The Peteri Brothers


Our expedition follows that made by two brothers, Willem and Henri Peteri. In 1996 Henri was interviewed by a journalist
from Sea Kayaking magazine, from this interview and other sources we have put together an outline of Henri’s reasons for
making the crossing and under what conditions the crossing was made.

Henri was a university student at the time of the German occupation of Holland, when the occupation began Henri had been
in the army and fought for 5 days before surrendering. Life carried on close to normal other than presence of foreign troops
after the surrender. Like many of the students he wanted to know what he could do to oppose these forces and felt that the
best way forward would be to escape Holland and join the Allies abroad which he felt would be more effective.
He had been reading a book about a journey from Iceland to Norway in a canoe and this seems to have given him the idea
to do the crossing to England in a kayak.

The brothers were by no means professional kayakers; they had spent some holidays in Katwijk playing in the surf in
rented boats. However they were confident in their ability to make the crossing and managed to pick up collapsible double
kayak in Rotterdam.

Unlike many others who made the crossing, they were not monitored or under suspicion by the Nazis and so had time to plan and make their escape. As they had the ability to wait for the correct moment they decided on the circumstances in which to make the escape. They felt that it should be a dark moonless night so as not to be spotted and that it should not be in Summer as the long daylight hours would make it harder to get away from the coast unnoticed. Ideally the wind would be from the East so as not to be battling against a headwind.

It was at one point in September that Henri realised that they had been waiting a long time and that if they continued to wait they would never leave. He decided the sooner the better and headed to Katwijk to make plans. Although the entrance to the beach was fortified with barbed wire, there was a gap where holidaymakers could enter through during daylight hours. Henri rented a room in a house as close to this gap as he could.
Willem had just begun a new job when Henri revealed his plans, Willem apparently was exasperated, exclaiming “But I can’t! What about my job?” He only worked one more day there.

They took the kayak by train from Delft to Katwijk, the kayak itself fitted in to a rucksack which could easily be mistaken for a tent. The whole story nearly ended here as during the journey a group of German soldiers entered the train. One of the soldiers leaned against the packed kayak which made it look like it was his own belongings, and so reduced the amount of baggage the Henri Peteri was perceived to be carrying and avoided some fairly awkward questions.

Having reached the house in safety, the brothers wrote a note to their parents so that if anything went wrong they would know what had happened to them. Henri gave it to his girlfriend Betty, who was 16 at the time, along with some food rationing coupons to pass on in two weeks. Betty and Henri later married in 1951 after the war.

They assembled the kayak in the room they had rented in complete darkness as it was a blackout. They had only ever done this once before and had never even paddled the kayak prior to the crossing!! On their first attempt they realised at the end of the assembly that they had left out a key piece from the bow. They had to take the whole thing apart again which took another 1hr 30. They had intended to leave at midnight but in the end left at 1:30am - in hindsight Henri felt that this was better as the barbed wire would have been better guarded at the earlier time.

The kayak now assembled, they crept down to the beach where again they narrowly missed a tragic ending. Whilst trying to launch the kayak in the surf and simultaneously attempting to keep their shoes dry they managed to capsize. Apart from the kayak filling with water, they lost most of their gear. They salvaged around in the dark but were unable to use a torch for fear of alerting German patrols- they lost most of it to the night.
In these circumstances states Henri- you need a bit of luck. They had taken two watches, one had survived the capsize. They had two compasses yet again only one survived and out of the three flashlights they managed to find only one. Along with these key items they lost a lot of their food as well.

Not to be deterred they emptied the boat of water and re-launched, paddling quickly to get as far from shore as possible before daylight. They were lucky with the weather conditions which stayed calm for the next few days. During the first day they were almost spotted by a convoy but being in such a small craft that barely crested the waves they made a small target, when this happened they turned around and paddled in the opposite direction for a while.

As the wind was blowing from the East they managed to maintain good direction going West by keeping it behind them. They had no maps or sail and had decided on the strategy of simply plodding on until they reached England. The second night at sea proved difficult, having broken one of the seats when the kayak capsized and it was now becoming very uncomfortable. To add to their condition their spray decks did not fit correctly and the two brothers spent most of the night mopping up sea water from between their legs with towels.

Finally they became so tired they had to get some rest, whilst one brother paddled for a thousand strokes the other slept. Their arms went on far longer than their eyes. They were exhausted but suddenly out of the fog they heard the sound of what they thought was water along the side of a ship but turned out to be the water inlet for Sizewell power station. Unable to land for fear of stepping on a landmine or being shot when mistaken for the enemy they called out for help and eventually a soldier came over and found them.

It had taken them 56 hours to reach England, a distance of over 100 miles. They were elated but in keeping with the
experiences of many of the Engelandvaarders they were taken to the local police station to be processed. Their
belongings were taken and noted down, and then the Peteris spent the next night in a cell in Aldeburgh. Henri later
remarked “I never felt more free than that first night in a British prison.” The Brothers were then sent to the Royal
Victorian Patriotic School for interrogation and to make sure that they were not German spies. During the planning
of our expedition the daughter of the young Constable, James McGuire who arrested the Peteri brothers came forward.
She noted that he probably did think that they were Germans and it is likely that his welcome was not all that sympathetic.
The police reports from the original arrest are to the right - Courtesy of Mrs M Manson.

During the interrogation they met another group of kayakers who had set off 10 days after they had, from the same
hole in the barbed wire and had stayed in the same room as they had the night before departure. They also found
out that the supplies that had spilled from their kayak during the capsize had been found by a German patrol, the
beach was searched and they came across another kayak hidden in the dunes. Henri later met the man whose
escape plan he had foiled.

The two brothers enlisted in the Navy, both surviving the war. Henri went on to set up Quooker, a very successful
company now run by his son which manufactures boiling hot water taps. The trip itself was very risky, the majority that
attempted it either got caught just off the coast and were put in to camps or were killed at sea.

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