AT LEAST WE GOT RID OF JERRY
Centre of Klundert
At the end of October 1944 the German army retreated in the direction of Moerdijk. The storm clouds of war were still hanging over the Westhoek (Western corner). The Red Cross division in Klundert, with doctor Hendrik de Ruiter in charge, tried to save anything that could be saved.
Violence of war
The front was approaching and measures were being taken quickly in Klundert. The injured were accommodated in three large cellars for safety. The first British grenades fell on the town at the end of October. Allied shelling increased in intensity, the first wounded soon fell and the Red Cross team had it hands full. A week of horror and full of danger began on 29 October. A few days later British grenades claimed their first four fatalities. The Allies had now crossed the River Mark and the liberation of the Westhoek was just a question of days away, when fate struck from the sky.
It was 3 November when German troops arrived, bringing with them a medical division. De Ruiter managed to get in contact with the Stabsarzt (medical officer) but he could not really help with supplies.
Retreating German troops plundered and spread explosive charges everywhere. Tension and fear spread quickly among the population. On that day the British air force carried out four bombing raids in quick succession, with terrible consequences. Twenty eight people were killed and dozens were injured. The upheaval was considerable but the Red Cross division did its work. Its staff rescued people from under the rubble and took them to medical centres. De Ruiter did what he could; when a seriously injured young man was brought in, he was made completely drunk with homemade liquor and then De Ruiter amputated his lower leg by candlelight and without an anaesthetic. After the operation his German colleague transported him and other wounded patients to the hospital in Dordrecht. The victim survived the amputation.
The next day was not much better. Retreating Germans blew up most of the towers and British grenades killed another ten people and injured many more. A large section of the town was now on fire and De Ruiter realised that the situation was untenable. Now what? Three of his men decided to approach British lines the following morning, waving the Red Cross flag. Their mission was successful and they came back with the message that the village should be evacuated immediately. At about the same time they heard the announcement ‘The whole of Klundert is on fire’. That was the signal to leave the town. Everyone fled along the few roads that were still passable in the flooded land. The sick and wounded were taken along and as they looked back the fugitives could see one huge blaze.
The fire was of such magnitude that the British army fire brigade was summoned from Antwerp to Klundert. It arrived the following morning but it took them the whole day to contain the fires. The residents could then return to their houses, or what was left of them. All the towers had vanished and Klundert’s skyline had changed unrecognisably. The residents were appalled and the grief was enormous. Then someone said what was on everyone’s mind: ‘At least we got rid of Jerry.’
In the end 78 of Klundert’s population of about 5000 lost their lives and half of them were made homeless. The town’s fate was a good example of the suffering in the Brabant Westhoek. After the flooding in spring 1944 which had caused a lot of inconvenience, but not much else, violence raged across the region in the autumn of 1944 with 224 civilians losing their lives. Naturally it was the Germans who, even nowadays, took the blame for the fire in Klundert. Unfortunately the reality was more complicated. De Ruiter resumed his practice in Klundert; he died in 1952.
Klundert, 111 Fire Fighting Company 6 november 1944.
Bron: Heemkundevereniging ‘Die Overdraghe’ Klundert