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May 1940. Edmond Vandievoet is 34 and wishes only one thing: to serve his country.Enrolled in the Belgian army, he will escape captivity a first time and will flee to Paris, where he will specialize in the passing of men and equipment between Brussels and the French capital.Arrested several times, evaded as many times, Edmond Vandievoet will be imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, from which he will be the only one to escape.It is only after an extraordinary travel through the nazi Germany, weakened by the starvation and cold, that Edmond will come back to Belgium, and then France, to enjoy a peaceful and well deserved retirement.Discover this extraordinary story of a man who fought his heart and soul to survive. An incredible testimony that will plunge you into the darkest times of the Second World War.ABOUT THE AUTHOREdmond Vandievoet was, without a doubt, a great resistant and an incredible man of action.EXCERPTLike all Belgian men of my age, I had been conscripted nine months previously, awaiting the fatal attack which, as the days went by, seemed less and less imminent. Hadn’t the High Command, on that evening of 9 May 1940, begun to allow home leave again? The mild spring twilight gave no hint of the torrent of blood and fire that would sweep down on Belgium and her neighbours the very next day.On the 10th of May, there were hardly any soldiers to be seen in the Roman city of Tongres, on the borders of Limbourg, in the province of Liège. And while the German Stukas rained down their cargoes of bombs on the town, I crept through the streets towards the supply store of my Company.
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Like all Belgian men of my age, I had been conscripted nine months previously, awaiting the fatal attack which, as the days went by, seemed less and less imminent. Hadn’t the High Command, on that evening of 9 May 1940, begun to allow home leave again? The mild spring twilight gave no hint of the torrent of blood and fire that would sweep down on Belgium and her neighbours the very next day.
On the 10th of May, there were hardly any soldiers to be seen in the Roman city of Tongres, on the borders of Limbourg, in the province of Liège. And while the German Stukas rained down their cargoes of bombs on the town, I crept through the streets towards the supply store of my Company.
The restaurant where I had rented a room had been decapitated by one storey during the raid. In the cellar poor terrified children hid themselves in the arms of their mother. One of my comrades, wounded, lay on the billiards table in the dining room, another was struck mute in a corner.
With great difficulty, I managed to find an ambulance parked near the station. Terrorised by the bombing, the
driver absolutely refused to drive back to the centre of town and it was only when I threatened him that he finally agreed to pick up my wounded comrade and drive him to Brussels where he could be properly treated.
As for my other comrades, they had commandeered the Company’s lorries to get away as quickly as possible from the storm which had broken upon them. So there I was left behind wandering alone in Tongres, but a bicycle abandoned in a corner lent me too the wings to get back to the capital as quickly as possible.
In Brussels I learned that my wife and son had found places on a train to Paris and that they had installed themselves in a flat which I owned near Les Halles1.
After many adventures – I will spare you the details – I finally managed to locate a part of my Division near Antwerp and, following retreat upon retreat, we ended up near Ypres on 26 May, two days before the surrender of the Belgian army.
The scene was indescribable: in the midst of our convoy, tens of thousands of refugees, with ravaged faces; all around us the Germans, whose weapons pattered at all hours of the day and night. Above our heads, the waltz of the planes, all marked with swastikas, which - between clusters of bombs - threw out tracts inviting us to surrender.
The end was near; so I informed the commander of a French unit which was fighting alongside us, of my wish to go with him to Paris where my family had taken refuge. He refused pointblank - with the result that two days later I was taken prisoner along with my comrades.
At least our commander had not forbidden us to escape if we so wished - or so I believed. I decided to try my luck, and invited ten pals to hide under the blankets and provisions on the back of a lorry. At the wheel, I gently shifted the lorry towards the left side of the road where the German columns rolled, carefully avoiding the civilians who encumbered the route. We were not alone; numerous lorries belonging to the Belgian and French armies crowded onto the access road. They were of course driven by Germans.
We decided to infiltrate ourselves under cover of night into an enemy convoy heading for Ghent. I took off my Belgian military jacket, put on a pullover and tore off the pompom of the police bonnet so dear to our army so that, in the darkness, I resembled the most noble of Aryan chauffeurs. When an enemy column arrived in a cloud of exhaust fumes, I managed to fall in behind the last truck, not without having left behind on the ground two of my companions, though I had firmly instructed them not to leave the vehicle.
And, despite my friends’ fears of being shot if they were found in the midst of the German army, I stayed calmly in the queue, following without misadventure the rhythm of the traffic.
Near Ghent, taking advantage of a slow down, two of my comrades who came from that region took off into the night. The hour was well advanced by the time we reached Vilvoorde. In this familiar territory, I had to act swiftly, because the enemy column that I had followed was going to fork left to return to the Reich, via the north of Belgium.
Not far from the Willebroek canal, I suddenly swerved to the right and, at full speed, headed for Brussels, leaving behind a concert of shouts and squealing brakes.
Near the Shell Petroleum premises, I spotted a temporary bridge which our enemies had erected. With the caution of a Sioux, feeling the wooden planks shiver under the wheels, I crossed the black gulf of the canal, taking care not to plunge in. Later when I returned to the scene of my exploit I saw that the German engineer had erected a bridge that was only capable of bearing light haulage.
Arriving at the Pont van Praet, I stopped to let off my remaining pals and they set out into the darkness of the night. And under the nose - and beard - of all the German sentinels who were guarding the main crossroads of the capital, throwing out a vibrant ‘Heil Hitler!’ I – now alone in my lorry - succeeded in reaching my uncle’s villa in Uccle, in the Brussels suburbs. My relative welcomed me effusively and prepared me a comfortable bed, inviting me to stay with him until the curfew was lifted.
1. His address was 85 rue Rambuteau
Fresh and ready the next morning after having recovered from the stress at my uncle’s, I drew up within less than fifteen minutes at 135 rue de Montenegro, where my parents lived. They grimaced when they saw that my lorry was not equipped with German plates, when the invader usually changed all the numbers.
Beginning with what was most urgent, I unloaded all the stuff in the back and piled it up at the rear of the house. With the lorry empty I set off for the centre of Forest with the idea of presenting myself in double quick time at the police commissariat. But not far from there I decided to go instead to the garage at the rear of the town hall where they kept all the council’s transportation. The caretaker welcomed me with open arms and four workers set about changing the vehicle’s plates and repainting it. Thus my commune became the owner of a new 2.5 ton tip-up truck. The orderly gave me civilian clothes in exchange for my military togs.
Instead of presenting myself at the commissariat, as all the notices on the streets instructed me, I decided to return to Tongres which I had left at the beginning of the campaign.
The route presented a curious spectacle: interminable columns of resigned prisoners, guarded by a few sentries, were placidly heading towards Germany. I have never understood why these poor chaps did not neutralize their guards – they were at least 100 to 1 – and take off over the fields, safe in the knowledge that they would be hidden by the people. Paradoxically, as I cycled along among the civilians who followed the road, I was separated only by a few metres from those columns into which, without a minimum of audacity, I too would have been incorporated.
Near Tongres, the locals were distributing bread and something to drink to the prisoners. In the slow down, I looked around to see if I could recognise any companion in misfortune. And the miracle occurred. I saw a strapping fellow with a Walloon accent whose drawling sound recalled one of my comrades from the provisions company, in charge of distributing the meat. It was indeed him, but in the circumstances it was best to be discreet and I immediately put on speed to reach Tongres, pedalling furiously.
At the restaurant where I had chosen to live during the phoney war I was overjoyed to find the landlady and her beautiful daughter, two people whose savoury language was only rivalled by their corpulence, which must have attained 90 kg. I immediately explained to them that I had seen a pal who formerly lodged with them and that it was essential to release him from the clutches of the Occupier who was taking him off into Germany. And at that my imposin ‘jugs’ spontaneously offered their aid and immediately escorted me to the station.
My two accomplices mixed with the crowd that was feeding the prisoners. As for me, with a nonchalant air, I passed along the column looking for my friend. When I found him I told my companions and, hidden behind them, I edged them towards the prisoner. When they recognised him they seized him bodily, cutting a furrow through the crowd despite the protestations of our pal who feared that the Nazis would put a bullet in his head if he was recaptured.
But the German guard could do nothing and our escaper returned unmolested to the boarding house where a copious feast was served by our accomplices.
With a change of clothes, and equipped with a bike, our friend left for Brussels with me. I had great difficulty in convincing him to take the main roads rather than the country roads, as the German police were less mistrustful of civilians who travelled by day and showed their faces. At Louvain, my pal forked towards Charleroi, from where he was to head for home, in the little town of Jumet.
I saw him a few weeks later among his people. It was an extraordinary party. A carpenter by profession, my comrade was his family’s sole breadwinner and only his skill as a craftsman enabled his clan to survive. But I should not anticipate…
After my return from my excursion to Tongres, where I had not been able to recover my belongings, buried under the rubble, I looked for a paid job, as I had no money. Remembering that I had gifted a lorry to my municipality I went to request an audience with the burgomeister of Forest, Leon Wielemans. He received me very coldly and did nothing positive in response to my request.
My wanderings led me in the area of the Anderlecht abattoir and by chance, on my way, I heard an astonishing discussion. It was about a new lorry that had been bought by the butchers Pierre and Leon De Wyngaert of the rue Ste-Catherine in Brussels, and the fact that none of the three drivers of the establishment dared drive it into the tiny depot. Knowing the sharp character of their bosses, no employee wished to run the risk of damaging the new vehicle and thus provoking the wrath of his masters.
I jumped at the chance of telling the master-butcher of my driving skills and after a successful test, I was hired. The next day, for a monthly salary of 400 marks, I began my new job which, starting at 4 in the morning, did not end until 10 or 11 at night. So I got into the habit of sleeping in the cabin, with several good blankets.
Every second day I transported meat to Charleroi, and I picked up in exchange some people who had not been able to catch the last bus back to the capital. I was careful to leave my passengers at a tram stop on the outskirts of Brussels, lest my boss should discover the aid I was giving to these bold commuters. This small helpful gesture proved remunerative as, when we came to our destination, they nearly all tipped me with the sum that the bus ticket would have cost.
All was for the best in the best of all possible worlds until the day when a foreman from the butchers took it into his head to accompany me to Charleroi. Doubtless he had learnt of my little sideline and was perhaps preparing to demand a share of the profits.
But I refused, as in any case I was impatient to go to Paris where my family was expecting me. So I handed in my notice, which was accepted by my boss who did me the kindness of keeping my place vacant for 4 weeks if it so happened that I could not find a new job in Paris. I did not need to profit from his generosity.
To get to France, and - what is more - without valid papers, presented a challenge, but when you are driven by the desire to rejoin your family after a long separation, the most unbelievable boldness takes hold of your guts. That was certainly my experience since I hitched a ride with German soldiers. After having invited me to get into their truck at the Place Poelaert in Brussels, from where they made a regular trip to the French capital, they deposited me without turning a hair at the Place de la Concorde.
My first goal was to find a job, but I had reckoned without the number of factories closed by the war, and especially the fridge companies which might have welcomed my skills.
The provision of food was dysfunctional and the black market, and those who gained a living from it, were beginning to proliferate. That’s why I decided to make trips to Normandy, from where I returned frequently, loaded with cheese, butter and meat to feed my family and – especially – to be resold. So I introduced myself little by little into the shadowy world of the traffickers of all kinds who haunted the markets in Paris.
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