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Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Day 125 - Left in the Dark, May 10, 1940 - Belgium!

"In May 1940, Dunkirk, the biggest Churchill defeat of the lot....Letters between Churchill and the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, revealed the ugly truth that Churchill, himself, gave the secret order to Lord Gort, the British General in command of the British expeditionary force at Dunkirk, "Withdraw, fall back," or as Churchill put it, "Advance to the coast." That was Churchill's wording. "And you are forbidden to tell any of your neighboring allies that you are pulling out. The French and the Belgians were left in the dark that we were pulling out."

I just found the above information on the Internet.  Churchill's decision had a big impact on my family in Belgium fThe most profound thing I have learned from my Dad's memoir and subsequent readings is that life is very random!

From May 10, 1940 onwards my dad, his family and the Belgian and French people were left very much in the dark and initially had to rely to a great extent on their own resourcefulness to survive what they were confronted with as events continued to unfold ...........

Day 124 - Belgian Buchenwald Survivor!

Have just got back from a trip to Europe to visit my mother!  I was able to read a family tree book that she has in  her possession.  My maternal grandfather's family also came from Belgium and settled in London during World War One as refugees.  Yes, my mum and dad are related, which is something I had a bit of trouble coming to terms with until recent times! 

My grandfather on my Mum's side and my Dad's side were both Flemish!  The family tree book traces their common ancestors back to one man from Bruge, now Belgium, mid 1500's, who had four children.  Surreal to see photos of my ancestors staring out at me through the generations! 

I am not sure how this blog is going to continue and what form it is going to take - I will think about that later.  I am still jet lagged and consequently not thinking very clearly.

During my trip,  I visited Spain, France and Italy and was very close to Morroco.  I had time to reflect on some of the experiences my Dad mentioned about Morroco and World War II.  

I was very pleased to see a monument in the harbour at Ajaccio!, Corsica, dedicated to, Resistance Fighters from WWII.  I took some pictures - my dad would have liked that!!! I also visited Rome and Tuscany which included Florence and Pisa in Italy - loved that too!

I feel I should mention my maternal grandmother and her family as they also have had a great and interesting background.  The family tree book describes my maternal grandmother as a "cockney" - she was brought up in London, England - all her family and remaining family were can be very Londonish!!

My maternal grandmother spent a lot of her youth round and about The British Museum and The Strand in central London.  In an article in the, London, "Sunday Times",  my uncle described his mother as a feisty lady - she was alive at the time and took offence to that description!!! 

It is very interesting through reading the family tree to learn about  ancestors from the past.  It would appear that some family patterns and (dare I say, idiosyncracies)  and characteristics have coincidentally!!!???? manifested themselves again and again in future generations, Surreal!!!!!!!!!!!

For new readers this blog starts at Day 1 and is the story of my dad's war experiences during World War II from a Belgian POW's perspective. 

Coindidentally, I met someone yesterday, who mentioned to me that he has never come across anybody who had a family member  who survived a German concentration camp experience and was not Jewish - he is 70 years old!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Day 123 - I have fixed the blog as sometimes it is not visible!

I apologize - sometimes this blog is or has been blanked out in white.  I have fixed it now - there seems to a bug in the system!

For anybody new,  Day 1 - Day 123 are blogs of my Dad's memoir.  Day 1 is the beginning of his story.  The blog is mostly about his experiences in the Second World War as a Belgian political prisoner in France, Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.  

Day 122- Finally settling down!

"My fiancee and soul mate now asked me to come and get married in England.  I was 25 years old!  On an earlier occasion,  with a ring I had purchased in Antwerp with my first month's wages, I had made a quick dash to England with an engagement ring - I was 25 years old! 

For our wedding day in England, the hall was booked, the guests invited and the cake brought over from South Africa - things still being short in England!

At the time, Belgium being slow with permissions due to Napoleonic Laws we had to post a notice in the town hall in Ostend, Belgium.  We also had to obtain special permission to get married.

In addition, we went to Church House, Borough of Westminster, London, England, where I swore on the bible and became an accepted Anglican.

My career in the Navy was over and I could now look forward to a shore life with all the responsibilities of a large family.  I ended up with four lovely girls and a boy.............................

Will be continuing this blog with my Dad's manuscript about our his adventures in South Africa and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia)!

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Day 121 - Casablanca and American ciggaretes!

"When we arrived in Casablanca there seemed to be a curfew going on and some trouble.  I had not time to wait for the Pursor to get an advance on my salary. So, I borrowed loose change from my dear friends and also tucked a couple of  packages of American cigarettes under the collar of a raincoat which I then put over my arm.   At that time, American cigarettes were still the best collateral!

Morroco was a protectorate of France and the cigarettes and raincoat as well as my Belgian passport worked well!   Anyway,  I made for Irene's address - not before getting some flowers, which to my surprise had used up all my change when I asked the price, so I threw the bunch back to the Arab vendors and made a run for it taking no notice of the screaming sellers.

Arriving at the house, I was told that Irene was at the cinema, so I bought my way into the show using a pack of cigarettes and with the aid of an usher found her.  Her welcome was warm and hospitable and I told her I was engaged.  She said that I should name my first daughter Irene - my second daughter was eventually so called!  I cannot remember the names of her children!.

The last thing I remember looking at, before leaving Casablanca, was the Casbah.  Lots of men were walking around there hand in hand, which Irene said was quite usual.  She also warned me to watch out for sexually transmitted diseases. 

Soon after we left  we heard that the Atlantic plateau between Safi and Agadir had moved upwards and had caused an earthquake that killed at least two thousand people.  It was a good thing we were away from there at that moment!  After that I never heard from my family in Morroco again.

On our return trip, Roger and I made it back to Ostend.  We later got taken on for the cargo boats by; Maritime Belge in Antwerp.  They respectively sent us off to Angola and the Congo.  I was assigned to Lobito and Roger to Matadi in the Congo stream - a climate Roger could not tolerate.

After that trip, he got married and forever stayed ashore.  For me, it was only the start, the sea was good to me, good money, a home and an appetite like a horse".

To be continued ...

Day 120 - Ports of call Lisbon and Casablanca!

"The ship was waiting and we sprang aboard ready to sail.  Later, my cousin Irene had undertaken the 200 km. trip to meet me.  Unfortunately, she didn't reach Safi before we sailed again and were gone with wind!  The "Gella" now took us north.  On the next voyage we were scheduled to stop in Casablanca so I wrote to my cousin Irene and told her the news. 

We arrived back safely in Ghent with the boat was on a bit of a tipping angle as the load had moved to one side on the high seas.  We had a bit of mutiny going on - the daily meal was always mutton and nothing but mutton every day!  So, we circled around from the kitchen, in indian file, and went bleating to the Captain until we got his promise of a change in our diet.  We went out in Ghent and had a very good time and then went home.

Before our return trip we tried out the lifeboats  - that was a bit of a trial.  Some were leaking, others were lacking plugs and some of the pumps were not working.  In the Gulf of Biscay we floated around without power until John took action.  He had to swim down and under in the engine room to open valves and release the water that had come in to the boat.  He had to keep releasing water until everything was working properly again.

On the next voyage we first went to Lisbon - we had a better time than on our previous time and this time visited the fairgrounds and The Alexander Bar.  Our biggest difficulty proved to be finding our way around town.  The Portuguese woman were very inhibited but we got to the bar eventually and had a good time.  Lisbon looked pretty new and different to us - they now had a lift tram climbing up the side of the cliffs.

Alongside the big seafarers statue we boarded the old "Gella"and again sailed the north coast making for Casablanca but this time we left early in the morning!

To be continued ...

Friday, 6 July 2012

Day 119 - Enchanting Beauty in Africa!

"Even Hano the Carthagenian is supposed to have reconnoited these parts.  That was before the destruction of Carthage by the Romans who sailed as far as the Runeni River near South Africa.

They kept their routes secret until some survivors from the catalyst used them to escape.  They were under orders from an Admiral called, Harrakuk.  After this incident, the maps vanished from the old world view completely and were forgotten for the time being!

With these thoughts I fell happily into a satisfied sleep, with the certainty that the next morning I would find the first opportunity to jump ashore and explore the surrounding area - which I did with my mates.

Phosphate was blown into the holds and we would depart from Safi quicker than we envisaged.  We quickly explored the hills of the Atlas -  ending at the location we were at with the Sahara desert behind it.

We had our first glimpse of one camel with a hump, we had a bet on and wanted to prove, using a photo, how many humps it had.  The picture on the back of  a packet of camel cigarretes hadn't been very convincing for some! 

We actually found two camels with their drivers ready to enter the interior over the hills, to join a caravan.  The fellows posed for us and we placed the biggest disbeliever in the middle - in front of the camel.  When the picture was developed the Dane blended in with the hump and we couldn't see it!

After returning to the ship and letting my cousin Irene in Casablanca know I was in Safi, I came across a Morrocan veiled girl in a Chemist shop, she was  guarded by two armed guards and a chaperone.

Whilst the guards were outside, I tried on some sunglasses.  Looking in the mirror, the girl now dropped her veil - the beauty of this girl was enchanting and also forbidden.  We later heard that two other members of our crew had experienced an unpleasant encounter at a mosque when they had tried to enter.

We rushed back to the ship not giving it any more thought and we took a last photo of a Moslem cemetary amongst the roundish gravestones, some were just headstones.  I got stung by one of the cactus plants along the borders and this was painful, just like a bee sting.

To be continued ...

Day 118 - Africa for the first time!

"We had to walk a long way along the promenade in order to find a bar to help us forget our grief.    We met up with some other Swedish shipmates and with them they had their top prize, a tall Swedish counterpart, a female, "Sparks".  In no time at all, after a few drinks, the fighting started -  so I made off with my mates as it was not our business.

The trip now proceeding close to the Portugese coast gave us a lovely view of the mountains and the water became clearer too, almost transparent so that we were able to see the propellors.
Shoals of dolphins were capering along with us and as we turned the point, near the Gulf of Cadiz, great butterflies came visiting us on board. 

In this manner, we crossed to Morocco, taking a big longtitudenal sweep and a day later, by eventide, pointing the stern straight towards Safi we sailed ahead - this was an unforgettable view.  The ancient fortifications, minarets from the Mosques in the distance, all whitewashed and clearly silhouetted against the dark azure blue sky, with the purpleness of the distant mountains in the last feeble reflections of a sinking sun beyond the horizon.

We had done this trip a thousand years ago, surely it was familiar, and we could hear the deep singing and accompaniment of the Viking band from down below.  I wouldn't have missed these moments for anything in the world as I was a bit of an artist in my school days.  I could have painted on the canvas forever and ever............

I kept on enjoying it until darkness overcame this lovely setting.  For the first time, we entered the harbour for a good night's rest. Now under the dome of the African cloudless sky - getting a better view of the multitude of stars, listening to the melancholy sound of the Berber music and the singing in Arabic from the distance quarter of this ancient town. 

In a bygone age, Safi, had been used as a Moorish recruiting centre for the invasion of Southern Spain - the pirates of the Barbary coast also having had their heyday in this era".

To be continued

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Day 117- Edward and an unsung hero!

"I was now seeing Cherbourg from a totally different viewpoint than during the war, the place of memories for me and events contributing to the landings later on.

John and the first engineer went ashore with a pilot boat to get some spare parts.  The damage was fixed in no time and we could proceed towards the Gulf of Biscay, having narrowly missed one of the worst hurricanes since 1927.

I dried my washing in the middle of  The Gulf  thinking of one of my uncles who had lost his life in this approximate area -  that was during the war of  1914 - 1918. 

The troop transport they had been travelling aboard had been torpedoed on its way to South West Africa. My uncle had knocked his head when one of the life boats had snapped - he lost consciousness before hitting the water. Somebody had helped keep him afloat for a while but to no avail.

I was a child when I heard this story in the old Cafe on the Sas and my grandmother cried.  Young Edward had been the only one in the family who couldn't swim and my grandmother said, "maybe he could have been saved if he had been able to swim"!

Young Edward was a very good singer and the darling of the girls at the time.  My grandmother gave me his banjo.  However, I never made good use of it - somehow, it was all Edwards and I could never take a note on it but I loved it when my Dad did.

From Cape Finisterreto Cape Hatteras on the Spanish coast of Galecia the Celtic part we sailed along noticing the fishing fleet had all their flags at half mast.  So many boats had been suddenly overwhelmed during the storm and had not been able to save themselves.

We entered Oporto to dock at Leixius where we noticed a general strike was going on, it was still the time of  The Dictator.   The next day, we were talking to the secret police who had come aboard our vessel.  Suddenly, the army appeared in vans and took the strikers away with them.

We asked one of  the secret police what would happen to the strikers, he answered, "they go on the next boat to Mozambique"! 
Old ways die hard, here they were still very much alive.

To be continued ...

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Day 116 - Rough Seas!

"The try out for our vessel was to find out how well the ship stood up to all conditions and of course price!  The greater the faults the lower the sales price.  We carried some individuals on board who seemed pretty suspicious in their intentions.

Our first voyage was characterized by one of the biggest storms in memory in which we were nearly thrown back on the Isle of Wight.  One side of the ship had conked out resulting in considerable loss of power; while turning in the wind and strong tides there to tackle up in it - we nearly capsized!!!The boat being flimsily loaded with cement bags for ballast - The first engineer was a former Polish submarine captain they said.

Anyway, during the second wave, pondering, before we had time to right ourselves that was the crucial moment.  I could see the dangerous angle in the engine room and a loose spare piston managed to jump out of its attachment missing us by a mere couple of feet.

The Polish engineer kept his hand up to give us a chance to make it to the upper deck, if necessary, from the upper railings.  At that moment, the ship started going back and not further down the danger level.

They told us later that it had been a close one!  Some of the inland mates were nearer to tears than us, we now started singing old but still known sea-shanties, releasing our pent up feelings.

We enjoyed singing and felt proud of our sea spirits which we kept high; it was in the blood they used to say.  With the salt spray now in our hair and our faces, we sailed straight ahead  at a steady pace  towards Cherbourg for repairs in calmer waters near the harbour but still out at sea.

To be continued ....

Well written memoirs

Excellent memoirs!! I started reading them around 9 pm and could not stop reading, only around 1:00 am when I was finally too tired to continue.


Monday, 2 July 2012

Day 115 - Helle-a! AN OLD VIKING CALL!!

"For myself, Madame Denile had offered to get me a job on the Sabena, as a radio-operator or sparks, after following the one year higher level institute in Brussels.  My Aunt Helen was also trying to help get me a job by tying to get her husband to offer me half shares in his plumbing business.

I had quite a few other offers.  However, they were not quite as  straightforward as the ones above.  One idea was suggested by my Aunt Ray and Cousin Irene who lived in Morrocco - their plan was to get me a job in a machine shop in either Casablanca or Rabat. 

In the end I chose my own way - I wanted to do my own bit - which turned out to be to join The Merchant Navy.

My first ship was to Ghent, S.S. Helle-a.  They needed people who had completed trade school and had experience with motor engineering on trawlers.  After the war, there was a shortage of skilled tradesmen in those categories.  My friend Roger and myself studied the trawler exams.  Roger had been taken over to England during the war and had come back to Belgium as a Petty Officer in The Navy.  

The ship we were to sail in was a beauty!  It was an old ship and on each side had a twin motor capacity of 12,000 H.P.   The ship had been named after an old viking call: "Helle-a", which was uttered before, The Vikings, disembarked from their ships and claimed land.  Similar to the past, she was manned by a crew of  Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Dutch and Flemings.  

She had been sold to, The Chemical Union in Belgium and our destination was Morroco.  Our purpose was to pick up phosphate and then later sail to to India, to collect bones, -  as there were many available there, then.

To be continued ...

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Day 114 - Leon Degralle/ Revisions and edits!!!

Daniel was eventually caught for his crime at the Army and Navy store through the co-operation of  two government institutions,  The British Military Police and The Belgian Special Police or Gendarmes.

With his loot he had decided to live it up and helped give himself away by his illustrious living -  splashing his money  around in cafes of ill repute with Madams and their girls -  who sometimes robbed him when he was drunk!  

As a group, we had also come up with a plan to kidnap Leon Degralle, known Rexist blackshirt leader.  We had found out that he was temporarily in hiding in Bilbao, Spain.  Together with other Nazi's from the Eastern Front - he had landed in Bilbao after a belly landed Dornier flight.

We had also heard that he was going to undergo face lift surgery to change his appearance.  We had learned that he was then going to proceed on transportation to South America, so we had to hurry up with our plan!

The idea had been to travel with a fishing boat or small yacht to Bilbao.  I had a friend from Buchenwald called Coublanc and I was going to purchase a boat from him in Sable D'Olonne

Part of our plan was to visit Daniel's uncle in Pithivier and then to casually proceed from there to Bilbao.  We had a nice visit with  Daniel's uncle and were glad to find that everybody had survived .  We learned that just before the end of the war, Daniel's family had been hiding in the forest just behind where they lived.

We then continued towards the coast, the old route!  Coublanc was back to work fishing and working on a trawler.  When we went to visit him he told us that we could stay at his home with his wife and children.  

We then visited a lot of old families that Daniel knew very well.  Many of them had not been as lucky as Daniel and I and there was a lot of tear shedding for their loved ones who hadn't returned - it may well have been, in many cases, that we were the last people from home to have seen their loved ones alive! 

Anyhow, our plan to bring Leon Degralle to justice had to be aborted.  We found now, that we didn't have enough funds to buy a boat and having no sponsors for such a project we had to go back home.    

Daniel acted like Clark Gable after being pursued and before he turned himself in - after jumping from the quay into a fishing boat one of the cross ropes got him in the crouch and thus he appeared in the old dance hall!!!!!!!!

The idea to bring Leon Degralle for trial would also have been an act of justice but at the same time it may have vindicated him!  Taking into consideration, that it was rumored that a lot of war records had been revised and edited just before the end of the war !!!!!!!!!??????

Only a woman interested in Daniel's loose capers would later be able to make him walk straight!!I think a social service program for veterans would have done a lot of good for lost souls like Daniel!

To be continued .......