A HARD FOUGHT SHIP
The story of HMS Venomous

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Escape to England
The voyage of the Zeemanshoop
Tuesday 14 - Wednesday 15 May 1940


Cover of A HARD FOUGHT SHIP (2017)launch packed with Jewish refugees from HollandThe phoney war came to a dramatic end in April 1940 with the occupation of Denmark and Norway followed by the invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France on the 10 May.

Venomous spent the first week of the German blitzkrieg on the Dutch coast. The Royal Family escaped to Britain aboard a Royal Navy Destroyer on the 13 May and the surrender of all Dutch forces was broadcast at 6 pm the following day. Dutch patriots wanting to continue the fight and Jews from Holland and Germany were all looking for ways of escaping to England.

On the 15 May HMS Venomous and a sister ship were escorting HMS Sandown and HMS Ryde, two requisitioned Southern Railways paddle steamers sweeping for mines near the Goodwin Sands when the lookouts sighted a Dutch lifeboat, the Zeemanshoop - the Seaman's Hope -  its decks crowded with refugees, men and women, flying a large Dutch flag and making distress signals. They were picked up and photographed on the deck of Venomous by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR and landed at Dover that evening.

The refugees from Germany were interned on the Isle of Man as "enemy aliens" but the Dutch refugees were welcomed to England and helped by the Netherlands Emergency Committee. The crew of four university students who saved the lives of the mostly Jewish passengers by hijacking the Dutch lifeboat served in the Dutch Navy and airforce and helped liberate their country.

The voyage of the Zeemanshoop and the story of its passengers and crew whose lives changed for ever when they left the small fishing port of Scheveningen on the day the Netherlands surrendered has an almost mythic status in the Netherlands but had they not been picked up by HMS Venomous they would have been swept down the Channel and into the Atlantic. Click on the links to read about the voyage of the Zeemanshoop and the lives of her passengers and to find out more about Venomous read A Hard Fought Ship.


The dramatic events of May 1940 are described in the new hardback edition of
A Hard Fought Ship: the story of HMS Venomous
which will be published on 9 May 2017
Register your interest now to receive details of a prepublication offer and the book launch at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London


Scheveningen - the only way out

The German invasion of the Netherlands began at 4 am on Friday 10 May with the bombing of an airfield south of Rotterdam followed by the dropping of parachutists. German troops were soon entering the southern outskirts of Rotterdam, the commercial heart of the Netherlands.  The seat of government, The Hague, was twenty miles to the north west and Scheveningen, The Hague's main beach resort, had a large fishing harbour where the lifeboat,  Zeemanshoop, was berthed. 

By Monday 13 May it was clear that the military situation was hopeless and that morning Queen Wilhelmina left for England from the Hook of Holland aboard HMS Hereward. In the early hours of Tuesday the 14 May the British Naval Attaché at The Hague, Admiral Sir Gerald L. Charles Dickens, with his assistants, Charles M. Morrell and Louden, arrived in Scheveningen (the Hook of Holland was now in German hands) and the skipper of the Zeemanshoop, M.J. Bruin, took them out to a Royal Navy destroyer which they boarded under fire from German aircraft. The Zeemanshoop returned to harbour safely.

A few hours later a party of fourteen Dutch naval officers (including Vice-Admiral J. Th. Furstner) and five members of a French military mission (including Général d'Armée Mittelhauser) arrived at Scheveningen. They hoped to escape to England on the Dutch torpedoboat Z-5. Half of them embarked on the Zeemanshoop and the remainder on the Johanna, a fishing boat, but the Z-5 did not turn up and they transferred to the Johanna which took them to Dunkirk while the Zeemanshoop returned to harbour.

I visited Scheveningen on the 8 May 2014 to see the place where these events took place. The present day lifeboat is moored in the same position as the Zeemanshoop in 1940 and it was easy to imagine the scene described below as the students hijacked the lifeboat and set off for England with 46 men and women aboard in calm weather but overladen and with a temperamental and unfamiliar engine. The families of the men and women who escaped to England on the Zeemanshoop celebrated the 75th anniversary of their voyage at a reunion in Scheveningen on the 14 - 15 May 2015.

The Voyage of the Zeemanshoop

The four university students hijacked the Zeemanshoop on the evening of Tuesday the 14 May by breaking the padlock on the hatch to the engine compartment but would not have succeeded in starting the engine without the help of a fisherman engineer from Scheveningen. The quayside was crowded with whole families, mostly Jews, some Dutch and others refugees from Germany, all desperate to escape death in the concentration camps. A soldier fired a warning shot over the heads of those trying to board the overcrowded lifeboat and a man fell in the water while making a desperate leap to join his family and was hauled aboard as the final passenger before the Zeemanshoop chugged out of the fishing harbour at 21.00 hours and headed north west on course to England. Click on the link to read about the voyage.

The names on the sea chart

The student crew wrote down the names of all those aboard the Zeemanshoop on the back of an old chart during the voyage which has been widely reproduced (the chart itself in now in the regional archive of the department Noord-Holland in Haarlem). Despite differences in spelling, the lack of forenames and married women being merely appended to the names of their husbands as vrouw (wife) this chart has been the key to tracing the families of those who left the Netherlands to escape death in a concentration camp or if young, male and Dutch to join the fight to free their country. Marien de Jonge was a hundred when he died at The Hague in July 2012 and at least two are alive today. Karel Dahmen is a fit and active 96 year old who lives in Austin, Texas, and sculls on its lake with a crew of young women, and Loet Velmans lives in the USA with his wife who survived the Holocaust to write a best selling book about her experience. Click on the links to read the stories of their lives.

Some were interned as "enemy aliens" and others welcomed as allies - "victims of aggresion"

The starting point for my research into the story of the Zeemanshoop was the photograph of its passengers on the deck of HMS Venomous taken by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR. They were smartly dressed and looked as if they were on a theatre outing or going shopping rather than fleeing for their lives. This photograph made me want to find out what happened to them after they landed at Dover that evening - and in their subsequent lives. Most of them were Jews fleeing for their lives but their nationality determined what happened to them after disembarking at Dover.

Dutch refugees aboard HMS Venomous, May 15 1940
The refugees on the lifeboat, the Zeemanshoop were photographed aboard HMS Venomous
Their names are all known (they were recorded on a sea chart during the voyage) but can anybody put names to faces?
Photographed aboard HMS Venomous by Lt Peter Kershaw RNVR whose photographs can be seen on page 79 of A Hard Fought Ship

There is no certain means of knowing how many of the passengers on the Zeemanshoop were Jews but it seems reasonable to assume that where whole families left together they were Jewish and although some would be of German nationality non would be Nazi sympathisers.

"Enemy Aliens"

The Netherlands had remained neutral during the last war and many German Jews thought it would be a safe haven. Between the Nazis coming to power in Germany in 1933 and 1938 about twenty five thousand Jews left Germany to seek refuge in the Netherlands. On arrival in Britain the refugees from Germany were treated as enemy aliens and interned. Dutch women married to refugees from Germany were treated as Germans and interned along with their husbands. Even Germans who had lived in Britain for fifty years but had not taken British nationality were interned, including some whose sons were serving in the armed services of their adopted country.

Dutch Refugees

Some of the Dutch passengers including Marien de Jonge who left behind his wife and two week old son and the students who crewed the lifeboat were not Jews and their only motivation for leaving their homes was to fight for their country. But where whole families left together, including women and the elderly, it seems reasonable to assume that they were Jewish.

There were about 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands before the war and around 75% were murdered, the highest percentage for any of the occupied countries of Europe. There were 80,000 in Amsterdam, about 10% of the population, but they did not all live in the old Jewish quarter. Unlike cities in many East European countries, Amsterdam never had a real Ghetto. The Jews were better educated and had more opportunities (e.g. in the diamond industry) and as they became more prosperous, like most Amsterdam citizens, they moved into better houses in other parts of the city or to towns and suburbs throughout the Netherlands. Some were only token Jews, celebrating the major festivals but living like their Christian neighbours. They had followed developments in Germany with growing anxiety and knew what to expect when they heard the news of the surrender broadcast on Dutch radio. The first thing the Nazis did after occupying the Netherlands was to concentrate the Jews in the centre of the city so that control became easier. The Jews with Dutch nationality were also keen to serve their country by joining the armed services or if too old to fight in some other capacity.

Regardless of their religion the Dutch refugees, our allies and victims of Nazi aggression, were welcomed and provided with accommodation in hotels and hostels and offered other practical assistance by the Netherlands Emergency Committee.

The Students

The four students who hijacked the Zeemanshoop and took it to England were young and single. They were what the Dutch came to call Engelandvaarders, English Travelers, men who left their country in order to continue the fight against the Nazi invaders. The oldest was Harry Hack and he was the only one who was studying mechanical engineering and had any experience of marine engines. There seems little doubt that they would not have got far without him. He assumed command from the outset and was recognised by the others as their captain. Harry Hack, Karel Dahmen and Jo Bongaerts were all students at Delft University. Karel Dahmen and Jo Bongaerts came from the same town and had been friends long before they went to university. Lou Meijers was a first year medical student at Groningen.

On arrival in England all four tried unsuccessfully to join the remnants of the Dutch armed services which had escaped to England.They found there was no demand for untrained volunteers and they all spent periods serving on Dutch merchant ships which were at sea when the Netherlands surrendered and headed for London. Karel Dahmen was later commissioned in the Royal Netherlands Navy and was stationed at the Dutch Liason Office at the Admiralty before serving with the Dutch MTB Flotilla at Dover and being given command of the engineering company of the Dutch Marine Brigade attempting to pacify the Dutch East Indies. Lou Meijers flew spitfires with 322 Squadron of the RAF, the famous Dutch Squadron. Karel's friend, Jo Bongaerts, learned to fly at the Surabaya naval air station in the Dutch East Indies but was retrained as a navigator by the RAF and flew Mitchell B25 bombers with 320 Squadron. He was seriously injured when his plane crash landed after a bombing raid for which he was awarded the DFC but retrained to fly as second pilot on bombing raids with the Tactical Air Force (TAC) over France and the Netherlands. Harry Hack was commissioned in the Royal Netherlands Naval Air Service and posted to its base at Surabaya shortly before the surrender of Dutch forces in the East Indies. On his return to Britain via Ceylon he served as an engineering officer with 320 Squadron.

The lives of the passengers and student crew Click on the link and check the name index.

Karewl Dahman and Loet Velmans meet again on the 9 May 2013Karel Dahmen, the only member of the crew of four university students alive today (on left), and Loet Velmans, a 17 year old high school student in 1940 (right), met on the 9 May 2013 for the first time since they disembarked from HMS Venomous at Dover on the 15 May 1940.  They both attended the reunion at Scheveningen on 14 May 2015 but sadly Loet Velmans died on 11 November 2016.

Karel served in the Dutch Navy but Loet's family moved to the Dutch East Indies where he could continue his interrupted education but he was conscripted, captured by the Japanese and spent three dreadful years as a POW working on the Burma - Siam railway. They live today in the USA but occasionally return "home" to the Netherlands.

There may be others amongst the passengers on the Zeemanshoop still alive and I would very much like to hear from them.

Some of the passengers whose names were written on the reverse of the sea chart during the voyage have yet to be traced:

Jacob Meier / Meyer (described by Harry Hack in his memoir as a "Koopman in London"), Meuleman and wife, Singer, Van Wezel, a family of three women and one man named Von Arnheim / Aruheim (or perhaps Von Stroheim) and a Czech with the name P. Zaitschek (or, perhaps, Zaitichek / Zaitichik).

They may have remained in England, returned to the Netherlands or emmigrated to Israel, Australia or the USA. I would like to offer them - or their families - the chance to tell their stories on this web site and, perhaps, like Karel Dahmen and Loet Velmans the possibilty of meeting others who escaped from the Netherlands aboard the Zeemanshoop on the day the country's surrender was broadcast on Dutch radio.


Please get in touch if you can help.
The publicity for the reunion
at Scheveningen on the 14 May 2015 - the 75th anniversary of the voyage - led to a further seven passengers being traced
One of these passengers,
Irene Fischer-Goldschmidt, was 99 when she died on the 17 April 2016



What happened to the Zeemanshoop?

After its passengers and crew boarded HMS Venomous the Zeemanshoop was taken to Ramsgate by AB Harold Knapton and a small crew from HMS Venomous. The belief that she assisted in the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk was found to be false. While the evacuation was in progress the Zeemanshoop was being taken along the south coast via Dover to Falmouth by Ltz. I Dirk van Beusekom KMR OV of the Royal Netherlands Navy assisted by three young midshipmen. Lt Beusekom enjoyed the voyage and described it in his  journal but it is a pity that while the lifeboats of the RNLI were fully involved the Zeemanshoop took no part in the largest evacuation of troops from enemy soil ever attempted.

The Zeemanshoop became a communications launch for the Dutch Navy's minesweepers at Holyhead, Anglesey, and at Harwich on the south east coast of England and when the war ended she was returned to the Netherlands and worked with the minesweepers at Teschelling. Her engine was in a ruinous state and the mechanics renamed the lifeboat the Seamen's Despair. She was restored by the Dutch Navy and returned to the KNRM and remained in service until 1976. Astonishingly, the Zeemanshoop is still afloat and has been bought by a a Foundation and  restored her to her prewar appearance and brought to Sceveningen for the reunion of the families on the 75th anniveresary of the voyage.

Reunion1
Lis Drew and her partner, John Staples, with Wybe van der Wal and a model of the Zeemanshoop at the Nationaal Reddingmuseum in Den Helder on 24 April 2012
Courtesy of Wout Smit

Acknowledgements

Too many people have helped to mention them all here (their assistance is acknowledged throughout the site) but the photograph of the Dutch lifeboat was identified as the Zeemanshoop by Allert M.A. Goossens, a Dutch war historian, who crested the War over Holland web site and an English language Forum. I would not have set out on this quest to find out about the voage of the Zeemanshoop if Lis Drew, the grand daughter of Joop van der Laan, had not sent me a translation of the well known account by De Booys in Between Mines and the Deep Sea plus a transcription of the names on the sea chart; Wybe van der Wal maintains the dorusrijkers.nl web site on the history of Dutch lifeboats including the Zeemanshoop; Wout Smit researched the passengers names on Dutch web sites and lectured on the Zeemanshoop; Radboud Hack, the son of  the "Captain", Harry Hack, translated all known accounts of the voyage including his father's previously unpublished account while Loet Velmans and Karel Dahmen both alive today gave first hand descriptions of the voyage and patiently answered my many questions.

Bill Forster
Holywell House Publishing

Read about HMS Venomous, the Royal Navy destroyer which picked up the passengers and crew of the Zeemanshoop, in
A Hard Fought Ship: the story of HMS
Venomous
The new hardback edition will be published on 9 May 2017



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