A remarkable story
The Early Birds Foundation ‘Trusty Rusty’ wears the registration PH-JAT. All Dutch aircraft registrations start with Papa-Hotel and a unique three letter combination. ‘JAT’ was chosen in honour of Jan-Bart van Mesdag, who was nicknamed Jat. Jat was the younger brother of Jaap van Mesdag, the founder of the Early Birds. During the Second World War Jat flew a P-51 Mustang in the Royal Air Force at the same time that Jaap tried to escape from occupied Holland. This is the remarkable story of two close brothers and the Early Birds P-51 Mustang.
When in May 1940 The Netherlands was occupied by Germany, Jat lived at Haileybury College, a boarding school north of London. His one-year older brother Jaap studied medicine in The Netherlands. Infuriated by the German occupation Jaap got involved in small acts of resistance. He soon realised that he could do much more to help to ‘kick the Jerries out’ if he joined the Allied Forces. So with his friend Ernst Sillem he planned an escape to Britain in a small canvas canoe. Ernst wanted to join the Navy while Jaap had the intention to join the RAF and become a fighter pilot.
Unknown to Jaap, his brother Jat had had exactly the same ambition and hád become a fighter pilot. Soon after the Germans occupied most of western Europe, Jat left the UK for Canada where he joined the Dutch Forces and enrolled in pilot training. By the time Jaap planned his escape to Britain in a canoe, Jat had already returned to Britain to join 64 Squadron of the Royal Air Force.
‘It feels like smoking opium’
After trainsitioning to the P-51 Mustang Jat’s main task was to escort allied bombers on their missions over Germany. On 14. January 1945 64 Squadron provided air support to Lancasters bombing Saarbücken. They could see explosions and thick smoke over the target area. Four P-51 Mustangs escorted the bombers back to base while the remaining seven aircraft continued to sweep the Frankfurt area. Among the four was Jat. During the sweep, without any allied losses, an impressive total of four Focke-Wulf 190s, two Messerschmitt 109s and one Junkers 188 were claimed to be destroyed while one Focke-Wulf 190 was claimed as probably destroyed. In one of the dogfights Jat managed to shoot one of the Focke-Wulf 190s out of the sky. The kill that was recorded by the gun camera installed in the wing of the aircraft.
The original gun camera film, courtesy of the Trustees of the Imperial War Museums, (CGE 11428-11714) IWM Collections
For Jat this was his first time to shoot down an enemy aircraft. Two weeks later in a letter to a friend in the United States he excitedly wrote about the experience. Never have I enjoyed myself so much more in my life, and I shall be entirely disappointed if it doesn’t ever happen again. It can be compared with smoking opium, once you’ve done it, you want to do it again and again.
A bold plan
Back home in The Netherlands, Jaap and his friend Ernst had found that trying to escape to Britain in a canoe was much easier said than done. For example, they were living in Hilversum. A small town located in the middle of The Netherlands far away from the coast. This made their bold idea look almost impossible as it meant transporting the canoe across most of the country without raising the suspicion of the Germans. Even if they made it to the coast the Germans had declared the beaches Sperrgebiet: meaning they were strictly off-limits to civilians. To make matters even worse weather forecasts were no longer made available to the public. What to do next?
The breakthrough came when Ernst, who studied agriculture and had gathered work experience on a farm in the southwestern part of The Netherlands made an interesting discovery. Near the town of Ouddorp the Germans still allowed people to spend their leisure time on the beach. Even though Ouddorp was situated in the far south-western part of the country, this at least gave them an opportunity to plan their escape. What helped a great deal was that the canoe could be dismantled and folded in such a way that it could easily be transported. After arranging a room in a holiday cottage in Ouddorp Jaap and Ernst left their hometown of Hilversum to secretly make their way to Britain. The ribs and the canvas skin of the canoe were put in two large bags. The small outboard motor was put in a big suitcase. Under the pretext that they were carrying parts of a threshing-machine, they travelled by train to Hellevoetsluis, by boat to Middelharnis and onwards on the steam powered tram to Ouddorp. To their relief their luggage was never once checked.
About to meet the Queen
In the holiday cottage, on the evening of Saturday the 29th of August 1942 Jaap wrote a letter to his parents. From the window he could see two German patrol boats moving up and down the coast. In his letter Jaap explained his parents what they were up to. He reassured them there was no need to worry because they were well prepared. All that was left to do was to wait for the wind to die down on the first pitch-dark night that was dark enough to avoid the patrol boats. If all went well they might even be in London on time to congratulate Queen Wilhelmina with her birthday on the 31th of August!
Escape in darkness
On the 31th of August the strong wind that had been blowing for several days finally died down. That night there was very little moonlight so the conditions seemed favourable enough to make an escape. In pitch-darkness Jaap and Ernst retieved the canoe from the hiding place in the dunes and pulled it onto the beach. Once through the surf, they silently peddled past the two patrol boats. Out of hearing distance they started the outboard engine and the little canoe dashed forward. The sea was calm and the weather looked fine. Everything seemed to indicate that they would be in Britain the next day and could congratulate the Queen on her birthday, albeit one day late.
However, after a few hours the wind started to pick up. Small waves started to appear, and more and more of them had a white crest. The small canoe started taking on water. When it became clear they were about to be shipwrecked, Jaap used his trumpet to attract attention of three ships whose silhouettes could be seen in the distance. Being a jazz-musician, the trumpet was the only personal item he had decided to take with him and it would now come to their rescue. Forcefully he blew the S.O.S.-signal on it. Two ships steadily continued on their course, but the third one turned towards them. The bow-wave of the ship capsized their canoe. In pitch-darkness they swam towards the ship and the crew pulled them out of the cold water. Then they heard voices. They were German. It was a vessel of the German Kriegsmarine…
In night and fog
The Germans subjected the two young men to a very harsh treatment. After imprisonment in the notorious Durchgangslager Amersfoort and camp Vught they were taken to concentration camp Natzweiler in the Alsace. This was a special camp where ‘Night an Fog’ prisoners were locked up. ‘Night an Fog’ prisoners were a special category of prisoners that were meant to vanish from the face of the earth. They were not allowed to write or even receive letters and their relatives were not informed about their whereabouts. Even if a prisoner died the family was not informed. This was meant to be almost as frightening as the death penalty and served to prevent others from resisting the Nazi regime.
In September 1944 allied forces advanced through northern France. The Germans evacuated all over 3.300 Natzweiler-prisoners to concentration camp Dachau in Bavaria. It was there that Jaap and Ernst after 32 months of imprisonment were finally liberated by the Americans.
‘Have you heard from Jat?’
From Dachau Jaap wrote a small note to his parents to let them know that he had been liberated on ‘Sunday afternoon the 29th of April at 5.28 pm’ and that he was in good health. Together with 32.000 others he waited to be repatriated home. This could take some weeks as the Americans had put the camp under quarantine to prevent the spreading of disease. Foremost, he was curious to know if all was well at home and how Jat was doing. A few weeks later, on 22. May, while on his way home, he send them another letter. ‘Is everything OK at home’, he still wondered, ‘and have you heard from Jat?’
By then, his parents had indeed received news about Jat. On the 6th of May 1945 Robbie Wijting, a fellow Dutch fighter pilot in 64 Squadron who would go on to become Chief of the Defence Staff in the Netherlands in the 1970’s, had come to their house to personally bring them a tragic message. Less than two months after Jat had shot down the Focke-Wulf, on his mother’s birthday, the 6th of March 1945, Jat had crashed his Mustang in a field near Lawshall in Suffolk and had perished. The cause of this fatal accident would never be clarified. During a training flight witnesses had seen his plane suddenly come out of the clouds and hit the ground. It had been a very cloudy day and the Americans had cancelled their bombing sorties because of bad weather.
A passion for vintage airplanes
Although during the war Jaap had not succeeded in becoming a fighter pilot, in the following decades he became a passionate sports pilot. In 1967 he acquired fame by being the first Dutchman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a single engined aircraft. In the aviation world he became best known for his passion for vintage airplanes. In 1976 he founded the Early Birds Foundation to accommodate what in fact was his private collection of vintage planes. Coming from a very well-to-do family he had the financial means to start the collection, whilst he also had the ability to gather a group of people who had the technical skills to help restore aircraft. This enabled him to buy damaged planes at a low price and slowly restore them to flying condition. Something that would have been unaffordable if the work would have had to be carried out by a commercial company.
When Jaap started the collection in the 1970s, pre-war biplanes were rapidly disappearing from the sky. They were discarded in great numbers. ‘Incredible what has been thrown away already’, he said, ‘and how little interest people take in even our own Dutch flying heritage.’ Jaap had a strong desire to bring these planes back in the air and demonstrate them at airshows to a wider audience. When asked by a journalist what was the focus of the collection, he answered that ‘we are mainly in business with biplanes from the First World War and the Interbellum.’ Though he quickly added that this was certainly not cast in cement.
Being a modest man of few words, Jaap surprised the Early Birds volunteers several times with the purchase of another aircraft. A shipping container would be delivered at the Early Birds-hangar, after which Jaap would invite the volunteers to take a look at a new acquisition inside. In November 1995 he invited everyone to come over to the KLM hangar at Schiphol-Oost, as he would have a surprise waiting for them. Most expected it to be another biplane, like before. But those times he never had made a fuss about it. So perhaps this time it was something else?
At KLM they had all gathered around a red shipping container. After opening the doors Jaap asked them if they could tell what was inside. A Mustang! Most volunteers were flabbergasted. Of course they were enthousiastic but at the same time wondered: would this advanced fighter plane from the Second World War fit in the current collection of small biplanes?
That day for the first time Jaap spoke about his brother Jat. The volunteers assumed this must have been the reason he had bought the aircraft, although Jaap did not explicitly say so. In fact, when asked in an interview whether this was the reason he denied. The reason to buy the plane he explained, was its great historical significance. ‘Like the Spitfire helped the British to win the Battle of Britain, the Mustang helped the Allies to win the war.’ The Mustang was not only a versatile fighter that would measure up with to German fighter plane. Equipped with a V-12 Rolls-Royce ‘Merlin’ engine and two drop tanks on the wings it enabled the Allies to escort bombers beyond Berlin. ‘That definitely shortened the war.’
Many years later, when the restauration of the P-51 Mustang was well on its way, the volunteers working on the plane came up with the idea of honouring Jat van Mesdag by giving the P-51 Mustang the registration number PH-JAT. When they proposed the idea to Jaap, they could tell from his eyes that they couldn’t have come up with anything better. No further words needed to be spoken. It was clear that he had bought the plane because of his brother.