Sunday, 7 August 2011

When I heard the Bell - a rebuttal

I have read John Macleod's excellent account of the Iolaire Disaster, When I heard the Bell, and can only fault it on some of the sweeping statements in its first chapter. I specifically want to answer the assertion that people from the Isle of Lewis did not care about the fact that the Netherlands were invaded by Nazi Germany in May 1940. This, allegedly, because the Dutch had remained neutral during the 1914-1919 war and had interned more than a hundred islanders at Groningen between October 1914 and the Armistice of 11 November 1918.

I have worked with a local historian in Groningen to unearth the story of the internment camp (dubbed HMS Timbertown by the inmates). Under its policy of neutrality, Holland could not be seen to be favouring either side (Germany or England), so when combatants from either of those two other countries ended up on its territory, they had to be interned until the end of the war. Releasing them to their homeland would place the Netherlands on the side of one, and expose itself to attack from the other. The internees were treated with respect, as they were allowed (upon their word of honour) to return to Lewis on compassionate grounds or for harvest leave. They all returned at the end of the allotted period, none broke their word.

My rebuttal is based on the below article from the Stornoway Gazette of 24 May 1940, when it lists four islanders who became casualties in action off the Dutch coast. I copy:

Three Lewis naval reservists were killed in action last week, and a fourth was seriously wounded.
Murdo Maclean, RNR, 1 Breanish, killed in action, is the first West Uig casualty of the war. He was about 27 years of age and unmarried. Louis Macdonald, 9 Ardroil, is reported seriously wounded. His father left Stornoway to see him in a naval hospital. Malcolm Maciver, RNR, 72 Coll and Peter J. Macleod, RNR, 10 Eagleton have also been killed in action, or have since died of wounds. Both were young unmarried men - Maciver in his early twenties and Macleod just nineteen. Malcolm was a brother of Angus Maciver, who figured in the capture of the German ship "Borkum" last year, which was afterwards intercepted by a U-boat when being taken to a British port by a prize crew. The prize crew escaped in two lifeboats, taking the German prisoners with them. It is understood that all four of these reservists were serving on the same ship, but the circumstances of the action are not known. The Admiralty has stated, however, that naval units were neavily engaged by Nazi bombers off the coast of Holland, and it may be in these operations that these valuable lives were lost. 

Immediately on the invasion of the Low Countries, British destroyers raced to the main Dutch ports and, until the country fell into the hands of the Germans, they did valuable work in the face of intense aerial bombardment. The Navy not only took the Dutch Queen and Government to London, and removed millions of pounds worth of diamonds, gold and foreign securities, but carried out extensive demolition works when the position of the Dutch army became desperate. Oil tanks were blown up, naval lock gates jammed, electric machinery destroyed, harbours blocked, one by the sinking of an old liner across the entrance; German minefields were swept, British minefields laid and small craft penetrated to the Zuyder Zee.

Furthermore, the cemeteries at Sandwick and Eye feature a gravestone, dedicated to the memory of Corporal Duncan Alick Macaulay, late of 7 East Street, Sandwick who was killed in action near Sittard in southern Holland on 19 January 1945. He took out a machinegun post alone, but was shot by a sniper.

If the people from this island held such resentment against that "weird little country", I don't think they would have put themselves out to such a degree.

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