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What are 'Engelandvaarders'?

In our blog we will frequently use the official Dutch term ‘Engelandvaarders’ which does not have an English equivalent. The term literally means ‘England sailors’ named after the first Dutch people who escaped directly across the Channel by small dinghies shortly after World War 2 broke out.

The twelve foot yawl with which students Kees van Eendenburg, Karel Michielsen en Freddy Vas Nunes sailed to England under the very nose of German soldiers.

Soon after these first escapes the Germans were quick to cordon off the Dutch beaches so other routes had to be found. Of the total of around seventeen hundred 'Engelandvaarders' who made it safely to England, the majority travelled over land taking the southern route via Belgium, France, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. Another, much smaller, group took the northern route via Scandinavia. A few escaped by aircraft.

A rough impression of the various routes over sea, land and by air.


The individual motives of Engelandvaarders were very diverse. Firstly, it is important to stress that the reason for most Engelandvaarders to escape was not simply to safeguard their own lives. Leaving family and friends behind and undertaking an often spectacularly dangerous journey with plenty of unknowns required a lot of courage. Many drowned at sea or were captured and shot. Some froze to death in the Spanish Pyrenees or died in concentration camps. Only few who were arrested survived.

For many, patriotic feelings played an important role. They rejected the dictatorship or any German coerced loyalty towards the Nazi regime. Among them were many students, for example, who refused to sign a German loyalty statement as a condition to get access to Dutch universities.

The so called ‘Arbeitseinsatz’, or forced employment, in the German war industry was another frequently occurring motive to escape.

The risk of being arrested and shot following underground activities for the wide spread resistance could also be a reason to seek a safe haven.

Being Jewish could be a motive which needs no explanation.

To a few, simply boredom with their dreary existence in wartime Holland was a reason to choose the adventurous path.

‘Just’ escaping to England however didn’t automatically make somebody an Engelandvaarder. Contribution to the war effort was the other essential component to deserve the honourable label.

The Patriotic School in London where the Dutch arrivals were interrogated by the Dutch Colonel Oreste Pinto.

The Patriotic School in London where the Dutch arrivals were interrogated by MI5.

The new arrivals in England were interrogated by the British Intelligence Service, MI5, to make sure they weren’t spies. Once they were cleared, everyone of them was assigned a job to help the war effort. Most people were eager to combat the enemy and were willing to follow whatever training necessary. Jobs could vary from administrative to highly dangerous espionage work.

General profile

There was no such thing as one organised movement with regard to Engelandvaarders during the war. They did not form a group with a specific structure or leadership. However, although they were not a homogenous group they were mostly young people, between nineteen and twenty five years old. With the exception of a few, most of them belonged to the middle or upper classes who had (some) finances or important contacts to help them. Food, shelter and money for transport and illegal documents being not the only, yet very helpful, ingredients for the success of the hazardous journey.

Interestingly, published biographies and personal acquaintance of Engelandvaarders also show some psychological features they have in common. A picture of a proactive temperament, stubbornness and a strong aversion to submit to ‘false’ authority emerges.

'Engelandvaarders' today

Some of the 'Engelandvaarders' at their 2017 Summer reunion . From left to right: Marinus Zuidijk, Jan Staal, Eddy Jonker, Ellis Brandon, Charles Bartelings, Rudi Hemmes

Several decades after the war, in 1969, the 'Engelandvaarders' did organise themselves in the 'Vereniging Engelandvaarders' (Society of 'Engelandvaarders'), which is now defunct. As a result the 'Museum Engelandvaarders' in Noordwijk has opened its doors in 2015. Housed in a former underground munition bunker. It harbours a permanent and excellent exhibition of Engelandvaarders and their miraculous stories.

Acknowledgement pictures:

12 foot yawl - Painting by Serge Stone, private collection family van Eendenburg (huge thanks!)

Patriotic School - Wikipedia

Map of Europe - Watercolour by Ineke ter Doest

Photo 'Engelandvaarders' - Private collection Society


De Schakel, 1976 - Frank Visser

Tulpen voor Wilhelmina, de geschiedenis van de Engelandvaarders, 2004 - Agnes Dessing

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