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War Memories of Jan van der Salm

by cornwallcsv

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Archive List > Royal Navy

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Location of story: 
820 Squadron, HMS Indefatigabe
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
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Contributed on: 
18 December 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War website by Doreen Bennett on behalf of Jan van der Salm, The author and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

War Memories of Jan van der Salm

I joined the Dutch navy at 17 years of age in 1938. When the war started in Holland in 1940 I went to England with the mine-layer I was serving on at the time. We were given the choice of staying in Holland or going with the ship and apart from a few who had wives and children at home, we all decided to go. I was a range-taker, my job being to measure the distance between each mine as it was laid. As we left we laid mines along the Dutch coast for protection. While doing that we were attacked by a German plane and a bomb missed us but a large piece of the bomb hit the deck very close to me.

When we arrived in England we were sent to Sheerness where at night we laid at the boom on the Thames.

Several warships being built in Holland but not yet ready, but were towed to England when they were finished. One destroyer by the name of HRMS Isaac Sweers became my new placing.

Our job was to escort convoys across the Atlantic — a very dangerous job. I saw many ships being bombed or torpedoed and sunk. After a while we were transferred to do the same job in the Mediterranean Sea on the convoys to Malta, protecting them but also aircraft carriers and cruisers.

We lost many ships including the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal. We were also involved with three other destroyers in sinking two Italian cruisers and two other smaller ships.

When sailing between Malta and Egypt we rescued almost the entire crew from the British destroyer HMS Gurkha. We managed to connect a towing rope and dragged her from the flames which would have killed most of the crew. We saved them all except for nine who died in the explosion.

A few weeks later when laying in the harbour a few sailors came aboard and presented us with a small dog as a thank you gift. I became very friendly with her and fed her and she was also called Gurkha.
From there we were sent to Mombassa and Nairobi and from there to Colombo (Ceylon). From there we sere sent to the Java Sea to go and help the Dutch fleet to fight the Japanese fleet. A few hours before getting there we were told to return to Ceylon because the Japanese had destroyed the whole Dutch fleet including some British ships.

On our return to Ceylon we were ordered to return to England for repair. On the way we stopped for one day in Durban. We were allowed 6 hours shore leave. My mate and I went into a pub for a drink but we never made it back in time so missed the ship when she left. On arrival we reported to an English ship. We were sent to a camp from where we were sent by American troop carrier to Colombo where we were placed on another Dutch ship, the light cruiser HRMS Jacob van Heemskerk which was on its way to Australia.

Three months later I read on the notice board that my old ship the Isaac Sweers was sunk at the landings of North Africa with the loss of over 120 people.

After 2 years in Australia we returned to England, Liverpool. While there we were given some leave. My mate and I decided to go to Birmingham to visit the parents of some friends we had met in Australia. While standing at the bar in the Hungry Man pub in Broad Street someone asked if we would like to meet some nice girls, which we jumped at of course as it was our first night there. To cut the story short the girl I was introduced to became my wife three months later and stayed that way, ever so happy, for 59 years until she passed away in 2003.

From the time I left Holland at the start of the war my parents didn’t know if I was still alive and well and where. They did write to the Red Cross but never heard of me until the day I arrived in Pijnacker, my birthplace, by bus and my father and two brothers had to be fetched from their jobs to meet me after nearly five years. I had had one Red Cross letter saying my family was enquiring about me, but that was all the contact we had during the war.

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