I went back to my wartime hide-out
For ten dangerous weeks, a Dutch family hid a Canadian airman from the Nazis. Then he was betrayed by an unknown. After eighteen years he returned and made a surprising discovery
CORPORAL JAMES N. KIRK, RCAF
“It happened to me” This is another of the series of personal-experience stories that will appear from time to time in Maclean's . . . stories told by its readers about some interesting dramatic event in their lives. HAVE YOU SUCH A STORY? If so. send it to the articles editor. Maclean’s Magazine, 481 University Ave., Toronto. For stories accepted Maclean's will pay the regular rates it offers for articles.
IF PRESSED, many fortunate Canadians will confess they had a hard time settling down after World War II. I call them fortunate for this reason: I found it impossible to settle down at all.
By 1952, seven years after my discharge from the RCAF, I was thirty-four years old — and still restless. Ed put in two years at the University ot Manitoba, worked in a horticultural nursery in Victoria and a cellulose plant in Prince Rupert, and toured the U. S. aimlessly by bus.
Then, all set to emigrate to New Zealand for no specific reason whatever, 1 w'ent back to say goodby to my parents on their farm near Hamiota. Man.
My father was sympathetic about my state of mind. “The war mixed you up. son.” he said. "There's something in life that you're missing, but you don’t know' what it is. Why not rejoin the air force? Maybe that will help.”
Suddenly that seemed a good idea. I’d not been able to forget some wartime memories, and I was especially haunted by the knowledge that someone —I didn't know who—had betrayed me anti others to the Germans when it might have cost us our lives. I rejoined the RCAF in January 1953. took a photo course at Camp Borden, and was sent to Rockdiffe in October. I met Stella O’Byrne, an airwoman nine years younger than myself, courted her, and married her in March 1956.
I told Stella I wanted to get back to Europe to find some people I had known during the war. She was willing, so 1 applied for a European posting. By the time it came, in September 1958, we had a son. Patrick. Before that year was out w'c had arrived at No. I Fighter Wing. RCAF, in Marville. France. My first leave came in March 1959. The three of us — young Pat. Stella, and I — climbed into our car and headed for the Netherlands.
Stella and the boy were tired when we reached Almelo, halfway up the eastern side of Holland. I left them resting at a hotel and drove on to the village of Sibculo. And, all the way on this last short stage of my long-delayed pilgrimage, the adventure that had happened to me eighteen years before came alive in my memory.
I was twenty-two then—a sprog, as they called the green ones in the air force—and this w'as to be my first operational mission. I had just been posted to 405 Squadron, which was to become the first all-Canadian bomber squadron in Britain. I had been trained as a wireless air gunner, but I was to serve as nose gunner for the first five trips, in order to get oriented. Bill Dosseter was rear gunner. I recall, but he was an
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The skipper shouted: “Our engine’s been hit . . . Prepare to bail out!” I had never jumped before
RAF type: I was the only Canadian in the crew of our aircraft. I remember the date well : July 14, 1941.
Before take-off at nine that night, we were briefed by an RAF officer. “You'll be bombing a rubber factory at Hanover,” he said in a dehydrated voice, and gave the details. Twenty-five two-motor Wellingtons were to set out on various missions in the Hanover area, four of us concentrating on the rubber factory. We took off at dusk.
As we neared the coast of Holland, we saw anti-aircraft fire ahead. Soon it was coming very close, and I couldn't tell whether the next shot would hit or miss.
We were at thirteen thousand feet; I was wearing a fur-lined jacket and sweating a good sweat. I he skipper zigzagged through that first line of ack-ack in maybe three minutes. It seemed longer, but subtracting time for sweating and being scared, it must have been about that. You could see the stuff coming up underneath, spreading out like bursting fireworks.
Then it was clear going to Hanover. We were all trying to locate the target. The second pilot said: 'I think that's it!"
After our dummy run, the skipper said: "Bomb doors open.” And we went down the alley for real. "Drop flares!” the skipper said and bright light bloomed below. The Wellington jerked as the bombs went. I he flack had begun again, but I was too busy to be scared; 1 was keeping alert for aircraft. Then 1 saw one—a Wellington caught in the searchlights above us.
"Let's get out of here,” the skipper yelled, and we skedaddled for home. I thought: thank God we've come through it okay. But as we left the target area the skipper said: "We've been hit! Our starboard engine's on fire!”
1 looked back. The engine had burst into bluish flames but they hadn't engulfed the aircraft and in a few seconds the pressurized fire extinguisher had put them out. I heard the skipper say: "We’re all right: we can make it on one." He had hardly spoken when we were caught in a cone of searchlights and, using evasive tactics, we lost a lot of altitude: we dropped from thirteen thousand to around six thousand feet.
The skipper's voice came over the intercom. "Ditch everything we don’t need.” I threw out both my machine guns—that's all I had that was moveable. Then another battery of lights trapped us. That’s when I got really scared: sitting there alone with no guns to fight with and those lights blinding me. Finally we got out of them, too.
"We re down to three thousand,” the skipper said. "Where are we, navigator?”
"We've not reached the Dutch border, Skipper.”
The skipper grunted. "Front gunner,” he said, "prepare to bail out." 1 had thrown over my guns so I guess there was nothing I could contribute to the trip.
I climbed back into the body of the aircraft.
"Happy landings,” the skipper said. I was cool as I’d ever been. I had never jumped before.
1 lowered myself through the trap door, let go and counted ten, feeling the wind whistle past. I pulled the D-handle of my rip cord and after a jolt was suspended in nothing, swaying down into Germany.
They had told me to relax about twenty feet above the ground, but since I couldn’t see much in the darkness I tried to relax all the way. I hit with a terrific impact when I least expected to. and lost consciousness. 1 came to. almost smothered, wrapped like a mummy in the chute; but managed to free myself of it. I was in a plowed field, shaken but unhurt. 1 could smell the fresh earth. Suddenly the moon appeared from behind clouds. The night was almost balmy. I could hear dogs barking, far away. Were they after me already?
Wrapping my chute around a boulder, I sank it in the water of an irrigation ditch. I had not been issued a compass, but the navigator had said we had not reached the Dutch border. 1 found the North Star and traveled west, keeping to the fields. Every few hundred yards I'd have to push through bushes which slapped my face in the dark. At about four o’clock, the sky began to lighten and German women began coming out to work the fields. I jumped into a ditch.
Hiding there, I heard the women’s voices clearly as they hoed rows of sugar beets. I nibbled at a couple of small bars of chocolate and sucked an orange. At dark. 1 started walking again toward Holland. Almost at once I stumbled into someone—something.
To my relief, it was a scarecrow, I stripped off its coat and tried it on. It fitted very well and covered my telltale Canada flashes.
About midnight, I came to what I hoped was the border: a double row of coiled barbed wire. There were no guards in sight. I spread the wire by hand and crawled through, not minding the snags and scratches. I felt much better to be in Holland where I had a chance to make friends. At about 3.30 a.m.. too exhausted to go on. 1 found a bush-lined ditch and fell asleep in it.
Rain, falling on my face, wakened me next afternoon. Pushing through the bushes, I found myself in a village, near a brick house. Three teenaged girls were entering it. 1 thought: if I'm to be turned in, this is the place to risk it. I knocked at the door. A plump woman in her forties answered, holding the door partly shut.
I pointed to myself. “Canadian," I said. She looked puzzled. 1 hitched down the
right shoulder of my borrowed coat and showed my Canada shoulder flash.
She smiled, opening the door wide, and bustled me in, chattering to her family in runaway Dutch. She sent one of her daughters out to bring her grandfather from down the street.
Mr. Dekker, though seventy, stood very erect; he wore a graying Vandyke beard; and he knew enough English to understand when I said I had been shot down. He asked my plans and I could only shrug.
Then I saw an undecided look in his eye. Was he thinking of turning me in? He told me there was no way to get across the channel because the Germans had commandeered all boats, large and small. Mr. Dekker gave me a sudden smile. He had decided he could trust me. He had hidden a rowboat on the North Sea coast, he said, and would be glad to take me across in it himself.
I stared incredulously. A man of his years! I refused politely: I'd rather go overland to Spain and Gibraltar, I said.
Nobody seemed to know much about escape routes that early in the war. As we talked, the women brought me boiled eggs and sour porridge, which I wolfed down. And it was marvelous to rest in a comfortable bed that night.
Next morning I had a visitor—a young policeman of the village. “I can get you into a movement that will get you to England," he said, sounding confident. I was to learn that this came more from desire than ability to deliver; for I was the first Allied airman shot down in the area and no underground was yet organized in Sibculo.
That night, he and a companion arrived on bicycles, both in police uniform. They had brought a spare uniform for me and an extra bike. I changed into police togs and was taken to a small bakery at the other end of the village which, my friends explained, was used by the local police for their coffee breaks. No German, they argued, would suspect my being hidden there. The place—a private home with a small shop in front and bake ovens in back — was run by two sisters and their older brother: Ali, Fenna, and Fritz Prenger. I did not dream then that I would stay with them for ten weeks.
Now, eighteen years later, I stood at their shop door again. As I opened the door, a bell tinkled to announce me and the smell of fresh baked bread teased me backward into time; and then Ali came into the shop, wiping her capable hands on her apron. No. she had not changed eighteen years' worth: she had gained a few pounds and wore glasses now, but her tawny hair still haloed her head loosely.
"Jim! Jim Kirk!” she cried. She had never been demonstrative, but I recalled that she used to get pink-cheeked when excited and her cheeks were pink now. In groping English, she said that Fenna and Fritz were shopping in a neighborhood town. Then her English all but deserted her: there was much to say and no interpreter. That was something we had lost over the years—our ability to communicate in halting English and halting Dutch.
She shook her head and managed to stammer: “Jim—so long a time!”
I promised to return in the morning with Stella and Pat. When we arrived, at ten o’clock, Ali had assembled a reception committee: Fritz, gray-haired and shy; Fenna, quietly smiling; and Mr. Dekker, now eighty-eight, still erect, his Vandyke turned white.
“Dekker,” he said, as if I needed prompting. He pumped my hand. “You should have come to England in my little boat. I think we would have made it.”
With Mr. Dekker translating, Ali said: “Would you like to see your old room, Jim?” It was just the same: a single, wooden bedstead; a washstand with white and blue earthen jug and basin; and the window, facing across the road.
“Look, Stella,” I said, pointing. “That’s where the sign was—on the side of that shed over there.”
“What sign?” Stella said.
Of course it wasn’t there now.
But eighteen years earlier I saw the sign whenever I looked out that window:
"ANYONE CAUGHT HARBORING ALLIED FORCES WILL BE SHOT AT ONCE." I remember the evening Ali risked taking me across the street to point it out from close enough to read, laughing at the irony of the situation. I didn’t think it funny.
I had been with the Prengers for ten days when I caught the flu. Ali went to a Dr. Post, asking him for brandy.
"What for?” he demanded. Spirits were very scarce then.
“Who is it?" the doctor persisted.
Ali, deciding to trust him, told him everything; and Dr. Post returned with her, bringing the brandy. After that he called often to discuss escape plans with me. From his own wardrobe he supplied me with a gray tweed suit, shirts, ties, shoes, socks—even a topcoat. He was not then in the underground, but he hoped to make contact for me.
As time passed, I grew accustomed to living with danger. German soldiers often came to the shop to buy cigarettes and pastries. I often thought of home and wrote letters to my parents for Ali to mail after the war, so that if I were caught and killed my disappearance would be at least partly explained.
At last, early in October. Dr. Post told me; "Jim, we’ve made contact with the underground. You'll soon be moved into the west of Holland." He had a friend make me a false identity card, describing me as a deaf mute to allow for my ignorance of the language. And, with a guide, i set out early one morning for the town of Voorschoten, a few miles north of I he Hague. Remembering all this, it seemed incredible that so many years had passed.
To the Prengers, it seemed only yesterday. They asked eagerly for news of what had happened after I left their care.
When I told them, Ali was shocked. "Have you found out who your betrayer was?" she asked fiercely. But I could only shake my head.
I said: "Does Dr. Post still live here? I’d like to see him."
Ali looked at me bleakly. "He was shot." she said. "The Germans shot him.” The date of his death, I learned, was April 1945. At least that much was off my conscience: Dr. Post could not have been killed on my account.
We said goodby all around, and I promised to return on my next leave. 1 helped Stella and Pat into the car and headed west for Voorschoten.
Who had my betrayer been? No one in Sibculo, I was sure of that.
On that October day, 1941 (I remembered), my guide and I had boarded the train at Almelo, twelve miles from where the Prengers lived, and traveled to The Hague. There I met my new host and hostess, a young couple named Teun and Marie Rijnsburger, who lived in a narrow. dead-end street. Marie was in her mid-twenties, with a face that lit up when she smiled. Teun, with reason, was more serious. A slender, pale man, he had been a prisoner of war in Germany until, promising to work for the German labor corps, he had been allowed back home with his wife and two-year-old daughter.
I had been sent to them by Dr. Post’s underground contacts — a law student named Fritz van der Schriek and a medical student named George Gussenhoven, both of Leyden University. Fritz was a jovial young man whose smile made him look like Glenn Ford, the movie star.
"Now Jim," Fritz said, when they came that night, "there are several possibilities of getting you to England. First, we are trying to work out details to establish an escape route to Switzerland. Second, a student friend who has a rubber dinghy with a motor, near Rotterdam, is willing to try with anyone who wants to get to England."
“A rubber dinghy?” I repeated. “Why one stray bullet could sink it — and I can't swim."
"Then that idea is no good," George said.
"And the third way?" I asked.
"The RAF would bring in a seaplane,” Fritz said, “and we would get you to the right place and have you picked up.” “How long a wait would that be?” Fritz shrugged. "Months, maybe."
“I’ll wait for the seaplane," I said. But I was worried about the long wait, knowing the penalty for hiding me was death.
The Rijnsburgers. good, simple folk, risked that penalty and shared what little they had with me. There wasn't much food in Holland: for three weeks I ate mostly bread and cheese. Coffee was ersatz; there was no milk or butter. Then Fritz came to say he had found another home to pass me on to. My host and hostess insisted on giving me a farewell dinner.
Marie did her best to make it a memorable meal.
"What’s this?" Teun asked, pointing to a round object in his soup no larger than a small walnut.
"Meat," Marie said. “Don't you remember?" We laughed, glad of the chance to find the thinnest joke.
Next morning, a loud knocking came at the front door. I heard Marie answer, then a brusque male voice, then a slam-
ming of the door. Marie, flushed, tore upstairs to tell me that two German soldiers had requisitioned the spare bedroom I had been occupying. They would come to stay that evening.
She took my hand and led me downstairs to the entrance hall, lifting the linoleum to show me a trap door Teun had made. Beneath it they had hidden their silver from the Germans. I climbed down. Marie shoved a ground sheet and blankets in after me. Damp and cold, the hiding place had an earthern floor and less than two feet clearance. That night and next day I huddled there, shivering in my blankets.
Then Teun opened the trap, and I was escorted back to the east of Holland. For the next few weeks, I lived for short periods with bakers, doctors—finally w'ith a retired lawyer where 1 met another fugitive. Fit. I t. Peter Conran of the RAF, who had been shot down before I w'as. He was absolutely determined to get back to England. He had been married only a few weeks before his last flight.
On December 1, 1941, Conran shook my hand, announcing that his turn had come to be picked up by the seaplane.
“I hope you make it,” I said.
“Ell make it, all right: so will you,” he said, and was gone.
About a week later, the local resistance leader called on me. By then. 1 had decided not to ask their names in case 1 was captured and tortured. "Good news,” he said. "Peter has reached England and expects to see you soon.”
The day after Christmas, my host took me down to the iiving room, where two men were standing. One was a resistance man. The other, in civvy clothes and needing a haircut, was Bill Dosseter, rear gunner of our Wellington! 1 rushed to shake his hand, feeling absolutely wonderful, no longer alone in my fix. I was able to tell him, from news Dr. Post had given me weeks before, that the rest of our crew had been taken prisoner. We talked nearly all night. Bill said our plane had crashed near Zwolle and he had been sheltered in a farmer’s loft, over the cattle.
On the morning of December 31, Bill, our guide, and I set out by train. At FJtrecht, we found a large black sedan waiting for us at the station. In it were the driver, a new guide, two Dutch Jews, and a Scottish private who had escaped from hospital before being shipped to a POW camp in Germany. We were to be taken to the rendezvous to be picked up by the seaplane and we set out at once.
After about twenty minutes, the driver stopped the car to make a telephone call at a road-side shop. Then we continued on our way. I recall we caught up to a cluster of cars heading toward The Hague. We were sixth in the cluster and we continued on in that order, taking care not to attract attention by speeding.
We had been moving along like that for some time when, rounding a curve. 1 caught my first daylight glimpse of The Hague. At the same instant, I saw several German MPs on the road. They had let the five other cars in our cluster go through, but now, guns drawn, they blocked the road, flagging us to a stop. It happened as unexpectedly as that: one minute we were sure of our approaching freedom, the next we were prisoners. The Germans must have known about us, right down to the license number of our car.
I was taken to a prison in The Hague known to the Dutch as the Oranje Hotel. There I was interrogated for several days, glad at least that I had avoided learning the names of many who helped me.
I kept my resolve not to betray any of my benefactors.
1 was accused of being a spy. Did I know I was liable to be shot? Where had I got my civvy clothes? What had I done for the past five months? Who had helped me? To save myself from being shot for spying, the only information I gave besides my name, rank, and number was the date and place I was shot down and the names of my crew. These facts checked with what they already knew. At last I was told 1 would be sent as a prisoner of war to Germany.
But before I was taken there to spend the rest of the war I was transferred to a military prison in Amsterdam used by the Germans as a clearing house for captured prisoners. I was taken into the records office. On a table, I saw a book, open at a page showing dates, names, and ranks of allied prisoners. My eyes lit on ah entry: Fit. Lieut. Peter Conran,
December 3. He had not made it, after all. Then 1 knew he had been betrayed, just as I had been.
Only now, thinking back, I wonder about the driver of our escape car and the telephone call he made. Was he the traitor that gave us away? But, strangely, that isn't important to me any more. I am content to have met again the wonderful Dutch friends—the Prengers, the Rijnsburgers, and all the others — who had risked everything to help me in those terrible weeks, long past.
How a psychiatrist would explain it, I have no idea; but I know that 1 have now lost my restlessness. By traveling backward. almost literally, into time, I found myself, at last.