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Chapter 8

England Sailors


In August 1942 Jaap van Mesdag and Ernst Sillem tried to reach England by canoe. The plan failed and the two England bound sailors landed in Dachau. Their story is like a suspenseful novel; two young students want to cross to the “other side” to report for the fight against the Germans. They chose the old sea route; dangerous but short. Jaap, in the book “Student onder the bezetting” (Student during the Occupation) says: “The very first thing we needed was a boat. The difficulty was that we both lived far away from the coast, which made it difficult to make use of - for instance - a seaworthy raft. So we had to have a boat we could transport over land to our starting place. Our eyes fell on a rubber folding boat, which is what we dubbed our folding canoe with great reverence.


It was all less simple than it seemed. For instance, we had to have an outboard engine, but in 1942 that was easier said than done. With a lot of trouble, money and good words we succeeded. We even procured gasoline, for which we paid with tins of cocoa.


But where were we to take off? That appeared to be only possible at the island Goeree-Overflakee, because there was a small stretch of beach where bathing was forbidden. In addition, it was a lot closer than in the north.


Before we left to go to the island, we made a practice run in a canal in Bussum, putting our boat together in the dark and trying the motor out. On Goeree, our base camp was in a little vacation house.


A large problem was transporting the canoe and the motor towards sea. We packed everything in our suitcases, as well as we could. The wooden parts of the boat and the oars were bundled into a package that was two meters long and heavy as lead.


Further luggage consisted of two bicycle bags with provisions, the gasoline and a trumpet. Curious perhaps, the trumpet, but it came in handy later on. We were able to move everything without incident and we hid it all in the dunes. Then we waited for a dark night. A new problem cropped up. A German patrol boat which cruised along the coast decided to drop anchor every evening at the exact spot from which we wanted to leave.


On August 31, everything appeared to be in order. Precise weather forecasts were not available in wartime, but at the coast the weather was clear.


The boat had to be dragged the entire width of the beach, and that was not easy. But the sea was calm and we were able to take the surf without difficulty. After rowing for forty-five minutes the motor could be started and that gave us a pleasant surprise. The boat flew through the water. That had been very different in the muddy ditch in Bussum. After three hours our luck ran out, the wind increased and the waves were getting higher and higher. Slowly the situation became critical. It became clear that we would not be able to reach the other side in this weather.


At that moment there were three ships in the neighborhood, but they did not notice a canoe in the high waves. As a last resort, Jaap took out his trumpet and blew a staccato S.O.S., the international emergency signal. One of the ships turned around, not a minute too soon, because at that very moment the canoe capsized and the canoe sailors were thrown in the wild waves. It took almost ten minutes of difficult swimming before they were finally on board. Just in time.


Regretfully it was a German ship. The crew was not unfriendly and supplied the travelers with dry clothes and Ersatz coffee. But once they arrived in Rotterdam they performed their duty to the Führer and surrendered the boys to the  SD.


The result of that surrender was easy to guess. Prison, Amersfoort, Natzweiler and Dachau.


Both sailors survived almost three years of concentration camps.  Jaap and Ernst still defended their original plan. If the weather had cooperated, they would have made it.


In the summer of 1995, fifty years after the liberation from Dachau, they attempted the crossing again, this time accompanied by a sturdy escort ship. They did reach England, however not without getting  their feet wet...