MNB RECOVERY SERVICE
Brochet to Micheline
Report concerning the convoy of September 3, 1944 at the Petite-Ile Station by Jean-Marie Moortgat. (Translation by Eliane Clerren-Hamm, January 2005.)
The story of the famous prisoner train that left Brussels-Midi station on Saturday, September 2, 1944, heading for Germany, carrying inside some 1500 prisoners, and which, after many adventures, found itself the next day, Sunday, September 3, in Brussels-Petite-Ile Station, is an incredible and distressing story and its designation as the “Phantom Train” is not an exaggeration. Personally, I went through this odyssey and I will do my best in the report below to make you experience, as I did, this story that is unique in war records. To do this, I have been helped by the report of the “Amicale des Prisonniers Politiques” (Political Prisoner’s Association) and I have drawn from it certain elements, particularly technical ones, given that others before me have already related this voyage that had a destination as happy as unexpected.
On Thursday, August 31, 1944, most of the detainees, myself included, were concentrated in wing B [of St. Gilles Prison, Brussels]. That the Germans were doing this was instructive; it meant that we are going to be transferred to Germany. For that matter, our guards had advised us beforehand of this affair by tersely shouting at us “Transport”. As of our arrival in wing B we noted an unusually great number of prisoners and we immediately understood that this was going to be a massive departure. That same evening we were showered and disinfected. Our guards however had changed completely. These same guards who the evening before were scowling and threatening, had become sweet as lambs (rather uncommon for Germans). They treated us with consideration and gave us everything we asked for in our cells. Some, the most “sarcastic” ones, called us “Mein Herr” or “Monsieur.” Others, who had some knowledge of French, talked kindly to us (sic!).
The news on the BBC (our dear BBC that brought us our daily indispensable moral support) reached us from outside, either through people passing by, or through people living in buildings opposite the prison. This news, once known, circulated at an inconceivable speed, either by the heating pipes or from one prison block/wing to another. This way we followed, step by step, the advance of the Allied troops and observed that our German guards became more and more sociable. There were on average twelve men penned per cell and provided, as for our little group, with four straw bags and five blankets. Luckily, it was warm and morale was at its best. Needless to say that the night we went through was as sleepless as possible; we talked, made predictions, and while some sang almost inaudibly “they are done for!” I remembered the words of Radio Belgique in London: “Patience and courage. We will get them, the Germans!”
The following day went by under the same conditions, except that our personal objects were given back to us, apart from valuables and jewelry. The Allies were at the Belgian border and we learned in bits and pieces that the Germans had already dispatched from the prison all their administrative documentation in large crates. I can reassure you immediately that these crates were not labeled “nach London”. During the night, which was more sleepless than ever, we heard a constant hubbub everywhere in the prison. A voice reported from the next wing “They are leaving”!”, clearly voicing the forthcoming victory. However, we did have one apprehension: would the Germans take us with them in their flight?
All of a sudden, at 3 in the morning, our guards went from cell to cell shouting “Verdisch [Fertich] machen-Transport” (Get ready, Transport). So now we knew, our protectors were taking us with them, but where, that we still didn’t know. We were parked with our baggage in the hall of Wing “B”. We could hear a fly buzzing and the sound of our heavy breathing was interrupted by the guttural voices of our guards shouting and gesticulating in the hall. This hall resembled the gigantic nave of a church encumbered with pilgrims and believers. Believers! Yes, that we were for we believed in the final victory. I read on some faces signs of resignation, on others, suffering, others still, unwavering morale and the satisfaction of seeing the German edifice collapse. We helped each other and carried the baggage of the sick and the weak. For my part, my backbone bent under the weight, but my face remained serene and impenetrable. Some German soldiers gave us some fruit and told us that we were about to leave. After waiting for quite a while in the hall, we were at last pushed towards the exit and our sad procession moved towards its destiny. We were honored by a row of machine guns all the way to the courtyard where each of us was given two Red Cross parcels (they were getting rid of everything because of the departure). In the yard, I noted that the prison echoed gloomily under the steps and shouts of the last stragglers. No doubt, they were emptying the prison completely!
Once outside, we were loaded on trucks, “loaded,” what am I saying, packed into! All we could see was gray always gray. X-shaped wooded barriers with spikes blocked all the streets to the prison and Germans, armed to the teeth, swarmed about. Really, to try to escape would have been suicidal. Once a truck was full to bursting, it moved off clumsily. The entire road was full of German soldiers with machine guns; and when we arrived at the Midi station, at the rue d’Angleterre approach, we stopped for a long while. I think it must have been about 7 AM. We were then invited with the butts of the machine guns to get off our truck and, still escorted by a great number of soldiers, SS mostly, we landed on the station platform. We went by many wounded Germans who were waiting to embark for Germany. They were gaunt and haggard and nothing remained that could remind one of the proud and irresistible German army of 1940. “Definitely, no doubt remains”, said my neighbor, “they are really done for.”
The train was composed of cattle wagons and passenger coaches. My group was loaded; pushed and packed into these carriages, a group to which, alas, several others were to be added to assemble something like a hundred men. Among these, many were ill and, as soon as the door was closed, demanded air and water and voiced gloomy laments. Meanwhile, other trucks arrived, burdened with their human cattle. From one of them we heard the Brabançonne being sung and in turn we burst into that hymn so dear to all Belgians. All of a sudden, a firearm went off, immediately followed by others. It was an SS who, furious, had shot in the direction of the truck from where the sounds of our national song came. No one was hurt and we were told the truck in question was the one occupied by women. Yes, women, OUR women, these brave companions who during the entire occupation had worked by our side for the Noble Cause. Those, who, like us, paid with their person and had always set the example for us.
Through the cracks of our nearly airtight wagons we saw our women, our fiancées, our daughters and our parents, perched on the barriers, bridges, etc., witnessing our departure and encouraging us with gestures and voices. In the meantime, the Germans and the GFP (Geheime Feld Polizei) hurriedly loaded crates and other heterogeneous objects on board. A few pigs, which our guards had jealously fattened, showed their discontent by emitting loud grunts. Grunts that were useless, since like us they were loaded on board.
During this time in the engine workshop and all along the railroad line, brave, anonymous patriots prepared the sabotage and were already taking action. This was how our first locomotive designated to haul our convoy, locomotive no. 1011, after many inspections, was declared unfit for service. This constituted the first victory for our railwaymen. The German staff was alerted and feverishly tried to get another locomotive, no. 1202, to work. After being inspected, discussions took place between the German staff and the Belgian employees, particularly about the faulty functioning of the Westinghouse pump. Finally, this locomotive was deemed ready for service and they started looking for an engineer. As if by chance, obviously, this engineer had just been taken sick. His substitute, who had already run the route to Antwerp, was given the order to make himself available to the Germans immediately to operate the prisoners’ train. The good man put so much emphasis into getting ready, that, as if by chance, obviously, he had such a bad fall that he had to be taken immediately to the infirmary where it was decided he was not fit for work. After consulting the service table, it was established that to operate locomotive 1202, they would have to wait for the arrival of the engineer and the fireman who were to take up service at 2 PM. By then it was around midday and the Germans had counted on leaving at 9 AM.
Meanwhile, in our wagon things were not going all that well. We had been able to obtain from the Red Cross of the station some soup in addition to water. But the air was becoming unbreathable and many ill persons lost consciousness. We nevertheless managed to open the two air shafts which the Germans had recently nailed down with barbed wire lattice. Gradually things calmed down slightly, however we did not manage to resuscitate one of our friends who was between life and death for quite a while.
In the meantime, at the station, Herr Inspektor had gotten into the business himself and in very legitimate anger, this good man searched in vain in the entire station, for the chiefs, deputy-chiefs, or anybody in charge, all of whom, as if by chance, were never there where he had been told they had been seen just a little while back. It is also noteworthy that in the morning, at the first hour, certain clerks of the Midi station, affiliated with resistance groups, had already alerted their groups all along the Antwerp line, and the patriots were getting organized, handing along the instructions that “the train must not pass.” The Germans, given the congestion on the Antwerp line, had suddenly decided to oblige a hospital train to turn back by way of Denderleeuw. Immediately, an employee of the station, helped by a police officer, placed dynamite sticks so as to blow up the signalization to Denderleeuw if at the last minute our convoy was also turned aside and had to take this route. Furthermore, members of the Consular Corps had undertaken to approach the German Authorities to obtain our liberation. Unfortunately the result was negative since, “despite all this opposition,” our train started moving, conducted by an engineer with three SS officers by his side, guns in hand.
All possible excuses having been worn out and there being no other way out, departure was set at 4.30 PM. But the engineer went to extreme limits “to dally on the way.” And that is how, slowly, slowly, sweating profusely, streaming with water and steam, as if by chance – as usual, our phantom train only reached Malines in the evening around 10.30.
This first part of the trip was not without incidents in the heart of our wagon. We recorded a few more instances of fainting, more or less lengthy, fingers and toes squashed at each sudden start-up of our convoy, and water had started to become rare. All along the journey, each time our convoy stopped, as if by chance, a great number of SNCFB personnel were there, ready to pick up the multiple notes and messages that we threw out through the air shafts. Yes they were there, their faces confident, and when they were sure they were not being watched, they had their thumbs turned up. What more could we need to boost our morale? During a maneuver of our locomotive at the water pump near Vilvorde, our engineer, drawing even with us, declared “You will not get through! Everything will be sabotaged! Long live Belgium!” Our engineer knew that at Malines the water pump that supplied the locomotives was unusable, as it had been sabotaged the evening before. Of course, as usual, as if by chance, our locomotive needed water. Instructions were given for our convoy to head for Muyzen to fill her up with water and finally we arrived at this station in the middle of the night.
Water was entirely lacking in our wagon and we made use of the pouring rain to gather the water that ran along the drainpipes of our wagon. This water, so good and fresh, was loyally shared among all the occupants but we took care to give two or three extra spoonfuls to those who were ill. We stayed there until dawn. Packed together as we were, we could not close our eyes; we had however reserved some space in the back of the wagon for the ill ones to lie down easily. We were living as if in a dream, exhausted and gnawed at by thirst. Some sang, others shouted, others groaned and quarreled. In the night, we heard the rattling of a machine gun plus two huge explosions. We had no doubts about their origin; they were the tracks and signalizations that were being blown up by sabotage groups of the resistance. An SS came to inform us that, if any of us tried to escape, he would take two or three of us, whose face he didn’t like, randomly and he would execute them against our wagon.
Around 5 AM, after a swivel broke down and a lack of pressure, the locomotive took our convoy back to Malines where the engineer was told that it was no longer possible to get to Antwerp: the tracks were blocked. After endless arguments, the German Stationmaster accepted that the convoy return to Brussels, to link up to the tracks to Liege and to head for Germany that way. At that time, Brussels-Midi locomotive 109 was in the station of Malines, returning empty to Brussels and capable of tugging the convoy together with the other one. That’s how it was done, but the return trip to Brussels was not to the liking of the German soldiers on duty in the DCA [anti-aircraft] wagons attached to the train. So they were properly left in Malines. This explains why our convoy entered the city of Brussels at the speed of an express train on Sunday, September 3 at around 1 PM with an extra engine and two DCA wagons less. As soon as they arrived at Brussels-Petite-Ile, the two engines were taken over by the Germans, who wanted to order them to be attached to a train with which they wanted to escape. In the midst of the confusion, our engineer managed to disappear accompanied by his friend the fireman.
At the North Station, at the dispatching bureau, they knew that our convoy was returning to Brussels and must be immobilized at the Petite-Ile Station. It was there that a Red Cross physician, whose wife was among the prisoners, undertook to negotiate with the Germans. A dispatcher had, in fact, formally advised him that the tracks had been sabotaged, and the train could go no further. The German commander however persisted in wanting to take us to Germany and had discovered among the German prisoners, a substitute engineer. This engineer could but note that the fireman, who had accompanied the Belgian engineer in his escape, had let the fire go out. Three good hours were needed to get the steam pressure back. It was with a livid face, telling of disaster, that the German Commander accepted, against his will, to free us, upon the written guarantee of the Red Cross Doctor, that the thousands of German wounded would be well cared for.
Another remarkable fact of this odyssey was our triumphant return from Malines to Brussels. During the entire voyage, Belgian patriots came running from all sides shouting: “The Allies are coming”. “They are done for–Long live Belgium”, etc., etc. while waving their hands wildly with the thumb visibly upwards. I want to point out something else that will probably seem incredible: when we were liberated, we found it quite natural and got off the train without demonstrating the least bit of joy, but I can nevertheless tell you that we had been living for the last 48 hours like persons in a state of hypnosis and that we moved about like sleepwalkers. In the company of two friends, I hurriedly went back to my home where the first thing I did was get into bed for a few hours, after first having had a good bath. Personally I had such faith in the progression of the Allies, that this situation seemed very normal to me and I found the people who described our trip as “unique luck” really off the mark.
Drafted in Brussels on January 30, 1945
MOORTGAT Jean-Marie-alias Brochet
[Original document signed]