Postcard impels couple to uncover maritime enigma
A COUPLE from the Netherlands have been to Dartmouth in search of more information about a wartime bombing raid on a ship and the loss of a family friend.
During their visit, Tineke Wetselaar and her husband Piet took a boat out to Start Point Lighthouse, where they threw a white rose into the sea as a tribute to those who had sacrificed their lives in the conflict.
A photograph of a young seaman named Frank Zijl, which was given to her by her father, has led Mrs Wetselaar on a voyage of discovery to find out what happened to the Dutch navy man who died when his vessel went down during the Second World War.
She has discovered that the 19-year-old seaman was on board a naval trawler that was known as Her Netherlands Majesty’s French Ship Jean Frederic that carried both the Dutch and French flags.
The ship had been captured in Falmouth on July 3, 1940, following the surrender of France in June. In July 1940 the Royal Navy requested the vessel and others to be manned temporarily by the Royal Netherlands Navy.
The Jean Frederic was escorting convoys between Falmouth and Dartmouth for the war effort when it was hit early in the morning of May 1, 1941, and sunk by a German bomber.
Some 25 men perished in the air attack, with the rest of the crew being rescued the following day and brought to Dartmouth by a British motor launch.
Mrs Wetselaar said: ‘My father had a friend, who joined the navy in February 1940.
His name was Frank Zijl and he was born in IJmuiden in the Netherlands on September 14, 1921.
‘In February, 1940, this friend joined the Dutch navy and was placed on a military training ship, the Noord Brabant, in Vlissingen.
‘When I was young my father gave me a postcard, on which was a photo of the training ship, written by Frank Zijl, telling how he was doing on board during the first days he got there.
‘I always kept this postcard safe because I thought it was special. My father died in 1979 and he never told me about what happened to his friend.
‘I asked my mother about him and she thought that the training ship was attacked by torpedos and sunk.
‘She also thought that maybe Frank Zijl had a sister, but the relationship with his family was not good and that could have been his reason for joining the navy.
‘Two years ago the archives of Vlissingen wanted to do an exhibition about this training ship and placed an article in the local paper to seek stories and pictures.
‘So I loaned them this postcard and it appeared to be a different story about this ship than what my mother had told me.
‘What really happened was that, when the war started in May 1940, the crew of this training ship set the vessel on fire to keep it out of the hands of the enemy.
‘In July 1940, the crew was sent to Britain to serve the Dutch navy on a confiscated French trawler named Jean Frederic to escort convoys from Falmouth to Dartmouth.
‘On May 1,1941, the HMS Jean Frederic was bombed in an air attack, which led to her sinking around four nautical miles southeast of Start Point Lighthouse, in sight of the land.
‘The crew of 39 was forced to abandon the ship. It is said that they remained on two rafts, which did not have enough room for all the crew. The next day 14 crew members were saved by a British motor launch, ML-157, and brought to Dartmouth.
‘Some 25 crew members had died of exhaustion and wounds, among them my father’s friend, at that time only 19 years of age.’
Mrs Wetselaar said that in her parents’ picture album there was a photo of Frank Zijl standing near the locks of IJmuiden.
‘I think this photo was taken just before he joined the navy,’ she said. ‘I’m hoping there might be documentation somewhere about the story, or maybe an article about what happened, or the names of the survivors.
‘Maybe there are people who know about what happened or can remember the survivors, or whether there was anything salvaged from the deceased? Maybe there’s a cemetery where they’re buried? Any information is very welcome.’
Mrs Wetselaar said what she hoped for more than anything was to find any surviving family relations.
‘If not, then maybe this story can be told so that we don’t forget,’ she emphasised. ‘My husband and I took a cruise from Dartmouth in September towards Start Point Lighthouse. I bought a beautiful white rose in your local flower shop and left it in the water near Start Point Lighthouse, especially to honour Frank Zijl and also a bit as a tribute to my father.
‘Looking at my pictures, I think about what Dartmouth might have looked like through the eyes of Frank Zijl.
‘Dartmouth is a lovely place, and when we bought the rose I explained to the woman in the shop what it was for. She assured me that, when Frank Zijl was in Dartmouth during the war, he must have had a good time, because the people of Dartmouth were, and still are, very enjoyable.
‘This gave me a very good feeling, to assume that he also had some fun in his life.
‘Maybe he danced with local girls, had a beer in the local pub? Who knows what story your article will bring?
‘We had a wonderful trip and beautiful weather, so it was a perfect day to honour the crew members of Jean Frederic, who gave their lives for our freedom, and to remember those who survived.’
Historical records, including Jean Labayle Couhat’s French War Ships of World War II, record that the Jean Frederic left Falmouth in the early morning of May 1,1941, with a convoy of 17 merchant ships, bound for Dartmouth.
On May 1, at 1605 hours, the Jean Frederic obtained an asdic (sonar) contact in position 50.11 N, 03.38 E – approximately four nautical miles from Start Point.
Contact was lost around five minutes later and the trawler turned to rejoin the convoy. At 1615 hours the Jean Frederic was attacked by a German dive bomber, which dropped four bombs and raked the deck with machine guns. The four bombs were all near misses, but exploded close enough to leave the ship in a sinking condition.
The entire crew of 39 abandoned ship on only two Carley floats. The Jean Frederic did have a lifeboat, but unfortunately it had a cracked bottom and was of no use. The two Carley floats did not have enough room for the entire crew of 39, so crewmen had to make do with whatever was afloat.
Meanwhile, the convoy, which also included the Notre Dame de France in its escort, steamed on, unaware of the Jean Frederic’s plight.
It was not until the afternoon of May 2, at around 1400 hours, that the British motor launch ML-157 picked up survivors from the rafts. By then almost two-thirds of the crew had succumbed to exhaustion and wounds.
The crew of the Jean Frederic totalled 39. Of these, 14 were rescued and 25 killed, including the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Commander AC Lunsbeck.