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Role skipper of UK 41 in 1953 ‘ramp’ rescue operation saved from obscurity

Special attention for straggling fishing crew

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

URK, the Netherlands - A desperate cry for help over the Dutch marine radio channel of Scheveningen during that particularly vicious storm of January 31, 1953, sprung skipper Lou Hoefnagel and his crew (brothers Feike and Jan) of fishing vessel UK 41 Sumus Umbra into action. “The people here are hanging in trees. The dikes are breached. Help!”

The S.O.S. call came from the yacht ‘May Be’ anchored at the coastal harbour town of Hellevoetsluis, southwest of Rotterdam. The Hoefnagels who had been late docking at Breskens that Saturday (during the winter months they caught herring off the Belgian coast), had remained on board their ship to stay over at the Zeeland fishing harbour. They immediatly mobilized other fishermen from Urk.

The storm which swept North Sea waters against the Dutch coast and over the dikes, breaching them into many places along the inlets and river mouths, flooded in particular large parts of Zeeland and Zuid-Holland, and caused death and destruction everywhere.

Sunday morning

It is difficult to conjecture if that occurance on a Saturday night actually was a blessing in disguise, with so many people at home with their families. Certain is that the country had paused for the Sunday and that the weather forecasts had not alarmed the authorities into taking extra precautions. Similarly, the fishing fleet of Urk had docked safely at Breskens and the men had left for home. Even without a storm, the country would have wound down for the Sunday, grinding many services to a near halt.

The S.O.S. from ‘May Be’ therefore would have received very little response if Hoefnagel, because of the bad weather, had not stayed near his marine radio to catch communications from an uncle who manned a rescue vessel on the North Sea. Instead, Hoefnagel heard the disaster’s first May Day call issued by ‘May Be’. The radio messages also were picked up at Urk were some concerned wifes of fishermen had stayed tuned into their radios.

It is perhaps difficult to comprehend now but in the early 1950s, radios were still a luxury in Dutch society, with many people relying on news by word-of-mouth. That Sunday morning the churches at Urk announced news of a a flood disaster - in Dutch plainly called De Ramp (The Disaster) - prompting fishermen in two busloads to immediately return to their boats in Breskens (at the southern side of the Westerscheldt mouth), to help with the rescue efforts. With the Zeeland route cut by flooding, they were forced to detour via Antwerp to get to Breskens, a trip of over eight hours.

Mayor’s plea for help

The storm had knocked out power and the telephone system in a wide area, making the marine radio reports from the Urk fleet all the more valuable. Radio Scheveningen logged the messages, in the process becoming the coordinating centre upon which much of the rescue operation relied. A copy of one such relayed message was discovered in the Zierikzee archives.

The mayor of Oosterland, a municipality on the eastern tip of the island of Schouwen-Duiveland and quite a distance from Breskens, reported via the radio of UK 41, “Situation Oosterland hopeless. Must fear a huge number of victims. Amphibian crafts only hope to rescue something. Do everything to send these. Mayor Oosterland here.” The short message was long on urgency. (The list of victims from that municipality turned out to be the second-longest of the island with the heaviest toll in nearby Nieuwerkerk.)

Former Scheveningen chief radio operator Jaap de Haas does not doubt for a moment that the men from Urk saved many lives. They put in specific requests for help from the inundated islands, directing rescue boats to where they were urgently needed, well before the country became aware of the extent of the tragedy which took days to assess. Only on Monday, February 2, the first reconnaissance flights were sent up to survey the southwest region. Family members who lived elsewhere in the country or abroad often had to wait for days or weeks before hearing about the fate of their own.

Heroic role

The role of the Urk fishermen received little recognition because the men felt they just did their civic duty and when they were no longer needed, returned to their regular work, fishing. However, in his little-known book on ships at sea during that storm, author Hans Beukema included a small section on the heroic role which recently came to the attention of Frank du Mosch, a tv-programmer with the NCRV broadcasting organization.

Fascinated by the story, Du Mosch traced the Hoef-nagel brothers and colleagues, and De Haas to revisit De Ramp for a documentary. Surviving brothers Feike (72) and Jan (81) and a colleague from Urk were on hand in Zeeland for filming although they were puzzled by the sudden attention after so many years. The documentary was aired recently.

De Ramp took the lives of 1835 people and a large number of animals. Much of the area’s housing either was severely damaged or destroyed, as was infrastructure such as power and telecommunication lines, roads and dikes. Some of the same areas also had been inundated or bombed in 1944 and 1945. Few had fully recovered before 1953.