A book in the making
During his life we were familiar with the gist of our late father’s great adventure during World War 2 when he secretly set off for England from his Dutch home town Hengelo in order to escape forced labour in Germany and fight against nazi Germany. Jan ter Doest was only sixteen, a factory labourer with very little money, who didn’t speak any foreign languages apart from a little German. Illegally crossing borders, escaping police checks and surviving internment camps, he made his way through occupied Belgium, France and through neutral (but not so very neutral) Spain. From Gibraltar he was shipped to England where he joined the RAF.
We were told fragments of the story when we were young and accepted the extraordinary content as a matter of fact, as children do. Our father rarely spoke about it himself, except when questioned by us when we were grown up.
Reflecting on the war
Mainly since the nineteen seventies, about thirty years after the war, people started to reflect on the horrors of the past and, gradually, a stream of memoirs and other literary and scientific war time explorations began to appear. During our teenage years, author Frank Visser pieced together all the snippets of information and our dad’s story was published in the book ‘De Schakel’. This collection of short stories was one of the first Dutch publications about Engelandvaarders that started coming out in the seventies. Not only was this the first time we became familiar with more details of his remarkable journey, we also found out that he was the youngest Engelandvaarder who undertook and survived this perilous journey and one of the few who travelled solo as well. Only now has it fully dawned on us that his story was very special.
After the book was published, on rare occasions, we began, cautiously, to ask our dad questions. Not being a man of many words when it came to personal matters, he answered in his own very matter-of-fact way. When our dad died at the age of eighty, we knew all the main events in chronological order but still not much in the way of incidental and intriguing details.
‘Engelandvaarders’ is a typical Dutch term for people who managed to escape occupied Holland during World War 2 and went to England to contribute to the war effort. This term literally means ‘England sailors’ ‘which suggests that the way to England was always overseas. However, this was not the case since most people travelled over land.
Some time later a second publication of dad's story, also part of a collection of short stories, appeared. In this book with the title 'Naar Engeland' (To England) the various stories were set in a wider historical context. Our interest in dad's story now revived and the wish to fill in the gaps slowly emerged. Why, when, how did it all happen exactly? How did he manage to carry out this immense adventure on his own? What did he take with him when he left home? How did his family react when they found out he had disappeared? What was life like in that prison-of-war camp? When did he want to become a pilot? But by now it was too late to ask him these questions so we decided to look for some of the answers elsewhere by questioning the few surviving relatives and searching for people who briefly travelled with him or whose relatives were in similar circumstances. We delved into archives and read books and diaries to get hold of as much personal and historical information as possible to complete the picture as best as we could.
It is our aim to turn all this new information into a book which tells a remarkable story about a young man with a very independent mind and enormous willpower who managed to take his future into his own hands. It also describes the support and generosity Jan received during his travels from all manner of kind hearted people. Last but not least, the book illustrates his share of a fair amount of luck in extremely tricky situations. Many Dutch Engelandvaarders tried to escape the occupied Netherlands but sadly never made it. They were betrayed, arrested and/or perished in the course of their get-away.
This publication on the occasion of the sixty five year liberation of Hengelo focusses on nine inhabitants of Jan's hometown who all managed to escape to England during the war, independently of each other.
If you feel the wish to leave comments or contributions to our story, please do so! You can either do this in the comment section on the blog or by contacting us via email. Feel free to comment in either Dutch or English.
Finally, a special word of thanks for the beautiful illustration of our website header by author and illustrator Peter Utton.
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"Once back home you didn't talk about the war" says 'Engelandvaarder' (England-sailor) Marinus Zuidijk.