In the heart of Friesland are the remains of what was once known as the settlement that stopped the German Blitzkrieg attempt in May 1940. With ‘only’ 225 soldiers at Captain Boers’ disposal, he and his men managed to stop almost 17.000 Germans. With that story in the back of my mind, I set foot on the terrain where all these men fought for my freedom 80 years ago.
Not just a museum
It was a sunny day when I entered the terrain of Kornwerderzand, housing the first and second line of seventeen casemates, built between 1932 and 1933 for extra defense purposes. Even though that purpose changed during World War II, history hasn’t. The second you enter the terrain, you feel this building pressure in your chest, you can almost feel the intensity of the soldiers’ fear and bravery as they fought for their country. You can sense where they stood, what they must’ve thought and felt knowing the enemy was coming. It’s not just you walking past a couple of concrete bunkers, it’s you walking through history, it’s you reliving those moments the soldiers felt, as if they never left. Volunteer Henri Meijering, board member and PR, agrees with the way I felt while walking there. ”It’s not just a building with all kinds of exhibitions, it’s where the war took place. It’s almost tangible, knowing that there were soldiers in the casemates.”
One brave soldier
As you walk along the designated path, you’re amazed by how well-maintained the casemates are. It almost looks like war hasn’t scratched them. Maybe the outside deceives you, but the inside wouldn’t be able to. Gerrit Kaspersma was a 19-year-old soldier who was stationed in May 1940 in the Wonstelling. Wearing a Dutch helmet, model 1934, he had no idea that the helmet plate had a weak spot, though, at the time, no helmet could’ve withstood a direct impact from a bullet. During an air raid by German Fighters on May 12th, he was fatally hit by a machine-gun bullet. His helmet can be found in casemate XIV, along with it his last letter he ever wrote. Standing there, in front of that helmet, seeing the bullet hole, does something to a person. Not too long ago, I was 19 myself. Now I’m 24, but this brave soldier, this brave young man, would never turn 24. As you look down at the helmet, you feel the fear that went through his body; it’s hard not to. That helmet is one of the few tangible objects left from the battle. Hard to imagine how many more men died that same day as he did, nothing left behind but a name.
What really stands out, is the story of Captain Boers, the man who was idolised by the soldiers under his command. ”He was strict, but just, and human,” says Henri, a story that speaks to him. ”One of the stories is that a soldier living in North Holland, stationed at Kornwerderzand, had a wife at home who was about to give birth to their child. The Captain lend the soldier his motorcycle so that he could go home.” Knowing that, and looking at his picture, makes you realise that literally everyone fighting in the war is just human, like you and me. Though he did more than being human, he was a leader. ”The Germans came up on the dyke, thinking that they could just walk and about as nothing happened. Until they were shot at at 800 meters of Kornwerderzand, trapped like rats. And Captain Boers did that, his tactical insight never failed him.”
Next level experience
You might wonder, is it only casemates? No, it isn’t. There’s films shown in several casemates with explosions and gunfire, making you forget everything around you. There’s no peace, it’s war. You immerse into that world as you watch the screen, Gunboat Hr. Ms. Johan Maurits van Nassau ready to fire on the water. It’s overwhelming how you get taken by the graphics, the sounds and the story. It’s something that’s hard to explain with just words. It almost makes you feel like you leave your own body and end up in the body of one of those men living through that. And with that in your mind, you find so much more. A ladder you can climb on (at your own risk) to look through a small opening, as if you’re looking for the enemy. A display with the guns German, English and Dutch soldiers used, complete with names and the sounds they make once fired. Canons, machine guns, naval mines, the remaining of the landing gear of a plane shot that was found in the Lake IJssel. And you might think I’m done, but I’m not. The best thing has yet to come. At the end of your route, on the second terrain of the museum, there’s a searchlight casemate. ”When I’m behind the counter, I can’t help but mention that last casemate. With full enthusiasm, I explain that kids can serve the searchlight. The first handle lights the lamp, the second opens the roof and the third rises the mirror towards it. And each time, I tell the visitors that the true reward waits for them at the end. I find it that beautiful.” Even on the phone, Henri can’t hide his enthusiasm for this particular casemate. And I wholeheartedly agree with him. It’s the ultimate end to a wonderful experience; a next level experience.
A sight for sore eyes
You don’t have to be a history buff to visit this wonderful spot, as it’s bound to make you amazed. It did with me. I visit such places a lot: bunkers, camps, other war museums. But this, this one really stood out to me. There’s so much to see, so much to discover. I wandered around for 3 hours and it felt like it had only been a minute. I was so stunned by what I saw, what I could relive and feel, that I almost forgot I was just a visitor. It took my breath away. And when it does that, I can assure you that it’s something worth visiting. I surely will go back here one day, for the sole purpose of wanting to take friends here to let them experience it too. Something like this needs to be kept alive, needs to be seen by your own two eyes. As the title says, it’s where you relive history. ”I’ve always been interested in history, especially World War II. I got that from my father, who told me stories as he was mobilised in Rotterdam. With that, and for myself, I find it important to convey the history to others. Youth, elderly, everyone. That’s why I feel so connected to this museum. I think it’s beautiful that you can point out what happened there, and make it almost tangible for visitors.” And I agree with Henri’s comment, because it did that for me. More than words can say.
You can find the Casemates Museum on the Afsluitdijk in Kornwerderzand, Friesland.
Love, Deem/Skye Lewis ❤
Images source: made by me