Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War after WWII – Part 1

An eye-witness Account by Gerrit Vermeulen, a young Dutch soldier from Renswoude
In his own words:

An army of volunteers – I am one of them – is being trained in the Netherlands for deployment to the Dutch East Indies, which, on August 17, 1945 was declared The Republic of Indonesia by Dr. Ir. H. Sukarno. We will be sent to the Island of Java to restore peace and order.

Renswoude, December 1, 1945

My last day at home, last day in church with my congregation, farewell visits to friends and relatives before we depart, at first to Great Britain for two weeks, then to Egypt for three weeks, then to the Indies. Many people ask, “Why are you going there? You can get a decent job here, where all your friends and relatives live and your life will be easier and safer than as a soldier over there. Those natives have been dominated by the Dutch for hundreds of years and by the Japanese for four years, so let them have their freedom and create a republic of their own.”

Well, people, right now, this is the situation. In the Indies about 200,000 Europeans are still incarcerated in Japanese POW camps in dire circumstances with an enormous death toll due to illness and hunger. They must be liberated as soon as possible. Right after Japan’s capitulation nobody was able to do this. The remaining Japanese certainly don’t try to restore order and peace, no one is in command, there is no authority, and rebellious gangs, indoctrinated, incited and provided with weapons by the Japanese can freely roam the country, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. For the Netherlands to stay away now would be a crime, politically and economically, against all the Europeans and other peoples living there. So I am joining the army, ready to fight for justice and peace.

Zuidlaren, December 2 – 31, 1945 – Training

We are confined to the barracks for training. Daily roll call, standing guard, cleaning and polishing our gear, 6-mile marches, drills, shooting exercises with bayonets, brens, stens and the like.
(The STEN was a family of British submachine guns used extensively throughout World War II and the Korean War. The simple design and very low production cost made them effective insurgency weapons for resistance groups)120px-smg_sten_mk_vi(The BREN (or Bren gun), was a light machine gun made by Britain in the 1930s and used in various roles until 1992)bren1We all have to learn Malay. Once or twice a week the lieutenant gives a language class and the rest of the time we have to study on our own. If I can study during work, I have more time at night for other work, like laundry, writing letters, darning socks and so on. We get vaccinated, once, twice, three times. It did not bother me. But on December 21, I am vaccinated against smallpox, and that affects me for the next two days with swollen lymph nodes and a fever.

The last day is spent getting ready for our move. Everything has to be spic and span; floors scrubbed, windows washed, walls behind cabinets cleaned, trash picked up, all our stuff packed in exactly the way we were instructed. We also learn English manners.

On January 1, 1946, we march off to the train station after inspection. At 6:30 p.m. the train is leaving; without heat, without lights, without windows, with freezing temperatures… a fine day to start the new year! Better not think about home, how wonderful it was each year to wish friends and relatives a very Happy New Year. Our long journey has begun.

East Hampstead Camp, January 4, 1946

The troop transport ship that takes us from Oostende, Belgium, to England has a capacity for 1000 men. Embarking a battalion is quite an operation. Every platoon, every squadron has to be taken to its designated place on board. We have to don life jackets the minute we get on board, because the ship will be crossing the Channel through mine fields and if we should get hit we won’t have time to find our life jackets before the ship is airborne! When we are all situated in our quarters and know the way there, we are allowed to go on deck.

We arrive at 6:00 p.m. in Tilbury harbor on the Thames, and disembark. I stand watch for two hours with 9 others, take the 10 o’clock train to arrive at the designated station at 1:00 a.m., and after a two-hour march arrive in camp. I tumble in my crib at 3:00 a.m., exhausted.

East Hampstead Camp is about 70 km (44 miles) from London. It is very different from Zuidlaren: a large terrain with tall trees and many barracks in groups of six, each with 15 – 20 men. There are toilet barracks here and there, kitchen barracks, cafeterias too, and it takes a good fifteen minutes to walk from one end of the terrain to the other. In the cafeterias we have to pay with English money, pennies, pounds, crowns, half crowns, sixpence, etc. which is not so easy to get used to at first. Cigarettes are available without coupons here, and there is plenty of tobacco, cigarette lighters, flashlights, fountain pens, delicious cake, fried fish, sewing materials and more things that are not available in the Netherlands since the war without coupons.

January 5 – 24, 1946

After roll call we all have to get our teeth checked; about 50 men were disqualified last month in Zuidlaren because of bad teeth. On a walk in the neighborhood I saw squirrels, many large black pigs, red-and-white cows, all different than back home. Along the roads you see large metal storage containers full of ammunition.

The barracks are sparsely furnished: cribs, but no chairs, table or benches; easy to clean, but very dark, with only two windows and one door, and an air vent high up on both sides. There is no central heating in the barracks so at night we sit around a stove – kind of cozy. The days are kind of easy here; we had to hand in our weapons for we will be getting new ones soon.

On January 15, we have to report to the field, all 1600 of us, for a visit of Prins Bernhard. He points out the importance of our duty to restore and keep order in the Indies, and mentions his expectations that many of us, after finishing our time in military duty, may stay to do important and necessary work in the Indies. He then sends us off with God’s blessings and suggests three hoorays for our beloved Queen Wilhelmina.

The tropical outfits we received consist of 3 uniforms, 2 with long pants and 1 with shorts, underwear, coats, a large backpack and a kit bag, all designed for the tropics. Then a new sweater, shirts, 1 pair of new boots and 1 pair of sneakers.

January 25, 1946

Finally, the moment to leave Europe has arrived. At 4:00 a.m. we march off, heavily loaded, including weapons. Then on the train to Southampton, where the New Amsterdam, Netherlands’ largest passenger vessel, awaits us at the station to depart at exactly 2:00 p.m., after we don life jackets again. After a little while, even the last glimpse of the coast disappears from sight and there is only water, water and water.

Stay tuned!

I welcome your comments.


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