Freddie Oversteegen was only 14 when she joined the Dutch resistance during World War II, and only a couple of years older when she became one of its armed assassins. Together with her sister—and later, a young woman named Hannie Schaft—the trio lured, ambushed and killed German Nazis and their Dutch collaborators.
Freddie and her sister Truus, who was two years older, grew up in the city of Haarlem with a single, working-class mother. Their mother considered herself a communist and taught her daughters the importance of fighting injustice. When Europe was on the brink of war in 1939, she took Jewish refugees into their home.
Through their mother’s example, Freddie and Truus “learned that if you have to help somebody, like refugees, you have to make sacrifices for yourself,” says Jeroen Pliester, chair of the National Hannie Schaft Foundation. “I think that was one of the main drivers for them, the high moral principle and preparedness of their mother to act when it really matters.”
Then in May 1940, Nazis invaded the Netherlands, beginning an occupation that lasted until the end of the war. In response, the girls joined their mother in distributing anti-Nazi newspapers and pamphlets for the resistance.
“We also glued warnings across German posters in the street calling men to work in Germany,” Freddie later recalled in interviews she and her sister did with anthropologist Ellis Jonker, collected in the book Under Fire: Women and World War II. “And then we’d hurry off, on our bikes.”
These acts weren’t just subversive, they were also dangerous. If the Nazis or Dutch police caught the sisters, they might have killed them. However, the fact that they were both young girls—and Freddie looked even younger when she wore braids—meant that officials were less likely to suspect them of working for the resistance. This might be one of the reasons why, in 1941, a commander with the Haarlem Resistance Group visited their house to ask their mother if he could recruit Freddie and Truus.
Their mother consented and the sisters’ agreed to join. “Only later did he tell us what we’d actually have to do: sabotage bridges and railway lines,” Truus told Jonker. “‘And learn to shoot, to shoot Nazis,’ he added. I remember my sister saying: ‘Well, that’s something I’ve never done before!’”
In at least one instance, Truus seduced an SS officer into the woods so that someone from the resistance could shoot him. As the commander who recruited them had said, Freddie and Truus learned to shoot Nazis too, and the sisters began to go on assassination missions by themselves. Later on, they focused on killing Dutch collaborators who arrested or endangered Jewish refugees and resistance members.
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“They were unusual, these girls,” says Bas von Benda-Beckmann, a former researcher at the Netherlands’ Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. “There were a lot of women involved in the resistance in the Netherlands but not so much in the way these girls were. There are not that many examples of women who actually shot collaborators themselves.”
On these missions, Freddie was especially good at following a target or keeping a lookout during missions since she looked so young and unsuspecting. Both sisters shot to kill, but they never revealed how many Nazis and Dutch collaborators they assassinated. According to Pliester, Freddie would tell people who asked that she and her sister were soldiers, and soldiers don’t say.
Consequently, we don’t have too many details about how their “liquidations,” as they called them, played out. Benda-Beckmann says that sometimes they would follow a target to his house to kill him, or ambush them on their bikes.
Their other duties in the Haarlem Resistance Group included “bringing Jewish [refugees] to a new hiding place, working in the emergency hospital in Enschede… [and] blowing up the railway line between Ijmuiden and Haarlem,” writes Jonker. In 1943, they joined forces with another young woman, Hannie Schaft.
Hannie was a former university student who dropped out because she refused to sign a pledge of loyalty to Germany. Together, the three young women formed a sabotage and assassination cell. Hannie became their best friend, and the sisters were devastated when Nazis arrested and killed her in 1945, just three weeks before the war ended in Europe. According to lore, Hannie’s last words were, “I’m a better shot,” after initially only being wounded by her executioner.
After the war, the sisters dealt with the trauma of killing people and losing their best friend. Truus created sculptures, and later spoke and wrote about their time in the resistance. Freddie coped “by getting married and having babies,” as she told VICE Netherlands in 2016. But the experience of war still caused her insomnia. In another interview, Freddie recalled seeing a person she’d shot fall to the ground and having the human impulse to want to help him.
“We did not feel it suited us,” Truss told Jonker of their assassinations. “It never suits anybody, unless they are real criminals.”
Both women died at age 92—Truus in 2016, and Freddie on September 5, 2018, one day before she turned 93. Throughout much of their long lives, the Netherlands failed to properly recognize the women’s achievements, and sidelined them as communists. In 2014, they finally received national recognition for their service to their country by receiving the Mobilisatie-Oorlogskruis, or “War Mobilization Cross.”