The Oversteegen sisters were only teenagers when they joined the Dutch resistance during World War II. Together with a young friend, Hannie Schaft, they gathered intelligence for the Resistance, provided Jewish safe houses, bombed railways and, most remarkably, lured Nazi officers into the woods, and shot them.
When World War II erupted in 1939, sisters Freddie and Truus Oversteegen, and their friend Hannie Schaft were just 14, 16 and 18 years old. Despite their ages, they formed an effective trio in the Dutch Resistance against their Nazis occupiers. Hannie was the intellectual one, Truus their leader, and Freddie the planner.
The two sisters initially lived on a barge with their family in Schoten. They were raised with the mindset of resistance. Her parents had hidden Lithuanian refugees in the hold of their ship before the beginning the war. Once their parents divorced, Freddie and Truus were raised by their mother.
They grew up in Haarlem with their now single, working-class mom. Their mother considered herself a free-thinking communist and taught her daughters the importance of fighting injustice. When the Netherlands was on the brink of war in 1939, she took a Jewish refugee couple into their home.
In their mother, Freddie and Truus witnessed both her moral compass and willingness to act when it really mattered. It’s no surprise the sisters would go on to join the Resistance. They would also learn that to help, you had to make sacrifices yourself. Fighting injustice and doing the right thing took exceptional bravery and fortitude.
They were to also learn it was harder and far more brutal than they imagined.
In the spring of 1940, the Nazis invaded Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands. It began an occupation that lasted 5 long years. In response, the girls joined their mother in distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets for the Resistance. Under cover of darkness, they glued resistance posters over German posters calling Dutch men to work in Germany, then scurried off on their bikes.
These simple acts weren’t just subversive, they were highly dangerous. If the Nazis caught the sisters, they’d likely be shot. The fact that they were both young girls meant that officials MIGHT not suspect them. This might be the reasons why, in 1941, a Haarlem Resistance commander asked their mother if he could recruit Freddie and Truus.
The sisters were eager to formally join and their mother consented. Only later would they learn what they’d actually have to do. Their initial duties included working in an emergency hospital in Enschede, shepherding Jewish refugees to new hiding places, and helping blow up the Haarlem railway line. When the resistance leader saw the girl’s dedication, he initiated their next level of involvement.
The sisters, who had never even held a gun before, were told they must “learn to shoot — and to shoot Nazis.”
How could young girls manage to commit such an act? Freddie described their motivation years later: “While we were biking, we saw German soldiers picking up people from the streets, including children, pushing them against a wall, and shooting them. This aroused such an enormous anger in me, such disgust, a feeling of ‘those dirty bastards.’ At that moment you are just a human being confronted with something very cruel. If you experience something like that, you find it justified to act against it.”
Young Freddie was the first to assassinate someone, a female Dutch official who was handing over lists of Jewish people to their Nazi occupiers. Freddie approached the woman as she was walking alone in a park, asked the lady for her name — and then with her heart pounding in her chest, shot her.
Freddie was the youngest and shortest, and wore her hair in two braids which made her look even more innocent. They enabled her to get away easily after shots were fired. Their method of attack often included drive-by shootings. Truus would cycle their bike near the target, while Freddie rode on the back. Freddie made sure there were no witnesses and then fired.
They always rode a bike, never walked. Freddie and Truus also became adept and famous for a 2nd assassination technique. They would use their natural good looks lure to German officers to their deaths. Freddie or Truus would flirt with an SS officer or Dutch collaborator in a local tavern, asking them if they would like to go “for a stroll” in the woods. The lustful victim would be led to the woods and shot by the other sister in a surprise attack. For Dutch collaborators, they focused on those who arrested or endangered Jewish refugees or Resistance members.
How did killing – even Nazis – make such young girls feel? In an interview, Freddie talked of the strange compulsion to help the victims get up again. “Yes, I’ve shot a gun at them and I’ve watched them fall. And what is inside us at such a moment? As humans, you still want to help them.”
In 1943, they joined forces with another young woman, Hannie Schaft.
Hannie was a red haired, former law student who dropped out because she refused to sign a pledge of loyalty to Germany. Hannie became their best friend and together, the three young women formed an effective sabotage and assassination cell. Young Freddie was particularly good at following targets or keeping a lookout in broad daylight, since she looked so innocent.
The trio did have to draw the line once. The Resistance asked them to take the children of a senior Nazi officer hostage. The children were then to be exchanged for captured members of the Dutch resistance. But if the negotiations fell through, they would have to kill them to demonstrate their resolve. At that point, the girls refused to carry out the mission. “We are not Nazis,” they said. “The Resistance doesn’t murder children.”
A former commander commented. “They were unusual, these girls. There were women involved in the Dutch resistance, but not in the way these girls were.” Both sisters never revealed how many Nazis or collaborators they assassinated. Their response would be that ‘they were soldiers, and soldiers don’t say.’ There are no records of how many “liquidations,” as they called them, were conducted successfully, but they are credited with many during the war.
Hold no romantic image of their escapades. They were not Hollywood spies. While their feats were remarkable, their pursuit of the right thing was nevertheless ruthless. The Oversteegens struggled to come to terms with their actions. All three of them suffered from depression, insomnia, and severe nightmares.
In 1945, Hannie Schaft was caught at a checkpoint and arrested for treason.
She was executed by the Nazis just 3 weeks before the end of the war. When the executioner only wounded her on the first try, Hannie’s last words were, “I’m a better shot.” The ‘girl with the red hair’ went on to become a legendary icon of female Dutch resistance. The sisters were devastated when the Nazis killed their best friend. Truus and Freddie both survived the war, but carried emotional scars for the rest of their lives.
After the war, the sisters dealt with the trauma of killing people and losing their best friend. Freddie lived a quiet life. She went from espionage to coping with more normal things like getting married and having babies. Truus expressed herself in her art through sculpture, shared her story in lectures, and became famous in the Netherlands. Freddie lived a more secluded life, focusing on her family.
Freddie’s son, Remi, believes the war never stopped for his mother and aunt, and actually lasted 80 more years for them. Freddie expressed a similar sentiment in an interview “We never had to say ‘Remember when,’ because it was always remained at the top of our minds.”
Throughout much of their long lives, the Netherlands failed to properly recognize the Oversteegen sister’s achievements, even sidelining them as “communists” due to their mother. During the last years of their lives they yearned, not for fame, but simply more acknowledgment of their role. It was only in 2014 that Freddie and Truus were awarded the Mobilisatie-Oorlogskruis, Dutch Mobilization War Cross by Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
It became the highlight in their lives. Two streets in Haarlem were named after them. So many years after doing their heroic work in secret, they were glad for the public recognition. They wanted their stories to be known—to teach people that, even when such acts are necessary, “you must always remain human.” Truus Menger-Oversteegen died in 2016 at age 92. Freddie Dekker-Oversteegen passed 2 years later in 2018, also at 92.