In the summer of 1963, when I was 10, my parents took me on yet another wet camping holiday in England. This time it was Hayling Island in Dorset. Facilities in those days were pretty basic. I remember a sharply-sloping field with little else and lots of rain. My father had just taken delivery of his first ever brand-new car, a Vauxhall Viva HA. It was salmon pink — that really was the colour and that’s really what they called it. The Viva range had only been released earlier that year, he was so proud of this ghastly little car, tiny, made of cardboard with a lawn-mower engine and audibly rusting even before he’d taken the plastic covers off the plastic seats. Cars in those days were pretty basic too.
My father had just taken delivery of his first ever brand-new car, a Vauxhall Viva HA. It was salmon pink.
Remember, this was less than twenty years after the end of the war. Foreign holidays were only for the wealthy few, the package holiday was yet to be invented, and the caravan and camping industries were in their infancy. Everyone else had old army ridge tents or bell tents, but we had a frame tent, unheard of at that time. My uncle Harry (the “Walker” in Dad’s Army to my dad being “Pike”) had recently started to import this innovation from France, a giant blue thing with no windows and we were road testing it for him. So, what with that and his Viva my Dad rightly felt himself somewhat in the vanguard with regards to the latest technology, very much ahead of the pack. Remarkably, though, and somewhat unnervingly, the next day another new Viva arrived on the campsite, the only other one we’d seen, and it was also in Salmon Pink but left hand drive. The family then proceeded to put up a frame tent next to ours. It was too much for Dad to resist so he went across to say ‘hello’. I can see him now, striding across the wet grass in his shorts and wellies, pipe in his mouth and waving cheerfully at the strangers. Thereby started a lifelong bond with the Dutch couple who were to become my parents’ closest and dearest friends for more than 50 years, and my friendship with their two daughters that lasts to this day.
Frans and Anni lived in Rotterdam, he was in insurance, she was a mum – a job description possibly not used or recognised as much these days but which the calm and gentle Anni personified to perfection. Their daughter Lisca was a year older than me, and Anneke was a year younger. The clouds parted miraculously and that innocent summer holiday is remembered by us all as an endless stream of sunny days on the beach and communal family meals eaten on our laps around the tents – fish and chips from the local town, stews cooked slowly on Primus stoves, huge lumps of bread, fruitcake brought with us from home, tinned peaches with evaporated milk — this was all before the age of the barbecue. After Monopoly and cards, I lay in my camp bed and listened to the grown-ups as they sat outside in the dark around a hurricane lamp, sharing stories and getting to know each other. To this day I remember the gentle Dutch accents and muted voices as this quiet and unassuming couple talked to my parents about their war years. Their stories lodged forever in my young imagination, both horrifying and fascinating in equal measure.
Fish and chips from the local town, stews cooked slowly on Primus stoves, huge lumps of bread, fruitcake, tinned peaches — this was all before the age of the barbecue.
Frans was in his early teens when Rotterdam was invaded. The occupying forces stripped the city, the population was left ravenous, the Jewish inhabitants including many of their friends were being shipped out in increasing numbers, to where no one knew. Each night, with his parents’ blessing, Frans had to eat whatever family food remained, in front of his starving younger brothers and sisters, so that he alone had the energy to go out scavenging for the next day’s rations — whatever he could find in the night was all they ever had. The winters were the worst, he said, the coldness all-consuming and the hunger relentless. Then after a couple of years he was taken into forced labour and spent the rest of the war in primitive work camps across Europe. Again, he said, the winters were the worst, almost unbearable. It was only when the Allied Forces were victorious, and peace came that he was free to return to his native Rotterdam, where he met and married Anni and together they settled back into whatever normal life they and everyone else could make in the ravaged city.
Anni lived with her parents in Rotterdam and stayed there throughout the war, enduring the terrible conditions and years of deprivations of every sort. Her parents hid Jews in their attic; Anni’s job, herself only just a teenager, was to walk out at night with these young men, in the quiet darkness of the city’s occupied streets, pretending to be lovers, risking her own life so that these refugees could get a minimum of exercise and fresh air.
The harsh winter of 1944-45 is known by the Dutch as the Hongerwinter (“Hunger Winter”) when some 30,000 people starved to death in the Netherlands. By early 1945, the situation was growing desperate for the three million or more Dutch still living under the control of the occupying forces. There remained nothing in Rotterdam, not even in the black market. There were no dogs or cats left on the streets. Anni and her family were reduced to eating fried tulip bulbs, it was all there was. To relieve the Dutch famine, in what became known as Operation Manna, over the period 28 April – 8 May 1945 squadrons of RAF bombers dropped food supplies to the Dutch population in enemy-occupied territory. Over 3,000 sorties were flown, dropping some 7,000 tons of food to the desperate Dutch people. Anni was there, she remembered everyone rushing out to collect the parcels as the parachutes rained down on the city. But discipline was strict, the parcels were to be brought back to distribution centres to be equally shared, some collapsed and died of hunger even as they were carrying food back for their communities.
Over 3,000 sorties were flown, dropping 7,000 tons of food to the desperate Dutch.
At last the famine and the war ended. She met Frans, they married and started a family. But their experiences created in her and her husband an all-consuming Anglophilia which they passed on to their kids. Their annual holidays in Britain were all part of the gratitude and respect they held for the nation they saw as their saviours.
Our families met regularly over the years, the love and respect our Dutch friends showed towards us and our country was humbling. Our parents grew old together; only Anni is left now, still in her own home, fiercely independent and spirited to this day. I feel privileged to have had these brave people in my life. They gave me an insight into the suffering experienced by countless millions across the world on both sides of any divide, then and now. They put a human face to the stories we’ve all read. I shall never forget this lovely couple. The tales they told, heard through the thin canvas of a tent more than half a century ago, will remain lodged with me forever; my own children have heard them, too, but second hand from me. History was told to me directly by those who were there, it can never be more powerful than that. Our country was never occupied. We can never imagine the horrors that so many innocents experienced directly at the hands of others then, and experience today in so many different theatres around the world. Our lives in the first world are blessed, and only possible because of the sacrifices of so many who went before us.
History was told to me directly by those who were there, it can never be more powerful than that.
The girls eventually came to England to work, they both married Englishmen and have spent the rest of their lives in England. Over the years, every time either of them moved home, Frans always paid to have a brand-new central heating system fitted regardless, and then paid all their fuel bills directly. Each month Anni sent a small housekeeping allowance to each daughter. These are the two small acts of love that still bring tears to my eyes when I recall them – Frans had promised himself that no child of his would ever be cold, and Anni that no child of hers would ever go hungry.
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Thank you for reading my blogs. I’m getting quite old now, and hopefully I’m a little wiser than I once was. I have enjoyed a fascinating career full of fascinating people, and made many great friendships. I’ve made huge errors in my lifetime, and enjoyed great success too – it’s been the ultimate game of snakes and ladders - up and down, round and round. It is my privilege to share some of my stories with you, and describe some of the lessons I’ve learned in the hope that it may both save you from falling into the same holes, and help you in your careers and lives. Good luck and good fortune.