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Part II: The Grebbeline


When we left the ongoing battle at the Grebbeberg, the Germans were in full preparation for an attack on the stopline - the last organised defence-line.

The Dutch on their part had planned a counter offensive with four battalions [due to incomplete companies about 2.000 men]. Their goal was the recovery of the frontline parts that had been lost and subsequently taking the Germans who had penetrated the main defences on the Grebbeberg in a sack.

The Field Army Command had promised that a heavy RAF bombardment would support the assault, although the RAF never confirmed such a mission to be scheduled. Artillery barrages would preceed the attack that was planned to start just after sunrise.

In the meantime an SS formation of about 100-150 men under 3rd Battalion commander Obersturmbannführer Hilmar Wäckerle [KIA 2 juli 1941 by Sovjet sniper] had broken through the stopline during overnight. The remainder of that force [about 50 men] had fortified itself close to the viaduct in Rhenen, in a factory. They got isolated because the Dutch managed to close the gap in the stopline and the Germans missed the window of pouring in more troops after the SS.

The German command [Generalleutnant Karl von Tiedemann] had ordered the Waffen SS troops on the Grebbeberg to be replaced by the 207.ID, more specifically: by its 322 Infantry Regiment [Oberst Fritz Neidholdt]. The SS units were moved to the northern part of the Grebbeberg, where they were assigned for a mission to take Achterberg and the northern part of the stopline between Achterberg and the Grebbeberg. After successfully breaking through the stopline at Achterberg, they were under instructions to swing around the Dutch defences and as such complete the circle. The SS assault would be executed with two battalions, one in the rear. In the end the 3rd Battalion would not appear. Most of it had been dispersed in the area between the main road an the Rhine, with about a company size behind the Dutch lines and the balance in front of the stopline. A considerable part of the battalion had been wounded or killed too.

Furthermore, X.Corps had received news that as off the 13th they would be supported by a group of [30] Stuka dive-bombers of the StG77 [Sturzkampf Geschwader 77].

Colliding forces

The Dutch counterattack had been scheduled to kick-off at 0430 hours. We already saw that this hour was impossible to match by the four battalions involved. These battalions [II-24RI, I-29RI, III-29RI and I-20RI] were still preparing for the assault. None of them was even in the vicinity of its initial advance position. Two battalions were more or less ready but the two others were still in transit.

The two leading battalions [I-29RI and III-29RI] started their advance at 0700 hours. The artillery - unaware of this - had already executed its orders at the original hour of attack and was ordered to repeat those fire missions. But objections that own troops could be hit intervened again. In the end they pounded the German occupied area well away from the assault zone, due to the fact that the Dutch commanders feared to hit isolated Dutch positions! The British bombardment obviously never came. The origin of the Army promise of this RAF assault is a mystery until this very day. The only air support received was that of one group of four Dutch light bombers escorted by five fighters. They managed to release 1,600 kg of bombs on the German artillery positions [without loss of planes], but this had no effect on the German strength whatsoever.

The advancing troops soon reached the stopline defences north of the Grebbeberg, but from thereon the challenge became real. The SS had also started moving forward in the early morning. They had overtaken the so called 'intermediate defence-line' - a perimeter defence that had been constructed north of the Grebbeberg in an area where the stopline and frontline moved so far away from eachother that over 1 km distance had grown. That area - roughly between the northern frontside of the Grebbeberg and the inundation east of Achterberg - had been reinforced with this intermediate defence-line. These positions were quite easily overtaken by the SS, after which the Germans prepared for an advance against the stopline at Achterberg. In the process of that manoeuvre they bumped into the point forces of the Dutch moving east. Both formations then met head-to-head.

In the meantime the previous Dutch air-raid was repeated [1100 hours], but again it did not support the troops engaged in the fighting. It boosted moral for a couple of minutes, but soon the intensive battle between the Dutch and the SS sucked away all moral that was left in the Dutch soldiers. The assault stranded and the Dutch were forced into the defensive. The German artillery overjoyed itself confronted as they were with the sitting ducks on the open plain between Achterberg and the Grebbeberg. So did quite a number of SS heavy MG crews that had taken positions at a few farmhouses on the edge of the battle ground. The Dutch - not supported by artillery and lacking sufficient supressing MG fire-support - stood no chance whatsoever.

Around noon the two Dutch point-battalions started falling back. The troops behind them had already before felt hesitant to enter the open area where numerous bullets went by buzzing their heads and artillery air bursts covered the entrance of the battle ground. The rear Dutch MG positions were evacuated by most of the crews, soon followed by other units of the rear two assault-battalions. Minutes after the noon hour, the counter attack was transformed into a chaotic retreat in which also the original occupation of the stopline defences was sucked away. Only stray groups maintained some sort of position around the actual front zone, but at many locations the SS had driven off the Dutch but halted the advance. Clearly they were reluctant to proceed beyond the stopline. Soon it came apparent why; an air strike was about to seal the Dutch fate. When the Stuka bombers appeared at 1330 hours it was "sauve-qui-peut". The remainder of the two forward Dutch battalions and stopline occupants fled in blind panic, after they had left 50 men KIA on the field of battle. In the rear another 25 men had fallen. The SS lost 24 registered men [plus 30 men MIA of the Standarte Der Führer during the entire Grebbeberg battle on this day. Many of those fell at the viaduct area and not in the collision zone. The Stuka raid did not kill many Dutch in the plain around Achterberg. The follow up attack by another squadron was aimed at the defences sealing off the village of Rhenen and Achterberg. One direct hit in a troop trench killed 8 men in one blow. It sent entire companies on the run. It was the beginning of the end. Officers were unable to control their units anymore. A wild run to the west started. A run though, of which the German remained unaware. On the contrary - the Germans reported back to the rear that firm Dutch resistance along the railway and the village of Rhenen had prevented them to break through!

The stopline battle

The battle for the stopline on the Grebbeberg would be a classic battle that could easily have taken place during WWI. That it came to that was mainly due to poor German tactics.

The 322 RI had replaced the SS units on the Grebbeberg overnight. Of course with exception of the isolated group Wäckerle and about a company size SS men of the 3rd Battalion that later joint the 322.IR. Two battalions of the regiment deployed for the assault on the stopline. I Battalion [about 900 men] proceeded north of the main road, III Battalion [about 900 men] south of the road. II Battalion followed in the rear (and would join later).

The Dutch defence consisted of the [incomplete] 1st Battalion of 8RI [reinforced by two companies of 11RI and 19RI] and half an MG company north of the road, and one company south of the road [this was only a gross 250 m length of trenches] assisted by a few MG's and mortars. Furthermore, numerous men that had found refuge in the stopline defences, like quite a number of men of a 24.RI battalion that had the night before been sent in to counter assault the German advance. They had been dispersed in the dark and dense forest on top of the Grebbeberg. The battalion had lost many men during night fighting skirmishes all along the stopline as well as during the SS break-through on the southside of the ridge.

The first German offensive against the stopline [in the early morning] was rejected. The second attempt however gained them a success in the northern sector. As off this point the fate of the line was sealed. The Germans were able to come into the rear of many Dutch positions. Nevertheless the battle for the stopline would rage on for hours. The soldiers of 322.IR were not quite as professional as the SS stormtroops. They stormed the Grebbeberg defences in a broad line formation, exposing themselves in an oldfashioned way on the open slopes of the ridge. Their first assault stranded in a bloody mess. The second one only gained a local success in the northern sector, but that was enough to be able to come to the rear of the stopline. But then again, the Heer troops were quite foolish in their follow up. The SS usually suppressed the forward side of the Dutch defences while they simultaneously outflanked it and forced isolated trenches into surrender by means of grenades and MP fire. The Heer troops attacked from all sides, tossing grenades that even killed their own comrades coming from different directions. It all led to avoidable man-to-man collisions, where the butts of guns and the bayonets were as fierce a weapon as the bullets and grenades. The seizure of the stopline, in particular north of the main road, was therefore a bloody affaire, also to the Germans who lost about 60-70 men KIA at the stopline alone.

At around 1300 hours most of the northern stopline had crumbled and German units started advancing westwards towards the railway line. Still at some isolated stopline locations defenders stood firm and had to be overtaken in force. Many of them died in these last hours of the battle.

Also south of the road the defenders had to give in. For quite some time the attackers were held at a distance by bombarding them with hand-grenades, but after some time the few brave defenders had to give way and they retreated to the rear. The four hours battle over the possession of the stopline had gained the Germans a decisive victory over the Dutch.

The stopline defenders had to defend themselves without any significant artillery support. Again the Dutch commanders failed to apply the well represented artillery units due to their everlasting fear of hitting own troops. Not even the zone well east of the stopline was considered free of own troops, although the Germans had occupied this terrain since the previous day already. All mortars available lacked ammunition after the first hours of the battle had passed and the airforce was only permitted to raid at third echelon depth. It all came down on the men in the trenches with their rifles, machineguns and [rare] infantry guns. The German artillery on the other hand cooperated closely with the infantry. It was noted by Dutch defenders that a single flare or light signal was sufficient to pin point the Dutch troops and have them suffer from light and medium artillery shelling. Also the German machinegun and mortar crews distinguished themselves by producing very accurate fire-support. Nevertheless the German support advantages faded with their tactic to approach the Dutch trenches in large volumes, preventing heavy support weapons of contributing in the final stages.

Early in the afternoon the last active Battalion commander [of 8RI], Major Landzaat, was sieged by the Germans in his command post. This post was situated a few hundred metres behind the stopline, in the Zoo that was located in the centre of the Grebbeberg. Some of his officers and a handful of men joint him. The building they were about to defend was surrounded by a few trenches, but the structure itself was fragile and totally unsuitable for defence. It was moreover quite exposed.

Before the war the Major had told his wife that defending the Grebbeberg was considered by him as a secret and holy mission. The orders "to the last man and the last bullet" - something that he had confronted his men and officers with before and during the war - were mandatory to him. He was persistent not to give way. He personally took charge of the defence of his command post.

The CP was a small building, belonging to the catering facilities of the Zoo [Ouwehand Zoo - still open today]. It had a small cellar and two floors. On the topfloor he posted a number of men with a light machinegun. He himself and the other officers stayed on the first floor and they fired at the Germans who threatened the CP from three sites. Many of the men got wounded, some got killed. In the end the Germans positioned some heavy machineguns and an AT gun around the perimeter in order to destroy the building. When the building started collapsing, the already wounded Major ordered the survivors of the top floor to come down. Meanwhile all but a few were either wounded or killed. The Major decided that his brave men had done enough and ordered them to reach safety and continue the fight against the Germans elsewhere. He thanked them for their bravery and loyalty and reluctantly the last defenders left the building by making use of the connecting trenches. When these men had reached safety in the west, the Major charged out of the building with his last remaining clips in both his pistols. He was almost immediately killed by German fire. His remains were found underneath the burnt out building a few days later by ... his wife. The Major would be posthumously rewarded with the highest Dutch medal of honour. He would be a symbol of the tough and dramatic Dutch defences at the Grebbeberg during the May War.

Also the command post of the regimental commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Hennink, was attacked by the 322 RI. He had organised the men that had assembled around him, which was a mixture of several units. Altogether it was a group of about 100 men. The Regiment CP was a quite extensive trench structure, that could contain these 100 men easily. But the nearby groove and forest prevented a clear window for the defenders and an relatively easy approach for the attackers, moreover an open invitation to snipers taking positions in the surrounding tree-tops.

Several times the Germans tried to overrun the CP, but they were rejected time and again. A couple of times German fighter planes punished the defenders. Some men were killed, others suffered severe wounds. Soon the CP turned into a defended field hospital due to the many men wounded. Notwithstanding the fact that they were surrounded by numerous Germans, the Dutch were able to stand ground. The Lieutenant-Colonel continuously fired up his men and he did not hesitate to expose himself on occasions in order to support his troops in their trenches.

Gradually the German pressure relieved and in the early evening it became clear that they had left the direct vicinity of the CP for what it was. In the late evening the roaring of engines was heard in the general direction of the main road. Only sporadic fire-bursts heard was an indication of ceased hostilities. The surviving group would remain in its position until the next day. First the Lieutenant-Colonel instructed one NCO and a soldier to take the regiment colours to safety by crossing the Rhine. The two men succeeded in doing so. Later the entire group would try to reach the southern bank of the Rhine, but on the 15th they became aware of the Dutch army capitulation and gave themselves up. The Lieutenant-Colonel Hennink would never overcome the defeat of his regiment and the horror of the battle at the Grebbeberg. He would die a mentally broken man shortly after the war. As an honour to his services and his courage he would be buried at the War Cemetery on top of the Grebbeberg ... resting between his 425 men that had perished during the three days battle.

The battle continues

When the Germans had bashed through the stopline they had found themselves stuck again against an improvised line of defence alongside the western slope of the railway line. As one may remember, this railway line was sunken in between two steep slopes [reinforced with barbed wire and some machinegun positions on the western slope]. The railway line only became level at the north of the Grebbeberg. Many Dutch formations had occupied the western side of the railway line during the 13th. The German airstrike that struck also them had however chased off a lot of them. But still some determined units held the line and all German attempts to cross the railway ended in Dutch fire.

The SS men at the factory close to the viaduct tried to break-out of their position in the morning. Their first attempt was accompanied by the tactic to dress up as Dutch soldiers. They stripped their POW's and tried to surprise the defenders at the viaduct this way. But these determined men were not taken by surprise. It wasn't the first time the SS used dirty tricks to reach their goals and after three days of battle the Dutch had grown into battle hardened soldiers. They soon recognized the German boots underneath their Dutch uniforms [the Dutch generally wore puttees in stead of boots] and they killed many of the SS men. A second attempt by the SS was also rejected and this time Wäckerle himself got wounded a second time. Only during the early hours of the afternoon Wäckerle and his few remaining men were released by a group of comrades of the 3rd Battalion. The twice wounded Wäckerle [back and arm shot] was rushed to a hospital in the rear and would stay hospitalised for quite some time. Still in hospital he received both the Iron Cross I and II. The Knights Cross was refused to him, likely due to the fact that his Heer superior [Generalleutnant von Tiedemann] had not approved of his action to break-through the Dutch defences when in fact Wäckerle had been instructed to fall back and be replaced by a 322.IR battalion. After all, Wäckerle had left his sector scarcely occupied when he decided to break through. Would he have failed, the entire south side of the Grebbeberg would have laid open for the Dutch. A hypothetical matter, but still one that could well have been the reason why Wäckerle was refused the Knights Cross.

The German offensive stalled during the mid-afternoon session. They had been reporting back that the Dutch continued the defence. The 322.IR regrouped and reorganised, mainlu on the eastside of the Grebbeberg. The SS men [3rd Battalion] were taken back from the Grebbeberg and just a thin screen of troops remained in contact with the Dutch of which no counter offensive action was expected. The Dutch detachment at the viaduct blew up this structure and moved back. The adjacent hussars and other formations had already been retreating from the railway defence and around 1600 hrs only a few dozen defenders occupied the front sector in Rhenen.

Retreat of the Field Army

The Dutch Field Army Command had already prepared secret retreat orders on the 12th after it became obvious that the frontline at the Grebbeberg had fallen. In the early afternoon of the 13th it soon became apparent to the staff of the Field Army that the Grebbeline was about to be decisively penetrated in the Grebbeberg sector.

At around 1700 hours the general retreat of the entire Grebbeline - involving about 50.000 defenders - was ordered. The local units were ordered to leave behind a screen of troops in order to pretend a standing defence. Some artillery units were involved and they were ordered to lay intensive fire on German positions during the evening and night. As such a diversion would be created which would camouflage the retreat of two entire Field Army Corps's. The trick would fully succeed; even to such an extend that some German commanders in the central sector thought Dutch counter attacks were imminent!

At the Grebbeberg sector however the Germans did not buy it. They had started regrouping their battered forces after the intensive and costly fight at the 13th. At the Grebbeberg alone [this day], the 207.ID [particularly 322.RI] lost over 90 men KIA and a couple of hundred wounded. The majority of these casualties fell in the lines of the I. and III. Battalion. That was a considerable loss and moreover many units had dispersed in the densily woody area. Therefore many units were pulled back from the railway line to regroup. This operation started in the afternoon and did not end before the early evening hours.

In the meantime [around 1700 hrs] a Dutch unit - a company of the 11th Border Infantry Battalion [that had distinguished itself in the south during the first day of the war] - unaware of the general retreat, assaulted the German positions along the railway and even chased off the German occupation of the factory grounds and the railway station. They soon discovered that no friendly troops were left in Rhenen and fell back. But their bold attack had impressed the Germans in such a way that the latter came under the impression that indeed the Dutch would not give up the Grebbeline. New instructions were given to IR.322 and SS Der Führer to still that day assault the Dutch in Rhenen. Starting time would be 2100 hrs. The SS would outflank Rhenen and therefore initiate the assault. Rhenen was pounded by artillery when the SS moved forward from Achterberg. Around 2130 hrs they discovered that no defenders were left whatsoever.

Quickly a pursuit unit was formed from SS motorised and armoured units and around 2200 hrs this force started pursuing the Dutch. They would however only retrieve some rear parties, but the main force had escaped already. Curiously enough, the discovery of the Germans at Rhenen was not communicated with the 227.ID to the north [possibly not even with X.Corps]. This division would still prepare overnight for harsh fighting in the Grebbeline - convinced as they were that the Dutch stood firm and wouldn't give in ...

Aftermath of the Grebbeberg battle

First of all a word about options. Military skilled men of today would probably pose the question why the Dutch had not sealed off the German Grebbeberg saillant with fresh troops rather than taking back two entire Corps's over a 30 km wide open stretch, which in itself is a very risky operation. The answer is that the Dutch lacked the fresh troops to organise an efficient improvised defence west of Rhenen. Moreover, the existing defence line had been quite extensively prepared. Covered and dug-out artillery positions, trenches, pill boxes and quite clear dislocation of forces. An improvised defence west of Rhenen was not facilitated by the terrain advantages the Grebbeberg area offered. Much of an improvised defence would have been shaped in quite open country that lacked a river or alternative natural barrier to cover the defences behind. Should such an improvised defence have been broken once more, there would have been no cover up of such disaster whatsoever. It would have jeopardized the entire two Field Army Corps's in the Grebbeline. Bearing this in mind, it was the one and only option to take the Field Army back onto the Eastfront of Fortress Holland. A defence that at least had some prepared positions and moreover rising inundations in front of it. Inundations that would cover most of its approach area's.

The battle at the Grebbeberg had ended. Three days the Dutch had managed to withhold the German machine. The Dutch had distinguished themselves to give such an opposition to the attackers. On the other hand the Germans had managed to take the Grebbeberg defences with relative ease. The first two days two battalions of the SS regiment Der Führer had born the torch. They had performed outstandingly, with the only exception to their battlefield behaviour that was smuthered by too many breaches of the international code. But then again, storm troops don't often take prisoners. About 2,000 men of the SS regiment had fought themselves up and over the Grebbeberg, to be assisted by the regular infantry only on the third and last day. The determination of both sides gave the battle for the Grebbeberg - fought in an area not much bigger than about six square km - its fame and glory. In three days time on this small piece of soil, about 700 men had paid the highest price and probably about 3,500 had been wounded. About 20,000 men had been involved in the actual battle. Quite a milestone in the German Fall Gelb campaign.

On the Dutch side the casualty figures were open and honest. In total 18 officers and 407 NCO's and men had lost their life during the three days of battle. Bearing in mind that these men fought and died on a relatively small perimeter [two by three kilometres], this was a heavy loss. On the German side the figures show a loss of 238 men KIA. Of these men about 100 were of the SS Standarte Der Führer. Especially about the losses of the SS remains quite some confusion up until today. Many reports of trucks full of wounded and killed men during the first days of the battle do not match the relatively low figures that the official SS reports show. Still it does not matter. The official figures show a loss of "only" around 100 SS men, and we will stick to these figures.

The battle at the Grebbeberg - of which many features and landmarks are still very easy to recognize today - became a symbol of the Dutch defences during the May War. To many of the German veterans, the battle also was an impressive and dramatic event. Some of them had participated in the war in Poland, but these already battle hardened troops experienced the fierce fighting on this Dutch hill as the worst experience up to that point. The Germans baptised the hill "Teufelsberg" - which meant "Devil's Mountain". It wouldn't be until the operations in the Soviet-Union that they learnt that war could be far more dramatic and hard than they had experienced on that beautiful green hill in Holland ...

Last but not least we find that tribute should be made to both parties. The Dutch housefathers and sons - poorly trained and equipped - who fought as lions in their cheap trenches and unfitting clothing. They paid the bill of decades of anti-military politics.

And a tribute to the Germans, who showed that they were very skilled and courageous soldiers. Although the SS already showed in these early war days that nothing would stop them from reaching their goals - not even any Convention or human right - they also showed that the Germans were capable of producing very courageous and bold storm troopers. The tragedy of war [thus far] reached a peak at the Grebbeberg and it was paid for with a pool of blood from young men who fought for their respective countries and believes. Tribute to those who offered their lives and [mental] virginity - on both sides! To no participant of this battle life would be the same again.