Pieter van Manen

If a hero is someone who could save his own life but refuses so that other men will not loose their lives, then Piet van Manen is a hero. He died on 27 June 1945, after the war had ended in Europe but during the ongoing war in Japan. In The Netherlands the idea had taken root that the country should put together and dispatch as rapidly as possible an armed force to help the British defeat the Japanese in former Dutch East Indies, present-day Indonesia. With this in mind, members of the BS (Forces of the Interior) throughout The Netherlands were trained as rapidly as possible to become a regular army. In fact, during the war, they had already begun training, and were under Prince Bernhard’s command, in order to be ready to assume responsibilities when the country was liberated. In Oegstgeest, the Gevers-Deutz Terweeschool served this purpose. At that time, the school was named the Terweeschool and only had six classrooms, the lower rooms at the front of the building. Half the school on the north side was still an elementary school with the square at the back serving as playground, and the three rooms on the south, including playground, serving as barracks for the BS.

Piet van Manen was a platoon commander in the BS. He was born in Leiden on 18 February 1922 and resided at 47 Vliet. He was a member of the resistance, the same group to which Piet Vromans and Wim Stokhuijzen belonged. During the raid on his home, Van Manen was fortunate enough to escape. He was considered to be fit enough to serve as an officer in the soon to be created army for which he had enrolled in a hurried training. At that time, it was his task to train men how to toss hand grenades.

Pieter van Manen

Instruction how to use hand grenades
It was 27 June 1945 and in two days’ time the RAF would be arriving to take official leave of its fallen servicemen who had been buried in Oegstgeest. One of the classrooms at the Terweeschool served as instruction room for Piet van Manen. About 20 men from the platoon were present. Van Manen was standing before the platoon with a box containing 12 Canadian hand grenades to be used for instruction. At any rate, they were not actually practice hand grenades but rather ones in which the trip switch had not yet been inserted. They certainly were not new examples. The box had been fastened shut by string and some grenades were so badly rusted that the mechanism jammed. Evidently they had been carried through battle by soldiers and then returned to their box. The trip switch mechanism consisted of a tube containing gunpowder that hissed while it slowly burned before finally exploding. For the sake of safety, hand grenades are shipped by the supplier without the trip mechanism inserted.

Whether or not tubes have indeed been installed in hand grenades can clearly be seen because grenades and tubes of gunpowder are usually stored in separate box compartments. If the tubes are in their proper compartment, then the hand grenades contained in that same box should be safe to use during practice.

Van Manen checked this again for the last time and counted equal numbers of grenades and gunpowder tubes. The instruction could now begin. He had taken the required precautions as he had been taught. Unfortunately, no one had warned him that, when using ‘used’ grenades, it was imperative to check each individual grenade separately to see if a tube had been inserted.

Van Manen took a grenade in hand to demonstrate first how to insert the trip switch into the grenade. He did not actually install the trip switch but rather placed both pieces back into the box. Instruction continued using another grenade. There was a safety pin with ring attached on top of the hand grenade. As long as the pin was still in place, the grenade could not explode. Pins are held wedged in place by the trip spring mechanism of the grenade’s lever. When the grenade with lever is held correctly in the hand used for throwing, then the other hand can be used to pull the ring of the safety pin. Van Manen wanted to demonstrate how this was done. He instructed the men that nothing would happen while the hand remained closed. It was even possible to stick the safety pin back into its hole, thus disarming the grenade again. He demonstrated this as well before returning the grenade to its box.

Fatal accident
Instruction continued using a third hand grenade. The instructor now wanted to demonstrate how to throw the grenade once the safety pin had been removed. Normally the lever would be released while throwing the grenade, causing a little flap in the mechanism to hit the cap and thus ignite the gunpowder in the tube. Within a few seconds the hand grenade would explode. Van Manen added that some people who are experts at tossing grenades actually release the lever slightly, so that ignition begins before the grenade has been thrown. This will give a quick-witted enemy less time to seek cover. While Van Manen demonstrated how the lever could be slightly loosened, someone remarked jokingly ‘It is safe isn’t it?’

A click followed by a hissing sound became audible in the room. Van Manen realized that everything was going terribly wrong. Someone had made a fatal error when filling the box with grenades. The grenade in his hand had already been armed and would soon explode.

 ‘Get out of here boys’ he shouted. Four or five of the men jumped out the window, another ran out of the room sliding down the hallway. Van Manen had to think quickly. He might be able to throw the live grenade into a different corner of the classroom. However, this would cause the deaths of a large number of his mates. Or could he toss it into the hallway where people – maybe even children – were walking? He could also toss the grenade out the window, but just then he caught sight of Piet Kuivenhoven’s platoon passing by. Thus he chose the only option left to him. Turning his back to the classroom, he held the live grenade against his abdomen and bent his body over it to cushion the explosion. Pieter van Manen died a hero’s death.
Hero’s burial
Piet was given a hero’s burial from the Terweeschool. Members of the BS came from all the surrounding areas and a delegation of Allied servicemen were present. The town’s citizenry all showed up on 2 July 1945 when he was buried close to his Allied friends. Ds. Kelder led the burial ceremony in the Groene Kerkje, members of the BS were present to lower the casket into the ground, the honor guard discharged three salvos, BS member Chris Goedkoop played the Last Post , and large numbers of people filed past the grave.

Funeral car with the body of Pieter van Manen departs from Terweeschool.

Tombstone of Pieter van Manen

Left: a tablet in memory of Piet van Manen in the portal of the Gevers-Deutz Terweeschool in Oegstgeest.