Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema
Dutch Second World War hero whose exploits earned him the Netherlandsâ€™ highest military honour and widespread fame
The 1977 Dutch film Soldier of Orange made the names of its director Paul Verhoeven and its star Rutger Hauer, but it also brought to wider attention the exploits of perhaps the Netherlandsâ€™ most revered wartime combatant, Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, on whose autobiography the film was based.
When Germany invaded the Netherlands, Hazelhoff Roelfzema was a law student at Leiden University. As he later told it, he then was a rather spoilt, drunken and idle young man, although this appears at odds with his having already hitch-hiked across the US in order to keep a date with a girl: hence the title of his first book, Rendezvous in San Francisco (1939).
Hazelhoff Roelfzema soon became involved with the underground movement in Leiden, but in the summer of 1941 took the decision to leave Holland for Britain, arriving there by boat after surviving a fierce firefight with a German patrol. In London, he helped to set up the Dutch equivalent of SOE, â€œThe Mewsâ€, named for its location in the street behind the house in Chester Square where the exiled Queen Wilhelmina had her headquarters.
The organisation ran arms and wireless equipment to the Dutch Resistance, and Hazelhoff Roelfzema was a leading figure in several daring night-time exfiltrations of agents from Dutch beaches. The Mews, however, was then subsumed into CID, the Dutch intelligence service, and came under the command of Mattheus De Bruyne. He was later to bear much of the responsibility for the disaster of the Englandspiel, the failure to realise that most of SOEâ€™s agents in the Netherlands had been captured by the Nazis and were being forced to lure more to their doom.
Hazelhoff Roelfzema could be both volatile and stubborn, and he frequently clashed with De Bruyne. After refusing to obey a direct order from him, De Bruyne tried to have his fellow Dutchman court-martialled, but Hazelhoff Roelfzema was reprieved just in time by his being awarded the Netherlandsâ€™ highest military decoration, the Order of William, in the summer of 1942. Although regarded as a hero in Dutch circles in London, he was, however, becoming too frustrated with both its politics and remoteness from the front, and in 1944 he joined the RAF and trained in Canada as a pilot.
He was posted to 139 Squadron, equipped with Mosquitoes and part of the Pathfinder Force that illuminated targets for Bomber Command. During the next year he flew 72 missions, including 25 sorties to Berlin, and was awarded the DFC as well as a number of Dutch decorations. In April 1945 he was appointed aide-de-camp to Queen Wilhelmina, and accompanied her when she returned to the newly liberated Netherlands. He afterwards piloted the aircraft that brought Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard back to the Netherlands, and helped the young Princess Beatrix to take her first steps on free Dutch soil.
Hazelhoff Roelfzema remained close to the royal family, but after the war he emigrated to America, and it was only with the publication of his memoir Soldaat van Oranje (1970), which has since sold more than a million copies, that his fame was once more rekindled in the Netherlands, making him something of a figurehead for the Dutch wartime effort. He himself remained modest and sanguine about the recognition that the success of the book brought him. â€œI became a war hero because I stuck outâ€, he said, â€œbecause I wrote about my experiences. But behind every soldier decorated with military honours, there are a hundred anonymous heroes, some of them greater. I had the fortune to be recognised, and to grow old.â€
Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema was born in Subaraya, Java, then part of the Dutch East Indies, in 1917. In 1973 he would settle in Hawaii, as its climate and people reminded him of his childhood in Indonesia.
After the war he had a brief and unspectacular career as an actor in Hollywood, and was then involved with a Dutch motor-sport team. In 1950 he flew arms to the rebels of the South Moluccan Republic, who were trying to establish a state independent of the newly decolonised Indonesia, and the following year he joined NBC as a writer for the Today and later the Tonight shows. In the mid-Fifties he moved to Munich to work for Radio Free Europe.
Having retired to Hawaii, he was invited on to the board of Barnwell, the oil and gas development company, which he had profitably encouraged to begin drilling in the archipelago. They in turn prized him for his ability to make quick and accurate judgments about people, a skill he attributed to his wartime experiences.
He also wrote for Dutch newspapers, and published several other books, including a second autobiography, In Pursuit of Life (2000).
At Queen Julianaâ€™s coronation in 1980, Hazelhoff Roelfzema was given a special ceremonial role in recognition of his wartime efforts on behalf of both the House of Orange and his country. He hosted Prince Bernhard several times on visits to America, and in the 1980s, at the instigation of Prince Willem-Alexander, made a visit to Japan in a successful attempt to bring about a diplomatic rapprochement with the Netherlands.
Relations between the two countries remained frosty even 40 years after the war as a result of the maltreatment and death of thousands of Dutch civilians imprisoned in camps after the Japanese occupation of the Netherlandsâ€™ colonies in the Far East.
Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema is survived by his wife Karin Steensma, an interior designer, and by a son and a daughter.
Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, DFC, soldier, was born on April 3, 1917. He died on September 26, 2007, aged 90