- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Hans A. Muller
- Location of story:
- Amsterdam, the Netherlands
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 November 2003
I was a skinny boy then, 11 years old, living in Amsterdam with my parents, my 14-year-old sister Anneke and baby brother Bob. The southern parts of the Netherlands were already liberated, but after the "Market Garden" disaster, we lost all hope for a rapid end of the war.
Although severely jammed by the Germans, we listened to the BBC, and “Radio Oranje”, the Dutch programme, where we heard our Queen Wilhelmina (“the only man in a government of old wives”).
After September 1944, the National Railway system went on strike and food became increasingly scarce, because the Germans had inundated most of the agricultural western parts of Holland. Food rations consisted of sugar beets, tulip bulbs, industrial-grade potatoes and bread made of ingredients that you would hesitate to use as fodder for cattle. I myself suffered for some time of hunger oedema, but our father succeeded in finding supplementary food by trading a few hoarded cigars, some bars of soap, tea (by the teaspoon) and coffee for flour, cheese, milk and oats. Later, soup kitchens opened but the quality of that soup became more and more a danger for what remained of your health. No electricity, no gas, no coal, only some soft peat for cooking and heating. Notwithstanding the strict curfew the beautiful trees along the canals disappeared rapidly during the night, as did the impregnated wooden block pavement between the tram rails. But that was extremely dangerous, you could be shot on sight by the military police or their armed Dutch collaborators. The houses left by the Jewish community were also stripped of anything that could burn, and my grandfather, a retired cabinet maker, used most of his wooden tools and precious wood reserve in the kitchen stove to cook sugar beets and rye porridge (try to grind rye in a coffee mill....). Miraculously, water supply was maintained although pressure was low.
Swedish white bread
In the beginning of 1945, some relief came from Sweden; under the Red Cross flag on coasters and inland barges they sent flour and margarine to Amsterdam and the other cities and distribution in Amsterdam started on 27 February 1945. But this gave only temporary relief; in Amsterdam alone - a city of then 500,000 inhabitants - an estimated 20 to 25,000 people died of starvation.
Then, starting on the 27th of April, hundreds of huge Lancaster bombers approached at treetop level from the west, and dropped food, a few days later followed by American B-17 “Flying Fortresses”. There was K-rations, flour, Welfare biscuits, powdered eggs, Irish stew; the crews dropped small parachutes with chewing gum and candy for the kids. It was something you will never forget, as long as those who were there will live. You KNEW the war was over at last, although there were still armed German soldiers in the streets. After all these years, I still get tears in my eyes when I see one of those very few remaining Lancasters and B-17's in a museum, or during an air show. And my wife does not understand, because she was born in another country, and too young to see the ugly face of a war.
As a matter of fact, most of that dropped food reached the population only weeks later since there was hardly any means of transportation left (nearly all horses had either been requisitioned by the Germans, or eaten....). But the psychological effect was tremendous, it kept us alive.
Evening, curfew. Then, a window opened and a neighbour who had listened to “Radio Oranje” shouted: “They have surrendered, it's over!” And then the streets filled with people, the national colours red-white-blue and with an orange pennant appeared everywhere. An old man died, his emotions had overtaxed his undernourished body, but he died with a smile on his face, it was over.
And my father got the very, very last item from his secret store: a small tin with cocktail sausages. I still see the tin before my eyes, the small key attached to the lid, the cocktail sticks in a paper wrapping. There were two, for each of us.
May 6th: a reconnaissance group of Canadians enters Amsterdam, and is welcomed by a jubilant crowd on the central square, the “Dam”. Unfortunately, they had to pull back, and shortly after that, SS troops opened fire on the crowd, killing tens of people. But a few days later, after the formal surrender at Wageningen the Allied troops (mostly Canadians) arrived; they rode in jeeps, those marvellous little cars, Bren carriers, half tracks, tanks and motorcycles. Unforgettable, those soldiers, strong, suntanned men (in fact, boys, some could not have been older than 18 of 19), handing out chocolate bars and sweets, their vehicles hardly visible under the load of happy boys and girls. One image remained dormant for many years in my memory: a white polar bear painted on one of the vehicles....
At the end of 1999, the Dutch Postal Service issued ten special stamps, depicting the main events of the 20st century. On one there was a picture of a Canadian soldier on a Norton motorcycle, covered with flowers and two girl riding pillion. When the stamp came out, it was found that the soldier was Captain William Roberts, Seaforth Highlanders of Canada; he was still alive at 85 years!)
May 9th or 10th, I do not exactly remember, the food of the soup kitchen was completely uneatable; soup of rotting potato peels, with chunks of sugar beets and unidentified other ingredients. I had waited already for three hours in line, but they told us to wait some more, because help was coming. That help was a Canadian field kitchen; they started to empty huge tins of condensed milk and Welfare biscuits to make a VERY nourishing meal; also chocolate bars with raisins for everybody. (Some people, not used to this kind of food, literally ate themselves to death).
A couple of years ago, I had a talk with a young female Canadian soldier, who also participated in the famous International 4-Days Marches at Nijmegen (every year between 36 and 40.000 participants from every corner of the world). She had already observed that especially the Canadians enjoyed much popularity, and that even young people talked about the Liberation of May 1945. Then I told her this field kitchen story; she looked at me with some amazement and said: “I realize now that in May '45, my parents were not yet born!”. And I could assure her that the Dutch have elephants memories...
Decades later, I read some books and saw some pictures of those days that we lived in a dream. And all at once, there was that little Polar Bear again, on a despatch rider motorcycle. Being retired, and having renewed my interest in motorcycling, I was fortunate to buy such a motorcycle, a 1942 BSA WDM20. However, she was in a very sorry state and it took me nearly seven years to source the parts needed and to restore her completely. And of course, the petrol tank bears the “Polar Bear” emblem. Since then, I have ridden her (together with my daughter on another, but later classic British motorcycle) with much pleasure, a slow, strong, dependable bike with character. I dream to go to England one day on a pilgrimage, a late "thank you" for the Brits, Scots, Welsh, Canadians and Americans that liberated us. We have not forgotten!
who in spite of the hunger oedema, became a 6'4" father of two daughters, and two grandchildren. To whom I will leave that WDM20....
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