On the morning of the 7th June at around 10-00am Douwe and Alexander arrived at the hotel to walk us around to the local archives where they had a small exhibition about the Air War above Friesland Province. It was in the same square as the Leeuwarden Tower that leans so strangely. There were a number of interesting items but the one that caught my attention was a framed display of ‘windows’… the foil strips that were dropped by the RAF to jam the radar signals of the Germans so that they couldn’t follow the path of the planes and what destination they might be aiming for. I’d always wondered what these looked like and it was amazing to see how small they were.
After we’d seen that we went back to the hotel for a little while and Douwe asked me if I’d give an interview to a reporter from the Leeuwarden Courant, the local newspaper, about dad. Naturally, I agreed. The reporter wrote so quickly that I wondered later if he’d be able to read his own writing! (He did, apparently, as the article appeared in the paper the following day… pity I forgot to buy one.)
The weather was glorious and very warm when Douwe and Alexander shepherded us to a small coach and we were on our way to Blije, the village closest to the site of the crash. We were taken to the local community centre and in the foyer was a scale model of the Short Stirling with the number and code MG-J… the same as the one they were flying that night. I was amazed to find that a large group of local villagers were present to hear and see a presentation given by Alexander Tuinhout about the operation, the crew, the shooting down of their plane and what happened both before and after their capture.
In the audience were a group of local school children of about 10 years of age. The presentation was all in English but everyone seemed interested and I wondered if the children also understood what it was about. Two of the children later stood up and came to the microphone – they had written a poem about the war and were asked to read it out. They did – in English! I was very impressed by them and the rest of the children who had, apparently, been doing a project about the war with their teacher at school.
Stepping out into the sunshine afterwards we were astounded to see three military vehicles from the period bearing flags of Britain, Canada and the USA come wheeling into the car parking area. In addition there was a rather splendid Citroen from the early 1920s. These military vehicles that arrive at Blija belong to “Keep them Rollin'”…an organisation that is spread all over the Netherlands to preserve the old army vehicles from the 2nd world war.
People piled into all these vehicles and we set off in convoy to our next destination to the unveiling of the commemorative panel. It was a grand sight to see the vehicles on the move and some of the locals must have wondered what was happening… although there must be a group of fairly local people who collect and restore these vehicles who probably attend a variety of functions dedicated to WWII.
The unveiling itself was quite low-key – introduced by Hans Groeneweg and with the unveiling performed by the Deputy Mayor of Ferwerd. Everyone was eager to see the panel and we took our turns to have a look and I mentally congratulated the designer for the amount of detail it contained. I couldn’t read much of it, unfortunately, as it is in Dutch. I saw lots of photos being taken with various groups of people and had one taken with Hille for the article that would be written in the Leeuwarder Courant…and Hille was smiling broadly!
After communicating with each other since 2009 it was lovely to actually meet him and to have our photograph taken together was wonderful. When Hille sent my father the flying helmet all those years ago he unwittingly set off a train of events culminating on this very day: my search for the Henigman family after finding out that the helmet belonged to Frank Henigman and Hille’s enthusiasm for researching WWII planes in people in the Friesland area; deciding that dad’s manuscript was too interesting to keep to ourselves so getting the book published; the resulting contact with Ger Boogmans and then the SMAMF all took place over a number of years. Searching for and contacting all the families of the airmen was a wonderful piece of detective work by all of us but it was saddening to find out that some didn’t want to be a part of all of this and some were unable to come because of health or financial constraints. However, the families of four of the men were proudly represented on the occasion and I hope that I’m not being too presumptive when I say that it seemed that we all felt a strong common bond despite having never met before.
The unveiling over we travelled back to Blije and the community hall where we sat down to coffee and homemade cakes and chatted with local members of the community. I was able to thank the two girls and spoke to the mother of one of them who told me that the children had been working hard on the WWII project with their teacher at school. The hall was buzzing with friendly conversation and I was amazed at just how many people spoke English so that conversation was easy. I’m sure that everyone agreed that it had been a wonderful occasion and the hospitality of the locals was amazing…I thanked some of them at the time but I hope that some will soon be able to read this and will know that we thoroughly enjoyed our time with them and their generous hospitality will be remembered by all of us.
At this point one would have thought that the day would have ended…but no!
Our party was now taken to Ferwerd and the Town Hall that used to also house the local police station with the Head of Police, Romke Smidt. The Deputy Mayor told us that this was the place in which our fathers were taken, after realising there was no hope of escape because the Gestapo knew they were there, and they were taken down into the cells below the building.
Leaving the Town Hall we climbed back onto the coach and were taken along a route to show us the area in which some of the men, including dad, landed with their parachutes. Harry pointed out how the land isn’t the same now as it was then – land has been reclaimed since that time. I realised how open the area was, though, and how the downed airmen must have felt so vulnerable as there was nowhere to hide!
Onwards our journey took us to a lovely restaurant at the side of one of the waterways and enjoyed a wonderful Dutch meal as guests of SMAMF. We were able to have drinks outside in the warm evening, too. The food was delicious, our companions convivial and our day couldn’t have been better! To underline our thanks for all the efforts of those involved Richard Earngey made a speech of thanks about how it had affected him, I added a few words of thanks and Mac rounded it all off with his thanks and thoughts about everything we’d experienced.
As it was now about 9-00pm or so we once more climbed into the waiting coach and were taken back to our hotel in Leeuwarden, Mac and his wife left separately by car to Amsterdam and Ger and his guest, Terry Jones, also left to travel back to Amsterdam where they live.
At the hotel a few of us, including Douwe and Alexander, sat and enjoyed a drink reviewing the day and the activities of the Foundation… a perfect end to a perfect day!
Hans Groeneweg, is the Chairman of the SMAMF and also the Director of the Resistance Museum.
None of this could have taken place, however, without the financial assistance of private donations, one of which by a ‘Mr X’ was sufficiently large enough to make the erection of the panel possible. In addition, the municipality of Ferwerderadiel and SMAMF also made donations to the project.