By Jennifer L Griffith
The first time I’d heard the name Arie Dirk Bestebreurtje, JD came from his beloved sister, Hendrika “Hennie” Cantwell, MD. I’d met Hennie and her husband Bill while on a ski vacation in 1998. After I moved to Teton Valley two years later, the Cantwells became cherished friends and my surrogate parents. During one of my numerous stays with them, Hennie shared coffee, something sweet, and stories of her brother, who ironically died doing something he loved—ice skating.
The irony of how “Captain Harry” died comes from how he lived. Especially during his time in World War II. During the war he served multiple allied governments as a Dutchman. Through the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), Arie was assigned to the American command unit called the 82nd Airborne in Operation Market Garden. Under British Command he was part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) for the Special Forces Head Quarters. And he received orders from Prince Bernhard and Dutch Intelligence where he served as “Captain Harry.” Arie’s importance to the Allied Forces cannot be overstated, and by the end of the war, Arie had received eighteen international decorations—second only to General Dwight D Eisenhower. This meant he took risks and saved many lives.
Many suspect that Captain Harry should’ve been awarded more medals, but the Dutch government had a 50 year secrecy cap on war intelligence in order to protect those who helped the underground efforts. What is known is that Arie spent war time behind German lines as a cloak and dagger spy under the elite Jedburghs (Jeds). During that time he survived two serious injuries, was shot three times during Operation Market Garden, was arrested and captured by Germans, and he escaped twice. Yet during the mission that impacted his life the most, he merely broke his ankle, and had no food or water for two to three days.
After countless operations as a spy behind enemy lines during two missions with Team Clarence, and Team Stanley II in Operation Market Garden, the Dutch Intelligent Force asked Arie to do one more mission. This one would be of a humanitarian nature. Team Dicing would attempt to neutralize a Dutch concentration camp near the village of Westerbork in early April of 1945. The advancing Canadian allies would then liberate the camp. The operation needed a Dutchman with his skills to guide them. At the last minute, Prince Bernhard put Captain Harry on the team. The Dutch Lieutenant on the team was a liaison to the Prince, but was not experienced with combat operations behind enemy lines.
Kamp Westerbork held captive 400 Dutch Nationals and around 500 Jews. The allies wanted them freed. If troops even came close to the camp during war time, the Germans killed the prisoners. Team Dicing feared that a planned invasion by the Canadian Allied forces from the north would push the Germans to kill all of the prisoners at Westerbork. Arie said in a speech in 1957, “There were no books written on how to liberate concentration camps.” And the timing of this mission was crucial.
The four members of Arie’s Jed unit were assigned to fly with the SAS forces who were part of the mission Amherst. They planned to parachute together near the parameter of Westerbork. This SAS team consisted of thirteen members of the Special Forces from France and Belgium, but had different orders. Another Jed unit called Team Gamble had dropped a day earlier.
On the night of the mission, Team Dicing and Amherst had many uncontrollable factors going against them: a foggy night, an unfamiliar airplane, time sensitive window, and new gear called a Leg Bag. [photo to left] This bag proved to be the biggest hindrance of the mission. The paratroopers would have to jump through the “Joe Hole” cut in the belly of the British Short Sterling Bomber instead of a door, with the Leg Bag. When Arie jumped through the awkward portal, the rope from his 100 pound bag wrapped around his neck. As he fell through the air, he had to free himself. This cost him valuable preparation time to land in this 600 foot altitude start drop. The bag slammed Arie to the ground. The rest of the men landed scattered and off target due to the clumsy bags and portal jump as well. This jump delay made the “stick” too long.
Note: One person had heard Arie say they dropped from 600 feet, and he said, “That is impossible. You have to jump much higher.” The Jeds first learned to jump from a 300 foot tower, and Team Dicing did not practice with the Leg Bags. They had to drop at low altitudes since the plane would pretend it was in trouble and turn back over the target. The low altitude also kept the stick tight, and allowed the reception partitions to grab them and hid them when they were used.–John Beach
On the ground and in the dark, Arie detached himself from his chute and gear. As the team guide, he had to locate the other two officers and radio Sargent. When he tried to stand, he realized he couldn’t walk. He’d broken his ankle when he hit the ground.
As gunshots filled the air, Arie crawled for cover. He feared members of his team were killed or captured. Fellow Jed member, Major Harcourt found Arie. When he discovered that Arie was unable to walk, Harcourt located a tree to hide him under, and then went to find the rest of the team.
The morning sun rose, and neither Harcourt nor any other Jed had returned for Arie. He noticed towers, platforms, and machine guns all around him. At that moment he realized he’d landed on the inside of the very concentration camp he’d planned to neutralize, with a badly injured ankle, and now, alone. Unorganized search parties started to look for the intruders. Arie noticed that as he shook in fear and pain, so did the tree that hid him. Concerned he’d give himself up with the only moving tree around, he moved away from his cover. Voices hollered out that they’d found his bag and chute. Arie knew that the Nazi’s would soon be looking for him.
The first day had passed. Arie remained out of the Nazi’s sight. On day two he heard a German unit march along the camp road close to his hiding place. The enemy had his prints and photo on file due to his prior arrests and escapes. He knew that if they’d found him this time, they’d automatically shoot him. He’d spent four months behind enemy lines and never fired a shot, but he prepared himself to do just that.
The soldiers moved in a line five feet apart, searching the area where he lay. As the line of soldiers approached him, the two closest to him turned to look at each other. They started to whisper about chocolate and cigarettes. If they found any, they’d keep the goods for themselves instead of turning them over to their officers. The soldiers passed so close to Arie, he could’ve reached out and touched their boot. Two more days passed with a spotlight shining directly on him through each night. He remained hidden by the light. Arie had to accept the fact that neither Harcourt nor any other Jeds would be back for him. He had to get himself out of the camp.
In the dark of night, Arie cut through the wired fence. He crawled four miles, and by dawn he landed in a ditch surrounded by farm fields. He slept through the day until the sun started to set. Arie watched the farmers leave the field. In his weakened, dehydrated, and starved state, he tried to get the attention of the last farmer. Arie’s parched throat silenced his voice. He eventually worked out a screech. It lured a young boy to him. Arie knew that an underground population existed. He asked the boy for food, knowing that if the boy said, yes, then he was lying and might turn him. Everyone knew that there was a food shortage, even for farmers. No one had food to spare. The boy left Arie without an answer.
Later that night, a man showed up on his bicycle with food and water. The farm boy had sent his father, Jan Schutten. The two exchanged passwords to verify that Jan knew about the Dicing mission. Arie had feared the lives of the man’s family considering the war had escalated, the German’s searched for him, and Allied Forces had moved into German occupied territory. He remained in the ditch another night, hurt but no longer hungry or thirsty.
Jan returned home to questions from his wife. Why did he leave an injured solider to fend for himself? “You have to go and get him. We’ll take care of him,” his wife replied.
Knowing nothing of Arie’s religion, race, or nationality, Jan and his son returned to help the following day. Arie later said, “They acted out of one obligation, to help another person in need.” Jan brought his horse carriage to transport Arie to the farm. They laid him down in a box filled with hay and horse manure, and rode through a German occupied town. Arie went unnoticed. At the farm, they undressed Arie and cleaned him up, then stashed him in a safe place. Arie learned that the Schuttens also offered a safe haven for two nurses, one older Jewish man, one priest, and seven young boys from Rotterdam. The Shuttens had the nurses care for Arie’s ankle and malnourished body.
The following day, April 12, 1945, Arie asked Jan’s wife for the current date. When she told him, he replied, “Today is my birthday, and what a great present I received by being here? I prayed a lot for help, because I was worried.”
Mrs Schutten replied, “We have to pray for God’s guidance always, not only if we think we need help”.
With the peak of the war surrounding them, and sirens consuming the quiet country air, German soldiers passed through the Schutten’s house looking for food, valuables, and oppostion forces. As they took whatever they desired, Arie stood in the corner of a walk-in closet with stuff in front of him, again going unnoticed. After the soldiers left, the Schuttens knew they’d soon be free when the Allied forces moved in. That night they went to town to celebrate and talk to the Red Cross about helping Arie with his broken leg. The following morning a German Red Cross tank showed up at their farm. They feared they’d told the wrong people about Arie. Their fears eased when they discovered that the tank brought chocolate, coffee, candy, sugar, and more. The Schuttens had not eaten this kind of food in years. The German driver then took Arie. He wore one of Jan’s slippers on his hurt foot. He promised to return to see them as well as write. The following day, an allied plane flew over the farm. Jan’s slipper dropped onto the Shutten’s property. The plane tipped the wing to wave, letting the Shuttens know that Arie was safe, and not held captive.
Due to the Dutch 50-year secrecy cap, some events are hard to piece together. However, on the morning of April 12, 1945, Kamp Westerbork was liberated by Canadian forces, yet all of the Germans had mysteriously disappeared the night before.
Arie’s war time accomplishments are vast. No one can argue that his name should be part of the definition of a “war hero.” But this experience left Captain Harry with many questions after the war. Why did he survive when so many others perished? These questions plagued him as he practiced international law in New York, and settled down with his wife and children. His extended family had left Holland before the war and lived in Berlin and Zurich for a time. When the war started, they fled to America because their Dutch papers could no longer be renewed due to Germany’s invasion of Holland.
On a returned trip to visit the Schuttens, Arie had many questions. With famine taking most people’s lives during the war, especially that final year, how could Jan risk the lives of his family by taking in strangers? The Schuttens fed them, housed them, and cared for them knowing that if they were caught, the men would be executed and the women sent to concentration camps. Arie asked Jan if he was worried that he’d run out of food?
“If I would run out of food, God would supply for more,” said Jan.
Arie tried to be polite and not reply to the man to whom he owed his life, but it sounded silly to him.
But Arie’s cynical attitude didn’t get past Jan. He asked, “This country you come from, do you know the Lord’s prayer over there?”
“I have to admit that we do,” Arie replied.
“Did you ever used it?”
“In there is a line. ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ If you just mumbled some meaningless words, forget about it. But if you believed that, then your faith and mine is the same. Give us this day our daily bread. We are not asking for anything for the day after tomorrow. We worry much too much about the all sorts of gray dim things of the future instead of only worrying about one thing. Doing God’s commandments, and then God will take care of us.”
With seeds planted earlier by German minister Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller from his days in Berlin before the war, Arie’s experience with the Schuttens synched his conviction. He would leave his thriving international law practice to serve God, and teach the Bible and peace to all mankind. Dr Arie D. Bestebreurtje, or Dr B, was ordained in 1950. He served in positions from Youth director to having his own parish in the Presbyterian Church. Two years after his retirement, Arie fell through ice while skating on a pond. He died from hypothermia and met the Provider of his Daily Bread at the age sixty-six.
- Gertrude & Arie at his 1981 Retirement Celebration
Arie D. Bestebreurtje, JD, aka “Captain Harry” or “Dr. B,” retired as a Major. He was married 41 years to Gertrude Maude Bersch, with whom he had four children: Driek, Mary Anne, Anton, and Martha Jane. He received 18 of the highest international medals for his service during World War II, second only to General Dwight D Eisenhower. He had command of seven different languages, was a Captain of the Dutch Intelligence, a U.S. spy with the Office of Strategic Services and Special Operations Executive during World War II, and after the war had a successful International Law practice in New York. He was personified as Captain Harry in the 1977 movie “A Bridge Too Far.” Arie competed as an international speed skater, was on the 1936 Dutch Olympic team, held many international records, and once skated with Dick Button in an Ice Capades show as a clumsy skating clown in New York City in 1953. He also won several national competitions prior to the war. After being ordained as a minister in 1950, he served in several positions from Superintendent of Youth Studies at Asbury United Methodist Church, to head minister of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Louisville, KY in 1957, and in 1966 was transferred to First Presbyterian Church, Charlottesville, Va. where he served until his retirement in 1981.
A funny note. “This hero with so many war skills, agile speed skater, and immaculately groomed minister, still had his glumness, tripping and falling. He would recover his composure with a laugh and some funny jester for an excuse. He was about 6’4″ or more with auburn hair and a perfect mustache.” –John Beach
A special thanks to John Beach for use of all of the photos he has collected, and his tireless effort to help me keep the facts straight. To find out more, go to http://www.b26.com/page/arie.d.bestebreurtje.htm
Story first posted on http://www.InspireaFire.com