Operation Battle of Maastricht

The 'Battle of Maastricht' was fought between German and Dutch troops as one of the first battles within the 'Gelb' invasion of the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium (10 May 1940).

Maastricht was a key city in the southern Netherlands which the Germans had to take in order to reach and take the Belgian Fort Eben-Emael and thereby split the Allied armies in half.

The object of this German undertaking was thus to take the bridges over the Maas river before they could be blown, in order to have an easier road to France. The Germans therefore sent in teams disguised as civilians whose task it was to sabotage the bridge charges. However, the members of these teams were spotted, arrested and, if they attempted to run, shot.

The sluice complex at Borgharen, just to the north of Maastricht, was one of many water-control works which the Dutch could not permit to be destroyed, so a small infantry force was stationed there with light fire support from a casemate with a machine gun. In the early morning of 10 May, a patrol of six German motorised infantrymen approached the eastern guard post. This was a reconnaissance party, and when ordered to stop, four of the Germans were taken prisoner while the other two were able to escape. The Dutch lieutenant commanding the little garrison was sure that the Germans would soon arrive in greater strength, and ordered his men to remain on high alert. Not much later, more German soldiers appeared on motorcycles. The Dutch let them approach to within 55 yards (50 m) before opening fire with two machine guns and every rifle available. The Germans fell back, but this was only a temporary matter as they then returned in greater strength and the Dutch defenders were overwhelmed. The defenders tried to pull back to the sluice in a movement rendered very difficult by the ever-increasing German fire. The men at the sluice itself were able to resist the Germans, but the south-eastern group, which defended the northern entrance into Maastricht, had to surrender after its machine gun failed. The gap that now existed in the outer defences of the city was soon penetrated by the majority of the Germans who had fought to take the sluice.

Generalleutnant Johann Joachim Stever’s 4th Panzerdivision, an element of General Viktor von Schwedler’s IV Corps of Generaloberst Walter von Reichenau’s 6th Army within Generaloberst Fedor von Bock’s Heeresgruppe 'B', met Dutch resistance around Gulpen, delaying it for several hours. A column instructed to advance against Maastricht from the south was able to move forward more rapidly, and appeared in front of the outer defences at Heugem. There, the barricades had been sealed and locked as instructed. The defending unit was ordered to move back behind the Maas river once it become clear that the outer defences had been penetrated.

It was now up to the rearguard of the outer defences to slow the German advance. The rearguard managed to destroy two armoured cars and block the road for the remaining vehicles. When the German infantry had almost reached the rearguard’s position, the Dutch sergeant in command ordered an organised retreat, and the rearguard reached the west bank of the Maas river a little later.

At this time, only the railway bridge remained intact. The Germans felt that it could be a very useful crossing point for their armour, especially as it was defended by only 35 Dutch soldiers. As the Germans advanced to the bridge, they were briefly checked by the Dutch defenders, however, and a few Germans were killed. However, the Dutch soon fell back in the face of what was now overwhelming numbers. As the Germans began to cross the bridge, the pre-planted charges were triggered and the resulting explosion dropped the bridge into the river. After all of the bridges over the Maas river had been destroyed, the only task remaining to the Dutch defenders was to hold off the Germans for as lengthy a time as possible.

At the destroyed bridges in Maastricht, stray Dutch units continued piecemeal attacks on the Germans; the Dutch were spread over many strategic points, one such being a sniper squad in the towers of the bridge. When the Germans sited an anti-tank gun in front of the bridge, aimed at the adjacent St Servaasbrug, the Dutch instantly killed the gun’s crew, and then a replacement crew crew shared the same fate. The Germans attempted to cross the Maas river in a small number of rubber boats, but were shot to pieces and the Germans then fell back from this location.

It was at the destroyed railway bridge that the heaviest fighting took place. What remained of the German force which had tried to take the bridge was soon reinforced. Two armoured cars tried to approach the east bank but were destroyed by the fire of anti-tank rifles, and a light tank also succumbed to the same weapons. The German losses were high. However, soon after this, three more German armoured cars approached. The situation for the lightly armed Dutch infantry had become critical. Many defenders were killed or wounded by the German fire, and soon one of the two anti-tank rifles was destroyed. The headquarters were contacted and advised of the situation. From the time of this contact, it became clear that the Dutch resistance at Maastricht had been ordered to cease.

Luitenant-kolonel Govers, the territorial commander of Limburg, had called a meeting later in the day. The German battle plan had been found on a German prisoner during the morning: all the German units were mentioned and maps with directions were also included in the catch. It was clear that all the bridges had been destroyed. It was also clear than an entire Panzer division was deployed in southern Limburg. Govers had only two companies left under his command, and these lacked both anti-tank guns and artillery. Govers appreciated the fact that the ancient city of Maastricht, with all its cultural heritage, should not suffer more than necessary for no positive military advantage. Thus the meeting decided that all further opposition to the Germans in and around Maastricht, the last standing defences in Limburg, should cease. Govers himself went to the Wilhelminabrug under a flag of truce and established contact, and a few hours later all Dutch troops in Maastricht and its surroundings capitulated.

The battle in south Limburg had cost the lives of 47 Dutch soldiers (two officers, seven non-commissioned officers and 38 other ranks). The German overall losses are not known in detail, although at some scenes accurate figures are available. It is estimated that between 130 and 190 Germans died in the fighting in the south. After the battle, it was reported that 186 German bodies were found. It is confirmed from German material that nine armoured cars and tanks were destroyed in Limburg. Also, 10 German aircraft, mainly Junkers Ju 52/3m three-engined transports and Ju 87 single-engined dive-bombers, crashed or were shot down in the south of Limburg.