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Maas-front in Limburg

Introduction

The province of Limburg - the strange appendix-shape south-eastern province - was poorly defended by the Dutch. That was because it had no strategic significance to the Dutch and its was hardly defendable as a consequence of its narrow shape in the central sector. All troops in the middle and south of Limburg were commanded by the territorial commander Lt.Col. A. Govers. His relatively low rank says much about his limited resources.

It was for the sake of a plausible neutral-policy and - secundary - the Belgian defences that at least some efforts had been made for light defences along the river Maas and the parallel canal called Julianakanaal. In the bulge of the southern part of the province the Territorial Command had organised a thin screen of defended positions, that found its purpose mostly in destroying bridges and setting road blocks, thus slowing down a German invasion force for long enough to gain the defences along the Maas river time to get fully prepared.

It was nothing more than a token defence, for which troops of less than two regiments strength had been made available. It were the 37th Regiment, the 13th and 37th Border Infantry Battalion and some minor support units as well as exactly one AAA battery with four older 7,5 cm guns. All these troops were drafted from locals. They were considered sacrificial, had no secondary instructions but sustained opposition to a German invasion for as long as this would be feasible.

The Maasline in Limburg was partly shaped behind and in between a double water-buffer. The Julianakanaal [Juliana Canal] ran from Maasbracht to the south, practically following the Maas flood. At some sectors a number of forward sections were positioned along this canal. The bulge of the province, which was the area between Sittard and Maastricht, was very modestly defended east of the water-barriers Maas and Julianakanaal. At some strategic points a number of casemates had been built and a few individual platoons had been deployed at some important road junctions. All had but one goal: to slow a German advance.

The few battalions in South Limburg lacked adequate heavy weapons. In fact only a handful of infantry-guns and modern anti-tank guns were available and the already mentioned [obsolete] AAA battery. The only weapon feature that was quite unique was the distribution of some of the capable new army anti-tank rifles [Solothurn 20 mm] which had been assigned to the Limburg forces to compensate for the lack of sufficient numbers of anti-tank guns. Apart from the Limburg force and two outfits in Noord-Brabant, only the protection squads of the general HQ in The Hague had these modern AT rifles available. It would proof very effective. Especially due to the fact that the large German 4th Tank Division would be amongst the adversaries.

The bulk of the formations was station in the south of the province. In the narrow bit in the central section a company of reserve border infantry (6.Res. Bor. Infy. Coy) as well as the 2nd Battalion of 37.RI. The south central part - or northern bulge - between Geilenkirchen (Ge.) and Eysden (B.) was defended by the three coys of the 1st Battalion of 37.RI in a staged defence between the border and the river. The most southern sector including the main bridges and the city of Maastricht were defended by two battalions of troops, with the 3rd Battalion of 37.RI taking the border and central defence lines and the 13th Border Inf Btl with some attached reserve infy from border coys took care of the defences of the Maas river in the city. The traffic and railway bridges were defended by these troops and prepared for destruction. An AA MG platoon and the AAA battery were positioned near the bridges. The water-works near Borgharen, just north of Maastricht, were defended by troops equipped with some AP weapons. The staff of the Limburg defences were situated on the western Maas bank in the NW of the city.

Maastricht was only five km away from the Eben Emael fortress of the Belgian Maas-Albert-Canal defences. The crucial Belgian bridges at Veltwezelt and Vroenhoven were less than 3 km west of the city. The defence of the Maas at Maastricht mattered to the Belgian army, big time. There had been no official and hardly any unofficial contact between the Belgian and Dutch defences. The Belgian supreme command was very displeased with the virtual non-existant defence of the Dutch in Limburg. It had express concern and dismay to the Hague and had also shown reluctance to meet Dutch requests to relay the Peel-Raam line defences on Belgian soil. The Germans would seriously profit from this dead-angle in the Dutch and Belgian defences, which were a clear show of non-coordinated defences between neighbouring nations.

The battle starts

When the invasion had become a fact some brief local skirmishes were fought in the bulge area. These fights are too insignificant to address them in detail. We will concentrate on the more significant clashes around the Maas-front [including the ones at the Juliana Canal].

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Juliana Canal (may 1940)

First the German assaults against the Juliana Canal. It may strike the reader as an odd thing that the Germans did not concentrate on a number of selected bridges, but that they in fact attacked virtually all of these crossing points along the canal. The reason for that lays in the fact that the 6th Army was operating in such a dense formation that every respective division had been ordered to force its own penetration and crossing over the canal and the Maas. Diversion to another sector was logistically not an option.

The most northern bridges across the canal were situated at Aasterberg, Stevenweert and Maasbracht [all between Maaseik and Roermond]. All three were blown-up in time. Some hours later the Germans succeeded in crossing the canal by floating devices. Some casualties were suffered from local defences but nothing much was gained. Bridges for logisitical appliance had all been lost.

At Roosteren - one click east of [Belgian] Maaseik - an important bridge was one of the prime targets of again German special forces, Brandenburger commando's dressed as Dutch MP's. Both this bridge and the nearby bridge over the Maas at Maaseik were of importance to the Germans. At the Roosteren location three casemates and one light infantry gun [57 mm] were at the disposal of 40 men infantry. The raiders had disguised themselves as Dutch MP this time. They had met some Dutch opposition during the first hour of their advance [which had started prior to X-time] to Roosteren, but they had managed to escape.

The Germans were crafty enough to take a Dutch guard squad - that had been put in a forward position - by surprise and moments after they suddenly appeared on the east side of the bridge. There they were ordered to halt by a sentry. A corporal of the Dutch police troops didn't quite trust the sudden appearance of this group and called his commander. The latter quickly arrived at the scene. Meanwhile Dutch soldiers were in the process of disarming some of the raiders, when suddenly the commanding German could get hold of a pistol and threaten the arrived Dutch commander. The Dutch Captain replied that he would not surrender. He was shot dead on the spot. Immediately a chaotic fire fight developed. The few present defenders were defeated and had to flee the scene. The treacherous German raid had been successful. The bridge was theirs.

However, the story did have a remarkable tail. As we said before the Maaseik bridge was very close by. This bridge was situated exactly on the Dutch-Belgian border. As the disguised Germans started to make their way for this bridge, they were fired upon by their own troops that from another direction had managed to get there. Now their disguise had set their own comrades on the wrong foot! The Belgian guards of the bridge in Maaseik were not as easily fooled as their Dutch counterparts either, warned as they were by the noise and shots fired. They blew up the Maaseik bridge - together with four of the Germans.

Three km to the south of all this, the bridge at the hamlet Illikhoven was a target too. Only one platoon [35 men] defended a more than 2,000 m wide front here! Three little pill-boxes were the only reinforced structures at their disposal. The one closest to the bridge was 600 metres away. At 0330 hrs the German raiding party assigned to take this bridge appeared, this time disguised as a Dutch bicycle infantry squad. The guards did nevertheless spot some irregular details on their bikes and they opened fire, which was followed by the German squad taking cover and returning fire. Quickly the Dutch blew up the bridge. The troops of the 31st Division [commanded by Generalleutnant R. Kämpfe] that followed, were determined to cross the canal at Illikhoven and swiftly deployed in a wide formation in order to force a crossing. They installed a number of '88' guns along the canal and took aim at the three closest casemates with direct fire. These constructions were gradually shot to rubble and the entire crews of two pill boxes - 8 men in total - lost their lives in the process. At 0900 hours the Germans were able to cross the canal.

Another target of the Germans was the sluice at Born. The bridge over the sluice could not be blown up, for obvious reasons (of water management). As such the complex was guarded by a full infantry platoon, supported by two modern anti-tank guns and three heavy machineguns [in casemates]. All together about 70 men. Three light machinegun groups had been positioned on the east bank to form a forward defence and prevent surprise raids against this obvious target. The position was commanded by a very capable 1st Lieutenant.

East of the bridge a T-iron barricade had been constructed. It could be permanently fixed in case of an invasion. As it was obvious that the complex would not be destroyed by the Dutch no special forces raid had been designed for this location. The regular 82nd Regiment of the 31st Division was designated to operate in this area.

At 0400 hours a stormtroop of the 82nd Regiment tried to bash straight through the bridgehead defences, but it was stopped by the two light machinegun sticks on the eastside. Only a few minutes later the first considerable German reinforcements arrived. A column of vehicles was stopped by a direct hit by one of the anti-tank guns on the leading truck. The Germans dismounted and spread over the entire front of the approach zone. The barricade was fixed and the two remaining light machinegun sticks retreated to the westbank. A number of Germans that had the guts to work their way forward to the sluice were eliminated.

Then one of the casemates received two direct hits, injuring the entire crew and smashing the machinegun to pieces. The Germans deployed more and more artillery and mortars and at that point [0800 hours, after 4 hours of battle] the commanding Lieutenant weighted the situation and ordered the majority of his men to fall back. He himself and eight selected men would stay behind and keep the Germans occupied. They kept the opponent busy for yet quite some time before they finally had to give in. It is inconceivable that this Lieutenant - who had defended this important object with his small force against an entire regiment [supported by medium and heavy artillery] for five prolonged hours - was not decorated for his outstanding performance!

Two thousand metres to the south of the scene at Born, at the village of Obbicht, another target of the German commando's was found. At this location a platoon with four light machineguns defended the bridge. Concrete sewer sections, tilted on their sides and filled with sand, formed improvised barricades. At 0400 a group of Military Police - in fact a German commando troop - appeared in front of the barricade. The Dutch platoon-commander approached the MP group and requested ID's. It was replied by a "Hände hoch!" upon which the Lieutenant shouted at his men "Shoot, it's the Germans". German bullets ended his life instantly. Dutch fire prevented the Germans from crossing the bridge. After some time armoured cars appeared from the German main-force, but still the Dutch didn't yield. After four hours the few Dutch defenders had to give in due to the fact that German units that had crossed the canal elsewhere assaulted their position from the rear. Several attempts to ignite the fuse to the detonation charges failed. The bridge fell into enemy hands intact.

North of Geleen three bridges over the canal were situated very close to each other: At Berg, Urmond and Stein. These objects were all in the sector of the German 7th Division [Generalmajor E. Freiherr von Gablenz]. All these bridges had been incorporated in the German special forces plans. And all three bridges were successfully raided by disguised task-forces. The only price they paid was a handful of KIA.

Other bridges like the ones at Elsloo, Geulle and Voulwames were blown up in time. Here the 18th [Generalmajor F. Cranz] and 35th Division [Generalleutnant H. Reinhard] operated. Between Geulle and Voulwames the Germans prepared a crossing by rubber boats. Adequate preparation of the crossing was executed by a number of batteries of 88 mm and 105 mm guns. At 1030 they finally succeed in their attempts.

The last crossing attempt over the canal we address here is the one at the suburb of Meerssenhove, close to Maastricht. At 0350 hrs the platoon guarding the bridge witnessed the passing of a group of about 60 motorbike infantry-men dressed as Dutch soldiers. They decided to do nothing, under perception that they were dealing with Dutch soldiers. It would later appear that this unit was an outfit out of the Sonderverband Hocke [Taskforce Hocke], which was designated to raid the Maastricht bridges. It was already 0600 hours when the next German patrol was spotted. These enemies were chased off. At 0830 the main-force arrived. At that moment the Dutch decided that it would be wise to ignite the fuse to the bridge-charges. Just in time, for German armoured cars were already approaching the bridge, which blew up in front of them. After an hour of intensive fire exchange with the enemy the Dutch men retreated and crossed the Maas.