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The Ysselline

Introduction

The Ysselline ran from the Ysselmeer [Yssellake, called 'Zuiderzee' in those days] at Kampen [north] to Arnhem [south], where it connected to the Maas-Waalcanal line. It was a thin longitudinal defence-line with a thin screen of machinegun casemates in between the bridges over the river IJssel. At the bridges themselves, heavy river casemates had been constructed.

The line formed a forward defence [delaying line] that was designated to hold 24 hours. These 24 hours were required to have the field army in the main defence line [Grebbeline] take its positions and prepare for things to come. In other words, the line had an identical purpose as the Maasline and the Maas-Waalcanal line. The defences had an overall length of almost 120 km, but were occupied by less than 5,000 men [strength of about 7 full battalions]. No artillery was available. The river casemates were equipped with a 5 cm gun and some detachments had one or two anti-tank and/or obsolete infantry guns at their disposal.

The German force

The Ysselline was scheduled to be attacked by a superior German force. The 207th Infantry Division [about 18.000 men] - reinforce by the SS Standarte Der Führer [6,000 men] - and the 227th Infantry Division [about 18.000 men] - reinforced with the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler [6.000 men] - were designated to operate in the sector.

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Ysselline defences

These units - together with quite a number of artillery and engineering corps reinforcements formed the X.Armee Korps. The strength of this AK in manpower equalled about 50,000 men, plus an occopational division [526.ID] that would however not bear any offensive assignments and is therefore lfet out of the total strength. The operations of the X.AK were also preluded by a few commando-raids and some armoured train operations. Besides two railway guns of 24 cm [which have not been used for as far as we can establish] were available too.

The 207th would concentrate on crossings at [Fort] Westervoort [near Arnhem] and Doesburg. This was the southern area of operations in the sector. This division was designated to oppose the southern Grebbeline and the Betuweline too. The 227th was scheduled to cross the river IJssel at Bronkhorst, Zutphen and Deventer. The main bridge at Zwolle was an alternative target. The division had its operational area in the northern sector and would concentrate on the Grebbeline north of the small city Veenendaal. Both divisions had an SS regiment attached that was designated to break through the IJsselline and Grebbelinie ahead of both infantry divisions.

The SS regiments had been specifically trained for stormtroop and motorised reconnaissance purposes. The Leibstandarte had been seasoned during the Poland campaign and comprised the best physical and ideological ranks the SS had been able to produce. The Standarte Der Führer had been founded in Austria and therefore mainly comprised Austrians, but with almost entirely German NCO's and officers. The Standarte had been guarding the German-French border during the Poland campaign and would therefore receive its baptism of fire at 10 May 1940. It was in the best physical shape thinkable though.

Westervoort

At Westervoort - where the Dutch had incorporated an ancient fortress in their defences - the heaviest fight [sector 207th] would develop.

At Westervoort the German Rhine split itself into the Dutch Nederrijn [which is simply called "Rijn" in Holland] and the IJssel. The zone between the river junction and the north side of the bridges was defended by one company of infantry and a section of police troops [occupying the main two casemates]. The western approach of the bridge was covered by the fortress and some light casemates. Two old guns were at the disposal of the infantry. The fortress itself was occupied by one infantry platoon [35 men], divided over the southern and northern part [the ancient fortress had been split in two parts when a motorway had been constructed early 20th century]. Peculiar detail is that the telephone connections between the commanding Captain and his four platoons had been organised and paid from own [private] funding. The Dutch war-department had provided no means of communication whatsoever!

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Part of the interior of fortress Westervoort (may 1940)

This defensive force of less than 200 men would be confronted with almost the entire SS Standarte Der Führer [6,000 men] and some batteries of 105 mm and 150 mm artillery. Later a company of the 374th Regiment [207th ID] would also be assigned to the frontline. In other words, a ration of over 1:30 at some stage.

Already 20 minutes after X-hour the first contact was made with the Germans. This was astonishing fast, since the German border was about 20 kilometre away from Westervoort. This first contact was a German [armoured] train - equipped with guns, AAA and carrying a company of SS storm troopers. The Dutch guards on the eastbank had already fixed the track barricades and quickly retreated to the westbank of the river. The river casemate guns [5 cm] and an old 84 mm infantry gun opened fire when the train came in sight and the first volleys landed right in between an advancing SS squad, killing or injuring quite some of them. Also the train engine was hit beyond repair and as such fixed to its position. The German artillery reply was however at least as successful. The first couple of volleys hit one of the river casemates, killing some men and blasting the 5 cm gun. Other points of the defences were punished too. Next the Germans retreated in order to reorganise and managed to tow back the remaining [intact] part of the train beyond firing range of the Dutch guns.

After this brief lull in the fight, the Germans reopened fire from the one remaining heavy train gun and many mobile anti-tank guns and mortars. They particularly aimed their fire at the river casemates, which were unable to return fire due to the limited range and loop hole window. A little later the genuine German artillery - arrived from the rear - joint the other guns and pounded the Dutch field reinforcements and fortress.

The Dutch lost four machineguns due to the artillery bombardment and some of the wooden barracks at the fortress caught fire. The latter resulted in the total destruction of the communications due to the fact that the main switch board had cleverly enough been installed in one of these fragile buildings. The German artillery mission ended with an intense creeping barrage at 0800 hours. An all out assault with rubber boats - carrying the SS men of the 3rd Battalion - followed. Notwithstanding the fierce preparations the German push was rejected by the remaining machineguns at the Fortress and the river defences.

Next the Germans positioned a few cleverly placed heavy machineguns on the eastbank, which totally sealed off the Dutch trenches at the east side of the fortress. Any soldier that dared to stick his head out would definitely be killed instantly. The Dutch came with a clever solution too and installed their machineguns in such away that fixed perimeters could be swept. They attached a piece of rope to the triggers and as such they were able to maintain a certain suppressive fire on the eastbank. In the meantime the fortress was pounded to rubble and every object that was inflammable in any way, stood blazing against the sky. The heat from the fires forced many men to evacuate the fortress and only the few men operating the machineguns were able to remain in position.

A German crossing attempt that followed landed a full company of SS men on the westbank of the river. The trenches and positions on the south side of the fortress were ran over for as far as they were still occupied.

It was during this ordeal that the commander of the fortress considered the situation hopeless and ordered his men to surrender. This order did however fail to reach the northern part of the fortress, where the occupation fought on. This [understandably] frustrated the Germans considerably. They then kicked and bullied many of their prisoners from the south side, and used these men as a living shield. Soon the northern section was also made clear that surrender had been presented by their commandin officer and that they had to lay down their arms too. They followed this instruction reluctantly.

The Germans suffered yet an unnecessary loss when one of their officers [Obersturmführer Henrichs of the Sturmpioniere 1st Battalion] - apparently in an attempt to show off in front of his men - took a motorbike and some demolition charges in order to blow up an already silenced but still intact casemate. In the process of doing so he drove on a cunningly placed landmine and was blown to pieces, together with the soldier in the buddy seat.

At 1100 hours all resistance had ceased. The defence had lost 7 men KIA, the SS had lost 21 men KIA, and over 50 wounded. Considering the hazardous river crossing the German losses were not very high.

Doesburg

The main-force of the SS Standarte had meanwhile already set directions for Arnhem at 0930, where they got engaged in a fire-fight with a Dutch river gun boat close to the traffic bridge. The fire fight continued for quite some time and ended with the gun-boat sailing off in the direction of the Grebbeberg. It had one casualty on board, a second sailor had been severly wounded. German casualties are unknown. The Rijn bridge at Arnhem had been destroyed by the Dutch. Four years after it would again be in full focus, when British airbornes under lt-col John Frost would make a stand around this very bridge.

The small village of Doesburg is situatued about 13 km northeast of Westervoort at the IJssel. At Doesburg - where a floating bridge was defended - the German 207th ID scheduled to launch a subsidiary attack. At the ancient village only two platoons defended the westbank of the river, but divided over two lines. A handful of little casemates with light machineguns and an 84 mm infantry gun assisted them. The opposing forces were formed by the 368th Regiment [Oberst von Österreich], the 2nd Battalion of the SS Standarte and some anti-tank guns of 37 mm. This force was also supported by a number of 105 mm and 150 mm artillery batteries and some infantry guns of 75 mm.

First a smaller SS force tried to establish a connection with Doesburg along the road on the westside of the Yssel [in other word - in the back of the Dutch river defences] after it had split off of the main SS force that marched on to Arnhem. It would first lead them via the village of Velp that was only a few clicks away from the Fortress at Westervoort. At Velp two sections of infantry had formed a flank defence after it had become clear that the Germans had been able to cross the river to the south of them. An SS recon squad was eliminated when they drove right into a Dutch ambush. The German attempt to connect with their northern colleagues had failed. They would undertake no renewed action until the Ysselline was secured later that day.

At 0430 the (floating) bridge sections at Doesburg had been destroyed by the Dutch. At 0600 hours a couple of German fighters strafed the Dutch positions during a quick fly by. Simultaneously a German car appeared opposide the river defences. It blew up by a direct hit of the infantry gun, killing two of the occupants.

Apparently a vast German force had deployed beyond the obervation posts of the Dutch. Because upon the modest Dutch success against the recon car a massive German artillery and infantry gun fire unloaded on the defences. The whole works came over the defenders. The infantry gun received a direct hit, killing some of the crew. Three casemates were put out of action and ans a result the first German crossing attempt was hardly intervened by any Dutch counter-fire.

The Germans proved themselves masters of preparation when they quickly launched a tailor-made floating bridge and were - as such - able to fix the destroyed Dutch construction within no time. Meanwhile all casemates along the river were attacked from the rear. The second line of defences - behind a dead stream of the river - did nonetheless resist all German offensive actions until well after 1200 hours. The company commander was killed when he joint his men defending the CP; the last standing defences. The few defenders had made quite an impression.

To the south of Doesburg some Dutch units managed to hold firm for quite some time. A modern anti-tank gun was able to destroy an armoured car and a motorbike, as well as a mortar-group opposite their river position. This unit even managed to disengage fromt the opponent, withdraw and eventually succeeded in reaching the Grebbeline more or less intact.

A few clicks north from Doesburg [in fact northwest] - at the small city of Dieren along the Yssel - another quickly improvised defence was formed. Many of the men involved had been gathered from scattered units of those that had managed to escape the Doesburg scene before. It would take the SS until 1500 before they were finally able to also force these men into surrender.

Further advance to the north was yet again stopped at the Apeldoornse Kanaal [canal from the IJssel at Dieren to the city of Apeldoorn], just north of Dieren. Here the local commander had taken his men from their river-stations [the river defences had not been attacked in this sector] and had formed an improvised flank defence to the south. The SS were unable to take these men out, and it would be the 11th before this point would be finally controlled by the Germans [due to the German crossing of the Yssel to the north - sector of the 227th ID].

The northern IJsselline sector

The sector of the 227th ID would provide the Germans more of a headache. It would also show that the German machine was not the perfect apparatus that still today many historians (wrongfully) claim it to have been.

in the Bronkhorst/Brummen area [south of the city of Zutphen] an infantry battalion, reinforced by a battery of 150 mm howitzers, was designated to cross the river. The events here only started at 0900 hours. The distance between the Yssel and the German border was more significant in the northern Yssel sector [in case of Brummen, 36 km].

Two German attempts to cross the river failed and it would not come to a third. They moved their forces to Zutphen. Remarkable detail in relation to the Dutch company that had defended this sector was the fact that the Germans would be unable to force these men into surrender until the 12th. Time and time again German attacks on the Dutch positions would be rejected, and only after a carefully planned surrounding manoeuvre had been completed, the Dutch would finally give up - after three days of fighting!

Zutphen

The most intense fight in the northern sector of the Ysselline would be seen at the city of Zutphen. The 3rd Battalion of the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, reinforced by pioneers, four (!) artillery battalions, anti-tank guns and a full regiment of the 227th ID were deployed in this area. Last but not least an armoured train was designated to cross the bridge once it would have been taken.

The Dutch only had three platoons of regular infantry and half a platoon of police troops in this sector, as well as one infantry gun of 84 mm, one of 57 mm and a modern anti tank gun. The two river casemates each contained a 5 cm anti-tank gun and a heavy machinegun. Also five small casemates with light machineguns were available in this sector.

The planned German commando raid had failed, when the 30 men assigned to this treacherous task had been caught by the Dutch border troops in Didam. As such the Dutch were able to destroy both bridges at 0545, undisturbed.

Some minutes after the explosions the German armoured train arrived at Zutphen and it even rode on to within sight of the Dutch defences. Within no time a number of hits from the river casemates and the infantry guns had turned the first armoured train-carriage [this was an armoured car on train-wheels] into a strainer. Hits on the train itself caused the train's electric system to fail and as such the train guns could no longer be operated.

The German troops kept a perimeter close to the eastern riverbank free of men due to their own artillery preparations. Between 0800 and 0900 hrs an increasing German artillery force pounded the Dutch positions. Airplanes launched attacks on the heavy river casemates in particular. The Dutch managed to shoot down one of the planes, and a German mortar position was eliminated by one of the casemate guns.

The immense artillery bombardment [about 40 guns joint this barrage] lasted until 1400 hours. Many of the casemates had been destroyed by direct hits. Yet, when the Germans embarked their rubber boats and rafts a deadly machinegun fire hit them, and many had to swim back to the eastbank. Some got killed or drowned. Again the German guns opened up, this time focussing on the Dutch casemates.

The new attempt to cross the river eventually succeeded. The Dutch defenders - for as far as their guns and machineguns were still in action - lacked sufficient ammo to resist anymore. Still the Germans claim that they lost many men during this last crossing. Official German records of the Leibstandarte show however only the loss of 13 men KIA. There may well have been an infringement between the official records and the actual losses. Many German reports claim that they lost many men. The SS Obersturmführer Frey even states:

    "The crossing that followed unfolded under heavy enemy fire from the bunkers. The ordered artillery fire clearly was not effective enough to destroy the bunkers. Very uncomfortable losses. In my boat, me as the only exception, all were killed or wounded. The boat - totally penetrated with bullet holes - was hardly able to reach the westbank afloat."

And yet the fight was not over. Those Dutch forces that had remained relatively unharmed by the concentrated artillery barrages had quickly shifted front and turned their weapons against the successful SS crossing party. Again these positions had to be taken by bold and plane force.

Whilst the SS was still negotiating its way through the last Dutch river defences, the Dutch battalion commander organised improvised positions around the village of Voorst [about two clicks from Zutphen]. He had about 80 men at his disposal. German patrols were rejected and even some POW's were made. When the Major decided that the break-through formed the signal to retreat to the west, he received orders to stay and hold tight. A decision that did not make a lot of sense, but the Major executed the order diligently and with care. He took many of his men [with their machineguns] from the casemates and directed them into houses and farms. Road junctions were occupied by squads with a light machinegun. The Germans were so occupied constructing a pontoon bridge and moving troops to the west, that a carefully planned full scale attack was not feasible.

General-Major Zickwolff [it may have been that he was replaced shortly before the May War due to a serious illness and General-Major von Wachter was the acting division commander ] - commander of the 227th ID grew worried over the persistent Dutch defences to his northern flank and ordered an SS battalion to launch a full scale attack on the Dutch positions on the 11th. It would take the battalion - reinforced by anti-tank guns and a few armoured cars - all Saturday to gain the upperhand and force the last standing Dutch soldiers to surrender. The Dutch Major - who had lived up to far more than his initial assignment - excused himself in front of his men by saying "Men, I have decided to give up our opposition and I promise you that I shall hold only myself responsible for my acts once the time has come to do so."

Deventer

Another target of the SS was the bridge at Deventer. The 1st and 2nd Battalion of the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler [Commanded by Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich] together with an infantry battalion of the 227th ID, artillery, pioneers and additional anti-tank guns would operate here. Furthermore, an armoured train and a troop-train were assigned to this operation. An SS armoured car detachment was sent to Zwolle to recon the large IJssel bridge overthere.

The Dutch demo squad at the Deventer bridge experienced great difficulties destroying the bridge. First the fuse failed [0540], then three (!) successive explosions [0600, 0620, 0640] failed to destroy the bridge. In the meantime news of an approaching armoured train was received. At 0715 finally the bridge was blown off of its sockets. The Germans had fortunately been slowed down in their advance by some ingenious road blocks and a very effective railway track sabotage. Due to these measures - that proved decisive to prevent the German armoured train from bashing through the light defences at the still intact bridge - the SS arrived a little before noon at the eastbank of the river. A very short exchange of fire between the Germans and Dutch developed. At 1400 hrs only a few German machinegun crews held the Dutch defenders occupied. Soon the Dutch were able to silence these [easy to spot] teams. Then total silence ...

The unexpected silence at Deventer was caused by an interesting event elsewhere. The German recon squad that had been sent to Zwolle was addressed earlier. This unit was able to enter the city of Zwolle, and subsequently reported that the Yssel bridge was found still intact. In fact this bridge was already home to the ducks and fishes! What had happened? Nobody knows for sure. The recon party had probably made a mistake by spotting one of the intact bridges over the Zwarte Water or Willemsvaart that were also situated close to Zwolle, and confused one of these structures with the large Yssel bridge. Aforementioned bridges however were not of any strategic importance and as such not destroyed. The bridge over the Yssel was! The result of this corrupted recon report was that Obergruppenführer Dietrich directed his entire force to focus on Zwolle in order to force a crossing over there. When the SS main-force arrived at Zwolle in the late afternoon they could only conclude that a major failure had caused them to waste an entire day! It shall have cost some SS men their careers ...

Balance

The 207.ID and its SS regiment had been successful in their persuit to overtake the IJssel defences expeditiously and proceed westwards to Wageningen. Nevertheless their progress would be seriously hampered by the logistical problems that had been caused by the fact that a shipping bridge at Doesburg and a yet to be built pontoon bridge at Westervoor had to facilitate 25,000 men and their equipment crossing the IJssel. Also the point units of the SS would not make the projecten progress, for they would bump into some ambushes set up by cavalry units operating in the room beteen the IJsselline and the Grebbeline. In the end the SS regiment would only manage to reach Wageningen in the evening of the 10th. The 207.ID was almost entirely still in the vicinity of Arnhem and Oosterbeek by then.

General Zickwolff [sic] of the 227.ID concluded - in the evening of the 10th - that his forces had only gained some delayed success at Zutphen, but that the balance of the operation had failed. The division lacked ample bridging material, also aware that the Apeldoornse Canal [west of the IJssel] would almost certainly require pontoon brdiges too. The Commander of the 227.ID then decided to order all his troops to move to Zutphen and cross the Yssel at that point.

The delay that had been caused by all the flaws and miscommunications as well as the effective Dutch destructions frustrated the battle plan of the 227th to a large extend. The division was in fact almost a day behind of schedule and after the Yssel would finally be negotiated it was well aware of the next water barrier: the Apeldoornse Canal.

A collateral problem that Zickwolff had to deal with, was the fact that due to the destruction of many bridges along the entire front, pontoon and engineering bridging material had to be redivided over the German forces. The southern front received the best and the most of the equipment, due to the fact that the push of the 9th and 4th Tank Division had priority over all. As such Zickwolff had to request for additional bridging material to be transported in from Germany in order to proceed his advance over the Apeldoornse Canal.