Call me old-fashioned but for the last 50-something years of my life, I had always thought that the Second World War had ended in Europe on May 8, 1945. I knew this was a fact because that is when the Nazi’s unconditional surrender came into force; it was also my dad’s birthday, hence a significant date.
But it seems that I was wrong.
Recently I drove up to the Dutch island of Texel to screen my film The Road to Sparta and run a part of the Zestig van Texel 60k ultra. I had never been to Texel; indeed my last trip to the Netherlands was for a tax conference in Maastricht in early 1992, not long after the signing of the famous – or infamous depending on your angle of vision – treaty.
(I should add that at the time I was the editor of Euromoney’s International Tax Review. I know, life is full of surprises.)
The screening took place in the largest centre of the island, Den Burg, on the Friday evening with the race setting off on Sunday morning. That left an empty Saturday to discover the island, which I duly did.
The first thing you realise is that it isn’t a big island; the 60k ultra is essentially the circumference of what is the largest West Frisian island in the Wadden Sea. Where is that? Well, look west across the North Sea and on a good day you may be able to pick out the clock tower in Skegness.
The western edge of the island is trimmed with broad sandy beaches and steep dunes while a large flat polder with a criss-cross of dykes lies across the central part. The east is more rugged although to be fair I saw less of it.
The second thing you notice is the sheep. Lots of sheep. And lambs (although by the time you read this they may already have had their throats slit, a fuzzy memory for someone thinking back on their Sunday roast).
Oh and bicycles. Everyone seems to ride a bike, no matter what age.
What you don’t realise until you dig a little deeper is the fighting history of the island; because of its situation it has played its part in various sea battles.
Usually it was the British who came off second best although on one occasion in 1795, the Dutch navy was forced to surrender to the French.
Apparently it was a very chilly January and the Dutch navy found itself frozen into the ice. Commandant Louis Joseph Lahure and 128 men rode up to it and suggested they may like to surrender. It is the only instance of a fleet succumbing to the cavalry and not a shot was fired.
But then there is the cemetry which tells the tale of Texel’s role in the Second World War and the battle which continued well after May 8, 1945.
Because of its geography Texel was an important part in the Nazi Atlantic Wall system of defence. A large number of Allied airmen were lost here, picked out of the sky by flak on the way to or on the way back from bombing raids. The first loss on the famous Dambusters attack on the Sorpe Dam saw Vernon Byers’ Lancaster – AJ-King – shot down over Texel, crashing into the Zuider Zee. It is not unusual to find a propeller turned into a local war memorial.
But these aren’t a part of the battle to which I am referring. For that we have to wait until April 1945 when a battalion of Georgians rose up against their German officers, sparking several weeks of violent bloodshed that continued some time after the Nazi surrender.
Georgians, I hear you ask, what were Georgians doing in the Netherlands in 1945?
Well, they had been drafted into the German forces after being captured fighting on the Russian front. The prisoners had been given a choice, either go to a POW camp or join the Georgian Legion. Given that Soviet leader Josef Stalin was himself a Georgian, this may not have been such a smart idea but faced with that or the strong likelihood of perishing in a POW camp, around 30 thousand Georgians joined the Germans.
The 882nd Infantry Battalion Königin Tamara (Queen Tamar or Tamara) was formed at Kruszyna near Radom in Poland in June 1943. Their first action was against Polish partisans but they were soon moved to Zandvoort in the Netherlands and then on to Texel.
Following D-Day in June 1944 and the rolling back of the German line, the Georgians on Texel began to get anxious. The prospect of being handed back to the Soviet Union and facing a possible death penalty or gulag was hardly a sunny prospect and so they opted to take the fight to the Germans.
Shalva Loladze had been a Soviet Air Force Captain. When he was shot down over Ukraine and captured by the Germans, he joined them, becoming a second lieutenant in the 882, the perfect man to lead the 800-strong Georgian contingent in the mutiny.
And so, on April 5 1945, with the Georgians and the local Dutch resistance expecting an Allied landing, the knives and bayonets came out.
It must have been the worst kind of shock for the Germans who lay sleeping, dreaming perhaps of the imminent end to the war and a swift return home to see their families. Approximately 400 of them were butchered that night, many of them in their beds.
Was it bravery from the Georgians or cowardice?
“I saw many deaths over these few years, but what happened next was grave indeed – we killed about 500 German soldiers,” Grisha Baindurashvili, the last survivor of the mutiny, told Lali Papaskiri, a reporter for Georgian Journal and Gza magazines in 2015.
“I myself boarded up a building with 16 Germans in it and set it on fire. Nobody survived.”
Loladse’s men, though, failed to secure the naval batteries on the southern and northern coasts of the island which meant the Germans were swift and, as you might expect, ruthless in their response.
The 163rd Marine-Schützenregiment arrived and, within a fortnight, regained control of the island.
“The worker hundred, part of which I was, took position on a hill and held it for several days, but we were outnumbered twenty to one,” said Baindurashvili.
“Every night there were raids aimed at flushing us out, with sniffer dogs used to find out positions. We tried to hide in foxholes, but to no avail. Out of 115 Georgians that were on that hill, only eight survived.”
It was dirty stuff from both sides with many captured Georgians being forced to dig their own graves before being executed. But as Baindurashvili recounts there were cases where humanity prevailed.
“One night, I and two other Georgians were out on a scouting run, to determine if we could get through to our battalion,” he told Papaskiri.
“Suddenly, we heard dogs barking. This meant that a raid was underway. We had no choice but to burrow inside a nearby haystack. The dogs quickly led the Germans to us and were running around the haystack, barking.
“One of the soldiers brought a ladder and climbed on top of the haystack. If I could draw, I’d draw his face, which I remember perfectly even after 70 years. He was a young man, with black hair.
“I had a gun trained on him, while his own was in a sling. We spent several seconds looking straight at each other and then he suddenly turned and left, climbing back down. I heard him say ‘There are no Russian partisans here!’ He said this louder than was necessary, probably so that we could hear as well.
“I breathed with relief, but kept wondering if this was all just a trick so that they could set the haystack on fire and smoke us out, but nothing of the sort happened.”
Loladze was killed on April 25 but the fighting went on for almost another month, especially around the lighthouse at the north end of the island, before Canadian troops arrived, ending the battle on May 20, 1945, 12 days after the surrender of the Nazi High Command.
The cost in human lives was 565 Georgians, at least 812 Germans, and 120 residents of Texel. The 228 Georgians who survived were returned to the Soviet Union where many were indeed sent to the gulags.
A total of 476 Georgians lie in a tranquil corner of the island, not far from Den Burg, their resting places marked by rows of rose bushes.
Alone at the head of his battalion lies Loladze, his grave adorned with several bunches of flowers and a bottle of red from the Alizani Valley; a small reminder of a brief but bloody conflict largely overlooked by the history books.
©Barney Spender 2019