Invasion May 1940
On 10 May 1940, the air raid siren went off. Whilst the Germans extended their borders to the south, the French advanced northwards. It was only a matter of time before these two European forces would collide and Breda was at risk of being right in the line of fire.
German bombers flew over Breda and people worried that the city would become the decor of a battlefield. On Sunday 12 May, it was decided that the 50,000 citizens of Breda had to be evacuated. The citizens were led towards Antwerp on foot via two different roads. Piet Buurmans was thirteen years old when he started the journey with his parents. ‘I looked in the atlas to see where Antwerp was. I was shocked to see how far it was’. With heavily packed bicycles and under the threat of bombs and bullets, thousands of people headed south in the hope of escaping the violence.
Gré Machielse was nine years old when she set out on the journey to a safe place. ‘People stood along the road and offered us drinks and oranges and other fruit for the journey, which was very kind. They were shooting at the planes. When they missed, you saw those little black clouds. I skipped towards my unlucky fate’.
After a few days of walking, Gré and her family arrived at the girls’ school in Sint-Niklaas, a town below Antwerp, on 17 May. People were peeling potatoes in the courtyard. The preparations for a warm supper were in full swing.
Suddenly there was a lot of noise and Gré looked up. Three German planes flew over. “Everything went pitch black and I couldn’t see a thing.” The planes dropped their bombs and Gré was seriously injured.
‘My left arm was blown off and dangled from one tendon. My right hand had lost two fingers. I used that hand to hold my right arm and went back into the school to find my mother. The school was full of dead and heavily injured people, there was blood everywhere. When my mother saw me, she began to scream, she was so shocked. She couldn’t help me.’
The injured people were nursed by the Red Cross near Sint-Niklaas. Gré stayed there for a while and her arm was amputated. When her family arrived in Breda again, she noticed something. The family home was undamaged. Not one bullet had been fired and no bombs had fallen. Breda, the city that had to be evacuated, had been spared.
It was not clear whether the mayor chose to evacuate the city or whether the order came from the French. Gré Machielse and Piet Buurmans both survived the evacuation, but a total of 104 Breda citizens died. This painful bit of history is known as De Vlucht (The Flight).
War monument De Vlucht (Image: Tomas Snels)