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Research by the team at Fraser and Fraser has formed the basis for an article published in The Times as part of the newspaper’s coverage of the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
The story began when Jack Prested and Jack “Busty” Clarke, British soldiers deployed in the final push for Allied victory in Europe, were billeted in a house in the small town of Heythuysen in the Netherlands.
In March 1945, the comrades from the 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry stayed in the home of Lies Coenen, a housewife whose husband had been deported to Germany.
The affection for their host was such that, some weeks later as Allied forces edged closer to victory, Clarke wrote to Mrs Coenen, then 46. “Dear Alice”, his letter began. “We are all very pleased with the war news & are looking forward to peace & a happier world to follow.”
He hoped that her husband would soon be restored to her “and that you are able to enjoy a second honeymoon in England & visit us”.
Days after VE Day, Prested also wrote to Mrs Coenen: “I thought you would like a note to let you know that both Jim [a third trooper] & I and Busty are still alive and kicking”.
The short typed letter ended warmly: “We all hope to pay you a visit in the future, in civilian clothes I hope.”
They stayed in touch and swapped letters for decades, but subsequent generations of the families lost touch. That was until Louis Verbeek, Mrs Coenen’s nephew, discovered a photograph of his aunt with British soldiers in the house, where he now lives, and then the letters.
He decided that, with the approaching 75th anniversary of VE Day, it was time to reunite the families. “I had heard from my aunt, who died in 1995, that some soldiers were billeted in the house,” Mr Verbeek said. “There were English soldiers, and before [during the occupation] there was a German officer here with his servant. I later heard he was executed because he didn’t agree with Hitler and his servant betrayed him. That was all – there were no more details.”
He added it was a great surprise to read the letters, and “moving” to see how much the soldiers had enjoyed staying with his aunt and she had liked them.
Mr Verbeek and his family decided they wanted to invite the English relatives to a VE Day celebration to keep the memories of co-operation and the liberation of Europe alive.
They got in touch with Fraser and Fraser for help locating them and the firm offered its expertise free of charge.
Neil Fraser, partner at Fraser and Fraser, said: “As a long-established firm of genealogists and probate researchers, Fraser and Fraser is highly skilled at finding missing relatives. So, when we heard the story of Lies Coenan, Jack Clarke and Jack Prested, we were keen to do what we could to help reunite three families that had been brought together in adversity more than 75 years ago.
“To have successfully accomplished this gives us huge job satisfaction as professionals and we’re delighted to have done our bit in keeping alive memories of an era when ordinary people achieved extraordinary things.”
Among those whom Fraser and Fraser’s researchers tracked down was Prested’s granddaughter, Fiona Bargery, 48, of Watford, who was delighted to hear from Mr Verbeek as she had known nothing of her grandfather’s military career. “He passed away before I was born and I lost my dad when I was 24, so it never really got spoken about,” she said. “My dad always said that he was a very kind man, a gentle man and that he loved kids. It was lovely to read the letters. It’s given us a real connection to him.”
Angela Clarke, 74, whose husband, Peter, 78, is the nephew of Jack Clarke, said that the soldier was known in the family as “a lovely kind man, who would always help strangers”.
She added: “It was very nice to have seen the letters as we didn’t know anything about them before we were put in touch with the Dutch.”
Clarke and Prested were unusually mature combatants. Prested was in his late 30s and Clarke 42 in 1944, having volunteered for the army despite being twice the age of some of their comrades.
Ms Coenen’s war ended with a reunion with her husband, Antonius, a miller. Although when he returned in April 1945, having escaped and walked more than 300 miles, he was in such poor physical condition that his wife did not recognise him.
Although the English and Dutch descendants are now in touch, the coronavirus lockdown has so far prevented them from celebrating together.
However, Mr Verbeek added that the liberating forces were still fondly remembered in his country. “It’s important, especially for the 75th anniversary. You see all kinds of events remembering those days and honouring the soldiers who liberated us, so I’m really thankful.”