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The brothers who fled the Nazis by kayak during WWII

Whenever Niels Peteri visits a beach, he thinks of his father, Henri. He was one of the “Engelandvaarders” who, on September 21, 1941, made landfall after having rowed across the North Sea from the Netherlands occupied by the Nazis to join the war effort of United Kingdom.

Niels Peteri was a teenager when he first learned of his father’s dangerous 56-hour journey across the North Sea.

Like most of his generation, Henri Peteri spoke little about World War II or his role in it.

After 80 years of the crossing, Niels remembers how the whole story was told to him at once. It was, he says, a story of unfavorable beginnings, brotherhood, and incredible bravery.

“He thought ‘today is the day'”

Henri Peteri, who had been rowing since college, had heard of other Dutch people trying to escape to the UK by fishing boat.

He also knew that many had been captured before reaching the coast or that they had died when Nazi coastal patrols sank their ships.

But he had also heard of people who made it to the UK from Scandinavian countries by canoe.

Could he, too, he wondered, cross the North Sea in a boat much smaller than a fishing boat?

Henri convinced his brother Willem to take a risk.

Bought a German-made folding kayak in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam before they both headed to a boarding house in Katwijk, a town the brothers knew well because they had been on vacation there before.

One night the brothers began to assemble the kayak.

Who were the “Engelandvaarders”?

More than 2,000 men and women came to the UK from the Netherlands during World War II, of whom approximately 1,700 made the journey by sea.

Many others drowned or were arrested, imprisoned or shot while preparing to leave.

Many of those who made the trip enlisted in the British or Dutch armed forces, the merchant marine or went to work for the government.

More than 100 “Engelandvaarders” – the word translates to “travelers from England” – returned to the Nazi-occupied country as secret agents. Almost half were captured.

“My father looked out the window and thought that today was the day,” Niels says.

“He didn’t want the nights to get shorter and he thought it was his last chance; it was ‘now or never’ ”.

But there was an unexpected problem, dice Niels.

“Once they finished assembling their kayak, they realized that a part was missing,” he says. “So they took it apart and rebuilt it again from scratch. This time, all the pieces were in the right place. “

“There was an east wind and the water was calm. So they left ”.

Actually, they did it twice.

“When they left the Netherlands,” says Niels, “they immediately capsized and lost one of their two compasses.”

Despite this second setback, Henri convinced Willem to continue the journey.

Niels Peteri remembers his father's epic journey every time he visits a beach.  STUDIO WESSELS

“He yelled at a guard to ask if he could stop there”

After 56 hours, the brothers saw a buoy in the water. On the buoy they read the word “Sizewell”, the name of a small town on the Suffolk coast in southern UK.

At that moment they knew they had reached England and continued to row along the coast.

“The first person they saw was a policeman in uniform,” says Niels. “My father told me that he yelled at the sheriff to ask if he could stop there.”

For one thing, Henri was being polite when asking permission. But he also wanted to make sure they weren’t about to head into a minefield.

“The sheriff said ‘no problem’ and they ended up at a police station in Leiston, Suffolk,” Niels says.

Of the 32 men known to have attempted kayaking from the Netherlands to England during the war, the Peteri brothers were among the eight who survived.

Of those eight, only three were still alive at the end of the war.

Henri was the last survivor. He died in 2007.

“Whenever I go to the beach,” says Niels, “I will think about his experiences.”

“It’s pretty scary to imagine doing that,” he adds.

“He was very lucky”

“My father once told me that he never felt as free as the first night he spent in a British jail,” says Niels.

Once examined and released by the British authorities, Henri was among those who had successfully fled the Netherlands to be greeted by the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, who lived in London during the war and led the Dutch government in exile.

Henri Peteri bought his kayak from a store in Rotterdam.  It was built in Germany.  STUDIO WESSELS

For the remainder of the war, he served as an officer in the Dutch navy aboard the ship Jacob van Heemskerck, which was tasked with protecting merchant marine vessels in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as in the Mediterranean Sea.

“He was very lucky,” says Niels. “They had been attacked a lot, but, due to engine problems, they lost the Battle of the Java Sea, where the entire Dutch fleet was destroyed by the Japanese.”

Henri was awarded twice for his service during the war.

German attack

“My Uncle Willem was less fortunate,” says Niels.

Willem, while waiting to join the Royal Netherlands Navy, spent a night aboard a British motor ship off the Dutch coast when the ship was sunk by a German attack.

“On October 3, 1942, my father received a short telegram saying: ‘The admiral regrets to announce that MGB 78 did not return from an offensive patrol.’

“Henri thought he had lost his brother, drowned or killed by the Germans,” Niels says.

His father was especially concerned about Willem because he was dressed in civilian clothes on board the ship and “would therefore be treated as a spy.”

But Willem survived both the hail of bullets and the sinkingand made landfall in the Dutch province of Zeeland.

After being transferred to Berlin, the German capital, Willem was in a cell for three weeks before being sent to a German camp near Lübeck in northern Germany.

It was here that Willem spent the rest of the war.

Inventor career

In 1946, Henri returned to the Netherlands and worked for Unilever until the 1970s when, as the father of six, he decided he was fed up with his entrepreneurial career and became an inventor.

His goal was invent a device that would give people instant access to boiling water.

Niels, 10, watched his father work in the family basement and became increasingly interested in the project, which involved creating a faucet that would deliver instantly boiling water.

That project many years later would become the device Quooker.

The first Quooker was ready for the market in 1992 and by 2000 it had become a popular appliance in the Netherlands.

The company now produces 300,000 Quookers each year and has a network of more than 10,000 distributors and subsidiaries in Europe and Asia.

When asked what it was like to work with his father, Niels said Henri always encouraged him to harness his “energy and talent.”

According to Niels, they never exchanged a harsh word during their many years of working together.

“My father used to say that he felt our greatest achievement was that he, Walter [el hermano menor de Niels que se unió a ellos en 1993] and I never had any conflict, “he says.

“My father not only was he a brave man, he was an extraordinary man”, dice.

The epic journey started 80 years ago is still remembered in the small Suffolk town where the brothers landed.

There is a small monument with three oars.

Two of the oars commemorate the brothers. A third oar, broken, is there to remember the many who did not survive the journey.

In addition, “the complete kayak is exhibited in the company that Henri and I founded,” he says. “The purpose is to keep alive the memory of those who made this attempt, regardless of whether they succeeded or not.”




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