1st generation New Zealander
I am the grandfather of Olivia Abbott. I was born in the Netherlands in 1934, the oldest of 5 children. I had a twin brother Huug but he died on 13 January 2012 at his home in Almelo, the Netherlands. I also have two sisters, Annelies and Heleen, who live in the Netherlands, and one brother, Caspar, whose home is in Oregon, USA, but who works in Kyrgyzstan.
My father was a civil engineer with the Dutch Ministry (Rijkswaterstaat) that looks after the numerous rivers in the Netherlands. Those rivers are very important for carrying bulky goods, such as coal, grains, cement, etc.
My mother was an artist who painted under her maiden name Helena de Baat, and travelled widely. She visited me twice in NZ. Both my parents have now died, although they lived to a great age. My parents wrote about us as children in a big family book, The Black Book, with lots of photos but that book is in the Netherlands with my oldest sister Annelies.
My family is a patrician family which goes back to about 1550. I come from a long line of engineers and lawyers, but I have a botany PhD from the University of Canterbury, Christchurch which I undertook because I was involved in a nature study organisation during my teens.
Because my father was an engineer, he was initially employed to supervise the construction of locks on the main rivers so that boats could cope with varying water levels, because next to a lock, a weir was usually built to keep the water high enough for navigation. You just can't sail a boat over a weir. I well remember as a small boy of about four that we went with my father to one of those construction sites, and that one of the workmen showed us a hole in a steel plate which he said had been made by a mouse. He tried to trick me but I thought he was just daft. He did not fool me.
My father was also known as the person who proposed the Plofsluis in the Amsterdam-Rhine canal, I think in 1934. That structure was built near Nieuwegein, south of Utrecht, to block that canal and stop shipping when the Germans invaded and also to inundate the lower part of Holland, but it had not been completed in time to be effective. Ironically, it was completed during the German occupation. I have quite a lot of information on this Plofsluis and its construction. It was so solidly built that it was too expensive to demolish, and when the canal needed to be widened in 1981, they just went round it. I visited the structure in September 2011 with my sister Annelies.
When we moved to Nijmegen in 1939, to Kerkstraat 14, we lived in a big 3 storey house on the west side of Nijmegen, in a village called Hees. It is close to the Maas-Waal canal. That village has just celebrated 815 years of its existence in 2011.
This shows our house as it looked in 1939, taken from the street. The name of the house was "De Kamp", and is shown in the vertical metal work below the chimney, to the left of the 6 narrow windows. We lived in the left hand side. You can see our front door. Our neighbours at #12 were in the right hand side, but under the same roof. Their front door was on the side of the house.
There were ponds in front of the house, which is why the entrance gates are over a bridge. We used to make rafts of petrol cans when the water was high enough, but we fell off quite often. The ponds were filled in well after the war. The entrance pillars were wrecked by the English soldiers who drove their trucks onto the section. They were sometimes a bit careless. The pillars were replaced in 1947 and have been made of plain bricks.
This photo shows the garden on the south side, which is the sunny side in Europe. My parents grew a lot of vegetables. We had many fruit trees and even an edible chestnut tree and a hazelnut tree. The pear tree in the story was on the left hand side, just out of the picture. The netting on the very left hand side was for the chicken run. The chickens lived in the gardener's cottage which was no longer occupied, and just a shed for the bicycles etc.
My bedroom and that of my twin brother was at the very top on the right hand side. That is where the transmitter was also located. Later on, I had a long wire strung across the garden so that I could listen to my crystal radio set. The window where my mother and I stood when we saw the Spitfire plane coming towards us, is on the west side of the house, near the corner and above the small apple tree. The big tree in the middle was a horse chestnut tree which was removed very soon after our arrival because it shaded the house too much. For the same reason, the guttering was raised above the doors you see there. There is now a house in this garden.
The third photo from 1939 shows my twin brother Huug on the left and me on the right with a wheelbarrow. Huug holds a hoop with a handle. The tree on the corner of the house grew so big that it was pushing up the foundations of the house and was removed well after the war. It was the tree that the soldiers threw knives into. The Rhododendron bushes to the left of Huug grew very tall and dense so that they were an ideal hiding place, but there was still plenty of room to park army trucks.
In 1940 World War II started for us when the Netherlands were occupied by the Germans. The war did not affect us greatly because although everything was rationed, we usually got enough food with the coupons that were supplied to a family of 5 children. (See also my father's account on the point of rationing). I remember in about 1943 that my father went out to swap a length of heavy rope for a cheese. He went on his bike and tied the cheese to the carrier on his bike, but the cheese being a typically round Dutch cheese, fell off on the way home. My mother was very angry.
We nearly had Germans to live in a spare room of our house, but they thought it was too cold and difficult to heat. If they had stayed with us, it is possible that they might have sent my father away to work in some German factory. On the other hand, he worked for the Rijkswaterstaat, and could have been regarded as indispensable to maintain control of river water levels in his district.
We also had some very cold winters during the forties. It would be so cold that the big river Waal in front of Nijmegen would freeze over, so that you could walk over it, even though it was usually a very rough surface due to broken bits of ice having frozen together. Then my father would have to arrange for an icebreaker to come and break up the ice, so that no dam would form which could damage to the stopbanks (dikes), and cause flooding. His department also had a tugboat which was used to inspect the river. Sometimes we would get a ride on that steamer and I could look at the steam engine and talk to the man who looked after it. Pretty exciting stuff for a young lad.
During the winter, we would drain the water system every night so that the pipes would not burst in the house. Quite often we would have ice on the inside of the kitchen walls. That was because the external walls were solid and did not have an air space in between. "Ice flowers" on the windows were very common and often spectacular. So that we would have water to wash ourselves with in the morning, we would put water in the hand basin of our bedrooms, and next morning, there would often be layers of ice on it, especially when we had the window open. I liked fresh air...!
During the war, our windows were covered at night, so that the light would not show from outside. This made driving at night, or, more usually, riding your bike, was very tricky. There was usually a curfew, so you weren't allowed on the streets at night anyway. The headlights on trucks were reduced to a tiny slit, so one day, a truck took the wrong turn and ended up in a ditch across the road from our house. The truck was laden with Dutch cake, so I don't know how much got stolen before the Germans and the police came to guard the load.
Not only was it very dark at night but the Dutch would also spread nails on the roads so that trucks and other vehicles would get punctures, because such vehicles nearly all worked for the Germans. Petrol was extremely scarce and rationed. I remember trucks having yard brooms tied on the front bumpers to sweep away the nails. They looked very funny. We went to school on the tram in front of our house and we could identify each tram by the screeching sound it made as it went round the corner of the street.
Across from our house was another big house which was occupied by the Germans, or rather young women who worked for the Germans. Every morning they formed a circle around a flagpole with a German flag and would salute it. We often wondered what those young women did. I thought it was creepy.
But in 1944 when it started to look as if the Germans would lose the war because of all the bombing of its cities by the Allied Forces (I remember the vast numbers of bombers coming over on those raids to Germany), Nijmegen got bombed too by the Americans. That was of course a mistake; they thought we were a German city because Nijmegen is very close to the German border. In fact, the Americans thought we were Kleve. This was very poor navigation because the bombing was at about noon on a very clear spring day: 22 February 1944.
I shall never forget that because I could easily have been killed. I was sitting in a tram to go home (we only had school in the morning, because of a lack of teachers; the teachers would teach two groups of pupils: one in the morning; the other in the afternoon), and when the air-raid siren sounded I should have sought shelter in a nearby butcher's shop with an older boy who was sitting opposite me in the tram. But I had left my schoolbag in another shop in town during an earlier air-raid warning which had turned out to be a false alarm. So I was going back to get my schoolbag, thinking that the second air-raid siren was also a false alarm. But the bombs fell immediately and since I was very close to the railway station, always a favourite target, I was dragged into a welding workshop, and was sheltering between acetylene gas bottles, not exactly a very safe place to be. The workshop had corrugated iron walls and they really shook. But when it was all over, I carried on to get my bag, which I duly collected.
By then, the city was on fire and the flames were as high as the houses, so that at the end of a major street, you could only see flames. I was really scared and actually also quite fascinated, but turned round and walked home. My mother was looking for me. She was at home, but could see the smoke from the city being on fire, and worried about what might have happened to me and my younger sister Heleen who was also on the tram. We had not been sitting together, but she survived the bombing too.
My mother found my sister first, but I was nearly home before we saw each other. She had been so worried, but I just said: "What are you worried about?" I had no idea how lucky I was to have survived the bombing. The older boy in the tram had gone into the butcher's shop which got a direct hit and he was killed, along with many others who sought shelter there. His name was Antoon Ponten. My father was away on that day for his work, and did not find out till later. He described the bombing in The Black Book, a week after the event. I have now translated his account, which you can read here.
On 17 September 1944, the British and American troops reached Nijmegen and it was liberated, but it became a frontier city for 7 months. It was the last city to be freed in the well-known Operation Market Garden with its Battle of Arnhem, which the airborne troops could not hold against the German tanks that happened to be nearby. I remember American airborne troops coming past our house, walking very quietly in their rubber boots. They had been dropped south of Nijmegen near Groesbeek.
We offered them pears from our pear tree. First they were suspicious: these kids could try to poison us, but soon they enjoyed eating that fresh fruit and gave us real chocolates in exchange. That was such a luxury. We had not seen real chocolate for years. Later on, tanks, most probably Sherman tanks, came through our street, and we saw how they cooked their food in half a drum that they filled with sand, then put petrol on, and then set on fire. When the flames started to die down, they would poke the sand, and things would heat up again.
On 26 September 1944, my mother and I were standing behind a window at the back of our house, looking out over the farmlands, when a Spitfire which had been shot, came straight for us. We had no time to run away and thought "this is curtains". But the pilot must have seen us, just as we could see him, and at the very last moment, he managed to pull up his plane sufficiently, so that he did not crash on our house. But he did crash in the village, and died near the little St Peter's church. Three Dutch civilians also died in that crash.
It took me years to find out who he was, but I succeeded: he was Pilot Officer John Robert Brodby who flew in the 16th RAF Air Reconnaissance Squadron which took aerial photos for strategic planning. He is buried at Jonkerbos War Cemetery, grave 17-G-3. Flight lieutenant Jimmy Taylor of that squadron wrote to me about John Brodby and sent me a photo. I even managed to phone his last surviving sister in Britain, shortly before she died, thanks to the help from Wing Commander (Ret.) Keith Corrans.
Because we had such a big house, we had British Commonwealth soldiers quartered in our house: I think there were 23 of them at one stage. They were British, Irish and Scots, and a few Canadians. We slept in the cellar under the house, so they could occupy as many rooms as they liked. The soldiers turned out to be an intelligence unit which helped to get the airborne troops back from Arnhem through no-man's land.
They had to cross two big rivers, Rhine and Waal, and they had inflatable canoes to do that, but they found that they were so noisy on the water that the Germans could hear them at night and shoot at them. So then the soldiers "acquired" all the canoes from a local Dutch canoe club. Those wooden canoes were much quieter on the water so they were successful in bringing back some soldiers from the Battle of Arnhem.
After our soldiers left some seven months later, we were left with a big pile of canoes. The police came round and thought that we had stolen them. We said: "The English soldiers did it. Please take the canoes away". And they did.
The officers of the soldiers stayed with our neighbours, but we reckoned we had a much better deal, and certainly a lot more fun. Being soldiers from an intelligence unit, they had a big transmitter in what was actually the bedroom of my brother and me. That transmitter was important enough for the Germans to pinpoint its location, so they sent a flying bomb, a V-1, to obliterate it.
Fortunately they got the distance sufficiently wrong so that the bomb missed us by about half a kilometre and dropped into the farmland behind our house. It still created a lot of damage: blowing out windows and making the ceilings come down. You might say a bit like a big earthquake.
In addition, the soldiers had portable transmitters which had been built into petrol cans, called "Jerry cans", because the Germans designed them first. I am sure that they took such transmitters with them when they were dropped behind enemy lines to gather information or sabotage things. They also used the transmitters to listen in on German messages, and with the help of a Dutch woman, they would reply with erroneous messages to lead the Germans "up the garden path".
When the soldiers sent messages in code to their headquarters, we could not make any sense of the code because it used common words, like 'sugar' and 'tea'. We saw that they had the key code on a piece of cloth so that they could swallow it if they got caught by the Germans. We also had a big tree on the corner of our house, which the soldiers used for practising throwing their knives. That was to kill German sentries. Since the soldiers were part of SHAEF, several had the famous rainbow badge of that Force; they were very proud of it.
One day, my mother had put a green camouflage parachute in the garden to dry it on the grass. She got a big telling off from the soldiers because a spotter plane could easily see that from the air and possibly betray the presence of the intelligence unit. She was very firmly told never to do that again. My mother used the parachute silk to make summer pyjamas. She made several pairs and wore them for years because they were very strong and lasted well. She also made clothes for us out of army clothing. I managed to get the stripes of a sergeant, but my twin brother who was smaller, was only a corporal.
The soldiers lived mainly in the front room of our house which had an open fire. The winter 1944-45 was an extremely cold winter so that the first English that I learnt was: "Shut that bloody door", and in those days it was very rare to use the word 'bloody', which just goes to show how cold it was. The words were certainly said very emphatically.
We also had lounge chairs in that room, which did not stand up to too many soldiers sitting in them at one time, so that one of the arms of the chair came adrift. Then they would just swing the armrest out and say "come and join us". One day, one of the soldiers had a .303 bullet in his pocket and just threw it into the fire, so it promptly exploded, and wrecked one side of the fireplace. It was very lucky that the bullet shot out sideways.
Because it was such a cold winter, they always had a really hot fire going. It was so hot that at least a square metre of the matting on the floor just crumbled away, but at least they were warm. When the coal started to run low, they would go to the east of Nijmegen where there were a lot of steam laundries because of the clear water from brooks. That area was still heavily shelled by the Germans, and thus very dangerous.
One day, my mother asked them to bring some bikes for us, so they came back triumphantly with their vehicle stacked high with bikes. This vehicle was a DUKW amphibious vehicle, built on a jeep chassis. But they were German bikes, and as true Dutch citizens, we refused to ride on them, even though they had good tyres. One of the soldiers had managed to pick up a top hat somewhere so the driver came back without his usual helmet or beret. We thought he looked very funny with his top hat.
In the front room, the soldiers also had crates of phosphor hand grenades. Even they were scared of them, and they threw several into the watery ditch in front of our house. But that ditch has since been filled in so they are well and truly buried.
In the garden, I found a brass 20 mm cartridge case with the 1944 marking "K 2" on it. I took it with me to NZ. Mr Arjen Kuiken told me that it means that this aircraft munition was made at the ICI factory in Kynoch, Standish near Wigan, Lancs, UK. It was used in Spitfires and Typhoons.
In the fields behind our house were some large guns which fired towards Germany. They were probably 4.5" guns because their cartridge cases were very large, about 90 cm tall, and so heavy that we loaded the empty ones into a wheelbarrow. The neighbours' sons, who were several years older, could hardly lift the whole shell. The brass cartridge cases could be made into ash trays or stands, or dustpans. One of the soldiers in our house made one for my mother. I have got it here now. I think my mother painted a picture of the soldier who made that dustpan.
I also remember that one day, one of their trucks (I think it was a 15 cwt Bedford) had a bullet hole in the passenger door, but the bullet had gone out of the door, not into the door. What had happened? It turned out that the passenger had been somewhat drunk and decided to fire his pistol through the door as they were driving along. It gave the driver one hell of a fright, and the rogue no doubt one hell of a laugh.
The soldiers had to eat too of course, and since power was off quite often, they would cook on the coal range that we had as well as an electric stove. Just like the front room with its open fire, they would have such hot fires in that coal range, that after a while it needed replacing. My mother asked them to bring back a replacement, which they did, again stolen from Germany. But we did not mind a German coal range, unlike those German bikes.
We were very lucky that we had plenty of food, thanks to the soldiers, because my brother and I were nearly teenagers, and thus needing lots more food. I remember the big square loaves that they had, brought from some army bakery no doubt. It was white bread and tasted great. We also made porridge with the oatmeal they had. Again we thought it had a wonderful taste but when we made some more several months later with the same ingredients, it did not taste anywhere near as nice, possibly we did not put so much milk powder in it, and just plain milk instead. I also remember the tins of bacon with cellophane in between so that it was easy to unroll and fry. That was delicious.
The soldiers would sometimes have great chunks of meat on the kitchen bench. Without a fridge, it could get somewhat smelly. Sometimes we were allowed to come along with them in their army truck to get supplies, as long as we hid very carefully when they had to go through a sentry point. That was very exciting.
In our kitchen, we had a large Wedgwood dinner service with the blue Wedgwood Pearl water nymph design which had been in the family for several generations. I think the pattern dates from 1840. It had so many plates that the soldiers just used them and then biffed them out of doors. They had no idea how valuable that dinner service was. My mother very soon put a stop to that habit.
When the Germans fought back in the Ardennes Counter-offensive, usually called "The Battle of the Bulge", which took place from 16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945, it started to look at one stage as if the Allied troops might have to withdraw from Nijmegen. It was a very worrying time. When it was all over, the soldiers told my mother that they would have taken us with them, since we had had an intelligence unit in our house. They felt that the Germans would have interrogated us very severely, even though we did not know much. It is likely that my mother knew a lot more, although she never talked about it, and I never asked her.
My father, being a river engineer, volunteered as a liaison officer in October 1944 to help the Royal Engineers with all the rivers that the Army still had to cross - "The Opposed Crossing of Water Obstacles" - before they could invade Germany. When the Maas at Gennep was 280m wide, my father correctly forecast that a fortnight later it would be 1,222 m. Thus, he helped to design the longest floating Bailey bridge ever built during WW2: it was a Bailey Pontoon Bridge, over 1 km long (1,222 metres, or 4,008 ft) and was built just north of Gennep by seven Army Troop Engineers (part of the British Second Army Corps). It was a Class 40 bridge. The building of this bridge took the lives of 92 British soldiers because of German sniper attacks.
The bridge needed to be so long because the river Maas was in full flood, and it had to be crossed at that moment, because that was when the Army had planned to invade Germany. The bridge was open for use on the night of 19 February 1945. We did not see much of my father, who was now a lieutenant, and had started to grow a little moustache. We thought he looked funny with that moustache, but also impressive in his uniform.
I found all this out from the Royal Engineer who worked with my father. His name is Major Ted Hunt and his commanding officer was Brigadier "Ginger" Campbell, Chief Engineer, Second Army. After the crossing near Gennep, my father and Major Hunt designed the crossing of the Rhine near Xanten in Germany; the bridge was opened on 24 March 1945. Then they said goodbye to each other in mid-April. Major Hunt wanted to visit my father after the war. He went to my father's office, and was told "he is no longer with us". The Dutch person meant to say that my father worked somewhere else, but the Major thought that he had died. Due to that terrible misunderstanding, the Major never saw my father again, although he lived till 1994.
Before the war had ended and the soldiers had left, my mother managed to keep quite a lot of their supply of tinned food. She kept it for years in the cellar for another "rainy day" which never came. I am not sure what she did with those tins because I had left by then. I might have cleared them out in 1974, when I came back to the Netherlands for the first time, after 16 years in New Zealand.
In spite of my many narrow escapes during the war, our family lived on the "quiet side" of Nijmegen, well away from the fierce fighting on the east side of the city. Only recently did I become aware of how fierce that fighting had been.
I studied tropical agriculture in Deventer, and would have gone to the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, to become a plantation manager, or something like that. But the Dutch were of course not very popular in Indonesia which had finally become independent, so the college became an emigration school.
I decided to go to New Zealand, and realised before I left that if you knew something about grass, you could not go wrong in NZ, because its economy was based on grass. So I worked for a Dutch grass profesor before I left, and got an introduction via one of his colleagues who had recently attended an International Grasslands Congress at Massey, to the Grasslands Division of DSIR at Palmerston North.
I left on 12 January 1958 and after 4 days of flying, arrived in Auckland on 16 January. It was a beautiful sunny day with lots of flowering bougainvillea eveywhere. Then the next day I travelled by steam train to Palmerston North to start work. I have never looked back.