Nieuwjaars groet aan de lezer
December 27th,2011

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four decades in the life of William Aker *

I stopped to
bathe my feet
and drink the
water from a
mountain stream.

                Allan Booth (from Roads to Sato)
  Photo Paul van Bueren

   Aker was born in 1938 on Walcheren, an island of 80 square miles and part of the Dutch Province of Zeeland, which has been of strategic interest for centuries. The Romans used to offer sacrifice at the Gallo-Roman Nehalennia Temple on its west coast before crossing to Britain. Napoleon inspected its 16th century Fort Rammekens, which could knock out any ship heading for or leaving Antwerp. The English held on to Flushing’s harbour until the Dutch Republic had paid back the money it had borrowed to wage war with France.

   Flushing’s harbour is the one the Germans would subsequently need for their planned invasion of Britain at the beginning of World War II. They decide to grab Walcheren more than six months in advance of their invasion of Holland. Even after the Germans firebombed Rotterdam, Zeeland, assisted by the French, did not give up fighting. After the heart of the provincial capital Middelburg, a town with a 1000-year-old abbey, went up in flames, Aker’s parents escaped with their three children to the countryside.

   Aker’s first memories are of waves of planes flying over the house night after night, on their way to bomb the Third Reich. The near-constant hum of Royal Air Force bombers blends perfectly with psalms sung by his religious neighbours. Without this soothing mixture of sounds, Aker has difficulty falling asleep.

   The Germans turn Walcheren into one of the strongest fortifications in their 5000 kilometre Atlantic Wall of concrete bunkers, which they start to build in 1942. It runs from the North Cape in Norway to Biarritz in the south of France. Walcheren’s bunkers, equipped with heavy guns, have operatic names like Carmen, Tannhäuser and Fidelio. Anticipating an allied landing on Fortress Walcheren, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel inspected the island on three occasions in January and April 1944.

   After the landing in Normandy in June ’44, the Allies badly needed Antwerp’s deep-water port to shorten their supply lines into Germany. Hitler personally ordered the 6000 German troops on the island to stay put until the last bullet and the last man.

   The Allies decided to flood Walcheren, planning to ‘sink’ the island well below sea level on the assumption this would precipitate its liberation. Within 24 hours of the warning siren, eight waves of thirty planes each, unloaded their bombs, destroying the first sea dike. Hundreds of people drowned. Three similar attacks on four sides of the island were to follow within days. Young Aker is standing in the backyard with his father, when five or six huge bombs are dropped by a British plane close to Fort Rammekens. Within a day, the water has reached the living room ceiling. (Voor de helft een schedel, 1978).

   It was to take one-and-a-half years to repair the dikes and pump the salt water back into the sea. When the people returned, they barely recognized what was once called ‘Zeeland’s Garden.’ The trees were dead, the houses in ruin, and the ditches full of crabs, eel, and flat fish. Brought up on the farm and with farming grandparents, Aker follows the family tradition. At the age of nine, he assists in the rebuilding, spending all his free time on the farm of Samuel, the crippled farmer, working with horses and tractors, and always armed with a rifle to keep the rabbits and wild pigeons away from the crops. (The Dog Tax of Forty-Seven, 2000)


   In 1956, the year the Soviets put down the Hungarian uprising, Aker signs a seven-year contract with the Dutch army upon the advice of his uncle. His mother’s brother is a war hero, who participated in the first wave of the Normandy landing. Two of his uncle’s sons – real soldiers with a Prussian mother – have just graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Breda. Aker studies at the school for three years, the same 16th century Breda Castle in which René Descartes received his military training.

   Around a third of the military students were born and raised in one of the Dutch colonies, present day Indonesia. Most are the sons of officers or civil servants, half a million of whom, mostly survivors of Japanese prison camps, came to Holland when the colony was lost. Aker has already met many of the ex-colonists at school. They formed part of the governing caste in the colonies and have a good eye and ear for the slightly parochial features of their new homeland.

    The majority of the military school’s lecturers – military and civilian – are highly motivated and have a sense of humour. There is never any lack of Rabelaisian laughter in this school, where non-commissioned officers who fought in the jungles of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Korean War teach ‘doing more with less.’

   In military schools, students have to give 100 percent if they do not want to be dismissed – as was Edgar Allen Poe – or ridiculed by their fellow students. One out of four disappears within the first months. Aker, more a fast runner than a great soldier, takes up competition rowing and athletics, competing against military students from France and Britain, and develops an irregular heartbeat in the process that does not bode well.

   As history in military schools means history of past wars, Aker hears a great deal about the famous battles of Greece, Carthage and Rome. He begins to read like mad, tries to write poetry and regularly infuriates his professors with questions they hate to answer.

   At 21, he has achieved the rank of second lieutenant and makes the first of many trips to Africa, invited by Tunisian military students educated in French military academies. He sails from Marseille to Tunis, makes a stopover in Ajaccio, and visits the home and bedroom of Napoleon Bonaparte. France is still at war with Algeria, and the screening of disembarking passengers in neutral Tunis takes an entire day, for fear some North Africans have come to fight the French in neighbouring Algeria. Aker sees the country through the eyes of his young North African hosts, and he falls in love with the continent.

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