As a result of last year’s trip to the Netherlands, I’m submitting this to a magazine that’s published my work before–International Travel News.
Visiting The Dutch Island of Texel: Europe’s Last WWII Battlefield
By Jim Ure
I traveled to the Dutch Island of Texel (pronounced Tessel) in September, 2012, to do some research for book I am writing.
Texel is the site of an unusual battle in which troops fighting under Hitler turned on one-another and continued a vicious battle even after Germany’s unconditional surrender ended World War II in Europe.
Today, Texel’s summer beaches are busy with European sun-seekers who take the short ferry ride from Den Helder to swim, sun, kite-board and surf on the 15-mile long island. It has a large wildlife refuge, wonderful bicycle paths and is home to the famous Texel sheep, about which we shall hear more.
My trip began with a direct coach flight to Paris from Salt Lake City on Delta (I used 125,000 Sky Miles plus $90 each way for a comfort upgrade) and stopped a few days at one of my favorite Left Bank Hotels (Trianon Rive Gauche Best Western (€188 a night, approximately $258).
Once mental my time clock adjusted, I trained to Brussels for a stop at the Royal Military Museum (Parc du Cinquantenaire 3, 1000 Brussels, admission free, www.museedelarmee.be). This is a must for any war history buff, with everything from ancient pikes and armor to modern tanks and jet fighters. It is the best military museum I have ever experienced.
Using a Rail Europe pass, I moved on to Amsterdam, then changed trains (in the nick of time, with the conductor holding the door open for me) and rode for 90 minutes until reaching Den Helder and the ferry to Texel.
During the brief ferry trip I made the acquaintance of Else Koorn, who teaches kindergarten in the island town of De Koog, my destination. In a wonderful gesture, Else and her husband Tyman (he’s a police detective) invited me to dinner.
When I told Else and Tyman I was on Texel to research the so-called Georgian Uprising of WWII, they knew just the man I should turn to for my research: Gelein Jansen.
Gelein is a native of Texel and has studied this fascinating slice of war history for many years.
He picked me up early the next day from my hotel in De Koog and we began an eerie trip back in time. He filled me on the background.
In 1943 Hitler formed the 882nd Queen Tamara Infantry Battalion, consisting of about 400 German and 800 Georgians, some of latter being turncoats from the Russian Army. They were initially ordered to fight anti-German partisans in Poland, but were shifted to Texel on Feb. 6, 1945, where Hitler believed the Allies might make another landing. The Georgians were put to work building bunkers and gun emplacements.
We first drove into a thick forest where Gelein stopped the car and asked me to look for a bunker. I slowly made out the concrete walls and curved sides of what had once been a storage site for ammunition. It was mossy and overgrown with vines and brush. A chill went up my spine. This 2,000 acre wood held 50 such bunkers, Gelein told me. Soon, he was pointing them out at regular intervals. Most were made of rough concrete, but a few were brick. Some had been converted to use by the farmers of the island.
By early April, 1945, the Georgians on Texel could sense how the winds of war were blowing: The Allies were closing in on Berlin and the war would soon end. Canadian troops were already advancing toward Texel, and German surrender was at hand. The Georgians believed that a landing by Allied troops in Holland was imminent.
The Georgians’ great fear was that once in Allied hands, they would be turned over to the Russians. Stalin’s treatment of these once-Soviet subjects who had fought for Germany consisted of a bullet in the back of the neck. Even Russians who were German prisoners were sometimes executed or certainly sent to the gulags.
The Georgians decided to revolt against the Germans who commanded them.
Gelein took me to the barracks where the revolt began, now a dairy farm.
It was here, shortly after midnight on April 6, 1945, that the Georgians turned on the Germans and while they were sleeping quietly killed several hundred of their German masters using bayonets and knives. The Dutch underground quickly moved to help the Georgians and many islanders took up arms.
Sporadic shots could be heard throughout the night and for the next few days as the Georgians and the Dutch resistance found German holdouts.
Meanwhile, some of the surviving Germans fled the island but soon returned with about 2,000 German riflemen.
Gelein explained that the revolt staggered to a halt when the Georgians failed to capture artillery batteries at either end of the Texel. These batteries fired on Georgian positions while the fresh German troops combed the island foot-by-foot in dragnet style, flushing and killing the Georgians like hunted pheasants.
Any captured mutineers were ordered to dig their own graves, remove their German uniforms, and be executed. This continued for weeks as more Georgians were captured or killed.
Germany’s unconditional surrender in World War II came on May 8, 1945, yet not until May 20, 1945, did newly-arrived Canadian troops pacify “Europe’s last battlefield.”
We visited the Georgian Cemetery near Oudeschild, where I picked a fresh rose from the well-kept burial ground. Fifty dead Georgians lay under each row of roses. There were perhaps a dozen rows, as well as a monument in Dutch and Georgian.
The German dead were initially buried on Texel, but in 1949 were moved to their final resting place at Ysselsteyn Military Cemetery in the Netherlands.
Gelein also showed me the marsh where the bodies of Dutch resistance fighters were thrown after being executed by the Germans. Additionally, I interviewed a woman who had vivid memories of a wounded Georgian hiding in the hay on her farm.
The 228 Georgians who survived by hiding from the German troops in coastal minefields, or who were concealed by Texel farmers, were eventually turned over to Soviet authorities under an agreement with the Allies.
Almost all the Georgians went into Soviet gulags. In an odd turn of fate, perhaps because of Stalin’s death in 1953, those Texel Georgians still alive were “rehabilitated” in the mid-1950s and allowed to return home.
As we drove the roads of the island, Gelein pointed out detritus left over from the war—the bent propeller of an American P-38 fighter and the engine of a British Beaufort torpedo bomber pulled up in fishing nets.
After a wrenching day of viewing bunkers and gun emplacements and fields where the battles had taken place, and after reliving those moments of 67 years before, I was ready for an early evening.
However, Else and Tyman had other plans for me. There was a chef competition taking place in De Koog that evening, a sort of street fair with samplings of all the food offerings available on the island. My favorite were the succulent Texel lamb chops, famous the world over, said to be flavored by the salty grass of the island.
Another chef was quite unsuccessful in his attempt to create an American hamburger. He overdid everything, from cooking to condiments.
It was time to go. My 3 night stay at the Hotel Tesselhoff in De Koog came to €259.90 ($365.95). For more on this very pleasant facility go to www.hoteltesslhof.com. Meals were about another $100 for my stay on the island. I tipped Gelein $150 and I highly recommend him.
The population of the island swells on summer weekends, and my suggestion is to visit in May, June or September.
To learn more about the Texel Uprising of 1945 I suggest you start at www.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgian_Uprising_of_Texel.