After being wounded quite severely in the stomach during the fighting at Arnhem, Brigadier John Hackett had been fortunate to receive the attention of a gifted Dutch surgeon while in German custody. He had only narrowly avoided euthanasia by a German doctor who thought him a hopeless case. Despite the very significant injury and the need for a long recovery the Dutch underground had managed to smuggle him out of the hospital and into hiding.
Hackett was now completely reliant on his Dutch saviours. His memoir describes how they went to enormous risks to nurse him back to health and help him:
Later, as night fell, supper would be brought to me — bread and butter, jam, cheese and milk. Sometimes there would be a cup of soup, even another egg. How they could continue to find such rare and precious things was baffling. Menno had a good deal to do with it, as I knew, but Keven that bold and resourceful young man must have had his work cut out to find the food they gave.me.
It was growing dark sooner in the day now, as we moved through October, and in that little room under the roof, facing north, the light failed early. ‘We must be very careful with candles and oil,’ said Miss Ann, but early darkness did not worry me.
Electric current could only be used in Ede with German permission and its unauthorised use was a punishable offence. Any building not being occupied by Gerrnans, or in use in their interests, had in fact been disconnected from the supply.
Nonetheless, in the mysterious and almost casual way in which so many truly remarkable things seemed to happen in occupied Holland, soon after my arrival the house in Torenstraat was reconnected and the electric light came on again.
One of his friends, John told me, worked for the municipality as an electrical engineer and he had quite simply, without asking any questions, done what John requested of him. He had connected us up. Behind the carefully arranged blackout curtains I could now read again at night, if I wanted to. I was still, however, not much inclined to read. Every day I read a little in my English Bible and prepared a small piece of Dutch for my daily lesson. That, for the time being, was all.
A search of the house was always possible and we needed a cover plan to explain my presence. It was decided (on a proposal from Miss Cor, I think) that I should become a patient from the hospital for consumptives which had recently been evacuated near Renkum. The family told me that I had a ‘tubercular throat’, whatever that might be, and John brought me a paper purporting to have been issued by the local authority, showing that Mijnheer J. van Dalen had lost his identity documents and was excused work on grounds of ill-health.
We had a scarf ready to tie around his neck and a bottle of strong-smelling disinfectant to soak it in, relying on a well-established fear of tuberculosis among German soldiers and the probability that those actually carrying out a search would not be very well informed – or even very intelligent. My role (I was glad that I never had to play it in earnest) was just to look ill and not speak.
In addition, everything I possessed which might arouse the least suspicion — army clothing and equipment, my own genuine papers, the silver pencil and cigarette case with their inscriptions in English, even my marching boots which did not, they told me, look Dutch enough — were put carefully away in the hiding place under the floor of the landing outside my room.
My boots! They had been made to measure for me in Jerusalem, when the brigade was training in Palestine. We were jumping into Cyprus then, in preparation for the airborne invasion of Sicily from Tunisia.
How long ago and far away all that was, I thought, as I watched the boots being packed up to stow away until I should need them again.
I was already getting into the habit of having nothing upon or near me which could excite the suspicion of Germans or even their curiosity. Even living quite close to them was something now quite normal. This had already begun to induce a frame of mind, a feeling of confidence and diminished vulnerability, which was to be of great value to me later on.
At first Dr Kraayenbrink came nearly every evening, between supper and curfew, but Mary could do the dressings, for which the doctor left medicaments, and Miss Cor was still able to provide gauze and bandages (though not, alas, any new elastoplast) from her stocks in the chemist’s shop.
When Dr Kraayenbrink was satisfied that the discharge was only caused by decomposing linen sutures and that all else was well (however much I might mourn the loss of Kessel’s elegant hairline scar) he came less often, for he had very much to do.
Like every other doctor who saw the evidence of Kessel’s surgery, and heard something of the details, he remained full of admiration for what I have often heard described as a surgical miracle. He did not fail to let me know, more than once, that by rights I should be dead. Now and then, as the frontal wound healed, the end of a thread would show and the doctor would pull it out. I used to dread this: it was an exquisitely painful affair which put me in mind of evisceration by medieval torturers.