On the 10th May 1940, the Netherlands was invaded by Germany. The Dutch had been planning to halt the Nazis’ progress using their incredible knowledge of water and their defensive canal line to flood the land where they would make their advance. Unbeknownst to them, the German military had made secret missions to check out the defences long before the planned invasion, and by the time they began to bring the line back into use, the invasion had already started. The four-day Battle of the Netherlands was a David and Goliath situation which ended quite differently. The intense bombing of Rotterdam destroyed the vast majority of the city’s medieval architecture and killed 900 people, leaving 85,000 homeless. The Dutch Resistance was fatally weakened and on the 14th May, surrender was signed and the occupation formally began. The government and the royal family were evacuated to London to govern in absentia.
In his book, Tom wrote of the two choices that everyone faced in that period of time- to collaborate, or resist. It’s a stark choice, and perhaps tinged with the certainty of adolescence. As we age it becomes clear that nothing is so simple. None of us knows what we would do in the same situation- only what we might like to be remembered as having done.
Tom’s first act of resistance at the age of 14 was to bury a selection of saucepans in the garden- the Nazis were raiding homes for iron they could melt to make bombs. The second was to join the underground newspaper that was being printed at his school- one of many such efforts that took place at a hyper-local level.
Tom’s brother and my great-uncle, Cornelis Gehrels, was born in 1906 and died in 1945. At the outbreak of war, having served in the merchant navy, Cornelis was working in the Phillips radio factory in Eindhoven, which was commandeered by the Nazis to manufacture military radios. In private, he began working on a Phillips project called “Operation Free Netherlands”- the setting up of a radio station prepared to broadcast bulletins to the country immediately after liberation.
He took his knowledge of radio technology home, where he lived with his wife Grie and their eight children. He started crafting makeshift radios in the attic to pick up British frequencies. At the Resistance museum in Amsterdam you can see examples of rudimentary radios made by all manner of people, the how-to knowledge passed verbally from house to house. They were clustered around, these ramshackle devices that look like little spaceships, ears pressed close in crawlspaces, cupboards, cellars; dials constantly twiddled to pick up a whisper, a murmur, from London, from Churchill, from Queen Wilhelmina, from anyone who could provide some good news, some hope.
Cor’s other major Resistance activity was the informally named “Gehrels Organisation”, which fundraised among Phillips employees for families whose sons had been commandeered by the Allies or disappeared by the Nazis and thus had no way of supporting themselves. As well as his radios, he smuggled downed Allied pilots out of the Netherlands on midnight boats, delivering Resistance pamphlets and papers and helped to find hiding places for Jews.
He was arrested in July 1943 and incarcerated. Sometime in September 1944 he was transported.