Print this page

The centre: The Waterlinie


When the Grebbeline was ordered to evacuate in the late afternoon and early evening of the 13th, the Germans were not at all aware of that. In fact they remained under the impression that firm defences had yet to be defeated.

The order to evacuate the main defence line in the centre came to the total surprise of all troops north of Rhenen. Not remarkable. North of Amersfoort no enemy had been seen or heard, in the central sector the enemy had been successfully rejected around Scherpenzeel and just south of Rhenen, in the Betuweline, the defences were also completely intact. The forces felt confident after the enemy had been thrown back and were very determined to reject any renewed attempt from the adversary.

The ordinary soldier did not master the perception that one breach in a thin contineous defence line would mean that the entire defence-line was jeopardized at once. They were only aware of their own perimeter. The disappointment of the men who were ordered to leave their well prepared positions in the Grebbeline and exchange these for new unknown ones in the Waterlinie is very understandable. Yet, the idea of manning the famous Waterlinie [which had proven itself in many conflicts in the past] was a comfort to them. This defence line, with its extended inundations and firm bunker complexes would most certainly withstand the enemy - that was the general thought ...

Eastfront Fortress Holland

Generally spoken many historians who described the events of the Westfeldzug [the German operation against the Low Countries and France] extensively address the shear superiority of the German army. Basically one could say that an image has been shaped of a perfect machine that was practically flawless. As one would study the facts however, a lot of flaws on the German side rise to the surface.

One such prominent flaw is the fact that the forward scouts of the 207.ID discovered the retreat of the Dutch forces only late in the evening of the 13th. The Dutch had evacuated between 1600 and 1700 hrs (few exceptions discriminated) and the Germans only noticed the deserted trenches around 2100 hrs when an SS company cautiously approached the village of Rhenen from the northeast.  

The Germans quickly organised a pursuit from the Rhenen position, that same night. A hastily gathered motorized column of mainly SS recon troops left Rhenen at around 2200 hrs.

In the meantime the adjacent 227.ID, just a couple of clicks to the north and under command of the same [X.] Corps, remained totally unaware of the 207.ID discovery, and it wasn't until 0850 in the morning of the 14th that their scouts found out that the Dutch had evacuated the Grebbeline in their sector too. That was no less than eleven hours later than the discovery at Rhenen. We can only guess what the reason for this remarkable flaw in German communications could have been. We feel a strong tendency towards the hypothesis that the German 207.ID and 227.ID also fought a battle of competition amongst themselves ...

We already addressed the fact before that the retreating forces left rear-guard units and some artillery batteries behind to pretend the everlasting occupation of the Grebbeline. They did so in all sectors with exception of the Rhenen sector. Overnight many of the rear guard artillery batteries produced such an intensive fire that the Germans came under the impression that offensive action by the Dutch was to be expected. In the early morning hours the artillery fire was very intensive, after which it gradually decreased in intensity to eventually die away entirely. Soon after the sun had appeared at the horizon the Dutch artillery withdrew. Also the majority of the rear guard troops had by then sneaked away.

All bridges over the Grift river [one will recall that this river ran from the Rhine to the Ysselmeer, just in front of the Grebbeline] had been blown by the retreating Dutch. The Germans - excited to have learnt about the Dutch retreat - were hampered in their pursuing intentions by the fact that first engineers had to be mobilised to construct new crossing prior to any pursuit being unleashed. Only around 1300 hours they were able to start their advance towards the Waterlinie. Much too late to tackle any of the Dutch main units. Also a considerable number of men and vehicles were lost due to cleverly dug in landmines.

And that was not all. In the forward positions at an ancient redoubt [entrenchment] - called De Schans - which was situated close to Scherpenzeel [where they had seen action on the 13th] - an isolated section infantry [35 men] under a Lieutenant had remained unaware of the ordered retreat. A scout had been sent to their rear position, but the man had failed to return. Also these men had been impressed by the Dutch artillery activity overnight, which had boosted moral even more. In the morning they noticed a lot of German movement in a short distance from their position. Germans that came in focus were targetted. It didn't take long before an intensive fight broke out. After withholding the German assault for quite some time, the remaining Dutch men succeeded in breaking out, and retreat to the main defence-line. There - much to their horror - they found the trenches empty and not a trace of friendly troops. After they had decided to move back to the Waterlinie, they were ambushed by a German unit some hours later and taken prisoner. They had fought the last fight in the Grebbeline and managed to kill another 10 German soldiers [including two officers] of IR.366.

The Betuweline

In the Betuwe the same procedure had been followed as to the north. A thin screen of troops was left behind to fake the full and continued occupation of the line. Some artillery was left behind, in the south only the three naval guns [that had rejected the Kriegsmarine raid the day before] remained in operation. That made sense, for these pivot mounted guns could not be moved. They kept on pounding the German positions and saw to it that their last shells were saved to destroy the gun-barrels.

The two (plus) regiments and their three battalions of artillery had evacuated the Betuweline and fallen back on the good old Waterline too. The opposing Germans were also here much relieved to find the Dutch trenches deserted in the morning of the 14th.

A daring manoeuvre

We now go back to a military-political event that had occurred in January 1940. The then acting Commander-in-Chief of the Dutch army - General Reynders - had crossed arms with his political superior, the Minister of Defence, Dyxhoorn.

Reynders had presented a strategic plan that had envisaged the Dutch Field Army to defend the Grebbeline as a firmly defended forward position of the main defence, that was foreseen in the Waterlinie (or Eastfront Fortress Holland, as it was called in May 1940). It would mean that - according to the General's plans - the defence at the Grebbeline would still have to be determined, but that at a certain point where the enemy would gain the upperhand the retreat would be ordered of the two defending Corpses onto the Waterline.

His political superior - a former Lieutenant-Colonel [and later General] of the General Staff - disagreed with his Commander-in-Chief on the basis that he considered the retreat of two Corpses [about 50,000 men] during an all out battle situation too much of a liability. Especially since already by then the Dutch were very well aware of the anticipated German air-superiority. The General was forced to resign and his ancestor, General Winkelman, modified the strategic plan. He insisted on designating the Grebbeline as the main defensive line. The Waterlinie, that had been in the process of much extended fortification under the command of Reynders, was then left by all contractors and construction focus was aimed at the Grebbeline. The facts of May 1940 however learnt that in the basis both strategies had led to the same scenario: the full retreat of two [more or less] complete Corpses to the Waterlinie in the midst of an ongoing battle.

The fortune that came to the aid of the Dutch was the fact that the large differences between the day and night temperature was enough to cause thick morning fog. Already the 13th the sun had come up covered by a veil of moisture over the fields. This morning of the 14th the even denser fog was a welcome cover that revealed extended Dutch formations marching their last miles after dawn protected by this natural ally. The Luftwaffe was not very active over the terrain that was negotiated by the two Corpses, probably because the Luftwaffe was not aware of the massive retreat yet. The Dutch airforce had sent some fighter patrols over the area. A number of patrols were flown with the remaining G-1 and D-XXI fighters, but no German adversaries were met. As such, the retreat of the major Field Army force succeeded without any problem or loss.

The Dutch troops that arrived in their new positions soon found out that the famous Waterlinie did not meet their high expectations of a formidable defence line at all. If any reinforcements had been built at all in their sector, they were unfinished or not camouflaged. Also the men found out that much to their disappointment a lot of inundations had not reached the level necessary to keep an enemy away [30-40 cm depth]. Artillery positions and trenches could not be dug-in in this sub-sea level area. The level of the ground water was too high. Therefore all positions had to be constructed above ground level, much like it had been the case in the Wonsline. The high trench profiles would stick out and pose excellent targets. Also, it turned out that no communication lines had been prepared whatsoever. All in all it meant that plenty was left to be organised and that with an enemy that undoubtedly would be in full pursuit by then.

The Field Army command meanwhile found its challenge in organizing the defences once again. The northern sector, obviously incorporating unharmed units, posed little challenge. All the more problems to solve in the southern sector, where battle battered units - some without rifles and guns - had to be melted into effective formations again. Spare artillery pieces were organized, rifles and ammunition distributed. The advantage of the Eastfront position was that the disposition of forces required much less entrenchements, since only the accesses between the inundations had to be firmly manned. It took away some of the initial pressure but still left much to be organised.

In the afternoon of the 14th - with no Germans knocking on the door yet - almost all the artillery [of which much had been lost] was in position behind the line. The commander of the II.Corps, General Harberts, was relieved of his duty and replaced by the commander of his 2nd Division, Colonel Barbas. The General was exhausted and his peculiar behaviour during the last stage of the battle at the Grebbeberg had also raised some eyebrows. The commander of the Field Army considered it the right time to replace the General by the Colonel. General Harberts appreciated his forced abduction as a straight blow in the face.

Clashes in the new defence line

In the southern sector some contacts were made between the pursuing Germans [of the 207.ID] and some Dutch screen forces. They ended with some losses on the German end and retreat of the Dutch to the Waterlinie.

One of the more serious fights that broke out in the early afternoon was a contact between German forces that had arrived at the Lek access [an access in the inundations that was defended by a series of Dutch fortresses]. Here units of the SS Standarte Der Führer tried to gain access to the route that would lead them into the Waterlinie. The Germans were held back by Dutch artillery fire and the occupation of the most southern fortress [manned by two companies]. A taskforce was formed to blow up the bridge at Culemborg that had fallen in German hands. The taskforce came in contact with a German river gunboat that suddenly came down the river, but by combined fire of the force itself and the occupation of the fortress, the gunboat was forced to retreat. Hereafter an intensive German artillery barrage came down on the men, followed by an agressive SS patrol. The patrol and the Dutch taskforce exchanged some intensive fire before the Dutch had to retreat due to arriving strong German reinforcements with mortars and heavy machineguns. The retreating troop met however another group of Dutch soldiers under the command of two Lieutenants that were assigned to the same objective: to blow up the bridge. They combined efforts and decided to attempt once again to reach the bridge. The Germans had advanced in the meantime and were totally surprised to run into the fire of the by then about 50 men strong Dutch formation. Half an hour of intensive fire exchange unfolded in full view of the occupation of the nearby fortress. Then the Dutch had to retreat due to lacking supporting weapons whereas the Germans had those available in steadily growing numbers. The attempt had however not been totally in vain. The occupation of the fortress had been motivated by the persistent attitude of the group and their commander.

German battleplan

The deployment of the German troops in advance to the Waterlinie was as follows. The 207.ID was under orders to proceed against the city of Utrecht. Their 322 Regiment was sent to De Bilt, the 368 Regiment to Utrecht itself. The 374 Regiment was ordered to the southern sector of Utrecht. The SS Standarte was operating against the Lek access [that we addressed hereabove]. The 227.ID would operate in the northern sector, but had not yet appeared in that area due to the set back at the Grift river. South of the river Lek the Gruppe Bruckner [that operated against the Betuweline before] - part of 207.ID - advanced onto Culemborg. The 207.ID was ordered to attack the city of Utrecht on the 15th. The Standarte would simultaneously go forward in the area north of the Lek. The 227.ID was instructed to penetrate the line north of Utrecht at Weesp.

Then something happened that would seal the fate of the war in the Netherlands.

At 1430 hours a German parliamentarian appeared at the gates of the most eastern fortress [Griftenstein] in front of the Utrecht defences. It was Oberstleutnant [Lieutenant-Colonel] H. von Zitsewitz, head of operations of the division staff of 207.ID. He brought along an ultimatum that was addressed to "the commander of Fortress Utrecht".

The officer [and his accompanying soldier] were blindfolded and transported to a pub behind the lines. A Dutch officer went to his battalion commander with the ultimatum. Meanwhile, the Germans behaved themselves awkwardly nervous. The German officer stated that time was of the essence, otherwise Utrecht would share the fate of Warsaw [apparently unaware of the fate of Rotterdam!].

Half an hour later the Dutch Lieutenant returned and stated that the garrison commander of Utrecht [Colonel Van Voorst tot Voorst, cousin of both the commander Field Army and the Chief-of-Staff] had refused to accept both a meeting with the Germans and the exceptance of any ultimatum. The envelop was handed over to the German and the officer was transported back to Griftenstein.

German airplanes had meanwhile started dropping leaflets with the text that Utrecht was about to share the fate of Warsaw should the Dutch not surrender immediately. When this message reached the General Headquarters in The Hague, its effect would be paramount ...