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Month-long Battle of the 'Capelse Veer' very costly
Legendary resistance man tipped Allies of invasion threat
Tags: World War II
Now fifty years ago, the Allied advance into the Netherlands was far from the cakewalk many - including Allied commanders - had expected it to be. To the contrary, the German army showed a remarkable ability to frustrate their enemy's efforts by making them fight for every inch of the way. The battle for the German's Meuse bridgehead, near Venlo, is a case in point. Another example is the costly Battle of the Scheldt estuary. Disorderly German withdrawals were sometimes overshadowed by heroic and death-defying tenacity of other (regrouped) Wehrmacht troops. The surprise counter-attack in the Ardennes, what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, caused many Dutchmen who lived in Brabant to fear that their Liberation Day had been celebrated just a bit prematurely. But battle-weary Brabanders never knew how close they got to new, prolonged warfare when a small band of Dutch resistance fighters frantically signaled warnings of impending disaster across the Meuse. In the process, a German incursion was prevented, but the Dutch spies never survived to tell their story.
By mid December 1944, the Wehrmacht had been pushed from Dutch territory south of the Meuse. German bridgeheads remained west of Venlo in Limburg, and at the ferry crossing of the Capelse Veer (veer means ferry) 1) to the north of the cities of Breda and Tilburg. There the Allies were to fight a very cost mini-battle. The stakes were high for these positions. The one at Venlo prevented the Allies from moving into Germany, while Capelse Veer kept German options open for a strike across the river into Brabant.
With all the attention focused on the combatants, the Dutch Internal Armed Forces 2) at the request of the Allies, slipped a small unit across the river. The men were to spy on the enemy and signal their information across to liberated territory. Handpicked by their group's commander Van Wijlen, Hans Hoekstra and Jan de Rooij, both Brabanders, set up their transmitter at a farm where they hid under the roof of one of those typical Dutch hay storages 3). The farmer, whose wife hailed from De Rooij's home village Capelle, was taken into confidence by the spies, and gave them permission to set up the radio transmitter. He also provided a cover - setting up alibis in the event one of them was caught - to De Rooij who 'became' his farmhand. Every day, at 6:00 a.m., De Rooij sent his reports across the river. Soon after, on December 15, the Germans started their Ardennes offensive. At once, Hoekstra and De Rooij noticed increased troop movements all around in the area, which aroused their suspicion that the Wehrmacht was planning action right under their noses. Aside from artillery, and tanks, the Germans brought in thousands of men, as well as mobile bridges.
A hasty return
De Rooij transmitted his alarming report that morning 4) to his friends Dick Flemming and Joep Nanick, two former students at the Technical College at Delft. They were positioned in the former town hall, which could be seen from atop the haystack. Flemming had just finished writing the message, Be Prepared, along with received details about the positions of gun batteries and troop movements, when out the blue, one of those infamous V1 rockets crashed on his post, burying him in debris, and injuring him mortally. Soon, efforts had begun to dig Flemming out, but when they reached him, he was only able to urge rescuers to get his scribbled message to Van Wylen. Flemming never made it out alive. Van Wylen grasped the urgency of the situation and hurried in pursuit of the withdrawing Canadian army units which were heading for the Ardennes. They already were passed Eindhoven when Van Wylen overtook them. Informed of the situation, the commander had his troops turn around, rushing them back to the Capelse Veer. At this point it is appropiate to add that the Allies benefited greatly from the local expertise supplied by a resistance group. It detected danger, and immediately reacted to it. To their credit, the Canadians took the warning to heart and beefed up their front-line positions in Brabant and Zeeland.
Battle of Capelse Veer
The crossing of the Capelse Veer never took place. Various sources detail the heroism of Van Wylen's group but hardly report on what happened to the German troops amassed in Het Land van Altena, north of the Meuse. One local historian 5) provides the missing information: the Allies - Polish and Canadian units - zeroed in on German positions with great accuracy, and pinned them down. While plans for a German incursion had been foiled 6), the enemy far from letting go of its bridgehead at Capelse Veer kept fortifying it. They managed to make it impregnable. A Polish tank unit tried to reach the German bridgehead on December 29, but was beaten back in less than three hours. Two days later, Polish infantry units supported by tanks tried once more but still failed, although they got a lot closer this time. After heavy shelling, the battle continued the following day but reached another stalemate. Help from a Scottish unit failed as well: like the others on frozen soil - no one could dig in - they were sitting ducks. Two weeks later, another battle-hardened commando force consisting of Norwegian and British troops, supported by Poles, launched an attack. It was one of the coldest nights of that winter. German fire decimated the Allied ranks, which lost most of its officers. After several attempts to storm the fortified line, an order to retreat was given.
By now the Capelse Veer battle came to the attention of the Allied high command which promptly made it a matter of prestige 7). It planned a massive operation, code-named Elephant. Few locations on the Dutch frontline saw so much firepower: 900 cannons fired 92,000 brisant grenades, 32,000 smoke bombs, and 10,000 mortar grenades. Lt. gen. Crocker and maj. gen. Vokes gave the Regiment Lincoln & Welland (L&W) more machine gun ammunition rounds than had been used in the Battle of El Alamein 8). To ferry troops during a rear attack by way of the Meuse, Vokes used kayaks specially brought in from Canada. Still, the enemy fought back ferociously from its bunker and surrounding trenches.
The first wave of the Allied attack was hindered severely by floating ice. At times, the men had to pull the kayaks across the ice to reach open water again which meant wading through icy water. Hindered by frostbite, the men were unable to handle their guns while many weapons literally were frozen. The use of kayaks left the attackers very vulnerable; many just drowned when the crafts were sunk by gunfire. The men in the canoes that were not hit, retreated to land which offered very little protection from German view and fire. The land attacks were not successful either; nothing escaped enemy attention because Allied planners had again underestimated Dutch terrain difficulties: the specialists could not get their flamethrowers in position. After having inflicted great losses on the Allies, the Germans even moved to launch a counter-attack. The battle, which according to Crocker was to have lasted five hours, went - without an end in sight - into a second day before air attacks by Spitfires forced a stalemate.
The third day was equally difficult despite the overwhelming Allied superiority in equipment, firepower and men. The terrain which had been taken inch by inch - the Allies were almost at the enemy's trenches - had to be vacated again when battle fatigue set in. Meanwhile, the Germans themselves failed to get reinforcements to their bridgehead. New attempts on the fourth day failed as well, with boatloads of soldiers ending up in the icy water. The fifth day - January 31 - began early with a German shelling of Allied positions, but when the Canadians advanced once again, they were met with unusual silence. Under cover of darkness, the enemy had withdrawn from its last bridgehead south of the Meuse. The Battle of the Capelse Veer had ended, but it took the lives of over 100 men, British, Norwegians, Poles and dozens of Canadians 9). However, the Germans paid the heaviest toll, losing 145 while a couple of hundred men drowned trying to cross the river and reinforce the defenders.
The determination by the Germans grudgingly earned them respect. It also re-enforces the tremendous feat of Jan de Rooij when he signaled information about an impending invasion which was subsequently foiled. People in that corner of Brabant know all about the man whose memory has grown into something of a legend, 'the Savior of Brabant.' De Rooij was caught shortly after he transmitted his urgent message when the Germans, acting on a hunch that a spy transmitted information about their positions and movements, searched the area and found the radio hidden away on the farm. The discovery could have sealed the fate of the farmer's family as well had not De Rooij accepted full responsibility. The farmer and his family of seven were let go after pleading their innocence. De Rooij was dealt with like any spy who had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the Gestapo.... He was tortured and finally executed in Amsterdam, on January 6, 1945. While most of the tales about him are just that, he was without doubt was a very valuable resistance man who showed great heroism at very crucial moments.
Canadian commanders seldom received as much flack over having failed to dislodge the enemy as they did over the one at 'Capelse Veer.' Several attacks on this German stronghold was defeated with severe loss of men.
The Binnenlandse Strijdkrachten, or BS for short, was formed by merging various resistance groups. Its commander was Prince Bernhard, Queen Wilhelmina's son-in-law.
Although size and shape varied from region to region, they had in common that the roof could be raised or lowered as the need arose. The Dutch call such units hooibergen, 'mountains of hay.' The actual date was December 22. De Rooij warned that the Germans intended to cross the Meuse by Christmas. In fact, a German unit had crossed the river and reached nearby Waalwijk a few days before. Similar crossings were reported elsewhere.
According to Jack Didden in the daily Brabants Dagblad, the German positions were shelled heavily by artillery on Christmas Day, pinning them down. As is usually the case in warfare, the grief and suffering of the civilians whose homes and farms were destroyed and who lost relatives and friends, was indescribable.
For various reasons, within the German command there was opposition against the campaign. The plans for it were dropped in the closing days of 1944, and the 10,000 soldiers were evacuated from the polder. By then, the overall-tide had turned against them as they came out of the Ardennes-campaign much weaker and unable to regain strength.
Curiously, De Jong in his official history on Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog pays scant attention to this trouble spot on Dutch soil. The book Canadezen in Aktie by authors Bollen and Vroemen (1994) highlights the battle on several pages. Canadezen in Aktie, page 74.
Besides the L&W, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and the South Alberta Regiment were involved in the five-day battle.