The Story of Jan van Hoof

(uit: Hilary St. George Saunders, The Left Handshake, 1948 – Chapter I: Bravery)

His face was that of one who, in the prime of youth, died not only for his country but for the freedom of the world. The forehead was high and smooth beneath hair well kept but a little distorted, as though he had just run his hands through it. Below the forehead the eyes, looking into a distance which held what the ordinary man and woman may on occasion glimpse in moments of exaltation or despair, but which he was plainly enough-duty, danger, death. They were the eyes of an idealist set in the head of a shrewd and practical young man. For that most assuredly was what Jan van Hoof was. The resolute mouth with the full under-lip, the somewhat large ears, the straight nose with the well-marked nostrils, these were features belonging to one who, you would say, would go far in business. And far he went, into the business of battle.

Here is his story.

In the third week of September, 1944, the German armies, thrust out with tremendous slaughter from France and Belgium, turned at bay upon the confines of their own country. Opposed to them more than a million men, British and American, who a few weeks before had burst from their congested bridgeheads in Normandy, were now stretched out from the Alps to the mouth of the Rhine, poised ready to deliver, if they could, the final, the mortal blow. At that time it seemed that they would be able to deal it at any moment. Those September days, when the leaves were slowly turning to gold, would, it was confidently hoped, provide the climax of the war. That they did not was an act of fate, who relented at the last moment and granted to a treacherous and defeated people a few months of respite ere the consequences of their sin were paid in full.

That autumn of 1944 the 21st Army Group, comprising the British and Canadian forces, after sweeping through Northern France and Belgium, were standing on the edge of Germany confronted by the three great river barriers which, in the northeast of Holland, barred their further advance. These were the River Maas, the River Waal, and the Lower Rhine. Cross them in strength and the war was won, for the main German defences in the west, the vaunted Siegfried Line, petered out in the forest of the Reichswald and would therefore be outflanked. The Germans were as well aware of this as was Field-Marshal Montgomery, and as determined to prevent, as he to force, the passage. It could be made only at three points. The first of them, the Maas, was traversed by a nine-span steel bridge at Graves, the second, the Waal, by a five-span bridge at Nijmegen, the third by a bridge similar in character over the Nijder, or Lower Rhine, at Arnhem. The capture of these three bridges was vital, for they were the three most important links in a single chain, the Eindhoven-Weghel-Graves-Nijmegen and Arnhem road joining Holland to Northern Germany. In a countryside for the most part low-lying and flooded, this road was the only one along which armour could pass, and behind armour lorry-borne infantry and their supplies.

Montgomery’s plan was to seize the three bridges by a bold and modern operation of war. “A carpet of airborne troops” would be laid, over which his armies would pour into the Reich. The task of the 101st American (Airborne) Division was to seize the bridge at Graves, that of the 82nd (Airborne) the bridge at Nijmegen, and that of the 1st British Airborne Division the bridge at Arnhem. It was with the second of these bridges that Jan van Hoof was so vitally concerned. He had lived in sight of it all his short life; he was to die beside it.

When war came to Holland in 1940, Jan was eighteen years old. The Germans arrived almost overnight, so swift and well prepared was their conquest of his country. They behaved well-at first; but, in common with many of his generation, Jan was not fooled by Teutonic wolves in sheep’s clothing, and he at once made common cause with those who were determined to open the eyes of their countrymen to the real, as opposed to the expressed, intentions of the conquerors. Jan was “a very idealistic boy with high principles of what a good community ought to be.” So said his Patrol Leader, and he knew him well, for Jan had been a keen Cub and Scout. “We often had talks about it and I was always impressed and carried away by his enthusiasm, and that, I think, was one of the characteristic things of his underground work-his steady enthusiasm, and the serious way in which he carried out his job.” The boy was well equipped, then, for the dangerous, glorious, monotonous life of an underground worker. All who knew him describe him as “a silent, simple boy who went his own way.” He rarely told his parents what he was doing and they never asked; nor did his two sisters and his brother. They knew this trait of Jan’s nature. He had said many times as a small boy: “What I plan to do, I will do.” Now the days of darkness had come. His parents watched and waited, but they did not ask what thoughts were alive behind that tall forehead, those steady eyes. Yet he was not naturally secretive for his ambition was to be that most open and frank of all men, a journalist, if possible a foreign correspondent, and when the Germans came he persisted in this desire. “He used to say to me,” said his mother, “that would be a Goebbels, but a Goebbels of a good kind.” Jan believed in the value of journalism and in its power to do good as well as evil.

By 1941 the early-it is hard to call it the halcyon-period of the German occupation of Holland was over. The Dutch, ever stubborn, had refused to respond to blandishments. They had grim memories on which to draw. Alva’s pikemen, the legions of Louis XIV, the douaniers of Napoleon, not once but many times had their flat, well-ordered country been the coveted prize of an invader. The latest was Hitler. Well they would deal with him as their ancestors had dealt with the others. Patience and courage. They were the weapons. before the year was out the Dutch Underground Movement was beginning to show those symptoms of organisation with which the Germans, with their long experience of Czechoslovakia, Poland and other ravaged countries, were by then only too familiar. They applied the usual, the ever-failing, remedy, brutal, bloody suppression. Seventy-two members of a Dutch Resistance group were taken out and shot in one mass execution.

The echoes of the German tommy-guns were the voice of trumpets to Jan van Hoof and others of his kind. Their organisation became stronger, better equipped, better run. Being a member of the Nijmegen group, Jan was in the thick of it. Their activities were many and various. They forged identity papers and ration cards, they distributed underground newspapers, carried messages, they hid “divers” (people who had to “dive” because the Germans knew them as Resistance workers). As a side-line, Scouting, though absolutely prohibited, was carried on, primarily for its proved educative value, and even produced its own underground newspaper called Fighting Youth. Eager to intensify his efforts, Jan van Hoof became a Rover Scout. His enrolment took place in a wood outside Nijmegen, near a monastery which in 1941 was being used by the Germans as a barracks. During the ceremony, silently and reverently carried through, the Germans could be heard a few yards away stamping their feet, shouting orders, drilling.

And so Jan became a member of the Underground Clan of Rovers, who carried on their Scouting no less fervently because it was performed in secret. There were the same Scouters and Rover Mates as before, but they had a new task. It was to build up a new Scout Movement ready to appear when the war ended. To do so it was important to “hold” the small boys during the Occupation, not, of course, physically, but with the bonds of the mind. That was difficult after Scouting was prohibited. Several troops went on in great secrecy and allowed new members to join. They still held camps hidden in the woods, and all celebrated their St. George’s Day ceremonies with camp-fires and renewal of the Scout Promise.

So passed 1941, 1942 and 1943. The German hold was becoming more deadly, resistance to it more desperate. The only light in the darkness was provided by the British Broadcasting Corporation. “Without the B.B.C. news and Mr. Churchill’s speeches, we would not have continued our resistance,” said Scouter Hans Lombaers, speaking for thousands of his countrymen. And he went on to describe their lives during those grim years. “A slow moving-on of history,” he said, “events upsetting our plans. A small victory here-a handful of people saved from German slave labour; a setback there, another handful of people picked at random and shot; a ‘quisling’ talks and an Underground leader is hunted to his death in a Nazi horror camp. Through it all the hope of eventual liberation. Then-June 6th, 1944, when light bursts on Europe with the news of Allied landings in north-west France. How difficult to keep to your quiet path of resistance when your heart is singing and bursting into excitement, and hope runs high that the war will be over ‘by Christmas.’ You must keep sober, though; plans must be made now against the time when the Allies reach Holland. What should be done to foil the German defence?”

An uneasy pause ensued. The British and Americans remained penned in their bridgeheads for weeks, or so it seemed to the impatient spirits in the Dutch Underground. German oppression grew daily heavier and more difficult to bear, and the commands and orders of the infamous Seyss-Inquart more and more intolerable. Then came the news of the battle of the Falaise gap and the break-out of the Allies from the bridgehead. Spirits rose higher and higher as the flood of freedom poured across the northern plains of France, engulfed the bastions of Brussels and Antwerp, and stopped short only a few score miles from the old city of Nijmegen. Messages on the radio multiplied. Every day words of hope and happiness were whispered in the neat streets with their trim trees beside the yellow Waal swirling quietly to the sea.

But now there came a second pause. The Allied armies at the far end of lines of communication, hard to maintain and tenuous because of their length, marked time. The necessary supplies of guns, ammunition, tanks, aircraft, all the thousand-and-one appliances of modern war, were piling up slowly. One day they would be used, but when, when? On all sides the Dutch beheld the feverish preparations of a shaken but not yet wholly defeated enemy to stave off the fate he so richly deserved. A detachment of the Hitler Jugend sent hastily from their homes in the Fatherland reinforced the garrison troops and prepared in haste and desperation to man the last defences on Dutch soil. The citizens of Nijmegen and other towns were ruthlessly pressed into service, boys as young as twelve being set to dig slit-trenches and prepare the sites of pillboxes. Presently the arrival of anti-aircraft guns in ever-increasing number began to be noticed. This could mean but one thing. The Germans feared the advent of airborne troops, who might come crowding thick out of the skies as they had come three months earlier to fall upon the pleasant meadows and lush pastures of Normandy. Now the flat fields and orchards beside the Waal might see them.

The Germans stood to their guns and watched the September skies. The Dutch watched the bridges, and one Dutchman in particular, Jan van Hoof, watched the Nijmegen bridge. By then the conviction that this five-arched bridge, with its great central semi-circular span of steel, was of vital importance to the campaign had become deeply rooted in his mind. Were it and its sisters, the bridge at Graves across the Maas and that at Arnhem across the Nijder Rhine, to be destroyed, the Allied advance would be held up for days, weeks, perhaps months. The great outflanking movement, already dimly to be discerned and the subject of whispers and happy snatches of talk round deal tables in back rooms or beside the bars of quiet caf├ęs, would be in jeopardy. More, it was so already, for the Germans made little secret of the fact that, if forced to retreat, they would break the bridges behind them.

For two months Jan van Hoof studied the preparations to blow the Nijmegen bridge with the utmost attention. To do so more readily and without arousing suspicion, he joined the De Batavier Canoe Club because its boats were berthed near the first pillar of the bridge on the opposite, the Arnhem, side of the river. From this point of vantage he would observe the enemy, and presently he made a discovery of the utmost importance. About two thousand pounds of high explosive had been built into the second arch of the bridge, that joining the main semi-circular span to the Arnhem shore, and the fuse which was to set off the explosion was laid and visible. That fuse must never be lit. The conviction grew and burgeoned in his young mind. He became obsessed with the thought of the bridge and its burden of explosive, and from that thought the next was easy. He must save it. That was his task. To that he was called, specially summoned, perhaps by a higher power, for Jan was a devout Roman Catholic. He both believed in his faith and practised it.

He made many plans, held discussions with the members of his group. Older, wiser, more cautious men shook their heads. They advised him to give up the idea. It was too difficult; no one could hope to accomplish so perilous a mission. Undeterred he went away and returned with new, more fantastic plans. If the bridge were too long, the approach to it too closely covered by pillboxes, the whereabouts of the explosive too far from the Nijmegen side of the river, the railings too high to climb over unobserved, then why not take a boat, drift downstream until beneath the span containing the explosive and then seek to reach it by means of a rope ladder? He and two friends redoubled their enthusiasm for the De Batavier Canoe Club. They observed, they made notes, measurements, in silence, in their heads, lying on their backs flat in the boat and staring up at the vast bridge high in the air above. In vain. The plan was impracticable. No ladder was long enough, and to climb a rope under the noses of the German guards would be to hang in mid-air perfectly placed to be picked off like a bird on a bough. “Then in another fashion it must be done,” said Jan.

His leaders told him to put the project from his mind and to concentrate on easier feats. The firm mouth shut more firmly, and never again did he speak of the bridge. They thought he had taken their advice and had forgotten, as they had forgotten. There were other, more pressing things to do. To remove the charges from the Waal bridge was one of many schemes which they had to admit were too difficult to carry out; one more disappointment they had grown in the past four years to accept as part of the burden of living.
Morally, the Germans had never beaten them, but physically the enemy were still strong, as strong as the defences of the bridge. The structure of steel, stone and concrete is some fifteen hundred feet long and seventy feet high. At its northern end was a German strong-point of pillboxes, with sentries on guard day and night. On the Nijmegen side two high banks, covered with grass on each side of the road, had been turned into German strong-points. To the west of the road the medieval citadel of Walkhof commanded the southern approach, which was in addition defended by dual-purpose guns, deadly against either aircraft or troops. There was no cover anywhere. Breast-high railings ran on either side of the bridge. Just beyond the end of the steel hoop composing the central span, on the north side, by the parapet and facing the north shore, the Germans had lodged two charges. The detonating mechanism was some two hundred metres away, near the pillboxes.

Jan carried out his daily tasks, doing quietly and efficiently everything that came his way; but by now he felt himself to be consumed by the secret fire of the zealot. He became critical and difficult to live with, for if his companions did not reach his standards, he was apt to say so frankly. He disregarded all advice not to use up his energies so fast, took to tonics and sedatives, and as a minor contribution to the common cause discovered and reported the positions of a German anti-aircraft gun and a Radar unit. Then on Friday, September 1st, news flashed round Nijmegen that the Allies were in Belgium and were expected in Holland at any moment. During the next fortnight Jan was even more silent and taciturn than usual. Unknown to him but shrewdly suspected, the three Airborne Divisions were massing for the attack, on the Berkshire downs and in the windy spaces of Salisbury Plain. On the 17th they put to air and came, swooping or falling from the skies above his home. In an hour troops of the 82nd American Airborne Division were locked in combat in the woods and field about Nijmegen. Their headquarters were situated in or near the monastery where Jan van Hoof had been made a Rover.

He and his brother Scouts at once offered their services, and the woods, fields, and presently the streets of Nijmegen began to swarm with boys, lads and young men wearing uniforms patched and faded, often much too large or much too small, but all with the Scout neckerchief, clean and neatly ironed, around their necks, and all with the orange band of freedom on their left arms. This youthful army went immediately into action as guides, as messengers, as spies, and the hardy American parachute troops and the no less hardy men of the Guards Armoured Division noted with wonder that they all spoke excellent English. They had learned it during the dark winters of the Occupation, while awaiting the dawn of liberation. Now that day had arrived and with it the climax of Jan van Hoof’s young life. Now at last he could put into practice the plans he had so often discussed, before they put a bridle upon his tongue, with Major van Burken, Engineer Jules Janssen, Lieutenant Visser and other members of the Orde-Dienst, or Military Interior Force of the Netherlands. On Monday, 18th September, the British guns opened and between 1.30 and 3 in the afternoon, the bridge across the Waal was swept continuously by heavy artillery fire. So severe was it that a German soldier called Schugard, one of the Schutzgruppe, whose task it was to guard the bridge, told his subsequent captors that he and his comrades had been withdrawn from their posts upon the bridge itself. Jan’s chance had come. For months he had been a member of the Geheime Dienst Nederland, an organisation set up by the Netherlands Intelligence Department in London, of which the local chief was G. Jansen op de Haar, with headquarters at Nijmegen. Jan was now, by virtue of General Eisenhowers’s proclamation, an official solder of the Allies. Alone he set out to war. His objective was the smoke-enshrouded bridge along the length of which the Allied shells were bursting. No one saw him go, but at three o’clock that afternoon, half an hour before the bombardment ended, he returned, to be met by his sister Truus in the street near his house. She told him that it had been hit by a shell and destroyed. Jan received the news with calmness, almost with indifference. “The bridge is safe anyhow,” he said, and then turning to his father and mother, who had just emerged dazed and shaken from the ruins of their home, “Thank God the bridge at least is saved.” His voice was well controlled but his eyes, it was noticed, shone. Having given this vital piece of news, he disappeared once more, but returned that evening to the new address where his family was taking shelter, and said again to his sister, “The fuse has been cut through in the very nick of time.”

How had he accomplished his self-imposed, his most honourable task? No one will ever know. On the next day Jan van Hoof was detailed to act as guide to a British armoured car, No. F. 195193, which was taking part in the advance towards the bridge. Through the town beneath the shells it rumbled till, on reaching the Nezelstraat, it ran into a German defence post. There it sustained a direct hit and burst into flames. All inside it, Jan van Hoof included, were killed either by that shell or by the machine-gun fire that followed as they sought to quit the burning vehicle.

Jan van Hoof was dead but the bridge still stood. Secretive to the end, he had, it would appear, made no report on his exploit or, if he had, none reached the headquarters of the American 82nd or the Guards Armoured Division. All that day, the 19th, and the next the battle raged, the Americans, with a gallantry unsurpassed in war, crossing the Waal in assault boats to make good by the evening of the 20th a footing on the opposite bank. Before sunset, aided by reinforcements from the Guards Armoured Division, they had succeeded in clearing the area round the south, the Nijmegen, end of the bridge and the streets leading to it, but a troop of the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards which tried to rush the approaches was driven back with heavy losses. Another attempt was made and presently a second troop of the same battalion made up of four Sherman tanks, two 17-pounders, and two 75-mm. guns, under the command of Sergeant Robinson, who that day won the Distinguished Conduct Medal, made resolutely for the bridge. It was still there, still intact. Why had the Germans not blown it? To-day the answer is known, but to those guardsmen pressing forward in the dusk after a long day of battle, the two thousand yards of steel and concrete running straight ahead above the cloudy river held ominous possibilities. Nevertheless they advanced resolutely. “Our happiest moment,” said Sergeant Pacey, fighting that day beside Sergeant Robinson, “was when we saw the Germans actually on the bridge, firing at us from behind the girders and supports. ‘Well anyway,’ he said, ‘if they are going to blow the bridge, they will blow up some of their own people with it.’ Half-way over, there was a piece of piping across the road. That worried us. We thought it might be some sort of an igniter which would touch off the moment a tank passed over it.” It was a piece of tubing and nothing more, and when we found on the other side, the plunger to which the fuse had been attached was equally innocuous. It had been pulled down but without result, for the fuse had been cut.

For the next few days the Allies asked every one in authority whom they could find who had done this thing, who had saved the bridge. None could say, but gradually as the smoke of battle cleared and long lines of transport began to rumble across its majestic length, men bethought themselves of Jan van Hoof and his obsession. Had he not always said that he would save the bridge, and was it not still standing? A local leader, one Hans, having collected the facts, reported them to the Allied town major at Nijmegen. They were accepted, and he received the congratulations of the Allied Commanding General for a deed of great gallantry performed by one of his men. He responded modestly and with reserve, for the Dutch are a cautious people and it did not seem to Hans and his fellow citizens that the evidence of Jan van Hoof’s deed was conclusive.

They waited a year but no one made any claim, and when it was passed they felt at last that it was right and just to award the honour to Jan van Hoof. So they put his name upon a tablet, and they put the tablet upon that part of the bridge where the explosive had been hidden, and there it is to-day under the second span of the northern end, just short of the steel over-span. The name Jan van Hoof is graven in stone, but like those whom Pericles in another country and another age commended for their sacrifice, it is also in the hearts of men and is of the very stuff of which life is made. Thirty Troops of Boy Scouts in Holland are called after Jan van Hoof who, when the war broke out, was but seventeen and who died at the age of twenty-two.

His deed was one of many performed by brave Scouts. How they did so, what perils they encountered and overcame, will presently be told, but first let the origin and object of the organisation which gave them so much of courage and ingenuity, of honour and resolution, be described, and something of the background against which they stand, bright symbols of valour and victory, be depicted.