Part II: The Peel-Raamline
Introduction to the Peel-Raam defences
The Peel-Raamline had been constructed as a main defence-line but would not serve as such in the end.
The important Defence-Canal - that was the main tank obstruction in front of about two-third of the defences - had been dug out during the mobilisation period. It had also functioned as a work-project for unemployed labourers. Behind the canal a cordon-shaped casemate line had been built. In essence this casemate line comprised pill boxes for light and heavy machineguns directed to the east, behind which the ocassional flanking casemate that was intended to suppress any local penetration. A few hundred metres [at some locations the distance was considerably more!] behind this first reinforced line, a considerable trench-line had been constructed. This was the main-defence zone, protected by vast minefields and dense barbed wire obstructions in front of it. Closely behind this second line, artillery would be placed to support the main-defences. Quality-wise the Peel-Raamline was the best permanent defence-line of the Dutch. That does however not mean anything more than that the balance of defences were in quite a poor state. The Peel-Raamline had plenty of short falls. Like poor protection against airstrikes and sustained heavy shelling, very poor auxillary trench work to the rear and - due to very flat landscape - a high profile of the trenches and casemates. Moreover, the first line reinforcements had practically all been constructed on the edge of the canal in stead of at some distance away from the west-side what would have improved the in-depth weapon coverage considerably.
The Peel-Raamline ran from the small river Raam in the north to the swamp-area in the south, called the Peel. It ended at the Belgian border at Weert. To the north the line was continued by the Maas-Waal-line on the other side of the Maas. This defence system connected Weert in the south, via the Peel-Raam line, Maas-Waal line, Betuwe-line and finally Grebbeline to the IJsselmeer [called Zuiderzee in those days]. It cut the country in two at the most narrow centre.
The tragedy that hit the fate of the Peel-Raamline was an event that occured in the late thirties. It turned out that the Belgian army did not intend to continue the southern extremity of the line on their soil, although this wouldn't have cost the Belgians too much effort. The distance between the most southern position of the Peel-Raamline to the Albert Canal [behind which the Belgian defences began] was not very long. The fact that the Belgians refused to even station any troops in this gap [behind the Belgian Zuid-Willemsvaart] resulted in a far wider gap of about 40 kilometres over the west-east axis, just south of the Belgian border. This was undefended area, and as such any German force could relatively easy swing around the Peel-Raamline once it had reached Weert. Obviously this huge liability had been acknowledged by the military.
The wide gap would have to be defended by the most mobile Dutch unit, the Light Division. This unit comprised about 9,000 men. It was equipped with two squadrons of heavy armoured cars, motorised artillery and mobile - partially motorised - infantry. Notwithstandig the fact that this unit was rather well equipped it takes no genius to realise that 40 km of wide open country could by no means be defended by a mere 9,000 men.
A determinded and prolongued defence of the Peel-Raamline had become a huge liability with the Belgian army unattached to it. Bearing in mind that a considerable part of the Dutch army would defend the Peel-Raamline [and the Maasline in front of it], and would thus be seriously jeopardized by a German outflanking manoeuvre, the Dutch strategy was modified in March 1940 under the new CIC. The new CIC General Winkelman decided that the better part of the IIIrd Army Corps and the Light Division - together about 30.000 men - would be taken back from the south only 24 hours after X-hour.
As a consequence of this revised strategy, each sector previously housing a full infantry regiment would in stead contain a full battalion to man the trenches and casemates. In plain numbers; 750 men in stead of 2,500 men. All modern artillery and the majority of anti-tank guns and mortars would retreat with the IIIrd Army Corps and Light Division. Anti aircraft artillery would not be available at all, apart from the river crossing area's. The only artillery that remained available were three battalions with 12 obsolete 84 mm guns each. Three of these guns had the same fire-power as one modern piece of 75 mm! The maximum effective range was no more than about 4,000 metres. These three artillery battalions had been distributed over three different locations. Besides that very modest artillery support each infantry battalion had only four old infantry guns of 57 mm at its disposal. This collection of obsolete guns represented the entire supporting fire-power of the forces in the Peel-Raamline!
To make everything even more perfect for the defenders, the new strategy had only been disclosed on top brass level. The Germans were obviously not to know of the high risk strategic retreat plan. The battalions that were designated to stay knew no better than that in case of a German invasion the trenches behind them would be flooded with troops. Nothing of the sort would happen. The main trench line would stay empty ...
What did this mean in numbers? The total length of the defence line was about 75 km. It was a bit triangle shaped. The southern part situated behind the Zuid-Willemsvaart, the northen part behind the defence canal. In total 14 battalions defended the Maas area (including border patrols and posts) and the Peel-Raamline. These battalions were all forced into a taskforce like division called the Peel Division. Normally a Dutch division had no more than nine battalions. The Peel Division was not shaped like an ordinary division though. It lacked almost all regular division support units, it had a small staff and moreover a vast area to control. Mind you, the entire sector this division had to control was 25 x 85 km large! This had to be done with hardly any communication equipment whatsoever, a small staff and hardly any staff troops available. This mission impossible had to be commanded by a Colonel.
The German force
The Germans on their part were well prepared. They anticipated meeting a considerable Dutch force on their way since they remained totally unaware of the new Dutch plans. What - on the other hand - the Germans were very much aware of, were the French plans to have the entire 7th Army sent up north. The Germans had a high regard of this unit, and counted on some serious encounters. They knew that quite a considerable amount of French armour would be part of the 7th Army, including a strong S-35 medium-tank battalion.
The German plan has been addressed before. For a clear and easy reference we shall briefly summarize it again. Their prime objective was to reach the bridges at Moerdijk as soon as possible. That part of the strategy had been practised in war-games over and over again. The general staff conviction was that it would be imperative that the light airborne troops at Moerdijk would be relieved D-Day plus three; in other words, in the evening of the 12th.
Second objective was to put a firm seal on the door to Fortress Holland to the French. The French push to the north had to be stopped and cut off in the area north of Antwerp. As such the northern leg of the projected surrounding of the Allied forces in Belgium would be established.
The third objective was to reach the shores of the Dutch coast at Walcheren. This would prevent Allied landings here, and would seal the fate of Antwerp as an available harbour for the Allies. This meant that the German main-force in Brabant would be split up once the area of Tilburg-Breda was reached. Three separate forces would then be formed. The first and strongest [9.PD, 256.ID, one SS Standarte plus remains of the 7.FD of Generalleutnant Student] would occupy the Moerdijk area with the bulk to proceed north in order to penetrate Fortress Holland. The second one [254.ID and the balance of the SS Verfügungsdivision] would seal off the northern flank of Antwerp and the last one - the smallest force [one SS Standarte with some reinforcements] - would push to the beaches of Walcheren. In order to achieve these objectives within this critical time path, it was imperative that the Peel-Raamline would be decisively broken by the evening of the 10th. Aware as the Germans were of the limited infrastructure of Brabant, their largest fear was the logistical challenge of negotiating their huge army to the west over the few narrow roads available.
In order to be able to penetrate the Peel-Raamline soonest the Germans planned a series of special force and task-force raids to gain control over vital crossings at the Maas, such as the bridge at Neerbosch, Gennep, Venlo and Roermond. As we known only the Gennep bridge we saw falling in their hands intact. Subsequently - after succesfully crossing the Maas over the intact bridges - four trains [each containing a battalion of infantry] were scheduled to penetrate the Peel-Raamline; one train at Ravenstein [northwest of the Peel-Raam line], one at Mill [north], one at Meijel [central] and the other at Weert [south]. These transported units would be unloaded in the rear of the defences - aware as the Germans were of the fact that the line had hardly any defences pointed to the west. Should these operations be successful, the Germans were confident that the Peel-Raamline would be decisively penetrated at D-Day plus one. Their plans and expectations would appear to be anxiously accurate ...
Opposing the northern sector of the Peel-Raamline were 254.ID in the far north and 256.ID south of that, both of XXVI.AK. In the centre and south of the line IX.AK would operate with 56.ID opposite Meijel and 30.ID in the Weert area.