The May 1940 voyage of the S.S. “Bodegraven”

A Journey of Life and Death

14th - 19th May 1940

It is the afternoon of 14th May 1940. Rotterdam is burning, after a devastating bombardment by the Luftwaffe. Today is a Dutch “doomsday”, the country is on the verge of capitulating to the German forces. On this day there is a chaotic exodus to IJmuiden (Amsterdam’s port) of some thousands of Jews and of others who have reasons to fear Nazism. This is the true story of the voyage of the S.S. “Bodegraven” which departed IJmuiden just minutes before the Dutch surrender.

The facts and chronology of the May 1940 refugee voyage of the S.S. “Bodegraven” are as follows:

  • May 13th pm Captain Huibrecht Regoort is informed that his ship has been designated as a blockship to be sunk to obstruct the entrance to IJmuiden port (Amsterdam) to prevent the Nazis from using it.
  • May 14th pm crates with explosives are loaded but in the meantime the Dutch navy command has changed its mind and another vessel is used for this purpose. Regoort is informed at 5pm and ordered to load refugees for imminent departure across the North Sea.
  • The Bodegraven sails from IJmuiden (Amsterdam) just before 8pm on 14th May 1940 under the command of Captain Regoort and is the last ocean going ship to leave the Netherlands. On board are 262 refugees, including 75 unaccompanied children from the Burgerweeshuis (Amsterdam Civic Orphanage), evacuated under the auspices of Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer. Hundreds more refugees are left behind in the chaos and confusion of the situation, plus the urgency to depart ahead of the impending surrender to the Nazis.
  • The Netherlands and Belgium capitulate at 8pm in order to minimise loss of life and the news is heard on the Bodegraven’s radio shortly after her departure.
  • Whilst still in Dutch waters the Bodegraven comes under attack by a Luftwaffe plane which rakes the decks with machine gun and cannon fire during a 20 minute attack, despite the decks being lined with refugees and children. Amazingly there are no injuries.
  • May 15th at 11am: The Bodegraven is given orders to steam to Belfast by a British patrol ship which stops her just off Dover.
  • One passenger, the art dealer Jacques Goudstikker, dies on board in what is thought to be an accident and the sailor J.J. Dekker, sent to find Goudstikker is critically injured in doing so. As a result of this Regoort decides to make an emergency call at Falmouth because of sailor Dekker’s condition - his back is broken and he requires immediate hospital treatment. The ship arrives at 11am on May 16th and Goudstikker’s body is also taken off for burial and around 10 passengers with visas are allowed to disembark but the authorities maintain that the remainder, mostly with German nationalities, are enemy aliens - despite the majority being Jewish!
  • Having fulfilled all formalities and taken on fresh provisions and drinking water the Bodegraven departs Falmouth at 12 noon on 18th May and is informed Liverpool, rather than Belfast, has become her destination.
  • Night of 18th May: The Bodegraven hits a force 9-10 storm in the Irish Sea and many of the passengers are taken ill. She eventually docks at Liverpool on the evening of 19th May, where nobody has been informed of her arrival. After some improvisation the 250 refugees remaining are allowed off the following day (20th May) and the 75 children are accommodated temporarily in orphanages in Wigan pending more permanent arrangements.
  • On arrival Regoort places his ship and crew at the disposal of the British merchant navy and the Bodegraven continues in wartime service until torpedoed and sunk by U-547 off Liberia on 2 July 1944.

The above facts and chronology are taken from the August 1998 article by Albert R. Kelder published in the Dutch navigation magazine “De Blauwe Wimpel” (the Blue Pennant) and includes testimony from the vessel’s crew, principally Fred Keulen and corroboration of some data from the ship’s logbook.

The SS “Bodegraven”

The SS “Bodegraven” was a merchant freighter of 5,593 tons owned and operated by the KNSM (Royal Netherlands Steamship Company), completed in February 1929. She sank 12 minutes after being hit by a torpedo at 01:30 on 2 July 1944 whilst en route Beira - Durban - Freetown - UK. Of the 111 crew and passengers on board all but nine survived.

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