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The battle starts

Prelude

In the evening of the 10th the first motorised units of the SS Standarte Der Führer arrived east of Wageningen. It were two battalions and one artillery battalion.

The city of Wageningen itself was not defended by the Dutch. The Germans managed however to make quite a victory out of their fightless entrance of the town. The SS member and aft-war author Otto Weidinger wrote a fantasized heroic story about the "bold and determined" seizure of the "heavily defended" town (1). According to his tales the SS men had to fight themselves a way through the streets, conquering the small town house by house. It must have been an excuse for the lost time between Westervoort and Wageningen, for no other reason can be thought of why this SS officer made up such a fantastic and totally untrue story.

(1) Otto Weidinger [1914-1990] joint the SS Verfügungstruppe in 1934 and was a Lieutenant-adjutant in the SS Aufklärungs Abteilung - SS AA, part of the SS Verfügungsdivision - in 1940. Weidinger had a talent for writing and was a fanatic nazi supporter. These qualities formed the basis for his WWII chronicles. Weidinger was an SS officer in the first place, and commanded several reconnaissance outfits and later the SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 4. He ended the war as an Obersturmbannführer [Lieutenant-Colonel in the SS]. He received the Ritterkreuz [Knights-cross], the Eichenlaub [Oakleaf to the Knights-cross] and later even the Schwertern [Swords to the Knights-cross and Oakleaf]. Weidinger became best known for his justification of the Oradour sur Glane massacre in June 1944 in France. Weidinger published a book in 1985 justifying the SS deeds. In 1953 he had been witness for the defence when the perpetrators of the massacre stood on trial.

The German battle-plan was plain and simple. After an preparatory artillery bombardment of the forward positions and the front-line [as well as disturbing artillery fire on the Grebbeberg itself and the Dutch artillery positions in the rear], two battalions [700 men each] of SS stormtroops would advance. The 3rd Battalion [Obersturmbannführer Wäckerle] would advance south of the main-road, the 1st Battalion [Sturmbannführer Müller] north of the main-road. The 2nd Battalion [Obersturmbannführer Ney] would be kept in the rear of the two other battalions.

Unfortunately for the SS the envisaged artillery barrage had to be slimmed down to short preparatory bursts due to lacking readiness of the artillery battalions. Only two artillery battalions arrived in time to open fire on the scheduled hour. One battalion comprising two more batteries of heavy howitzers [15 cm] could join too. That would be the entire artillery force able to support the first offensive action.

The battle begins

At around 0200 hours all available German howitzers opened fire. Main purpose at that stage was the interdiction of the Dutch logistics in the highest echelons. It almost directly sealed the fate of most Dutch telephone-lines. The German fire didn't really have impact on the Dutch positions though; only one or two direct hits created some insignificant destruction. The Dutch artillery gradually started to respond. Some presumed artillery positions were fired upon as well as some presumed observation points. The arterial roads on the west side of Wageningen were shelled by Dutch 12 cm and 15 cm guns.

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Gevecht om den Grebbeberg - schets 9: Toestand op 10 mei 1940 (1946)

Around 0700 the SS 1st Battalion started to work its way forward. And although the Dutch soldiers had been shaken up pretty hard by the sudden acquaintance with the harsh practise of war, they didn't give way. Machineguns and rifles responded immediately to the first German appearances and it forced the SS to proceed in a very cautious manner. The first hours they hardly made any progress. The first Dutch positions to collapse [around 1000] were the ones manned by a section of 19.RI in the northern sector, just south of the inundation. These 19.RI positions were seperated from the (southern) 8.RI positions by a dike. That was not only a sight obstruction, but more importantly, a blocking obstruction for flanking fire support from the adjacent 8.RI positions. As such effective cross fire was quite impossible, which was an aspect that the SS could gladly make use of.

Forced by German pressure that - at that particular stage - only came from the northeast and east, the men in the remaining positions along the north side of the dike had to leave their posts too [1200 hrs]. Many of these men fled towards the farm-house known as "Kruiponder", a key-point and saillant in the front-line. This evacuation of the most northern positions meant that the positions south of the dike were no longer protected in their left flank, for the SS would by then be able to advance along the northern side without being spotted by the southern positions, and outflank those without being challenged. That huge liability of the defence organisation had not been remedied by additional strong-points at the swivel-point near the dike, so that the SS could easily change vectors towards the rear of the 8.RI positions.

The situation of the entire forward defence was seriously jeopardized by the German break-through north of the dike. The SS was able to benefit from this window of opportunity and swung around the forward defences south of the dike at around 1230. As a consequence the entire company [3-III-8RI] defending this sector was forced to surrender or displace southwestwards. One hour later most of the positions in the sector between the dike and the main-road Rhenen-Wageningen had been mopped-up by the SS. Only some positions west of the first line of forward positions still remained in Dutch hands. These were four trenches in which a platoon of heavy machineguns were positioned. Meanwhile a company of the SS 1st Battalion developed a probing attack against the front-line defence at Kruiponder. This clearly probing offensive action was however quickly rejected by the front-line defences, supported by extensive artillery perimeter fire.

South of the main-road the SS 3rd Battalion was operating even more cautiously. In the early hours of the assault they gained some preliminary success by eliminating a 5,7 cm gun position and a machine gun casemate in the far southeast of the forward defences. Both were eliminated by fire of light infantry guns. But that event had caused them much loss of time. Only at 1200 hrs the SS started to work its way forward along the main-road and the Rhine-causeway.

The Dutch defences south of the road often proved tough nuts to crack. In this sector it failed the SS the possibility to easily outflank the positions. The majority of SS men that fell during the fighting in the forward position sector were killed in this area. This caused the SS to make use of unorthodox methods, possibly even a 'no quarter' mentality. When the attackers gradually gained the upper-hand, some isolated positions put up the white flag, whereas other positions continued the fight. This caused the SS men to become outraged with anger because they [erroneously] considered one white flag raised at a certain position to be a signal of surrender of all positions.

Some Dutch positions that surrendered later were annihilated by outraged SS men, who simply mowed down the last defenders in their trenches and threw grenades in the dug-outs. Also, POW's were forced to pull light guns towards the front in the direction of the Dutch positions in the front-line. It caused many fatalities amongst the Dutch POW's, who were hit by the fierce fire of their still resisting landsmen.

Between 1400 and 1500 the positions in the first lines had yielded to the force of the attackers after which the entire SS regiment seemed to have taken a short break in order to regroup. Then - around 1530 - both the 1st Battalion and the 3rd Battalion moved forward again. The 1st Battalion managed to take the last forward positions north of the main-road around 1600.

To the south of the road things went less prosperous. The three most western forward positions in this sector were commanded by a Sergeant-Major [SM] who had a very determined group of soldiers under his command. The group that was personally led by the SM was able to withstand numerous German assaults on their position and only gave way at around 1800, when their situation [only 12 men were left] had become so precarious and the ammo count so low that prolonged resistance would mean definite suicide. Also here some of the SS men profiled themselves as sour victors. The tough and lasting resistance of the last standing squad had caused them a considerable number of casualties and the frustration over this was poured out over these last defenders. When the squad finally surrendered at around 1800, the furious Germans shot the first three unarmed men that came out of the trench with their hands up. The rest was rounded up for execution but an officer intervened. He ordered the last nine men to take off their shirts [Dutch soldiers wore a white under-shirt] and precede the Germans during their inspection of the last Dutch trenches. The POW's were fortunate that the remaining positions had been deserted already, and as such they managed to survive the ordeal. But elsewhere others had been less fortunate. Two of these last defenders of the forward positions received medals for valour, one of them posthumously.

Schweiss spart Blut

The SS men had not only proven themselves determined stormtroopers, but they had also shown that international rules of engagement meant little to them. The SS maxim "Schweiss spart Blut" ['sweat saves blood'] had grown into a murderous attitude towards enemies that put up a brave fight against them. They had annihilated at least two trench-crews, and forced many POW's to tow guns to the frontline. Also many POW's were forced to form a protective shield in front of the progressing SS men, and sometimes a prisoner was forced to stand up and spread his legs after which a machinegun was fired from in between his legs. A large group of Dutch soldiers was later found in an orchard, all killed with strikingly similar wounds in back and/or head. The scene had a clear signature of a mass execution, but this could never be proven.

All in all estimates of Dutch military personnel killed in the forward positions by German crimes amount to 15-20 men killed, at least a similar number wounded. So, on one hand one could admire the courage and determination of the German stormtroops, but on the other hand one could despise their methods of operation. After the May-war the Germans would blame the Dutch themselves for these atrocities. They stated that the Dutch abused the international sign of truth [white flag] and that they had - on many occasions - fired from positions that had the white flag raised. Indeed, one proven incident of such was found later during the battle, but at the forward positions it wasn't the case at all. Besides, the German comment shows that they themselves did not understand the meaning of the white flag either. It was not a sign of surrender but a sign of negotiation. More importanly, the Germans themselves stuck rifles with white flags on positions that had surrendered in order to have a clear indication of sieged positions for themselves. As such they contributed to the confusion themselves too.

The execution of the three men at the last positions that surrendered and the structural abuse of POW's for military duties and shielding were many events where the SS had no defence for its actions whatsoever. On the other hand, stormtroops can be much hampered by POW's. There mission to break defences by shock and awe tactics doesn't really incorporate for the disrupting logistics that POW's demand. It were not only SS men that would therefore show trigger-hapiness. All armies would eventually practise this kind of controversial actions in similar circumstances.  

Although the battle of the Grebbeberg was blotted by relatively many German war-crimes, all by Waffen SS men, it is important to state that these quite structural abuses of the international code would not be seen elsewhere during the operations in The Netherlands. Obviously incidents occured ocassionaly, but these incidents sometimes also involved Dutch soldiers infringing the code. The only theatre where also a series of events of this nature ocurred, was at the Maas-Waalcanal, where men of the SS-AA abused officers and men by putting them on top of armoured cars while progressing towards Dutch positions.

Dutch counter-measures

At the end of the day the SS had succeeded in taking the weak forward positions, but the battle had lasted a full day long. An amazing fact - bearing in mind the relative weakness of the forward positions - that did not only find its reason in the tough resistance that some Dutch positions had put up. The Austrians in the Standarte were still new to the war, and were far less expeditious in their operation at the 11th than they would be the days to follow. Furthermore, the disadvantage to the defence of the extensive groove and tree obstructions in the sector around them had also hampered the attackers. It did of course provide the assaulting men with appropriate means of cover, but on the other hand it prevented them from a clear view forward. It stalled them in their advance and that contributed considerably in respect to the huge time-consumption the operation had required.

News of the first Germans successes in the forward positions was received in the HQ of the Dutch Corps-commander - General-Major Harberts - around 1300 hrs. Previously reports of the German artillery-fire and the lost connections with the front had already reached the staff. Vital information did not reach the General though. He was totally oblivious of the magnitude of the enemy's force in Wageningen. The General was under the impression that only probing enemy units were in the process of running over the forward positions and ordered the immediate retaking of the lost terrain by the "cowardly fled units".

The impression the General had at his distant HQ was quite understandable. Although in fact many defenders had put up more than a proper fight and although a mere 1,500 SS men [rather than some probing units] had overrun the forward positions, the General got another impression. That was partially caused by the fact that he received the news of an entire section under a cadet-officer [ensign] that had indeed retreated without any fight. Also the news was brought that a sergeant from behind the front-line (that wasn't even under attack!) had withdrawn from the lines without orders to do so, taking with him one of the two anti-tank guns under his command. This man had deserted his position without informing his superiors and - what was perhaps more severe - he had done so while leaving behind a part of his section. Both these reported events plus the fact that the enemy was largely underestimated - also by monitoring officers from the main defence - projected the General a picture of failing discipline and lack of determination. Schooled as he had been in the German tactics of 'Schwerpunktangriff' [concentrated attacks], he expected the light probing action that went along with that. The General was unaware that the Germans had skipped the probing action chapter because they were predetermined to penetrate the Grebbeline at Rhenen anyhow. Their concentration was already in progress and so was the preluding attack on the forward positions. That this concentration had gone beyond the perception of the staff of the Dutch 2nd Corps was however mainly caused by poor air-recce reports received. Also the staff of the Field Army provided poor intel. These sources denied the presence of larger German units in the Wageningen region, which was all the more reason for General Harberts to expect nothing more than some light probing actions rather than a concentrated attack.

Next to the General's order to retake the forward positions, the General summoned the immediate court-martial of at least one of the failing cadre members who had been reported fled from the front. Not only that, he expected a death-penalty; a matter that we will address later. It was all a result of the shock that struck the General when he heard that his forward units had yielded to the weakest of pressure already - at least that's what he perceived from the received intel.

Indeed, the Dutch staffs were very much unaware of the strength of the opposing forces. Air reconnaissance had not provided for any significant result, and had missed out on the tracks and traces of a major force in the area east of the Grebbeline. These recon flights had not been executed with much determination. That can be concluded from the fact that nothing was spotted during two missions, whereas about 30,000 Germans were on the march towards the Grebbeline. Such a considerable force could not have been overseen by any recon flight that would have been executed in a proper and thorough way. Since the results of these flights were transferred to the central command of the Field Army and from there onwards to the Corps commanders, the latter remained under the impression that the German main-force was still much away from the Grebbeline, even behind the Ysselline perhaps. Save the aforesaid, the Dutch officers had been trained in the fashion that significant enemy assaults would at all times be preluded by intensive barrages. That was of course the French conception, but already during WWI the German stormtroops - then a new feature on the battlefield - had shown that they often operated in total surprise and that preluding barrages were often skipped just to get more leverage out of the surprise. That lesson had not been learnt by the Dutch senior command. Consequently - from a Dutch perception - the forces operating against the forward positions west of Wageningen could be no more than small but determined mobile forces, probing the toughness and whereabouts of our main defence.

General Harberts ordered the commanding Colonel of the 4th Division to have the failing troops retake the forward positions overnight. The Colonel could persuade the General that the designated troops were unfit for such operation and decided to call in a tactical reserve. The 2nd Battalion of 19RI, under Major van Apeldoorn, would be ordered to retake the terrain overnight. They would be assisted by a hetrogenous company from the surviving forward defence units, which would be landed by barge behind enemy lines. The outcome of that operation shall be addressed when we come to the events of the 12th.

Balance

The Germans had managed to overtake the forward defences, but they had failed to set one step into the main-defence line yet. The second day of the invasion had ended and still the objective of decisive penetration of the Grebbeline had not been met. To the Germans this was quite unacceptable. The SS planned a night assault on the front-line, which again would be executed with two battalions on point.

The Dutch had lost 45 men KIA of which 41 in the forward defences. The SS had lost 23 men KIA. Considering that perhaps up to half the Dutch losses had been caused by war-crimes, the losses on both sides during the battle had been low. It is a further indication that the Germans had mathematically negotiated their way through the forward defences rather than taken the positions by genuine storm-trooping methods.