[In the following translation, I have added boldface to personal names and place names to make them easier to find and added underlining in order to make it easier to locate certain terms. In addition, page numbers of the original appear where the translation for that page begins. My thanks to Kristine Eriksen for the massive volunteer effort involved in translating this story.]
Le Train fantôme (The phantom train)
from Lokker, C., Des Bâtons dans les Roues, Brussels: MIM Fonds Ortelius, 1985
(Translation by Kristine Eriksen, January 2007)
That is the name given to nr. 1.682.508 of 9/2/1944, departure set at 8:30 from Brussels-Midi to Malines, Essen, transiting through Holland, with its final destination the Nazi extermination camps in Germany: 1,370 political prisoners from the detention center of St Gilles were supposed to complete that ultimate journey under heavy SS escort, 800 Belgians, many Frenchmen, a few Russians, Americans and Englishmen.
The phantom train entered the saga of the railroad resistance under a totally wrong term; it was not about a convoy momentarily vanishing into a fourth dimension to reappear at the right time, but a train under constant SS surveillance, a train that did not escape for a moment that exceptionally dangerous climate of the last two days of occupation. Without a previously organized plan, a long chess game had been played between fanatic SS men and railroad people.
One should have called that train not the phantom train but the miracle train: in the morning of September 2, the 1,370 prisoners of St Gilles were promised deportation and a certain death; in the afternoon of September 3, without a drop of blood spilled, they found themselves free again and able to reunite with their loved ones.
This reverse of fortunes was the result of a long chain of events where railroad men performed each time the right gesture, the necessary step for the happy ending, no act, and no gesture being spectacular. It was only a succession of actions of courageous men knowing their job as railroad workers which made it that, before the arrival of the first English tanks in Brussels, the railroad resistance was able to offer the Belgian and French Resistance that very moving final bouquet: 1,370 men and women liberated from fear and death.
Let us try to understand the occurrence and the circumstances not through journalistic articles of the time but based on the declarations of the railroad men who participated in that liberation and the investigation led in 1945 upon the request of the Ministry of Communications.
Early in 1944, the Belgian prisons become overpopulated due to the growth of the Resistance and the merciless German repression. The Germans start then the first deportations of Belgian resistants to the concentration camp of Vught (Bois-le-Duc in Holland). From January 14 till April 16 1944, 798 patriots will be transferred to that camp without resolving the overpopulation problem of the Belgian prisons. All that independently of course of all the deportations made within the frame of dispositions of Nacht und Nebel and the operations aiming to exterminate the Jews.
In April 1944 the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (R.S.M.A.) takes the problem into its hands. Straub of the Sipo-S.D. for Belgium and Northern France gets into touch with Reeder, the Militärvervaltungschef who submits to von Falkenhausen a plan to transfer to the German concentration camps Belgian political prisoners incarcerated in Breendonck, St-Gilles and Anvers. As we have said earlier, deportation to Germany is not a new fact. Historian M. Gotovith, for example, studied the convoy of September 22 1941 which took 255 patriots to Neuengamme – the new feature is the agreement made at the highest level between the military Administration and the S.S. in order to systematically empty the Belgian prisons in the context of a military situation which must lead to the liberation of Belgium.
The operation is briskly run:
May : 1,857 men deported to Buchenwald
June : 544 men deported to Buchenwald
193 women deported to Ravensbrück
August 8 : 170 women deported to Ravensbrück
August 10 : 827 men deported to Buchenwald
August 30 : 131 men deported to Vught
1,703 men deported to Neuengamme
250 women deported to Ravensbrück
September 1 : 130 women deported to Ravensbrück
September 4 : 800 to 900 men deported to Sachsenhausen
Such is the climate in which is held on August 25 1944 the first meeting at the consulate of Sweden between the consular body and the representatives of the Red Cross who look for a means to prevent the retreating Germans to take with them some 5,000 persons, political prisoners and the rest of the Jewish prisoners from the barracks of Dossin.
The German ambassador promises to let them know when it will be propitious to present such a request. Finally on September 1, a Friday, baron Knudse de Verchou, consul of Sweden goes to the German embassy where he is told about promises made by S.S. general Juncklaus, chief of the Gestapo in Belgium.
What are the promises of that individual worth? The same day 130 women leave for Ravensbrück and on the fourth, 800 to 900 men depart to Sachsenhausen.
In the night of the first to the second of September, the S.S. detachments bring to the station of Bruxelles-Midi thirty-two cattle wagons to transfer to Germany the 1,370 detainees from the prison of St-Gilles.
It is frightening to think that, while one sees grotesque and anomalous processions of a Wehrmacht in flight and while the allied armored tanks are reaching our borders, the S.S. still remain organized and avid to drag to the death camps their victims without losing a single one.
Between 1:30 and 4 in the morning, the unfortunate prisoners are dragged from their sleep, gathered in the yard and provided with two parcels from the Red Cross. It is the deportation to the concentration camps in Germany, the end of the hope to see the nightmare end with the imminent arrival of the victorious Allies.
Here is how M. Ponty, one of the 1,370 then prisoners, relived a year later that dawn of September 2:
……. We knew perfectly well that the liberating troops of the allied nations were progressing rapidly and had crossed the Belgian border at different points. When suddenly, in the morning of Saturday September 2nd, the whole prison resonates with the panic of the boche (kraut) who must flee but who try nonetheless to take us prisoners to Germany. Our 1,500 chests start yelling our joy at the windows of the cells. Indifferent to the fate that awaits us, we only care about the lightning-like progress of the Allies who force the krauts to evacuate us. Next is our exit from the jail between two walls of machine guns. The vehicle which was taking me away was joined on avenue Fonsny, at the entrance of the station, by the first truckload of women. Invisible under the filthy tarp they were singing the Brabançonne. (Belgian anthem) A shot explodes; it’s a furious S.S. threatening to shoot in the pile……
M. Handelberg, inspector for the Personnel Management, in charge of the investigation requested by the Ministry of Communications submits his report on November 13 1945:
I conducted my research all the way to the station of Muizen, the extreme point reached by the convoy before its return to Brussels.
I skip over the very laudable humanitarian acts: picking up notes thrown by the detainees to alert their kin; jotting down addresses; encouragements; assurances that they would not leave Belgium; opening air vents in the wagons; food supplies, care, retrieval of objects of value for many of them after their liberation. I will focus mostly on the acts that had a direct impact on the liberation per se of the prisoners.
In its whole, the action of the 2nd and 3rd of 09/1944 can be separated in three phases:
Phase 1: stationing of the train at the station of Brussels (Midi) and departure for the station of Forest (Midi);
Phase 2: run to the station of Muizen and return to the station of Brussels (Petite-Ile);
Phase 3: stationing at the station of Brussels (Petite-Ile) and liberation.
The very detailed accounts in the report expose all the ups and downs of the adventure. I will take over the principal facts corrected by the result of my research.
In following the report of that very methodical and scrupulous clerk and in incorporating the testimonies of the railroad workers, we will be very near the historic and human truth.
Phase 1 (Brussels-Midi)
M. Handelberg’s report:
………. That phase concerns the bloc Brussels (Midi): station and locomotive-shop; those two services cannot be dissociated in this circumstance.
The “Comity of the Consular Corps and of the International Red Cross for the liberation of political prisoners in Belgium”, helped by Vicomte BERRYER, embassy Counselor of Belgium, had considered since 8/25/1944 diplomatic approaches to General JUNGCLAUS through the intermediary of the German ambassador in Brussels M.MAYR-FALKENBERG. Those advances in fact made on 8/28/1944 will result on 9/1/1944 in promises of liberation; a final decision was awaited. The German perfidy manifested itself however the next day on 9/2/1944, because at dawn the 1,370 remaining political detainees of St. Gilles were taken to the station of Brussels (Midi) and crammed into 32 cattle wagons due to leave at 8:30.
The assistant station master, Michel PETIT, on duty that night had noticed the posting on platforms 14 and 15 of 150 to 175 SS guards and learned from a civilian that the Germans were leaving the prison of St. Gilles. The deductions were quickly made. He sent a colleague to alert the locomotive-shop in order to sabotage the delivery of the engine and another one to warn a resistance group from Laeken so they can tell other groups to be ready for anything along the Brussels-Anvers line.
The station master, Léon PETIT, gave for his part the same warning some time later (towards 7:30) to confirm. He received the visit of a Resistance group leader who asked to postpone as long as possible the departure of the convoy in order to keep the train in Belgium till the final decision of General JUNGCLAUS. M. Léon PETIT gave him his word as to the station then sent him right away to technical inspector PIETTE in charge of the shop about delaying the procurement of the engine; M.PIETTE gave immediately his instructions to the yard foreman machinist [engineer?] ROELANTS.
Then the whole day was a conscientiously organized sabotage. A Germany sanitary train having been detoured via the line of Denderleeuw, the assistant station master Michel PETIT, helped by a station agent, went as far as to put dynamite to the eccentric 67.
The office of the main station master, Léon PETIT, and of his assistant became the nerve center of the action as other Resistance leaders went there one after the other, including a delegate of General de Gaulle; a takeover was even considered but the idea was rejected because of the risk of a general massacre that that action would present.
At the station, as soon as available, the locomotives were sent to the shop unbeknownst to the Germans. The German railroad workers were constantly misled about the possibilities of getting an engine.
At the shop where they knew the “fahrtnummer” (ride number) (1.682.508) discovered by a station agent and secretly transmitted to them, the delivery of the locomotive could be sabotaged with certainty: destruction of parts, flight of machinists [engineers?], fall of machinist [engineer?], false maneuvers, unnecessary verifications, slow verifications, bad orientations of the locomotive, etc…
Finally locomotive nr.1202 that machinist [engineer?] Louis VERHEGGEN and fireman Léon POCHET had had in their possession since 14hr had to be taken to the train which left Brussels (Midi) at 16.50, a delay of 8.20hrs on the scheduled time. Three S.S. soldiers, gun in hand, climbed into the locomotive behind the machinist [engineer] and the fireman; they stayed there till the next day 9/3/1944 at 10:15, which means constantly watching during 18 hrs the slightest movements of our two agents. The watch of the train was secured by a few German officers, 150 to 175 S.S. soldiers and a section of machine-gunners in a wagon of D.C.A. able to direct their fire evenly along the convoy.
A subsequent investigation of M. Handelberg results in an additional report on July 12 1947 which gives some more interesting information on the events and climate at Brussels-Midi on September 2nd:
Soon afterwards and from the morning of 9/2/44, as my report of 11/13/45 indicates, the office of the main station master, M. Léon PETIT and his assistant (M. PARMENTIER, actually main chief assistant) was becoming the headquarters of all the action because resistance leaders would take turns there all day long, including a delegate of General de Gaulle. The locomotives that became available at the station were sent back to the shop without the knowledge of the Germans; that was done in compliance with M. PETIT’s instructions, Léon or his assistant M. PARMENTIER.
The room occupied by the main station master was adjacent to the one occupied by his assistant; to get into contact with the chief of the station one had to pass in front of the assistant. Those two civil servants formed one entity; in the absence of one, the other replaced him. It is difficult to disjoin their cooperation in the delay action realized.
I will mention however a few isolated facts attributed to M. PARMENTIER.
1. On 9/2/44, towards 7.30, speaking to the assistant station master T…, particularly won over to collaboration and a dangerous being, M. PARMENTIER told him textually: “We won’t have to be proud of the fact of having contributed to the deportation of our compatriots”. T… did not answer and went back into his office. One can be sure that he had been influenced by those words and that he abstained from committing a regrettable act as to the dispatching of the train. T… was the best agent to uphold the flow of the station, and, had he wanted to take charge of the convoy, he could have certainly rushed it one way or another. He must have thought about it before slowing down its process because, after all, the respect of his superiors was inherent in him.
2. The German director of the station movement was totally sold to the cause of the Belgian directors about the train of political prisoners; he had more courteous relationships with our active personnel than with the German military services. He was totally convinced that bringing back to Germany wounded Germans and compatriots was an indisputable priority over the train of prisoners. He had had several violent discussions with the SS officer who kept storming into the office demanding a locomotive for his train at all cost. After each argument the German agent went to consult with the main station master and his assistant as to the distribution of the engines, but the two Belgian civil servants easily convinced him every time that the transports in station (trains of wounded Germans, train of German railroad workers EBD Lille and EBD Rouen) had to come first.
3. One locomotive that arrived with a train of German equipment and that had been selected to be sent to the shop around 12hr in order to tog [tag?] the train of prisoners had been, with the complicity of the German personnel of the engine who tried by all means to go back to Germany, directed to Schaerbeek by the turntable, avoiding the engine shop all together where it was looked for in vain. That maneuver had been performed according to M.PARMENTIER’s instructions.
The engine problem would have apparently been that day at Brussels-Midi one of the most baffling to the Germans because, let’s not forget that they had occupied the premises since May 1940, that the engine-shop of Brussels-Midi kept on playing an important role in spite of the bombardments. Yet the results obtained in delaying the train departure exceeded everything that the Resistance could hope for.
The assistant station master GEVAERTS of BRUSSELS-MIDI let the engine-shop personnel know that the departure had to be delayed by 5 hours, the rest being up to the resistance groups. Well, they did much better.
The engine was requested around 9:15. They said: engine out of order. Toward 12 o’clock another was selected.
Toward 14o’clock, the machinist [engineer] asks to be relieved (end of service).
14:30 the designated replacement VANDERVEEKEN drags things as much as possible, falls from the engine and gets hurt. Then the Germans send armed guards to the locomotive.
Towards 15:30 the locomotive gets out escorted with armed Germans.
Towards 17:30 the train leaves wrongly switched. The engine must be hooked back to the end of the train then it rides to Malines where it is blocked by trains in front of it. The engine is attached to the end again and goes to the station of la Petite-Ile where the machinist [engineer] takes off on Saturday morning.
The engine-shop personnel responsible for that affair were: the foremen ROELANTS, DESHORME, MASQUELIER and machinist[engineer?] VERHEGGEN.
The personnel of the car who did the intentional switch error are not known to me.
The explanation lies in the fact that the Mission Tabéo had succeeded in implanting in the engine-shop of Brussels-Midi, just like in Namur, a very efficient cell. Here is the story about it by foreman MASQUELIER, dated December 11 1945 (to be compared with the one from M. Gravier).
In June 1942, M.D… Director-Engineer A.C. Cuesmes met me to establish in the workshop of Brussels-Midi a team whose mission was to paralyze the railroads during the Allied offensive, for that purpose he gave me the following instructions:
Recruit 6 to 7 reliable friends, make for each an appropriate set of tools, and sabotage the locomotives. Once I received the verbal command from himself or from foreman DACHE from the group RONET whom I knew personally, the sabotage would consist of taking apart the distribution connecting-rods or the screws of the safety-valves of the boilers. Then I asked for help from the following buddies and they accepted. They are: D. Alphonse, D. Armand, W. Walter, H. G, L. H., and R. F., all from the shop in Brussels.
During the whole war we tried each in our job to impede as much as possible the functioning of the German railroad. That is how I (being foreman of the yard) falsified daily the individual tally book of locomotives (illegible) that the Germans had set up for us and I could thus divert at least 2,000 hours of work a month hiding that way the absences of machinist [engineer] M., saboteur of group “G”, as well as the so called V. carrying clandestine newspapers on a regular basis. In June 1944 I categorically refused to give the list and addresses of the sick and absent agents in spite of the threats by the German inspector in charge of the shop (witness M.T.. presently (illegible) in Huy and who was interpreter at that time) – not receiving any order toward August 15, 1944, I warned all the members of the group to be ready to fulfill our mission if necessary.
On September 2nd toward 8 a.m. the assistant chief GEVAERT from formation Forest came to warn foreman ROELANTS from our group that he would be asked to provide a locomotive for a train of political prisoners starting from Brussels-Midi and that that engine had to be delayed as long as possible to allow the rescue of that train. ROELANTS came to find me and after deliberations it was decided that we would choose a defective engine at 10 a.m. That engine was requested, only one locomotive being in good shape: HI 3302. ROELANTS sabotaged it by damaging the grease pipes, told us to use the HI 1202 for the Westinghouse pump and machinist [engineer?] GEORGES for the tog. The latter called in sick and it was machinist [engineer?] VANDER-VEEKEN who was designated; those two machinists [engineers] were trustworthy men who were advised to slow down the preparation as long as possible. Then I contacted our friend LISMONDE in charge of the maintenance department together with foreman DEPAUW, asking for the engine repair to be done as slowly as possible. That repair not happening at all, it is the Germans themselves who repair the engine. The repaired and greased engine, instead of being put by the exit signal, was directed to the loading and the pit zone where it still was at 2 p.m. when ROELANTS’ shift ended. DESHORME replaced him at the same time. Once he found out, he told me that he had to go to the station to get his paycheck, I only saw him back toward 4 p.m. At 2:15 p.m. machinist [engineer?] VANDEVEEKEN feigned a fall and asked to be replaced.
Warned by phone I went to the shop not to be present at the office. The German services also alerted looked in vain for foreman DESHORME who should have normally been on duty but who did not let them know of his absence. They finally found me in the shop [p. 894] toward 15:45. I designated machinist [engineer] VERHEGGEN and fireman POCHET L. By that time the engine was guarded by German soldiers with machine guns and finally at 4:10 p.m., after having used up all the possible pretexts, locomotive 1202 was signaled to leave. I think that we all did our duty and that if the train was stopped in Malines, our group had a lot to do with that.
In the evening of September 2, I asked one of my colleagues who did not belong to our group, foreman HUYPERSIER, to keep me updated if the situation changed as to the evacuation of locomotives by the Germans. He promised to alert me immediately. During the night he took it upon himself to “remove the fires” (combustibles?) from all the engines in the shop making the planned sabotage unnecessary. I immediately let the group know.
2nd phase (the trip)
Let us go back to the report of November 13, 1945 from inspector Handelburg:
It is about the trip Brussels-Midi (departure: 9/2/1944 at 4:50 p.m.) – Forest (Midi) – Ceinture – Malines – Muizen (arrival 11:40 p.m.; departure for the return to Brussels: 9/3/1944 at 7:15) – Malines – Schaerbeek – Ceinture – Brussels (Petite-Ile) (arrival: 10:15).
The delay at the departure from Brussels (Midi) was considerably increased at the station of Forest (Midi) by the deeds of the assistant station master VANDER STRICHT. Announced from Brussels (Midi) at 4:55 p.m., the train was received at the siding-line at 5:30 p.m. because of the stationing of a convoy of 72 wagons on the main track. To free the engine and allow it to make the change to the front, they split up the convoy of 72 wagons that obstructed the way. That maneuver called for more time than moving the whole convoy. The assistant station master VANDER STRICHT had already absolutely refused to send the engine in reverse from Ruisbroek to Forest (Midi).
Discussions with the German commander followed to the point that the Belgian agent left the cabin under the pretext to identify the situation. When he came back, he realized that the German director had given the order himself to send the engine back in reverse; the statutory telegrams were not even sent. The departure of the train of prisoners of the siding-line took place at 6:51p.m. I picked up the time in an authentic document: the note-book. The stationing at the station of Forest (Midi) has thus lasted almost 2 hours (116 minutes to be precise).
We must pay attention to two other railroad workers in the adventures of the second phase: machinist[engineer?] VERHEGGEN and fireman POCHET mentioned in phase 1. [First half of Kristine’s translation ended here.]During the whole trip they let the blower run even during the stops, causing an abnormal use of water. The many waiting periods for closed signals, the spins and stops for diverse incidents, as well as the discussions with the three German guards were the cause of an extremely slow speed. It’s only in Malines that VERHEGGEN asked for water because he knew that, as a result of bombardments, there wasn’t any; hence the sending of the train to the congested station of Muizen; it was then 11:40 p.m.
The whole night the German leader, who had not been reached by the final decision made at 2 a.m. that night by General JUNGCLAUS to bring back all the political prisoners to the prison of St. Gilles from where they were to be liberated, made phone calls everywhere to let the convoy pass; it was in vain, all the railroads were obstructed. At 5:30 a.m. he gave the order to go back to Brussels and from there to Liège via Louvain. A discussion between the German leader and the commander of the train postponed the departure to 7:15 a.m. Then engine trouble in the curve between Muizen and Malines; request for a relief engine; hooking of locomotive nr.109 which was returning empty to Brussels; discussion in Malines between the chief of the train and the occupants of the wagon of the D.C.A. which got unhooked and left on the premises. It was already 8:30 a.m. when the train left Malines.
The obersekretär SCHNEIDER from the service “Zugleitung” of Brussels (Nord), not yet aware of the decision of General JUNGCLAUS, wanted to replace the elements in Schaerbeck but no locomotive being available there, he sent the convoy to Brussels (Midi) to receive new elements from the shop in Brussels (Midi). The train arrived at 10:15 a.m. at the station of Brussels (Petite-Ile); it did not go any further because the station of Brussels (Midi) could no longer receive it after the personnel fled their posts and the assistant chief of station Michel PETIT yanked out the phone lines.
Compared to the scheduled departure time from the station of Brussels (Midi), which was 8:30 a.m. on 9/2/1944, at the arrival in Brussels (Petite-Ile) the delay was already a matter of 26 hours.
That second phase, of which the main heroes are MM.POCHET and VERHEGGEN, has also been narrated by the latter in a long handwritten note with the title of: This is the exact and precise story of the odyssey of the phantom train. It is a very poorly legible copy that got to us but the tale of that exceptional night of machinist [engineer?] VERHEGGEN is worth an integral publishing:
At my return to work at 14hrs on September 2nd 1944, I was surrounded by two SS. Then foreman DELORME, who was starting his shift at the same time as I, told me I had to pull a train to Anvers. Forced to climb on board locomotive 1202 prepared and ready for departure, I found out from fireman ROCHET [POCHET?] that it was a train of political prisoners. Since, on one hand, two machinists [engineers] called in successively sick and injured, and, on the other hand, a guard of 3 armed SS soldiers was settling down in the engine, I had to leave the shop not without finding a way to delay things since I got to Brussels-Midi at 4:15 p.m. (for example the signal-box worker of Forest having set his maneuver stick on the slow track to Ruysbroek, I took advantage of that to drive into the cul-de-sac of that station; discussion with the assistant chief of that station and return to Forest; in the meanwhile a freight train coming on the main track from Hal and on its way to Petite-Ile cut my course to Brussels-Midi and the German machinist [engineer?] of that train did not want to go any further; he had had enough; it took the intervention of the German engineer from the shop; and in spite of threats punctuated with a gun, the German machinist [engineer?] still refused to move; finally we detached the part that obstructed my passage and he moved forward just barely enough.
Brussels M, once attached to the train, I demanded to test the brakes although the German chief assured me that the test had been made; I also wanted the itinerary, in short I stalled as much as I could since I knew that Paris had been liberated and the Allies would soon be in Brussels. I swore to myself that that train would not cross the border. That is what I said to assistant chief DEWEIGER who hurried to repeat it to the prisoners while picking up the notes that those were throwing through the vents to hearten their loved ones and comfort them at the risk of getting killed by the guards who constantly paced along the convoy. Then assistant chief DECOSTER came to the engine supposedly to sign my work slip but in reality to tell me that the French resistance was counting on me and trusted me.
Leaving at 4:50 p.m. for Forest to take the wagon of the D.C.A., I seize the opportunity to take more water which brings the final departure to Brussels-Ouest [Brussels-West] at 5:45 p.m.
I also knew that the resistance was alerted, but I hoped they would not intervene, at least before Malines, because I had my plan.
Passage at Schaerbeek at 7:35 p.m. where I stopped in spite of the signals at the passage.
I wanted to get off, but immediately I was brutally grabbed and forced to stay on board although I explained to them that I was going to get a pilot, but it did not work and I was forced to restart; and one of them even told me Machine Kaput, you Kaput; I was warned. I had to use cunning. In Vilvorde stop signals [signals are stopped?]. The signal-box man from Vilvorde is also to be commended because I stayed there for quite a while, then my guards realized and forced me under threat to cross the stop signals. Discussions, settlement, etc… and I was leaving; same thing in Eppegem at the entrance of [p. 896] Malines at 11 p.m.; there I knew that the signals really did not work and that one had to ask by phone for authorization to cross the signal; I got ready to get down and once again was held back; I had to explain to them that, due to the last bombardment, signals and water-tower were out of service; one SS got down, made me a sign to follow him with another one on my heels and I phoned; authorization granted to come in on an occupied track but soon to be freed. I also asked for water, not that we lacked any, I could have gone till Anvers, but that was my plan: since I could not get any in Malines, they were forced to send me to Muizen, and under cover of the night we could escape, but easier said than done.
Muizen- midnight 15 [12:15 a.m.?], one hears gunshots in the background; my thought is if they announce their presence, the Germans won’t sleep, but luckily those were isolated shots; time passes, finally the German chief of the train comes to the engine to say: return to Malines. It is 5:30 a.m. Unfortunately, in the curve upon entering Malines I am in distress due to the uncontrollable spinning of the wheels because the stringers in need of maintenance did not work any longer; no use beating around the bush then since we were heading in the right direction, I asked, from a phone at the entrance signal, if it is possible to have a locomotive to get me out of this predicament, the answer was yes, a type I from Anvers was coming back empty to Brussels-Midi and they were going to put it in front of me to pull me. The D.C.A. which had been at the rear in Forest, was at the head in Muizen and the crew was fussing, they wanted to be at the rear; I told them that the maneuver would be executed in Malines, but to myself I said that they would not go any further; that is what I explained to my colleague telling him that as soon as we put the wagon aside, instead of coming back to it with the train we would speed to Brussels, and that is how we left with a D.C.A. and came back to Petite-Ile without.
We came back to Petite-Ile at 10:15 a.m. My colleague GERARDY is assailed by krauts and black men [SS?] who were running away and were very happy to have an engine to take them home. He was being forced, in spite of his protests, to pull a train under threats of guns and machine guns, but luckily for him and his fireman, he managed to escape before Malines.
As to me, (the engine was detached) I was considering running away with the engine into the big cul-de-sac and disappearing into nature, but I noticed the cabin occupied by Germans, they maneuvered the switches at all times. I risked a derailment which would have suited me in the day time but not at that time. Thus I decided to escape but said nothing to POCHET, because for the two of us it would not have worked, it was up to him to find the right moment. Only one soldier was at the engine at that time. At first sight he did not seem dangerous; after having removed my papers from my vest, which was in the trunk, I got off the engine, he did not say anything; I walked around the locomotive pretending to check the machinery, he was watching me but still didn’t say anything; I got further away expecting to have a call back, nothing; I proceeded the most innocently possible toward the office of the assistant chief (at that time in the office the fate of the prisoners was being determined but I did not know it); I cross the main tracks and look in the direction of the cabin the exterior platform of which is full of krauts.
I was a perfectly visible target if they suspected that I was escaping; still furtively I started to go down the bank of the Senne with the intention to hide in the ruins of the gasometer but I remembered that they had police dogs; I climbed back up the river, still invisible from the cabin and walked into the mud and the very little bit of water of the Senne which trickled in the tunnel expecting to be picked up at the end. Nothing; everything was perfect and that is how I went back home, but as I did not know the news, it is with caution that I showed up in the neighborhood imagining that the Gestapo would arrest me at the moment I would open the door; that is why I rang at the neighbor’s door and he said that there was no danger, that I could go home.
3rd phase (Brussels Petite-Ile)
In the stories published in the press, one could believe that the return ends in Brussels Petite-Ile in the joy of reunions, but the tale of M. VERHEGGEN shows well that in that station there was a most explosive situation and that the irreparable was more than ever possible. That is also the situation described by M.Handelberg in his report of November 13, 1945:
Some agents from Brussels (Petite-Ile) had already left the job; the last ones learning about the strike of the personnel of the station of Brussels (Midi) were conceiving the same project, but the phone call from Brussels (Ouest) [Brussels-West] about the arrival of the train of political prisoners incited them to stay.
From the beginning, the chief of the train who – actually just like the personnel of the station of Brussels (Petite-Ile) – did not know anything about the decision of General JUNGCLAUS, showed the firm determination to go back to Germany and was constantly asking for an engine for his convoy.
Engine nr 109 was requisitioned by the officers of a train carrying troops. The other (nr 1202) was left without a machinist [engineer] because VERHEGGEN had taken advantage of the general confusion to run away, whereas POCHET lost interest in the fire. A freed locomotive was reserved for a train of the Red Cross having priority. Some empty locomotives were sent to Schaerbeek. In spite of the calls of the Germans, trains passed in the station of Brussels (Petite-Ile) thanks to the signals kept open. In short, the agents had decided to immobilize the train; as M. PONTY said in his address of September 3, 1945 “the Belgian personnel of the station of Brussels (Petite-Ile) had taken all the measures so that our convoy could no longer leave the station”.
To that effective sabotage of the towing resources one could add a persistent maneuver of bluff, slow demoralization, insidious advice of departure to the German chief of train based on the advance of the Allies coming from Tournai, on the rising danger (one saw fires in the direction of Hal) and on the growing difficulties of evacuation to Germany. That patient action was accomplished mainly by Dr. VAN DOOREN, whose wife was in the train and who, knowing the German language, was able to carry out the negotiations thanks to the categorical assurance he received at different occasions from the railroad agents about the immobilization of the train.
Let us notice that the doctor arrived at the station of Brussels (Petite-Ile) towards 10:45 a.m. accompanied by M.ROBERTE administrator of the Red Cross. The latter had received at six o’clock in the morning a phone call from the German embassy letting him know that all the political prisoners who had left the prison of St.Gilles the evening before were going to regain their cells; he did not obtain any other details. At once measures were taken to receive the returning prisoners and the medical post was given to Dr. VAN DOOREN. Not finding the detainees at the prison of St.Gilles, they ended up discovering the phantom-train at the station of Brussels (Petite-Ile). They immediately saw the moral impossibility to send all those detainees to their previous cells, not even for a few hours, and feared in that eventuality a disorder unfavorable to the cause of the prisoners. Aware of the station personnel’s firm decision to sabotage, they agreed that one of them, Dr. VAN DOOREN, would intervene with the German commander to try and obtain their immediate liberation and that M.ROBERTE would come back to take the necessary steps for their reception, feeding and care giving.
To start the negotiations mentioned here above, Dr. VAN DOOREN had no official title; he only had his Red Cross membership card and no clue as to the final decision of General JUNGCLAUS.
At a certain point the German commander sent to town a dispatch-rider on a motorbike for orders, he came back not finding anybody any longer. That is when the commander, realizing that he was wasting time, ended up signing a transaction as to the treatment of the [p. 898] German wounded who had to be left behind in Brussels. The battle was won and the German commander gave the order to liberate the detainees; it was then circa 12:30 p.m..
Some members of the “Comity of the Consular Corps and the International Red Cross for the liberation of the political prisoners in Belgium”, among others Baron KNUDSE of VERCHOU, pro-Consul of Sweden, and M.MINEY, Consul of Switzerland, and M.LIECKENDAEL, Director of Public Safety, came to the station of Brussels (Petite-Ile) to carry out the decision of General JUNGCLAUS that the German Ambassador, M.MAYR-FALKENBERG, had officially communicated to them during a meeting held at 10:30 a.m.. Upon the arrival of those three official personalities, the 1,370 political prisoners had just recovered their freedom.
This is how that final episode took place in Brussels Petite-Ile in a particularly explosive climate.
On September 3rd 1944, towards 7 a.m., the night shift left the station; they were only partially replaced by the morning crew. However the assistant chief of station VAN BEVEREN, M., on duty since 8 p.m. the night before, remained at his post, in agreement with the order received the night before by the chief of station. Son of an old 1914-1918 veteran, VAN BEVEREN had been at a good school and is a worker and colleague endowed with a great sense of duty.
The loader GANSBERG, A., a symbol of a trustworthy man, ex-prisoner of 1914-1918 who did not forget anything, whose son had been gravely wounded in the maquis in the Ardennes and is still counted as missing, who demonstrated his anti-Nazi ardor during the whole war, is at the station, on the look out since dawn, ready for any mission.
In cabin II, the assistant chief of station NEYT, E., ex-combatant ‘14-18, is at his post; he observes with his usual composure the movements and maneuvers of enemy trains which are very tight since the day before. He watches for any opportunity to hinder their activities and conveys to his signal-man the adequate instructions. The Germans load troops and wounded soldiers on the trains that they form; the turmoil, the cusses, the complaints, the threats will be a testimony during the whole morning that NEYT is doing his job wonderfully.
A little before 8 a.m., the assistant chief of station VANNORBECK, A., a war volunteer in ‘14-18 who has not forgotten anything either, arrives. Right away he contacts the present personnel. In close communication with his chief Mr. ELSEN, another ‘14-18 combatant, he knows from the latter that the instruction, at the present stage of military operations, is no longer the destruction of the railroad installations but, on the contrary, watching over their preservation for the Allied needs and, as a result, avoiding destruction the railways, [engine] cabs, etc. by the Germans. He has been promised reinforcement in men and even weapons for the personnel for the crucial moment. Those will not be necessary; for the time being he is observing and waiting, while keeping on impeding the movements of the enemy.
Furthermore, when in the presence of the threatening manner of the Germans waving guns or rifles VANNORBECK sees that the majority of the personnel, who could still help them in their operations, slip away and leave the station one by one, he does not discourage them, on the contrary.
Toward 8 a.m., VAN BEVEREN learns from the station of Midi that the English are in Tournai, that the moment has come to strike and that one should no longer send any train to Brussels-Midi. The news spreads rapidly; the suggestion to go on strike is tempting and towards 8:30 or 9 a.m., one will only find at the station VAN BEVEREN, NEYT, VANNORBECK, GANSBERG and the two signal-men who will soon be joined by a formidable guy, ADAM, Fernand.
The colleague ADAM is a combatant of 1940. Denounced to the Gestapo a few times, he ran away from Brussels Petite-Ile on September 19 1941, was arrested after 14 months in the maquis; he was [p. 899] liberated after 11 months of solitary confinement and torture at the prisons of St.Gilles and Mons; he finally went back to his job only to continue his secret action; he is indeed an agent of the second French bureau since September 1940; courier 57 of the Libre Belgique, agent of the liaison service of service Zéro and service Mill (Int. Sce), he is a member of the Group G.5893-chief of battalion F.I.M.P.R. 571 C.L.S., delegate of solidarity F.I. section Roadworkers 5153.
Everything that will happen till 3 p.m. will happen in a feverish atmosphere; it will be a to and fro of troops in arms, screaming and threatening. On platform 5 there is a train of troops waiting for its locomotive. It will wait for more than ten hours.
At 8:20 a.m. a train of the German Red Cross is announced from Brussels-Ouest [Brussels-West] to Brussels-Midi; it is halted at the entrance signal since Midi is emptied of the Belgian personnel and nobody answers the phone any longer. The mechanic comes to inform that the engine needs water; the locomotive goes forward and the soldiers from the train on platform 5, machine guns pointed, want to take it for their train. A dramatic discussion follows between the officers of the Red Cross train and the one for the troops; the German agent of the station comes and wants to intervene; they are ready to fight and the German agent slips discretely away not to be seen again; our hands are much freer. But the minds get more and more excited; the Germans turn against us and our situation becomes delicate; maybe we would be better off just striking, period, rather than keeping on sabotaging at work while observing from the outskirts.
That is when, toward 9:10 a.m., a train of political prisoners is announced from Brussels-Ouest [Brussels-West]. What is it about in reality? We have the premonition that it is not the moment to quit. We take the Red Cross train to platform 6 and the Germans will take their wounded to Brussels Petite-Ile to load them; there had been pitiful scenes which made their impression on the impatient troops.
VANBEVEREN, under threat again, takes the prisoners’ train to platform 2, the only available one left…
Were we going to see those poor people liberated? We saw immediately that it would not be easy, unfortunately!
The German officer of the train called VANBEVEREN asking him first what was going on, especially because the troops of the train on platform 5 were again taking possession of one of the two locomotives of the train.
VANBEVEREN declared that the train had been sent back where it came from; the officer would not believe him saying that the train had to go to Germany via Holland; VANBEVEREN had to show him the dome of the Palais de Justice to convince him. Then the officer got angry and asked for his locomotive back to take him back in the direction of the Reich; VANBEVEREN mentioned that it was no longer possible but that he, the guards and the authorities could go aboard the train of platform 6 which would get a locomotive because it had priority. VANBEVEREN alerted ADAM and GANSBERG; in agreement they let machinist [engineer] VERHEGGEN, L. know and the latter managed to escape in the midst of the confusion caused by the coworkers. M. VAN DOREN, doctor for the Red Cross, member of the resistance and whose wife was among the prisoners, arrives in the meanwhile. Questioning GANSBERG, ADAM and VANBEVEREN on their plans, he is reassured that the train would no longer leave the station. Are you sure, he asked? I give you my word of honor answered GANSBERG.
The first locomotive is attached to the train of the Red Cross; the second one is without machinist [engineer], the fireman does not know how to run it and lets the pressure drop. But they will have to be careful not to use the other engines in station, two of which will still be sent back empty to Schaerbeek by VANBEVEREN. The assistant VANNORBECK, A. had in the meanwhile [p. 900] gathered as much information as possible as to what was going on at Midi, Forest and at the Shop, scheming with his companion NEYT.
The shop was not completely evacuated; there were still German railroad workers at Midi and at Forest; at the shop they were bringing back the wreckage of the train of wounded Germans that collided around 2 o’clock and from which they removed four dead and many injured. One of the two bumper engines was in good shape and the manpower of those locomotives, in accord with the German personnel of the shop, were busy preparing their own evacuation in four wagons at their disposal.
ADAM, GANSBERG, VANBEVEREN and Doctor VAN DOREN accompanied the German officer to the office of the phone central; the assistant was briefed about the situation and GANSBERG and ADAM immediately drew his attention in the local dialect. ADAM took him aside and told him: that train may no longer leave, under any pretext; if necessary the machine [engine?] will be taken off the rails; GANSBERG declared that, if necessary, he would shoot the machinist [engineer] if a new departure were made possible in spite of our efforts.
Assistant VANNORBECK knew that such measures could only be taken as a last resort because of the tragic consequences that they could bring to the personnel and even to the prisoners; they had to act in unison, with calm.
The following solution was first presented to the officer in order to gain his trust: the cars transporting the military authorities of St.Gilles would be detached and added to the train of the Red Cross, the departure of which was assured; that solution was accepted right away and the maneuver was executed with the appropriate slowness not to shake those men too much. But the officer was still not satisfied. He wanted a locomotive for the wagons of prisoners and guards. What now? To slip away and let the Germans manage on their own was dangerous; there was no shortage of German railroad workers at Midi, Forest or at the Shop and to attach a locomotive to a train is an easy task; indeed later on, although there were no more Belgian personnel at Midi, one will still see a train of German railroad workers leave for Brussels-Ouest [Brussels-West] at 2 p.m.
We also knew from experience that if a train could not pass at a certain spot as a result of an obstruction, that obstruction would sometimes be quickly removed; the rails to Baulers and Denderleeuw are always free. That is when the music will start, the bluff which will make the German officer, leaning by the phones, sweat so much. While NEYT at the cabin was kept cryptically informed, ADAM was telling the personnel of the Shop to disengage and made VANBEVEREN turn off the valves of the water-tower whereas VANNORBECK was removing the crank handles of the cabin switches with the help of NEYT and VANBEVEREN; they were buried. Then, VANBEVEREN, VANNORBECK, GANSBERG and ADAM, helped by M.VAN DOREN who knew German, explained to the German officer the situation in which he and his men were; if it wasn’t true, the liars were not far!..
According to us, the English had been in Tournai for several hours and could not be very far. We even declared that all the lines were abandoned and that we were no longer getting any answer over the phone; the Shop must have been abandoned; if there still were any locomotives, they could no longer get out and there was no staff left…
Monsieur, the officer, could himself look toward Halle; he would see the smoke from the fires, sure signs of combat at that location; one could hear detonations a bit everywhere and the Belgian interior forces must have been in action. He still had the possibility, we would tell him, to escape as well as the prisoner guards; he only had to climb on one of the trains with priority on platform 5 or 6.
The officer seemed utterly dismayed and was pondering, and then he left weighed down. Shortly afterwards the chief of station M.ELSEN arrived, his hat cocked[?]. Informed by VANNORBECK, his expression [p. 901] lightened up. To ADAM, who declared being in control of the situation, he answered: you are in charge; you have orders, execute them.
Reinforced in our resolution to bring the matter to a good end and at all cost, we did not leave the German officer another minute; the action of demoralization was extended to the guards of the train and lasted a few hours. VANNORBECK, asking Forest-Midi about the evacuation train of the railroad workers of the Shop, learned towards 2:15 p.m. that it was leaving; the alerted companions, NEYT and VANBEVEREN, made it so that that train could cross the station on the main track without any stop at the signals; everything went well although the Nazis yelled again to stop it when it passed by; but an opportune intervention from VANBEVEREN made them fail again; we breathed a little bit although other incidents broke out. Other trains still came and VANBEVEREN had a lot to do at cabin I; other officers presented themselves to embark new troops and he had to turn a deaf ear. During a let-up, ADAM and GANSBERG did not waste their time. They encouraged the prisoners and spread demoralization among the guards with their commentaries on the situation; they helped care for the sick, some of whom were carried away, and treated thus [those?] whose evasion was already assured. The first aid boxes of the station were placed at the disposal of the voluntary caregivers.
From time to time detonations were heard. It was GANSBERG’s gun acting up, hidden in the shed, which even drew some responses. At certain moments the situation was dramatic. ADAM took advantage of a moment of confusion and managed to steal a chest from a wagon of guards which seemed to be jealously watched. Later on they will realize that it was the trunk containing the prisoners’ jewelry; it was brought back by ADAM to the police station of Avenue Wielemans Ceuppens.
At 12:15 p.m. the train of troops on platform 5 takes off, pulled by one of the available locomotives; actually it is good riddance and that departure will have a happy influence; thirty guards or so throwing all discipline to the wind jump onto the departing train. Good sign, they all become more and more hurried.
Towards 12:15 p.m. the German officer still sends to the rescue Mr. VAN DOREN to the assistant VANNORBECK promising to free prisoners if they give him an engine for his guards and the train of the Red Cross with the authorities. One cannot trust such promises; the answer is that there are no more engines except for the train of the Red Cross and lastly the engine without a machinist [engineer].
Towards 12:30 p.m. the German officer uncovers among the deserters of his train a German civilian who says he is a machinist [engineer?]; very proudly he informs VANBEVEREN; the latter tells him that the engine does not have enough pressure anyway to tow the train of prisoners in its entirety, but that it could pull the wagons of the guards only. Towards 12:40 p.m. the officer will admit defeat, he will accept to park the [railway] wagons of guards on another platform. The officer does not react any longer, the battle is won.
Once informed, GANSBERG opens one of the wagons with the authorization of one of the guards; one prisoner gets out, M.VERNIERS who will himself help GANSBERG and ADAM open the doors… all the doors… No more opposition from the guards. Our brave prisoners are free…One breathes a purer air and the touching marks of gratitude of the freed ones pay us for our efforts.
Assistant chief DEROM who arrives a little later, devoted and tireless companion, will use all his good will to help the sick and wounded and will help take care of them and transport them…
In this narration where the biggest importance is given to those who have lived the event and to the official investigation, it is the only time I have broken the pact with the Amicale des Anciens Résistants du Rail (Friendship of the Veteran Resistants of the Rail); I have not hidden the peoples’ names. The Veterans insisted that only the names of their deceased companions be mentioned in this book in order to honor them. Those who were lucky to survive the events went modestly back to their posts; the only desire is that the generations can keep a collective memory of what happened, of the railroad workers’ motivations, of their aspirations to a brotherly world of which they cultivated the microcosm in the middle of their association. But in the affair of the phantom train where so many railroad workers play an active role, it was impossible to obey the order of hiding the names without rendering the tale totally unintelligible to the reader.