12 November 2007


The following text came into my hand, it is one man's tale of an escape from war. I have reproduced it verbatim. I do not know if it was ever published. I hold the original typewritten version, with written in corrections.

The Mayfair Hotel,
King's Cross,
6th December 1940.

An Australian by birth and just having arrived here after nearly six months since I left Antwerp, I thought my adventures could be of some interest to your readers.

My parents having left this country when I was a child and settled in Belgium, I had established in Antwerp, together with my brother (who is also an Australian) one of the largest advertising concerns on the continent and known under the name of La Publicite Nationale where we were sole contractors for the Railway Publicities and others for Holland, Belgium and the North of France.

On the 5th of May I was rung up by my wife's mother, who lived at Amsterdam, Holland, 4 hours from Antwerp, that my father-in-law, a prominent personage of Amsterdam, 80 years old, was taken suddenly ill and when we arrived he was already dead. After the burial, on the 9th, I induced my mother-in-law to take some of her possessions with her and leave with us for Antwerp as I found a rather high tension in Holland; this she did very much against her will saying – "it's not the right thing to do."

We took the very last train from Amsterdam to Antwerp, and at 5 o'clock in the morning we were awakened by a terrible bombardment that lasted five hours. At first we thought it was German aeroplanes violating Belgium territory, which so often happened that the Belgians were firing on them, but for that the explosions were too loud; our house trembled and many windows were broken and we could hear the bombs falling very close in the vicinity. To be sure I then switched on the radio and both Holland and Belgium, stations were warning the citizens against parachutists, who were coming down everywhere; some dressed as priests, some as nurses and many in Dutch and Belgium uniforms. Many of these were killed, but some were so cunningly equipped that when they put their hands up, a gun each side went off. Well, we just had time to pack a few things. There was a run on the banks and these were closed, so it was not possible to take any large funds with us. I had three cars; the Belgium authorities confiscated two and left me one, and with this car we escaped. I will never forget the experience and terror that we met on this journey. Everywhere bombs were falling around us and the roads were strewn with dead. The incendiary bombs were the worst as they set everything on fire. In front of us a lady, a gentleman and three children were seated in a car when a German flying machine came down very low and machine gunned them; the three children were killed. You can imagine the consternation; Everyone was screaming and one had to keep very calm so as not to act likewise. This happened on the road from Antwerp to Ghent. After 4 hours driving we arrived at a little place called La Panne, about 12 miles from Dunkirk on the Belgium frontier; here everyone thought it would be safe as during the last war this place was not taken as it lay behind the famous river Yser, but the Belgiums did not count on Holland falling so soon - the Germans coining through Dutch Flanders, which is Zeeland. It was now a matter of fact that Holland had been betrayed by the Dutch fascists, who had supplied the Germans with all types of Dutch uniforms - policemen, firemen, tram and train conductors, as well as of the army, and even prominent people were members of this society. For instance, they found the Managing Director of the KLM. (this is the Imperial Dutch Airways) standing on the roof at the Aerodrome at the Hague, waving to the German Aeroplanes how to land; of course the Dutchmen shot him immediately - the same applies to Mr. Van Damme, the Post Master General, as well as many other prominent Dutchmen. The famous Moe dyke bridge that connects Holland with Belgium was besieged by German parachutists, who, landing near to this bridge, were helped by the Dutch fascists to obtain uniforms of Dutch soldiers; they then marched to the bridge and stopped and shot the Dutch soldiers on guard there and threw them into the river. A lot of betrayal was also going on in the meantime in Belgium and several Station Masters were shot for helping the enemy in different ways. In the meantime we had decided not to stay in la Panne. I, for one reason had to see that we did not fall into German hands. "I was namely their public enemy number 1, having for many years been president of the boycott committee for German goods and I was a taped man in Germany". We arrived thus at the French frontier, to hear same was closed, and had no other option but to stay the night there. As, however, there were thousands of refugees in cars and one was afraid of losing ones place, we had to seek sleeping accommodation at a farmer's, who had nothing better to offer us than a stable, where we slept with twenty other people that night, on straw. A remarkable thing about war is that there is no class distinction. Whilst we were there, a very beautiful Rolls Royce drove up and a Baron, with all his staff of secretary, butler, chauffeurs, maids etc etc., alighted; he had no other choice but to sleep with all these people in another stable. The next morning early, the French frontier was opened and we went through. You will see that my passport was prolonged there at the British Consulate on the 15th of May, a few days before same was occupied by the Germans. Above our heads were many Dutch Flying Machines; these we heard were flying from Holland with the Dutch government papers and gold; they all arrived safely at Dunkirk.

Our further adventures in France were far from pleasant; nowhere could accommodation be found; every town and village brim full with thousands of refugees and we had to beg from door to door for a mattress to sleep on at night, that was if we were lucky to get one; very often, however we slept in the fields, and were fortunate to have dry and good weather. There was, however, a great shortage in food. Luckily we could obtain petrol everywhere, of which there seemed no shortage. We tried in many places to get a ship for England and everywhere were informed the last one had left Boulogne-sur-Mer, Brest, Dieppe, la Havre, so finally we did what everyone else did and pushed on to Bordeaux, a city of 200,000 inhabitants, where at least now 2,000,000 were located. You can imagine the shortage of food. Here, however, we were fortunate; after seeking some time, a French Boot Manufacturer with the name of Chuviac, took us in and after providing us with a good bath, the first we had since we left gave us rooms and a real bed. You can imagine the pleasure we bad in sleeping in a real bed and the next moring we were like logs and he could hardly awaken us. As no boats were going to England, we decided to try and push on to Spain and Portugal, with great difficulty I obtained visas from these countries, only to hear that the Spanish frontier had been closed. In the meantime Belgium bad collapsed; the French, people were so furious with the Belgians that they pelted their cars with stones, and as I had a Belgium number on my cap, I thought it advisable to put a big Union Jack on same and inscribed in large letters "Nous Somes Anglaises" We are English - after this we were not molested.

It is interesting to hear the views of Belgium soldiers who fought under King Leopold's famous regiment, for the reason of his laying down arms. I spoke to them both in French and Flemish {both languages that I speak fluently), and they said he was a very brave man and a hero. He used to come every day to their trenches and go right into the firing line; bring cigars and cigarettes for them and do his utmost to cheer them up; he was, however, fighting against odds and was cut off from both the French and English armies, where he could not get supplies of water, food and ammunition for his 800,O00 men; 400,000 were burnt out by incendiary bombs; he kept on begging for supplies and none were forthcoming. This finally turned his head and to save the remaining 400,000 he laid down arms. The Belgiums said if he had wanted to betray his country he could have let the Germans In from the very start thus saved half his men; of course it is very difficult to judge the situation if one is not there.

We saw both the French and English armies coming and if I may make a remark, I found them very badly equipped; very brave men they were, singing as they went; most of the English, however, were on motor bikes, armed only with Bren guns and the French had only old-fashioned cannons out of Noah's ark. Whilst they were there, some German flying machines were flying above us. I went up to the French officer and said in French, "why don't you have a pot at them" Can you believe it, there was not one anti-aircraft gun in the whole regiment; the French had relied too much on their Maginot Line: I will also admit that the large stream of refugees greatly hampered the progress of the allied armies. The Germans, however, lost thousands of soldiers and asked for a 24 hours armistice to enable them to bury their dead; this was refused by the French, so great moving crematoriums on wheels were employed by the Germans to burn their dead. In the meantime France collapsed and the English Consul told us to take the very last boat to England, the S.S. "Madura" in which the Consulate left also. This boat had accommodation for 200 people; there were, however, 2000. It had only eight life boats, so if anything serious had occurred, we would certainly have stood a very small chance of being saved. We were bombed twice by German aeroplanes, one of which our gunner accounted for and shot down into the sea. We were likewise chased by a U-boat. We were rationed to one slice of bread in the morning and a cup or tea, and potatoes in their skins with rice of an evening. For sleeping we had to sleep wherever best we could and it was quite a trouble to walk at night for fear of falling over sleeping people who were lying everywhere, even on the steps and stairs, I was lucky to find a table, but soon found out it was not quite as comfortable as sleeping on a spring mattress. After five days sailing we arrived at Falmouth and after some bombardments in London, left on the 18th July in the S.S. "Ceramic"; you no doubt read how we had a collision one night during a blackout with the S.S. "Testbank", just two days from Capetown, not far from Mossel Bay; how we were taken off by a man-of-war and put over on the S.S. "Viceroy of India", so finally arrived safely at Capetown. There we stayed two odd months, and as I only arrived at Melbourne a fortnight ago, you will see my journey from Belgium took nearly six months - a journey that I'll never forget.

It's rather hard lines having at my time of life to start all over again, having lost nearly everything. But taking all things into consideration, I think so far I've been very fortunate to escape with my family.

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