CIGARETTES AS SILENT WITNESS OF A BIESBOSCH CROSSING
The unsuccessful Battle of Arnhem brought the liberation of the Netherlands in the autumn of ’44 in Brabant to a halt. This meant that the Biesbosch in Brabant became a sort of no man’s land during the last winter of the war, with boats crossing over many times during the night to bring people, medicines and secret documents to safety without being seen.
The British General John Winthrop Hackett landed on the Ginkelse heath near Ede on 18 September 1944 with the fourth British Parachute Regiment. At the end of the Battle of Arnhem on 24 September ’44 he was seriously injured and transferred to the St Elisabeth Hospital in Arnhem. It’s a wonder that he survived such a serious operation.
Ten days later the resistance snatched him from the hospital and he was looked after by the unmarried sisters Mien, Anna and Cor de Nooij and the widow Rie Snoek-de Nooij. The sisters took good care of him, it took him four months to recover his strength. It wasn’t until 30 January 1945 that he took leave of his ‘nurses’ and cycled through the snow via Groot-Ammers to Sliedrecht. His identity card was issued in the name of ‘Mr Van Dalen’ and on the reverse was a badge indicating that he was deaf. This was to prevent the British general from being betrayed by his language or accent.
Four days later his ‘Biesbosch crosser’ Koos Meijer was waiting for him in Sliedrecht to row the general over the water to the liberated southern part of the country. “It promised to be a cold night. All the reason to thank Aunt Mien for her thick blue and white underwear and the long white woollen sweater that I was allowed to keep for the journey”, is how Hackett described his journey through the dark Biesbosch. “I was helped into the boat. Strong hands pushed us off and Koos paddled away with powerful strokes. Our boat danced like a demon on the rolling waves. I held on tight where I could, foam was spraying in my face and I did my best to match my movement to that of the boat. It was cold. I untied my shoelaces so I could wriggle my toes because I no longer had any feeling in my feet”. He arrived safely in Drimmelen harbour in the liberated south of the country where he was met by the British Army. “Amidst this familiar and grateful assortment of British Army equipment in the field, I fell back into my seat. I was back with my own men! Koos came inside and we were keen to see each other for the first time in daylight. I did what I could to express my gratitude to him”. As a way of thanking him, the general pressed his last packet of cigarettes into Koos’ hand and signed it.
In April 1967 the film ‘Grensrechters in de Biesbosch’ (Border guards in the Biesbosch) was made. It featured eye witness stories of the Biesbosch crossers, with stories about Kees van de Sande and Arie van Driel who had been executed. And also General John Winthrop Hackett; the film shows him meeting his ‘crosser’ Koos Meijer from Sliedrecht once again. Then Meijer shows the packet of Player’s Navy Cut Tobacco cigarettes with the general’s signature that he had been given 23 years earlier by Hackett as thanks for a successful crossing.
Hackett received an unusual gift on 8 April 1967. The Royal Association ‘Onze Luchtmacht’ (Our Air Force) presented him with a porcelain dish, designed by H.A. Elshout and featuring the beautiful colours of that unusual journey through the Biesbosch in the winter of 1945. On 21 September 2012 General Hackett’s relatives presented the unusual porcelain dish to the Biesbosch Museum. It has been given a place in the museum in the Biesbosch crossers’ canoe – next to Biesbosch crosser Koos Meijer’s packet of Player’s Navy Cut Tobacco.
Hackett died on 9 September 1997 aged 87, he was the last surviving general of the Battle of Arnhem.
The porcelain dish that John Hackett received in 1967
(Image: Biesbosch MuseumEiland Werkendam, 2018)