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Battle of Overloon unique in modern Dutch history

Brabant's liberation only after heavy fighting

Tags: World War II


Just over fifty years ago, two Dutch villages were virtually destroyed during a long, hard-fought battle, involving a German division with the newest Panther equipped tanks, the 7th American Armored Division and the 11th British Armored Division. The Allies defeated the enemy after two weeks of shelling, resulting in a man-to-man mop-up operation. Historians label it 'the Battle in the Shadow' (of Operation Market Garden), the local population still refers to it as 'the Forgotten Battle' since most Dutch people knew little about it until the liberation was complete. The 'Battle of Overloon' was the first and only tank battle ever to have taken place in the Netherlands. A battle which exacted a heavy toll among Allied soldiers who already had survived campaigns in Italy and Normandy.

The 50th anniversary of the liberation already is history to many Dutchmen: the Southern part was freed in the Fall of 1944. The liberation not only involved American, Canadian and English soldiers, but also Belgian, Dutch and Polish units. The area in question is, of course, Limburg, North Brabant and parts of Zeeland. But none of those beyond the rivers who continued to live under German occupation through that terrible 'hunger winter' of 1944-5 should be envious of the 'early' liberation of those who resided south of the rivers. The price for freedom was high in lives and property as the Allies gradually pushed the enemy back. Fierce battles raged in this region which is dotted with numerous villages and dozens of fair-sized towns.

Hot welcome

Operation Market Garden was at best a risky attempt to cut a corridor across Brabant (both the Belgian and the Dutch provinces which carry that name) to the strategic towns of Nijmegen and Arnhem. With this plan, the Allies, but specifically the British led by Montgomery, hoped to secure the bridges there, and a beachhead. Montgomery did not appreciate sufficiently the intelligence reports on the terrain's incompatibility with heavy war machinery, the (over) stretching of supply lines and the strength and tenacity of many German units.

Once Nijmegen was reached on September 20, the Corridor needed to be widened and the rest of Brabant cleared of the enemy. After four days of heavy fighting in the streets s'Hertogenbosch followed on October 27. During this traumatic period, the Allies saw the need for reducing the length of their supply lines by opening the harbour of Antwerp. This was easier said than done, because the Scheldt estuary in Zeeland had to be taken first. This, too, was a very costly operation in regards to both military and civilian lives and property.

Near the eastern border of Brabant, the German army had built a fortified line between the town of Boxmeer and central Limburg and the Meuse at Maaseyk, southwest of Roermond, hoping to prevent the Allied forces from crossing the river into the narrow Limburg land tongue and invade Germany. The German defense, equipped with the latest armored technology, had created a seemingly impregnable line - their manpower was eight times the estimate of the Allies - which they defended with great courage. When over-confident Americans (the 7th American Armored Division) rushed in on September 26, they were in for a surprise. Heavy resistance during a week-long battle and re-assignments, forced the decimated Americans to make room for fresh British replacements (the 11th British Armored Division) who subsequently took the area inch by inch, and man-to-man. A rain-swollen Loobeek was dubbed Bloodcreek by the British who discovered that the stream was booby-trapped, and strategically covered by German gun emplacements which caused numerous casualties among the men who tried to cross the stream.

A counter offense

When German tanks ran out of ammunition, crews and infantry took to the trees from where they kept shooting with rifles and handguns at anything that approached their positions. When their ammunition was gone, the Germans fixed bayonets, and fought with anything capable of killing. From scenic Overloon, now shot to pieces, the Allies inched towards the nearby town of Venray which, when they reached it on October 18th, also lay in ruble.

In the face of such stiff opposition, the Allies should have realized not to take the pressure off the enemy. As soon as the British transferred some of their units to clear the enemy from the western part of North Brabant and Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, the Germans re-organized and used their bridgehead west of the Meuse (and Venlo) to launch a counter offensive westwards. They recaptured the town of Meijel, and pushed toward Deurne and Helmond where the British had established their headquarters. By the time the Allies regrouped to face the attack, only heavy fighting would lodge the Germans from their new positions and push them back again. Meijel remained in German hands until the Scheldt was cleared of the enemy. It was not until November 22nd, that Venraij again was liberated. By December 3rd, the German troops were pushed across the river Meuse, still causing heavy casualties and much destruction in the process.


No-man's land

The heavy fighting was a very traumatic experience to anyone who had not been evacuated from the front lines. Such evacuation orders were not welcome measures: in many places, the Dutch took their time to relocate if the orders came from the Germans (an order by Allied received faster action). One man who with a friend hid in an underground shelter between haystacks, barely got out alive when a German tank crushed it. As the see-saw battle progressed, both men were exposed to the dangers of cross-fire. For days they hid, surviving on apples from shot-up trees. The ordeal still was not over when they made it back to their home - on October 12 alone, 90,000 grenades landed on Overloon! Living in no-man's land was just not for civilians. The horrors of war was to stay with them all those fifty years.

Meanwhile, the people living west of the Meuse behind the frontlines of the Corridor, were severely put to the test as well. The German army trucked in ammunition to the frontlines and filled the now empty trucks for the return trip with anything of value 'found' in evacuated homes or farms or stolen at gun point in plain view of distraught owners who could do little else but grit their teeth. Retreating troops often took livestock and horses from the farms as well, driving the animals away in the direction of the Meuse. After many unsuccessful labour conscription orders were issued by the Germans - to dig trenches - they combed area by area for men between the ages of 16 to 60. Later, these orders were accompanied by ever stronger threats of violence against hostages, other men and even women. All this and more unnerving situations went on while 'friendly fire' from the Allies was killing many civilians.

After the northern provinces were liberated, the rest of the Dutch population to their dismay learned how much the South had suffered from open warfare. Hundreds of civilians never lived to see their liberation day, instead becoming a statistic in this extremely deadly war. The property damage was beyond description, thousands of homes were gone, hundreds of farms leveled, entire city district flattened, and almost 100 of the 270 historic Roman Catholic churches in the diocese of Roermond destroyed beyond repair. Several northern municipalities - who were spared such destruction - spearheaded fundraising campaigns to help towns in Brabant. For instance, Haarlem and vicinity adopted Venray, and Haarlemmermeer Overloon.

Another generation cheered

Both Overloon and Venray were completely rebuilt. Venray's church tower which had been blown up by retreating German troops, was rebuilt with a substantial donation from post-war Germany. Besides being the site of a war cemetery, Overloon also is home to the National War Museum. Opened in 1946, tanks, trucks and other equipment left in the area was gathered, restored and put on display as a reminder of the vicious tank battle that raged there for weeks. To the south of Venray, the village of Ysselstein is the location of the largest German war cemetery in the Netherlands. Both Overloon and Venray are 'new' towns, neither has any homes which were built before 1944.

In recent weeks, numerous surviving veterans returned to the former battle fields but found a country that seemingly had removed the outward traces of war. The landscape is well-cared for, the forests have been restored, and prosperity also has included the Limburg and Brabant border area. Two post-war generations are now leading the communities there. But if the Brabant liberation anniversary activities are any indication, time has not erased the hardships of the war, the occupation, the battle for freedom and the many - human - sacrifices from the Dutch national consciousness at all. The veterans - now pensioners - were enthusiastically welcomed by generations that have not known 'the' war.