The world has been on fire for five years. In Europe, Nazi Germany has ruled since then; in the Far East and the Pacific, ally Japan reigns supreme.
Millions of victims. Dead and wounded. From fighting on the battlefields, bombing or terror. Concentration camps, persecution, exploitation and mass murder. Yet 1944 was to be a turning point in the Second World War.
While the Soviets had been slowly but surely pushing back the Germans in the east of Europe for two years, and the Americans had managed to conquer island by island from the Japanese in the Pacific, the Western Allies managed to land on the beaches of Normandy on June 6 1944. It was D-Day, the start of the Western Front in Europe. From that day on, the Allies slowly but surely advanced through France, towards Belgium and the Netherlands. The ultimate goal is the German capital Berlin. On the one hand to totally and permanently eliminate Nazi Germany, on the other hand to stay ahead of the Soviets. Cooperation between the Western allies and the communist Soviet Union to defeat Germany is inevitable, but the mutual distrust between the Allies and the Soviet Union already casts its shadow in this phase and will eventually lead to the Cold War.
In September 1944, the Allies are at the Dutch border. British Field Marshal Montgomery devised Operation Market Garden. A daring and risky plan: he wanted to conquer the strategically important bridges over the rivers in the Nijmegen-Arnhem region by means of massive parachute drops. At the same time Allied troops had to march in a very short time via a narrow corridor from the Belgian border through Brabant to Nijmegen and Arnhem. Montgomery wanted to cross the rivers and invade Germany via the middle and north of the Netherlands and paralyse the German war industry in the Ruhr area. This tactic will also have to cut off the Germans in the western part of Holland.
Market Garden began on September 17th 1944, but after days of fierce fighting and at the cost of many casualties, this operation failed. Operation Market Garden became the Battle of Arnhem. The Allies were unable to push forward. The middle and north of the Netherlands will have a hard winter of war ahead of them.
After the Battle of Arnhem, Montgomery shifted his focus to the area below Nijmegen, in order to be able to enter Germany from there. To do this, first Brückenkopf Venlo (Bridgehead Venlo), a German defence stronghold, had to be eliminated.
The area consists of many small canals and streams. The Germans have no trouble defending the swampy Peel area. However, there is one weak link in their defence: Overloon. The only place where the Allies could penetrate the German defence. And so the Germans set up their northernmost defence line there.
Even though the British are the closest to Overloon, the Allied High Command decides to give them a break and the American 7th Armoured Division (nicknamed The lucky 7th) is rushed from the north of France to Overloon to do the job.
On Monday 25 September and Tuesday 26 September, the first shells fall in the village of Overloon. It becomes too dangerous for the population and on Wednesday afternoon, September 27, the population of Overloon must leave on order of the Germans. Over 1300 people walk in the pouring rain towards Maashees. The inhabitants of Vierlingsbeek, Groeningen and Vortum-Mullem also have to leave their villages. Many end up in Venray via all kinds of routes where, when Venray is also targeted by attacks and bombings, they have to survive in air-raid shelters for weeks on end under harsh conditions.
Due to a number of factors, however, the Americans underestimated the enemy on the eve of the attack on Overloon. The reports of British reconnaissance units do not speak of a strong enemy and the American division has had little real heavy fighting. Therefore, the Americans found it unnecessary to carry out additional reconnaissance.
The Americans’ underestimation of the number of Germans in the area would prove fatal. The Americans underestimated the number of Germans in the area, but in reality there were 15,000! Apart from the underestimated number of German troops, the German material and the German motivation and fighting spirit proved to be of a higher quality than the Allies thought.
On Saturday 30 September, the first of the American attacks begins. But time and again they fail to penetrate the German lines of defence. This is partly due to the huge amount of fierce German resistance and partly due to the constant bad weather, heavy rain and cold that make the area a living hell.
In the night of 3 to 4 October, the last American attack takes place, but the infantry is so fired upon that they cannot follow the tanks. It is decided to pull back everything and everyone.
Saturday October 7th the Americans are relieved by the British. The Americans go to the area of Deurne for flank protection of the British.Thursday October 12th the British attack from the woods near Stevensbeek.
After the introductory artillery bombardment, concentrated artillery fire comes down in front of the ready infantrymen. In the form of a creeping barrage, the fire-wall tactic that the British have used successfully in various wars, the fire and the bursts of the more than 200 guns shifted 100 metres every five minutes with the aim of breaking the German resistance. After heavy fighting, the British infantry, supported by tanks, finally reached Overloon. The village is very badly damaged by the fire.
The next day Overloon is almost house by house purged of remaining Germans. In the woods around Overloon fierce fighting still takes place. Saturday October 14th the area south of Overloon up to the Molenbeek is captured by the British. The Sunday is used for reorganisation and repairs for the coming attack on Venray.
On Monday morning, October 16th, the attack on Venray starts with the crossing of the Loobeek. A brook, also called Molenbeek by the British, which flows between Overloon and Venray and enters the river Maas at Vierlingsbeek. Due to heavy rainfall, and the water management being disrupted by the Germans, this stream had become six metres wide in some places. Because the Germans have placed many mines, even in the stream, it is a difficult obstacle to take.
The British crossing seems at first to be a failure, partly because of the enormous fierce German resistance. Yet the British eventually manage to cross the stream and push the Germans back.
The Loobeek was later nicknamed the Bloodbeek by the British because of the many British casualties
Tuesday, October 17th the conquering of the areas up to Venray follows and Wednesday, October 18th Venray is liberated. But the situation in both Overloon and the also heavily hit Venray is unlivable. The British decide on October 25th to evacuate all of Venray and the surrounding area, in total some 15,000 people, to places in the central Brabant and even Belgium. The front area then remains in this region. Only when in November the entire bridgehead of Venlo can finally be conquered is this phase of the operation over.
The civilian population could not return home until spring 1945. Or rather: what was left of it. To build a new life on the ruins of Overloon and Venray.
The forgotten battle. The Battle in the Shadows.
These are two common names for the Battle of Overloon. In reality, a battle with much impact. And therefore a Battle that should never be forgotten.
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t.n.v. Stichting Overloon War Chronicles