Pays-Bas / Champ de Bataille

Survival in a basement




While the soldiers were doing their deadly work, the civilians of West Zeeland-Flanders were literally among the fire during the Battle of the Scheldt. For the opponents, the importance of civilians was secondary to the military objectives. Moreover, for the Canadian troops, evacuation of civilians was complicated by the limited transport space and the very poor road network. Only after weeks of hardship could a small part of the distraught civilians be evacuated via IJzendijke and Biervliet to East Zeeland-Flanders. It is hard to imagine (over)living in a cramped cellar while the ground thuds from shell impacts. A personal experience gives a picture of the horror ...

The first shelling of road junctions began as early as September 1944, when many people from the villages tried to find a safe place in the farms in the area. Many lived for weeks in an overcrowded damp potato cellar, while above ground shells ravaged the area for days. Hygienic conditions were abysmal; even just getting a breath of air was a life-threatening activity. Still, one had to go outside occasionally, to cut meat for soup from a dead cow, or to toilet. Around 600 Zeeland-Flanders lost their lives as a result of the battle.

With the arrival of the liberators, a meager life among the ruins began. It would take many years before West Zeelandic-Flanders was rebuilt. The mental scars healed much more slowly and were mostly borne silently until the last breath. Fortunately, some stories were recorded. Like the story of farmer Herman H.;

It was early October 1944 and the German officer spoke bars that they had to leave. Against his better judgment, the farmer tried desperately to avert the inevitable. He had already seen it coming when German soldiers built a fortress around his homestead on the Nieuwedijk in IJzendijke with barbed wire and foxholes. Defeated, the farmer and his family arrived at the nearest neighbor's house, there to occupy, with ten others, the small cellar under the dike house.

They struggled to find a place in the crowded space. They had to sleep in turns; there was no room for everyone to lie down. Packed tightly together, the days soon flowed into one another. Every day there was almost incessant shooting. There were occasional breaks, but it always began again. At night, the guns began. The blasts were sometimes so close that everything was shaking and vibrating. Sometimes even the firing of the cannons could be heard. It would take a moment and then they were coming! Most frightening were the shells that flew over with a tremendous howl and howl. The deafening whistle of some types of ammunition was terrible. After another sleepless night, it usually stopped for a while in the morning. There was then almost always a sort of pause of an hour before the planes came to machine-gun the area.

On Monday morning, Oct. 16, 1944, the farmer saw that farther down his yard at every corner of the barn stood a German soldier. They peered intently for movement from the direction of Biervliet. Helmets and rifles were visible in the many foxholes around the farm and worriedly he returned to the dank cellar.This time the sound of shellfire alternated with the rattling of machine guns. After hours of continuous noise, a new, menacing sound penetrated the cellar. It was the bellowing of flames from the wooden barn that stood a stone's throw away. Panic ensued, but fortunately the wind proved favorable, keeping the basement out of danger.

Sometime later, the shooting stopped, the back door of the hallway flew open with great violence, and immediately after that, that of the basement. In the doorway stood a Canadian with the rifle at the ready. He beckoned all the people to come out of the basement. They gathered in the hallway with their hands up. Excited about the arrival of the liberators, they spontaneously began to cheer and jump.

The Canadians inspected the basement thoroughly, after which everyone was allowed back downstairs. The older men stayed upstairs, trying to learn more. They watched defeated German soldiers, stripped of equipment and weapons, pass by in runs. If they didn't go fast enough, a Canadian with a rifle butt admonished them to hurry. In the backyard could be seen stragglers who had managed to evade the view of the liberators. This group apparently had not had enough and cautiously retreated toward IJzendijke.

As the Canadians entered IJzendijke the next day, the farmer returned to his farm. The dwelling house was badly damaged, but was still standing. They had been very lucky! The front door was ajar and where the lock had once been, a large splintered hole yawned. Many bullets had caused quite a bit of damage inside. Half a bottle of liquor, long kept to celebrate liberation one day, had disappeared. The Canadians might have had something to celebrate too ...