Escape to London
THE Dutch Cabinet now took a momentous decision. The voice of the lawful Netherlands Government must in no case be silenced, even if the worst should happen. Nothing might be left undone to ensure this. There was, of course, no question of the Government as a whole leaving the country at this juncture, although they were in danger of being captured. The actual battle had only just begun, and the possibility was by no means excluded that our forces might prove able to hold their own. But some precaution seemed imperative in the circumstances and it was therefore decided that the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and for the Colonies were to make an attempt to leave the country at once for Allied territory, and establish contact with the Governments of Britain and France. Mr. Welter and I therefore rose and took leave of our colleagues. We needed little time to make our plan. As fighting was then going on between The Hague and Rotterdam and even beyond, it seemed unlikely that a journey to France by way of Western Belgium would be possible. All airdromes in the neighborhood being no longer available, a seaplane seemed our only chance. Luck was with us. On ninety-nine days out of a hundred, the sea breaks on the coast of Holland in heavy rollers,
making it impossible for a hydroplane to lie at anchor anywhere near the shore; but this was the hundredth day. Scarcely a ripple marred the water's surface. The Naval Staff was therefore asked to send a seaplane to Scheveningen, the seaside resort immediately adjoining The Hague, while we rapidly prepared ourselves for the journey. I found my wife and asked her whether, in case the hydroplane had room for her as well as for my colleague and myself, she was willing to take the risk of coming with me. She at once assented. We hurriedly packed a few papers and personal belongings, and with my colleague drove to Scheveningen. It was a strange scene. The Naval Staff had sent two hydroplanes, which lay riding at anchor on the blue water. Firing was going on all about us, from the harbor piers, from near the lighthouse and from the promenade, in an attempt to keep the German aircraft, several of which were hovering above the town, from swooping down on ours. We were escorted across the sandy beach by some high officers, who told us that both hydroplanes had already been shot at on their way to Scheveningen by parachutists with heavy machine guns. One of them was losing fuel at such a rate that it was unfit for use, but the other one, although it had a leak in one of its floats, seemed able to take off. The commander said there would be room for my wife, so we clambered on board, where we sat wedged in beside the machine gun, the wireless set and other warplane equipment. Half of our modest luggage found a place on board; the rest had to be left behind.
The cannonade around us continued. The engines were started up, but only after several vain attempts which made the minutes seem like hours. Finally we took off, bumped hard several times on the water as the heavily laden plane gathered speed, and then rose from the water. The engines' roar drowned all other sounds as we steered our course seaward, later following the coastline, flying low above the sea during the whole voyage. Soon nothing was in sight except a few scattered fishing smacks whose crews waved at us, wondering no doubt whether to try and return to port or stay at sea while the battle on land and in the air was in progress. As we flew on across the wide expanse of water, gleaming in the sunlight which it reflected, it seemed as if some padded door had been closed between us and the land we had just left. The staccato sound of the antiaircraft guns was gone; in comparison, the continuous droning of our engines was a soothing sound.
We never realized at the time how narrow our escape had been. One of the officers who had escorted us to the water's edge told us three days later in London that within two minutes after we had taken off, a German dive bomber swooped down, in spite of the antiaircraft barrage, towards the damaged seaplane we had left behind, lying at anchor twenty yards from where we had lain. It was hit and sunk; the three occupants, keen young sailors, to whom we had been talking a few minutes before, were killed.
The journey seemed uneventful. Our pilot had instructions to take us to an air base on the south coast of England. The difficulty proved to be how to find that place: our trip had been hurriedly improvised, so much so that there was no map on board covering the whole journey. We decided to do the best we could, and headed for the Straits of Dover, which we passed at about equal distance between France and England. I was thinking of what we would have to do once we arrived in London, and scribbled on the back of an envelope some notes for a broadcast I hoped to be given an opportunity of making that evening. We were flying above the Channel when the pilot discovered that our fuel level was sinking rapidly, more rapidly in fact than was normal. Had the gas tank been hit as well as the float? We realized there was not much time for reflection. On our starboard was a large town, and we decided to come down on the sea--just as smooth there as it had been near our own coast. On landing, we taxied towards the shore. Apparently the British coastguard understood that we were in distress, for no aircraft took off to intercept us; in order to signify our peaceful intentions, the wireless operator had climbed onto our wing, waving my white handkerchief. As we approached land a large crowd was collecting on the beach, and it was not long before we were able to distinguish several policemen among them. When at last our seaplane, heeling over a good deal more than when we
took off two hours before, ran aground on the pebbly shore, they assisted us in getting on land while two or three kind people took charge of our unimpressive luggage. We were told that we had landed at Brighton. At the Brighton Chief Constable's office, our scanty papers were inspected and, although they were quite insufficient according to normal standards, they were accepted after a telephone conversation with our Legation in London. It was by then 1 o'clock in the afternoon, and we had had nothing to eat since the previous evening; the tea and sandwiches which the kind Chief Constable had sent for were nectar and ambrosia to us. A train was about to leave for London; it was held up for a few moments to enable us to catch it. The Brighton police provided us with tickets--for we had no English money--and accompanied by the Mayor of Brighton we left for our destination. All were most kind. Somehow it seemed a dream. The peaceful English countryside was so very different from the scenes of violence and destruction we had just left.
Two members of the Dutch Government were now in London, where they could take up contact at once with the British Government and, through the French Embassy, with the Government of France. Whatever happened, the Germans could no longer succeed in their desperate attempt to silence the lawful Government of Holland. This thought gave my colleague and myself a feeling of deep satisfaction, and the warm welcome our
Minister and his Staff gave us soon made us forget some of the strain we had gone through in the last twenty-four hours.
Lord Halifax, on whom we called the same afternoon, welcomed us at the Foreign Office with equal cordiality and we discussed with him and some of his officials various matters which had to be taken in hand at once. In this respect also, the decision the Government had taken of sending my colleague and myself over proved to be invaluable. Through the kindness of the British Broadcasting Corporation, I had a chance of saying that evening to the British people that we had come to establish a firm contact, in the name of the Netherlands Government, with the Governments of those powers whose Allies we had become. That contact was intensified, in the course of the next few days, by numerous discussions with members of the British Government, and with the Naval, Military, and Air Force Staffs. With our heart in Holland, and our head in London, we had the feeling of being useful to those whom we had left behind. Special mention should be made of the gracious kindness shown to us by His Majesty the King. Mr. Welter and I were both received in audience the day after our arrival, and were deeply touched by the sincere interest the King took in the fate that had befallen our country and the admiration he expressed for the gallantry of our fighting forces.
As soon as the most pressing affairs had been seen to, my colleague and I flew to Paris, little thinking as we
crossed the French coastline south of Dieppe that within a month from that day the Germans would already have occupied that little seaside resort.
Paris seemed almost deserted. We were received in audience by the President of the Republic, whose great personal charm and simplicity are very striking. Useful contacts were established with several of the Cabinet Ministers, among them M. Paul Reynaud, at that time head of the Government and Minister for Foreign Affairs. We also received the French and the foreign press, and were given the opportunity of broadcasting to the French nation. During the few days we spent in France, we tried to do all that might be helpful for establishing a close and cordial contact with our French Ally.
As we had decided to take up temporary residence in London, the time soon came to return to England. Our journey was more difficult this time, for the air route was said to be unsafe; we decided to go by boat from Le Havre. The wife of the Counsellor of our Legation in Paris offered to drive us there, and we arrived just in time to board the steamer, which was packed with people returning to England. Many of them had come from Italy, which then was on the verge of taking part in the conflict after an unedifying calculation as to which side she considered most likely to win. The throb of the ship's engines, as we left the quayside, was accompanied by the sinister wailing of sirens heralding an air attack.
In Holland, the bitter struggle had come to an end.
Germany had drawn a curtain of steel between that unhappy country and the outside world. For the time being, Holland was in Hitler's grip.