HomeWorldDutch project tells wartime stories of intrepid ‘England voyagers’

Dutch project tells wartime stories of intrepid ‘England voyagers’


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They travelled over land and water, braving the North Sea, trekking across the Pyrenees or fleeing north through Sweden to reach Britain and join the fight against the Nazis.

Now a project at the Dutch national archives, opening on Thursday, is for the first time publishing the stories of 2,150 “England voyagers”. These brave Dutch men and women escaped the occupied Netherlands during the second world war and found their way to London to volunteer.

The most famous of these Engelandvaarders is documented in the Dutch hit film, book and musical Soldier of Orange, about the RAF and resistance fighter Erik Hazelhoff. He was just one of a number of people who found jobs in the British army, navy and air force or were parachuted back into Europe to work as secret agents for the British Special Operations Executive.

“They went with very different routes from the occupied Netherlands, Belgium or France to England,” said the project’s leader, Pepijn Lucker. “In the Netherlands we have the idea that they had a boat and went straight over the North Sea, but that was actually a very small percentage, less than 10%. The vast majority went via all kinds of intrepid and adventurous routes through occupied Europe.

“They were sometimes locked up in camps, they had to be smuggled over borders, they crossed the Pyrenees in the middle of the winter in groups and some of them didn’t make it … There are enormously exciting stories in this archive.”

Like all other arrivals from occupied Europe, they were first taken to the Victoria Patriotic school in London and vetted by MI5 to ensure they were not German spies. Then they were redirected to the Dutch secret service, interrogated by Dutch police, and most joined the fight or the resistance. Their stories have been pieced together from these records.

Many died, said Lucker, but at least one fighter made it back to England and volunteered again. Bob van der Stok escaped to London in 1941, became an RAF Spitfire fighter, and was captured and placed in the Stalag Luft III German prisoner of war camp in Poland. There he took part in the breakout of 76 men that inspired the film The Great Escape. He was one of the few who actually escaped, and went on to become one of the most decorated aviators in Dutch history.

Queen Wilhelmina and Princess Juliana in the midst of soldiers, during a visit to Oranjehaven, the Englandvaarders’ Club in London, 11 September 1944. Photograph: Fotograaf Onbekend / Anefo/Alamy

About 300 Jewish men and 75 women were Engelandvaarders, one of whom, Elis Maud Brandon, is now over 100 and lives in Belgium.

The three-year research project was carried out with 70 volunteers and with the WO2NET foundation, which is publishing a route and timeline for every individual.

It is part of a broader reassessment of Dutch war history, including the collaboration and inaction documented in the National Holocaust Museum and films such as Steve McQueen’s Occupied City and the new release Verdwenen Stad (Lost City). During the war, three-quarters of the Dutch Jewish population were murdered by the Nazis.

“This is quite different from the dark story of the Holocaust, in which many people in the Netherlands played a very dubious role … with a large component of collaboration,” Lucker said. “What these people did was true resistance and they were considered the heroes of their time. And there is lots more to tell about them.”

This article was amended on 22 March 2024. An earlier version said that 80 men escaped Stalag Luft III in the breakout that inspired the film The Great Escape. This should have said 76.

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