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The Maas-Waal canal line

Introduction Maas-Waalcanal line

The Maas-Waal canal-line - along the Maas-Waalcanal - was the outer-defence line between the major rivers Maas (Meuze) and Waal. It connected the Ysselline and the Maasline. In terms of location, it was the line of defences that was situated a little to the west of the city of Nijmegen [in the north] and the village of Mook [in the south]. It would get into full focus (again) when the Operation Market-Garden saw American airbornes land in the Nijmegen - Eindhoven corridor in September 1944. But let's get back to the very reason why those American airbornes were instructed to land four years later: the German invasion.

The Germans took an interest in the Nijmegen Waal-bridges and the canal bridges to the west and southwest of Nijmegen for one obvious reason: logistics. Sieged and intact Waal-bridges would ascertain a direct logistic link-up between the 26th Corps operation in the south of the Netherlands and the 10th Corps that executed an offensive against the Dutch centre. Such an open line of communication would make it easy to shift units about. And since the 18th Army - bearing the main part of the invasion of the Netherlands - was short of practically anything, it was very eager to have efficient lines of communication between its two most principle corpses in the country (whereas the third Corps, the airlanding corps, had already landed straight into the fortified heart of the country). The Nijmegen tastforce - called Gruppe Nimwegen or Gruppe N (Group N) - was formed by I./IR.484 (of 254.ID), which was reinforced with a number of antitankguns and light infantry guns as well as an SS armoured car squad that would be tasked with the avant-garde role.

The canal bridges were of some value to the Germans if one or more could be sieged intact as well as the principle traffic bridge at the city of Grave. Again, the latter would be a principle target to the American airbornes four years later. Gaining an open rout via the canal and the Grave bridge would provide the 26th Corps with a much desired by-pass for its motorized units. The Corps commanded four traditional infantry divisions, a tank division and a motorized infantry division (SS-V Division). All of these had to be squeezed across the Meuze river in the very narrow room between Gennep and Mook. That was 15 km wide, but with only one principle route between Goch and Gennep. An alternative route for motorized traffic would therefore be ideal and thus the operations against the Maas-Waal canal bridges had been planned. The taking of the canal bridges and the subsequent push towards Grave was assigned to Gruppe Grave or Gruppe G (Group G). It comprised the SS Aufklärungsabteilung (SS reconnaissance battalion comprising 25 armoured cars, an antitank coy and two coys of motorized infantry), the 15th Heavy Machinegun Battalion (comprising four companies), a company of pioneers with light bridging material and a battalion of motorized light field howitzers.

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Maas-Waal and Betuweline (may 1940)

The bridges over the Maas-Waalcanal were prime designated targets of a number of German special forces units [like we have already seen in our summary regarding the events along the Maasline]. Originally the major Waal-bridges at Nijmegen had been scheduled to be taken by a raiding party [strength about 100 men] hidden in a barge that would have sailed to the bridge the day before the invasion would unleash. This operation had however been cancelled once the Germans recognized the Dutch maritime blockade of the Rhine, that had been put into place on the 7th of May 1940 in anticipation of sincere warnings to the Dutch intelligence in the Hague that an invasion was imminent. In stead the Germans formed a combined tasforce of SS wheeled AFV's and a reinforce infantry battalion of 254.ID. They would try to surprise the bridge guards by executing a speedy raid across land. The reader should be aware that the city of Nijmegen lays only a few km west of the Dutch-German border. Nonetheless the fastest thinkable arrival on the southern river bank in the heart of Nijmegen of fast German scouts would be around 30-40 minutes after the border-crossing. That was a long shot ...!

To the west of Nijmegen lay the almost 13 km long Maas-Waal canal. Along the canal, between de Waal and Maas rivers, almost 80 small casemates had been constructed on the westbank and a thin screen of two infantry battalions [I-26.RI and 11.GB] occupied the trenches in between. All bridges had been prepared for destruction. The respective specifics of the forces at each location shall be adressed along the way. East of the canal, south of Nijmegen, two companies of border infantry occpuied about a dozen checkpoints. Their main task was a timely warning to the higher echelons of invading German troops and setting a number of quite obsolete road-blocks, that wouldn't bother too many Germans.

The northern sector

An avant-garde of a motorised SS platoon and a number of armoured cars, spearing the so called Gruppe Nijmegen, was the alternative for the cancelled Trojan Horse operation. This SS group was equipped with motorbikes and a number of fast armoured cars. The forward unit quickly passed through most of the Dutch border defences. It was hardly hampered by the trivial road-blocks here and there. The AFV's drove on top speed straight to the traffic bridge at Nijmegen. They were very disappointed to witness their objective blow up minutes before their arrival. The railways bridge, a little to the west, also lay in the Waal ... The German plan for Operation Nijmegen was one of those little but quite insignificant schemes that could be torn to pieces almost before it began. But pretty much else was about the succeed.

On the Dutch side one infantry coy defended the northbank of the wide river Waal at the 5 km stretch west of Nijmegen. Three heavy river casemates were their most valuable strong-points; all concentrated around the two bridges. At 0445 hrs German artillery and machineguns opened fire. The fire continued for hours, although it was pretty pointless. Little there was to gain. Around 0600 hrs the casemate at the traffic-bridge received two direct hits that wounded some crew members, but didn't harm the main gun. In response the crew started aiming more accurately than before and chased off two German guns and forced a number of machinegun positions to shift off. Also one of the other casemates booked some suppresing success. The Germans undertook no attempt to cross the river and eventually withdrew out of sight.

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Demolition of road blockades at Dutch border (may 1940)

Overnight the Dutch troops moved back in the sector, since the Ysselline and Maasline had fallen in the course of the day. In this sector no fatalities were suffered by the Dutch, although one Dutch soldier fataly triggered one of the defense mines on the next day.

At Neerbosch - a small village southwest of Nijmegen - units of a Dutch Border Battalion Company [1-11.GB] defended three bridges: one single traffic-bridge and a double railway bridge. They had two anti-tank guns at their disposal as well as a nearby mortar section. Besides an obsolete 8,5 cm gun (a so called 8-staal).

When the state of war became clear to the commanding company-commander, he immediately ordered all three the bridges to be blown up. At 0420 hrs this operation was executed diligently. An SS recon party - with two armoured cars - arrived just in time to witness the demolition. Silly enough, they did however still proceed to the eastern head of the bridge, where both armoured cars were chased off by one of the anti-tank guns. The SS commander's jeep was destroyed by a direct hit. After a brief skirmish the SS unit retreated from the direct vicinity of the river and remained there until the next day. They had lost five men.

The defending company was later ordered to fall back due to a German break-trough in the south, but would first assist their comrades on their right wing where a German assaulting party had managed to gain control of the bridge at the village Hatert.

The Dutch company that was involved in this confrontation at Neerbosch - retreated successfully in the late afternoon. It will be seen back at the battle of the Grebbeberg, when they successfully charged German positions at the Rhenen railway station on the 13th.

Hatert

The three heaviest confrontations along the canal would be seen near the bridges of Malden, Hatert and Heumen. The latter being only a two km away of the main bridge across the Meuze at Mook.

A little before 0400 hrs at Hatert a German commando party - dressed in civil - appeared on the east side of the canal, approching the bridge. It was discovered by two of the bridge guards, who opened fire. The "civilians" returned fire with hand weapons and a machinegun. The guards moved back to the west side of the bridge and the charges under the bridge were detonated. Poor demolition preperation had caused the concrete structure not to be utterly destroyed. The bridge deck did withstand most of the explosive force and remained partially intact, so that light and medium traffic could still cross. No reserve charges were available. The German commando - which had suffered some casualties - was quickly reinforced by armoured SS units. Soon an SS storm troop crossed the bridge, whereas the 2 cm guns of their armoured cars suppressed Dutch fire. The pretty stunned Dutch didn't recover and lightly surrendered. An entire section of the canal defences surrendered to a handful of Germans, losing not a single KIA. It was a poor show, mainly caused by very weak CO and junior officers of questionnable repute.

This German success in itself would have been enough to crack the entire Maas-Waal canal line defences, but  the Germans did not materialize on their good fortune. In stead of expanding their bridgehead, they remained where they were. The German commander [Major Einstmann] of this unit [Gruppe Grave] was later subject of investigation. Particularly because a scout of the 26th Armee Corps staff - sent to the unit to expedite their progress - had caught the Major asleep in the afternoon of the 10th ... Whether this was the whole truth shall remain a mystery. It seems hardly possible.

Malden

Malden had a similar bridge as the village of Hatert. Also the bridge at Malden was targetted by German raiders. Four 'civilians' were stopped around 0400 hours by bridge guards. They demanded authorization to cross but were not allowed access. They moved back along the same road as they had come. But A little later  ten civilians appeared. This group didn't approach the guards anymore but suddenly spread out and started firing. They stormed across the bridge and managed to take the bridge-guards prisoner, except for a corporal who managed to escape and quickly inform his superior. Meanwhile the dozen Germans managed to take most of the Dutch soldiers near the bridge prisoner. Because there were only a few of them they decided to await the scheduled SS platoon before they expanded on their bridgehead.

Meanwhile the call of the corporal of the bridge guard to the company-commander had not been in vain. The Captain was most eager to retake the bridge and blow it up. He sent a squad of only eight men of the coy staff to the bridge and followed himself too. The Germans in the meantime had settled in, and were not at all aware of any Dutch counter measure. The about ten men of the staff, who had only one light MG besides their pistols and carabines, quickly but stealthily moved into a position covering the German hide out. When the Dutch squad opened fire, some Germans were killed instantly. The sudden blaze had taken the Germans totally by surprise. The survivors begged for surrender, which was accepted. Directly the bridge was destroyed too. Only minutes after the destruction of the bridge the SS unit with armoured cars arrived. For some time they got engaged in a fire fight with two Dutch casemates, but then they disappeared. Besides a few wounded, the Dutch suffered no fatalities. The Germans lost 7 men KIA according their official registry, amongst them 3 or 4 of the commando party. One of those was in fact a Dutchman in German service ...

Heumen

The most intensive fight along the canal took place at Heumen. The bridge and adjacent sluice-complex were defended by a company of the same battalion [I-26.RI] that defended the bridges at Malden and Hatert. The defences here had been reinforced with one anti-tank gun, one infantry gun of 84 mm and two 8 cm mortars. Five casemates were able to cover the bridge and the direct vicinity, quite some more the adjecent sector. For security reasons the bridge was up during nightly-hours.

Just before dawn a large group of about 30 civilians and 4 would-be Dutch MP's [Gruppe Leutnant Witzel] approached the bridge. They were addressed by a corporal of the bridge watch. One of the MP's told him that the civilians were Germans and that he had orders to transport them westwards. The MP appeared to know both the codeword and the secret signals. The bridge was lowered and the troop could move on.

On the other side of the canal they would be escorted by some soldiers of the nearby infantry squad, but after they had passed the first casemate the group civilians suddenly dispersed and pulled out many weapons and hand grenades. They managed to take three of the five nearby casemates from the rear, before the Dutch soldiers at the scene - for as far as they were not wounded or captured - reorganised and started returning fire.

The company commander who heard the shooting and explosions from his CP, decided to go to the bridge in order to take things in his own hands. He jumped on his bike and rode to the scene. Before he was even close he was killed by German bullets though. In the meantime the bridge had been turned up again by the Dutch soldiers who gradually regained control of the situation. The civilian sluice operator was forced by the Germans to lower the bridge again in order to make way for reinforcements from the east. Gradually the Germans were forced into the defensive, not the least due to very effective Dutch mortar fire.

In the meantime a Dutch Lieutenant [from the border guards] in the nearby village of Groesbeek had assembled some soldiers to accompany him to the bridge at Heumen from where the sounds of heavy fighting could be heard. On his way to the bridge he bumped into the first SS units with their armoured cars. They stood no change to these heavy weapons and had to surrender. First the Dutch soldiers were used as a human shield, but upon strong protest by the Lieutenant the SS men developed other plans. The Lieutenant was ordered to go to the Dutch local commander and demand the surrender. Crossing the bridge the Lieutenant could establish the exact situation there and was able to brief his superior once he arrived at his CP. Obviously the Dutch commanding officer - Major Weber - did not meet the German demands.

Major Weber contacted his other companies when he heard of the situation at the bridge. He organized responsive action. From two sides - north and west - assaulting parties would try to assist in regaining full control over the bridge at Heumen. The Germans in the meantime had been reinforced and were then able to deploy 4 SS armoured cars, two companies of heavy machineguns, two SS platoons of motor-bike infantry and some anti-tank guns of 37 mm. Also two batteries of 105 guns were at their disposal. A grotesk force compared to the defence numbers.

The first assault by the SS failed, during which their commander [Untersturmführer Letz] was killed. A number of assaults were undertaken hereafter, but again and again these attempts were rejected by Dutch machinegun and mortar fire. The Dutch counter measures then started to pay off. First the area around the sluice was cleared from Germans, making use of handgrenades and suppressive fire. Then the same stick of bold soldiers endeavoured to gain more terrain, but was eventually stopped by German counter-fire. The leading Dutch Lieutenant was killed by a head-shot.

The other Dutch assault from the west was stalled by dense German artillery fire on their path. In the meantime the Germans at the sluice complex had all been killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The sluice-master had been liberated. All that remained now was the retaking of the bridge. But that was easier said than done. The entire German main force was focussed on this very target and as such the largely outnumbered Dutch were unable to make any more progress. A southern attempt to reach the bridge - by a group of about 70 hussars - was rejected by dense German artillery fire that was directed from overhead observation aricrafts and a massive observation balloon above the German Reichswald, to the southeast of the bridge.

The German fire continued to increase and the effect on the defenders started to wear off their courage and determination. Besides an increasing number of casemates had to cease fire due to weapon failure of German hits. Meanwhile the Germans were still unable to cross the canal. The two remaining casemate crews fought for their lives and after one of these two casemate was eliminated by a direct hit, the last standing casemate crew took over the entire canal defence. Then - at 1700 hours - the last machinegun was silenced due to mechanical malfunction. Whereas the main defences were commanded in retreat from the canal sector, the last standing canal defences at Heumen were eventually forced to give up the fight and surrendered. They had managed to withstand the Germans for half a day.

In total the Dutch had lost 16 men [incl. 3 officers] and around 50 men got wounded. The German losses are unknown. Official German records show only 12 men KIA, which most likely is an accurate number.

The laborious German attempt to take the bridge disappointed the commander of 26th Corps and had quite some impact on the logistic plans. Although there had been some confidence that the hardly determined Dutch would leave one or two gateways to Grave open, the faltered operation couldn't bother the Germans too much. It only narrowed down their options ...

Grave

It is essential [for the complete picture] to address the German endeavour to take the bridge at Grave too. After all, the logical follow-up of successfully gaining control over a number of bridges over the Maas-Waalcanal would be the intact seizure of the Ravenstein and Grave bridges across the Meuze.

The bridge at Ravenstein had been blown up at 0515 hrs, but at Grave the demolition operations had been hampered by civilian authorities. Finally at 0645 the bridge fell into the river. This delay had been quite a jeopardy to the entire Dutch defences in the south, although nobody in the Dutch camp would realize that until after the war.

At the very moment the destruction of the Grave bridge was finally effected,  the Germans had already been in possession of a few of the bridges over the Maas-Waalcanal. The Germans failed however to materialize on their early gains, for reasons adressed hereabove. Would the Germans have proceeded from for instance the Hatert bridge, and been able to capture the Grave bridge intact, they would have succeeded in getting into the rear of the Peel-Raam defences. It was not the case, and so it's not worthwile elaborating more on this 'what-if'. Nevertheless, the Germans missed their window!

The occupation of the casemates on the north side of the Meuze bridge at Grave evacuated to the west in the morning of the 11th, after the Peel-Raamline had been evacuated too. Overnight they had experienced some minor enemy activity, when in the evening suddenly an SS recon party from Heumen had approached the defences from the northeast. The German engaged in a duel with the Dutch occupation at Grave, but from such a long distance that none of the parties lost anything but ammo. Peculiar was that the SS commander reported the bridges being intact in his report. Apparently one of very few SS officers lacking a 20/20 vision ...  .

Aftermath

The 254th Division and its SS reinforcements were strongly criticized after the operation Fall Gelb had been analysed by the German command. The fact that they had failed to operate expeditiously after seizure of some of the canal bridges, and that it had taken them so long to take these bridges in the first place, was firmly criticized by the high command.

The fierce opposition they had met at Neerbosch and Heumen was a tribute to the defenders, but especially at Heumen the Germans had taken half a day to overcome a Dutch force of less than a company-size. The fact that they took the bridge at all had also been more of a result of Dutch retreat than a German offensive gain. Nonetheless, in the end it matters little how the invadors gained their successes. The fact that they did succeed was decisive.