HE WHO LAID DOWN HIS LIFE FOR HIS FRIENDS
In Netersel (Bladel)
Dozens of German cities were the target of British and American bombers during the war, including Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Essen and Dortmund. German anti-aircraft guns and fighter aircraft tried to shoot down the bombers, sometimes over Brabant. The Resistance in Brabant tried, wherever possible, to give refuge to crew members who survived the crash. That is how in May 1944 the lives of a young British pilot and a Brabant farmer became inseparable from each other.
It was 23 May 1944 at one thirty in the morning when the 22-year-old pilot Ernest Holmes flew his Lancaster ND 762 over the Kempen region of Brabant, with seven other crew on board. His plane was flying back to England after picking out targets in Dortmund. Suddenly Holmes was intercepted by a German fighter plane which opened fire on the Lancaster. ‘Bail out, bail out!’ he shouted when it was clear that the third engine had been hit. Before the crew could jump out there was the sound of a big explosion.
Holmes was slung out of the cockpit but became caught up on the straps of his harness. A sudden turn freed him and he flew through the air. His parachute opened just in time and he landed in the cold grass with only a swollen lip. Four men were killed instantly. He walked across the Landschotse Heath – which ironically was a training ground for German bombers – and had no idea where he was going.
While on her way to milk her father’s cows, Netje van der Heijden saw a man in pilot’s uniform and numb from the cold, walking in the early morning. She wished him ‘Good morning’ and took him to a safe place: the farmhouse where her parents Fons van der Heijden and Mina van Hoof offered shelter to students in hiding and pilots. Ernest Holmes was neither the first nor the last fugitive for this family. He lodged in a converted chicken shed in the garden, along with two students.
Holmes felt welcome and safe, but he wanted to get back to England as quickly as possible. It quickly became clear that this would take longer than expected. He remembered later, emotionally: ‘A friend of the family begged me, “Please get away from here. If you are discovered, they will be executed.” Then I realised that they were putting their lives at risk to help me.’ Holmes finally managed to reach Antwerp with help from Van der Heijden’s contacts, where after being betrayed, he ended up in German captivity after all.
Meanwhile the liberation of Netersel was so close that you could almost sense freedom. But on the Wednesday morning of 20 September 1944 German soldiers detained Fons as he was coming out of church. They had found suspicious belongings in his house, so they searched his house again. An injured American soldier who was hiding in the attic of the pig shed was not discovered, but they had sufficient evidence.
Under severe threats to his family, and because he wasn’t sure what had been found in his house, Van der Heijden admitted to helping three pilots. In this way he hoped to spare his family and the fugitives who were still there. He was taken to a meadow on the edge of the village and while he was on his way he saw his oldest brother. ‘Take care, Sjef, goodbye’ he said to him. Then the soldiers shot him in the back and in the head. He died on the spot. In the days that followed the family’s farmhouse was completely destroyed: household goods and things of value disappeared, grenades blew holes in the roof and the attic. The six children in the Van der Heijden family fled to Middelbeers, his wife Mina stayed with her brother. She did not want to leave her husband.
It was only later that Ernest Holmes discovered that the person who had sheltered him had paid for the help he gave others with his life, just before liberation. It was an emotional discovery for him. And it makes the passage from the Book of St John in the Bible even more poignant, he later told the BBC: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’.
On 29 September 2018 the Heemkundekring De Hoge Dorpen historical society unveiled a monument in memory of the crashed Lancaster, close to the place where the plane had come down, killing five young men. It was unveiled by Ernest Holmes, now 97. ‘I’m so humbled, thank you,’ he said emotionally. One of Fons van der Heijden’s granddaughters was moved by the gratitude that emerged during the ceremony. She said of the bond between the two families: ‘Ernest stayed with my grandmother and grandfather for two and a half weeks. That was 74 years ago and once again we are standing here together.’
Fons van der Heijden
Image: Heemkundekring Bladel (Pladella Villa) historical society
Ernest Holmes in action
Image: David Holmes
Flight lieutenant Ernest Holmes (97) at the monument that was unveiled on 29 September 2018 in remembrance of himself, his crew and other Allied pilots. On the left and right, Ernest Holmes’s son and daughter are guiding their father as he is now blind.
Image: Heemkundekring De Hooge Dorpen historical society