Behind Enemy Lines
As the small plane droned through the black night, the four men in the cargo bay waited tensely. In moments the plane would be above Westerbork, one of the Nazis’ concentration camps.
Captain Arie Bestebreurtje looked out the tiny window. He could see no lights on the ground and knew that he and his companions would be jumping into heavy fog.
“Over target zone,” came the voice from the cockpit.
“Roger,” Arie replied. “Let’s go.”
He rechecked his chute and pulled the plane’s side door open. “Go!” he called.
One by one his three teammates stepped out the door and disappeared in the darkness. Arie followed them. The rush of wind replaced the roar of the plane. Arie pulled the chute cord, and all became silent. As he drifted gently in the night, Arie thoughtfully reviewed the mission.
Arie Bestebreurtje was originally from Holland, but when the country was invaded by Nazi troops, Arie and his wife escaped to England. Then Arie joined the special forces and spent eight months in Scotland learning espionage techniques and how to penetrate enemy lines. But the purpose of all this was not to hurt but to help—to rescue Allied pilots who had been shot down in enemy territory and to help prisoners escape.
Rescuing prisoners was the purpose of the current mission. Captain Bestebreurtje, Captain Harcourt, Lieutenant Captain Van Dugteren, and Sergeant Somers planned to parachute into German-held territory just outside Westerbork concentration camp. They would try to trick the prison commander into believing that the Allies were about to overrun the countryside. The hope was that, with the threat of being outnumbered looming upon him, the prison commander would release the prisoners.
In the black night Arie could see only one other parachute near him. The other two were lost in distance and fog. He looked down, but could not see the ground coming toward him. He was enveloped in a fog cocoon.
Then the ground appeared out of nowhere, and he landed hard. Pain shot through his right ankle as he rolled. Arie lay for a moment, letting the pain subside.
A white form dropped through the fog, and Captain Harcourt landed near him. Before Arie could say anything, the night exploded with gunshots and barking dogs. Arie and Harcourt lay motionless. German voices shouted in the darkness. In a few minutes the commotion died down. The night grew silent.
In Enemy Territory
“Harc,” Arie whispered.
“I’ve hurt my ankle. Can you give me a hand?”
“Just a second.”
Arie unclipped his harness and began to bundle up the huge mass of parachute cloth. Harcourt had his parachute stowed in seconds, then helped Arie with his.
“Let’s see that ankle,” Harcourt said. After examining it, he gave his diagnosis. “I’d say it’s broken.” He glanced around. The outline of a small tree showed through the fog. “You can hide in the brush under that tree,” he said. “I’ll scout around and see if I can find Dug and Somers.”
Arie agreed. Harcourt helped him to the tree and covered him and both parachutes with dead grass, brambles, and leaves. After Harcourt left, all was silent.
Arie waited through the rest of the night. His ankle throbbed. Twigs and brambles poked him everywhere. Arie listened for his friend’s return.
The night faded to morning. Cautiously pushing the leaves from his face, Arie peered out. On one side of him, not far from the tree, stood a tall barbed-wire fence with watchtowers at regular intervals. In the other direction he saw a long brick building with a German flag flying above it.
Arie felt a quiver in his stomach as he realized he had landed inside Westerbork camp. He covered his face again and lay motionless, thinking of what to do. He heard footsteps and German voices. They were searching for him. Arie could hear his heart pounding in his ears. The voices faded as the search party moved on.
For the moment Arie was safe. He had no idea what had happened to Harcourt and the others. He decided his best bet was to stay where he was. Harcourt knew his location and would return for him eventually. Besides, Arie’s broken ankle limited his options.
Arie remained in hiding all that day. Guards passed nearby but did not find him. Night came. Arie had not had anything to eat or drink for 24 hours. He did not mind the hunger, but the thirst was torture.
In the cover of darkness Arie felt safe enough to emerge from the brush that covered him. He looked around. The guards were nowhere in sight. Arie arranged the brush to form a small shelter he could kneel in. Then he dug into the damp earth at the base of the tree. Using only his hands, he dug up soil until water began to seep into the hole.
While the water accumulated, he pulled the small first-aid kit from the clip at his belt. Dumping its contents on the ground, he pulled out a gauze bandage and draped it over the empty first-aid box.
The water in the hole was more mud than water. Arie scooped some up and strained it through the bandage into the box. This removed most of the dirt, but Arie had no idea what kind of organisms still swam in the gray water. He dropped in a water purification tablet.
When it dissolved, he swished the water around and tipped the box up, drinking from one corner. The gritty water felt cool and soothing in his throat.
Feeling better, Arie assessed his situation. He knew he dared not go anywhere until he learned what had happened to his companions. He decided to give Harcourt one more day to return.
All that day Arie stayed in hiding, watching the goings-on at the camp. He was relatively safe by the fence since no one was allowed near it. Prisoners who came close were shot.
Harcourt did not return that day or night. It was time for Arie to take action.
Gingerly favoring his broken ankle, Arie left the safety of the brush and crawled toward the nearest guard tower. Grass and weeds grew tall under it. Arie crawled as close as he dared, then lay still, watching and listening.
At regular intervals guards came and went. Sometimes they stopped and exchanged a few words. Mostly they gossiped about other guards and commanders, or commented on prisoners who had died or committed suicide.
For the next few days Arie listened to the guards at night and hid in the brush under the tree during the day. He drank water from the hole he’d dug and licked dew that collected on the fallen pine needles.
On the fifth night Arie’s surveillance paid off. Listening to the guards, he became suddenly alert when he heard the words “Special Forces.”
“That fourth man is still at large,” one of the guards said. “Too bad Mingst and Himmler didn’t get him that first night when they shot the other two.”
“Yeah. Have they gotten anything out of the captured man?”
“Not yet. Name’s Harcourt, I think. Special Forces from England. But he won’t say anything else.”
That was all Arie needed to hear. Harcourt would not be back for him. It was time to escape.
Between the next round of guards, Arie crept up to the fence and took out his wire clippers. He held his breath as he made the first cut. No electric shock, no alarm. After a few more quick clips he crawled through the hole.
Arie froze when a searchlight swept over the grass. He heard no call of alarm. No shots or dogs. They had not seen him.
Fields and open countryside surrounded Westerbork camp. Unable to walk on his broken ankle, Arie crawled away from the camp. He stayed away from roads, crawling through fields and woods. After covering four miles, the days without food and the constant stress caught up with him. Exhausted, Arie crawled into a ditch and slept until daylight.
Cry for Help
As the warm sun roused him, Arie propped himself up and peered out of the ditch. He saw several men and boys working in a field. He wondered if they knew what was happening at the camp just a few miles away. Were these farmers on the side of the Germans or the Allies?
Arie bided his time through the day. Late in the afternoon the workers began to leave the field one by one. Arie knew if he was going to take a chance, now was the time. The last worker to leave was an older boy. Arie tried to call out to him, but his throat was so dry he could manage no more than a whisper. He struggled to his knees and waved.
The boy saw him and came over, approaching cautiously.
“Will you bring me some food and water without telling anyone?” Arie whispered.
Since the German invasion, food had become scarce. Arie knew the boy would not be able to get food without someone’s knowing. If the boy said he could, Arie would know it was a trap.
“I’ll have to ask my father,” the boy said.
Arie breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps he would survive after all. He waited in the ditch as the sun sank and stars dotted the sky. Near midnight a man approached the ditch. Arie guessed it was the boy’s father.
“I am Jan Schutten,” he said. “This is my farm. Who are you?”
“I am Captain Arie Bestebreurtje, Special Forces commander.”
“What is your mission?”
“To free the political prisoners at Westerbork.”
“Who is with you?”
“Captain Harcourt, Lieutenant Commander Van Dugteren, and Sergeant Somers.”
“Where are they?”
“Captured or killed.”
“And I am to believe you escaped?”
Arie nodded and gave the farmer a test of his own. “My father is from Madagascar,” he said.
Mr. Schutten smiled. “My mother is from Guyana.”
With those words Arie’s fear dissolved. Mr. Schutten knew the password and had given the proper answer.
“Let me help you up,” Mr. Schutten said.
He took Arie’s arm and helped him to the barn. While they walked, they talked. Arie learned that Mr. Schutten was an underground worker for the Allies and knew about Arie’s mission.
Mr. Schutten took Arie to the loft in the barn and then brought him food and water and a change of clothes. He also tended Arie’s broken ankle.
“I’d like to spend more time with you,” Mr. Schutten said, “but I must see to the others before dawn.”
“Others?” Arie asked. “What others?”
“Other refugees,” Mr. Schutten answered. “Jews, Allies. Ten others like you are on this farm. I cannot tell you where.”
“You have enough food for all these? What if you run out?”
“God will provide,” Mr. Schutten replied. He looked at Arie quizzically. “Do you say the Lord’s Prayer?”
“Then you say ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’”
Arie nodded again.
“If you don’t believe it, you should not say it.”
During the days and weeks that followed, Arie learned that Mr. Schutten was a devout Christian. He attended church regularly, and his family read the Bible every evening. Jan Schutten was a man who knew what was right and was not afraid to do it. He was like the good Samaritan in the Bible who took a chance and helped a wounded stranger by the road.
Soon after, the war ended. The Nazis were defeated, and the prisoners in the concentration camps were released. Arie Bestebreurtje returned to England. It seemed to Arie that God had saved his life during that ill-fated mission. But why had his companions’ lives been taken? Only eternity will reveal God’s wisdom in the matter.
Arie joined a church in New York and became a children’s division teacher. Later he became an elder. But he still felt he should be doing more for God. Finally he enrolled in a seminary to devote his entire life to the Lord’s service.
Arie’s brush with death had shown him that no matter what his mission on earth might be, there is no success without God.