YOU’RE ALL FREE
Borkel (near Valkenswaard)
Allied troops landed on the coast of Normandy in June 1944 and quickly liberated Paris followed by Brussels and Antwerp. On 11 September of that year, British troops reached the Dutch border at Valkenswaard, prompting anxiety and excitement amongst those living in nearby villages like Borkel en Schaft, where the postman rushed through the streets to announce the good news.
‘The Tommies are at the Bergeijkse Barrière!’. The news spread around the village quickly – Jan Maas (54) was one of those who heard it. Jan reacted with great excitement but did not really know what to think about the news — after all, the British hadn’t arrived yet and Jan had to look after his family. In the time it took him to consider what was happening, a group of villagers had started to knock on the door, a group that included the new priest Goyarts, who had only been posted there the day before.
Meeting the Tommies
‘Hurry up, Jan! Come on, we’re going to meet the British. The Germans can’t do anything to us now.’ Jan was persuaded. He bade farewell to his son, who was unwell in bed, and whispered, ‘I’ll be right back.’ With that, he was gone, atop a bicycle, en route with the others to meet the Tommies. They were just a few hundred metres from the border when they encountered a British reconnaissance unit. Together they smoked cigarettes, and orange ribbons were handed out. The priest took photographs including one of a tank, two soldiers and some of the villagers, including Jan.
After bidding farewell to the soldiers, some of the villagers headed back to the village, but some, including Jan Maas, were eager to see more British soldiers, so they happily marched on. Without warning, a group of Germans jumped out from the trees in an ambush. The villagers scattered in every direction but four were caught, including Jan Maas. They were searched and made to stand up against a wall at a farm. ‘British propagandists!’ There was the sound of a pistol clicking before one of the Germans yelled, ‘Oh, let them go home. You’re all free!’.
The men were stunned and ran off towards their bicycles. ‘Wow,’ said Jan Maas, ‘that was a close call.’ It was at that point that the shots rang out, four in total. One man was shot in the abdomen and across three of his fingers. The second was hit in the head and fell to the ground, dead. The third was shot through his hat, but remained unscathed, and while he was dodging the bullets, saw the fourth man being shot in the head. The fourth man was Jan Maas, who was killed instantly.
It took a week for his wife and children to learn of his demise. There was no doubt about his death — one of the survivors had removed his wedding ring and his wallet from his jacket pocket. The priest returned the items to his widow. On the same day, 19 September, Jan Maas was taken to the cemetery on the back of an open truck, draped in the flag of the Red Cross.
Two days earlier, 17 September 1944, Valkenswaard and Borkel en Schaft were liberated by the British following heavy bombardment in the Bergeijk forests and surrounding villages. Like Jan Maas, many others died towards the end of the war on account of carelessness, accidents or sheer cruelty on the part of the Germans and their accomplices. The killings in Borkel en Schaft were most likely carried out by the Dutch SS.
Jan Maas (second from the right, with hat) in one of the photographs taken by priest Goyarts.
(Image: René Maas, ‘Mijn elfde september’)