‘I HAD TO GROW UP QUICKLY’
Born in Brussels, Belgium, on Oct. 30, 1926, Swaters is the son of Jacques and Marie Swaters.
His father was Dutch and his mother Belgian. Marie died from an intestinal infection at age 33 when Jacques was just 2 months old.
Jacques grew up in the home of his maternal grandmother and was primarily raised by a woman named Germaine, who was hired as a maid by Jacques’ father when she was 19. She became Jacque’s “nurse” immediately after the death of his mother.
In April 1939, Jacques’ father died of liver cancer. At 12 years old, he had no living parents.
“I had to grow up quickly,” Jacques said.
WORLD WAR II
Jacques had an older sister, Jacqueline, and two older half-sisters, Paly and Louisette, from his father’s first marriage. Hours before his death, Jacques’ father, speaking with difficulty, told him: “You will obey Louisette.” Jacques’ father believed Jacqueline was too young to take care of her brother.
After living with Louisette that summer, Jacques was sent to a Jesuit boarding school in Godinne, 80 kilometers from Brussels.
“I was not unhappy there,” Jacques said. “It was very strict. I wasn’t even allowed to leave on the weekends. The discipline was good for me.”
The school followed a daily routine: The children woke up at 6 a.m. to listen to a sermon from the priests. Then came breakfast, Mass and lessons.
World War II started in 1939, but the effects were not immediately felt in Belgium, which publicly announced that it was neutral in the conflict.
Jacques recalls the morning of May 10, 1940. During the usual sermon time, Father Prefect announced to the students that Germany had invaded Belgium and that they all should go home. Jacques remembers the children cheering because they thought they were going on vacation. “Long live the war,” they shouted.
Jacques returned to Brussels and went straight to Louisette’s home, which was empty. He took a train to Le Zoute, on the Belgian coast, and found Louisette at her villa.
Louisette had a plan. She wanted the entire family to make its way to Portugal, where she thought they would be free from German rule.
And so they packed up: Louisette and her two daughters, Jacqueline (then 6 months pregnant), Jacques and Jacqueline’s father-in-law. They drove to the border of France, and then traveled by car until they reached Biarritz in southwest France, where they stayed in a rented house and waited for their visas to get approved.
That would not happen. Belgium surrendered to Germany on May 28, 1940. France surrendered on June 25. The family returned to Belgium, which was occupied by Germany.
Jacques moved in with Louisette and resumed school in the fall of 1940. He lived with his half-sister for the next 2½ years while regularly visiting Jacqueline. Paly lived in the south of France.
“Louisette was everything to me – kind of a mother figure,” Jacques said. “She was nice, responsible and showed me a lot of love. That was the first time I lived what you might call a typical family life.”
JOINING THE RESISTANCE
When he turned 16, Jacques went to live with Jacqueline.
As secure as he felt with Louisette, it was almost too comfortable for an adventurous teenager. Neither Louisette nor her husband was involved in the war. Meanwhile, whenever Jacques visited Jacqueline, she would share with him exciting and eventful stories of her involvement in a resistance movement against the Germans known as Group G, which had great success in sabotage missions. Jacqueline and her husband, Georges Marcq, were very active with the resistance.
Jacques abandoned his studies to join the efforts. At first, he was a runner. Jacques attended air drops. He made deliveries by bicycle. He transported messages.
The resistance had members scattered over parts of Europe and they communicated by coded messages transmitted through radio signals. The resistance could not use telephone lines because they were tapped and heavily monitored.
Rundfunk, a German broadcasting company, was responsible for identifying emissions from the resistance fighters. It used specially-equipped vehicles with large antennas to locate resistance emissions, stop them immediately and capture those involved.
“Their headquarters and all their cars with large antennas were based in Rhode-Saint-Genèse, a village in the inner suburbs of Brussels,” Jacques said. “One of my missions was to hang out in front of their headquarters and alert my friends immediately when their cars went out spying.
“I also had to carry messages once a day in Antwerp. I did everything by bike. Our transmitter was located at the entrance of Antwerp, in a café, and each day I brought coded messages to the Marconiste – that’s what we called the radio telegrapher – without even understanding the content. Gradually, my missions became increasingly important. I was decoding messages coming in, writing them down in the new code and then bringing them to the Marconiste.”
MAN ON A MISSION
Jacqueline had two sons, Axel and Philippe, born in 1940 and 1942, respectively. Germaine, the family nurse, was now living with Jacqueline and helping raise the boys.
Georges Marcq was drafted into the Belgian army and was later taken prisoner by the Germans along with his fellow soldiers. He was released in August 1940. It was then that Jacqueline and Georges decided to join the resistance.
In 1942, Georges was arrested but once again managed to escape after a while.
Jacqueline and Georges lived in hiding at a friend’s apartment in Brussels, while their children, Jacques and Germaine lived separately.
As George was still involved in the Group G, he set off for England in 1943. He traveled through France and crossed the Pyrenees Mountains in southwest Europe, where he was arrested. Jacqueline never saw her husband again. He was jailed for six months in Pau, France, and then transferred to Fresnes, the second-largest prison in France, near Paris. In August 1944, he was deported to the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp near Nordhausen, Germany. Georges died there Feb. 5, 1945.
Meanwhile, in May 1944, Jacqueline and Jacques were arrested together in Brussels. Jacques remembers how it all happened.
He was on a mission in Uccle in the Brussels-Capital Region. Jacques was a lookout for German planes and cars while his colleagues were transmitting coded messages in a nearby building. If he were to spot Germans, he was to signal his friends by tying or untying his shoelaces. There was another lookout at the window of the nearby building awaiting his signal.
When Jacques saw a small German plane pass, he gave the signal and immediately left on his bicycle. The German Military Police arrived 10 minutes later – shortly after Jacque’s colleagues had left the premises.
A few days later, Jacques had a similar lookout duty with his colleagues transmitting at a new location. That day he spotted two men coming by foot from a nearby deserted street. He was immediately wary and then noticed one of the men holding a violin case with a wire running along his neck to his ear. Quickly, he gave the signal, hopped on his bicycle and rode away. Before he had traveled 200 meters, the German Military Police had surrounded the building and captured his colleagues. His warning signal was too late.
Jacques fled to where his sister Jacqueline was staying, and they went to hide at Louisette’s. Unfortunately Jacques’ colleagues were tortured by the Germans until they disclosed his whereabouts. The Germans went to look for Jacqueline and found Germaine and Jacqueline’s children. Frightened, Germaine told the Germans where to find Jacques and Jacqueline.
“They arrived at 6 in the morning,” Jacques said. “We were all sleeping. They caught us by surprise. There were six men in two cars, fully armed, and they entered the house through every door. Everybody had to stand up immediately, even the children. They looked at everyone. They were not stupid; they were looking for me and Jacqueline. They knew Louisette and her family didn’t know anything about what we were doing, so we both were arrested.
Jacques had with him three pills provided by resistance leaders. One was for suicide, in case he was being tortured and could see no possibility for escape. One was a strong amphetamine to help him feel stronger, if necessary. He cannot recall what the third pill was for.
“I kept these three pills a long time,” Jacques said. “The most important task of the Geheime FeldPolizei, the Nazi’s secret military police, was to fight against internal and external resistance. They kept me for three days, and they did everything to make me talk. I remember I took the one pill for strength. It worked well.”
‘WORSE THAN A NIGHTMARE’
After three days, Jacques and Jacqueline were transferred to the prison at Saint-Gilles in Brussels. Jacques was placed in a wing of the dungeon that was reserved for political prisoners. There were four prisoners in each cell. They received little food and slept on straw mattresses.
On occasion he was transported by van to the Geheime FeldPolizei’s headquarters for interrogation. At times, he was tortured but refused to divulge any information about the resistance, including the identity of its leader.
After two months in Saint-Gilles, the Germans arrived one day at 4 a.m. Without warning, they evacuated the entire wing where Jacques was housed. He estimates there were about 1,800 prisoners.
They were crammed into gray coaches with bars on the windows. They traveled through Brussels and stopped at the Schaerbeek train station, where they waited for hours for a train to arrive. The Germans crammed more than 100 men into train cars built for the capacity for 40 men. There were no women or children in Jacques’ car, which sat at the station for hours without moving.
“We had been pushed, thrown, beaten by the Germans,” Jacques said. “Then they shut the heavy sliding doors and we were stuck in our car. There were two small windows for light. Very quickly, two or three men in the car took matters in their own hands and decided to organize us in rows with the first row standing, the second row crouching, the third row standing and so on. It was good because it made us do a little exercise. We changed every 20 minutes.”
For three days and two nights, the captives remained locked in their train cars, which traveled only by night. Red Cross nuns had handed out soy biscuits at the start of the journey. That had caused violent and uncontrollable diarrhea among the prisoners. They had no choice but to defecate and urinate in their small confines.
“That was worse than a nightmare,” Jacques said.
The train finally arrived in Louvain, about 26 kilometers east of Brussels. There the train was stopped because resistance and allied planes had bombed the train rails. The Germans reversed the train and headed back to Brussels and then tried to reach Malines.
“Sitting beside me, there was a man who had several seizures,” Jacques said. “Luckily, we had a doctor with us. Otherwise the man would have died.”
“Also in our car was an 80-year-old pastor. This was amazing: The first night we were in the train car, it was pretty uncomfortable. We were pretty desperate. No one knew where we were going but we could only imagine we were headed to a concentration camp. There was bombing all around us. And the pastor, he spoke calmly. We talked to God. He calmed us and restored our confidence and we recited ‘Our Father’ – more than 100 men with a single voice. Then we sang the Belgian national anthem. It is a memory that sticks with me.”
FREE AT LAST
The second night, as the train made its way to Malines, there was a strong attack that again cut off the train tracks. Once again, the cars headed back toward Brussels. Before reaching Brussels, the train stopped at a station called “La Petite Île” (the small island).
The resistance fighters were waiting to ambush and attacked the German soldiers. The train stopped and men from another car who had managed to escape came and opened the door to Jacques’ car. Everyone inside burst out. German military police were shooting into the crowd of fleeing captives. Several men were hit, but Jacques managed to run away from the scene.
He remembers walking by the Brussels courthouse, which was in flames. He walked to his old house where he lived with Louisette but found it vacant. He was just walking around with little idea where he was headed when he saw a familiar figure sitting on a bicycle: It was Georges Marchand, a leader of the resistance.
Marchand took Jacques to see his sister Jacqueline and Robert de Keyser, a friend.
“We had not heard from each other since our arrest,” Jacques said. “It was unbelievable to see her again.
“All of this happened with a very active backdrop. The Germans were running away in all directions. They were on their motorbikes with sidecars, or jeeps, or even walking. From time to time, someone was killed. The Allies fired on anyone in a German uniform. There was a lot of activity. It has been very well described in some movies, including a 1981 French film called ‘Les Uns et les Autres’ and the 1998 American movie ‘Saving Private Ryan.’”
Jacques stayed briefly with de Keyser but wanted to go see his sister Louisette to tell her that he was alive. He rode by bicycle to Uccle, where he saw rows of allied tanks arriving in Brussels to liberate the Belgian citizens.
In September 1944, allied troops entered Belgium. Two months later, Belgium became fully liberated.
“I found my sisters,” he said. “And after we were liberated, we partied for two days. It was extraordinary. And it is impossible to forget.”
LIFE AFTER THE WAR
World War II was not over, and Jacques was not finished with fighting. He was 18 years old and wanted to join the British army. He began training with a regiment of paratroopers in Belgium, then England. When he returned to Belgium, he joined the 2nd Regiment Special Air Service (SAS) and was stationed in Tervueren, where he completed his training before going to war in Holland.
“I was very proud to belong to such an elite regiment,” Jacques said. “I was serving my country, serving a good cause fighting against the enemy. I felt like I was really contributing.”
Jacques experienced the war in all kinds of ways. He witnessed a fellow soldier getting hit by a grenade. He heard a wounded German pleading for help in a whisper. He saw bridges blown up and dead animals.
“I cannot forget the smells,” Jacques said. “I cannot forget some of the things that I saw. It has haunted me for years. I have some horrible memories.”
Ultimately the mission of Jacques’ unit was a success. Holland was liberated on May 5, 1945.
World War II ended soon after.
In the fall of 1945, Jacques Swaters took a test that allowed him entry into the University Catholique de Louvain, where he studied Philology, Literature and Pre-Law. During that time, he also started to develop a love of racing.
“It was a difficult time for me,” Jacques said. “I had been living this intense life filled with adrenaline. There was a lot of excitement and activity. It wasn’t all good, but after the war, life was quiet and boring.
“I got involved with cars, and the competition helped give back the adrenalin that had been lacking since the end of the war.”
It should be noted that Jacques, Jacqueline, Louisette and Paly were fairly wealthy, as they each inherited a quarter of their father’s fortune after turning 18. Jacques Swaters, Sr. became a rich man with a company called “Raadkamp,” which developed pharmaceutical counters while having the monopoly of the planting and distribution of quinine and pyrêtre. He retired in 1905-06 but remained a shareholder of the company he founded in Indonesia.
Jacques turned 20 years old in 1946 and received his share of the inheritance from his father. He did not receive the money at age 18 because of the war.
The inheritance allowed him to get involved in racing, and it was the only way he could have done it. There were no sponsors at the time to absorb costs. Jacques attended classes at the university until 1952.
That was the year Jacques left his studies and dedicated himself entirely to Ferrari.
“Racing was the one thing that excited me after the war,” Jacques said. “I knew that the rest of my life would involve cars in some way.”