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  • Day7

    Castle of Petit-Spay - Trois Ponts

    October 13, 2020 in Belgium ⋅ ☁️ 8 °C

    Not much was found so far about the early history of the “Château de Petit Spay”. The château was owned by the Demeure family. In the 1930‘s it was home to a Benedictine community. During the war, a private charitable society, “Les Foyers Léopold III” was founded. This society, raised in different parts of the country and assisted by the National Youth Society and the Belgian Red Cross, homes meant for children between the ages of 6 and 18 chosen from debilitated or malnourished children of all classes of the population, and especially children from Belgian prisoners of war. The Château de Petit Spay accomodated one of those homes from the end of 1943 onwards. The organisation in Petit Spay was based on the methods used by the Scouts. The director, Mrs. Van der Beken, was called Akela (cubmistress). She was assisted by a nurse and 4 women teachers, all of them quite young.
    Monique van Caster, one of the teachers, remembers: In the morning of 19 December 1944, Petit Spay was suddenly encircled by the SS. My first contact was when I ran down the stairs with the children. A little kid stepped out of the line and shook the hand of an SS soldier, saying “Hello Mr. American!”. I was treated with an icy glance, but he let us descend. The first question from the German was: “are there any men here?” The director (Miss Marguerite Jacobs) mentioned the presence of a sick army chaplain. He was taken away. Several months later his body was found in a curve of the Amblève near the Coo waterfall.
    In addition, one of the 41 children, Alois van Loo, remembers: I was the tallest of the group. For that reason, our chaplain, Father Prégardien, has chosen me to serve the mass, celebrated in the chapel of the chateau. One afternoon, I went to the vestry. Since I had the habit to enter without knocking, I surprised the Father in a big conversation with men armed with sub- machine guns. As soon as they saw me, they got up and left. Father Prégardien made me promise not to tell anything to anybody, not even to my own comrades. It was our secret. This happened in the summer of 1944, so before the liberation. But then December came, and the SS arrivede. The SS took Father Prégardien away. We thought that our chaplain would soon be back. When our director questioned the SS, one of them swayed his sub-machine gun in a menacing way, saying: “This is what your priests carry”. We never saw our Father Prégardien again.
    Father Prégardien had been taken to the river side, near the bridge across the Amblève, and shot. His body was thrown into the river. It should be noted that halfway the slope between the château and the bridge is a farmhouse (now abandoned and a ruin). The farming couple that lived there, Mr. and Mrs. Nicolet, were shot as well...
    The Château de Petit Spay (or Kinderheim as the Germans called it) served as a command post of Obersturmführer Wägner’s 4./SS Pz.Aufkl.Abt. 1, Hauptsturmführer Böttcher’s III./SS Pz.Gren.Rgt. 1, and probably Hauptscharführer Auge’s 5./SS Pz.Art.Rgt. 1. These units were all part of the 1. SS Panzer Division “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler”.
    Monique van Caster continues: In order to be protected, the director had displayed a huge Red Cross flag next to the château. She removed it after the arrival of the big German tanks that encircled the château, out of fear that the Germans would use the flag to protect their tanks. At this time, the Americans still occupied the road along the Amblève, at 500 metres from us. They did not wait long with their reply. In Trois Ponts the Americans were aware of the children in the château, but they did not have any choice. They had to defend themselves. We came under full fire from the Americans. Very quickly the children were sent to the cellars. The first grenades exploded in the dining hall. The children ate in the cellars which they would not leave for 12 days. A first mean trick by the SS: To pour a kilo of salt into the soup! It became inedible. They were laughing maliceously as they watched the wry faces of the children. This really was the attitude of the SS: Hard and mean!
    However, it should be noted that none of the children or teachers were ever harmed and all survived. After Christmas, the entire 1. SS Pz. Div. was transferred to the area southeast of Bastogne. The SS troops that had occupied the château were now relieved by Wehrmacht units, probably from Volksgrenadierregiment 293 or 294, which belonged to the 18. Volksgrenadier Division of the Wehrmacht. They were responsible for the evacuation by truck of the children and their teachers in the first days of January to the Château Orban de Xivry in
    Farnières. After three days there, they were liberated by the Americans. Not long after that, the area of Petit Spay itself was liberated (by the 517th PIR ?).
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