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Moerdijk

Introduction

The two long bridges [NE of the village Moerdijk] spanning the wide Hollandsch Diep (an extension of the Meuse river) were the prime target of the German airlanding operation. It were the most western crossings of the many wide waterways that divided the country in a northern part ('above the rivers part') and a southern part.

The about 1 km wide water-way called Hollandsch Diep (lit: Hollands' Deep) was - in 1940 - still in open connection with the Northsea. It had a strong current and tide, making it a horrible water-way to span with pioneer-material, reason why this was a scenario that the Germans intended to avoid by seizing the bridges intact. Since the bridges were known to be prepared for demolition it was imperative that the two bridges would be taken by total surprise, seized before they could be destroyed by the Dutch and held until a relief force would manage to link up with the airborne bridgehead.

The Moerdijk railway bridge had already been constructed in the 19th century. Ordinary traffic was depending on a ferry service between Moerdijk and Willemsdorp, or other places on the north shore. With progress demanding better and moreover faster connections it had been decided to construct a traffic bridge at Moerdijk in the early thirties. This traffic bridge had been delivered in 1936. The adjecent new road structure was still in progress when war broke out. Both bridges had a span of about 1,500 m long and connected the south of Holland to the beating heart of the country in the west. Today it is the second most busy route of the country.

Local defence philosophy

The traffic- and railway bridges at Moerdijk were guarded by quite a considerable number of men in comparison to other bridges in the country. Although the Dutch did not expect the bridges to be raided during the first phase of a German invasion, the position was yet considered of high strategic value to the home defence. First of all both bridges would have to serve as prime retreat route for the motorised parts of the Brabant army, the latter being scheduled to evacuate the south during the first war-night. Secondly the bridges would be desired to bring in allied formations that would hopefully come to assist the Dutch in their country defence. Thirdly a German seizure of intact bridges would be a huge liability to sustained defence of the Fortress and had, therefore, to be avoided at any cost.

The basic idea had been that considerable light formations would guard and shield the bridge-head on the north and south side, awaiting a border infantry battalion to arrive and take over this assignment. The border infantry battalion would first have to execute a series of prepared demo-jobs alongside the Dutch-Belgian border. The general perception in the Hague had been that although the Belgian army would become an ally on the very moment of a German invasion of the low countries, the chances of the German troops outrunning the Dutch defences along the Belgian border would be rather significant. After all, the Belgians had refused to defend the (northern) border area which would leave an obvious and dangerous void for the Germans to fill. Since the Hague felt that their own Peel-defences in the south-east would be able to hold out for at least a couple of days, it was considered smart to safeguard the southern border to some extent by blocking roads and destroying some local bridges. These tasks had been assigned to three border infantry battalions along the entire Brabant south border. That border was about 100 km long (bird's flight), but due to its curvy shape around 130 km of actual stretch to defend. Particularly the room between Eindhoven and Breda was considered to be very prominent, reason why three border infantry battalions had been placed in that area.

One of this battalions was the 6th, which was envisaged to relief the screen formations at Moerdijk in the course of the first day of a German invasion. Until that point the light and ill prepared screen formations had to hold out against possible sabotage, intruders or even the odd little German airborne party that might be expected. Nothing in the scale that the Germans had planned though! After the battalion would have taken over de positions in the southern bridgehead around Moerdijk it would remain there until the last of the motorised formations of the Field Army would have crossed to the north. After that the battalion could be withdrawn at any point, after which the bridges would be destroyed blowing up three sections of each. From then on the defence would be entirely done from the north shore, where concrete bunkers and arty were able to support the infantry in repelling any hostile shore landings feasible. That was the basic idea. It tells one why the screen formations were quite ill prepared for things to come and why there had been no firm defensive structures on the southern end.

Defence force

The screen of light defences had been constructed along the south side of the bridgehead. These defences comprised a few entrenched positions as well as a more or less single contineous outer defence trench-line. The defence system on the south side lacked concrete or steel reinforcements, although some concrete reinforcements were in progress. The military had considered the defence of this southern land-head to be of a security type, not of a prolonged firm defence type. After all, the bridges were scheduled to be destroyed once the enemy would approach the gates. As such, the budgets for steel and concrete reinforcements had been spared for the north side of the position. Besides, bunkers constructed in favour of the defence would - after an evacuation - also serve the agressor. That was reason not to construct shelter bunkers, like the northern defences had plenty of.

One company of infantry supported by four platoons of heavy machineguns [twelve in total] were stationed in the Moerdijk bridgehead. Two old 57 mm infantry guns were the only heavier infantry support available. It were 350 men in total.

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Moerdijk bridges (may 1940)

The 750 men strong 6th Border Infantry Battalion, that was stationed at the Dutch-Belgian border near Breda, was supposed to reinforce the bridgehead at the southern landhead once the battalion would have executed its demolition measures along the border area. The southern landhead could also be supported by number of artillery battalions north of Moerdijk. On the Island of Dordrecht it were 75 mm and 120 mm guns that could support and from the adjacent island Hoekse Waard similar support could be given by 75 mm and 150 mm guns. Fire missions were however limited as to the left and right fronts of the southern landhead, as a consequence of the limited ranges of the avialable batteries. The latter couldn't support the southern front of the bridgehead, since that would have demanded ranges of over 12 km, which were not achieved by the available guns. Since the main approaches into the bridgehead came from the south and southeast the projected infantry presence would be focussed on these fronts in particular.

The northern landhead and coastal sector of the Hollandsch Diep were defended by an infantry company (c/w a platoon of heavy MG) and two dedicated infantry platoons of the bridgehead Willemsdorp itself. The latter, also comprising some army engineers, an MG platoon and an MP platoon, were designated as "Security Detachment Willemsdorp". This detachment of around 120 men in total had been there for over a year. The infantry coy had only recently been attached to this front. It was supposed to cover the northern and eastern flanks of the bridgehead and not the bridgehead itself.

The balance of the Island of Dordrecht, beyond the city Dordrecht itself, was occupied by the infantry battalion [1st Battalion of 28.RI] to which the additional coy at Willemsdorp belonged too. The battalion comprised - besides the reinforced coy at Willemsdorp - of two more infantry companies, half an MG company and a squad with two 8 cm mortars. Two artillery battalions were positioned on the Island too. In the south centre a 12,5 cm fortress gun battalion, operating older, slow firing, but accurate guns. In the southwestern corner of the island, at about 3 km from the traffic bridge two batteries of quite modern 7,5 cm rapid-fire light field guns.

Three heavy ferro-concrete casemates had been constructed near the bridges. An additional fourth on the far SE extreme corner of the adjacent Hoekse Waard, covering the lower angles of the bridges with MG. Two of these bunkers, both constructed along the axis of the bridges, contained a powerful 5 cm anti-tank gun and a heavy machinegun each. The other two only housed a heavy machinegun with crew. A small maritime group with a number of Vickers MG fitted sloops were in support of the infantry and guarded the bridges from the water side. Altogether a force of about 275 men that were housed in barracks and some farms nearby the traffic bridge.

Three light AA platoons with heavy machineguns [Spandau] were stationed near the bridges. There was also a battery of three 7.5 cm Vickers AAA, positioned near the village Moerdijk itself. On the 10th only two guns were operable, due to mechanical malfunction of the third gun. Another heavy AAA battery was positioned a little further NW of the bridges, on the island 'Hoekse Waard'.

The Moerdijk bridges had been prepared for destruction. A number of bridge-sections had been constructed with specific containers underneath the deck in which charges had been stacked. These charges could be detonated by means of an electrical device that was operated from one of the bunkers on the north side. Since no urgency was expected in respect to the immediate necessity of destruction, the CIC had ordered the removal of the detonation-wires though. He feared premature destruction by nervous officers and since a significant share of the troops from Brabant were dependant of these structures to reach Fortress Holland again, early destruction would seriously jeopardize operations. Furthermore, the CIC expected (or rather hoped ...) the French to send reinforcements into Fortress Holland and these troops would be required to make use of the bridges too. As such it had been decided that the detonation-wire was only to be installed when destruction had been ordered from the General Headquarters or - in case of imminent danger of enemy capture - on the initiative of local command. Knowning this one has also to bear in mind that the installation of the wires on both bridges would take at least one full hour. And that was a peace measurement, not measured whilst being under fire ...

There is one specific feature of the defences still worth mentioning. The entire defence had been designed to repel an enemy coming from the south - not from the north or from within the own perimeter. On the southside the defences had been shaped in a half-circle around the bridges, in about a 2 km beam ahead of the landheads, facing outside. Inside this Moerdijk perimeter, a lineair defence of modest size had to secure the railway and main traffic road. It was also faced outside. In the northern bridgehead all defences had been concentrated along the bank of the Hollands Diep, facing south. There was not a single position facing in-land. This odd single directional construction of the defences included all four block-houses, which had no loop-holes whatsoever facing side-ways or to the rear. Even the Norway invasion experience, quite extensively known to the GHQ, had not developed an extended awareness of potential airborne landings in the rear of prepared defences or strategic landmarks.

One remembers that it was addressed that the Dutch forces within the Fortress Holland had not been put on the highest alert overnight, unlike the rest of the army. This was decided by the commanding General of the Fortress Holland, who had considered an additional night of sleep more important than an early alert. It had huge consequences and it would cause a number of serious losses or sat-backs. One of them at Moerdijk. As a consequence of this decision ammo caches remained locked and sealed and, apart from guards at central locations, all personnel were off duty although interned in their barracks. It is to say that the southern defences did have their ammo availiable. Their role as strategic security force on the south end of the bridges made it imperative that ammo was available for the securing units. That was not the case for the defence force on the north end of the bridge ...

German battle plan

The Moerdijk area was the prime target of the German airlanding operation and a designated target of II./FJR.1, an about 600 men strong battalion of airbornes, comprising four companies of airborne rifle men assisted by some heavy machineguns and one or two 5 cm mortars.

The 5th and 6th Company were scheduled to be dropped about 1 km N and NE of the railway bridge, in a wide open polder and a very short distance away of the Dutch defence troops. The landing zone was to the rear of the Dutch casemates and trench lines, about 500 m away - at the most - of the most eastern Dutch defence bunker near the railway. The second adjacent landing zone was dangerously close to three farm houses where about 100 men of the defence force were housed ... without their ammo.

The 7th and 8th Company as well as the about 80 men strong battalion and signals staff were envisaged to land within the southern defence perimeter. The dropping was designed in such detail that all task-forces would land closest to their respective objectives. As such the two pioneer-led squads - tasked to find and deactivate the bridge charges - were dropped only a few hundred metres from the bridges, virtually right on top of two light AA platoons of the Dutch. That same agressive approach was on for the three airborne platoons of 7./FJR.1, that were to raid the immediate bridge defences. One platoon of 8./FJR.1 was scheduled to be dropped directly east of the village Moerdijk whereas the other two would land close to the railway station, where the main Dutch defence force was to be contained. The battalion staff would land in the heart of the defence perimeter and assist where ever feasible.

The organic structure of the May-1940 German airborne battalions was that they contained three ordinary rifle-men companies (Jäger), each comprising around 144 men divided over three full platoons and a small heavy weapons-platoon that operated a few AT rifles and light 5 cm mortars. The fourth company organically comprised two heavy MG platoons with four MG.34's each and a platoon with four 8 cm mortars. In this instance however, the battalion commander had decided that the heavy mortars would be left home and instead another rifle-men platoon would be formed in stead. Heavy MG's had been distributed over all four companies whereas other companies had 'delivered back' a squad of ordinary rifle-men. As such four more or less equal coys of riflemen had been formed with in each company at least two medium MG sticks. Hauptmann Prager, the commander of II./FJR.1, considered it more useful to have fast rifle men on his hand than a mortar crew for which he saw no immediate use since there were hardly any firm defence structures to siege. The consequence of this decision was that the Germans lacked heavy fire-power beside perhaps a few light 5 cm mortars (of which the very presence is unclear from sources). They fully relied on the follow up landings at AFB Waalhaven (near Rotterdam) from which they hoped to receive heavier weapons in due time. This remarkable decision - which was bold and not without risk - was typical for the tactical room that lower commanders had in the German army of those days.

There is one other detail worth mentioning, albeit of trivial value. The German battalion commander Fritz Prager was in fact hospitalized when he had heard of the upcoming plans. Prager had been diagnosed with terminal (colorectal) cancer. He consulted his doctors if he could live to see another action, which they confirmed. He had himself dismissed from hospital and joint his battalion again, that had meanwhile been commanded by Hauptmann Pelz. Pelz gallantly stepped aside and would from then on function as an XO.

The airborne-landing at Moerdijk

At around 0400 hrs [0540 German time] - the day still dawning - the first strike planes and fighters appeared over the still sleepy heads of the defenders at Moerdijk. Before the astonished men realised what was going on, they experienced the screaming sounds of the falling 250kg and 50 kg bombs of the Luftwaffe.

Some positions of the infantry and AAA units suffered the emphasis of these initial raids but also the barracks at Willemsdorp - just north of the bridges - were attacked by a single bomber. Fighters strafed trenches and field positions. Apparently the Germans were convinced that the Dutch infantry were awake and awaiting their arrival. In fact all trenches were empty, thus the bombs on these empty dug-outs in vain.

The heavy AAA battery at Moerdijk village, that had opened up when the very first plane roamed overhead, was quickly silenced. It had been on the receiving end of a number of pin point attacks by Ju-88 dive bombers, that did however not destroy the guns but had the occupation run off for cover. When the overhead planes were still stinging towards the Dutch positions, around 0445 hrs, the first airbornes were dropped from extremely low altitude [some speak of less than 100 metres]. These airbornes landed on both sides of the Hollands Diep, mostly landing according to plan when it came to the south side, but quite dispersed on the north side of the bridges.

Most of the Dutch units close to the bridges, like the bridge guard posts and light AA platoons, were almost immediately overrun and forced to yield. The preluding air raids on their positions had held them contained in covered positions without their MG's, of which the German airbornes, landing virtually on top of them, benefitted. Two German pioneer-led squads worked their way forward over the bridges in order to locate and eliminate the demo charges. They would meet little opposition until they had reached about two-third of the bridges, after which the block-house crews on the north end finally opened up, pinning the Germans down, killing or disabling a few.

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Map of the Island of Dordrecht (may 1940)

Upon the landing both available Dutch 57 mm field-guns were quickly moved to a position near the road southeast of the village Moerdijk, from where the battery commander intended to look for a beneficial position. They were however soon forced into dismounting and had to deploy their high profile huns along the road side. From there the crews started shelling approaching airbornes. After two shots one of the guns made an unusual crack and fell out. The other one was operated from an only slightly covered position, forcing the gun aimer and loader to expose themselves every time the gun had to be fired. These old 6 cm guns stood high on their undercarriage, lacked a gun-shield and since the prepared positions had not been reached by the crews, the guns had to be operated in the open, exposing the crew. The rest of the battery crew held off the airbornes with carabine fire, but the ammo rations for these gunners had been low. After some time the Germans were so close that the crew had to take cover. Among them were a brave few that were able to withstand the airbornes for quite some time still. Then the commanding Lieutenant - who himself tried to re-aim the gun onto a position of established enemy fire - received a mortal headshot and collapsed to die shortly after. After this shocking event, that briefly paralyzed the crew, the nearby airbornes were able to surround the position and force the remaining defenders into surrender. A nearby Dutch infantry Captain and his small staff joint the surrender.

The village of Moerdijk, about two clicks from the traffic bridge, was assaulted by a mere 50 men, mainly of the 8th Company. The well known German athlete (gymnastics tripple gold winner, 1936 Olympics) Oberleutnant Alfred Schwarzmann, platoon leader in the 8th Company, was leading most of them. A squad of Dutch pioneers (backed by a handful of AAA men), defended their bunks and boats in the small harbour area in the northern part of the village. They held off the airbornes, disabling some, pinning down the balance in the open fields east of the village. Schwarzmann's platoon was disabled by this fire. He himself and only few men managed to squeeze out and eventually reach the village. The balance of his platoon would not be able to support the battle anymore, until the last moment, when the supressing fire would lay off.

Another airborne outfit raiding the village was led by Leutnant Lemm and comprised about a dozen men of the Company staff of 7./FJR.1 and a light mortar troop, probably without their mortar though. They had landed southeast of the village and managed to enter Moerdijk along the main road from the south. There were no defences there to hold them off. They carefully made their way north along the main road.

In the village the Dutch bridgehead commander and his small staff had done little to none up to that point. In the north of the town, on a former rail way station foundation, barracks had been built for the AAA battery. It was occupied by the reserve crew, who had carabines at their disposal with a very limited ammo ration. Besides their presence there was also the already mentioned contingent of engineers in the small harbour. This formation operated the military ferry service (intended to shuttle over troops in case the bridges would have been blown up) with their small fleet of militarized civil shipping. Less than ten men built a defence around the southeastern corner of the harbour area. They had carabines and one light MG. It were these men that would eventually pose the Germans with the biggest challenge in the entire bridgehead and held off the Schwarzmann platoon from approaching the village.

The German landing caused a growing number of military refugees in the village, mainly from the AAA battery, which had disintegrated after the guns had been abandoned due to the fear of approaching airbornes. Most of the men sought refuge in the harbour or in the western half of the village. Their fighting spirit was virtually non-existant, their officers lacked any quality to lead or boost moral, besides one ensign, who had distinguished himself in containing some of the crew during the first air strikes by the Luftwaffe. The pioneers in the harbour didn't lack this fighting spirit. On the contrary. Their sergeant, a professional NCO, pushed them to the limit and in the end the last remaining six men (one had been killed during the first hour, a few others had to man ships) took positions that they intended to hold until the last round was fired.

The German squad under Lt. Lemm had meanwhile moved northwards along the main road into Moerdijk. They had casually taken some prisoners when they passed the bureau of the position commander who gave himself and a few others up without any resistance. Taking along all officers and ordinary ranks that had been taken prisoner, the airbornes were suddenly pinned down by rifle rounds coming from a building on the right side of the road, near the harbour, being the local MP barracks. Cautiously Lt. Lemm and another airborne moved forward covering against the facade of the MP barracks. Suddenly a rifle round from from the house next to the MP barracks struck the German officer, who died seconds later right on the spot. Airbornes raged and raided the building, forcing three MP's into surrender after a brief skirmish. It were all NCO's. They were forced to join the other POW's, all being in harm's way when shortly after the going got real tough.

The previous little show down had alerted the engineers on the harbour front, only about 100 yards away from the MP building. While the Germans had been occupied with clearing the MP barracks, the engineers had taken positions in buildings covering the square to which the main street leads. When the airbornes approach this very square, the first was killed on the spot. When another NCO looked around the corner to assess the situation he was mortally wounded too. The airbornes panicked. They pushed some of their prisoners forward to form a cover against the raging bullets, that also came from the harbour side now. At that point Lt. Schwarmann and a senior NCO reached the airborne squad in the main street, soon after followed by a few more men of Schwarzmann's dispersed platoon. The latter had finally been able to evacuate the field.

As described hereabove, the pioneers had acknowledged the German presence along the main street and quickly formed a hedgehog position at the harbour entrance. They produced some fanatic MG and rifle fire. Their commanding officer, a Captain of the maritime engineer corps, meanwhile ordered the retreat of the ferry group that had also taken a few dozen military refugees on board. On the east side of the harbour they received some rifle and MG fire too. It killed a Dutch soldier on board of one of the barges. The Captain ordered the departure meanwhile instructing the last standing pioneers to cover the retreat, but the NCO and the light MG were taken along. The few remaining men - all six senior reservists and just regular soldiers - would put up a formidable resistance.

The smartly positioned Dutch caused a brief panic amongst the Germans. Shortly after the loss of Lt. Lemm and two NCO's, the arrived Lt. Schwarzmann and his accompanying Oberfeldwebel moved forward to take command. But they were not cautious enough. The Lt. got badly wounded when another well aimed volley slammed into the German line and hit him in the chest, piercing a lung and an arm. His accompanying Oberfeldwebel was wounded shortly after. Within minutes the airbornes had lost both their officers [Schwarzmann was badly injured, but would recover in June 1940], saw a senior NCO killed and a few other NCO's wounded. The Germans started using hand grenades that were thrown to the pioneers' positions, but some were thrown back and exploded amidst the mixed group of Dutch and German men. A few of the Dutch POW's got wounded, of which two would later succumb to their wounds. The fire fight meanwhile continued. An airborne NCO instructed a Dutch Captain to summon his fellow countrymen to surrender, but when the Dutch officer raised himself from his covered position, he was immediately hit by a Dutch bullet. The pioneers would later state they considered these Dutch military traitors or even turn-coats. They were not, but the few airbornes would not have had the numbers to leave their POW's behind with guards, so that they had been forced to take them along. An alternative would have been to shoot their prisoners, but the airbornes didn't do that. It caused the Dutch POW's to have to live through the danger, with some toll demanded. An ordeal that lasted for hours.

Eventually other airborne squads started to support. It had become clear from the continous small arms fire and grenade detonations that the village siege had run aground. This caused two squads to initiate an outflanking manoeuvre. One squad moved to the left, another to the right of the harbour side. One pioneer was surprised by an airborne and killed from point blank range. The same airborne was killed an instant later by a Dutchman he'd never seen, because he was in an dead angle for him. But yet other airbornes moved in between the pioneers, causing them to have to move away from the main street side. Two pioneers were forced into surrender, soon after the other three followed. Only then the resistance in the village ceased. The airbornes continued the search for more personnel, hesitant to accept that they had been held for a couple of hours by a handful of engineers. But in the end they had to accept that fact and would show their respect and awe for the five men that they had captured.

All seven Dutch pioneers - including the two KIA - were decorated for valour after the war. In the end this handful of (basically noncombattant) men in the Moerdijk position had put up the most significant bit of resistance, also causing most of the German casualties during the raid on this end of the bridge. About half a dozen Germans had been killed, another dozen wounded. Sadly enough also one Dutch officer and an ensign - the same one that had fired up his men to resist the airbornes hours before - as well as an MP NCO had been killed, a few others been wounded, whilst being POW's and getting caught in the cross fire of both sides. On the German side a few medals were earnt too, the one for Lt Schwarzmann being by far the most remarkable 1.

1 The Oberleutnant Schwarzmann was badly wounded in Moerdijk, eventually moved to a Dutch hospital in Dordrecht and would lay critical for a number of days. He was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd and 1st Class for his actions in Moerdijk. It was however decided that he was also awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross for his deeds, albeit that he had in fact been the only platoon commander in the 2nd Battalion that had grossly failed his mission and had - in no way - shown remarkable leadership or courage. It was a sensational show of Luftwaffe public relations by Hermann Göring, who was in desperate need of acknowledgement for his 'new' weapon, that had suffered so badly during the Dutch campaign but fought so hard for recognition within their own ranks. Schwarzmann, already being a German hero as a tripple Gold winner during the Hitler games in 1936, needed to be lifted on the shoulder once again. His fellow airbornes, who knew that the origanic Unteroffizier, that Schwarzmann had been prior to his Olympic triumphs, had only been 'favoured into the airbornes' by his friend Fritz Prager, knew better. They eventually accepted the PR-value of Schwarzmann's Knightscross, but when the vain Schwarzmann started flashing his Knightscross as if he really had earnt the honours, he became a reject amongst airbornes.

The available infantry company, of which the main body was housed in the hamlet around the railway station, had meanwhile taken positions in the trenches of the outer screen, as if no airbornes had landed in their rear. The two infantry platoons and a platoon of MG's that had positions on the north-south axis of the bridgehead, near the railway station Lage Zwaluwe, were led by the Company commander himself. The Captain oddly enough ordered his troops into the southern defences notwithstanding the fact that the airbornes had been witnessed landing to their north. His adjutant warned him for this peculiar order, but the Captain dismissed the protest, saying he had been ordered to take his position. When eventually the airbornes approached the station area and got a fix on the platoons, they cleverly outflanked the Dutch positions and virtually rolled up about one-and-a-half platoon south of the station area. Only about two dozen men managed to escape in the first instance. But a squad of airbornes, that had previously ran over the battery of 6 cm guns, surprised the CC and his remaining men near a farm house, where they killed the Captain and one of his men, caught another ten men or so and saw only a handful escape into the direction of the NW. The Germans lost one or two WIA but had moved more than half a company out of the way. The battle value of the overrun infantry in this sector had been nil, which was a result of a utterly failing commander, who himself had paid the ultimate price however.

At Lochtenburg [west side of the defences] a platoon of infantry - supported by a platoon heavy MG's, later a second platoon of MG's - succeeded in sustaining the first German assault. The platoon commander - cut off from the main command - applied for instructions at the only station he could still reach: nearby Willemstad. When this contact had been established he received orders to have his outfit retreat to Willemstad [15 km west of Moerdijk]. An order that is hard to understand, since the defence of Moerdijk was considered vital. A perfectly in shape section of infantry with five heavy machineguns could have mattered a great deal in those first hours. Nonetheless, during the late afternoon the entire formation would move back to Willemstad. They crossed the Hollandsch Diep from there. It meant that the western side of the southern Moerdijk defences had ceased to exist.

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The railway bridge at Moerdijk (may 1940)

The last platoon of the infantry company had taken position west of the small village Lage Zwaluwe [a mere 2,5 km east of the bridges]. It was incomplete since it had supplied a squad to the rail-way station guard overnight. The remaining 25 men were commanded by a cadet-officer [Ensign]. This unit, that had two light MG's, would oppose the airbornes at a road junction between the village and the station of Lage Zwaluwe. When after some time the Germans managed to outflank the Dutch positions and had been able to kill two men, the Ensign decided that further resistance would only cost lives. He and his men surrendered. At that point the entire southern landhead was under German control. It had taken them six hours to control the area and against the modest loss of only 11 men KIA, of which at least three had been killed on the bridges by fire from the northern defences. About 30 airbornes had been wounded. The Dutch had lost 18 men KIA and the majority of defenders had been take prisoner. About 150 men of the original total occupation of about 500 men had been able to escape.

We shall now see what happened north of the bridges when the German air-assault started at 0400 hours too.

The airborne landing at Willemsdorp

When the German assault planes appeared overhead, the bunkers and AA positions were manned - as they usually were from dusk till dawn. On the bridges and on the main road a couple of guards held watch. All other men were asleep when they were woken up by the first air activity that initially focussed on the Moerdijk (south) side. The sound or roaring machines and rumble of far off explosions woke up the last remaining men. Many of the curious massed outside their barracks or farms, witnessing the diving Luftwaffe planes on the southend of the bridges, when suddenly German fighters started strafing the traffic bridge, the trenches and the barracks on the north side too. When a German bomber dropped four light bombs over the barracks itself (of which only one was a direct hit) - panic broke out. Hastily arriving officers quickly tried to get some order in the lines again. Their second worry was getting the ammo cache opened. The single ammo cache in the camp, that had fortunately been spared, suffered from some offset hinging after the previous bomb attack, so that it took quite some leverage to get the cache opened. While the ammo distribution was ongoing, a loud and low roaring buzz announced the arrival of the about 50 Ju-52's strong air-wing carrying II./FJR.1. All eyes were directed upwards, anxiously awaiting the next unexpected event, when suddenly the white blossoms of dozens of parachutes opened in front of the stunned defenders.

A large contingent of the airbornes landed a stone-toss away from the Dutch camp, just beyond the railway bed, about one click from the gate. Another platoon came aground very nearby the three farm houses that housed the best part of the infantry coy designated for the defence of the south shore of the Hollandsch Diep. Although two airborne platoons had been misdropped too far north, a force of at least four platoons quickly opened its weapons containers and started to move into the direction of the railway bridge and the few farms where personnel of the defence-forces were housed.

Soldiers quartered in barns and farms nearby were quickly overrun. They had not a single round to load their rifles and MG's with. Only the few officers about had a handful of pistol rounds. Little they could do. The men were powerless to the quickly deploying airbornes. Most surrendered, a few escaped, two were killed trying to get away.

At the aforementioned Willemsdorp barracks - which had already been on the receiving end of some German bombs - a considerable number of soldiers managed to overcome the first shock, but others had fled the scene and took cover in the concrete shelters along the water-line or even swum to the other bank of the narrow Kil. No more than about 100 men remained able to put up some sort of defence. The commanding Captain was able to regroup these men together with a 1st Lieutenant. Both had taken care of the swift distribution of ammo and some handgrenades. The Captain moved his men to a position along the slope of the elevated road, close to the traffic bridge. A second group under the 1st Lieutenant  took position opposite the barracks, facing east, adjacent to the Captain and his outfit. From their positions they managed to suppress the Germans that tried to climb over the railway slope that ran parallel to the road at about a 300 m distance. Some of the airbornes kept the Dutch engaged, while others moved forward along the excellent cover that the railway bed provided, silencing one of the large bunkers (next to the track) in the process. After that they moved on towards the railway bridge and underneath. As such they were able to move along side the southern side towards the southwest, near the traffic bridge.

The group of defenders under the Captain had meanwhile managed to prepare some sort of defensive position along the main road, close to a tunnel under the road. They were however soon threatened by airbornes that advanced from the east of them, which had negotiated their way along the river-bank to the east end of the Dutch position. These airbornes could be contained though. Both sides stood ground, whereas a small German party moved on to the base of the traffic bridge, as such connecting with the pioneer Lt. Tietjen and a few of his men of the 7th Company that had landed south of the Hollandsch Deep. They had managed to cross the length of the bridge in a very early stage. The main force of the 7th Company had been unable to cross the traffic bridge, which had meanwhile been blocked by dense MG fire of the main bunker on the north side. All that the airbornes endeavoured to silence this construction proved in vain. It caused them quite some agony and a number of casualties.

At some point a city-bus approached from the direction of Dordrecht (north). It soon appeared that it was transporting airbornes, but it was unclear - at first - whether it were captured airbornes or not. That became clear soon enough when rifle-barrels were suddenly stuck out that started blazing around. The first defenders under the commanding Lieutenant forced the bus to stop and managed to throw in some handgrenades. A number of Germans fell out of the bus, dead or injured, whilst German voices screamed that they were surrendering. But after the (civil) driver and some wounded men had come out, and some of the Dutch rose from their covered positions under the false impression of a silenced enemy squad, all at a sudden grenades were thrown out of the bus and fire was openend once again. A fierce and chaotic skirmish developed, during which quite a number of Dutch were killed or wounded. Other airbornes nearby exploited the moment. Gradually the Germans in and around the bus received reinforcements from the airbornes north and east from them that had managed to proceed under cover of the menace caused by the event. Another bunch of airbornes managed to outflank the Captain and his men and approach the east end of the tunnel, applying the proven concept of a handgrenade saturation shortly followed by a storm attack. Many of the defenders had either been shot or blasted dizzy from the grenades, causing them to release the suppressing grip on the German force nearby. The airbornes didn't let off and moved in. The Captain - meanwhile virtually surrounded by Germans and with hardly any man left in a state to fight - decided to lay down arms. He instructed his men to do so and stick the hands up to the Germans. They were quickly captured and disarmed. Other smaller formations nearby soon followed.

The airbornes in the bus were of the two platoons that had been misdropped and landed much to the north, near the hamlet Tweede Tol. A good two dozen of them had managed to get hold of a bus with a driver and as such managed to intervene in the battle at the bridges. Their appearance had turned out to be all decisive.

Some isolated pockets of resistance - by smaller groups, sometimes with a machinegun - managed to stay out of enemy hands for a while, but in the end all were forced into surrender by either enemy pressure or lack of ammo. Some airborne squads did not hesitate to use Dutch POW's as a protection to force a number of remaining opposition points into surrender. Like the bus event, infringements of the international code, but at the same time, actions that were showing the determination of the airbornes. Yet one MG troop was not detected and would remain in its position until the 12th. Then, starving and cold, the last four defenders would yield and - much to German surprise - appear from their midst with side arms and a heavy MG with their hands up! It probably caused one or two firm butt-kicks on the German side for so much reluctance.

After some time only the block-house [that controlled the traffic bridge] had remained in Dutch hands. The about dozen men occupation of this solid construction was commanded by a career NCO, Sergeant-Major [SM] Van Almkerk. He was the local MP detachment commander. These MP's were infantry men with a policing and security task, occupying strategic defensive position in the entire country. They were almost all professional soldiers. The large block-houses were manned by these men. The bunker occupation had been engaged in battle since almost the first moment and had been able to deny access to the bridge to some Germans coming from the south side, who had tried to link up with the engineers of their platoon. When a number had been killed or wounded, the Germans had taken permanent cover behind segments of the bridge. None had come across anymore.

Click here for larger picture
Moerdijk river casemate

When the German airborne landing had become apparent to the SM - as he was still near the barracks when that event occurred - he had ordered a team to connect the detonation-wires to the bridge charges. For this purpose the squad had to go outside the bunker and unroll the reel from the bunker to the bridge and then connect the wires on about one-third of the length of the bridge to the different charges. An operation that had been practised in peacetime, when it had taken about an hour ...

German machinegun fire prevented this daring enterprise from being achieved. The crew was successful however in denying the airbornes from crossing the bridge to the northern landhead, with exception of a first troop that had managed to cross the bridge prior to the 'open fire command'. All follow up reinforcements had been denied acces. Nonetheless the German Lieutenant Tietjen, that had crossed the traffic bridge leading the first troop, had managed to establish the whereabouts of the charges and was relieved to establish that these had not been wired by the Dutch. Yet Tietjen was anxious to eliminate the Dutch bunker in which he suspected alternative ignition devices to be available. The defending bunker blazed from its forward loop-holes but it lacked any loop-holes on its sides and rear. As a consequence, the airbornes that had landed north of the bridge, had been able to approach the block-house without being challenged by the bunker crew itself. After they had silenced the Dutch defences along the road and around the barracks, the airbornes massed around the elevated and then isolated bunker [it was three stores high]. They first tried to aim projectiles into the loop-holes from positions on the bridge, making use of machineguns and an AT-rifle and trying to get a handgrenade in the hole. This gained them no success whatsoever, while the few defenders on their part were unable to respond to the airbornes in their flanks and rear. This caused a stalemate situation that lasted for quite some time.

At some point the airbornes summoned the Dutch SM to surrender, but he refused. This was followed by the airbornes igiting a few smoke grenades around the casemate in order to blindfold the occupation and prevent them from aiming the main gun and MG. It did not stop the crew from firing in fixed directions. Next the siegers managed to clog the ventilation holes. In reaction the occupants put on their gasmasks and continued the fight. More drastic measures were taken. A few bundled TNT charges were retrieved from the pioneer kit of one of the airborne companies. Some airbornes moved forward and stuck the charges package to one of the heavy steel doors, which caused a massive hole after ignition, also badly shaking up the crew that felt the blast shock through conveyed to the small space. Quickly the airbornes tossed some handgrenades onto the second floor. This prevented the Dutch from operating the anti-tank gun, but still no surrender! When the Germans threatened to blow up the entire construction - that also contained 1,2 tonnes of spare explosives for the bridge in the basement cache - the SM decided that their resistance had reached a worthy end. The last standing few stretched their weapons and came out, dusty and shocked, with their hands held high, but able and worthy to look the enemy straight into his eyes.

Balance of a morning's battle

With the German seizure of this last blockhouse on the north end of the traffic bridge, the battle around the Moerdijk bridges had ended - for that moment. The main objective of capturing the two large bridges intact had been completed. The Germans were overjoyed.

From that moment on it was vital to keep the bridgehead firmly in German hands and deny the Dutch and it's new allies the bridges back. For that purpose the Germans had about 500 men which had to defend the perimeter north and south end of the bridges against any counter measures. Heavy weapons were not at their disposal yet. The heaviest fire-power they could field came from one or two light mortars, machineguns and a few anti-tank rifles.

The Germans had paid a modest price once again, although higher than their easy operations in Scandinavia on the first day of the invasion in April. From the two companies dropped at the north end of the bridge 13 men had been KIA as well as 3 KIA from the men that had landed to the south end but had been shot on the bridge. Another 8 men had been killed in and around Moerdijk. About 50 men had been wounded. The Dutch had lost 20 KIA, but hundreds had been made prisoner. All in all the German losses were about half a company, which was, considering the gains, a very modest loss. On the other hand, it were the heaviest losses these troops had suffered up to that point in their existance, which made the troops undergo these losses with a heavier mood than they would after the devestating operations in May 1941 in Crete, when loss-rates would tip over to heavy.

Counter measures from the south

The landings at the Moerdijk bridges - and the apparent loss of the same objects - was devastating and staggering news to the Dutch general headquarters in The Hague. It was clear that with the small and [meanwhile] shattered Dutch forces on the Island of Dordrecht no remedial action could be taken. The only feasible option that GHQ came up with was a modest counter-attack by the 6th Border Infantry Battalion that had been designated to reinforce the Moerdijk position anyway.

One may wonder about the feasibility of the operation. The assigned battalion had a strength of about 700 men. It had (besides the light MG's and ordinary rifles) only 6 heavy machineguns at its disposal and no mortars. Four modern 4,7 cm anti-tank guns were available, but only with solid armour piercing rounds, no HE. Artillery was unable to assist but in a predetermined rigid pattern, coming from the north. On the southern extremity no arty support would be feasible, whereas the battalion would have to negotiate open terrain against a prepared enemy.

As said before the battalion had held the odd assignment to obstruct the roads from Belgium into Holland. That this assignment was still executed was a typical flaw in the Dutch perception of this war (2). The battalion executed this peculiar task dilligently though and was subsequently ordered [0600 hrs] to advance against the German bridgehead at Moerdijk. A distance of less than 15 km

(2) It was not a typical Dutch flaw though. The Belgian army too had fixed blockades and barricades at their borders, which would frustrate the French troops that massed near the borders when the war was only hours old. Like the Dutch precautions these blocks were a direct result of the strickt neutrality positioning of both countries. The reason why the Dutch still set the roadblocks in the morning of the 10th, was the full responsibility of the staff of the 3rd Corps, of which the commanding General was in charge of all Brabant forces until the Corps evacuated to the north. His staff had considered that the chances that the Germans, once they had swung around the Peel-Raamline or by-passed the Albert Canal line in Belgium, could be able to out-speed the French were significant. If that would be the case the road-blocks would matter. In reality the chances that the French would be out-speeded was between slim and none though. Therefore it was a silly consideration, that would later that day - and the next - cause the French quite a nuisance.

The 2nd Company was sent ahead as a spearhead. They got first acquainted with the enemy when two civil cars came rushing down the road from the general direction of Moerdijk, apparently containing airbornes. This incident took place west of Terheijden, about 10 km from the bridges. These two vehicles were shot at, shots were returned after which the cars quickly returned to where they had come from. A Dutch corporal had been severly wounded during this little exchange of fire. Hereafter the company proceeded to Zevenbergschenhoek - a village about 5 km south of Moerdijk. The little hamlet had been occupied by forward airborne posts that quickly made way when the Dutch arrived and started flanking the German positions. The airbornes quickly acknowledged the threat of the Dutch manoeuvre and pulled back into their main defence.

North of Zevenbergschenhoek laid a huge challenge for the offensive acting Dutch. The area between this village and the outer boundaries of the German bridgehead was nothing but a plain unobstructed sector of about 1,000 metres depth. Easy to defend by a few machineguns of which the airbornes had plenty. The company commander had his unit take a line formation and tried to proceed in a scattered pattern over a large width. The bulk of the progressing company quickly stalled in this manoeuvre pressed down as they were by fierce German MG fire, but the left flank managed to regain control over the former Dutch defence position in the southwest. The Germans that had held this sector were forced to move back to a more northern position. After this initial success the assault was brought to a full stop, because the Dutch failed to materialize and give the breach on the German flank the needed momentum. The airbornes were able to recoup and subsequently pinned down the Dutch denying them any further progress.

Attempts to approach the bridgehead from the east, by the two other companies, utterly failed - although a modest initial success was gained. The insignificant village of Lage Zwaluwe, 3 km from the railway bridge - was freed from airborne forward positions. Then also at that point the Dutch were forced to dig in. The gained terrain was nothing more than a margin that the Germans had been willing to sacrifice in their effort to compress their own little bridgehead and hold that firmly.

One event is still worth mentioning. A Junkers-52 transport plane made a crash landing east of Zevenbergschenhoek - after being hit by AAA elsewhere - and the passengers on board the plane were taken prisoner by a number of Dutch guards that secured the extensive bridging around Oosterhout. The three German MG's on board the plane were stripped from the wreckage and provided a welcome improvement of the modest Dutch arsenal.

Stand-off at Moerdijk

The 6th Border Infantry Battalion had achieved some success. They had managed to considerably decrease the German outer perimeter and deny the airbornes any chance of extending their bridgehead. On the other hand, the airbornes had but one objective: the lasting occupation of the bridges until relieved by powerful land forces. There would only be one way to seriously threaten that objective and that was a well supported assault on the southern bridgehead. The Dutch battalion lacked any means of such support.

The battalion commander developed all kinds of initiatives to get reinforcements and suitable HE ammunition for his anti-tank guns. The adjacent 3rd Border Infantry Battalion was requested for support, but this unit had just been ordered to cross the Hollands Diep and report to Group Kil for offensive action against Waalhaven AFB. The 3rd Corps, being in the process of leaving the southern regio, was called upon for reinforcements and gun ammo, but also they refused. The forces in Dordrecht were contacted, but from there the answer came that they were quite occupied themselves to gain control over the situation at the bridges across the Oude Maas [where an airborne landing had taken place simultaneously to the one at Moerdijk]. Last but not least 3rd Corps managed to convey a request for some tactical air support to the airforce staff in the Hague.

Indeed some air support would be given. First around 1700 hours three Fokker C-V light support planes appeared overhead and attacked the German positions with their 25 kg shrapnell-bombs and machineguns. They were received with a hail of fire from German MG's, of which some were able to strike home and force one Dutch Fokker into an emergency landing to the east of the bridgehead. The German battle report called it a kill, but it was a controlled landing, from which both pilots walked away safely.

Shortly after this event four Fokker C-X light bombers appeared overhead. They each managed to drop a load of eight bombs of 50 kg on the German positions and continued their strike with a number of strafing passes along the German positions. The impressive blast from the 50 kg mine-bombs made more of an impression on the airbornes than the previous fragmentation bombs had done. German reports even speak of some panic amongst the men. Indeed the Dutch infantry managed to move forward another 500 metres, but quickly the Germans regained control and the re-manned machineguns prevented any further advance. One German NCO, member of the battalion staff, had been killed during the event.

Then finally the expeditiously operating battalion-staff managed to establish contact with the Dutch artillery in the Hoekse Waard [northwest of the Moerdijk bridges]. The artillery commander confirmed that four batteries [one 7,5 cm, three 15 cm] were able to prepare some barrages on the German positions. Challenge would be to produce these barrages along exact vectors since no observation would be possible [the distance was over 8,000 metres]. At 1830 the first rounds fell and these landed miraculously accurate on target. One of the later joining batteries however failed to calculate the right length and managed to overshoot the target by no less than approximately 750 mtr. This fire landed right on top of the village of Lage Zwaluwe and unfortunately killed a number of civilians. The artillery was quickly called off via an existing civilian telephone line [the troops themselves had no communication material whatsoever]. The planned assault - which was scheduled to follow an accurate artillery bombardment of the airborne positions - was then postponed to the next morning: at 0100 hours.

Balance of a day

The Germans at the bridges received some reinforcements from the north during the early evening and night. As we shall see later, a connection was established with the troops up north and as such some desperately anticipated 3,7 cm anti-tank guns were received as well as a pioneer platoon bringing along some landmines, which would make excellent defensive aids.

The early transports would however not reach the southern bridgehead without facing some serious challenges. On the opposite side of the Kil [water that ran from the Hollands Diep to the north, along the west side of the Island of Dordrecht], in the southeast corner of the island Hoekse Waard, the last of the block-house casemates was able to cover the traffic bridge with its heavy machinegun. The crew managed to destroy at least two German cars. A German motorbike with sidecar, in which a German arty commander, crashed into a Dutch street block that had not been removed. The driver was killed instanty, the officier in the side car badly damaged. Unfortunately daylight was a necessity to keep most of the effective Dutch fire going and the Germans profitted from the darkness and as such they were able to bring some anti-tank guns into the southern bridgehead overnight.

The balance for that day at this point of the front was clear. The bridges were firmly in German hands. Without significant support the Dutch would be unable to retake this bridgehead, although they had managed to seal off the German perimeter and keep pressure on the German defences. The German losses in the bridgehead had been bearable. Compared to the German targets for that day, losses had been relatively light. Still, the local German command was all but satisfied and relieved. They anxiously awaited the things to come, bearing in mind that they would probably have to hold up their own for another two to three days and expect challenges from arriving and counter attacking French or British troops.