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Alblasserwaard

Introduction

The Alblasserwaard was - like the Island of Dordrecht (to its S) and Ysselmonde (to its W) - in fact an island too. It was encircled by water-ways, one could only reach it by bridge or ferry. The Alblasserwaard lies north of the Island of Dordrecht and east of the island of Ysselmonde. It is surrounded by water-ways. To its south the Merwede, to its north the Lek (extension of the Rhine). Between the Alblasserwaard and Ysselmonde the Noord. It was a largely rural area, thinly populated with nowadays perhaps one of the most famous landmarks in the Netherlands, the mills of Kinderdijk in its far NW corner. All principal communities lie along the southwestern (Noord/Merwede) and southern (Merwede) side. The most principle when it comes to May 1940 are Papendrecht in the far SW corner and slightly north of that the village (nowadays a small town) Alblasserdam. The entire island had hardly any military occupation to begin with, except for the eastern part where some garisson troops and a a light security force of the souteastern front of the Fortress Holland lay. These were to be reinforced by the main body of 3rd Corps that was about to move back from the south during the first war night. The entire west side was unoccupied with military with the only exception of some para-military airwarning-watch posts.

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Map of the German invasion (may 1940)

The interesting part is the west and southwest of the Alblasserwaard. The interconnecting river Noord that formed a 7 km long barrier between Alblasserwaard and Ysselmonde was about 200 m wide, wider still at some points. In those days, when much of the Dutch waterways were still in open connection with the Northsea, the current could still be considerable. Up until November 1939 there had been no bridge to get across the Noord, which made perfect sense since the Alblasserwaard was very thinly populated. People took the ferries at Kinderdijk - Ridderkerk or Alblasserdam - Hendrik Ido Ambacht. As far as the Germans were concerned those were the only means of crossing the Noord. In reality they trusted to much on captured Dutch maps. The Dutch government had long before laid down a plan for a new, expanded grid of national motorways, amongst which the A.15/E.31 and A.16/E.19 are the current evidence of those plans. The Alblasserwaard was just a transit area for the A.15, but the new motorway had been constructed along the south side of the island in order to link up with the main road from Utrecht to the south near Zaltbommel, the current A.2 / E.25-E.35. This A.15/E.31 connected to the south of Rotterdam via a large 400 m long bridge that had been constructed at Alblasserdam. Like many of these impressive constructions the bridge would be opened with much ceremony, had it not been for the so called large November alarm of 1939, when all forces were put on the highest alert as a consequence of imminent German invasion threats. It caused even Dutch media to focus elsewhere and as such the German agents and informers missed out on the margins of the news that casually mentioned the opening of the bridge at Alblasserdam. German reconnaissance didn't remedy the void in their intel and so it could happen that Kurt Student would be informed in the very evening of May the 10th 1940, sitting in his newly selected HQ in nearby Rijsoord that a large bridge had been found at Alblasserdam and that the same object was about to be crossed by Dutch motorized forces. But now we are much ahead of the events unfolding. It does however explain why the Germans were totally surprised by the 'sudden' appearance of a bridge.

When the German invasion developed and their operations showed its first successes, the Dutch GHQ considered counter measures. Most prominent focus was the retaking of AFB Waalhaven of which GHQ feared the ability to receive large German formations being flown in. The situation at Moerdijk had been determined as a mostly French issue, whereas the loss of the Dordrecht bridges was more or less seen as an inconvenience, at that point. Given the fact that the 3rd Corps and the Light Division had been called back into the Fortress with an imminent order of execution, the latter would become free for new assignments. During the first day of the war GHQ would decide on this to be the retaking of AFB Waalhaven during the first war night. The operation was left into the hands of the highest operational command in the area, the commander of Fortress Holland, who personally led the affairs on the so called Southfront of the Fortress Holland. We shall now see what came of this operation.

The Light Division

In the early hours of the 10th - after the Dutch GHQ had received the shocking news of the lost bridge at Gennep and the armoured train that had penetrated the Peel-Raamline - the Light Division received orders [08.30 hrs] to immediately evacuate the province Brabant and redeploy along the Merwede front [around the city of Gorinchem]. Still during this very evacuation process the commander of the division - Colonel Van der Bijl - came in receipt of revised orders: 'move the division to Ysselmonde by making use of the traffic bridge at Alblasserdam. After crossing the bridge the division is ordered to prepare itself for action against the German troops at Waalhaven.' It was imperative that the airfield would be retaken from the Germans.

The Light Division [hereinafter called LD] was the only field army manoeuvring unit in the Dutch army that was entirely mobile. It was intended to be the fast manoeuvring unit of the field army operating as a mobile fire brigade, either by means of dynamic aggressive defensive or dynamic offensive actions. The division was basically shaped as a model that comprised two more or less identical strike components, each about a small brigade large, with adequate indepedant fire-power and material support. The structure seemed to be mirrored, of each unit there were pairs or double pairs, including an additional battle-staff, which made the option possible of one of the brigades operating entirely independant of the division staff.

The division organically comprised two infantry regiments [on bicycles] of three battalions each and two regiments of (motorbike)hussars, which in fact were no more than a battalion strong. The battalions were each selfsustaining, with their own support weapons and storm boats. It has to be said though that the first regiment motorbike hussars had been detached to The Hague and Wassenaar as a quick reaction force to GHQ nearby headquarters. Furthermore it had four batteries of motorizes artillery, which added up to sixteen motorised guns [towed 7,5 cm field guns] which were also very suitable to be used as heavy AT guns. Two batteries of each six motorized 5,7 cm light infantry guns were detached from the division, but were organically hers. The division had a very strong AT-gun force [28 off, all modern 4,7 cm Böhler guns] compared to all standards. It had two squadrons of wheeled AFV's [in total 24 modern Landsverk M.36 and M.38 medium heavy armoured fighting vehicles c/w a main gun of 3,7 cm and three MG's and two additional command cars M.38, which lacked the main gun], which also had a few platoons of motorbike hussars. Both squadrons of AFV's had been detached from the division as well as two batteries of motorized infantry guns. One squadron of AFV's had been divided over the AFB's Ypenburg and Schiphol, the other squadron had been attached to the hussar squadrons that operated in front of the Grebbeline. The two batteries of motorised light field guns and the last regiment (motorbike) hussars had been left in Brabant when the LD started their displacement; the hussars would later (largely) rejoin the division. A remarkable omission in the organisation was that of an attached light air-defence unit. Although it was much desired it had not been materialized yet.

The division was still in development. The second infantry and motorhussar regiments were undermanned and their officers were often candidats or fresh from officer-college. The full motorisation of the staff and the artillery batteries had only been finalized weeks before the German invasion. The detachment of a regiment of motorized hussars, AFV's and light infantry guns had seriously decreased the offensive capacity of the unit, brought it a further 1,000 men under organic strength too. All together the LD had not a full divisional strength of the 8,500 men that it would organically count in that stage of development. It would eventually be able to bring almost 7,000 men to the Alblasserwaard. Those were well armed and well equipped though. The basic organisation was modern and well founded, most of the officers and NCO's were professional personnel, amongst which often the better professionals had been selected. There is no reason to call the LD an elite division, but it certainly had the best odds of the entire Dutch army when it came to aspects of personnel, weapons, material and training. The question would be whether the LD could live up to the expectations ...

The LD arrives

During the afternoon the division commander [Colonel Van der Bijl] received the new instruction that the division had been ordered to counter attack the German occupation at Waalhaven AFB after it had first send one of its infantry battalions to Dordrecht. At 17.00 hrs new contact with the Commander Fortress Holland was established. During that telecon the LD commander got a more elaborate instruction on the general status and his objectives. The Colonel was informed that the divsion had to be in position east of Waalhaven at a time that would make it possible to start the attack at 02.00 hrs [11 May], the time that was advised by the RAF as the estimated time that a planned large scale RAF raid on Waalhaven would have ended. The LD was to follow up on that attack.

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Alblasserdam bridge (may 1940)

Apparently the Colonel had not been informed that the bridges at Dordrecht and Barendrecht had been occupied by German troops. That conclusion can be deducted from the operational plan that the Colonel designed and from the archives that give away his considerations. He instructed two manoeuvre formations to be formed. One that would move south into the direction of Barendrecht [where meanwhile parts of a German battalion had been positioned - the LD was unaware of this] and one that would go north to Bolnes (along the Nieuwe Maas). The southern formation had another battalion attached that it had to send to Dordrecht via Zwijndrecht (!) after it had crossed the Noord. That very detail is a clear indication that the Colonel had no knowledge of the German positions. His plan to take the battalion along for the crossing of the Noord was only feasible from a consideration that the traffic bridge at Dordrecht was firmly in Dutch hands. In any other scenario the ferry would have been used from Papendrecht (Alblasserwaard) to Dordrecht. It is however almost impossible that Colonel Van der Bijl had not been informed of the bridge at Dordrecht being in German hands, but he may have missed out on that piece of information. He had been instructed to send a battalion to the town in order to retake that very bridge, which makes it very unlikely that he didn't know or should have deducted it from the information received. His actions show however his unawareness, which is astonishing in the given circumstances.

Back to the action plan. Once the two taskforces would have crossed the bridge at Alblasserdam and taken their respective starting positions, they would move forward along the first leg. After the two taskforces would have reached the (imaginary) line Barendrecht - Bolnes, they would simultaneously move forward and take positions on the eastern and southern angle of Waalhaven AFB.

The whole plan was remarkably shallow and assumed a non-existant opponent. The Colonel had no knowledge of the dislocation of the opponent, knew little of its strength and calculated virtually no slack in the schedule whatsoever, whilst any seasoned commander knows that the slightest bit of resistant can materialize into hours of delay when troops are not constantly pushed forward. The troops were, however, unaware of the challenge of the totally flat and open polder that lay ahead of them and knew nothing of what to expect. Most importantly, the plan was very ambitious given the fact that most of the division was still in the process of even getting to Alblasserdam and surroundings, but yet had to be ready to assault Waalhaven at 02.00 hrs. And nobody had even considered that the Germans would possibly consider defending the Alblasserdam bridge! The whole scheme was a product of an army that hadn't experienced war for over five generations. In the end the plan would fail in its bare roots ...

It was no earlier than at around 21.00 when the first units [of the 2nd Regiment Bike Infantry] of the division were in arrival, sending scouts forward to Alblasserdam. The bulk of the division was still way behind, gradually making its way westwards. Not a chance that both planned formations would be ready to cross the bridge before midnight, making the objective of 02.00 hrs in ready position east of Waalhaven an absolute fantasy. It would at least take four hours to reach that very point near Waalhaven in the darkness of the night, not even considering an opponent blocking the way.

Meanwhile the Colonel had made contact with the bridge operator at Alblasserdam. The bridge deck had been lifted earlier that day by the civil operator, after a German airborne landing had been witnessed on the other side. During the late afternoon a car full of German soldiers had arrived on the Ysselmonde end. The Germans had driven up to the opened deck and shouted to the other side - where the operator building was situated - that the operator had to lower the bridge. He had refused upon which the Germans had turned and left. The Colonel praised the operator but at the same time feared that the Germans would be ready for his men to cross the bridge and he didn't fancy a night fight. He didn't even consider to send a probing party across. He decided to wait until the next morning, sending over two large patrols by boats on either side of the bridge that would have to suppress the expected German occupation whilst a stormtroop would be ready to cross the bridge. This latter part wasn't too shabby were it not for the warning bit of leaving the bridge deck opened until the very moment of the scheduled assault! All in all it meant that the entire retaking operation of Waalhaven could be scrapped. The division would have to operate in full daylight in the open Ysselmonde polders, with no AA whatsoever in its ranks besides the heavy MG's. First of all though, it would have to cross the Noord.

The Colonel's perception - or rather his lack of tactical assessment and initiative - would play a decisive role in the (success of the) entire German operation as well as the (lack of) effectiveness of the Dutch counter measures still ahead. His poor leadership and military tactical abilities had only started with this first poor effort. There were plenty yet to follow.

The German side

Generalleutnant Student had been genuinely upset when a recce party had returned with the news of the whereabouts of a major bridge that did not appear on his battle map or his intel portfolio. Perhaps even more disturbing was the assessment that Dutch forces had been spotted on the opposite end, for at that time he could not think of which Dutch outfit that could be.

It forced Student to slightly alter plans. In the late evening he directed four platoons (all of II./IR.16) from his reserve to quick-march to Alblasserdam and Ridderkerk and take a battery of 7,5 cm mountain howitzers along with them. They would reinforce the squads that were until that point secure this river stretch. The 2nd Battalion had to prevent any Dutch crossing. He promised their commander that he would appeal on the Luftwaffe Gruppe Putzier to see to air support in the early morning. As such a German force of about 250 men was about to counter the Dutch offensive plans even before they had started to unfold. This force was concentrated at Ridderkerk and Hendrik Ido Ambacht, a tiny village in those days.

The German occupation at the bridge had been very light until late that night. After the first discovery of the bridge in the early afternoon, the commander of IR.16 had considered it not more than a nuisance that the bridge had been overlooked. Since no Dutch forces were expected in that area, he had only sent one platoon with a single AT gun to the bridge to guard it. When General Student received news - later in the evening - that large Dutch army units were in arrival at Alblasserdam, he grew not only worried, but wondered where the hell these Dutch forces came from. Although he did not overestimate the threat, he did order a significant reinforcement to be sent to the bridge.

His counterpart operated quite the opposite way. When the Dutch Colonel had realised that at least some German troops were already occupying the westbank, he had ordered the first arriving battalion of the LD to cross the Merwede at Papendrecht [to Dordrecht] in stead of using the bulk of this unit for an immediate crossing attempt. The Colonel had sealed the fate of his battle plan with that conservative and boldless decision. He had decided to await the arrival of his other units to undertake the offensive and he preferred to undertake it by daylight - in other words - at the 11th. He did not even consider sending a recon party to the other side to probe the enemy's strength! A tactical blunder of magnitude that played right into the German cards, but at the same time, not too much off of the Dutch tactical text-book standard of those days. At the samen time it would also cancel any ambition on executing the plan to follow up on the RAF raid on Waalhaven. It was a typical example of the Allied incapacity to make the right operational and tactical decisions when opportunities occured on the battlefield. The French, Belgian, Dutch and partially British field commanders of May and June 1940 all seemed to miss this operational boldness that many German field commanders possessed, and that basically represented the most significant difference between the two sides in that very decisive period of time.

Balance

At about 03.00 hours the reinforcements of the 2nd Battalion of IR.16 arrived at the Noord, while a battery of mountain-artillery guns of 7,5 cm and some AT guns would follow a few hours later. Two German platoons manned the bridge area, another two platoons were sent to Ridderkerk and to monitor the stretch of land in between. The Dutch window of opportunity had been closed.

The total lack of initiative and poor tactical thinking of a division commander had slammed the door on possibly the best opportunity the Dutch would have had to seriously jeopardize the success of the German airlanding operation. It was a mixture of poor and inadequate information from the staff of the Fortress Holland Command and a total lack of initiative on divisional level. But yet, the around 3,000 men Dutch troops that would mass along the Noord in the morning of the 11th would still have the opportunity to cross the Noord, albeit under much more enemy pressure than should have been necessary ...