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15 October 2014
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England and the English were never far from our mindsicon for Recommended story

by Leicestershire Library Services-Oadby Library

Contributed by 
Leicestershire Library Services-Oadby Library
People in story: 
Piet Cooper
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Contributed on: 
09 June 2004


( memories of living in occupied Holland from 1940-1945 )

After the Germans occupied the Netherlands one of their first decrees was that every household had to hand in their wireless set or sets. Despite the danger of being caught and sent to prison or worse, many people, who had more than one set, kept one back. Others made crystal set and listened through headphones to the broadcast from Radio Orange in London despite the threat of being sent to a concentration camp.
At 8 o/c every night one of us was posted in the hall to listen for approaching footsteps or other noises from the street. It was after curfew, so only Germans and people with German exemption cards should be abroad. The crystal set was taken from its hiding place and switched on. 2 of us listened through one half of the headphones. Then it came dot, dot, dot, dash, the Morse sign for the letter V, then :Radio Oranje and the news in Dutch .It was so thrilling. Someone in London knew of our plight and was communicating. All we heard or saw in the newspapers was the German version and that was mostly propaganda and could not been believed.
The “Underground” movement delivered leaflets sometimes after dark, a hazardous job as whoever was spotted or given away by Nazi sympathisers could be shot or sent to a concentration camp.

When on some nights the air raid sirens started howling, we flew upstairs, took down the black out shades and watched the sky as we listened to the English bombers flying over on their way to Germany. If one was caught in the searchlight beams and the anti- aircraft guns started shooting we stood there feeling so helpless and fervently wishing the planes to get through safely moaning :” Oh, no, no, no , please don’t get hit” or something in that vein.

I worked for a ships’ electrical installation firm as a draughts woman and our office was on the second floor with large windows facing the direction of the ports.
One afternoon we heard bombs exploding from that direction, we looked up to see an aircraft seemingly flying straight at our windows. We caught a glimpse of the pilot and he was away over the roof. An Englishman, so close! He had come in low over the harbour and dropped his bombs on the German warships. Our firm had to make the electrical repairs and also install the M.E.S. Anlagen ( anti- mine installations ) on the ships.
The workmen were often accompanied by one of their superiors dressed in overalls to spy and see if any new innovations were to be found and sometimes if the part was removable, on the pretext of damage, taken to the drawing department and examined. I remember taken a motor to pieces and drawing every constituent, with someone on the look-out, in case the German overseer decided to come upstairs and have a look round All this information was passed on to the allies by some of our staff who were in touch with the relevant underground organisations. We never knew this till after the war. One had to be so careful of nazi sympathisers and informers.

Ascension day is a holiday in Holland and my sister, two friends and I decided to go by train to a lovely province where there were moors and woods. The weather was warm with bright sunshine. We had a great day and returned reluctantly to the station. The train was packed, people standing in the aisles, in between the seats and sitting or lying in the luggage racks. We had only gone a short distance when we heard an aeroplane flying low and machine gun fire rattling on the roof. All we could do was shrink where we were. The plane flew the length of the train and away. We saw its shadow passing our window. Luckily no one in our carriage was hurt and the plane did nor return. Another close encounter with an Englishman.
This incident had its consequences in the eighties when I was travelling on a train from Sheffield to Manchester and passing through the first tunnel. All of a sudden there was a rat-tat-tat-tat sound from the roof . I instinctively shrunk down in my seat. Soon I realised it was no machine gun fire but icicles being broken by the passing train and hitting the roof. Phew!

Another consequence of wartime experience occurred when my husband and I were travelling by car through the flat, open countryside of Lincolnshire in 1947. We were driving along a straight, long road and in the distance I saw a man by the roadside in grey uniform. I looked around and saw to my great relief a side road to my left and shouted to my husband:” Turn left, turn left here”. He looked at me in surprise: !Why”?. Then I realised where I was and passing the man I saw it was an R.A.C. patrol man. The country looked like Holland and the grey uniform looked like that some German regiments wore. For years we had avoided German soldiers standing like that on the road as they either confiscated something one had or perhaps questioned or picked up one in retaliation for some act of sabotage committed by the underground.

The last winter of the war was a harsh one. Temperatures well below freezing and the streets covered in a thick layer of ice.. The weekly ration of food was down to one small loaf made out of flower bulbs held together with a little flour. When cutting it the loaf fell apart. During the last years we had trekked though the countryside taking linen, clothing, even jewellery to exchange for food from farmers. The farmers had none to spare now and we were losing our energy. That winter we had managed to obtain sugar beet. Some farmers could not harvest it and we managed to pull some from the sticky clay. This was impossible without tools and later managed to get some already harvested We grated the beet and cooked it, trying to make it in a kind of pancake.. We had no gas, electricity or coal, but managed to scrounge some wood from here and there. In the inner city people living in tenements had used the floorboards and other wood fittings from their homes to supply some heat.
We lived in a bedroom facing south (warmer than the living room downstairs) and at night we lit a very small stove, the Miracle stove, and cooked the sugar beet .
Luckily we still had water coming from the tap and my father had fixed up a small waterwheel and 6 Watt bulb to give us some light. We spent the morning in bed keeping warm under the blankets, then one of us got up and walked on the ice covered street to the nearest school that was a central kitchen to fetch our half litre each of thin soup made mostly with tulip bulbs. Some nights, after curfew, my father and I went out with our saws to cut down a small tree. Living in a garden suburb we had paths that ran between the back gardens and out of sight from Germans. We risked going out after curfew and one night we went to a railway crossing supported on its sides by old railway sleepers. It was a very dark night and we listened as we sawed. A noise reached us from across the road. We stopped sawing. The noise stopped. We started work again and the noise returned. Then we realised that other people were doing the same as we but on the other side of the road. Great relief on our part and we returned with as much wood as we could carry. The next day we chopped it up in the back garden.
Every conversation between friends and neighbours turned into reminiscing about food we had eaten in the years before the war.
It was decided that my sister and I would try and reach the farms belonging to my mother’s cousins in the East of the Netherlands. Father and I put together the cycles we had taken apart and hidden in the cellar as the Germans had confiscated bicycles in previous years. We had no tyres, so one morning we rattled Eastwards on our bikes. All we had in food was a small bag of some mushy peas, the last of our hoarded stock. At least my parents had our ration cards and could now have two small loaves each. It was a sad parting. It was a hundred mile trip. The only traffic on the roads was the occasional German convoy and we were always apprehensive when one approached. We reached Utrecht, almost halfway to our destination before curfew and went to an address of friends of my grandparents. We rang the bell and were admitted. My sisters back wheel had collapsed as we entered Utrecht and the next morning our host went out and obtained a new one. He had a cigar shop, empty for years, but had hoarded an amount. Using some of it had been used to barter for a wheel.
They also had fed us. We had bread in the evening and porridge oats in the morning. We did feel sated.. People had more food as we travelled East.
We cycled on and as it was a misty morning we did not worry about English aircraft machine gunning the Garman convoys on the road. Ten miles on we heard an aircraft approach just as we were to pass a convoy we threw ourselves in the dry ditch at the side of the road and watched the convoy being shot at .As soon as it was over we leapt on our bikes again and then we were on small lanes through the woods and safe .The farms were in sight when my sisters back wheel collapsed once more. We threw the bike on the side of the road and ran to the farms where we were received with open arms.

Meanwhile in Rotterdam, where I lived, people were dying in their thousands.. There were no coffins, no horses to pull the hearses and no one had the strength to dig or transport the bodies to the cemeteries on the outskirts of the city. Where there were any green spaces in the suburbs people were buried in shallow graves. Churches were filled with corpses . There was no paper or cloth to cover them.
In May there was no food left. After a long delay the allies and the German Reichskommissar agreed to the dropping of food by 235 Lancaster bombers in designated places round the cities. On April29 they took of in a freak blizzard sometimes flying as low as 150 meters and at last the food arrived like manna from heaven. People wept with joy. My father was bedridden with hunger oedema, so my mother went to fetch the food as it was distributed amongst the population. She could only eat a teaspoonful of oats and felt full all day. She was terribly thin.
A few years ago I saw the BBC.’s time watch programme “ the hungry winter” and the tears ran down my face.

On the farm the war had another ending. As for days the Germans withdrew footsore and dishevelled and hungry, blowing up bridges and trees across main roads to impede progress of the Allies, we waited impatiently for them to arrive.

Early one morning, before the curfew was lifted, my cousin and I were woken up by distant voices. I went to the small open window .This was barred so I could not see out. I listened intently and what I heard made me jump up with joy and shout “ the Tommies, the Tommies have come!”.I had heard English words.We hastily dressed, woke my Uncle and Aunt and went out and there about fifty yards up our narrow road, were soldiers in English uniform, looking at a tank that had fallen into the ditch. Two of them came towards us and asked for water. The first English persons to exercise my English on! Luckily I had read English since I was 13 and later followed a course Interpreter/ translator and we could chat away. We had the big farm kitchen full of Tommies. All we could offer was milk, but they brought us tea and chocolate! Such unknown luxuries.! The questions flew to and fro and I translating all the time as no one else spoke English.
.It took another day to get the tank on the road .The recovery tank could hardly pass through the narrow road. The next day a jeep with three Harrys came to the farm, one a press photographer, the second a reporter and the third a driver all with the first name Harry.. They took us six girls to our cousins 15 miles away with their hands on their revolvers as there were Germans still hiding in the woods along the road. We were elated to find the cousins well.
The underground organisation arranged a ball for the tank regiment, where I met my future husband.
We married in November, first the civic wedding at the town hall and then by the army chaplain in the Church of England in Rotterdam, where I had often attended services in my teens.
In February 1946 I came to live in England for good.

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