Escaping the Gestapo, to flee to Australia
By Jan Bastiaan in 2003
I was born in an Amsterdam hospital on April 21, 1920, because my father
and mother were living on a barge ship and they were delivering a load of
sand for the Amsterdam Council. I was the third child after Riek and Willem,
and the ship was becoming too small for three children. My father went to
Diemen, an outer semi-rural area near Amsterdam, and started a grocer shop
in the front room of our house.
Dad worked hard and saved up to buy a houseboat for us to live in and he
paid mooring fees to a local farmer. Then Dad bought a motor boat and fitted
it out as a floating grocery store. In those days barges were towed by a tug
boat and were on the water for days on end. I can remember that on school
holidays we were allowed to go on the boat with Pa. We had to weigh all the
sugar, flour and other loose produce. Nothing was packaged then except tea
and coffee. It was during this time on the houseboat that my other sister,
Diny, and two brothers, Adrian and Cornelius, were born. There were now six
mouths to feed.
Dad was working such long hours it is amazing that he had time to procreate.
After some time Dad and Mum borrowed money from a friend of theirs, and
purchased an acre of land from the farmer where our houseboat was moored. He
obtained permits and built a general store, where both my parents sold
grocery items as well as lemonade, coffee, tea, sandwiches and biscuits. We
children had to paint the planks after school until it was dark. Then when
the shop was running we established a newsagent and delivered newspapers.
Dad applied for additional permits to sell beer and wine and added on a café
restaurant when all the family became involved. Mum worked as hard as Dad
and never had any days off or any holidays. Dad sold the motor boat and
transferred all the goods to the general store. The older children ran the
home delivery service for those people who were no longer serviced by the
On Friday after school I went by bike to get the grocery orders. On Saturday
the older children delivered the items. When I was old enough, Dad put me
into the café serving as a waiter. I was only 15 when I started there.
During the quiet months of winter our family hired a marquee at the local
ice skating rink and sold refreshments. We had to ride our bikes 3km to this
rink in any weather conditions. As life went by, my older brother Will
joined the navy and went overseas. Naturally I got the urge to travel too
after reading his letters and I joined the Navy in late 1938 when I was 18.
A year later war broke out. At that time I was in the Netherlands naval base
at Den Helder, Northern Holland, and had been allocated on a ship which was
being built in Amsterdam, but they towed that to England without me. I well
remember the Germans coming in our bicycles and our commander didn’t want to
surrender. So we shot at them. I can recall shooting one of them in the leg.
But what trouble we got after that encounter! They tried to bomb our depot
ship but missed. Most sailors were killed when they left the ship in a
panic. My friend and I stayed on deck and looked where the plane was coming
from and we ran to the other end.
Eventually I was taken prisoner and all the naval prisoners were placed on
railway stations throughout Holland. I was stationed in Utrecht which is the
centre where most trains go in all directions. We had to look out that
people did the black-out properly. I don’t know which government made this
decision, but the Germans were smart in that the general running of the
invaded country was uninterrupted.
As a typical 18-year-old I did things I wasn’t supposed to do, such as fist
fighting the Germans and running away very fast. I pinched food from the
goods trains, which as being shipped to Germany. We had to learn how to
re-seal the doors, which we did quite well. I fed people at my boarding
house by doing manual tasks at a farm in exchange for food. We were part of
an underground movement with only 10 of us, because if you were picked up
and questioned by the German Gestapo, you only knew a few people.
I was picked up by the Gestapo over a box of pistols. Our group knew that a
Dutch collaborator had delivered revolvers to a house in Utrecht. One of the
boys boasted to his girlfriend and she unwittingly told another person who
happened to work for the Gestapo.The boyfriend was never seen again. I was
picked up from the boarding house early in the morning and taken to the
Gestapo head office. They started questioning me and asked me if I liked
Hitler. I said that I didn’t know, and that I had never met him. Then they
asked if I liked my Queen Wilhelmina who had left me to flee to England. I
answered the same way. He looked out the window and said that there was a
car going to Berlin and I had to be on it. So I said that was good, but that
could I pick up some clothes and could I meet Hitler? Then he got angry and
said That I must be mad. He pushed me down the stairs and I was lucky to get
away from there alive. I know the Gestapo followed me for three days. The
same men were on street corners following my progress between the boarding
house and the station.
Then one day a fellow Dutchman, Jansen, said would I like to go to England
with him? I took his address and passed it on to my leader. After checking
within other groups of the underground, he said I could trust him.
Jansen knew a barge skipper who could smuggle escapees onto his barge and
past the sentries. A pilot boat moored next door would be my passage to England
if I could steal it away. They needed seamen to handle the boat and read a
compass in order to reach England. Sounded easy.
Adriaan van der Craats
So my naval friend Addy van der
Craats agreed to come with me. When we reached the barge cabin there were eight
men and one woman inside, Jansen included. A couple in the group, Mr and Mrs
Levy were Jewish, and the Gestapo were after them. Addy and I were then told
that we had these extras as passengers. I wasn’t worried as long as I could get
The boat we needed was not next to the barge but further up to the jetty, next
to the German tugboat. There were two German sailors on the deck of the tugboat.
Addy and I had to sneak up and climb over the side and down the ship’s ladder.
Unfortunately there was a locked chain onto the German tugboat. I stayed in the
cabin to check the motor, while Addy smashed the lock. The noise attracted the
German sailors who shone torches at the boat. I hid in the cabin and Addy went
down into the anchor hold. After their light was extinguished and all was quiet
we counted the steps taken by the sentry. We untied the boat and we went to the
back of the adjacent tugboat. I was checking the boat and Addy climbed up a
ladder to the jetty to get the others.
We brought them down two at a time. The underground officer had calculated the
tides. We drifted out to sea. It was amazing that the German sailors had not
noticed our boat. We thought all our homework was done but we had not accounted
for a new searchlight, which had just been installed. It went on when our boat
was in the middle of the river but was sweeping to the left and we were heading
to the right. When it returned its sweep, our boat was out of range. A German
Torpedo Boat came into the river and we saluted. They saluted back. They were so
close I could see the officer’s face. I had on a naval cap and jacket, which was
the same as the German ones. Addy hid on the other side of the boat. We had
already hidden all our passengers. When we were out at sea we turned the motor
on. We couldn’t find the water-cooling tap, but when we were far enough out to
sea we could turn a torch on and locate it. The motor was red hot. We turned it
off to let it cool down and we drifted towards Norway. I recorded the numbers on
the buoys. Then we switched it on and we motored on for hours, but the motor
broke down. I think there was a petrol block. Luckily there was a tool box on
board and we could dismantle the fuel line and fix it. I got ill sucking the
petrol line. The motor ran on for another couple of hours and broke down again.
We made a sail out of a storm cover, a mop, a hook and several lengths of rope.
I again noted the number on each boy we passed. In the UK, we dodged the mines,
followed a fisherman and landed in Margate and were arrested by the home coast
guard. They had only one rifle between them, but we wouldn’t have escaped
because we had reached our destination at last! They took us to Herne Bay Police
Station and locked us in the cells overnight. The next day we travelled by bus
to London. There we were questioned for four days in a special interrogation
house. Every day there was a different man asking the same questions.
The English were aware of our escape, but had to be certain about who we were.
Over the BBC radio broadcast in London it was announced that Big John (Jansen)
and Little John (me) had arrived safely and we sang a Dutch song. When the
interrogation was confirmed we were free to go.
The English approached Jansen, Daalhuysen and I to ask if we wanted to work for
the secret service. We agreed and they trained us to blow up railway bridges,
etc. Every day we had to eat carrots because they said that we would see better
at night. So one night they took us out in a truck and they put us in the middle
of no0where and the instruction was that our house was West from there. We had
to find our way home.
We went through a field full of cabbages, so we pinched some and gave it to the
chef to cook for us. We were not popular. One day the commander had a party, so
we sneaked out, past the sentry on the road and we walked five miles to a
country pub. We enjoyed a few drinks and despite being in English uniforms we
were picked up and returned to an angry commanding officer the next day. Jansen,
who could speak English, said: “Sir, you have trained us so well that we have
passed your sentries.” He was so pleased that he puffed out his chest and asked
that we not do that again.
After all that training our Queen had to approve that we join the English Secret
Service. She was concerned about all the innocent citizens of Holland who would
be killed as a result of our sabotage and destructive missions. Queen Wilhelmina
refused to sign. Jansen and I returned to the navy where he became a radar
operator and I went to Scotland to learn submarine detection.
I was assigned to the Tjerk Hiddes, a destroyer for three years. We were sent
out to the African coast, and under British command, assisted in the Battle for
Madagascar. Later on we were stationed at Fremantle, under American command, and
did escort duties from the Middle East, such as bringing the 9th Division home
to Australia and New Zealand troops to their home.
We received an order to travel to Darwin and were attacked by Japanese planes on
the way. A significant order was to rescue about 800 Dutch and Australian
commandos, and Timorese women and children from Timor, and we knew that three
ships had already been lost trying to complete this difficult task. We had
loaded plenty of Swan Lager beer before leaving Fremantle and we invited
Australian servicemen on board to our party. We drank the lot and this added to
our Dutch courage. Luckily we managed to avoid bombing and torpedos from the
Japanese and after two trips we were loaded up for the third trip with all the
rubber. We looked like a merchant ship.
While we were sailing back to Darwin on the first trip I met a man called Bruce
Smith who had been one of the commandos hiding from the Japanese. He asked me if
I would see his beautiful mother in Melbourne if I got back before him. He
forgot to tell me he had two beautiful sisters. I went out with the eldest
Heather first, but Heather never answered my letters. Nancy, the youngest child,
did and to cut a long story short I married Nancy on August 6, 1946, while I was
on four day leave.
Eventually at the end of the war I was discharged and my Navy offered to book my
passage back to Australia in two years’ time. So I went around to all the
harbours of Europe to find a passage back. I met a New Zealander in Rotterdam
when I was giving directions to him and he mentioned that his ship was looking
for two seamen.
We went back to the Captain straight away and he couldn’t sign me on because
only the Swedish Consul could do that. At the Consular Office there was a tall
woman who directed me to the foreign ships office. The clerk at the desk was not
looking up at me when I arrived so I threw him a packet of Lucky Strikes on the
table. He still didn’t look up but asked for all my details and he processed my
I returned to the Swedish Consul and I received notification to board that ship
on Saturday. I was supposed to get tropical immunity injections, but I forged
the Doctor’s signature instead. I still had to get a police clearance that I had
no criminal records. Fortunately I knew someone at that office from the Navy and
I got cleared in that time. I worked on the Swedish tanker on the day shift, but
I didn’t work hard enough and they put me on the Dog Watch 12 midnight until
4am, 12 noon until 4pm. While on the tanker I was sent a telegram from General
Motors Holden offering me a job as an electrician. It turned out that my
sisterin- law worked with a lady at White Crow whose husband was the employment
officer at GMH. She mentioned that I was an electrician and her husband knew
that they needed one.
The tanker came into Sydney and Nancy was waiting there. Back in Melbourne I
went straight to the SEC and with a B-class permit was able to start work at GMH.
While I worked there during the day I attended night school to familiarise
myself with regulations in Victoria and to obtain my A-class license. I worked
six years at GMH and learned a lot about machinery.
I decided to start electrical contracting for myself and worked seven days a
week and 24 hours a day on emergency calls. I purchased an electrical business
in Malvern Road, Toorak, and with Nancy’s help we operated the business from
this shop. We were in hardware and electrical gifts for 12 years. Nancy retired
from the shop when her mother died as there was no-one to look after the
children. I went on contracting from the family home in Elwood. We moved to
Brighton in 1972.
We lost our first baby, but were fortunate to have a son Ross, who is now a
Periodontist, and a daughter, Janice, who is an Optometrist. We had a very happy
married life for 50 years and nine months, after which time Nancy succumbed to
Pancreatic cancer. One of Ross’s patients asked about the name Bastiaan, because
the group she volunteered with, were trying to trace Jan Bastiaan. That same
night I was given the telephone number of Mrs Levy, the only women in the boat
all those years ago. I was given the number of one of the men, Tony Loontjes.
Both were alive and well and living near each other in Utrecht. I rang them and
arranged to travel to Holland to have a reunion. My friend Dorothy Shapter
travelled with me to that meeting. She said that when we all saw each other we
just looked and cried. Greta was 90 years young and Tony was 80. I have been
over with Dorothy a second time and we regularly correspond.
Postcript: I was sad to hear two weeks ago that Greta Levy died at 94. I’m so
glad I met her again. We were lucky.
vlnr Aad van der Craats, Jan Bastiaan en Jan Jansen
These were the people on the vessel:
Levi, born 1910.
Adriaan van der Craats,
Jan Bastiaan, born 1921.
Walrave van Krimpen,
Gerardus van Asch, born 1922.
Johannes Jansen, born 1917