The North Sea flood of 1953

On Saturday January 31st 1953, the ‘Stormwaarschuwingsdienst’ (a service that warns people for incoming storms) of the KNMI (The Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute)  sends a telegram to warn people for the dangerously high water levels. It reaches only a few people. In the early morning of February 1st, the dikes break.

“I went downstairs and saw the water enter the house through the mail slot already! I rushed to wake up my father, mother, two sisters and my brother."

— Slager, Kees: de Ramp, a reconstruction.

The warning

Aan het eind van zaterdagmiddag 31 januari verstuurde de Stormwaarschuwingsdienst van het KNMI een waarschuwings-telegram. Er werd gewaarschuwd voor “gevaarlijk hoog water”. Na de weersverwachting van zes uur ‘s avonds las de nieuwslezer het bericht voor. Het telegram bereikte veel instanties niet omdat zij geen abonnement op de waarschuwingstelegrammen hadden. De Nederlandse radio zond niet uit tussen twaalf uur ‘s nachts en acht uur ‘s morgens, dus bleef het die nacht stil op de radio.

Low tide isn’t coming

Low tide was scheduled to come in at 22:30 on Saturday night, but the water did not retreat. The forceful storm broke the natural mechanisms which normally create the tides. Few who were warned took action, some who were not warned still noticed the impending danger themselves and took action as well, but many thought the storm would not be so bad and went to sleep instead.

The high tide

A full moon took place two days prior to the night of January 31st going into February 1st . As a result, the high tide which was supposed to come in at 05:00, was therefore a spring tide, (which is also known as ‘giertij’). The storm raged on with force 11 and 12 winds, consequently producing gusts of wind with speeds of 135 kilometers an hour. Waves crashed against the coastal lines and the dikes. The first occurrence of water rushing over the flood boards and the dikes was around 02:00. From 03:00 onwards the dikes started to break.

The dikes broke

The dikes which were lower and which received less maintenance, located on the southern side of the polders, were the first ones to give way. The first dikes broke near Kruiningen, Kortgene and Oude Tonge. The largest part of Schouwen-Duiveland flooded. St. Philipsland and large parts of Tholen were also flooded. Additionally, some areas on Zuid-Beveland, Noord-Beveland, Walcheren, and Zeeuws-Vlaanderen were submerged as well. Even areas outside of Zeeland, for instance Noord-Brabant and Zuid-Holland, especially the peninsulas of Zuid-Holland, were affected as well.

A wall of water came rushing in

The water came rushing in at such a fast pace that those who were asleep were taken by surprise and were completely overwhelmed. “A wall of water came rushing in”, some remarked afterwards. Those who could still save themselves, fled to locations on higher ground like the city centers of some villages, the dikes, attics or even rooftops. The strength of the water was tremendous. Houses collapsed and got carried away in the water. The raging water even destroyed entire villages. In the towns of Schuring near Numansdorp and Capelle near Nieuwerkerk, all houses got wiped away. There was nothing left of the houses.

We thought the world was ending…

In a short amount of time the landscape changed from farmlands, polders, villages and cities to a raging whirlwind of water, which was continuously being fueled by the ongoing storm. “We really thought the world was ending”, a woman later commented. In many villages, people tried to warn the citizens by sounding the alarm bells. While, others would go past people’s houses and knocked on their doors and windows in order to wake them. “The water is coming!”, they’d yell.

February 1st – Sunday morning

The first telex messages were received by the newspaper editors around 04:30. There was no one present in the offices since newspapers would not get published nor printed on Sundays. The only people working that day and who could actually receive the messages, were the people of the ‘Radionieuwsdienst’ (radio news broadcasting service) of the ANP. The employees started to read the messages, which kept coming in, from 05:15 onwards. In the course of Sunday morning, the aftermath of the disaster slowly became clear. When the sun rose, people could finally see what had happened the night before. Some rooftops, tree tops or even pieces of broken dike, were still poking out of the water surface. Besides the occasional treetop or rooftop, there was only water left. An eye witness remarked: “I was looking out over an enormous body of water. The six of us sat on the neighbors’ rooftop. We heard people calling out from the direction of the dike. We knew they had to be close. It was a matter of waiting to be rescued.”

The water level is going down

When the low tide came in, the water level decreased a bit. Individual rescue missions were being organized. People used their private vessels to sail along the submerged houses in order to pick others up who were still stranded and to bring them to higher grounds. Large scale rescue missions from outside the afflicted areas did not take place at this time yet.


In the meantime since the ANP office received so many messages on Sunday February 1st, the broadcasting associations made additional airtime available for extra news bulletins. Postal service employees tried to call as many institutions as possible. A hastily built transmitter was sending out an S.O.S. signal from Schouwen-Duiveland throughout the Netherlands. The signal was even picked up by radio broadcasting amateurs in Italy.

The second flood

After the first morning the water stared rising again. The water rose even higher than the night before. For many only one solution remained: to flee onto the rooftops. Eye witnesses later stated that the flooding on Sunday afternoon was the worst of all. Some people managed to same themselves by climbing onto rafts and wooden support beams. Others had far less luck and tragically drowned in the raging water. Around 17:00 it started to get dark outside. Under these circumstances, thousands of people in the disaster stricken area had to survive a second night. They fled to attics, onto rooftops, or sat huddled together on dikes or pieces of floating wreckage.

To the attic

Many people panicked and fled to the attic. Some were lucky and had enough time to gather some supplies. They brought things which seemed important to them at that moment: a brand new bike, a sewing machine, a box with money and valuable documents. One man woke up from the noise on the streets. “I went downstairs and saw the water enter the hallway through the mail slot already! I rushed to wake up my father, mother, two sisters and my brother. We panicked but managed to gather some things and then went upstairs. The last thing I brought were two teacups containing the dentures of my father and mother. These were already floating through the kitchen.”

A small ladder

Some attics also contained a small loft which was located even higher. This was, however, often only accessible by a small ladder. Some people had to flee to their lofts. The water was rising fast. “Every time I looked down the stairwell, I could see that the water had risen another step,” an eye witness reports.

In the lofts

Another family had fled to their loft. The mothers recalls: “When the façade was destroyed, the one side of the loft started to give away too. It looked just like a slide. I saw my husband slip away, my sister-in-law disappeared and then my daughter… ‘Now it’s our turn’ flashed through my mind. I embraced my youngest child which was almost three years old. We started to slide down too but the floor of the loft had already given away to the extent that I did not fall into the water. Instead I fell back into the attic… right into a children’s bed.”

Quotes featured: Slager, Kees: De Ramp, a reconstruction.