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The Etienne Vanhaeren Story  

 

Introduction   In this story Etienne wrote the first part in Flemish and his wife Irene translated it into French. It was then translated into English by Evelyn McCullough.  

 

I was born in Vliermaabroot, Belgium on 22 10 1924.

 

My First Day Under Nazi Occupation   In May 1940 I was working in the coal mine, with the morning shift, as I was too young (15 years old) to do the two other shifts. On 10 May, as usual, I was cycling to the station to get the train with the other boys, when I saw a German fighter plane which was machine-gunning but we were not sure if it was the war because sometimes the defence shot at German planes. At that time we had no radio at home.

 

When we arrived at the mine our bosses advised us not to go down it because the war had started. We immediately left to get the train home. At the first station we had to get out of the train because it was being requisitioned for the army so we began to walk the 25 kilometers home. 

At Glans, a Belgian soldier who was guarding a bridge said that we had to split up into little groups. At Noem, a little village near Tongres, we saw that the station was being bombed . It was around 11 am at this time and we ran for cover under some trees in a field. 

There were more than 1000 miners and many other people who had fled Tongres. When the bombing was over everyone got up to return home. A little further on in the middle of the River Jeker, there was a man holding a child of about five, who had shrapnel cuts covering the back of her head and whose blood was running down into the river. 

When we arrived at the station we saw nothing but ruins and rails jutting 3 meters into the air.

Four or five hours later I arrived home, my feet covered in blisters, so bad that I was unable to walk for three or four days. Every time I heard a plane, I trembled with fear. This was the first day of the war.

 

The following days we constantly heard the noise of the canons, especially at night. I often thought that our house made of clay brick was going to collapse.

 

My First Contact With The Germans  When the fort of Eben Emaal fell into the hands of the Germans, their tanks often passed through Wellen, my village. My father, who was also a miner by trade, had made an air-raid shelter and had placed a wood shed over it. When the tanks began to fire and our family wanted to get into the shelter we found that it was already full of Belgian soldiers.

 

A few days later three German soldiers came to buy some eggs as they saw that we had plenty of hens, and we did not dare say no. The youngest soldier who was about 20 said that Belgium had attacked Germany and I said that that was not true. About 1 or 2 hours later the oldest German came back to tell me that I was not allowed to talk about politics any more with the young one, or I would get into trouble.

 

Work in The Coal Mines  Six weeks later I got news from the mine saying that we could go back to work again but that there were no trains. We did go back to work but by bicycle. That was  30 kilometers there and 30 kilometers back to Milmont.  Fortunately this did not last very long as by autumn the trains were back running as usual. I then went to work in another mine in Herstal where one day the boss said, "Slow down, slow down, after all it is only for the Germans." We (the Flemings) were not allowed to go on strike. For the Walloons work went reasonably well until 1941.

 

At the end of 1942 we were earning 64 francs a day which was all right but then one evening at the mine we were told that we would be paid but the following weekend we would no longer be able to go down the mine. We were told that all the young ones were going to have to work in Limburg and my brother and I were given a paper saying that we were to go to Houthaken  where were would be paid 32 francs, half of what we were getting in Liege. If we were ill one day  the next we would find a paper on our lamp saying that a fifth of our salary was to be deducted. For two days we lost two fifths. At that time 25 cigarettes cost 40 francs, a loaf of bread 80 francs  and a kilo of butter 300 francs. The tram cost half of our wages. We had to get up at 4a.m. and arrived home at 5 p.m, and all that for 32 francs a day.

  

The boss in the mine threatened to send us to Germany. My brother and I were not able to work together, he having to work the night and me the morning shift. This situation lasted around 3 months until one night my brother was involved in an argument and was fired because he had threatened his boss. At this stage the resistance were unaware of what was happening.

 

 

The Winterhulp (Winter Help) Programme  In 1942 getting provisions was becoming very hard for those people who had no garden where they could grow vegetables, no animals and no hens. An organisation called Winterhulp (winter help) had been set up whereby the country folk had to deliver cows, pigs and cereals for distribution. My father was also told he had to supply meat, but more kilos than was possible. We asked if we could wait till the calves were fatter but the reply was, 'Not for a minute'. With seven children still at home and only my brother Leon and myself working in the mines, we could not earn enough even to feed ourselves.                                                                                                                         

  

A little later we had to deliver meat for the second time that year. The lorry driver, the inspector and 2 gendarmes came to get our food. My brother grabbed a hatchet and told them all that they had to get out of the yard.. In the meantime around 10 people had gathered in the road and a woman called out, 'Are you not ashamed?  This is a large family and this is already the second time this year.' They left, but a court case was started against my brother.  

 

The Resistance  Several days later Leon got a card telling him he had to present himself at the Werbertelle. Then 2 gendarmes, who were in contact with the resistance, said that he could avoid going to prison in Tongres in Belgium by paying a sum of money but I can not remember how much.. Otherwise he would be sent to the Germans. He went to prison but one week later he sent me a letter saying I had to try to get him out as he was going mad there. I took all the money I had, and some from a girl he was friendly with. He got out of prison but everything had changed by then and as he had already had several charges against him he was sent to Germany and never returned..

 

I felt completely broken then. I went into hiding and did not sleep at home any more. In the evening I went back to get food and change my clothes. Then the resistance warned me some time later that it was known where I was sleeping and that I was going to be caught. Fortunately it was summer time and I hid, for a good fifteen days, in the trees. Then I found another farm where I was able to sleep. I joined the resistance but because I was a fugitive, I was only asked twice to carry out acts of sabotage- once cutting telephone lines and once stopping a train full of Jews and members of the resistance who were being transported to Germany.

 

The British Army  Brussels was liberated on 2 Sept 1944. The doctor in our village, Wellen, was a collaborator and went before the firing squad at the time of liberation. Fifteen days before liberation we were assembled and organised into an army. Before the Ardennes offensive I joined Montgomery's 8th army as a war volunteer. I was in the 1016 16th  C company.

   

 

We went to Sougines because in Antwerp there were too many bombs and V1s, and there we were given our uniform- but no weapons. We were not allowed to go out at night and we went by train to Ostend where we left Belgium for Lightcliffe in England. There were German submarines in the North Sea and we arrived during the second night. During the first week we were given our weapons and trained to use them.

 

It was a pity the snow was 15 cm deep and it was very cold but the camaraderie among the officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers was good. We had mutton to eat and tea and coffee to drink, as well as cigarettes that we were not used to. I remember once marching in full battledress and seeing Halifax in the distance. This filled me with happiness. 

 

Cookery Training  After two or three weeks the person in charge one evening said, 'Etienne Vanhaeren and Hubert de Jaeger have to go to the kitchen at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning, and their beds have to be perfectly made beforehand as is expected of a good soldier.' In the morning I said to the chief cook that that I knew nothing about cooking but that I would do my best and he was very pleased. He sent me to Osset where I worked hard and learnt a lot. The weeks passed very pleasantly for me.

 

 

 

When I was back again we had to do an exercise with the English para-commanders during the night. In the morning when everyone had eaten and we were cleaning up, the lieutenant and his orderly came in and asked for something to eat. I put some tins of baked beans, and meat in a frying pan, but as the fire in the stove had almost gone out, sergeant Nijs (another miner by profession) came to help, and with his army knife opened a tin of milk, emptied it and filled it half-full with petrol. He told me to lift up the frying pan and poured half on the fire. The rest went into the frying pan. After we had both tasted it we found that it was not bad at all and served it. 

When the two had finished eating, the lieutenant asked who had prepared the meal and was informed that it was myself. He proceeded to tell the chief cook that when back in Belgium Vanhaeren was to get an extra day's holiday. After that episode, every time we had baked beans, Sergeant Nijs reminded me how I had put petrol in them.

 

Return to Belgium   In April 1945 we left England with all our material for Normandy and then back to Belgium. I have never found out how many 6 ton trucks we had. If only we knew how many tons of ammunition, provisions, cigarettes, whisky and whatever else, were transported towards Germany by the 1016 company, we would surely be astonished. We did our very best and our superiors treated us very well.

 

Then there was another event, in Belgium. I and some of my friends were sent to Terveuren. I was just looking at something and made a friendly affirmative sign with my head to a sergeant in the Belgian army, which had by then been reorganised. He asked me if I did not know how to salute and I replied that that was of no importance but that I could use a Bren, Sten, Piat and that I could cook. He then said that I had to go and learn how to salute, unaware that I belonged to the British army. I followed him to the guard-house.  When my friends got back to their unit in the evening and sergeant Nijs heard what had happened to me, their first thought was that the next day they would have to prepare their breakfasts themselves. Accompanied by the lieutenant on duty they did come to get me though.

 

After nine months of service, I became a first soldier (lance corporal?) which I think was a just reward for my work.

 

German POW's  Another important event was when four German prisoners were brought in, one of whom was called Jozef and was Austrian. He hated Hitler even more than we did and asked to work with us in the kitchen even on Sundays. We became friends and one Sunday afternoon when there was practically nobody about we heard that the major was coming for an inspection. We gave Jozef a coat, a helmet and a British Tommy gun - and put him in charge of guarding the trucks. But in fact the major only turned up a few days later. You see what goes on in the army?

 

Later our company was integrated into the Belgian army. When the militiamen came, friendship and camaraderie were finished .. and as for me, I left the army.

 

A thousand times thank you to the British, Americans, Canadians and French who liberated us from this monstrous system.

 

Etienne's War Medal Certificates

 

Etienne Vanhaeren   Brussels, June 2006 (as told to Evelyn McCullough).

 

In this part of  Etienne's story Evelyn McCullough encouraged Etienne to talk spontaneously about his time in England, rather than writing it all down first. 

At the beginning he talks about a Flemish song and what the words mean and then goes on to sing a rather bawdy English song he was taught by two British soldiers in England one evening as he was returning from Huddersfield to Brighouse. There were no buses and they had to walk. These two soldiers had been in Belgium and had liked what they saw of the Belgians. They agreed to teach each other songs and what the Belgians were taught was "And this is number one, and the fun has just begun, roll me over, lay me down and do it again. Roll me over, in the clover, roll me over in the clover and do it again."  Etienne did not stop till he had sung all five verses. He then sings the French song the soldiers were taught and finally a Flemish one. A pretty merry walk home was had by all by the sounds of it.

Porridge was new to the Belgian soldiers, who did not like it at all. Neither did Etienne  but he soon came up with a way of making it more palatable. It seems that there was an unlimited supply of jam for the soldiers so Etienne found that by mixing jam with the porridge he found it rather good after all.

At first, the soldiers did not like the tea but after a little while they were soon used to it. Etienne said that it was the milk and sugar that put them off and if they had had a little lemon instead, the tea would not have been a problem.

Etienne remembered that almost every evening they went out for fish and chips. For sixpence, he recalls. He did not think they had vinegar on them but a sort of sauce. He said there was often a queue of 20 to 30 Belgian soldiers at the chippie, which clearly did great business at that time. He remembers they all said, 'For sixpence, fish and chips' and they handed over their sixpences. The chips he recalls were served in a (clean) grey paper bag and not newspaper as I had thought.

When I asked him if he had seen anywhere else in England apart from the local area and Halifax from a distance, he replied that as he was a cook he spent most of his time in the kitchen unlike the others who were able to go out much more. That was why they all learnt much more English than he did. He said that after the first two weeks he was sent to Osset by the Leading Cook who liked him very much. There he was taught how to cook properly  in war conditions, and how to teach other soldiers how to cook. 

He learnt skills like how to make a proper fire and he goes on to talk about other Belgian soldiers, but this time Walloons, or French speakers, who were also at Osset. They all had to search for suitable stones for their fires, and Etienne, who had also trained as a mason knew how to build a good fire. He also knew that at soon as he had built the fire and done the washing-up, maybe around 1 p.m., he would be allowed to go for a walk in Osset, which he enjoyed doing very much.. 

When he saw a Walloon corporal struggling to make his fire, with no notion of how to do it at all, Etienne made some remark about having to wait till 6 p.m. before he would get it finished. The corporal was not amused, grabbed Etienne by the jacket and told him that he had to do it, thinking a young lad like him would not  have a clue what to do. Well, naturally, Etienne  had a perfectly built fire so much so that the English sergeant commented on it. This did not go down well at all with the Walloon corporal. In fact, out of all of those participating in this training course, it was Etienne who got the most points and was consequently named the best cook.

In spite of this honour he still did not qualify as a real cook. When one day he was sent to the officers mess to take over from a highly skilled cook who was retiring, they did not keep him but found a proper cook from Hassalt to take over. As Etienne said, he was great at making roast potatoes and salad  but he himself knew that he was not up to professional standard.

Then Etienne explains how he met his wife Irene. It seems that British soldiers who were stationed in Stockel where her parents had a farm, were often invited there to play cards with her father. Sometimes Belgian soldiers did too, but Etienne did not want people to think he was running after girls all the time and usually stayed in the barracks. Then one day he joined the card players and after a rocky start (she refused him because she said that soldiers always left their hearts wherever they went)  finally ended up going out with Irene, but not until he had left the army.

Etienne finishes by telling me that if I am ever in Brighouse I should go to the pub or cafe which was called in those days " The Rink o Bell", well that is what it sounded like when he says it but it could be something very different, and most probably has disappeared by now.

Final comments by Evelyn McCullough.

Over the past six years Etienne has constantly expressed how grateful Belgians are to their liberators and he is delighted that his story and his message of thanks might be heard by some of the courageous men and their families who risked and in many cases laid down their lives for the inhabitants of the occupied countries. 

His account of his wartime experiences that you have here does not fully show what a decent compassionate man he is, a poor miner's son who refused to be dominated by the Germans. His courage is shown in the acts of defiance when with the resistance, and his compassion when (as he once told me) he refused to take any part in the punishment of the Belgian women who had socialised with the Germans as in many cases it was completely against their will.

I feel very honoured that Etienne has told me his story and allowed it to be passed on so that generations to come may understand better what life was like for ordinary citizens in occupied Belgium. Evelyn McCullough (2006)