Success in Dutch quest to track down wartime Shropshire soldier

Mrs Noel was understandably surprised.

Shropshire soldier David Underwood talked little of his wartime experiences.
Shropshire soldier David Underwood talked little of his wartime experiences.

"Gosh, after all these years. It's very strange," she said at her Telford home.

But tracking her down was a success for a Dutch family which, nearly 80 years ago, sheltered a group of British soldiers during the maelstrom of war – one of whom was her late father, David Underwood.

The key clue was a picture David left them of himself, together with his name and address on the back, of 9 New Row, Hinkshay.

David Underwood left this photograph of himself with the Dutch family which sheltered him in 1944.

And after we published a story of the Dutch family's quest, it stirred the detective instincts of genealogist John Paul Jeffels from north Shropshire, who is a member of Shropshire Family History Society, and his sleuthing using publicly available records led to the door of Mrs Jean Noel at Malinslee.

David was serving in REME, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, during the last autumn of the war, with Hitler's forces still resisting strongly, when he and his colleagues were given shelter in a stable in Holland.

Those events of October 1944 were at the homestead of the Gibbels family at Sint-Oedenrode, which is north of Eindhoven.

The Gibbels' homestead at Sint-Oedenrode.

Twenty years ago Jan Gibbels tried to find out more about that group of 15 soldiers, who had left them a drawing of, presumably, their unit shield, along with their names.

Jan died without solving the riddle, and the baton passed down to his nephew, Tony VanDijk, who was about a year old at the time and so has no memory of the events at his grandparents' stable. Tony's family emigrated to Canada when he was about seven.

Tony VanDijk in front of the family homestead in 1950.

An important factor in cracking the case was that Mr Jeffels quickly established that the initials J R D Underwood on the back of the picture – that's what they had looked like to us – were actually T R D Underwood.

Mrs Noel said: "His full names were Thomas Richard David, but he was always called David. My father passed away 30-odd years ago."

As for his wartime service, she said: "I don't really know much about it. He didn't like to talk about it really. He was just glad when it was over. Hinkshay was such a small community and of course they were all called up together.

"All dad's mates went with him and he saw one in particular, whose name I don't remember, killed. I suppose the boys he went to school with and grew up with were the ones he went to war with.

"He didn't like talking about the war and didn't particularly value his medals, and would never walk in the parades. He just wanted to draw a line under it.

"He got to be a Lance Corporal and they wanted him to stay in the Army, but he wasn't interested. He couldn't wait to get out. He just wanted to get home, get married, settle down, and put it behind him."

She has no knowledge of his wartime stay in a Dutch stable but does have a souvenir of his time serving in Holland.

"He brought some clogs home which I think I've still got upstairs. They weren't wearable ones – I suppose they were made as souvenirs."

In civilian life he was a welder.

"The majority of his life he worked for GKN Sankey, until he retired."

Hinkshay is a disappeared community and David's home at New Row was demolished around the late 1960s. Mrs Noel was born at 4a Hinkshay in 1950.

"His family owned a farm at Hinkshay and the houses were sort of part of it. When dad left the Army he moved into one of the houses at the farm, which was not far away. If you know where the old Ever Ready factory once was, New Row was behind the Ever Ready and 4a Hinkshay was in front of the Ever Ready.

"There were two houses facing the road, and two facing in. The two on the left are still there, but the one we were in has long since been demolished."

David married Ivy Brookes, whom he had known a long time, having both attended Langley School. Jean was their only child.

At the time of her father's death at the age of 69 he was living in Johnston Road, Dawley. Jean says Ivy died about 16 years after her father.

Jean has some cherished photos of her late father, but sadly not much else following a burglary.

Shropshire soldier David Underwood talked little of his wartime experiences.

"When dad died the house was broken into and everything was stolen, even documents, so I have very little left."

Tony said family members had assumed the soldiers were Canadian, and when he discovered they were British the researches were continued by Doreen Miller, who is Canadian but lives in Devon and is his late wife's aunt.

"Hopefully Doreen’s sleuthing will lead to more contacts and then we may want to reunite some of the relatives of all the 'mates' who stayed in the Gibbels stable in 1944.

"It would make a refreshing story as opposed to the hell of war – then, and now in Ukraine," he said.

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