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Reminders of October 1944

Barwicker No.120
Spring 2016

Travelling via the Channel Tunnel to visit family in Holland, we decided to spend a couple of nights in Zeeland, a part of the country we had not previously visited. Zeeland is an island that is now connected to the mainland by a tunnel and a bridge. It is mostly below sea level and is protected by dykes which have been maintained for hundreds of years. We had been recommended to stay in the small resort of Domburg and so booked 2 nights at the 'Bad Hotel', which was absolutely excellent, fantastic food!

In the hotel lobby J found a flyer for an art exhibition at the museum in the nearby village of Westkapelle and we decided to travel there the following day. The next morning we collected our picnic lunch and, after a stop to walk over the dyke onto the beach, we set off for Westkapelle. Driving around the village we came across what looked like a church tower with a lighthouse on top. We stopped outside to look at our map but then I noticed a sign on the wall which said 'Commonwealth War Graves'. We went to investigate.

There was a person in the base of the tower selling postcards and taking a euro for climbing the stairs to the viewing platform. There were many, many stairs but the view from the top was worth it. From the tower r could see for miles in every direction. Looking down r saw a semi circle of about 160 plus grave stones. After our descent I asked about the graves and I was told that they were those of the inhabitants of the village who were killed when the Allies bombed the village and breached the dyke in 1944. I wanted to know more.

We left the tower and had our picnic lunch on top of the dyke watching the ships travelling along to the mouth of the River Scheldt. After lunch we found the Poulderhuis Museum but on arrival all thoughts of the art exhibition went out of my mind. On the top floor of the museum were exhibits telling the history of the area from earliest times; on the ground floor was the more modern history. We joined with a New Zealand couple and were given a guided tour of the ground floor with the story of the Battle of the Scheldt and the breaching of the dykes.

In October 1944 it was decided that the only way for the Allies to get a toehold in southern Holland, which was totally under German control, was to breach the dykes
. The local inhabitants were leafletted from the air, telling them what was to happen and to leave. The residents of Westkapelle did not believe that anyone could be so stupid as to breach the dyke and so stayed. On October 3rd, the bombing started.

Some of the residents went to the mill, the strongest building in the area, for safety but the mill was hit and the exit blocked by falling masonry. Most of the village was destroyed. As the tide came in it burst through the damaged dyke and flooded the area. All but 3 of the people in the mill that survived the bombing were drowned as the waters ros~ In the village as a whole 180 inhabitants died. Most of those who survived fled to other villages as their homes were destroyed. From then on, twice a day, most of Zeeland was under water, life became very difficult. The Germans began their retreat inland.

On November 1st the Allies landed. There were only 6 inhabitants still in the remains of Westkapelle, the Germans mostly having made their base on the higher ground. The Allies were resisted by the occupying force in the ruins of Westkapelle and there was some very heavy fighting near the town of Vlissingen which went on until November 7th. Eventually the Germans retreated and the allies were able to take control.

With the village destroyed and sea water polluting the land work quickly had to begin to repair the dyke and rebuild the village. A new dyke was begun further inland which took until October 1945 to complete.

If you walk on the beach at Westkapelle today, in parts you are walking on top of the old village. Behind the new dyke is a lake of brackish water left behind when the dyke was repaired - a reminder of what happened.

The Poulderhuis Museum has a replica of the temporary houses the people lived in for some time. It has copies of the leaflets dropped by the Allies, weapons from both sides and many other interesting pieces from that time but its major achievement is its computer programme, produced with the help of many authorities, which brings to life the events of October 1944. Type in a date during October 1944 and it is possible to hear the words and voices of local inhabitants, members of the German occupying force and the airmen who dropped leaflets and carried out the bombing.

The museum has been working with schools in Holland, the UK and Germany to show how the war affected the lives of ordinary people and to make sure the events of that time are never forgotten. I was so impressed.

Outside the museum is a landing craft of the period. On the dyke is a Sherman tank and a memorial to the British commandos who died during those horrendous days. It was all very well done and extremely thought provoking.

The museum and the whole area are well worth a visit. We certainly enjoyed our stay.

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