Tonny van Renterghem
(Amsterdam, June 28, 1919- Sequim, WA, July 19, 2009)
was a Dutch writer and researcher and technical advisor in the film industry, who during World War II was active in the Dutch Resistance and co-founded The Underground Camera, which was responsible for documenting many important war photographs and nazi atrocities.
With permission of his widow, Susanne Severeid, publisher Conserve, and with help from editor Pauline Wesselink, we may include an excerpt from his book, “De Laatste Huzaar”. Tonny rode along with the reconnaissance unit of the Polar Bears who appeared on the Dam around noon.
Excerpt of a chapter from:
De laatste huzaar – Verzet zonder kogels
by Tonny van Renterghem, Conserve – 2010
ISBN 978 90 5429 294 4
The next day, May 7th, was clear and sunny. At sunrise, I got the order to, together with the STANS-group, go to the Berlage Bridge to maintain order and to welcome the first Allied troops on behalf of the commander BS and the City of Amsterdam, and to escort them to the city center and the City Hall on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal.
An hour later, a dilapidated, old car with British military insignias appeared. In a baggage rack on the roof sat the well-known Dutch photographer Sem Presser, wearing the British military war correspondent uniform. He received an enormous applause from the crowd and he alerted us that the first British reconnaissance tanks were advancing.
He met up with our STANS Underground Camera photographer, Charles Breyer, an old friend, and together they set up their cameras to record this historic moment.
From a huge distance, we could already hear the cheers for the approaching troops and we had a lot of difficulty– even with the help of a group of older Scouts (which had been forbidden under Hitler) who appeared out of nowhere–to hold open a narrow path for the oncoming armoured tanks through the pushing, swelling mass of thousands of people.
Every house was full of Dutch flags, everyone had something with “the Royal orange”, there was much laughter, and people were shedding tears of joy and relief. Many held flowers; where they came from, I have no idea. The tanks were from the British 49th Reconnaissance Regiment, a unit of the famous Polar Bear division. In my capacity as “Chief of Staff of the Dutch Resistance in Amsterdam South,” I welcomed their commanders, Lieutenants George Bowman and Rafferty of the B Squadron British 49th W.R. Reconnaissance Regiment. (This fact is now officially acknowledged and recognized by the City of Amsterdam.) I climbed on the first reconnaissance tank to direct it into the city.
At that moment, a radio call came in requesting me to immediately get the STANS group, under the command of Sgt. Ben Warner, to the Vondel Park, corner Amstelveenseweg. Together with the help of a German officer, we were to try to stop a shoot-out between BS and German soldiers, an action which had already cost several lives. I had to remain with the British to bring them to the city center and the BS commander. We drove very quickly to the Rokin with the three armoured reconnaissance tanks via the Ferdinand Bolstraat, Stadhouderskade and the Leidsestraat. The crowd looked totally surprised at this unexpected appearance of these first “liberators” and burst out into loud “Hoorays,” but we couldn’t stop.
Idiotic, green resistance guys didn’t always understand that the war was over and occasionally wanted to, at last, have the chance to use their stenguns and shoot at “de moffen”(*). But also many SS’ers– who were furious with the Wehrmacht who “had betrayed Hitler” by surrendering– sometimes shot not only at the resistence, but also at their own German Wehrmacht.
On the Rokin, we ran into an enormous crowd, all jammed together, who welcomed us with wild cheering. The situation became precarious when a large column of orderly, marching German infantrymen suddenly appeared behind us, evidently on their way to the Museumplein to turn in their weapons for the surrender. They, too, couldn’t move any further and their officer gave the order to stop.
They were primarily made up of Feldgendarmerie, the so-called Green Police, a kind of German military police, but there were also Waffen SS’ers in their camouflage ponchos. The crowd was cursing and swearing at them and I felt as if I were standing in the middle of a giant puddle of gasoline, where one tiny spark could make the whole thing explode. The British remained very nonchalant, but ducked a bit deeper into their armoured tanks. I saw an example of the German military discipline. They stood there without expression as if frozen, but with their weapons at the ready. Their officer grasped the situation immediately, spun around, and, in German, gave the order, “Rechtsomkeert!” (“Right, about face!”) As one, the entire column turned around and marched back from where they’d come, heading in the direction of the Museumplein one side street further on.
At that moment, a motor dispatch orderly of Major Claus appeared with the order to immediately go back with the motor dispatch to Amsterdam Zuid to help him with the dangerous situation at the Gestapo SD-headquarters on the Noorder Amstellaan (now Churchillaan) where the Nazi flag with the swastika was still flying and where a fierce shoot-out had broken out between SS’ers and SD’ers on the one side, and a fanatic BS-resistance group –who wanted to storm the building– on the other. I asked a BS officer, who was walking about, to take the British to the Dam and to the City Hall. I excused myself to Lieutenant Bowman, who quickly wrote a few words on a little piece of paper and asked me to deliver it to the City Hall later on his behalf. The text read: “The first troops to enter this city were Nos 1 & 4 Jps of B’squadron 49th (W.R.) Recce Regiment”
(Before I handed the note over, I made a copy of it. It appears that it was lost at the City Hall; luckily there was a copy.)
I rode on the back of the motor despatch back to Amsterdam-Zuid. Later, I heard that the British had reached the Dam, but that there was such an enormous crowd and there were also German troops there, that they considered it better to report back to their headquarters over the radio. However, the connection was very poor, so they drove back heading toward the Berlagebrug (Berlage Bridge), where they could use the radio again. They received the order to wait there for their main body, which would join them within an hour.
Ben Warner and others from STANS, the local BS, and the German officer in the Vondel Park and on the Amstelveenseweg had gotten the situation under control, but they couldn’t get back to Zuid. Commandant Overhoff had officially appointed STANS as interim Military Police and wanted them as honor escort for his representative Max van Raalte for the official surrender of the Germans to the BS under Schröder, which would take place in front of the headquarters of the Wehrmacht in the Johannes Vermeerstraat. The Germans had already raised Dutch flags everywhere there.
I met Major Claus and a civilian BS-resistance leader in a house from which we could clearly see the Gestapo/SD building. The flag with the swastika still flapped defiantly above the building, but there was not a person to be seen although, now and then, shots were still being exchanged. The (civilian) BS’er tried to convince Claus to have his group with pelotons from Amsterdam-Zuid ready to attack the building and did not want to understand that the war was over. I was of the opinion that this could be easily solved if one of us just went to talk with them. “Then go ahead,” he answered somewhat derisively, that I was allowed to do that, but that up till now they had shot at everyone.
I thought about it differently. I removed my officers’ sword belt and my pistol, borrowed a black pilot- jacket that I saw hanging there and fastened a BS armband onto it, and, over that, loosely pinned an Air Raid Precautions armband. I rolled a large Dutch flag in a white kitchen towel and, in my right hand, I held a white cloth to wave and hold up high. I did not look dangerous and gave the impression of being unarmed. The plan was to go to the corner and, waving the white cloth, go directly to their front door and to simply knock on the door after quickly hiding my Air Raid armband. To confuse them further and to let them think that I was, myself, a German, I whistled the popular German marching song, Erika, and even some notes from the Horst Wessel song.
Just as I expected, it went fine. They did not shoot at me and after I knocked– and in good, military German– said that I was unarmed and, as liason officer, wanted to speak with Herr Blumenthal regarding their safety, I was let in by a skulking Dutchman in civilian clothes with a machine gun, who spoke terrible German. It smelled of fresh coffee and I saw that there were about a dozen armed men, and two women, sitting in the dark room, and two others stood by the windows as look-outs. Most of them were wearing SD uniforms. A voice from the back room called out, “Was gibt’s?” (“What’s up?”)
The Dutchman answered that I wanted to speak with Blumenthal. There was some chuckling and a very young SD-untersturmführer came into the room with a cup of coffee in his hand and said, “Ja, das möchten wir ja allen gerne!” (“Yeah, that’s what we all want!”). It appeared that Commander Blumenthal had left everyone here behind and, himself, had fled to Germany in a small, private plane. The young SD officer was now in command and had taken over the responsibility for the group. But, uh, “Wer sind Sie?” (“Who are you?”)
I introduced myself as “Major” (a white lie, but it sounded better than cornet ) von Renterghem, liason officer for the Allies and for the leadership of the resistance in Amsterdam, and that I was here to make arrangements to guarantee their safety until the Allied military police could take over this duty from us. We went into Blumenthal’s office and sat down, and I couldn’t resist, somewhat brashly and over my shoulder, calling out in Dutch to the Dutchman who had let me in, “Hey, guy, how about a cup of coffee for me, too, yeah? The usual, and just one lump.” Indeed, he did bring me a cup of coffee; delicious real coffee!
I explained to the young SD’er how we, together with Ortskommandant Schröder, had agreed, for their own safety, to take down the German flag and replace it with a Dutch flag (I then gave him the flag that I had brought with me), to keep the windows and black-out curtains closed, and to stay away from the windows and doors. They could keep their weapons for the present, in case they were afraid of being lynched, until the British or Americans took over the guard. As soon as this was done, I would make sure that BS sentries would stand guard at the front and back door and would not let anyone in or out. He agreed to everything and took the flag from me. He looked at me, shook his head and said: “What I don’t understand is, you are clearly not a bad guy, why aren’t you on our side, against the Bolsheviks who are going to control all of Eastern Europe now, and the American capitalists, who, now, are going to take over the entire European economy. We had the chance for one united Europe.”
“Under Hitler,” I added, and he nodded. “Yes, under Hitler.” He was, of course, partially correct. Partly true, but for the most part false, just like all of the Nazi propaganda of Joseph Goebbels. It also appeared that he, from his earliest youth, had been raised in the Hitler Youth, after which he went directly into the SS, etc. Yes, of course, a united Europe…everyone’s dream… but without Goebbels’s brainwashing, and certainly not under Hitler! But he had believed in it. As I stood up, I suddenly saw a brand new Hasselblad Reflex camera sitting on the desk. He noticed it and handed me the camera. “This was Blumenthal’s. Please take it as a souvenir. Otherwise, the Americans will take it right away.” He sighed. “Oh, Mensch es ist, it was all for nothing!” He turned around and, with a lump in his throat, he mumbled something like. “I don’t understand anymore, I don’t understand anymore.”
I could only say “Thanks” and left the building, with its Gestapo villians snickering in a terrified kind of way. Once again safely on the other side, I looked back at the building just as the young man was lowering the flag with the swastika himself.
While I satisfied my hunger with crackers, and Spam from an air- dropped American emergency ration can, I reported back to Claus. Just five minutes later, there were two neat, stengun-armed BS’ers in their overalls, wearing Dutch helmets and BS armbands, standing guard under the new, fluttering Dutch flag in front of the door of what, just one hour ago, had been the front door of the despised SD and Gestapo.
Not a single shot had been fired and there were no further incidents.
(*) a highly derogatory word used by the Dutch for the Germans during WWII.
All rights reserved. Susanne Severeid