in a kloster which had been requisitioned by the Germans. Our guards were the fearsome SS in black uniforms. After spending a night lying on straw on the floor we were ordered outside in the snow and marched under guard on the road to the open fields. On arrival there, we were given shovels and ordered to dig slit trenches for the German Army to make a stand against an advance of the Allied forces.

Three of us young fellows had discussed our plight and we decided to try to escape from the work party. We noticed that the guard, who was an ordinary soldier in the German Army was not very interested in his job. The snow lay thick on the ground, and at midday we decided to make our getaway towards a stand of trees about a kilometre away. It was my intention to make my way back to Nykerk and the hospital. We bolted away through an already dug trench, and were successful in reaching the trees. After two days lying up in a cow barn on a farm, I arrived back at the hospital where I was received with open arms.

The New Year had come and gone; it was now 1945 and the country, still occupied, was in a terrible state. Nearly five years of war and occupation by then, but hopes were still high.

In March 1945, the Allies had assembled 1500 pieces of heavy artillery along the Rhine and Maas to open their offensive for the liberation of Holland. News came that the Allies had breached the German defences at Remagen, and the armies flooded into Germany.

A Polish Army Division circled through Germany and entered the North of Holland to liberate that part of the country.

The assault on the part of the country around Nykerk began in late March, early in the morning, about 2am. A barrage of 1500 guns roared around us and lasted for one hour.

After that it was very quiet. About 4am we peered out through a crack in the door and saw movement in the street. At first we thought that they were German soldiers. There was a knock at the door and on opening it, there were a group of Canadian soldiers asking if they could look around to see if there were any German soldiers about.

None of us could speak any English, so they brought up a Dutch Liason Officer, and he told us we were now free.

The jubilation was unbelievable; the yoke had been lifted and everybody cried. I was now 17 years old but appeared years older having lost five years of my youth.

It was now my intent to join up with the Canadians and go with their units, who were moving toward The Hague. This would give me the opportunity to get home and see my family. The Canadians gave me a battledress and pants and I was now an unofficial member of the 1st Canadian Division.

A few days later our army columns were at the outskirts of The Hague. Earlier, we had to bypass Veenendaal, where an SS Unit was holed up and being systematically pulverised by Allied Artillery.

The unit I was with stopped in a billet outside The Hague, in Voorburg, still some distance from my home in Ryrwyk. I therefore decided to make my way on my own to get home. I had an army rucksack which I was able to fill up with tins of food etc, from the Army kitchen. I expected the family to be very short of food, which was in fact, borne out when I reached Dahlia street, where my mother, grandmother, and sister were overcome by my return home, and by the food I had brought with me.

For a few days I had to tell my stories of my movements during the last two years of the war. After that I went back to the Canadians, and there I was informed that the Dutch Army was to be reformed, and I was advised to sign up with them. I did sign up with the Dutch Army for an unspecified time and for service anywhere in the world. At first, I was posted for training to the 1st Guard Company, whose task it was to guard Army installations re-taken from the Germans, and Prisoners of War.

The war with Japan was in its last stages and the Dutch Government was forming volunteer infantry battalions to send out to the Dutch East Indies. After two months of Guard duty, I had had enough and signed up to join a battalion that was going to the Indies.

I was posted to the 1st Battalion, 12th Regiment Infantry to the North of Holland, where we got intensive training and fitting out for our tour of operations in the Far East."

- The Southland Times

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