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. It was a very costly project that had a very sour fate.
The concentration of significant Dutch forces in the south-eastern area of the country had been a prime defence strategy of the Dutch general staff, since a German invasion of the country was considered opportune to the effect of the German field army requiring the manoeuvre space south of the Dutch rivers to push into Belgium and ultimately France. The Dutch considered the Germans far too strong to stand any chance against in an all out war, so the basic thought was to leave the Germans the southeast of the country to manoeuvre and form a defence in the Peel region - an area of swamps and forests - to guide the German forces into Belgium. This theory was quite well borne within the Dutch general staff and when things got tensioned again after 1935, the acting commander of the general staff requested his operations section to re-assess the situation in the Peel-region, that had seen quite some cultivation and loss of natural qualities over the decades. Staff officers assessed that the situation had not progressed favorably but that with additional reinforcements, the Peel region would still be prefered to concentrate one or two army corpses in case of a full mobilisation. This advise went without any consideration of alliances or allied warfare and was as such merely founded on an isolated case of defence. When the repossession of the Rhineland by Germany shifted the odds for the Belgian and French defences, causing the Belgian main defence to shift back from the Meuse area to the rear fortifications east of Antwerp, the Dutch Peel concentration became a dangling defence with no continuation whatsoever besides the Dutch-Belgian border. This aspect was dismissed by the Dutch CIC and the digging of a canal and the construction of vast numbers of bunkers along the defence-line was continued.
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 labour-project for unemployed. One hand washes the other, or so the politicians thought. Directly behind the canal a cordon-shaped casemate line had been built, functioning as the frontline. 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 and repel any local penetration. In between the casemates one would find almost no troops to cover the flanks of the pill-boxes against penetration attempts. A huge weakness of the line was the large distance between singel pill-boxes on some off-side stretches. The loss of one pill box (or automatic weapon therein) could jeopardize an entire section. Double-redundant cover was not achieved in most sectors, except for a few evident strategic positions, like the village of Mill, where the battle of Mill would rage for more than a day.
A few hundred metres - at some locations the distance was considerably more -behind this first reinforced frontline a deep trench-line was constructed. This was considered the main-defence sector ['Hoofdweerstand'], protected by vast minefields and dense barbed wire obstructions in front of it. Less concrete bunkers though, much was old fashioned dug-outs and semi-permanent reinforcements from timber, clay and earth. These trenches and hide-outs would contain the battalions of infantry that had to firmly defend the line. Closely behind this second main line of defence one would find the artillery in support of both the main-defence and the frontline.
Quality-wise the Peel-Raamline was the best permanent defence-line the Dutch had. It was however not a defence-line that would have much endurance in a modern conflict. The Peel-Raamline had plenty of short falls. Like vast area's of exposure from the sky, very poor protection against air-strikes and sections that would be vulnerable to sustained heavy shelling. Also when it would come to infantry fighting is suffered from poor auxillary trench work to the rear and - due to a very flat landscape - a high profile of the trenches and casemates, making them quite distinctive by daylight. The frontline 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 pill-box line behind the canal had hardly any depth, what seriously diminished the value, particularly because the rear defences of the pill-boxes were scarce or non-existant. A local penetration of the line would make a flanking clear sweep a piece of cake.
The Peel-Raamline ran from the small insignificant river Raam (affluent from the Meuse) in the north to the swampy, peat area in the south, called the Peel. The line ended at the Belgian border at Weert (actually the hamlet Dorplein). To the north the line was continued by the Maas-Waal-line on the other side of the Meuse. This defence system connected Weert in the south, via the Peel-Raam line, the Maas-Waal line, the Betuwe-line and finally the Grebbeline to the IJssellake [called 'Zuiderzee' in those days]. On a map one can see that it cut the country in two at the most narrow centre.
During the mobilisation in September 1939 and the subsequent concentration of Dutch and Belgian forces on either side of the border, it turned out that the Belgian army did not intend to continue the southern extremity of the Dutch defence-line on their soil, although this would not have costed the Belgians too much effort. The distance between the most southern position of the Peel-Raamline to the Albert Canal [behind which the Belgian forward defences began] was not very long. The fact that the Belgians refused to station any defensive 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 8,000 men. It was organically equipped with two squadrons of heavy armoured cars, two battalions of motorbike hussars, four batteries of motorised artillery, motorised anti-tank guns and mobile - partially motorised - infantry. Notwithstandig the fact that this unit was well equipped it takes no genius to realise that 40 km of wide open country could - by no means - be efficiently defended by a mere 8,000 men. Two border infantry battalions were added to destruct bridges and construct heavy blockades. The would thereafter take second line defences in assistance of the Light Division.
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 during the first night of the war. Until then it would stay, to keep up the facade that the Dutch would seriously defend Brabant. In reality the Dutch would evacuate the main force, leave a screen defence behind and get the costly troops back behind the rivers to concentrate all forces on the defence of the Fortress Holland.
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 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 and the occasional modern AT gun. This collection of obsolete guns and a handful of modern AT guns represented the entire supporting fire-power of the (remaining) forces in the Peel-Raamline!
To make everything even more desperate to 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 and that they were just the most forward formation. 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, but that was twice. First the Maasline with a relative length of about 80 km and behind that the Peel-Raam with little over 70 km of length. In total 150 km of defence line. The Peel-Raamline was sort of triangular shaped. The southern part situated behind the Zuid-Willemsvaart, the northen part behind the defence canal. In total 15 battalions and three arty battalions defended the Peel-Raam line. In front of that 7 infy battalions defended the Meuse-line in this sector (including border patrols and posts). One more battalion defended the Belgian border west of Weert, so to the southwest of the rest of the division. Two battalions of engineers were available for demolition duties. These 23 infy battalions were all forced into a taskforce like division called the Peel Division. Normally a Dutch division had no more than nine infy battalions, so less than half of what this odd Peel Division had. 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 Hague had had no Generals to spare, notwithstanding the fact that most likely this hard-worked Colonel would have to coordinate with Belgian and French troops too.
The task of the Peel Division and the extremely poor arrangements made to support it and instruct it properly, can only be assessed as gross negligence by CIC Winkelman and his chief of staff General H.F.M. van Voorst tot Voorst. The strategy by Winkelman was not just a statement of isolation and non-alliance, but also a disregard to the troops and executing officers involved. The instruction the the Colonel commanding, L.J. Schmidt, had been merely "That is your assignment, hush hush over it, only your X/O may know, and good luck to you. For further instructions call the head of operations GHQ". This was four weeks ahead of the German invasion. And for those who read this and think that this is overdone; it isn't. This is as raw as it came.
The German force
The Germans on their part were well prepared, very well. 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 sent significant troops up north. Also British troops were expected. The Germans had a high regard of British forces and counted on some serious encounters. In March and April 1940 German war-games had the red army troops arrive with two to three divisions in the area of Antwerp-Breda on the third day of the invasion. German goal was to outspeed and outmanoeuvre those.
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 Anglo-French. Any Anglo-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 would be reached. In most scenarios three separate forces would then be formed, of which the mix of troops could differ, given the circumstances. The formations in case of mild Anglo-French resistance in the area would be as follows. 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 The 208th and 225th would be held in reserve in the centre of Brabant. In order to achieve these objectives within this critical time path, it was imperative that the Peel-Raamline would be decisively breached 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. The Dutch abilities were of marginal concern.
In order to be able to penetrate the Peel-Raamline soonest the Germans planned a series of special force and task-force raids to steathily gain control over vital crossings at the Maas, such as the bridges at Neerbosch, Gennep, Venlo and Roermond. We know today that only the Gennep bridge fell in German hands intact. The other three were destroyed in time by Dutch defenders. The plans were that after intact seizure of the four 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 to 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 ... albeit that the Germans failed to materialize on it.
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.