Len Mulholland waited on a small rise to watch the explosion.
Moments earlier, he and several others had set in motion their plot to blow up a railway track in eastern Holland about four kilometers from the German border.
Mulholland heard the faint rumble of the approaching train and within a few minutes could see it: two passenger cars followed by several flatcars loaded with army equipment.
As the engine triggered the detonator, the explosion shattered the still night. The train struck a bridge and the passenger cars fell on their sides. Everything had gone according to plan.
Mulholland, now 93, wasn’t just part of the Dutch resistance during the Second World War. As a British special operative, he trained others, organized air drops, sank ships and destroyed trains.
Born in the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia), Mulholland spent his early years on a plantation his father managed and arrived in Holland to attend naval college the day war broke out. When the country was invaded, he and his friends took every opportunity to commit minor acts of sabotage by dropping sugar cubes in the fuel tanks of army vehicles or spreading bent nails on highways.
But his efforts with the underground movement began in earnest once he took a position on a ship that regularly sailed to Sweden: he became a courier, smuggling messages and envelopes to be delivered or mailed.
In 1943, Mulholland jumped ship and swam ashore, seeking asylum in Stockholm. He was soon offered a position with British Special Forces.
“I was elated and accepted right away,” he later wrote. “This is exactly what I had been dreaming about and could scarcely believe that it was going to happen.”
Mulholland was taken to England, given extensive training in coding and combat and provided with false papers and a new identity before being parachuted back into Holland. If anyone asked, he was L.G. Dijkerman, on sick leave from a German ship.
He reunited with old friends and set to work on his mission, which included arming the resistance with weapons dropped onto farmer’s fields at night. These air drops soon became routine: more than 200 took place, delivering guns and explosives.
When word came that the Germans planned to tow several ships from Rotterdam harbour and sink them to cut the port off from larger vessels, Mulholland asked his superiors for permission to sink the ships at their berth.
By the time the mission was carried out, the ships were guarded, so explosives were attached by men in a rowboat pretending to fish. A few hours later, the bombs went off and the ships sank.
On the night Mulholland helped blow up the rail line, similar explosions occurred in 15 other places, causing chaos to Axis-controlled transportation.
While he never really had any close calls, at one point he was arrested in a roundup — his false papers were no help — and herded into a train boxcar bound for Germany. Aside from an uncomfortable night, this actually worked to his advantage, since he could now commit sabotage in the heart of enemy territory.
He frequented a pub popular with German officers, who left their pistol belts hanging from coat hooks by the door. Several times Mulholland stole them.
He got a job on a railway mail car — complete with a set of legitimate ID papers — and began mishandling or re-routing parcels bound for the front. He poked holes in packages for individual soldiers and replaced edible items with garbage.
“What terrible things to do, but at that time and in those circumstances they seemed right,” Mulholland wrote. “Our minds were in war mode and everything we did to disrupt the war effort of the enemy or hurt the morale of the men was fair game.”
He learned, however, that many Germans, including soldiers, were fiercely anti-Hitler, although unable to express it in mixed company.
One night when his train was stopped at a small station en route to Frankfurt, the air raid siren blared. Everyone headed for the shelters except Mulholland, who stayed inside his car, preparing to do something he’d been planning for weeks. He climbed into the engine and released the brake, then jumped out as the ghost train began to move. It picked up speed and disappeared from the station.
Mulholland never learned what happened to it — it might have run out of steam or collided with another train or been strafed by an Allied fighter. But it was chalked up as an accident; his involvement went undetected.
He insists he wasn’t scared. “Never,” he says. “We didn’t know the word. We were trained so well that I felt confident I could get out of any situation.”
Nor did others show any hesitation. “I never once detected any sense of fear in any of the people participating in the resistance,” he wrote. “We did whatever was necessary at the time without any thought of danger.”
After the war in Europe ended, Mulholland accepted an espionage assignment in Sri Lanka, but Japan surrendered before the mission was carried out.
He met Queen Wilhelmina twice — once in training and again when she decorated him with the Bronze Lion, a high Royal Dutch award. “I am so glad to see you here!” the queen remarked as she pinned the medal to his chest.
The citation said he distinguished himself by “exceptionally courageous and energetic action. He repeatedly gave evidence of endurance and initiative, and in spite of the dangerous situation, gave himself with great sacrifice to the Allied cause.”
Mulholland also received Britain’s Military Cross and was offered an ongoing position with British Intelligence, but chose not to continue a life of cloak and dagger.
Instead, he returned to civilian life, taking a job with the Shell Oil Company. He came to Canada in 1950 and lived in Edmonton, Victoria, and Sidney. He and wife Anna moved to Nelson about a year and a half ago to be closer to their daughter who also lives here.
His own family didn’t know about his wartime exploits until decades later, when he finally told them following declassification of documents from that era.
John Windsor wrote a book about him in 1980 called Night Drop in Ede. But when Mulholland finally read it a few years later, he was so horrified at its exaggerations that he wrote his own account, Childhood, War and Peace 1920-1950, to set the record straight. (There’s a copy in the Nelson Public Library.)
Mulholland has returned to Holland three times, most recently in 2005 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the country’s liberation.