A Letter From My Father
Chapter Three –
Later part of the war time.
The German airforce had a base in Venlo, north of Roermond, on which they had both day, and night fighter planes. The RAF used to come over on their way to Germany at night time, and the German defence was fearsomely coordinated, with searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and night fighters. When a searchlight caught a plane, others quickly joined it, so it was pinned like a moth in a cone of lights, with the guns firing at it. Sometimes the guns would suddenly stop firing, and we could see tracer fire from the darkness, from a fighter-plane. If the victim broke up, the lights divided, and followed the pieces down individually, probably to check on parachutes. Sometimes there were none.
The air raid sirens used to sound when the planes were expected to come over, and in the beginning we used to get up and move into the cellar, and though I felt claustrophobic in it, with its thick damp walls, its domed low ceiling, and feeble light, it was as safe as we could get, and even if the house fell down, we probably still would have been safe. We had a sledge hammer, pickaxe, and other tools just in case.
One of the first nights, we took our cat, with her new batch of kittens in a box along, and put them under a chair. The next night we put the box under a different chair, and the cat dragged the kittens out, and put them under the original chair.
However, we rarely seemed to get any bombs close, and those few seemed to be from planes in distress, so eventually we didn't bother going to the cellar, or even getting out of bed.
One day an ammunition train on the line to Germany caught fire in broad daylight. It must have been on a weekend, because all the kids rushed out on bicycles, to watch the spectacle. The fire brigade also came out with sirens blaring, only to stop, a good distance away, and watch too. We were much closer, but after some bits and pieces came flying past, we got scared, and retreated. We were hoping for a really big bang, but it didn't happen.
After the Allied forces landed in France, they trapped a large number of Germans near Falaise, but a good many got away, and of these, a lot came through Roermond, for once looking defeated, driving French civilian cars, busses, and anything else that would go, I even saw a battered tank, with half the rubbers missing from its tracks, and an acute bend in its gun barrel, driving along (I think they used rubber inserts in the tracks for driving on bitumen or concrete).
Most of them used the town for a rest, and sat along the pavement, or were even invited inside by soft-hearted civilians. They all seemed to have a fair amount of loot on them, just the same, mostly French wine.
However, the German Army being what it was, had M.P.s just across the border, and the fugitives got quickly sorted out, some of them finishing up in the penal battalions in Russia, I was told.
In that period our schools had stopped, and I became a runner for the Air Raid Wardens, a civilian organisation a bit like the TV show, Dads Army. It also reminded me a bit of the Cubs, with little actually to do, but we got to wear a helmet – pre-war Dutch, painted black, and we felt rather important.
Our only air raid in earnest, lasted only half an hour at the most, and was a navigation mistake, I think. A few Lockheed Lightning fighter bombers made a low level raid, and fired machine guns and dropped a few bombs. As an air raid it wasn't really a big deal, but it seemed big enough to us at the time – it killed about fifty people.
The planes were twin-tailed American made planes, and were low enough when using their guns for me to see the pilots; not that they were shooting in my direction, or, black helmet or no, I would not have been looking.
The runners had to help in taking the bodies to a hall, serving as a morgue. I had never seen a dead body before, and it was a grisly task. For some reason it was decided that the morgue should be attended during the evening, in case others were brought in, and a classmate, Frank, who followed me to Australia later on, had to do this. He had also never seen any dead bodies before, and had to sit in the middle of a whole lot of them, some covered, others not. The electricity was cut by the raid, and there were a few flickering oil lamps, which he said seemed to make the bodies twitch.
One poor fellow, in particular, seemed to rivet Frank's attention; he had been hit in the middle of his face, probably by masonry, and according to Frank, making him look like Popeye, and at one time out of the corner of Frank's eye, seemed to try and speak.
That was too much for him and he cleared out, and left the dead to themselves. Next day, nobody could remember giving the order to stay, anyway.
This tended to stop us thinking the war was rather an exciting adventure.
Towards September 1944, give or take a month, the American Army came up from the south west, and stopped on the far side of the river – apparently their supply lines were stretched to the limit. The Germans had already disappeared, expecting to be overrun, but they came back and dug in; Paratroop battalions, the best infantry the Germans had.
This time there was no wandering off to the bridge for me to see what was happening. Notice went up that all males between sixteen and sixty had to appear at collection centres, to go to Germany to work. Very few did, as most of us were expecting the imminent arrival of the Allies, and hid in their homes, including Dad and me.
We prepared a hiding place, in the attic, a small trunk room, behind a separate room. It had a door about one metre square, and by putting a cupboard on casters in front of it, it became unnoticeable. It was just high enough in its highest part to sit on a low stool, and we could even lift a tile or two to be able to see out.
The Germans used to conduct house to house searches, sealing off a district at a time, but usually we managed to get some warning, and almost everyone must have had pretty good hiding spots, and also sometimes the soldiers were quite casual and merely looked around in each room, just as well for us. Many of these troops were Austrians, and were lukewarm about the whole thing. The paratroops were not involved as far as I can remember, but then Dad and I never saw them, and Mam wouldn't know one German uniform from another. Apparently some of the searchers looked abashed, and told her they were Austrian. They had therefore little success, and came to believe that they'd got most of the men; I don't suppose they had kept a tally of them.
While all this was going on, the town was under constant artillery fire from across the river, and we got rather used to it – it wasn't as if it was particularly concentrated, something like one shell a minute, and over the whole town, it wasn't too bad.
One night, when I thought a search was imminent, I was carefully peering through a small window in our front door, when a shell hit the front of the house opposite and suddenly our massive door seemed a sieve – with light flashes coming through the holes. I ran back into the house badly frightened, and found a tear in my coat, a smaller corresponding one in my trouser leg and the slightest nick in my leg that I had not even felt. That was my only war injury.
When I looked at the door next day, it had so many holes in it, it seemed impossible for anyone standing behind it not to have been hit.