Dutch former child evacuees revisit St Michael’s Mount

Three former child evacuees who were fostered by families in Cornwall in 1945 to escape the horror and starvation created in their homeland during World War 2 have returned to the area and visited St Michael’s Mount where they enjoyed a special party more than seven decades ago.

Bob Bakkenes, Theo van Binsbergen and Johan Zweers, all aged 88, are three of the five surviving ‘Bleekneusjes’ – a Dutch term given to sickly children – well enough to return to West Cornwall to participate in a TV documentary about their time in the area. 

More than 40,000 children aged 6 to 15 were evacuated to England, Scotland and other European countries from their homes in The Netherlands from early 1945 whilst hostilities still raged and for many months after the conflict ended. The malnourished children fled starvation which claimed the lives of more than 22,000 Dutch people, being looked after by volunteer families to regain their strength.

The men met descendants of their Penzance foster families, including Caroline Atkinson whose father organised the foster homes in the region for the children. They visited the homes in Penzance where they stayed and the school they attended, which is now Humphry Davy School.

Bob was 12 when he arrived in Penzance. He said:

“At home, all we were able to eat was mash and more mash and we loved our time in Cornwall, the Cornish people looked after us so well. We were able to eat food we had never tried before and everything at home was dangerous and broken.

“It was a magical place to be and a very happy time when we were in Cornwall, even though we were away from our families. We really didn’t want to go back as we knew that home in Arnhem would still be destroyed, and we would be back to eating mash.” 

The highlight of the trip was a visit to St Michael’s Mount where they enjoyed a Cornish cream tea with Lord & Lady St Levan. The group were invited to visit the island in 1946 where they were entertained by the third Lord St Levan which was one of the standout memories of the time they spent in Cornwall as children.

Marazion beach was also the scene of an emotional reunion with Bob and Theo meeting Johan, who later moved to Exmouth, Devon, for the first time since their stay in Cornwall 76 years ago.