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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Day 7 - Well Done Granny!

"Once in Belgium, the place was still pretty full of German hordes and other foreign troops for that matter. Thank goodness for that breathing space and babbling brooks in which to dangle our tired and blistered feet and plenty of food and water.  A small, British garrison was left behind on a farm and a friendly soldier now offered us some bully-beef. Before any of us could answer, my grandmother gave an absolute "No". He probably wondered what it was all about!

The feeling from the previous bad confrontation would take some time to go away - considering that we were anglophiles! If a bigger nation like France had to be placated by British politicians, then we certainly thought that they had to put up with their own chicanery - don't expect us to do the dirty work unless we are respected and part of the same set-up, freely, and we would then prove our worth.

Anyway, the farmer looked after us very well, we ate at the same table as in days gone by - Belgians had always been known for this kind of hospitality, it had been an honour to accommodate the stranger in your home and land!  This was about the end of that custom because at the end of the war there was no such thing anymore. The rat race had begun - anything else was tantamount to softness! No more code of honour or hospitality to keep up.

The first long and sound sleep soon engulfed our tired minds and bodies.
After a good breakfast of eggs and boerspek, "Gammon", instead of the weak bowl of coffee with crusts in France that had been introduced, we felt ourselves more rejuvenated again. Some of the soldiers we were now watching near the wagon train and waiting for food were very young.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, over the treetops again, a low flying Dornier came on the scene making them run and jump like rabbits among the cabbages. Luckily, it was too sudden for the pilot and he hadn't observed any of them or had not been ready, maybe he just let them be! Their rifles were standing like tripods, when they came back embarrassment was showing on their faces. Probably, they felt the very same way I had felt near Bredune from the De Panne trip - the day my dad had told me off. They weren't told off!

Everybody goes through the same frustrations and trials, baptism by fire, soldiers and civilians alike. This was more like that than any other war as civilians became more vulnerable from the beginning of the hostilities due to intimidation and psychological warfare...

Leaving this last development behind us we headed surefooted for the coast again at an angle towards the North Sea and reaching the white sand dunes across the nearby fertile polder ground!  We were away from the bulk of the incoming enemy army which was assembling for the final push or rather walk over, we may say so now!

The dunes which were in a straight line formed better protection against bombs as a good deal of the blast got muffled up. We could hide better and look out over the flat land for the approaching enemy coming either by land, air or even sea - the enemy was expected at any minute now!

There was shelter everywhere with occasional visits to farms.  For the time being we felt very free in this last, open strip and corner. If nobody had the foresight to use it - we at least did!  Eventually, we had to leave our dunes to swerve around the town to reach the harbor.  By now, the tram stations along the coastal strip had all been destroyed. Our first real hold up was in front of Nieuwport.

In the evening we arrived at a big farm. Belgian soldiers were already installed and in defensive positions.  They made room for us sharing their meager rations and telling us that, according to the news, this was likely to be their last stand as both our allies had fled. 

As we tried to sleep we could hear the soldiers talking in subdued voices. They were describing the intense battles and skirmishes they had passed through from the beginning and during their retreat - so many comrades wounded and lost without much purpose to it all.  The wages of war I suppose. We fell asleep to the murmer of their voices.

In the morning, after a short breakfast, we gathered ourselves to brace the last kilometers. Not without the soldiers warning us that the Stuka bombers came regularly at 7 O'Clock in the morning to bomb the bridge at the other side of Nieuwport, near the harbour. With this message we thanked them and left, we got through the town safely - very much deserted like everywhere.

When we reached the bridge we noticed everything around was very much in ruins and destroyed except the bridge itself.  There was a Belgian soldier in front of the bridge with a small shelter.  One soldier with a rifle to protect and defend the whole bridge, the town, the harbour and sluices on the west side.  The Germans would reach this point from the north and east.

As predicted, we could hear the Stuka's droning in the distance. "That's them", said the Belgian soldier, now making ready to get in his shelter, "you had better do the same", he said. The dreaded sound was steadily approaching and in the sunlight, the small specks started taking shape in the sky and were heading straight for us! From high above they started spreading out and picking out their respective targets like eagles ready for their dives.

For a moment, I thought we were a bit too visible to make a run for it. It was time to take evasive action and scatter but where? There was not enough room in the shelter! My grandmother was already half way across the bridge but we didn't think it very wise to follow. My mother and I ran back towards the ruins and lay flat behind a wall from where we saw the first plane do its low trial run. My Dad screaming at us, to come back: to what?

Too late anyway and he was now jumping into the shelter as the first bombs started to come down. In between the bombings my mother and I jumped up and made for the first cellar we saw facing us - it was already full with the inhabitants.  Extra room was made for us.

Now the shrieking of the Stuka's and screaming bombs started in earnest, our little shelter shuddering and wobbling like a jelly. Possibly, it only lasted for ten minutes but for us it felt like a life time. Meanwhile, everybody was wondering what was happening to the others who weren't there. 
When it was all over and we heard the planes gradually fading away we climbed out dazed by the smoke and dust.  Now observing the sun through the thick screen of smoke - to me it looked like a scene from the end of the world.

As their air gradually cleared and thanking God and the people in the shelter  we proceeded towards the bridge.   My Dad and the soldier were rising out of the compact hole which had a cover on top and with sides made of sandbags which were piled on top and around the hole.  They were still rubbing their eyes, not believing their luck and again the bridge was intact. Honestly, they couldn't possibly have missed it if they wanted to.

No trace of my grandmother, we thought the worst now, what might have happened to her!  My father said that some shrapnel from a brisant bomb had just missed him while he was shouting at us and then diving for cover, head over tail into the shelter. Everything seemed to be there, the same as before.  I noticed the soldier had a machine gun, maybe that's where the short burst of fire I had heard had come from!  I  hoped that my grandmother was safe, he couldn't have shot her by mistake, surely......"

To be continued ...

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