They're Here! – Robert F. Prette
In April of 2005, Malcolm Malley and his brother, Laurence, took a trip with their father, Ernest Malley, a Veteran of the Second World War, to Holland for the 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Netherlands. They stayed with a host family in Drachten. During their two-week trip they met a Dutch couple, Robert Prette and his wife Anka. Robert recounted numerous captivating stories about his experiences in 1945 when the Germans invaded his home country, Holland. Robert was just nine years old at the time of the invasion. During the time Malcolm and his father were staying in Holland, Robert and Anka took a three-day expedition to Robert's hometown of Lochem to honour the British men who had liberated them back in 1945.
In 2005, Malcolm received a Christmas card from Robert and enclosed was a story written by Robert about his family's experiences the days before, during and after being liberated. This story was originally published in the local newspaper in Lochem for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Liberation and is also displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London, England. Now this exceptional story is being shared with Veterans Affairs Canada as well.
It was cold, a raw, chill-you-to-the-bone type of cold, early that Easter Monday 2 April 1945. The fact that it was Easter and that dismal sprinkles of drizzly rain continued throughout the day, like the bitter cold, completely passed us by.
We were in a whirl of excitement, it was all so overwhelming – especially for a boy of 9 – it was all so different form before. "They're here!" you could hear repeatedly over and over again, as if to say – we knew they would eventually come and now that moment had arrived. And so it happened, at least for me, that 2 April 1945 turned into just as important a day as those other dates, namely, 10 May 1940 (invasion of the German army), 6 June 1944 (Normandy invasion) and 17 September 1944 (airborne landings near Oosterbeek/Battle of Arnhem).
In Lochem there was definitely "something in the air" in the weeks leading up to that memorable second day of April – people were uneasy, the German soldiers were tense and aggressive, der Feind naht, the enemy is coming. But for us der Feind was our friend and as far as we were concerned der Feind couldn't come quickly enough. Allied planes started to get busy in the air and citizens began to stock up on supplies and making their cellars habitable.
Rumours were spreading fast. A lady who lived not far from us maintained that we were going to be liberated by elite troops made up, according to her, of boys from the "very best" families. Be that as it may, the week before Easter we began to notice a kind of exodus of German troops – initially just a trickle, but soon long lines were making their way along the Barchemseweg, which is where I was living at the time. They headed along the main road out of Lochem toward Nieuwstad and then across the bridge over the Twente Canal on the small village of Ampsen. And what a miserable collection of oddities made up this cavalcade, stolen cars and trucks, farm carts (with horses included), baby carriages, wheelbarrows, etc. as well as badly maintained, ramshackle military vehicles. Many soldiers were forced to make their way on foot and were dressed in threadbare and dirty garments that passed for uniforms. What a difference from the spectacle that early morning of 10 May 1940 when the glorious German Army made its way through Nieuwstad along the main road to Zutphen.
In a burst of bravado, my father called out to the column as it stumbled along Seid Ihr das geheime Waffen?, referring to German propaganda to keep its army's morale up that promised a secret weapon that would help turn the tide. One of the soldiers offered a cynical grimace in reply – for many the belief in that possibility had obviously also disappeared. Little by little the stream thinned out and as the Friday (30 March) wore on there was virtually nothing left; a deathly silence took its place, interrupted now and then by aircraft flying over. We had become a kind of no man's land.
As a precaution my parents decided, together with a neighbouring family who were our friends, that we should all go and hide in the cellar under our house – there were nine of us altogether. Best play safe! The cellar had actually been made quite comfortable with layers of thick straw for sleeping on. It even had its own exit to the outside which could be useful, for while we fervently hoped it wouldn't happen, the house could take a hit and collapse.
Evening descended, night fell – a deathly quiet reigned, the quiet before the storm. Saturday, 31 March, the same story. We sneaked out of our cellar and took a quick look round our backyard. Civilians had been ordered by the krauts to remain indoors on pain of being shot. That is what it was like in those days. But all we could hear was birdsong (it was spring).
All of a sudden the silence was shattered by the loud rata-tat-tat of a motorbike. This turned out to be a German dispatch rider who parked his motorcycle in the driveway next to our house and proceeded to peer through his binoculars down the deserted rad in the direction of Barchem. After about five minutes he disappeared again in the direction of Nieuwstad, and his departing message filled us with joy; "Less than 2 days, and the Tommies will be here." He was the very last German we saw in uniform.
That Saturday evening, suddenly the first sounds of whistling grenades – the Allied artillery had started firing from Ruurlo/Barchem on the Germans north of the Twente Canal, directly across Lochem, in other words. It was a terrifying sound which continued to get worse during the day and night that followed (Sunday 1 April). At times the dull rumble of explosions could also be heard as bridges across the Twente Canal and the small electricity substation behind what in those days was the technical school at Nieuwstad were being blown up. Sometimes there were short breaks and we could hear the sound of light reconnaissance planes. As soon as the sound of the small planes had disappeared, the firing would start again. It continued like this all Sunday and Sunday night (1 April). We were almost starting to get used to it as we waited in the spooky light of the small kerosene lamp in our cellar. Around four, half past four-ish that Monday morning (2 April) the firing stopped once again and that sinister silence descended once more. But this time it was different – it remained silent.
After about half a hour to an hour we suddenly heard footsteps – the footsteps of just one person. We could hear the crunching sound of the gravel around the house. No one moved a muscle. We remained huddled together anxiously hardly daring to breathe, when the sound of footsteps stopped right in front of our cellar door. For all we knew it could be the Germans who had come back.
Then, after some seconds that seemed to us more like hours, those words of freedom which I will never forget as long as I live: "Hello, are you alright?" In tears my mother, with me following hot on her heels, rushed up the steps. And there stood a British soldier, his face partly blackened, rifle at the ready, eyeing us up anxiously. He stammered something like "Are there any Germans around?" but my mother threw herself into his arms while his gun clattered to the ground. We were free, we were really liberated! It felt like a dream to me. The soldier was soon joined by another and after reassuring them that there were no Germans in the cellar, my father asked them if there was anything they needed. They were thirsty and asked for some water. I will never forget how my mother handed him the glass but gave it back to her and asked her to drink from it first. He was obviously afraid that it could be poisoned or contaminated. Shortly after, we could hear the sound of caterpillar tracks on the road in front of our house. It came from a couple of so-called Bren carriers, low, light armoured reconnaissance vehicles that were open at the top. My father lifted me up and as I looked down into its dark interior I could see the small dashboard lights gleaming. Full of excitement I yelled out the one and only English sentence I knew and had been taught by my father some months earlier: "Do you have any chocolate for me?" Out of the dark emerged a hand holding a bar of chocolate, an unknown treat for so many years; now I could even taste the liberation. The same hand ruffled my hair and a voice rose up from the dark that said: "You are a free boy now!"
The British moved on but were immediately followed by the Canadians who made themselves at home in Schoonoord hotel that used to be in our street. It all made no difference to us children. For us they were all Tommies and we thought it was wonderful to have them around. But if we thought the war was over for us, we were mistaken.
German grenades suddenly started to rain down on us everywhere in our neighbourhood. One landed in the old church yard an another destroyed the roof of our neighbours' house. One also hit a jeep parked in the garden of the Canadian's hotel and, of course, we just happened to be there moseying around. What I still remember is that I could hear the whistle of incoming grenades, that a pair of strong Canadian soldier's arms grabbed me and dragged me into the hotel entrance where we immediately tripped over other bodies trying to flee to safety. Then an enormous bang, lots of dust and after a while the moaning of a wounded soldier who was carried in through the same entrance on a stretcher with blood pouring from his stomach.
So this is what war is like, I thought, young though I was.
Fifty years on, in the spring of 1995, I was having a cup of tea outside Mondani restaurant on the Graaf Ottoweg with my friend (ex-corporal) Joe Thomas of the Somerset Light Infantry Regiment, then 70 and now 80 years old. We were talking about those days, long ago. There he was, a frightened English corporal of 20, somewhere in a strange place with a name, Hoge Enk, he couldn't even pronounce; and there was I, a frightened Dutch boy of nine, hiding just a little distance away in a cellar. We both survived.
I point to the Graaf Ottoweg in front of us and say: "Fifty years ago you came along this road". He gives me a somewhat amused look and answers with a grin; "They didn't serve tea then, Robert!"
Quietly a tear rolls down my cheek.
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