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Maas from Mook to Roermond

The northern Maas region

German troops swarmed over the eastern borders of the Netherlands, whilst a gigantic fleet of transport and support-planes roamed through the skies over them heading west. Many local fights and skirmishes were seen along the river Maas, where German scout and recce parties slammed into Dutch patrols or standing defences. The all-out battle that would soon develop along the entire river Maas [Meuze] shall be described from north to south.

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Casemate at Mook (may 1940)

The first and vital success the Germans gained that very early morning was the surprise raid against the bridge at Gennep [over the river Maas], which was just a few clicks away from the border. The German commando's that gained this victory had been disguised as Dutch MP's which escorted some supposingly German prisoners. Disguised as such these raiders trapped the first guards at the bridge off-guard. Some suspicious Dutch soldiers who tried to stop the raiders were quickly put out of action. The Germans then took possession of the railway bridge and facilitated a German armoured train to pass it. Only a few minutes later another train - containing a full battalion of infantry - followed. We shall terurn to the follow-up of this event, when we describe the events at Mill [Part II] - the main battle that would develop in the Peel-Raamline. However, it was a fact that the penetration of the Maasline at Gennep - by means of a traitorous raid [major infringement of the Geneva Conventions] against the bridge - would proof to be all decisive for the German strategic success at 10 May in the south of Holland.

The northern sector of the Maas was assaulted by the 254th Infantry Division. Two major assaults were unleashed against the defences opposite of Mook and - a little more to the south - at St. Agatha. At Mook the Germans first endeavoured to take the bridge by surprise by means of a stealthy commando-raid. This attempt failed, due to the fact that the Dutch blew-up the bridge just before the German arrival. At Mook the entire German 474th Regiment was deployed. They were supported by almost 70 guns of calibres 105 u/i 210 mm, as well as two 240 mm railway guns [of which it is uncertain if they have actually contributed]. The Dutch on the west bank defended this sector [2,500 m wide] with just one infantry company, partly sheltered in 13 concrete and steel machine gun pill boxes. A section of police-troops manned two heavy concrete river-casemates. These two fortified constructions contained one 5 cm gun and one heavy machinegun each. The troops had one obsolete 84 mm infantry gun [dating from 1880] at their disposal.

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Charges at railway lines and bridges (1939-1940)

At around 0530 the German artillery opened an intensive barrage on the trenches and pill boxes. At 0830 the Germans tried to cross the river, making use of small rafts. This attempt was rejected before the Germans had even started to board their rafts. Another - more fierce - artillery bombardment was the result, this time incorporating quite some direct fire specifically aimed at the pill boxes. Some of these received direct hits in the loop-holes and as such were put out of action.

At 1000 another crossing attempt was more successful. Many German rafts reached the middle of the river this time. But the intense Dutch rifle and machinegun fire prevented once more a successful crossing. Then a battery of Flak 88 mm guns was called into action. Their direct high velocity fire devastated one after the other casemate. Many machine-gun crews got either killed or wounded. Substantial wedges were pounded in the Dutch defence-line. Hereafter the Germans tried to cross closer to the bridge, considering this a blind spot in the defences. This time it were the 5 cm guns in the river-casemates that created havoc amongst the stormtroopers. In reaction the German 88's aimed their lethal projectiles at the two river casemates. After a few rounds both constructions were shot to rubble. Many defenders were killed when a direct hit went straight through the loop-hole of the southern casemate and exploded in the confined interior. Still, a third major assault - at around 1100 hours - again ended up in a German retreat. After yet another bombardment a fourth endeavour finally succeeded. Only two out of fifteen pill boxes were still in action Yet they managed to destroy some of the rafts, but the continuous flow of fresh rafts and troops soon proved unstoppable. At some locations the first Germans managed to reach the other bank and started to deploy in the rear of the last standing defences. Soon enough they were able to force the remaining Dutch units to surrender. Few defenders managed to escape to the west. The Dutch had lost 13 men KIA, the Germans buried 27 soldiers, but many dozens had been wounded. The assaulting side had paid a considerable price. 

A very sad detail should be added here. The very capable and brave Dutch company commander [Captain Van Hoogenhuize] was murdered in front of some of his men when the Germans captured him in the village Katwijk nearby. Six or seven Germans ordered him to put his hands up, what he obediently did. But nevertheless one soldier put a rifle on his chest and shot him in cold blood. The Dutch men that had accompanied the Captain - and were about to share in the fate of their Captain - were saved by a German officer that rushed to the scene and ordered his men to lower their weapons. After the successful crossing [around 1400 hours] the Germans immediately started building an 8-tonnes bridge.

At the village of St.Agatha the 454th Regiment was designated to overtake the river-defences. Also here the Dutch strength was about a company-size [160 men], only supported by eleven machineguns and one of the old 84 mm gun. The Germans opposing them operated no less than 130 machineguns and 48 guns of variable calibre, as well as fourteen anti-tank guns. The assaulted sector was reinforced with ten small casemates.

At 0500 hours the Germans started shelling the Dutch trenches and casemates. An interesting duel between the single 84 mm gun and some German machinegun crews unfolded, which would cost the attackers quite some men. Then - much to the surprise of the Dutch defenders - suddenly German troops appeared in the rear of their positions! These troops appeared from the direction of Gennep where they had been able to cross the bridge behind the German trains. Some Dutch positions were overtaken, but many remained occupied none the less. A senior Dutch NCO, who was under the false impression that the Germans behind him were in fact Dutch comrades, climbed on top of his gun emplacement and yelled them to cease fire. Amazingly the Germans reacted by leaving back to the direction of Gennep. They were almost certainly under the impression that the river had been successfully crossed by their comrades and that an angry German officer was sending them abuse. Both sides were mislead, which kept the event in even balance.

When the Germans unleashed an assault from the east bank they met a deadly hail of fire. Another attempt at 0915 hours failed as well. Again the Germans pounded the little casemates with direct fire. Also mortar and artillery fire was aimed at the nearby trenches. It was a straight out hell for the defenders. At 1100 hours the Germans finally managed to reach the other shore and broke the resistance of the remaining strong-holds.

South of Gennep the German 256th Division operated. The first target in their sector was the village of Boxmeer [about 5 km from the German border]. At this location the river made some strong curves, and this had prevented the construction of an effective longitudinal defence-line. The Germans carefully selected their main point of attack at the sailant in the river. At such a point it was hardly possible for the defences to establish a concentrated firing zone. The location that the Germans had selected was only defendable by three machinegun occupied pill boxes, a modern anti-tank gun and an infantry gun of 57 mm. The strength of the defence was about 50 men.

Already at 0415 a German patrol appeared at the river. It was greeted with a deadly volley resulting in three of the four Germans getting killed. Fifteen minutes later the first German artillery shells started to fall. Thirty minutes hereafter about 15 rafts were launched and about 200 men tried to cross the river. When the Germans had well left the eastern shore suddenly all surviving Dutch weapons opened fire on those rafts that came into focus. The brave German soldiers were hit in the open. About five of them perished, many more got wounded. The German artillery then positioned itself very close to the river. They were able to deploy their guns just a couple of hundred yards from the east bank due to the dense hedge-structure on this side of the river. Invisible to the defenders they could do their deadly work. Soon the little casemates were shot to rubble, and crews and weapons suffered dearly. Yet, another German attempt to cross failed again, this time also due to the fire of both the infantry guns available to the defence. It would take the Germans no less than five attempts to cross the river before they were successful. It was 1030 when they finally occupied Boxmeer ...

The most southern assault [of the 256th Division sector] was aimed at Afferden. It was executed by the reinforced reconnaissance unit of the division. It comprised about 600 men with armoured cars and infantry guns, reinforced with anti-tank guns of 37 mm and 88 mm. The operational area was stretched over more than 4 km, and incorporated a barrage [dam] and a ferry-point. In this sector just nine casemates had been constructed. Close to the ferry-point two guns had been positioned; one old 84 mm infantry gun and a modern anti-tank gun. The defenders counted about 125 men.

When it became apparent [from the massive overflight of planes and sounds of war] that war had broken out, the ferry was destroyed and vital parts of the barrage were blown up. The latter however remained a point where troops could cross the river. The barrage itself could - for reasons of water management - not be destroyed. At around 0500 hours the first German units opened fire, and they were soon joint by artillery and mortars. Three hours later (!) the Germans launched their first attempt to reach the other river bank. In the meantime the anti-tank gun had been put out of action by some artillery blasts at its position. Also one of the casemates had been destroyed by a number of direct hits, killing all but one men of the crew. The German assault failed however, but they didn't give up. Continuous cross-over attempts were executed and at around 1000 hours the attackers gained firm foot on the west-bank. Around the barrage in the river resistance remained firm, notwithstanding the fact that adjacent positions had fallen to the Germans. It was well in the afternoon of the 10th that the last surviving strong-hold had to cease fire.

The central Maas region

South of Afferden the actions against the Maas-front were executed by the German 6th Army [that would later in the war cease to exist at Stalingrad]. The most northern sector of the 6th Army was designated to its 56th Infantry Division. They were under orders to operate in the sector Broekhuizen - Venlo [the twenty km wide zone between Afferden and Broekhuizen was left untouched by the Germans].

At Broekhuizen - only 2 ½ km from the German border - the Germans appeared shortly after 0400 hours. The ferry that had been in operation at this Maas-village had not been destroyed due to a malfunction of the prepared charges. The invaders appeared to have little interest for this location though. Only some exchange of fire was registered here. After a not very impressive German crossing had been rejected it all fell quiet.

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German manoeuvres against the northern sector of the Maas-line and the Peel-Raamline (may 1940)

Three clicks to the south a more serious attempt would be felt. The defences at the village of Lottum were shelled by intensive German artillery fire. Also mortars, anti-tank guns and machineguns joint this siege. This fire shattered two small casemates to pieces and it also destroyed the 84 mm gun that had been available to the Dutch. North of Lottum at Arcen a major push over the river succeeded and as such two battalions could be shuttled over. A similar action at Lottum failed though. Here the Dutch prevented the crossing with intensive fire from light weapons and a very effective anti-tank gun crew. It would be up to the two battalions that had landed at Arcen to come to the aid of their comrades. At 1300 hours the Dutch defences between Arcen en Broekhuizen had ceased to exist.

At Grubbenvorst and Venlo the Germans would suffer much more. An entire regiment - supported by 88 mm guns - was assigned to cross the Maas at Grubbenvorst. Also here the Dutch had some casemates as extra protection together with two guns. Their combined strength was no more than 100 men. Within one hour after the German border-crossing the ordeal at the river started. The German artillery was directed by air-reconnaissance. After the first German assault [around 0630 hours] had failed, the same recipe seen elsewhere was served: artillery fire aimed at the casemates. A subsequent major crossing was undertaken. About twenty larger boats - each containing about 15 soldiers - took off from the east bank. The joint fire of about 100 infantry weapons, two light and one heavy machinegun prevented German success though.

A few hundred metres to the south, at Velden, a handful of German boats did however manage to reach the other shore. Very proactive counter-measures by a local Dutch commander eliminated the landing party almost instantly. The Germans appeared to be very frustrated over this failure, and at 0900 hours - after a very fierce and concentrated bombardment of the Dutch positions with everything that the Germans had in their arsenal - an all out assault was launched. All Dutch weapons - with the exception of some rifles - kept silent. The massive shelling had been fruitfull. Nevertheless, the last rifle groups had to be forced into surrender by close quarter fighting. At 1100 hours the matter was settled. The German report of the fight did very specifically credit the Dutch for their tough defences at this location. The Germans started building a light pontoon-bridge at Velden, but this would not be ready before 1900 hours in the evening ...

One of the bloodiest fights at the Maas had been the one at Venlo. Both Maas bridges at this city - 2 km from the German border - had been considered vital for the huge logistical challenge of having almost an entire army [the 6th Army] cross the Maas-river on May 10th. The question of how to achieve gaining control over these bridges without prior Dutch destruction had required plenty of brain breaking study. Result of it all had been an operational plan to transport one battalion [3rd Battallion, 234th Regiment] in a troop train over the railway bridge only seconds after X-hour. This action of course was a very risky enterprise.

Since the Germans unleashed numerous stealthy commando actions against vital Maas bridges elsewhere in Holland, one could wonder why such an action was not noted at Venlo. In the end the German strategy must have incorporated such a special taskforce, more particularly because it was mentioned in one of their pre-war reports. The raiding party would however not be noticed by any Dutch unit. In the early hours of May 10th the Dutch border posts reported the passing of an "odd looking train" and past on the news to the rear. Fortunately enough the Dutch had taken measures of precaution for such an action. The status of the switch-point at the main-track at Venlo was - after service hours - set in a locked default setting towards a blind branch. As such the German train was guided to the dead side-track. German personnel quickly jumped off of the train in order to reset the switch-point, but the Dutch station guard opened fire at them. Instant report was made to the bridge CP that the Germans had invaded. The occupation of one of the river-casemates - who operated the detonation switch - received orders to blow up the bridges, and whilst the first Germans were crossing the southern bridge, two massive explosions sounded. Ten Germans - who had been ordered to take the bridge [3/PiBtl156] - were killed; six survived. It was the end of the German ambition to make quick progress and important gain at this location.

The battle that followed was witnessed by two German Generals. The commanders of both the 9th Armee Korps[General H. Geyer] and of the 56th Division [Generalmajor K. Kriebel] were both present. Three battalions - about 2,400 men - were deployed. Support was received by heavy artillery and a battery of 88 mm guns. Units of the 3rd Battalion had tried to reach the east bank of the river in their cars and trucks. Many of these stood deserted on the east-bank, some burning. The Dutch machineguns and mortars strafed the east-bank and killed many Germans. Some German guns received direct hits from the mortar-fire and the 5 cm guns in the river casemates. The German countermeasures did however also demand their price. One of the 5 cm guns received a hit by a 88 mm gun, and four of the five casemates close to the bridges were destroyed. Nevertheless the remaining weapon points prevented the Germans from undertaking even a single attempt to cross the river to the north of the bridges.

On the southern side however, they were more persuasive. Still, the Germans would not even reach the waterline. The combined fire of light and heavy machineguns, assisted by a mortar section kept the Germans away from the river. Further to the south another German attempt to reach the east bank of the Maas - covered by some heavy armoured cars - also failed against the dense defensive fire. General Kriebel in the meantime ate his hat! His entire regiment [192th] was suppressed by just a handful [160] of Dutch defenders and failed time and time again to cross the river, and this was all witnessed by his superior officer. Not particularly a career boost. All German measures failed though, and it would be 11 May before they would be able to force the remaining Dutch defenders to give up. The division had lost over 30 men KIA at Venlo, and many more WIA.

Between Tegelen and Roermond the 30th Division [Generalleutnant K. von Briesen] would challenge the Dutch positions along the river Maas. In this sector four Dutch companies [about 700 men] defended the Maasline.

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German maneouvres against the central sector of the Maas-line (may 1940)

A little to the south of Tegelen, at Steijl, the Germans appeared at the riverfront at 0445 hours. The perimeter they would aim their assault to was defended by a mere 70 men, assisted by two guns. The ferry that was operated at this point had been sunk by the Dutch already. At 0600 the German artillery started shelling the Dutch positions continuously until 1300 hours! In the meantime a number of crossing attempts were undertaken by the attackers, but time and again they were unsuccessful.

About 5 km to the south - at Kessel - the 30th Division tried to reach the other river-bank too. Here as well the ferry had been destroyed in time. When the Germans appeared around 0500 hours an intensive exchange of fire happened. The first German attempt to cross the Maas - under heavy artillery-support - failed. All successive attempts would fail too. Meanwhile clicks up the river - at Kesseleik - another series of crossings were undertaken by the Germans. They all stranded in Dutch fire.

The last endeavours by the 30th Division to reach the other side were seen at Neer [just north of Roermond]. At this location, where the Maas made one of its peculiar curves, the defence had found itself reinforced by only four casemates. Direct fire by German anti-tank guns soon extinguished the existence of the four machineguns in these four constructions. After this the Germans managed to shuttle some men to the other side. But they were firmly pinned down by very aggressive Dutch rifle-groups in their dug-out trenches in second line. The assaulting party was not able to make any progress whatsoever.

All four attempts of the 30th Division described hereabove failed. Nevertheless the sad fate of a single defensive line that is cordon-shaped is that it is as strong as its weakest link. The enemy may have been rejected at the four previous locations, they were nevertheless successful at Belfeld - a village just south of Tegelen. At this point the defences were particularly weak. A remarkable planning failure had caused a situation where a gap of 1,000 m was left open between two casemates. As last minute compensation and fix a light infantry gun in an earth-built position had been positioned in between the two casemates. When the Germans appeared this gun opened rapid fire on the appearing targets. A house in which the Germans had seeked shelter was shot to rubble. German counter measures did however soon seal the fate of the gun crew. One of the first AT gun volleys was a direct hit in the loop hole of the weak reinforcement and made it partially collapse. Soon after, the two adjacent casemates were eliminated. Then the Germans started to cross the river. One of the remaining casemate crews had the machinegun taken out of their casemate and installed it on top of the dike. But isolated as the crew was it was unable to reject the entire German assault. At 0900 hours the Germans had reached the west-bank.

From here onwards the assaulting force worked its way to the south in a very expeditious way. Many reports do however mention unorthodox methods that were applied during this operation. It appears that Dutch POW's were taken along with the stormtroop up the river-shore - and consequanty lined up in front of the progressing Germans. At many Dutch positions soldiers grew hesitant to fire on the German assaulting party when they identified their own colleagues in front of them. Yet the German sweep along the westbank gained them the effect they required.

At 1400 hours the Maas-front had collapsed. At Steijl a heavy German pontoon bridge was constructed. Of the four Dutch companies defending this front-sector only about 75 men were able to reach their own lines [Peel-Raamline] again. The balance of the brave defenders was taken prisoner. Although the Germans had been very unsuccessful in this sector at many locations, the Division only suffered about 15 KIA.

The south-central Maas region

The sector from Roermond to the south was filled in by the German 19th Division [Generalmajor O. von Knobelsdorff]. Roermond was - like Venlo - a crucial point in the Maasline. The two major bridges over the Maas at this city were vital to German communication lines due to their ambitious plans for the days to follow. The bridge in the city itself was a large traffic bridge. Just north of Roermond - at Buggenum - a railway bridge was situated. Due to the strategic importance of these bridges the Germans had prepared a raiding plan. Commandos of the Bau-Lehrbattalion zur Besondere Verwendung [a stealth name for these commando's] were selected for this assignment. They would cross the Dutch border some time before X-hour in order to make enough progress to prevent the Dutch from taking the planned measures of destruction. The raiding parties operated in disguise. The traffic bridge would be approached by a group of supposingly Dutch soldiers. The railway bridge would receive visitors dressed as railroad workers. The railway bridge in particular was a vital target. A troop and armoured train were scheduled to follow soon after X-hour. The troop train contained a full battalion of infantry. It is not certain what the assignment of this train has been, but it's generally accepted that it was designated to penetrate the Peel-Raamline at Weert - identical to the plan of the train that passed the railway bridge at Gennep and penetrated the Peel-Raamline at Mill.

The raiding party intended for the traffic bridge was soon demasked by clever Dutch border troops. Although the Germans could escape from captivity, their main goal could not be achieved. At 0355 - exactly at X-hour - the traffic bridge was blown into pieces. At the railway bridge at Buggenum the elimination of the raiding party would cost more efforts of the Dutch bridge-occupation. Professional soldiers of the police troops guarded the bridge. The Dutch had taken a lot of precautions at the main railway bridges close to the German border. All of them were equipped with an iron gate that was always closed and locked during off-hours. Such was also the case at Buggenum. In front of the gate another obstacle in the form of an iron barrier was set blocking the railway. On the west-bank also an iron gate had been constructed closeby the detonation squad. Two heavy river casemates - both with a 5 cm gun and a heavy machinegun - as well as some light machinegun casemates were available at this point.

Already at 0300 hours the men at the bridge were informed from Roermond positions that a group of odd looking men coming down the railway line in the direction of Buggenum had been spotted. When the  reported group approached the fence at the east bank they were ordered to halt by the guards. Soon the latter were convinced that they were confronted with treacherous German soldiers. Their commanding NCO called the west-bank by telephone and requested for an infantry squad to arrest the Germans when the latter opened fire. One of the guards was killed instantly, the commanding NCO got severly wounded. Two of the guardsmen were able to reach the other side in time. The first pursuing Germans were blown up with the bridge. Three of them died. Twenty minutes later the train appeared. The train crew noticed the bridge being blown up and halted the train, about 500 metres in front of the bridge; forming a perfect target for both river-casemate guns. Two rounds later the locomotive was crippled, pouring out steam from its cracked boiler. Hereafter both the guns and the heavy machineguns started spraying the carriages containing the German battalion. Eleven German soldiers [2nd Battalion, 59th Regiment] were killed from this. The treacherous German attempt to take the bridges at Roermond had failed. Still they tried to reach the other side making use of fair methods. A number of crossings were attempted at Buggenum - supported by artillery that had arrived in the meantime - but the first two attempts were in vain. The third assault was successful however and at 0930 hours the Germans controlled the west bank.

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Destroyed bridge over the Meuze [Maas] at Roermond (may 1940)

In Roermond itself the German main-force arrived at 0500. They immediately laid a combined fire on the Dutch positions. One hour later the first crossing was executed. It stranded in Dutch fire. Then the present commanding General personally intervened. He organised support of a battery of the notorious 88 mm guns. These guns quickly cracked many of the light casemates and also the two river casemates. Many defenders were killed by the intensive German fire that was given at a very short distance. Next another German crossing was prepared. This time they were able to reach the other side, although at a considerable price. But the Germans that had reached the westbank remained pinned-down by the defenders that still refused to yield. General von Knobelsdorff again made his way to the river-bank and closely coordinated the artillery himself. Another party was sent to the other side, and with the close combat support of the artillery they gained the upperhand. The Dutch resistance had to yield for an superior force.

Notwithstanding the fact that a successful crossing had been established, the Germans paid a considerable price: at Roermond alone about 30 men were KIA. The German units established a connection with their comrades that had secured the westbank at Buggenum. A heavy pontoon bridge was constructed and would be in operation late in the evening of the 10th. Still, the failure to take the bridge proved to be a burden of quite some magnitude for the German logistics.

Another 5 kilometres to the south, at Wessem, the Germans [14th Division, Generalleutnant P. Weyer] also executed an assault against the river defences. Wessem was a village only two clicks from the Belgian border, in yet another S-curve of the river Maas. The occupation at the westbank was split into two by a canal that ran from the Maas to the Zuid-Willemsvaart. The 53rd Regiment and the AA.14 [Reconnaissance] were designated to cross the Maas at Wessem. They would be supported by a battery of 88 mm guns.

At 0630 the battle started. Two of the Dutch casemates that were situated in a dead angle of the terrain [surrounded by water] were soon eliminated, although one of these positions had previously denied a German landing party access to their rafts on the east-bank. The brave occupation of this casemate perished, except for one man. At 0930 a German party reached the middle of the river, but their floating devices were shot to pieces. Just after 1000 hours a third crossing succeeded - but not before nearly all casemates had been destroyed.

A bizarre and tragic incident is worth addressing. An isolated casemate - that was part of the canal defence - was hit over and over again by the German artillery. When the Germans had reached the westbank and the 88 mm shells kept on hitting this last occupied Dutch casemate, the crew decided to withdraw. But one of them - a regular soldier - stated to his comrades that his duty was to deny the Germans access to his country, until the bitter end. The Germans that were by then in the middle of the process of reorganising their units after the successful action, had to redeploy their guns for this one man who kept on firing. They pounded the casemate with their whole arsenal. After numerous hits they ceased fire and approached the position but again the brave soldier started firing! Next four Dutch POW's were sent to the casemate to summon their comrade to surrender. They found the extremely brave man bled to death from sustained wounds ...

Both friend and foe were impressed by this demonstration of bravery. The Dutch had suffered quite some casualties from the German direct fire. Many of the casemate crews had been killed or wounded. The attackers themselves had lost 16 men KIA. After this fight the 14th Division directed its advance to the southwest, into Belgium.