The story of Pieter Oosterlee, a Betuwe resistance hero

Pieter Oosterlee
Pieter Oosterlee
Foto: Dutch Resistance

The Netherlands, Zetten – The Betuwe resistance hero Pieter Oosterlee died only 24 years old. He is one of the many victims of the Second World War. He was born on August 29, 1920 in Zetten and died on October 25, 1944 in Tiel.

Pieter’s father was the director of the Normalschool in Zetten at the Hoofdstraat and lived opposite the school in the director’s house (De Boshut).

Ferry to freedom

The story of Pieter Oosterlee largely takes place in the Betuwe (/Batavia): Piet was born on August 29, 1920 in Zetten. He attended the Municipal Gymnasium in Nijmegen and was active in the Boy Scouts. He became involved in the resistance with his friends from Nijmegen. Mathias A. Boers and Adriaan J. van Haaften. From 1940 Piet studied medicine at the University of Groningen and took part in the student resistance. He contributed to the illegal magazine ‘De Ploeg’ (The Plow), which first appeared in July 1943. Ad Boers, Piet’s friend and, like Piet, a medical student in Groningen, was the editor.

On March 13, 1943, the declaration of loyalty was introduced: students had to sign it and thereby promise that they would ‘abstain from any action against the German Reich […]’.

Anyone who did not sign before 10 April 1943 was no longer allowed to attend lectures and male students who did not sign had to report to the Arbeitseinsatz in Ommen. If the refusers did not, reprisals would be taken against their relatives. The German occupier arrested about 3,500 refusers, who were sent to Germany. To protect the students in Groningen from raids, Piet and Ad Boers devised a student warning system. Piet refused to sign the declaration of loyalty and went into hiding like the other refusers.

National Organisation for Help to People in hiding

After the summer of 1943, Piet became active in the Nijmegen district of the National Organisation for Help to People in hiding (LO). His pseudonym was first Piet Obbink and lateron Piet Offringa. He probably became involved in the ‘Lisbon route‘ in early 1944, together with his Nijmegen friends Ad Boers and Ad van Haaften. Through this route stranded RAF pilots were smuggled via the Biesbosch to Lisbon, from where they could return to England. The ‘Lisbon route’ is moreover known as the ‘Dutch-Paris line’. Together an RAF pilot was transferred.

After the arrest of several LO employees in the Betuwe, Piet Oosterlee was put in charge of the Tiel district of the LO

‘He always showed good results at the meetings. Sometimes he returned from Nijmegen with clichés for identity cards, at other times he had managed to get agricultural Ausweise printed in his district’

Oosterlee went into hiding with schoolmaster van Zorgen in Echteld and from May 1, 1944 to October 1, 1944 with fruit grower Boogaerdt in IJzendoorn, both also active in the resistance. He used the pseudonym Piet van den Oever here and was also called Piet Betuwe.

Ferry service

In September 1944 Piet took charge of the ‘Ferry Service’. After the failed Operation Market Garden, he and his helpers Frans de Vilder, Geurt van der Zalm, Maarten and Piet Noordzij transferred allied soldiers and couriers to the south bank of the Waal. From the south bank, the ‘Veerdienst’ transported weapons to the resistance in the Betuwe. Piet provided a wounded English airman in the church tower of Zoelen with vouchers. In August 1944 Piet had collected the co-founder of the LO, Frits de Zwerver (alias for Dominee Slomp), from Wageningen and placed with Piet Boogaerdt. Frits de Zwerver’s stay in Wageningen had become too dangerous.

On September 18, an American Douglas C-47 troop transport plane crashed after being hit by German anti-aircraft fire southeast of Opheusden. Piet helped accommodate the surviving crew members. On September 21, he assisted in the safe transfer of the crew to liberated area on the other side of the Waal. Resistance fighter Johannes van Zanten organised the crossing.

Piet even received a compliment from an English captain, who had said that their organisation worked as efficiently as the English army itself

Resistance activist

Piet’s brother Kees was in hiding in Ochten. Piet rowed him across the Waal around September 24, 1944 with two Dutch liaison officers. He also passed on intelligence to the Allied headquarters in Neerbosch (HQ Guards Armored Division). He immediately took the opportunity to visit his parents in liberated Nijmegen. On October 1, 1944, the Boogaerdt couple had to evacuate with the people in hiding. Piet Oosterlee, Frits de Zwerver, Cor and 3 other people in hiding who had arrived a few days earlier, went to Echteld. Piet then stayed with the Noordzij family and the Van Der Zalm couple who lived close to each other on the Echteldse Dijk (Dike) near the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal under construction.

On October 4, 1944, Piet Oosterlee, together with motocross rider Frans de Vilder, collected Canadian Lieutenant Leo Heaps and the shot gunner Wood from the De Wildt farm of fruit grower and resistance fighter Fekko Ebbens from Groningen. The road was then cycled to Tiel, where a stop was made at the home of the Noordzij family.

Skipper Geurt van der Zalm was also present who would transport them to his ship to hide Heaps and Wood until dark. Then Van der Zalm would come and pick them up with a rowing boat to row them later across the Waal. After it had become dark, a German patrol appeared to be coming towards skipper Van der Zalm’s ship

Weapon transport

Piet Oosterlee was one of the resistance fighters who were involved in the arms transport for the resistance in the Betuwe. The weapons were transferred from the liberated south bank of the Waal and at the same time various members of the resistance would accompany the transport, including Piet who had transferred messages to the liberated area. In the night of 16/17 October 1944, the retreat was made over the Waal. The weapons transport consisted of a few sten guns, bring guns, some hand grenades and an inflatable dinghy. After the crossing, the weapons were transported via Noordzij’s house to the De Wildt farm of Fekko Ebbens, where the weapons would be stored.

Coincidentally, that same evening the Germans raided Ebbens’ house on suspicion of providing shelter to Jews. They were not found, but resistance leader Van Zanten was visiting. The two secret agents Baker and Bachenheimer were also present. During further searches, six fruit pickers who wanted to escape the Arbeidseinsatz were also found. All ten were arrested and taken away.

The arms transport group split up at the farm. One group encountered a German sentry post shouting “Halt! Wer da?”. There was firing, the rest of the group thought they were being shot at themselves and in terror they threw their weapons away and ran to the orchard. Except resistance fighter Jan van Elsen who first picked up all the weapons and hid them near the house.

The arms transport group managed to flee the area. A German soldier was injured in the shooting. As a reprisal, Ebbens’ house was set on fire. Ebbens, who took all the blame, was later executed. Van Zanten was released by bluffing himself out of his precaire situation.


On Sunday 22 October 1944, Piet Oosterlee was to bring a few men, including the courier John Alessie, and a bundle of important papers over the Waal. This would happen from the mouth of the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal at Tiel. Piet Noordzij and his son Maarten cooperated, Geurt van der Zalm would do the crossing. Piet Oosterlee organised everything.

Maarten Noordzij, Piet and Geurt van der Zalm were busy pumping up a dinghy in the shed behind Van der Zalm’s house on the Echteldse Dijk when they were suddenly surrounded by Germans.

They were arrested and had to march off to Tiel Noordzij Sr. was working further down the road and had also been arrested. Piet Noordzij and John Alessie were able to escape. Maarten Noordzij, Piet Oosterlee, Geurt van der Zalm were imprisoned in the Juliana School on the Grotebrugse Grintweg in Tiel, which at that time functioned as the prison of the Festungs MG Battalion 29 of the Wehrmacht, located in Tiel, led by Hauptmann Martin Richter. Piet had a firearm and drawings of German positions on the north bank of the Waal in his possession.

Attempt to escape

The life story of Piet Oosterlee ends in the morning of Monday 23 October 1944. Piet made an attempt to flee: he jumped through a window of the interrogation room in the villa next to the school. He was shot dead by a soldier standing guard outside. His body was seen by four witnesses after 11 a.m. His description was the same in the various witness statements: Piet was of considerable height, had wavy light blond hair and was wearing a light gabardine raincoat and low brown shoes. Another witness statement speaks about the rumor that Oosterlee would be relieved by the KP (National Thugs/Vigilantes)

According to a witness, all three arrested in the morning of 23 October 1944 were seen by Maarten Noordzij’s mother. She was taken three times to confront her son at the Juliana School, where she was interrogated. She witnessed that the three arrested were severely beaten. What happened to Piet’s body is unknown. In various post-war court reports, witnesses spoke about different bodies, which were loaded onto a flat cart from the air-raid shelter of the Juliana School around 9 p.m. Horse-drawn cart left and returned empty after about an hour. The witnesses assume that the bodies would have been buried in the vicinity of the Juliana School.

Piet’s father wrote after the war:

‘My son did this work because he believed it was his duty to counteract the measures of the enemy as much as possible, and later to help the allied troops as much as possible’.

In the commemorative book

In ‘Het Grote Gebod’, the memorial book of the resistance in the National Organisation for Help to People in hiding and National Fighting Teams in the Second World War from 1951, Piet was also described:

‘Piet-Betuwe, tall, slightly bent over, a skinny head, reddish hair. Once you’ve watched him put his feet down, you’ll never forget his gait. A nice, nice guy, courageous and calm, who has toiled a lot in the Betuwe…. He was seized and gave his young life for the cause that was dear to him.’

According to Mrs. Boogaerdt who provided places to hide, Piet was a very nice person: ‘He was often so tired from cycling through the Betuwe that when he could finally sit down in a chair, he simply fell asleep’.

Bron : Nelleke van Eck / Vertaling : Devi M van Hellesem