The last year of World War II offered the hope of an end to hostilities, but they were, in fact, a long way from being over. France and Belgium were liberated and The Netherlands was the logical next step.
The terrain is divided by waterways running from east to west but Allied forces would be moving from south to north. Bridges would play a decisive part in the success, or otherwise, of the legendary Market Garden offensive.
Jan Loos was a schoolboy and living in Oosterbeek at the time of the ill-fated military campaign, and he told me about the lives of civilians at that time. They are the most vulnerable in any conflict and their stories are so often overlooked. There are fine museums filled with guns and uniforms but there are voices that need to be heard. It’s many years since the end of the Second World War and those voices are getting faint with age, and there are fewer of them. Jan Loos has made it his mission to present a different perspective on warfare.
I met Jan at the Airborne Museum ‘Hartenstein’ in Oosterbeek, and this is his story of a few long days of war:
‘Sunday 17th September was a sunny day. My mother, my sister and I went to church as usual that morning. My Dad had left on his bicycle to go to work in Arnhem. He worked for the Regional Food Distribution Authority which was responsible for rationing the little food that was available. His office was near Arnhem Bridge and he didn’t know what was going to hit him!
‘We saw the landing on that Sunday afternoon from our house as the weather was so beautiful. The whole sky was filled with aircraft and, for me as a junior pilot, it was like a festival. The first thing we saw were the bombers and they were so low it looked like they were flying at treetop level but they must have been at 500 – 600 feet. At high altitude we saw American bombers going into Germany. It was all very impressive.
‘What surprised us was that the low flying aircraft had a length of rope trailing behind and attached to the other end was a glider. We had never seen them before. We stood there in complete amazement. As we watched, the gliders disengaged and started to land just a couple of miles away from us. They disappeared behind the trees.
‘As soon as that landing had finished, still more aircraft flew in and all of a sudden the sky was filled with parachutes – there were more than 3000 paratroops who jumped, making a massive impression.
‘People in the streets started leaping up and down. They were out of their minds with joy. Finally we were being liberated! Flags came out and people were embracing each other. We were singing and we felt strong. We had watched the Allies land and we could not understand why they were not with us yet. All of that Sunday we didn’t see a single British soldier. They had been held up fighting the Germans.
‘There were no mobile phones and we didn’t know what was going on until my mother called Dad that evening. She said ‘I am going to tell Dad what we have seen today because he might like to know.’ There was one telephone in our area and that was at the butcher’s shop so she went there to call. When she returned she said, ‘Dad has already been liberated by the British soldiers in Arnhem who have taken over the office. They are holding the bridge.’ That night we went to sleep wondering when the others would arrive to liberate us.
‘The next morning I left the house and didn’t tell my mother I was going. During the night we had heard intermittent shooting. There were 9 dead Germans in the street. I had never seen a dead body before. I felt no emotion, we had been under occupation for four years. The night before, the Germans had picked up three civilians in our area and had executed them because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
‘I was never afraid – I was 14! Once in a while one might be afraid of being shot. Boys play with guns and play Cowboys and Indians and now this was real. My mother worried but I didn’t.
‘We saw them come just like the day before. We saw the gliders. We saw the parachutes. We watched as the gliders were hit. They just fell apart and it’s not just jeeps that fall out, it’s the soldiers they were carrying too. They didn’t have parachutes. We saw these people falling from the planes and it was no time to feel happy.
‘We didn’t sleep in our beds on Monday night as there had been too much shooting in the area. There were fires in the distance and Arnhem was one red glow. That indicated that things were not going smoothly. So we slept on the kitchen floor close to the basement so we could find shelter if needed.
‘All of a sudden on Tuesday morning, the door opens and there is a group of British. They pull down the curtains, they move the dresser, put a machine gun on top and pull up two chairs. That was an indication that they were expecting unwelcome visitors. My mother was in tears as they had ruined her beautiful furniture.
‘There was no more water, no more electricity, no gas, and food was scarce. My mother talks to the neighbours and they decide to group together. So we move next door and prepare the basement. We pack a small bag each and while we do that we hear shells dropping nearby. We rushed to the basement and that’s where we spent Tuesday night.
‘My mother returned from phoning my father and said, “It’s bad news, Dad says the building is on fire and the Germans are back. He is leaving now and will try to get back to Oosterbeek.”
‘Wednesday was a day of sitting and waiting with the sound of battle getting nearer. The Germans were only 400 metres away from us. Most of the day we were in the basement. Oosterbeek started to look like a bomb site. You saw burning buildings and vehicles, and dead soldiers. On Thursday morning the ‘grown-ups’ decided that we should leave the town. The moment comes when we must go out into the open. We stumble along past our old house and try to make it out of town.
‘When we reached the main road I looked towards Arnhem and saw a tank. It fired in our direction. We saw the flash and heard the whoosh and an explosion. Some artillery shells landed around us. We lay flat on our faces waiting for it to be over. My mother yelled, “We go back.” Nobody argued. We didn’t move as a group this time but as a lot of individuals moving as fast as they could. So after an hour we were back in the basement again, without water or food.
‘We boys decided that we needed water. We picked up the buckets and made the trip to the pump a couple of streets away. We didn’t realise that the Germans were in the back yards of the houses surrounding the pump. Shells landed all around us and we would dive for cover, go on again and dive again.
‘We arrived at the pump and we pumped quickly! The buckets were full of water so what should we do? We walked! No running and diving for cover as all the water would have been lost. I remember very well the hair on the back of my neck stood up! The danger was behind us. We walked and tried not to think of what might happen. We were almost home when something hit my leg. I didn’t bother to look. I could still move so we walked on. It was nothing serious. I was lucky.
‘We sat all day Saturday just listening to shooting and wondering when this was all going to end. By Saturday night the Germans were just next door! A soldier tried to make it to our house but was hit. For four hours we listened to his cries of “Mum, help me, I’ve been hit!” We didn’t want to hear that. He was dying.
‘Early on Monday morning a German voice with authority asked, “Are there any civilians in the house?” It sounds threatening but we said, “Yes.” “Out in 2 minutes, hands up,” shouts the German. And then you have to make the decision. Do we come out or not? Knowing the British are in the house the Germans are right there and you have to go between them. I was sitting on the bottom step of the basement so I was the first one out. Just to the right of the door are the two British soldiers sitting on the floor. One of them is wounded. He looks at me and says, “Good luck.” I say “Good luck” and we shake hands.
‘The house is partially destroyed so we didn’t have a door to go through – we just walked out. We walk down the garden path and there is a German lying behind a wall and waving us along. “Quick. Go.” And then you step out into the line of fire! Not thinking, because you can’t think. You just follow someone’s instructions. He apparently knows what to do. The firing stops for 10 – 15 seconds and then we are through. Behind us, hell breaks loose again. And it must have been hell because when we came back after the war there was not a trace of that house.
‘We leave Oosterbeek with nothing. We are refugees. We don’t have anything apart from the clothes we have on. Not knowing where to go, not knowing where we would sleep that night or where we would get something to eat, and depending on others to survive.
‘We go through the forest until, after 2 or 3 hours of walking, we finally hit a paved road and on that road are thousands of people who have left Arnhem. We spent a while trying to decide whether to go with them or find a place to sleep. A woman came out of the crowd and recognised my mother. She said, “Your husband is looking for you. I have just been talking to him.” 200 metres away was my Dad. That was a pretty happy reunion, I can tell you! We stood there and just held each other, so happy to see each other all in one piece.
‘We finally ended up in a small farming village in the north of Holland where we spent the rest of the war – 10 months till June 1945. We didn’t know what we would find when we came back. When my mother saw what was left of her home and all the things inside she cried. Everything was smashed, there was not a single thing intact. The roof had gone so rain and snow had come in.
‘Slowly things started to function again. Amazingly, in a very short time the water was running again but we had to find pots and pans to put it in. You could find things to eat but you needed a stove to cook on. As soon as we were inside our house our cat arrived. It had survived 10 months on its own. My mother saw the cat and said, “OK, now we are home.”
‘I have frequently been asked what I feel about Germans all these years after the war. There was a big difference between the regular soldier and the SS or the security police. I became friends with a Staff Officer – he had a son of my age. When you listen to stories of German soldiers they are the same as the British. In 1952 Germany joined NATO and then they were our colleagues. I can understand the mood of Germans after the First World War. They had been humiliated as no other nation had been humiliated. You can never be sure there will not be another war. Peace talks might look useless, but let them talk – as long as they don’t fight.’
To learn more about the liberation of the Netherlands visit Liberation Route Europe here
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018
Picture of Jan Loos courtesy of Farrukh Younus http://implausibleblog.com
Stena Line (www.stenaline.co.uk; 08447 70 70 70) offers twice-daily return six-hour crossings between Harwich and the Hook of Holland. Fares start from £118 return for an adult and car. Additional adults cost from £24 and children (between four and 15 years old) from £12 return. Infants (under four years old) travel free of charge. Rail and sail tickets available from £68 per person return (www.dutchflyer.co.uk).