A tragic incident in the early morning of 10 May 1940

A tragic incident in the early morning of 10 May 1940.

In the cemetery of the brothers of Saint Louis in Oudenbosch, there are four graves next to each other: three with a death date of 10 May 1940 and one with 16 July of that year. Apparently war dead. How did these graves get there? For that, we have to go back to the early morning of 10 May 1940; not in Oudenbosch, but in Rotterdam. 

Early on the morning of 10 May 1940, German troops invaded the Netherlands. With airborne landings, they tried to take control of the main bridges. To take control of the bridges over the river Maas in Rotterdam, German airborne troops captured the Waalhaven military airfield after fierce fighting. From there, they advanced to the Maas bridges via Brielselaan and Putselaan.

German troops on the corner of Korperweg Schulphoek, Rotterdam 10 May 1940

The Congregation of the Brothers of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga had originated in Oudenbosch in 1840. The Friars of Saint Louis, as they were better known, had set out to provide education for Catholic boys. They had several branches in the Netherlands and the then Dutch East Indies. At Putselaan in Rotterdam, they had a large complex with a friar's house and schools. The Brothers left Rotterdam a long time ago, but the complex is still there. The situation is virtually the same as it was in May 1940. 

Former brotherhouse with schools on Putselaan in Rotterdam
Former brotherhouse with schools on Putselaan in Rotterdam

Diagonally opposite the monastery is Afrikaanderplein, where several schools were located before the war. In May 1940, Dutch reserve troops were stationed there. After the capture of Waalhaven Airport, the Dutch took up positions in Putselaan and Afrikaanderplein. When German soldiers advanced through Putselaan, the Dutch soldiers opened fire. Thus, right in front of the door of the brotherhouse, a firefight ensued. The German soldiers thought they were being fired upon from inside the convent and immediately took countermeasures. First they fired through a window of the front door. In the process, Superior Libuïnus Koppe was wounded in the leg. He was just standing in the hall making a phone call. 

Entrance to the brotherhouse on Putselaan Rotterdam
Entrance to the brotherhouse on Putselaan Rotterdam

Fifteen friars decided it was safer to seek shelter and hid in the basement. Five others stayed elsewhere in the friars' house. Meanwhile, some German soldiers had moved around the back. They smashed a door and forced their way into the monastery. First they summoned the friars to come out of the cellar. When that was not quick enough they threw a hand grenade into the cellar. In the process, friar Liberius Roset killed immediately. Others were injured. The shepherd dog Herta did not survive. The friars still alive were taken out of the cellar and firmly subdued by some hot-tempered German soldiers. Then some had to come along and search the entire complex. In that search, nothing was found. Nor could they have because, as it turned out later, the shots came from the HBS on Afrikaanderplein. Still, the Germans were not convinced. For a while they even threatened to execute the brothers summary execution, but Lieutenant X managed to prevent that.

Meanwhile, the firefight in Putselaan continued. Some German soldiers were lying wounded in the street, but they could not be helped. There were no wounded attendants nearby who could remove the wounded soldiers. And if the non-wounded German soldiers raised even for a moment, they were immediately taken under fire.  

The German soldiers now forced the brothers in pairs to go out through the front door into the street to bring in the wounded. This was against all rules, but protesting did not help. The friars were immediately shot at in front of the front door. Superior Lebuïnus Koppe and friar Bellarimus Schuurmans died on the spot. Brother Libertus Merkies was seriously injured and would succumb to his wounds on 16 July 1940. Several brothers were injured.


While German and Dutch troops shelled each other in the streets, some brothers in the backyard cared for their wounded fellow brothers and for the wounded German soldiers. 

Rear of the brotherhouse on Putselaan in Rotterdam.

Meanwhile, chaplain Witteman of St Francis Church on Afrikaanderplein had crossed Putselaan at the risk of his own life. The chaplain gave Holy Oil to the dead and wounded. Later, he gave Holy Communion to all the wounded, including the German soldiers who wanted it.

The Dutch troops bravely held out for several hours, but in the afternoon around two o'clock they had to abandon their resistance. Meanwhile, German troops had advanced via other roads to the Meuse bridges. There, Dutch marines offered brave resistance for days more. Eventually, German troops would fail to capture the bridges. Only when German air forces bombed the inner city of Rotterdam on 15 May 1940 and the Netherlands capitulated could German troops take the bridges. That capitulation took place in the Maassilo where Putselaan turns into Brielselaan. There, the German army command had temporarily established its headquarters.

When the street fighting ended in Putselaan, a bus from the Dutch Red Cross arrived. It took all the wounded, Germans and Dutch, civilians and soldiers, to the Zuider hospital. There, German military doctors and Dutch doctors worked side by side to care for the wounded. And it was there that the gruesome truth came to light. The bullets the surgeon removed from the wounded brothers turned out to be Dutch-made.

What had happened? In those first days of war, numerous rumours circulated. One of the most persistent rumours was that German troops disguised themselves as nuns and fathers in order to raid the Netherlands unhindered. That rumour proved fatal to the friars. The Dutch soldiers who had entrenched themselves in the Putselaan and on the Afrikaanderplein saw German soldiers in uniform entering the friars' house and some time later friars coming out in their friars' clothing. So they thought the Germans had dressed up as 'fathers'. Hence the friars immediately came under fire. With fatal results for Superior Lebuïnus Koppe and the friars Libertus Merkies, Liberius Roset and Bellarimus Schuurmans. And many wounded among the friars. A tragic incident on the early morning of 10 May 1940 in the Putselaan in Rotterdam.

The four friars who fell are among the first civilian victims of World War II. They lie fraternally side by side in the friars' cemetery in Oudenbosch. The friars' cemetery is located behind the auditorium of the former boys' boarding school Saint Louis ( Achter 't Postkantoor 3, 4731 PM Oudenbosch) and is open to the public. Coming from outside, the four friars are located to the left of the entrance against the hedge.

The back four graves belong to the fallen brothers.

Want to know more about this tragic incident, about the brothers or about the boarding school? The Guides of Saint Louis provide guided tours of the area of the former boys' boarding school Saint Louis. While doing so, they also visit the cemetery and pay attention to the tragic events of 10 May 1940. For more information, visit www.gidsenvansaintlouis.nl