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Karel R. Dahmen
his life and wartime service after arrival in England aboard the Zeemanshoop

Karel R Dahmen while serving on SS Jupiter, 1940Karel R Dahmen in 2004Karel Dahmen was one of the four students at Dutch universities who deserve most of the credit for bringing the Zeemanshoop and its passengers to safety. Karel Dahmen's  decision to cycle from Delft to Scheveningen after hearing the broadcast announcement of the surrender of Netherland forces changed the course of his life. The Dutch called their fellow countrymen who left for England after the surrender of Dutch forces to fight for the liberation of the Netherlands Engelandvaarders (England Travellers). The four man student  "crew" were Engelandvaarders but  the majority of the passengers on the Dutch lifeboat were Jewish and had they not escaped on the Zeemanshoop they would almost certainly have died in a German concentration camp. Many of them had already had to leave their homes in Austria or Germany. Chance brought the 46 passengers and crew of the Zeemanshoop together on the evening of Tuesday the 14 May 1940 after the surrender of the Netherlands was broadcast on Dutch radio. 

After arrival at Dover aboard HMS Venomous he joined the SS Jupiter under Captain  Dekker as assistant engineer before joining the Royal Netherlands Navy as an Ordinary Seaman (OD) on the HNMS  Jacob van Heemskerk where he became the RDF Operator. After officer training Sub Lt Karel Dahmen was posted to the Dutch Naval Liason Office at the Admiralty. In the Spring of 1943 he was posted to the RNN 9th MTB Flotilla at Dover and served as a specialist in the use of RDF in it’s operations against German shipping in the Channel. He was then sent to the USA to train with the US Marines and the SeaBeas to create a Dutch Marine Brigade to participate in the Pacific war under US command and thereby  make a meaningful contribution to the liberation of Indonesia.

Karel Dahmen also describes his marriage and postware career as an oilfield engineer with Stanvac Eastern in Sumatra and with the Continental Carbon Company in the Netherland and the USA where he has lived since 1967. He celebrated his 100th birthday on the 23 May 2019 but we continued to communicate with each other by e-mail. My last e-mail to him on the 11th May 2021 was answered the following day by his daughter in law:

"Karel passed away on February 16, 2021 at the age of 101.  He was busy as a bee the last day of his life and left this world sometime early in the morning during his  sleep.  We are grateful his last years of life were pleasant and productive."

All things have an end and Karel Dahmen had a long happy life and lived a further eighty years after leaving Scheveningen in the Dutch lifeboat and he met Loet Velmans and the families of the passengers and crew of the Zeemanshoop at the reunion in Scheveningen on the 75th anniversary of the voyage of the Zeemanshoop.

But if you have not already done so you should start by reading
the story of the voyage of the Zeemanshoop and her rescue by HMS Venomous


Karel Dahmen was born on the 23 May 1919 at Roermond, where the river Roer meets the Meuse in Limburg, the south easten province of the Netherlands near the border with Germany. Both his parents had lived in Roermond for several generations. His father, Georges R.W. E. Dahmen, the son and grandson of millers studied law in Amsterdam but set up his practice in Roermond. His mother, Theresia (Trees) A.H.M. Nicolas, was the daughter of the proprieter of an atellier designing and making stained glass.

The family home was on the Pastoors Wal, the medieval north wall of the town, right under the tower of the late gothic cathedral and had an open view of the harbour and the River Roer through a row of chestnut trees. Karel was one of four children, two boys and two girls. He grew up during the depressed thirties when his father, a lawyer, accepted payment in kind from impoverished farmers and the town folk saw life across the nearby border change when the Nazis came to power.

Karel describes his school years:

“My school was a traditional Gymnasium where we learned Latin and Greek and English, French and German in addition to mathematics, natural science and social studies. I had a wonderful group of friends, boys and girls. Roermond was a small town with only 13,000 inhabitants but there was plenty to do, we could play tennis, go cycling together, train and row with the rowing club where several boats would sometimes row together to summer fairs at nearby villages. I got to know Jo Bongaerts and his brothers and sisters. In the large house of the Bongaerts family there was a club room with a gramophone and that’s where I learned to dance. Jo was four years my senior. He went to study in Delft. I followed three years later and was accepted into his close circle of friends.” 

 When he was 16 Karel was one of 600 school boys whose parents paid 25 guilders (about 10) for them to go on a week long cruise along the coast of Norway. The MS Tarakan had been converted by installing bunks in its holds to take pilgrims from Indonesia to Mecca and school boys from the Netherlands to Norway. This was the first time he had been to sea and the deep fjords and high mountains of Norway made a deep impression on this young Dutchman.

He first went to England after finishing high school in 1937 when he and his friend Arthur went by ferry to Gravesend, explored London by underground and cycled through England and Wales to the Irish Sea in pouring rain, camping and cooking over a primus stove. He loved every day of this adventure holiday.

They both decided to study engineering at Delft University, Karel choose mining engineering and Jo civil engineering. Neither knew anything about marine engineering. Karel's education was interrupted by four months military service but he was in the third year of his course when the invasion came.

They were in Jo's digs above a grocery store in Delft when Rotterdam was bombed on the 14 May 1940 and saw an enormous smoke cloud over the city. At 6 pm they heard the announcement of the surrender on the radio and decided to cycle to Scheveningen and try and find a boat to take them to England.

Refugees in London and students at Oriel College, Oxford

When the passengers and crew of the Zeemanshoop left HMS Venomous at Dover they were put on a train to London and spent their first night in a Salvation Army hostel. Freddie Knottenbelt, the head of the Netherlands Emergency Committee took a special interest in the student crew of the Zeemanshoop. He was a tea broker and a long term member of the Dutch community. He arranged for them to stay at the Hotel Norman in Carlton Drive, Putney, a small family run hotel owned by Mrs M. Nuthall, the mother of the tennis start Betty Nuthall. They visited Freddie Knottenbelt at his wonderful house in Roehampton where Karel was a welcome guest on many future occasions (see family photograph above, taken on the 18 August 1940).

His son, Maarten Knottenbelt, was a student at Oriel College, Oxford, and the Provost, Sir David Ross, invited the four students to stay for ten days: "We slept in the house of Sir David Ross but we had our meals in the Hall with the students. The term had not ended so we had a taste of student life in Oxford, such as sitting in on a tutoring session of about six students with one tutor. I would have loved to study in Oxford. We loved to have a beer with students at the Mitre. We also attended a debate at the 'Union' and I went punting on the Cherwell with the niece of Sir David Ross and found it much more difficult to move the punt in the desired direction than to steer the Zeemanshoop over the North Sea."

Karel and Jo wanted to become self supporting and found work hoeing sugar beet on a farm in Oxfordshire: "The farm Jo and I worked on was in the Oxfordshire village of Middleston Stoney. We slept in the attic and had our meals with the cowherd and his wife. On Saturday evening they took us to the pub, where we learned to play darts." After a couple of weeks they had saved the money for the train to London to try and join in the war against Germany.

Assistant Engineer on SS Jupiter

SS Jupiter, 1928-63.Neither the Netherlands Navy, which had brought most of its ships to England, or the army could use untrained volunteers in this phase of the war but it might be possible to join a Dutch merchant ship. There were nine hundred Dutch merchant ships at sea when the Netherlands surrendered and they all headed for England. Their crews could not return to their families and nor could they get a job ashore. The Dutch government in exile introduced a law requiring them to remain with their ships. The Dutch merchant fleet had roughly 18,000 crew members (6,000 from the colonies) and nine hundred ships and 329 ships were sunk and far more men lost than in the Dutch Navy.

The Netherlands Shipping and Trading Committee was set up in Leadenhall Street to look after the interests of the ship owners, repair, provision and crew the ships and charter them out to the Ministry of War Transport.  Karel and Jo went to Leadenhall Street to try and find a ship. Captain Coenraad Pieter Dekker of the SS Jupiter, a 1,464 grt steamer owned by KNSM, had lost his assistant engineer when the ship was machine gunned and thought a former engineering student at Delft University would learn quickly. He took Karel Dahmen to the Dutch Consulate to sign on as assistant engineer, one rank down from third engineer, and bought him a uniform. Jo signed on with another ship and they did not meet again until 1942.

The Jupiter had a crew of twenty seven. The ten officers were all Dutch but the seventeen crew members included a Norwegian (his first name was Arne), an Estonian (Kattenburg), two Belgiums, a Yugoslavian and one man from the Gold Coast in West Africa. The Amsterdam-Chinese cook was one of the eleven Dutch crew members. Karel spoke better English and went ashore with seamen visiting the doctor and assisted the captain in talks with dockyards. He had a great liking for Captain Dekker, a small stooped man of 52 from Den Helder in North Holland, who said very little and had been the skipper when it was owned by the Middelandsche Zeevaart Cie and called the Jonge Johanna. In those days he had often been agent as well as captain and had tramped the Mediterranean, picking up cargoes where he could. He wore a distinctive beret and carried a briefcase when he went ashore for meetings.

Engineers on SS Jupiter
Assistant Engineer Karel Dahmen, de 'Draad' (the 'wire', wireless operator) and the Leeerling (apprentice) - "a British boy"
Photographed at Middlesborough on East Coast Convoy
Engineers on SS Jupiter
First Engineer, 2nd Eng. Johannes de Haas and
3rd Eng. Gerrardus van Offenbeek
aboard SS Jupiter.
The Knottenbelt family, Roehampton

After a minor refit and maintenance work in the engine room the SS Jupiter joined the east coast convoys from London to Leith
at risk from attack by German Schnell boats, fast motor torpedo boats known by the British as e-boats. A three inch gun was fitted on the after deck and two machine guns on the bridge at Hull but "our training ... was extremely brief". The  2nd Engineer, Johannes de Haas, was a good teacher and "the time came that I was allowed for the first time to work the handles of the steam valves to the main engine, while the ship was being manoeuvred into the locks at Immingham; how proud I was!"  Karel Dahmen loved the Jupiter – and loved it all his life.

Painting of steam engine on SS JUPITER
Assistant Engineer, Karel Dahmen, operates the valves on the triple expansion steam engine of SS Jupiter
Painting is reproduced courtesy of the artist, 96 year old Karel Dahmen

In late summer the SS Jupiter joined a convoy which sailed around the north of Scotland and followed a zig-zag course at 10 knots to the small port of Yarmouth at the southern tip of Nova Scotia where she arrived on the 13 September with a strange cargo of pianos and cow hides. After loading a cargo of timber Jupiter left on the 23 September for Halifax to join homebound Convoy HX.76, a large convoy of 40 merchant ships and 11 escorts, on the 26 September 1940. "We ran into a very heavy gale 500 miles west of Ireland, the hydraulic line between the  wheelhouse and the rudder ruptured, the ship could no longer head into the waves and we lost contact with the convoy which was scattered over a wide area. It took the escorts a full day to find the scattered ships and reform the convoy". The British steamer SS Cornfield was sunk by U-58 but most of the crew were rescued. The Jupiter returned to London via the east coast and "the night after they unloaded their cargo of timber at the Surrey Commercial Docks the Germans staged one of the heaviest fire bomb raids yet and we could only watch as all the timber at the Surrey Docks went up in flames."

The Jupiter returned to the East Coast convoys and they spent Christmas of 1940 in Middlesbrough on the River Tees in Yorkshire.
Karel was sent ashore by the captain with the Wireless Officer and the apprentice to buy gifts for the crew on the 19 December and they had their photograph (above) taken at the Pictorial Studios on Newport Road. The whole crew gathered in Captain Dekker's cabin on Christmas Day and enjoyed "good Christmas cheer and, yes, also peace". Karel Dahmen left to join "the real Navy" in February 1941 when a replacement was found.

Captain Dekker left the Jupiter to become captain of another KNSM ship, the 1,162 grt SS Merope, and on the 27 April 1943, two weeks after British forces had landed on the invasion beaches at Algiers, the Merope was torpedoed by U-371 while enroute from Bougie to Algiers with a cargo of explosives and ammunition, and sank so quickly that there was no time to lower the boats. Most of the crew were picked up by the convoy escort, HMS Rothesay, or SS Covenne but Captain Dekker was one of ten missing. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Cross with honourable mention for his outstanding service in the days following the allied invasion of north Africa. The Jupiter, built in Holland in 1923, survived the war and was forty years old when it was scrapped at Hong Kong in 1963.

The Royal Netherlands Navy

HNMS Jacob van Heemskerck Karel Dahmen RNNS Jacob von Heemskerk exercising with the Eastern Fleet
The Jacob van Heemskerck
Note the two masts supporting the RDF antennae: the front mast for the outgoing signal and the rear pylon the returning signal
Centre: Karel Dahmen on Gun Turret in 1941 before he went for officer training
On left: At Fremantle, Western Australia, between October 1942 and December 1943 (Phographed by Saxon Fogarty, Fremantle)
Right: With the Royal Navy's Easten Fleet, date and location not known

Karel enlisted in the Royal Netherlands Navy at its headquarters in Oxford Street, London's busiest shopping street, the home of Selfridges and other big department stores.  C & A, the family owned owned Dutch chain of clothing shops, made the whole of  the fourth floor of its Oxford Street store available to the Dutch Navy for use as its HQ.

His first naval ship, the Dutch light cruiser, HNMS Jacob van Heemskerck, was being fitted out when Germany invaded the Netherlands. A skeleton crew managed to bring her to England where she was converted into a specialist anti-aircraft cruiser at Southampton and commissioned by Queen Wilhelmina on the 11 February 1941. Karel Dahmen began his service in the Royal Netherlands Navy as an Ordinary Seaman on the Jacob van Heemskirk in time for her "work up" with the fleet at Scapa Flow before she joined Western Approaches Command.

Karel operated the RDF (Range and Direction Finder), an early form of radar for detecting aircraft and ships using a manually controlled rotating aerial for transmitting and a separate antennae on a rear pylon for receiving. The time difference between transmitting and receiving an echo from an incoming aircraft determined its distance (range) and this together with the bearing (direction) of the target was automatically forwarded to fire control. Karel poses on the front gun turret (above centre).

At the end of February the Jacob van Heemskerck provided distant air cover for the raid by No 3 and 4 Commandos on the Lofoten Islands (Operation Claymore) off the coast of Norway and "after the raid, we took a small group of young Norwegians on board who had escaped during the confusion ashore".

Two OD in Northern IrelandOn the 29 March the Jacob van Heemskerck escorted a British troopship in perfect weather on a delicate and little known mission to round up German observers and weather men on the exposed northern coast of Iceland and take them back to Britain as prisoners of war. Iceland wished to retain its neutrality but agreed to American troops being based on Icelandic soil to prevent any further landings by German observers.

For the next few months Jacob van Heemskerck escorted outbound convoys to North America or Gibraltar and picked up incoming convoys - without docking - and with no opportunity for the crew to set foot on shore. Karel remembers vividly escorting the troop carrying liner Avila Star through the Bristol Channel on the 7 July 1941. He picked up a blip on the screen of the RDF, switched to fire control and the officer on the bridge directed blanket fire at the incoming target. The Avila Star signaled its appreciation of the prompt action which saved it from attack by air launched torpedoes, an impressive demonstration of the value of RDF to a specialist ant-aircraft warship.

That summer between escorting convoys the Jacob van Heemskerck was based at Belfast and Karel took the opportunity to hire a taxi to visit the Christie family in Coleraine. Their daughter, Nora Christie, became the best friend of his sister "Trees" (Theresa) while attending a boarding school in Roermond before the war. Karel went in a hired taxi with with his friend, Bill Purich, who was born in Britain and spoke not a word of his mother tongue when he joined the ship:

"Bill's father was a Dutch working man who had immigrated to UK. When he joined the Dutch Navy he couldn't speak a word of Dutch but he was a very resourceful chap. We enlisted on the same day and came on board  the same day. He served the whole war on the Heemskerck.  During the latter part of the war, the Heemskerck was based in Australia. So, like many others of the crew, he had an Australian girl friend. When the Heemskerck came home to Amsterdam, the Personnel Dept asked Bill where he wanted to be demobilized. So he said Australia and the Dutch Navy placed him on one vessel and another so that he finally arrived in Australia. The Australian government paid for him to study to become an architect and he married his girlfriend Naomi. He become more or less the center for all the Dutch sailors who had also made Australia their home.  Bill died two years ago from a car accident."

 Karel is on the right in the photograph - the man in the peaked cap is the taxi driver.

Sub Lt Karel R. Dahmen RNNR, Dutch Naval Liaison Office, London

Karel Dahmen left for officer training at the Dutch Naval College in Enys House near Penryn, Cornwall, in October 1941 while the Jacob van Heemskerck was in Harland and Wolfs dockyard at Belfast for an urgent refit. Three months later, soon after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour brought  America into the war, Sub Lt Karel Dahmen RNNR (photographed in his new officer's uniform on the right) was posted to the Dutch Naval Liaison Office at the Admiralty in London. The head of the Naval Liaison Office, Lt Cdr Alfred de Booy, was the brother of the Secretary of the Dutch Lifeboat Association. 

A de Booy
Cdr Alfred de Booy, former Head of the Dutch Naval Liaison Office, on the left with the Prime Minister of the Dutch Government, P.S. Gerbrandy (1885-1961)
The photograph was taken in 1943 when to took command of the HNLMS Johan Maurits van Nassau which was launched as HMS Ribble but transferred to the Dutch Navy before completion
Netherlands Institute for Military History (NIMH) Ref. 2158_012643

"The Dutch were the exception to the general rule that the Royal Navy posted a senior officer, a captain or commander, to the allied navy's headquarters to keep close tabs on issues between that Allied navy and the RN, and report back to Admiral Sir Gerald Dickens, later Vice Admiral E.L.S. King. The Dutch sent an officer, Lt Cdr de Booy, to the Royal Navy. This exception was made because the Royal Netherlands Navy was much better organized than the other Allied navies upon their evacuation from the continent, the fact that so many Dutch personnel (especially officers) spoke English, and due to the long-standing presence of de Booy as naval attache in London since 1936. There may be additional reasons of which I am not aware."
Mark Jones, e-mail on the 6 September 2011

Rear-Admiral Sir Gerald C. Dickens RN, the former naval attache at The Hague, was the Principal Liaison Officer (PLO) at the Admiralty. Dahmen described him as "a man who could charm anybody". He left Scheveningen on the
Zeemanshoop a few hours before Karel Dahmen and transferred at sea to a British destroyer, the V & W Class Leader, HMS Malcolm, but transferred to the V & W destroyer HMS Wessex at Hook of Holland and landed at Dover. Click on the link (above left) to read "Dickens and the Dutch" by Mark Jones and find out more about Dicken's role as PLO between the Admiralty and allied naval forces of occupied countries.

Dickens described his escape in his personal Diary  at the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King’s College (GB0099 KCLMA Dickens) and in "The Royal Netherlands Navy at war and after"
, Naval Review 1946 34 (4), 387–99. Karel Dahmen may not have been aware of it but it looks as if he was selected for this post because of his connection to Capt de Booy and Admiral Dickens via the Zeemanshoop.

The Dutch Naval Liaison Office occupied two offices, one with a fine Adam fireplace, on the second floor of the Old Admiralty Building overlooking Whitehall and was staffed by "Captain de Booy, Lt. Cdr. M.J. ('Thijs') Vos DSC, the leading signals officer, Lt. Cdr. K.J.F. Krediet, a torpedo specialist, our secretary Miss Paise, 2nd Lt Willem van Meerkerk and myself." As the junior signals officer Karel Dahmen was often on night duty and "in the early morning the charlady would poke her head in the door and say 'can I do you now  sir?' "

Life was lonely for a young Dutch naval officer
living in "digs" on the Bayswater Road after the comradeship of living in close quarters with the crew of the Jupiter, serving as a rating on the mess deck of the Jacob van Heemskerck and training to be an officer at Enys House in Cornwall. He met Clement Hellegers, a friend of his father, who worked at the Dutch Government office, and was invited to board with his family in Byfleet, Surrey, and life became pleasanter:

"I commuted by train to Waterloo Station and the hour and a half break for lunch gave time for leisurely meals with friends and colleagues at the Admiralty. I became a member of the Junior Officers Club on Piccadilly, enjoyed the hospitality of the Royal Automobile Club - I could have lunch at the swimming pool - and the Royal Ocean Racing Club, and there also was a Dutch club in Sackville Street [Neerlandia at 31 Sackville Street].

Sometimes there was a lunch time concert at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square where an egg-sandwich cost a shilling. The egg was, of course, powdered egg. The ration for fresh eggs was one per week which prompted George Formby to write his song: 'Oh little hen,  When, When, When will you lay me an egg for my tea?'  I remember one concert that moved me very much. It was the piano concerto of Schumann played by Myra Hess. She was not 'Dame Myra Hess' then.

Every fourth night I was on duty at the Admiralty. I also went on dates. I would meet a girl friend after office hours under the clock on Piccadilly Circus underground station and after a meal go dancing at one of several small clubs. There was a lot of dancing during World War II, on both sides of the ocean! You would have a hundred couples on the dance floor, with big bands, in Hammersmith Palace. We also went to West End theatres. All those great actors! I remember John Gielgud as King Lear; I saw Laurence Olivier with Vivian Leigh in Doctor's Dilemma before she became famous as Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. I went to that movie with Jane McPherson, General Eisenhower's driver.

On Thursday evenings almost everybody I knew listened to ITMA, the radio show of Tommy Handley, and got to know the familiar characters like the Italian Mister 'So-So'. I remember him as the Italian Architect:
'I'm an Artichoke, I build villains - semi detached villains with french widows'. When there was an air raid, we usually stayed where we were. Going home on the Underground you saw hundreds of people who spent the nights on the platforms in bunk beds. Many did not even have a house anymore. Often they were singing together, songs like: 'Bless 'm all, the long and the short and the tall. There is no promotion this side of the ocean, so cheer up my lads bless 'm all'.  Air raids might be far away, London is so large, but sometimes I was in the middle of one, a terrible sight.

On Sundays we often went walking in Surrey. I remember lovely walks on the Downs and near Dorking and Haslemere, which made one forget all about the war for a couple of hours. I sometimes got Red Cross letters from my family. They were of course limited to strictly family news. I had perhaps slightly more Dutch friends than British friends. In a war, people move around quite a lot. So my circle of friends often changed.

Despite the insight it gave him into the Battle of the Atlantic Karel was not happy to be desk-bound coding and decoding naval signals. He was on duty on the night of the 27 February 1942 when a hastily-organized multinational naval force formed to defend the East Indies against the Japanese fleet was destroyed during the Battle of the Java Seas and the Dutch commander of the squadron, Admiral Karel Doorman, was killed when his flagship sunk. Karel decoded the signal reporting the disaster and gave it to the Dutch Prime Minister, Pieter Sjoerd Gerbrandy, while he was having his breakfast at the Dover Hotel and "that good man" was deeply moved.

A few months later Admiral Conrad Emil Lambert Helfrich, the Commander-in-Chief of Dutch naval forces in the Netherlands East Indies, came to London and a lunch time meeting of The Anchorites was held in his honour. The Anchorites were an association of senior officers in the Royal Navy and other prominent figures in the world of shipping including the heads of major merchant shipping companies. Captain de Booy as doyen of the allied naval attaches was of course involved:

"He liked to take a junior officer with him because he thought that was good for their education. The tables were arranged in "T" form, the highest ranked  people were sitting at the top of the T. The Captain had forgotten to mention my rank. He had just listed the members of the Dutch Navy: Admiral Helfrich, Admiral Furstner, himself and me. So the people who arranged the seating thought that I also was of high rank -  and there I was, with one stripe sitting at the table of honour, looking down on the lower ranks such as rear admirals and the like. Admiral Helfrich began his speech by admitting to 'not knowing the meaning of anchorite and on looking it up in a dictionary and finding that anchorites lived in the desert and ate grasshoppers he was pleasantly surprised to be standing here drinking such good sherry'.

After the lunch - I think it was someplace on Piccadilly - Cpt de Booy and I walked back to the Admiralty. I was intrigued that all kind of officers saluting us were looking towards me rather than the Captain. When we arrived at our office and hung our caps  on the cap hooks, I noticed that the captain had my cap and I his cap with the gold louvres. And all that for my education!"
Karel Dahmen, e-mail on 26 August 2011.

Cpt de Booy let him off the leash oc
casionally. He spent short periods on a minesweeper and on a British MGB. Karel recalled a small but significant incident while on the MGB. A Dutch merchant ship with German guards on board, part of a convoy heading south from Sweden to the Netherlands, feigned engine trouble to fall behind the convoy and its German escorts. The MGB sneaked up on the merchant ship to shepherd it to safety and they were surprised to find the Germans lining the rail with their arms raised and big grins on their faces. Even as early as 1942 the war had turned against Germany and the guards were glad of an opportunity to sit it out in the safety of a British prisoner of war camp.

Before he was allowed to join HNMS Isaac Sweers after its refit at Southampton in September he had to give his word of honour to return to his desk job at the Admiralty. The CO of the Isaac Sweers pressed him to stay but he kept his word and made the long tedious journey south from Scapa Flow by ferry and train. Six weeks later the Issac Sweers was torpedoed while escorting troop ships to the landings at Algiers and there were only  86 survivors out of the crew of 194. On the 7 November 1942, the evening before the landings in North Africa, Karel was walking up the narrow winding staircase in the Admiralty when he smelled cigar smoke and suddenly found himself face to face with Churchill coming down from the Signals Room. Winston recognised his uniform and said, “Good evening Dutch” and Karel replied, “Good evening, Sir”.

Service with the 9th MTB Flotilla of the Dutch Navy

Lt Cdr Hans Larive, CO of 9th MTB Flotilla and 2nd Lt Harry Jorissen, commanding MTB 204.In the Spring of 1943, Karel Dahmen was given a chance to play a more active part in the war. He was posted to the 9th MTB Flotilla of the Dutch Navy at Dover: six 75 ft plywood MTB each armed with two torpedoes plus Oerlikons and powered by 1,000 lbs thrust aero engines with silent low power petrol engines for stealth. The 9th Flotilla was commanded by Lt Cdr Hans Larive, a Colditz escapee, and reported to Admiral Sir Percy Noble at Dover Castle. Larive is  on the left in the photograph with 2nd Lt Harry Jorissen, CO of MTB 204, on the right. When not on night missions Karel stayed at the shore base, HMS Wasp, the former Lord Warden Hotel, and was woken up in the morning by one of the wrens with a cup of tea, "7 o'clock, sir, and raining like hell".

The success of RAF raids on rail transport between occupied France and Germany had forced a switch from rail to sending convoys of merchant ships through the Straits of Dover. The Dutch  MTBs penetrated their escort screens to torpedo the merchant ships. Karel was responsible for the small RDF units used on night actions, training the operators and working on tactics. He "went out on every mission, usually on the boat from which Hans Larive commanded the operation. I sat next to the RDF operator and communicated with the bridge". They also used a technology from World War 1, underwater hydrophones, which could distinguish between the high speed engines of the escorts and the merchant ships. The success of the MTBs effectively sealed the Straits of Dover bringing to a halt enemy convoys. They laid mines off the enemy coast and their quiet petrol driven IC engines which "when set at idling made so little noise that you could not hear them outside the engine room" enabled them to sneak into the harbour at Dunkirk and the lower reaches of the Western Scheldt on the coast of Holland to release a newly developed and highly secret mine and escape unobserved.

Back to the Netherlands

The Dutch government in exile was planning to work with the Americans to create a "Reinforced Regiment of Marines" comprising three battalions of infantry plus artillery, amphibious landing craft and engineering battalions and one tank company to fight the Japanese and reconquer the Indies for the Netherlands. All of this was dependent  on recruiting 6,000 volunteers from the Netherlands as it was liberated from German occupation. Karel was one of the Dutch naval officers posted to the USA to work with the Marines in creating this force. He spent the rest of 1943 and most of 1944 training at Camp Lejune, North Carolina, and with the Construction Battalions of the USN, the SeaBees, on Rhode Island, before returning on the Queen Mary to recruit and train the volunteers in the liberated southern provinces of the Netherlands.

He saw his parents for the first time since he left for England on the Zeemanshoop in May 1940. His mother was visiting her daughter in the southern coal mining areas of South Limburg during the allied invasion and was separated from her husband who had remained behind in Roermond. Karel's sister 'Trees' (Theresa) had married Charles M.H.J. Bongaerts (1909-44), the elder brother of his friend Jo. In the months before the invasion, Charles was a reserve officer in the Dutch army and during the five day war he fought on the so called “Grebbe Berg Line”, that the Dutch army held to the very end, repulsing heavy assaults from the German forces. Charles Bongaerts was the head of the fire service in the coal mining area and this gave him access to vehicles which enabled him to play a prominent part in the underground resistance. They put up airmen in their home and transported them south on the long journey to England via Belgium, France and Spain. On one occasion Charles Bongaerts stopped a German convoy and, claiming to be on urgent business, got a mechanic to repair his vehicle while three American airmen were in the back. His group was infiltrated in 1944, Charles was betrayed and died in a German concentration camp on the 23 November 1944.

Karel's uncle, Charles Nicolas, had a prominent position in the State Coal Mines and used all kinds of tricks to make sure the mines produced as little coal as possible for the Germans. In late 1944 when the US army was halted at the border of South Limburg, the coal mining area, he sneaked through the lines and told the US army commanders that the Germans had only a small force available to oppose the US army and persuaded them to occupy South Limburg before the Germans could destroy the mines. When a provisional military government was established in the liberated parts of the Netherlands he was made Head of the Military Authority in South Limburg.

While recruiting for the Marine Brigade in South Limburg, Karel briefly visited his home town, Roermond, a few days after its liberation on the 1 March. During the siege by the British, the Germans had forcibly evacuated almost all the inhabitants. Only a few hundred had been left behind. He recognized some of them "at the place, surrounded by destroyed houses, where they came with pots to get hot soup and some dry food. They looked so worn, so weak, so frail. No joy was in their faces. It was as if they still could not grasp that their ordeal had ended." When his parents returned to Roermond they found the family home on the Pastoors Wal was too badly damaged to be repaired and they had to find a new home in the south of the town.

Service in Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies

The recruiting teams completed their work shortly after Germany was defeated in May and most of the recruits were sent to the USA for training. Karel remained behind to train 750 mechanics and drivers for the transport battalion of the Marine Brigade. It was during this time that he met Hermine Everard, a law student at Leiden University, and they married in March 1946. In the meantime Japan had surrendered and the Americans had no further use for the Dutch Marine Brigade which was transported with their equipment from the USA to the East Indies on Dutch ships to pacify and regain control of the former colony. Ltz 11 Karel Dahmen (the equivalent of a Captain in the Marines) and the 750 men of the transport battalion embarked on the MS Tabinta, a sister ship of the Tarakan on which he made his first sea voyage when only 16, and joined them at Surabaya in eastern Java in May where he was given command of the engineering company.

Karel Dahmen taking command of the Engineering Compsny of the Marine Brigade, Surabaya   Bridge Building, Dutch East Indies
Taking command of the Engineering Company of the Marine Brigade in Surabaya, Java (left) and building bridges (right)
Courtesy of Karel Dahmen
Building a jetty at Gili Manuk, East Balli, for the corvettes of the Dutch NavyLST landing the Marine Brigade at Pasir Putih, East Java, 1947
Building a jetty for the corvettes of the Dutch Navy at Gili Manuk, the easten point of Bali (left)
Landing the Marine Brigade on the beach of Pasir Putih, East Java in 1947 (right)

In both cases the floating pontoons of the USN SeaBees was used

Courtesy of Karel Dahmen

The next few months were demanding. The Dutch Marine Brigade gained control of most of eastern Java and he was then immediately sent to an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea to arrange the shipment of construction equipment by LST to Java. His wife completed her law degree and flew out to join him and they set up home in Surabaya where their daughter, Carole Anne, was born in April 1947: "Everything imported was rationed, including nappies. Her ration was ONE nappy. The housekeeper of one of the 'sugar barons' came to our aid with twelve worn damask napkins." The Dutch government's failure to ratify the Lingadjati Agreement to establish an independent but decentralised Indonesia prolonged the fighting for another three years but Karel Dahmen would not be involved for much longer. In November 1947 "after having served with the Dutch Navy for almost seven years we were repatriated to Holland and three months later I became a civilian."

Karel Dahmen describes his life after the war

"At the age of 29 and having a family I felt I could not afford to go back to college for a degree. I applied for a job with the Dutch affiliate of Stanvac Eastern and was sent to one of its oil fields in Sumatra to work with the General Engineering Department. My work was that of an oilfield engineer and I took a correspondence course to improve my skills as a civil engineer. I worked for this company for eleven years. I occasionally met with my old friend Jo Bongaerts who had a similar position with Shell. My responsibilities were growing and so was our family. Every three years we had a glorious vacation in Holland lasting about four months. By 1959 I had become Chief General Engineer for the oilfields in south and  central Sumatra but by then Carole Anne had four brothers and finished elementary school and would have to continue her education in Holland.

Karel Dahmen and wife on the summit of thed Kitzstein Horn, Austria, 1952.Karel Dahmen and family in Pendopo, South Sumatra, 1954
On the Bratan Lake, Balli
Top left: "On holiday in Europe we climbed the Kitzstein Horn in Austria, 1952"
Top right: "Our family in Pendopo, South Sumatra, 1954"
Bottom: Bratan Lake, Bali, "where the gods dwell"

Courtesy of Karel Dahmen

Rather than split the family I resigned and back in Holland joined the Continental Carbon Company which was building a plant in Rotterdam to make carbon black, a vital component in the manufacture of car tyres and many other rubber based products. We bought a house in the lovely dune area south of the waterway across from the Hook of Holland. I was sent to the States to learn the process at one of their plants and on my return I learned that I was going to be the plant manager. I hired and trained the workers, startup was in May and we were soon producing and shipping at full capacity. In 1963 we expanded the plant to double capacity and I became Director of the Dutch company.

By then Jo Bongaerts had been transferred by Shell to the Netherlands and appointed General Manager of the Nederlandse Aardolie Maatschappij (Netherlands Oil Company) which was developing the huge natural gas field at Groningen and marketing the gas through the 'Nederlandse Gas Unie’. The Dutch government was part owner of Gas Unie with Shell and Esso and insisted on limiting supply of the cheaper Groningen gas for use as a raw material for manufacturing and not for use as a fuel. This presented Karel Dahmen, the Manager of the Continental Carbon Company's plant in Rotterdam, with a problem. Karel's company had a long term contract to use surplus hydrogen from the neighbouring Esso refinery as the fuel for their reactors producing carbon black but Esso wanted them to switch to buying natural gas from the Gas Union. They would become its first industrial customer but would be using gas as a fuel and not as a raw material for manufacture. Karel Dahmen was careful to have no contact with Jo Bongaerts during the torturous and fraught negotiations which followed to allow them to use the gas as a fuel until "Gas Unie finally gave in and we lived happily ever after" (Karel Dahmen).

Karel Dahmen and family, USAKarel Dahmen and Yuki Ogata, 1975
Left: "In 1967 our family arrived in Houston, Texas."
Right: "At the Carbon Black plant in Japan with my good friend Yukio Ogata, 1975"

Courtesy of Karel Dahmen

Our parent company was expanding overseas with plants in France, Scotland, Italy, Spain, Japan, Korea and Australia. All of these paid royalties to the parent company but their process technology had to be constantly upgraded to keep abreast of new developments and I was asked to move to the US and start a Process Technology Department. This caused us to move with some regrets to Houston, Texas. I could now devote most of my time to technical improvements and problem solving for the five plants in the US and the overseas plants. I co-operated with Professor Nick Syred, a specialist in the combustion technology at the University of Sheffield University (and later at Wales) who became a good friend while jointly developing combustors which burned the waste gases reducing pollution and producing electricity. In 1980 I became Director of Research and Development. This role gave me more opportunity to put into practice my  ideas and the contact with the research staff at our customers, the tyre manufacturers, gave me much pleasure.

Karel Dahmen and wifeKarel Dahmen and his wife
Karel Dahmen with his wife in Nicaragua, 1995 (left), and Colorado, 2003 (right)
Courtesy of Karel Dahmen

Karel DahmenExile; by Karel Dahmen, 2011
Karel Dahmen at Santa Barbara, California, March 2011
Exile, a recent painting by Karel Dahmen

Courtesy of Karel Dahmen

I retired in 1982, we built a summer house in Buena Vista, Colorado, and a year later moved our household from Houston to Austin. We became active in the "Beyond War" movement during the Cold War years - that took a lot of time and energy - also became involved in study travel to countries in Central America and with projects of development assistance. These projects kept us busy during the nineties. But we also had a lot of fun visiting in Europe and our house in the mountains where in the summer we have lots of guests. I am also a painter of water colours. Then Hermine's health failed and in September 2005 her wonderful life ended."

Karel  Dahmen sculling on the lake at Austin, Texas, on the 7 January 2012
Karel Dahmen sculling on the lake at Austin, Texas
This photograph was taken on the 7 January 2012

World Cup in Haarlem with neighbours 2014
Karel lives in the States but retains his Dutch nationality and says he always will
This photograph was taken with neighbours of his son Maarten in Alkmaar during the World Cup in June 2014
They call him 'Opa' (grandfather) and when the weather is nice like to bring out chairs and a table and something to drink

Karel Dahmrn, portraits, aged 16 and 93.
A portrait of Karel Dahmen in 2013 by Gertrudis Dapper
The portrait on the wall behind is also of Karel, aged 16, painted by his uncle, Joep Nicolas, in 1935
Courtesy of Karel Dahmen

"Conquistador" - painting by Karel Dajmen Looking back Karel reflected that his impulsive decision to leave for England on the Zeemanshoop gave him the confidence to make similar far reaching life changing decisions in his subsequent life.

Karel e-mailed me on the 31 October 2017 from his house in Austin, Texas:

"After a rather serious illness I am back in my house. I was in our Colorado house and in Taos, New Mexico, during August. I also visited Edith Velmans and telephone her. But I don’t travel across the Atlantic anymore.  I still paint,  one of them is in an exhibition right now. I will send you a copy by separate mail (on right). Since the beginning of this year I have given up driving a car.  I go to concerts, chamber music and symphonies. Austin is quite a music town. Two of my sons and their families live in, and near Austin.  And there are many friends. Such is the life of a 98 year old. The last of the Zeemanshoop voyagers. With my warm greetings, Karel"

Karel Dahmen was the last survivor of the 46 men and women who escaped from Scheveningen in the Zeemanshoop
but the Zeemanshoop has been restored and can be seen in the LIfeboat Museum on Ameland

"This account of Karel Dahmen's life is based on an interview recorded on DVD at The National Museum of the Pacific War, Fredericksburg, Texas in April 2011, his own six page account  of his life plus several lengthy telephone calls and e-mails. I would also like to thank Mark Jones for explaining the manner in which the Dutch Naval Liaison Office at the Admiralty differed from the way in which the Royal Navy liaised with other allied navies." Bill Forster

Read about the lives of the other three student crew members of the Zeemanshoop
Karel Dahmen's close friend, Jo Bongaerts, the medical student Lou Meijers and the "Captain", Harry Hack

Return to the Home Page for the Zeemanshoop
See the Biographical Dictionary of the passengers and crew of the Zeemanshoop

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