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The Annie Stockman Story  

 

 

Brussels Before WWII   Belgium is a very small country in Western Europe. Over the centuries it has had several foreign occupations, including Prussian, Dutch and Spanish. Even the British occupied Belgium when Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo.

Annie grew up in Brussels as an only child. She was born and lived in Rue Pierre Alderson, Schaerbeek. This area is located to the north east of central Brussels. It is famous for its cherry-flavoured beer, called Gueuze.

Annie’s father had been in the Belgian Army and the Belgian Air Force during in the First World War. She had two brothers but they had died at birth. 

“I lived near Brussels Airport. At one time my father was in the Belgian Air Force and then went on to work in Brussels Airport.”

 

Annie aged 18 with Schaerbeek in the background

 

German Occupation   The Germans arrived on the 10th May 1939 after 3am. It was a Blitzkrieg, a lightening war. The ground troops came over the borders on May 10th, early in the morning. Their aircraft had bombed the Albert Canal and the Marginot Line. Brussels was occupied before the citizens realised it.

The fighting against the German occupation in Belgium only lasted 18 days before King Leopold III capitulated. France went through the same experience and capitulated a few weeks later. Annie lost her freedom for the next four years.

 Air Raids   Brussels was occupied so fast it did not experience the blitz as Belfast and London had. The biggest air raid in Belgium occurred in 1943 when the city of Ghent in Flanders was attacked.

Like Paris, Brussels was an open city. Annie often heard the British and American planes going over to bomb Germany and the German planes going over to bomb England. Occasionally British planes going over to bomb Germany, such as the Lancasters, would be shot down in Belgium and explode over a town or village.

 Fear   In the free world you are bombarded with information from dawn to dusk. The German occupiers denied the Belgians all forms of information. All radios were confiscated and you were even denied the use of their bicycles.

The Germans also controlled the newspapers. There was very little outside news from the rest of the world.  The people of Belgium did not know what was going on so they lived in constant fear. This was particularly true for the older citizens. Annie and her young friends did not find the experience as intimidating.  Even so, it was impossible to socialise in the cinemas, ice cream parlours or parks. These areas were constantly raided by the Germans.

“The young men were usually stopped in the street and sent to Germany for slave labour.”

The teenagers developed a hatred for the Germans. The safest place for young people meet up was in the libraries. During the early period of occupation, the Germans never raided the libraries of Brussels.

Annie’s home in Tobermore has a large collection of books. She has stated very often that the German occupation experiences gave her the habit for collecting books. She spent four years of her teenage life socialising in libraries until the curfew at 8pm.

“I love reading and I still read quite a lot. I was only 16 when the war started. Eventually the Germans closed down the libraries but the schools kept going.”

Belgian Resistance   With movement, transport and news restrictions enforced, the occupation was demoralising and oppressive for the older people of Brussels. The young people of Brussels could see that it was their parents who lost hope. They despised the Germans for this and always tried to put on a brave face.

Belgium formed a Resistance Group during the German occupation. Teenagers and students became involved in non-combat duties for the resistance. Annie and her friends were always carrying out small acts of defiance.

“When we were young we delivered bandages to the hospital. We were being used by the (Belgian) Underground and the bandages contained messages. At the age of 15 or 16 you did not think about the dangers.”

After the war the Red Cross acknowledged the work of these brave teenagers. They awarded each of them with a photograph of Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery. Annie still has this memento hanging in the hallway of her Tobermore home.

The Jewish Pogrom   The biggest horror of the German occupation of Brussels was the treatment of the Jewish population. Brussels before the war and during the war had a large Jewish population which became the targets of the Nazi death squads. Annie lost many friends in the Concentration Camps.

Her Jewish school friends were at school one day and then gone the next day. No-one knew or could understand the horror that was unfolding. A whole Jewish family would often disappear. Annie did not learn the full story of the Holocaust until after the war.

 “They all had to wear stars on their coats to show they were Jews. I was unaware of what was happening to my Jewish friends at the beginning. We began to understand what was happening when we gathered some more information. This was unforgivable; fighting a war was different from what was happening.”

Liberation   The Germans control of information was good. The citizens of Brussels did not know about the Normandy landings in June 1944.

“We knew that the liberation was in the air. There were people who had secret radios hidden in their cellars. They had heard that there was going to be an invasion.”

Annie only fully realised something was happening when she saw the convoys of heavy trucks loaded with Germans leaving the coastline. “Le Soir”, the biggest national newspaper in Belgium was the first paper to announce that “The Allied Troops Have Landed”. 

The Coleraine Battery   Annie first met Harry a few days after the liberation of Brussels. That was late in December 1944. He was stationed at Brussels Airport, near to where Annie lived. Bob McClintock and Harry came from their base to recall all the soldiers who had been invited to a big street party. Unfortunately that day the Germans had advanced into the Ardennes where the Americans were posted.

“There was a big reunion in the Café; there was a big Café in the street where we lived. That’s where I first met Harry, Bob McClintock and a few others.”

Few people in the street spoke English. Annie was elected to speak to the soldiers because she understood some English. When she entered the Café, she recalled that she could see two handsome British soldiers.

             Harry Stockman                                 Bob McClintock

At that time Annie was nearly 18 years of age. When she saw Harry, who was a blonde with blue eyes and Bob with the brown eyes and black hair she thought they were a very handsome pair. Annie was introduced as the translator. Harry told her that all the soldiers had to gather up their kit and go back to base. They were to be deployed in the Ardennes.

It was four months before Annie saw Harry again. Annie recalled that Stockman was a very easy name for a Belgian to remember. It was almost like a Dutch name.

Courtship   Harry lost a stripe one time because he ‘borrowed’ a jeep in order to come and visit me.  On the return journey the jeep broke down and he failed to parade on time. Back at the base, Sam Henderson managed to cover for him for a while. When asked by the major where Harry was, Sam replied that he was doing something in the Motor Transport Section. Harry was demoted from Sergeant to Bombardier for a while.”

Marriage   Annie was married in the Anglican Military Church in Brussels on March 9th 1946. Her father was not happy with the situation. He would not allow Annie go to N Ireland until certain stipulations were met by Harry. He wanted Harry to find a job for himself and a home for his daughter after his demob in April 1946. This would not be an easy task. Harry had been away from home for six years. After five months, Harry met the stipulations and in October that year he went back to Brussels and took Annie to her new home in Cookstown.

English Language   When Annie came to N. Ireland in 1946 she recalled the first song she had heard sung in English by her uncle. He was a veteran of the WWI and he would sing, ‘It’s a Long Way To Tipperary’.

Annie found the Mid Ulster dialect difficult to understand. The English she had learned in Belgium was quite different. In her everyday interaction with the people of Tobermore, she often had to resort to the use of her dictionary, much to the amusement of the locals.

“I’ve lived here for over 60 years and when some people hear my accent they still ask me if I am over here on holiday.”

Tobermore   When Annie came to Tobermore for the first time she was greeted by a local gentleman as she was getting off the bus.

“Willie Richardson was Walter Richardson’s brother. He was a very down to earth character. We lived in Cookstown for a while. I came off the bus in Tobermore and Willie Richardson came over to me and said, “Are you Harry Stockman’s wife?” I replied, “Well, yes I am.” And he said “Why, you just look like one of us”.  Annie found that comment very reassuring because she did not know what the Tobermore people expected her to look like.

Annie found the people of Tobermore to be very kind and she has lived there since 1946. Annie said, “I have been very happy in Tobermore. I never regretted coming to Tobermore. The people have always been very friendly.”

Harry died in 2000 and Annie still lives in Tobermore Village surrounded by many friends and the relatives of the Battery veterans; that includes the Richardson’s, the Moore’s, and the Hudson’s. (2005)