Island of Dordrecht

Introduction

The Light Division [LD] force had been divided into two separate formations. The "Maintaining Group" [1st Bicycle Regiment - hereinafter "BR" - without the 2nd Battalion, and with Ist Battalion Artillery] was the formation designated to occupy the screen around Alblasserdam. The "Main Group" was a four battalions stong formation [to be] shipped to the Island [entire 2nd BR, 2nd Battalion 1st BR, II Battalion Artillery]. The latter under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Van Diepenbrugge.

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Map of the Island of Dordrecht (may 1940)

The Main Group had orders to cross the Merwede, clear the Island of German occupants, take the village of Wieldrecht [at the central-bank of the Kil] cross the Kil and advance to the north in order to cross the Oude Maas too. The total force involved was about 2.750 men, which was further reinforced by a mere 250 men of remnants of infantry units of the original 'Island' occupation. The Group would be divided into three taskforces, operating from west to east. At the same time that the push of the LD would develop, a small company [90 men, 4-3.GB] of the 3rd Border Infantry Battalion would cross the Kil and occupy Wieldrecht. The artillery of the 23rd Artillery Regiment [12 guns of 75 mm in this area of which 8 were available for this front] was assigned to support the action from the Hoekse Waard.

The above mentioned orders were specified as follows:
-   first objective rally point [ORP]: the railway line of the track Zwijndrecht - Sliedrecht
-   second ORP: the main east-west road Wieldrecht - Kop van 't Land
-   third ORP: Tweede Tol and the south-eastern dikes of the Island

After reaching one of the ORP's, the Group commander would give a go ahead to go to the next ORP. This provision would turn out to be very unlucky [and unwise]. Due to almost total lack of mobile communication equipment the forces would encounter very much difficulty in feeding the command and control facilities. A detail not carefully thought through.

The start of the LD operation

In the late evening of the 11th the troops started crossing the Merwede, which operation continued overnight. In the early morning the commander of the Main Group reached the city of Dordrecht and took all field army troops residing there under his command.

The most eastern task force reached the first ORP at 0930 hours, without any opposition. The task force operating in the centre also easily reached the first ORP and even reached the second ORP without any significant fire contact. Here they settled themselves temporarily at Dordwijk [southeast of Dordrecht].

The western taskforce had been assigned the most difficult task. They were scheduled to operate in the enemy occupied zone. Their advance was hampered by the fact that the supporting artillery of the II.Battalion Artillery had not yet deployed itself and could as such not assist the manoeuvre. Consequently the task force awaited this support at the tunnel under the railway west of the railway-station in Dordrecht.

At 1100 hours the company of the 3rd Border Infantry Battalion had successfully crossed the Kil and fought its way into Wieldrecht en Amstelwijk. They chased off the few present Germans, who took position in the northern and western part of Amstelwijck. The German control over the axis Zwijndrecht - Moerdijk was by then seriously jeopardized.

The German Colonel Bräuer, commanding the 1st Airborne Regiment, got very upset by this event, for he realised that his modest forces would not be able to withstand a considerable Dutch assault and Dutch presence in Wieldrecht could well be the prelude of a massive crossing. Furthermore he was worried over the fact that the German control over the main road to Zwijndrecht was about to be lost. He would take a series of counter measures which we will see develop later.

At 1130 hours the staffs of the Group Kil and the Main Group aligned their strategy over the phone. As a result two of the three task forces were ordered to advance in the direction of the city-district Krispijn [southwest of the city]. One taskforce from the north, the other from the east. One group's advance was designed for the reinforced 2nd Battalion of 2.BR. They were ordered to advance to the large cemetery south-by-southeast of the city. They would have to cross the railway track and then deploy there for the assault on Krispijn. After these manoeuvres would have been executed all three taskforces would proceed to ORP three simultaneously. So far so good.

In the early hours of the afternoon the troops from the north started moving towards Krispijn. Soon the first contact with the German airbornes was made. In the south-east corner of the disctrict a German force of about a company size defended its perimeter intensively. As an inconvenient bonus to the assaulting force, the artillery fire of the II.Battalion fell in their own position in stead of that of the Germans. The task force had no other option than to retreat to the railway station area. Their attempt to reach the second ORP had failed.

The advance of the 2nd Battalion - the one that would march via the cemetery (south of Dordrecht) - would proceed in a more sensational way. What was the case? General Student had received reports of Dutch reinforcements arriving on the Island. Although up to the previous day a defensive attitude had been the first and only priority, Student meanwhile realised that he had to deal with this Dutch threat in a more proactive manner. He formed a task-force under the commander of the 22.ID artillery regiment, Oberstleutnant [Lieutenant-Colonel] De Boer [his Dutch name originated from his native ground, which was just east of the northeastern Dutch border]. This task force of about 560 men (1) had been partially transported by requisitioned trucks from Ysselmonde to Dordrecht. These trucks reached the Zwijndrecht bridgehead at 1400 hours. They then proceeded to the cemetery (!), te selected rally-point, via a German held southern route around Dordrecht. Around 1500 hours they arrived and quickly deployed, supported by some anti-tank guns and mortars as well as six 7,5 cm howitzers. The force marched to the north, in the general direction of the railway track east of Dubbeldam. The second half of the formation would only arrive in a second shift, early in the evening.

(1) There is much confusion in Dutch and German historical accounts and about the units incorporated in this task-force. Its strength is often exaggerated. The report of I./IR.72 is however quite clear on the matter. The taskforce comprised half 2./IR.72, 3./IR.72, one-and-a-half platoon of 4./IR.72, supported by six 7,5 cm Skoda mountain howitzers and one platoon of 3,7 cm AT guns. The formation was commanded by the staff of I./IR.72 and the available fragments of the staff of AR.22. Its strength was about 560 men. It was later joint on the left flank by two companies of airbornes of II./FJR.2. 

The Dutch central-eastern advance group that was persuing to reach the cemetery was completely unaware of the German move, and vice versa. As the Dutch most forward company reached the railway crossing at the Dubbeldamse Weg [road leading from Dubbeldam into Dordrecht] they were suddenly treated on a massive volley of blazing German infantry weapons. The two forces had met head on!

The Dutch force lost its most forward heavy machine gun section with all four MG´s and motorbikes. The company quickly took shelter in the adjacent houses and started returning fire. The company commander courageously ran from house to house to lead and motivate his men. He even kept on riding his motorbike from one end of the street to the other. The Germans soon anticipated his moves and the inevitable happened. A German machinegun burst hit the Captain in the chest. Mortally wounded the Captain gave his final orders and then ended his own life by shooting himself. He would later be decorated posthumously for his incredible bravery under fire.

In the meantime the Dutch battalion commander had ordered his 1st Company to make a northern outflanking movement around the German position in order to get into the rear of the German position. Again, the German plans intervened, for also they had sent a company north with an identical intention. Both parties were obviously aware of the tactical base rules. As a consequence also these opposing forces would meet each other head on. This whole event ended up in a stalemate situation that lasted until night fall. The Dutch were unable to reach the cemetery; the Germans were unable to reach the town.

Next the Dutch reinforced their occupation of the railway station. This station was situated in the south of the town about half a click away from the railway crossing where both sides had met head on. From the station one would control basically the entire south and southeast approaches of Dordrecht.

The Dutch operation stalls

The events described hereabove created a status that would favour the German objectives considerably more than those of the Dutch, although the Germans were unaware of that advantage at that time. The Dutch taskforces had failed to reach the 2nd ORP, except for the most eastern force who already found themselves there in the morning - meeting no opposition whatsoever.

This lack of opposition made sense, since no German troops were in their marching path. Lack of communication had them fixed to their position in stead of supporting the battle that raged on along the railway track or push on towards the next ORP. Would this taskforce have been assigned to advance on the German force - which was only comprising a mere 250 men during the first stage - it would have been very likely that the Germans would have been defeated or forced back. It would not be the case ...

The lack of progress of the LD forces on the Island did not remain unnoticed by the Commander of Fortress Holland - Lieutenant-General Van Andel. He summoned the commander of the LD - Colonel Van der Bijl - to take over the command of the LD forces on the Island and to push the forces regardless of costs. An instruction that he should have given the day before! The Colonel immediately responded to this order by crossing the Merwede with his staff and ordering some more units to prepare themselves for joining him. After his arrival on the Island he swiftly cancelled the order that individual taskforces had to await a go-ahead from the operations commander prior to advancing to the next ORP. They were now authorized to proceed whenever feasible.

The most eastern taskforce was then ordered to advance along the Zeedijk, the causeway between Kop van 't Land [east] and Tweede Tol [west], where the German HQ was situated. They chased off a small German section on their path at around 1700 hours. These airbornes returned to Tweede Tol, obviously informing the staff of the events occurring. The Dutch meanwhile continued their advance along the open causeway, but were soon stopped by dense German mortar fire. Also German fighters started strafing the exposed advancing troops.

The 9th Panzer Division arrives

At this hour the cadet-officer [ensign] Marijs - whom we met before as he had booked some local successes fighting the airborne reserve company on the 11th, but who had been captured in the morning of the 12th - was sent to the Dutch local commander with a message from the German Colonel Bräuer. He was instructed to inform the Dutch command of the arrival of the spearhead of the 9th Tank Division.

At first the cadet-officer had refused, insisting on actually witnessing the Colonel's claim of the armoured forces arrival. After he did witness the armoured cars of the Gruppe Wüttlitz, he decided to accept the German order to bring an ultimatum to the Dutch commander, aware as he was of the value of this information to the Dutch command. Upon his arrival, the local staff informed the Commander Fortress Holland. The latter did however not believe the news and persisted in his believe that French armoured forces were to be expected and if the cadet-officer had spotted any armour at all, it must have been French armour! This strong Dutch disbelieve of the progress of German armour wasn't new; also on the 11th and 12th [mainly civil] warnings of the German progress were put aside as rumours and gossip. However, at the same time, (in essence) unreliable French promises and reports about alleged plans and operational successes were believed instantly. The pre-war reputation of the formidable French army - the self proclaimed victors of WWI - blurred the vision of the Dutch high command. Hope had taken over from realism. It would turn out to be a fatal misjudgement.

At around 1645 hours a reconnaissance unit of the 9th PD - comprising light and heavy armoured cars - had arrived south of the Moerdijk bridges along with a company of motorized infantry. After a quick assessment of the situation there, the unit proceded to the north and reported to the airborne HQ in Tweede Tol and to the HQ of the German airbornes near Dordrecht some time later. That was around 1730 hrs. General Student, who happened to be at the airborne HQ in Dordrecht to monitor the progress of the operations there, embraced the commander of the 9.PD formation. The 9.PD main force was still have a day away, but already these first armoured units in arrival boosted the German moral to paramount proportions and would shatter the Dutch dreams of blocking the German path into the Fortress.

German counter measures

We go back in time a little. As said before, the German commander of the 1st Airborne Regiment had grown increasingly worried over the pressure felt from Dutch offensives at Wieldrecht and along the Zeedijk. The German units that retreated on his position with this disturbing news shall have contributed to his worries. Also, the Dutch artillery in the Hoekse Waard region repeatedly punished his troops and therefore he requested immediate Luftwaffe support. It was granted to him by means of one or two Groups of bombers.

It is not quite certain how many planes were involved, but at least one Group, consisting of 20-24 medium bombers, raided Dutch arty positions in the Hoekse Waard. The whole southeast of the Hoekse Waard was attacked and the raids kept on coming. In total it lasted two hours. Especially the artillery positions were in focus of these bombers. The positions of the 25th Artillery Battalion - with its 15 cm field guns - were fixed and easily spotted from the sky. Nevertheless only one direct hit was suffered and this destroyed a piece that had been mechanically out of action since the first day. Besides a few casualties, the battalion and its equipment survived the raid. Shortly after the air-raids they continued firing.

The battery of the 23rd Artillery Battalion at 's Gravendeel had just switched position and left behind a decoy-position constructed of some faked guns in the evacuated gun beds. The Germans attacked these fake positions a number of times, much to Dutch amusement. The actual battery position escaped attack. Still here and there some casualties fell and on some men the effects of the heavy HE bombs left quite an impression. When the raids ceased at around 1930 hours, much to the surprise of friend and foe, the artillery started pounding away again.

Elements of III./FJR.1 had been used by Oberst Bräuer to counter the Dutch appearance at Wieldrecht during the afternoon. Previously they had clashed with a recce party of the Light Division. The Dutch, a platoon of MG's on motorbikes, were on the way to connect to the Wieldrecht pocket. East of Amstelwijk they clashed with a German security position, which the Dutch managed to destroy, but the nearby elements of III./FJR1 immediately reacted, the battalion commander Hauptmann Schulz in front. The skirmish that followed was a limited Dutch success. A few Germans were killed, Hauptmann Schulz wounded and put out of action for the rest of the operation. The Dutch had lost one man, that had been killed by the German security post. The others managed to escape to the Zeehaven complex - a void in the German perimeter. There, however, awaited an unpleasant surprise. When the Dutch tried to negotiate their way to Wieldrecht in order to reach their own lines again, the were suddenly treated on a heavy burst of fire from the westbank of the Kil. The Dutch defenders on that side were under the impression that airbornes were approaching the position of the 3.GB men at Wieldrecht. Before the misunderstanding was cleared, five men had been killed by 'friendly' fire.  

In the early evening hours the German airbornes closed in the modest Dutch bridgehead at Wieldrecht. As one will remember a company of about 90 men - in the meantime assisted by some stray groups that had survived earlier ordeals on the days before - had successfully taken and defended the village of Wieldrecht at the east banks of the Kil. Obviously the Group Kil had considered the small Dutch occupation enough to defend the small village in expectance of the formations of the Light Division, which were supposed to connect to Wieldrecht from the east. All troops were withheld in expectance of the LD appearance on the banks of the Kil. That appearance - obviously - did not come.

Directly opposing Wieldrecht was a half-company size force - including some AT guns of 22.ID - of Germans in Amstelwijck and another German representation south and southeast of Amstelwijk. These Germans undertook no attempt to retake the bridgehead. They did however contain the Dutch occupants of Wieldrecht in their narrow pocket.

At the westside of the Kil two companies had been awaiting the outcome of the operation by the LD. After elements of the latter unit would have taken the city district Krispijn the LD taskforces were scheduled to proceed to the third ORP, prior to which the two companies of the Group Kil would be shipped to the Wieldrecht bridgehead in order to assist in the assault towards the last ORP. In fact the aforementioned assault against Krispijn had not even gotten into its initial stage, since subject taskforces had been forced into defending the railway station area and the area at the railway crossing in the south-east of the town.

A series of missed opportunities

Should one take a look at the map [situation early afternoon], one could easily conclude that many opportunities had been missed by the Dutch. The German taskforce De Boer in the south-east - only comprising a mere 550 men in the evening but considerably less before - was actually surrounded on three sides by strong Dutch forces. In the west and north by two taskforces, to their east-side by a small force and to their south and southeast by the most eastern Dutch taskforce. Basically their only way out would have been to go back on their trail, to the southwest. The Dutch did however miss this window, mainly by passive behaviour of the south-eastern taskforce.

The last mentioned taskforce could be blamed yet again for its passive attitude, once we see that they failed to initiate any action whatsoever to assault Amstelwijk too. Would they have done so, they would have squeezed this small and weak German position in between their force and the occupation of Wieldrecht. As such a connection between the western and eastern Dutch forces could have been established. This would really have posed the German commanders with an additional challenge.

Moreover it is hard to understand that the two companies [of the 34th Regiment Infantry] that were awaiting the successes of the LD were not shuttled over the Kil prior to the Dutch assault on Krispijn. They could have contributed considerably to that effort. In fact the Dutch let themselves be defensively occupied by moderate German forces in the Krispijn area and the southeast of Dordrecht, whereas they could have surrounded these forces and also proceded south. A genuine window of opportunity that would not come again, for a few hours later the first battalion of the 33th Tank Regiment would arrive at Moerdijk.

In the evening the western and central taskforces retreated to the city and fortified themselves in the houses of the inner-town. In the centre of town, behind the canals, a heavily defended line was created. The inner city bridges were barricaded and anti-tank guns and heavy machineguns were placed in strategic positions. The garisson commander was furious that the railway station area had been evacuated by the Light Division, without German pressure causing it. He warned the commander of the Light Division that as a consequence of that provisionary retreat the same sector would have to be retaken on the next day. It was indeed a silly withdrawal, but typical for the tactical way of thinking by senior Dutch field-officers in those days.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mussert

In the late hours of 12 May something very unfortunate happened. The garrison commander of the city of Dordrecht [Lieutenant-Colonel Mussert] - who commanded all depot-troops in the city [around 1,450 men] - was a man of questionable political reputation by family burden. His brother [Anton Mussert] was the leader of the Dutch national socialistic movement [NSB = Nationaal Socialistische Beweging]. This party was supportive of the majority of Hitler's political ideas. As such, members of this movement were expelled from the army during the mobilisation period and officers had long since been forbidden to actively symphasize with the NSB (or any other political institute). Even more so, officers and NCO's with known reputation of sympathising with the NSB or Nazi ideas had been posted at insignificant positions.

The garrison commander himself was not a member of the party, although his wife was a known activist. It is now known he didn't even sympathise with his brother's political movement. Nevertheless, as war broke out he would never get beyond suspicion from his men and fellow officers. When Dordrecht unexpectedly became a front city, Mussert suddenly became in charge of one of the forward positions of the army. That was unexpected, and caused much trouble. Mussert soon turned out to be a poor peoples manager, being rigid and extremely dominant. A number of instructions during the first two days of the war had very unlucky consequences, although mostly because they were poorly understood or poorly executed. Although there was little the Lt-Col could do about it, these events already caused complaints and suspicion from his officers. On the third day he started to show so much bully behaviour towards his staff, that his chief-of-staff - who couldn't get along with his chief anyway - started to question the Lt-Col's sanity. In the evening the chief-of-staff phoned the commander of the adjacent Dutch garrison, the Group Kil. Here Colonel van Andel - first cousin of the Commander Fortress Holland - decided to relieve Mussert of his position. The latter however appealed to his direct superior, the Commander Fortress Holland. Unfortunately, during a late briefing [2330 hours] General Van Andel cancelled the order of his cousin and reinstate Mussert in his position. The only condition that he added was that Mussert would be subordinated to the commander of the LD. Still, Mussert would play his role on the fourth day. It would proof the misjudgement of the Commander Fortress Holland by reinstating an officer that totally lacked the trust and confidence of his fellow-officers and men.

The arrival of the 9th PD confirmed

At 2300 hours an intercepted newscast from Radio Bremen [Germany] aired the news of the German 9th Tank Division having reached the airbornes at Moerdijk. The backbone of the 22nd Air Landing Division, so deeply involved in the German operation in the west of the Netherlands, originated from the Bremen area [originally 'the Bremen Division'], and therefore the local radio station broadcasted this news. It was received by the wireless interception division of the Dutch intelligence office in The Hague.

Again disbelieve caused that verification of the news was required, but soon one and one were put together. At 0100 hours in the early morning of May 13th, the GHQ finally instructed the Dutch artillery to bombard the bridges at Moerdijk. Artillery commanders had, until that moment, been firmly instructed not to harm the bridges, since the French forces had been expected any time ...

Then, at the fourth day of the war, all out fire was ordered, but it was too littile, too late. The little hope of hitting the charges underneath some of the bridge sections was idle hope. These charges were carefully hidden under the pillars of the bridge and could not be hit with indirect fire. Furthermore, the 15 cm shells [of the heaviest artillery available] would only be able to damage the paint and maybe portions of the bridge deck. It could most certainly not destroy it.

The Island of Dordrecht lay open for the armoured columns of the 9th Tank Division that were in transit to the bridge. It was the beginning of the end ...

Aftermath

The Dutch had lost a considerable number of men, especially around Wieldrecht. At that location 9 man had been killed. A total of 19 men had been killed in Dordrecht. Another 5 elsewhere on the Island. More than 100 were wounded.

The German account is unclear. It gives a total listing of 22 men KIA in Dordrecht, including Wieldrecht - plus 4 KIA elsewhere on the Island. The number of men wounded is unknown, but it is quite save to say it must have been around 75-100.

These figures are no statements of a fierce all out battle raging on the Island; nevertheless it had been a series of serious clashes that in fact dominated the entire afternoon and early evening. The reason for the relatively low (fatal) casualty rates was the fact that most of these fights took place amongst well covered sides, where heavy arms were only used on a small scale.