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The battle at Mill

Introduction

Mill - a village close to the Maas river [see the map] - was a prime target of XXVI.AK. This village was selected as the most favourable point of penetration for a number of reasons. First of all the eastern approaches provided any aggressor plenty of cover due to the extended woods and groove. Secondly this location was a junction of roads and had an east-west railway track just south of the village. Three of the roads crossing Mill were directed westwards; essential for the Germans on their pursuit westwards. And thirdly the extensive swamp areas that formed a natural protection for the better part of the Peel-Raamline was absent in front of Mill.

The defences

The passive defences were quite strong, prepared as they were for more than a division-strength in this sector [10 km] alone. The tank ditch - represented by the Defence Canal - formed a strong barrier, along which 47 off small machinegun casemates had been placed at every 200-300 metres. Both canal shores had been barricaded by barbed wire.

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Dutch 8-staal [84 mm] guns (may 1940)

Behind this canal line a continuous mine-field had been constructed, with a few hundred metres behind that the main-defence line [earth trenches]. At Mill one artillery battalion [20RA] was available, with three batteries of each four obsolete guns [84 mm]. Two battalions defended the sector that would be assaulted, with two battalions on each side adjecent of which some smaller units would eventually join the battle. These two main battalions had four light field guns of 57 mm each. Altogether about 2,000 men of defending troops.

The two battalions were of the best class the Dutch army could deliver. It were young conscript soldiers and young reservists with fine officers and NCO's.

The railway was prepared for a double steel frame barricade. All the roads in front of the defence-line were either barricaded or bridges had been prepared for demolition. A special pioneer company was assigned with these tasks.

The opponents

The first Germans the defenders would meet up with were the unexpected passengers of the troop-transport train [23 carriages] that had passed Gennep in the first hour of the hostilities. This train arrived at the station of Zeeland [to the rear of the Peel-Raamline] at 0430 - just 35 minutes after X-hour! In front of it the short armoured train - which was unarmed - had arrived. It contained only a small contingent of men. The troop train carried the 3rd Battalion of the 481st Regiment [256th Infantry Division], commanded by Major Schenk. It was equipped with 40 machineguns, 15 mortars, 3 anti-tank guns, 2 field guns of 75 mm and four flame-throwers. Besides that the train was equipped with short-range radio equipment. The battalion comprised probably about 750-800 men.

The entire 256.ID was scheduled to mass at Mill in the morning of the 10th. It was supposed to be assisted by five artillery battalions [36 x 10,5 cm; 24 x 15 cm] and two batteries of very heavy howitzers [21 cm]. Besides the aforementioned fire power also four mechanized 15 cm guns [Bison]. Things would be entirely different when the lights were turned on. In fact the Germans would have the greatest possible problems to shuttle their troops and equipment over the Maas river at Gennep. In fact the railway bridge remained unsuited to have equipment cross over since the special engineering stuff had been stuck in traffic jams way back in the lines. The quickly deployed pontoon bridge just half a click south of the Gennep bridge was put out of order when a Schlepper [halftrack artillery tractor] got stuck and cracked through the wooden bridging top. It remained stuck for half a day, blocking all traffic behind it. Additional bridging material was not available.

Due to the logistical mishap at Gennep, the German main force would arrive only around noon and with just two battalions and one battery of 10,5 cm guns. Quite a deviation of plans!

The German trains arrive

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German manoeuvres against the northern sector of the Maas-line and the Peel-Raamline (may 1940)

When the German trains arrived at Mill, the Dutch soldiers had just become aware of the state of war. It was only 30 minutes after the hour of invasion.

Orders had been given to set all prepared obstacles and barricades and to blow up the designated bridges, but this order came too late for the railway obstruction squad. As such the leading armoured train could simply ride on, straight through the Peel-Raamline and stop in the rear of the line. It was hardly even shot at, due to the fact that the Dutch personnel had been under the impression that they perhaps dealt with a Dutch train. Not very surprising, bearing in mind that the war had just been minutes old. The troop train closely followed the armoured train and joint in the pleasant circumstances of a Dutch opponent that was too stunned to open up out of all weapons.

Upon their very arrival at the rear of the Peel-Raam line - only 1.5 km behind the last trench - the Germans endeavoured to inform their headquarters by short range radio that they had succeeded in their surprise penetration of the defences, but they failed to establish contact. They then decided to send the armoured train back. It was shunted around the troop train at the small station of the village Zeeland. Then it returned eastwards down the track back into the danger zone.

But the Dutch had quickly overcome their first moments of overwhelming and had rapidly barricaded the track. The returning train wasn't able to stop in time and drove straight into the obstruction. The first carriage crashed into the canal, and the locomotive derailed. The small German outfit that was left on board the armoured train jumped off, engaged the nearby defences [which were pointed away from the track] and managed to take the two nearest casemates from the rear. But further than that they couldn't get, for the Dutch immediately sealed of the train sector and suppressed the Germans with fierce machinegun and rifle volleys.

In the meantime the German battalion had left the troop-train and had quickly taken out some out post positions near the track. They then proceeded north-eastwards with one company in order to come behind the casemate line opposite of the village of Mill [that was east of the most forward defence-line]. What they didn't know [the Germans were well aware of all Dutch positions, except the artillery position west of Mill] was that the direction they had chosen would lead them straight into the positions of the artillery battalion.

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The obsolete infantry gun 8-staal [staal=steel] (may 1940)

The three batteries that were about to be raided by unexpected opponents were faced eastwards, in the direction of Mill. The guns were preset in their positions with vector south-southeast  [due to the construction of the guns, with a fixed gun-action brake - a scoop], in such an order that fire to the east and south-east could be given without interfering each others firing path. Suddenly the right battery gun crews noticed a German force approaching them from the southwest in a 250 metre wide formation. The right battery immediately swung its pieces 120 degrees.

The problem the gunners then faced was that the guns had to fire over each others position - a very undesirable situation. As such only single gun fire could be given. The slow firing rate [2 shots per minute max.] of the old guns made the assistance of the other two batteries imperative. Quickly also these two batteries swung their guns around. The opponent had been shocked when the first volleys hit their ranks, for artillery had not been expected, but soon enough they recovered. The reinforced German company cautiously negotiated its way towards the positions of the guns. Although the Dutch had nothing but the twelve guns and their rifles at their disposal, these old weapons kept on pouring projectiles in the midst of the German ranks. When the attackers had come within half a click of the right battery and kept on losing men, they reconsidered their plan and made a turn into the nearby woods. The very uncommon close encounter engagement of infantry versus artillery had taken almost a full hour.

One company of the train-battalion had not joint the previous fight, but had developed an offensive action against the Dutch positions near the main-road from Mill to Volkel. The Dutch position at that location had been reinforced with two casemates and one section of three heavy machineguns. Besides that  another platoon of infantry was stationed on the other side of the road. The Germans very cleverly made use of the unoccupied trenches of the main-line [where normally the units of the III. Army Corps would have been] and as such they were able to approach the Dutch positions unnoticed. The heavy machinegun section was taken by surprise and lost some men. But a quick counter-action by a Dutch squad pinned the Germans down close to the casemate line. Apparently the Germans had been impressed by the fierce opposition, for they disengaged from the Dutch positions and withdrew to the train, where they rejoint their battalion.

The German battalion commander then ordered a company-advance along the railway-track in the direction of Mill. South of the railway-track the frontline of the Peel-Raamline made a curve to the west after which it followed the railway-track in a sort of parallel direction for some hundred metres. This sector had its weapons pointed southeast, and was very vulnerable in its rear. When the enemy company appeared in their backs, the occupation of six casemates along the Defence Canal was quickly taken out. Another three casemates to the south of that point were also taken over. Obviously the Dutch had failed to guard their rear - although it was pretty clear that engagements with the enemy had already been noticed to their north and northwest. The fourth casemate in this line could however not be taken. When the Germans opened the back-door and summoned the crew out, one man remained behind, slammed the backdoor in its post and locked it. Then he started firing through every respective loop-hole in the casemate [3 in the front, 1 in the back] and that was enough to make the Germans retreat on the last overtaken casemate.

The balance of the German battalion had taken positions around the armoured train [that as we remember derailed at the very front of the defences], while another company tried to expand the bridgehead to the north. Here - in a small forest - they bumped into the strong opposition of a company CP, occupied by a section of infantry with one heavy and some light machineguns. The fight that followed would last for four continuous hours. Finally the Germans managed to surround the position and force the remaining defenders to surrender, in the final stage making use of flame throwers and hand-grenades. It was 1100 hours when the resistance ceased here.

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Casemates at Mill (may 1940)

The derailed armoured train was still occupied by a group of Germans, probably about 40-50 men. This group had been suppressed by intensive Dutch fire and had requested for assistance from the train battalion. Many attempts of the latter to break the Dutch siege failed, but when the CP in the forest had been taken the attackers were also able to come from the northwest. The Dutch platoon that was positioned in between these two formations rapidly switched two of its four machineguns from position and managed to reject German assaults from both directions. Yet the Dutch infantry weapons were unable to penetrate the armour plates of the train and carriages. Many Germans had taken shelter inside and kept on harassing the Dutch by an ocassion burst of fire. Then the aid of the artillery was called upon. Their fire - although indirect and unguided - was quite accurate from the first volley, and soon the Germans had to flee the train. They dove in the ditches along the dike, and could not move or attack anymore. They would not be able to contribute to anything until they were relieved from their awkward position in the late evening.

Although the German battalion was pinned down within its own perimeter, its actions had gained them control over an area of no less than about 1,500 m of frontline. That would be a comfortable gap for the approaching main-force to confortably dash through. However, the battalion was still unable to inform the main-force due to lack of an operable radio. The radio sender inside the armoured train was still operational, but the receiver station that was with the main-force stuck at the Maas still. The short-wave radio-system required a maximum distance between sender and receiver of about 5,000 metres [flat terrain]. Obviously the receiver was far beyond that distance and as a consequence the German main-force remained unaware of the local success of the train-battalion. The regiment commanders even considered the mission failed due to the radio silence. It was much to the benefit of the Dutch defenders!

Cavalry intervention

On the Dutch side the army leadership had soon become aware of the Mill train, and grew very worried over the exposed flank of the retreating III. Armee Corps and Light Division [an event that we shall come back on later]. In order to counter this problem one of the motorbike [hussar-cavalry] regiments of the Light Division was ordered to reinforce the troops at Mill and counter attack the German stronh-hold.

Subject unit comprised about 350 men, 18 light machineguns, 6 heavy machineguns and 4 anti-tank guns. Already at 0730 the unit reached the Dutch troops south of Mill. Their first action was to cripple the locomotive of the troop train that was driving up and fro in order to keep it from being an easy target. Only a few volleys later the train engine was pouring steam from a strained boiler. The last few German occupants made a run for it. The carriages were investigated by Dutch hussars. Amongst some German material, weapons and ammo the men found a large cache of Dutch uniforms and gear. It had belonged to the raiding party at Gennep that had joint the train battalion after their action had been completed. The hussars set the train on fire.

The main force arrives

Around noon the remainder of 481st Regiment started to arrive at Mil. First the I./IR.481 arrived east of the village, soon followed by II./IR.481 in a village to the southeast. I./IR.481 almost immediately engaged the front-line defences north of the railway. Unaware as they were [and remained] of the fact that the southern front-line part had already been occupied by their colleagues from the train-battalion [III./IR.481], they found themselves stalled by the firm Dutch defences north of the railway.

The train-battalion - that realised that the main-force was in arrival - anxiously awaited the regiment to make contact with them, but to their astonishment nothing happened. As a consequence their commander decided to break-out with his battalion himself and link-up with the main-force. At that very moment the Dutch hussars -that had previously dealt with the troop train two clicks to the west - appeared at the scene.

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Derailed armoured train at Mill (may 1940)

The hussars deployed five formations in the field and advanced towards the German positions, but they were very much hampered by the Dutch barbed wire fencing and minefield behind the front-line. Only some sticks were able to negotiate these barriers by making use of some soldiers of the regular occupation who were familiar with the landmine spread. One of these groups managed to relief the one man in the casemate that had earlier that morning withheld the forward section of the German company-assault near the canal. Next the adjecent three casemates were retaken from the Germans. This way they succeeded in retaking about half the lost perimeter in the front-line.

But their arrival meant another significant success. Only minutes after the hussars had retaken a significant part of the casemate line, a German recon squad appeared [1400 hours] on the opposite canal bank. Should they have found their comrades on the other side, the fate of the entire line would have been sealed at that very moment. In fact they were rejected by the agressive fire from the hussars and reported back that this portion of the line was firmly in Dutch hands ...

Summary of the morning events

Perhaps it is good summarize the events and battlefield status [at 1200 hours] of the German divisions that were scheduled to operate in the northern sector. The 254.ID had been delayed by the tough fights they had faced at Mook [at the Waal] and St. Agatha, moreover the still ongoing battle for the Maas-Waalcanal north of Mook. The destruction of the bridges caused them to await the finalisation of the heavy pontoon bridges over the Maas near Mook.

The second division involved in the northern theatre was the 256th. Also they had been seriously delayed due to the engagements at the Maas, this time at Boxmeer and Afferden. The 481st Regiment had however enjoyed the privilege of being the first unit to be able to cross the intact bridge at Gennep. But ... engineering equipement failed to arrive due to severe logistic problems up in higher echelons and the medium size pontoon bridge had yielded under the weight of an armoured vehicle. It was a shop stopper for the quick deployment plans. In then end the first two battalions of the regiment had arrived in Mill around noon. They found themselves soon engaged in fights in the northern sector of the line that did not trigger any success. The [evacuated] village of Mill itself was occupied with German forces and headquarters were prepared in the village-hall.

The battle continues

The two battalions of the 481st Regiment that operated against the perimeter just west of Mill had been stopped by the forward defences along the canal. The occupation of the 14 casemates and adjacent trenches in the operational perimeter counted no more than a company. The defenders were actively supported by the batteries of 84 mm guns though. These were positioned a few hundred metres behind them. It was the fire from these guns in particular that forced the Germans to take their companies back to the village in order to spare them from suffering from the artillery fire out in the open.

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Landmines at Peel-Raamline (may 1940)

As a consequence of the failure to take possession of the front-line, the German regiment commander [Oberstleutnant Weber] called a staff meeting. He projected his officers a clear plan. The battalions would launch an all out assault. The houses on the west-side of the village would be occupied by heavy machineguns. He concluded that the Dutch had not yet been ready for the attack for only light artillery seemed to have been deployed [obviously the German commander was still under the impression that the Dutch III Army Corps was still about]. He considered it imperative to quickly materialize on the obvious Dutch delay in ample troop deployment. Immenent action was required.

A set-back that prevented the assault from being launched right away was that the German artillery had been seriously slowed down by the massive traffic-jam that had occurred at the Maas. For the time being Weber only ordered a weak offensive action along the railway in order to probe the opponents weapon-positions. This attempt was however forcefully rejected by Dutch fire and resulted in a swift German retreat. Still, German anti-tank fire from the village gained some success against a couple of casemates. A considerable number of weapons were destroyed or suffered from mechanical malfunction due to these German actions. But the defences did not yield. Every German that showed himself was shot at en a German heavy machinegun post in the village tower was quickly taken out by an infantry gun that fired on maximum range from a position north of the sieged front line. The battle had shifted into a stage where both sides were duelling from a respectable distance, both suffering some losses but without exposing too much.

The German main assault

At 1800 hours finally a German 105 mm howitzer battery could open fire. Also, a second infantry regiment was in arrival. The first units of the 456th were immediately deployed to assist in the planned assault. Furthermore, news was received that a considerable air-bombardment was about to be launched. The odds started to shift into German favour.

The main assault was scheduled to be aimed in a corridor just north of the railway track. It would be supported by the one artillery battery available. A secondary advance was to performed by a battalion that would operate to the north of the main corridor. The two battalions of the 456th would follow the first wave and were assigned to move south-westwards after crossing the front-line and oppose the sector south of the railway track. They would advance from the south-east of Mill. The last remaining battalion would stick to the direct vicinity of the railway-track and relief the armoured train group that had been localised finally. Interesting detail to all this is that the Germans were under the impression that they faced the better part of two divisions [about 18,000 men] of the Dutch III Army Corps. In fact it was no more that two companies [about 360 men] in the projected offensive perimeter! The six German battalions [about 5,000 men] would therefore largely outnumber their opponents, whilst being under the impression of facing a superior force!

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Light machinegun pill box (may 1940)

At 1800 hours the German strike planes arrived. A full Gruppe [37 planes of which around 24 were still available at Mill] Ju-88 dove down on the Dutch positions in several waves during a prolonged raid that would take no less than 45 minutes. The strike planes dropped 250 kg and 50 kg bombs on the trenches and casemates and into the echelons in the forest. The entire zone between the railway and the village of Bruggen [north of Mill] was attacked.

It was a miracle that not even one signle man was killed and none of the casemates had been destroyed. The moral of the men in the attacked sector had however been shattered, although mostly temporarily. Some men fled the scene, many could be withheld in time by accurate acting by the officers. Soon after the Luftwaffe had left, the German infantry went forward. Very intensive fighting followed, often in man to man engagements. Every square metre was disputed by the opposing forces.

North of Mill the Germans managed to penetrate the line within an hour after the air raid, and they managed to overthrow part of defences to the north. At 2200 hours a wide gap had been established. The central assault - the main push - started to gain success around 2000 hours. The assault along the railway track was rejected though. The assaulting battalion diverted via a more northern route and followed the forward battalion through that gap. Particulary enough the train battalion stayed put. They did not intervene for quite some time and even ended up in some exchange of fire with own troops before the 'opposing' sides managed to identify each others nationality. It was no more than a slight inconvenience. Although local skirmishes would continue all night long, and many Germans would yet fall during those clashes, the Peel-Raam line had been decisively penetrated.

At some locations the Germans had to continue their offensive endeavours until the early hours of the 11th. The hussars had even managed to force some German units in the forest back to the railway, but the unit was called back during the battle [to which we will refer hereafter].

It is now time to address the events that took place at the Dutch headquarters and the Territorial Commander [Colonel Schmidt]. Otherwise one could easily lose the overview and logic of the events.

The defence strategy revised

In the early morning when the German invasion had become a fact, the Dutch General HQ ordered the immediate retreat of the III Army Corps and Light Division, all according to plan only half a day earlier.

When the news of the bridge at Gennep as well as the German penetration of the Peel-Raamline was reported in the early morning hours, General Winkelman had decided to expedite the retreat order, and sent instructions to the Commander of the III Army Corps [that was supreme commander tof the forces in the south] to have both aforementioned units initial their retreat immediately.

As we have seen only the hussars of one motor-bike regiment were left behind in order to provide some damage control at Mill. The Peel-Raamline would have to be defended to the point were both large units had left Brabant. In the late afternoon Colonel Schmidt [territorial commander] was receiving hopeful [but false] news from the front at Mill and he came under the impression that the battle was developing in a controlled way. He received word that the penetrated train-battalion had been surrounded and pinned down and that the troop train had been destroyed. Although true in itself, he was not aware of the 1,500 metre gap in the frontline that had remained, and the fact that an overwhelming force was deploying to take Mill that very same night.

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Map of the northern part of the Zuid-Willemsvaart (may 1940)

When the accurate news finally reached Colonel Schmidt at his HQ - and in the knowledge that the larger units had left Brabant safely - he immediately decided to take back all troops from the northern Peel-Raamline to the west, and order the hussars to move to Gorinchem [inside Fortress Holland]. The hussars - that had fulfilled their assignment to secure the exposed eastern flank of the III Army Corps - were called back around 1800 hrs [as we have seen hereabove]. The troops in the entire Peel-Raamline were ordered to start their retreat at 0200 hours at the 11th. A new improvised defence line would be formed elsewhere in the south and all troops in the Peel-Raamline got new assignments to occupy a sector in this new defence-line. Those new instructions did not reach the troops at Mill. The messengers sent to Mill were unable to reach the officers in charge of the battalions in the midst of the raging battle. That flaw in the new plan of Colonel Schmidt - which could have been foreseen - would cost the Dutch darely the next day.

One might be temped to analyse the order for the retreat as lightly given, but in fact this order made a lot of sense. Bearing in mind the Dutch strategy - that was adapted due to Belgian reluctance to connect their Albertcanal defences to the Peel-Raamline - and bearing in mind that the French had informed the Dutch that their most eastern positions would not be taken beyond the city of Tilburg, there was no point in exposing the Dutch troops to certain defeat at the Peel-Raamline. One must realise that the cordon shaped Peel-Raamline - once broken in a certain sector - could not be mended. An enemy force would easily manoeuvre into the rear of the remainder of the line and mob-up al remaining defences. Schmidt's new defence strategy was - based on the outlines of the plan - just and carefully thought through. His successive orders however contained a vital flaw, as we briefly addressed hereabove and explained hereunder.

The troops that defended the Peel-Raamline had been ordered to take new positions behind the Zuid-Willemsvaart. This was a canal that split the province of Noord-Brabant in two. The Peel-Raam units were assigned to sectors in the new defence line in the same order as their positions at the Peel-Raamline. The detail that was incidently overseen by Colonel Schmidt was that the majority of units that were still [or had before been] engaged in the Mill battle, had been taken prisoner, fled to unknown locations or found an even more sever fate. Also, the news of the retreat was received by only a handful of men at Mill as already explained. That overlooked detail could have been foreseen by Schmidt would he have realised the severity of the battle. Nevertheless he should have taken precautions assuming that it was more than likely that some units would have been lost. As said, the effect of this flaw in the new plans will be addressed later, when the events of the 11th are addressed.

The actions north of Mill

The 254th Division had not succeeded to break the Peel-Raamline, although its sister division had been successful some clicks southwards. The efforts of 254.ID - north of the village Bruggen - had failed and they had planned a new massive assault with two full regiments for the early morning of the 11th.

Their opponent was just a single battalion. It was divided over the casemates along the canal, and the trenches behind the front-line. Communication-lines had all been shattered by the previous air-raid.

The Germans of the 256th Division - that had broken through to the south of the 254th - did not proceed northwards along the canal. An advance along the canal would have been seriously hampered by the landmines and obstructions between the canal defences and the main-defences. Such an operation would be too time-consuming and too risky. We shall see why.

After successfully gaining firm grip on the westbank of the canal the 481st Regiment had moved a little to the west and then shifted direction northwards. As such they came into the rear of the main-defence line north of Mill that had been rather uneffected by any of the previous engagements. The first company they bumped into had noticed the German approach in time, shifted front and prevented the Germans of approaching yet a single other step once fire had been opened.

The other companies - that had been alerted by the nearby battle noises - concluded that an escape northwards was the only option. Many men were able to escape and assembled around the CP. Some - left in the casemates unaware of the retreat around them - remained behind. The battalion commander realised that at the canal intensive fighting continued [this was the first company that still withheld the enemy from overtaking their position], and he remobilised the retreated troops that had not left his CP area yet.

After a moral boosting speech by their Major the retreated units reoccupied their deserted trenches and casemates. Just a few minutes later the planned offensive of the 254th unfolded. A massive artillery barrage fell on the defences and the men that were still on their way back to the deserted positions. Simultaneously the German infantry proceeded. Very intensive fighting followed. Dramatic scenes were seen in the field, where small groups of defenders fought as lions against a far superior force. Germans who advanced past the casemate line were blown sky high when they entered the minefield. Soldiers were covered with body-parts of these victims. Some isolated groups fought on until well in the morning of the 11th, others were able to escape. Many however were captured, got killed or wounded. The Germans suffered too. They lost about 50 men dead and wounded at this location alone. Yet also at this point the Germans had finally succeeded to break through the defences. At 0845 hours [May 11] the battle at Mill had ended ...

Balance

The battle at Mill is one of the symbols of the Dutch opposition during the German campaign in May 1940. With their insufficient manpower, weapons and supplies the battalions that fought at this location achieved a remarkable success against a far superior enemy that failed to profit from an important success in the first hour of the invasion.

The German price was very high. More than 500 KIA and WIA, against the Dutch that 'only' lost 30 men KIA and 50 WIA. The war-reports of the 481st and 456th Regiment respectively report 62 and 41 KIA, the latter reported 136 WIA. The 481st WIA are not traceable. The third regiment did not report any figures.

The impressive defence that was achieved, facilitated the main force to be able to move back over the rivers Maas and Waal into the Fortress Holland. An escape that had been seriously jeopardized after the German armoured train had already penetrated the Peel-Raamline at 0430 in the morning of the 10th and threathend at that point the entire defences. But that first and immenent threat had been overcome. The significance of the Dutch defence at Mill is sometimes underestimated by historians. It caused the Germans to lose one full day in their pursuit to reach the western sectors of the country.

The Germans believed to have booked a major victory. They were still under the impression that two divisions of the III Army Corps had been defeated. The German 18th Army staff only realised that this had in fact not been the case when the battle was long fought. Yet valour medals were poured out over the German forces, while the Dutch defenders were hardly recognized by their superior officers.