The Netherlands / Story
Harrie van Daal, born in 1908, was a civil servant at the Municipality of Overloon–Maashees (later to become Vierlingsbeek). He had visited the battlefields in the Belgian town of Ypres between the two world wars and they had made a deep impression on him. Memories of the First World War were kept alive here in a poignant way. During the Second World War Van Daal continued his work as a civil servant. He managed to prevent a number of men from being conscripted into the Arbeitseinsatz (Forced Labour Deployment) by making them members of the volunteer fire brigade, at least on paper.
In June 1944 the Allies set the liberation of Europe in motion with the Normandy Landings. The small strip of land between Eindhoven and Arnhem that was liberated during Operation Market Garden was slowly but surely being widened. For more than four years the Second World War more or less passed by the population of Overloon. Of course they often saw German troops in the streets, but there was no question of war violence.
When the front reached this village in the Peel region in September 1944, the lives of Overloon’s residents changed radically. The Germans had entrenched themselves in the surroundings to try to stop the Allies. During the first fighting the residents of Overloon – so also Harrie van Daal – were forced to leave their houses and evacuate the village at a moment’s notice.
Hell broke loose above Overloon on 12 October 1944 at 11 in the morning. The Allies attacked the German positions with unbelievably severe force – no fewer than 230 heavy artillery – and air raids. Overloon was conquered by the British house by house. On 12 October the last house was in British hands. Overloon was liberated, but there was not much left of the village.
When Harrie van Daal returned after the Battle of Overloon, he found total devastation in and around his village. His own back garden had in effect become a second Ypres.
Months later Van Daal was walking through the destroyed Overloon woods with all its remnants of the battle. Accompanied by a forest worker he looked at the wrecked tanks and the minefields which had been marked out with white ribbons. They decided there and then that there should be a monument here, possibly a museum, in honour of the fallen and to keep the memory of a terrible war alive.
They presented their idea to the mayor and, as was normal in those days, to the local priest. Thirty residents of Overloon each donated 50 guilders – and this at a time when their village was reduced to rubble and when rebuilding needed to get under way.
On 25 May 1946 the first museum dedicated to the Second World War in Western Europe opened to the public in Overloon. This was before the village had been completely rebuilt. Van Daal, who shunned publicity, remained the man behind the scenes as secretary to the board of governors. He received many awards for his efforts, including the German Order of Merit.
It was Harrie van Daal who was responsible for the famous memorial stone at the entrance to the museum: ‘Stand still for a moment, dear visitor, and remember that the ground you are now standing on was one of the most fiercely contested sectors of the Overloon battlefield. Hand to hand fighting here was bitter. Many young lives who had survived the battlefields of Nettuno and Normandy were lost under these trees.’
This story was part of Brabant Remembers, a campaign for 75 years of Freedom in the province of North Brabant.