Dick Timmers Verhoeven was the son of a former officer in the Dutch Royal Navy. He was brought up in Brussels.
At the outbreak of WW2 he was studying at the Commercial High School in The Hague. Then in early ‘43, the Germans started closing universities in occupied countries and sending the students to work camps in Germany. Dick’s options were to join the Resistance or leave Holland, so he obtained false German papers, courtesy of the Dutch-Paris Escape Line, left Holland, and moved back to Brussels. With four other evaders, he then travelled to Paris, where he was given new documents and continued on to Toulouse.
There he made his way to the Chez Emile restaurant in La Place Saint-Georges, where the rooms above provided a main safe-house of the Françoise Line for shot-down aircrew and many other fugitives. From there Dick was moved to Cazeres, where he met two local ‘passeurs’ and was driven in a gazogene [gas-burning] vehicle to the Forest of Arbas, at the foothills of the Pyrenees. In pitch darkness, and shivering with the cold, Dick had to wait until another group of evaders arrived. Waiting next to him in the darkness was an aircrew evader from the RAAF, who had been shot down over Belgium only two days earlier.
The evaders, numbering thirty-five, began the long trek over the mountains with their two guides. Walking in single file, in total darkness and heavy snow the men headed further into the mountains; many were quickly exhausted. After a short while Dick dropped back to help an exhausted Dutch evader.
The group finally stopped at a remote barn situated at a height of nearly 5000ft on the Col Portet d’Aspet, west of St Girons. The position of the hut, lying exposed in open ground, left Dick feeling very uneasy about the state of affairs. As he left the hut to relieve himself, he spotted a German patrol, which seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. Their ambush was swift and well coordinated, and took the escaping group completely by surprise.
From his position behind a tree, Dick witnessed the capture of 28 of the evaders, but also noticed the passeurs and seven evaders leave. He swiftly chased after them, retracing their earlier route. He caught up with them, but because the pursuing Germans were able to follow their tracks in the snow and had dogs, they all scattered. Dick, together with another Dutchman, Gijs den Beston, changed direction, swung west, then south, and headed for the Spanish border. Dick was in possession of secret microfilm reports hidden in a toothpaste tube, which he had been given in Paris and charged with delivery to a Dutch Intelligence contact in Spain, so he was particularly anxious to cross the border.
Continuing in a SW direction he knew the frontier was close, but, before that the Pic de la Calabasse had to be crossed (7293ft). To two Dutchmen from the Polders, this would have been an enormous challenge in summer time, but now there was the added problem of deep snow, freezing weather, poor clothing and no equipment. In the darkness, and freezing temperatures, Gijs den Beston, was beginning to slip into the later stages of exhaustion and hypothermia, he could not feel his legs and Dick had to keep slapping his face to prevent him from sleeping.
Struggling through snow over a metre deep, Dick struggled with his friend higher and higher. At the top of the Plan du Rey (5445ft), he thought he could see the lights of a village below. After a nightmare descent, with both men stumbling and falling, Dick got his friend to the hamlet of Autreche. There they were first helped by an old lady who took them in and fed them onion soup, then handed them over to a ten year old boy who escorted them to an empty house. Later they were passed to the Ribis family who fed them, clothed them, and treated Gijs’ frost bitten legs. Gangrene had set in so the family smuggled Gijs out of the village to the hospital at St Girons where he was operated on in secret.
In Autreche, Dick regained his strength and, at night, a local farmer took him to Saint-Lary where he was hidden in a farm trailer, loaded with market produce and hooked to the back of a bus. On the journey to St Girons the bus was stopped and searched but fortunately the trailer was not, although a German Alsatian dog barked loudly at it; luckily the handler approached the trailer, saw cats in a basket, and moved the dog away. At St Girons market Dick left the trailer and boarded a bus back to Toulouse.
There, returning to the Chez Emile, he met up with a couple of Dutch colleagues who had been captured at the ambush, and escaped. On the 4 March ‘44, Dick, with eight other evaders, was moved to a safe-house at Blagnac where they waited for new forged documents to be prepared. On 25th March the men were moved to the Haute-Garonne to begin their escape along a route north of Bagneres de Luchon. This time the guides were armed, and the 32 evaders spent three exhausting days scaling several snowy peaks over 7000ft to eventually reach the Spanish border on 28th March.
Later that year, Dick reached England, enlisted in the Royal Artillery, was commissioned and remained in service with the British Army until 1947.
Dick Timmers Verhoeven was a keen supporter of the Chemin de la Liberté Freedom Trail Commemorative route, and was one of the originals who had walked the route for real.
In 1996, Dick returned to the mountain hut that was ambushed, on the Col Portet d’Aspet, west of St Girons, to unveil a memorial stone to pay tribute to the guides, helpers and evades de guerre of all nationalities who sought and fought for liberty between the war–torn years of 1939-1945.
Samuel ‘Dick’ Timmers Verhoeven died on the 18 July 2003, aged 84.