Battle Study # 13   

File No.: Battle Study # 13

Title: Was the Soeterbeek Bridge across the Dommel River actually weak enough to save the city of Eindhoven from a tank battle?
Investigation made at: Eindhoven & Nuenen, The Netherlands

Period Covered: September 19th, 1944

Date: June-July, 2008
Case Classification: Man-made bridge spanning the Dommel River in the brick road from Eindhoven to Nuenen, The Netherlands
Status of Case: Closed

 

REASON FOR INVESTIGATION:

The investigation was initiated after this agency understood that the Willem Hikspoors Bridge "Her weakness was her strength"-story seemed to become more of an urban legend over time. Local popular believe in the city of Eindhoven, The Netherlands, area has it that a German reconnaissance unit, looking for a suitable bridge for the 107th Armored Brigade to cross the Dommel River into Eindhoven on the 19th of September 1944, decided not to cross the Soeterbeek Bridge after being convinced by a local civilian, named Willem Hikspoors, that the river span would collapse under the weight of their vehicles, thus saving the city from a costly tank battle between German armored units and the Allied forces which had just liberated Eindhoven from German occupation on the 18th of September. This Battle Study establishes the details regarding the bridge's actual weakness that supposedly saved the free city of Eindhoven.


SYNOPSIS:

The story of the Soeterbeek Bridge is best described from both the views of the local civilians who experienced the incident as from the German side.

 

Dutch version

The following story was written by Mr. Frans Kortie, one of the founders and original Chairman of the Society of Dutch Airborne Friends.

"Because of the Hikspoors Bridge, the Hun had to retreat.
Also in the day after the liberation, the citizens of Eindhoven fully enjoy their new found freedom. They celebrated together with many people from the surrounding villages. Even though their municipalities have not yet been liberated, still they want to experience, in person, the 'happy end' of over four years of war. Also the children of Willem Hikspoors have bicycled to Son to meet the Airborne liberators. Together, they also watch the endless long tank column of the British Army, which is now, finally, 'full speed' en route to Nijmegen and Arnhem, across the Corridor, secured by the 101st Airborne Division.

Father Hikspoors, gardener of the aristocratically Smits van Oyen family, has quietly stayed at home. He enjoys the relaxing work in the garden of the Soeterbeek Estate. He hears a lot about the joyful reception of the liberators in Son and Eindhoven. He cannot believe the rumor, that Germans have returned to near or inside Nuenen. But then again, one can never know...
It does occur to him, that there are quite a number of people who come by on their bicycles in a rather hasty pace. An older man steps down from his bicycle and shouts: 'Go inside quickly, The Germans are coming'. The good man has hardly disappeared out of sight when Hikspoors spots strange vehicles approaching from the distance.


The Germans come in five half tracked vehicles and stop right in front of the Dommel River bridge. One soldier, armed with a machine-pistol, crawls out of his vehicle and looks at the bridge from all sides. Hikspoors understands his intentions. He walks over to him and says in his best German: 'brug is viel zu swag' (bridge is far too weak). The German does not seem to be convinced. Hikspoors keeps trailing him and finally shows the soldier the sign: 'Maximum weight 8 tons'. The German is somewhat impatient, but does seem to be convinced now.

A frightening adventure at Soeterbeek
That moment, suddenly a boy arrives by bicycle. Enthusiastically, he starts taking photographs. It is the young nobleman Jan Smits van Oyen, who seemingly thinks that these are British tanks. Even before he realizes his foolish mistake, the Germans take him in a forceful hold. A furious officer curses him and throws the expensive camera into the Dommel River. With a pistol in his back, the nobleman is lead away.
Hikspoors fears that the young son of his boss will be executed on the spot. How in God's name can he prevent this? He prays for good advice. While the Germans keep the absolutely nervous nobleman at gunpoint, the drivers try to turn their vehicles which are very difficult to operate. This is very challenging on this narrow road. Hikspoors helps them with this tough job, but does take a lot of extra time for it. He keeps the drivers busy long and intensely enough, that the nobleman, on Hikspoors' gesture, disappears like a hare into the underbrush alongside the road. His guards chase him, while shooting and swearing. God and destiny are merciful to him. Nobleman Jan does not get hit. He has always been grateful to his savior. Also, when nobleman Jan became the Mayor of Nuenen. Many citizens of Eindhoven, especially from the suburb of Woensel, have honored Hikspoors later as well, because through his courageous acting he succeeded in preventing a tank battle in Woensel. The bridge was given Hikspoors’ name and much later he received a decoration. This was well earned, because he delayed the counter attacks of the still undefeated German Army, thus securing our freedom."


German version

Robert Kershaw has reconstructed the German reaction to Operation Market Garden in his book 'It never
snows in September'. On pages 118 and 119 we read this about the strength of the force that went by Soeterbeek:
"107 Panzer Brigade, re-routed from Aachen, was on the march. After detraining, it moved in clattering, exhaust-shrouded columns toward Helmond. The brigade was totally armoured and motorised. Built around a battalion of Mark V 'Panther' tanks, it possessed a Panzer-grenadier infantry battalion mounted in armoured half-tracks, further supplemented by a self-propelled assault gun company, as well as supply and transport detachments. The whole force moved under its on effective anti-aircraft umbrella also mounted on tracks."


 

On pages 144-145 we read about the deployment of the 107th Brigade during the initial phase of Operation Market Garden:

"The raids by Panzer Brigade 107, 19-20 September 1944...
Major Freiherr von Maltzahn, the commander of Panzer Brigade 107, had been given a difficult task: attack across Son and take St Oedenrode, and thereby slice off the head of the British XXX Corps advance on Grave. Enemy force were as yet an undetermined number of air-landed battalions, relatively easy meat for his mobile armoured formation. They had been rerouted from an original operational commitment on the eastern front, and this new task was more preferable[...]
Reluctant to commit his brigade to going recklessly into the unknown, von Maltzahn decided upon a reconnaissance in force. His chosen approach from the south-east towards Son was flat, but sandy and boggy; Eindhoven to his left was probably now occupied, and the axis of advance was further channelled by the line of the Wilhelmina
canal itself, an obstacle forward and to the right. A small river tributory running due south from the canal,
parallel to Eindhoven, restricted armoured movements even further.[...] A shock assault was a impractical proposition, but, by using the trees that screened their advance, a heavy 'raid' appearing ghost-like from nowhere might substitute. [...] The attack came in from the south, and almost immediately threatened to overrun the recently erected Bailey Bridge.
"

Why consider crossing the Soeterbeek Bridge?

The terrain South of Son (the Nuenen-Nederwetten area) consisted (and still consists) mainly of narrow brick roads with trees planted on each side and marshy meadows. An attack could therefore only be made by driving up to the target in column and not by forming a broad front with tanks and infantry; Eastern Front-style. The Brigade staff would most likely have sent a reconnaissance patrol to try and find alternative routes of advance to Son in order to let more armor and troops arrive at the objective simultaneously. The vehicles at the Soeterbeek Bridge must have been on such a search for a parallel route.

Details regarding the weakness of the Soeterbeek Bridge
In the Eindhoven Regional Archives we have found the records that the Municipality of Nuenen kept regarding the man-made road between their village and the Municipality of Woensel.
The bridge crosses the Dommel River. The middle of the river forms the boundary between Woensel on its West bank and Nuenen, East of the river. Therefore the bridge is owned by both municipalities; each for 50%.


(click to enlarge)

The bridge at Soeterbeek spanning the Dommel River; Now & Then.
 

Time-line
On the 10th and the 11th of May 1885 the municipal councils of Nuenen and Woensel each declared that a road between their towns should be constructed, with a bridge across the Dommel River.
The bridge was built a few years later, at a cost of approximately 11.000,- Dutch guilders.

In January 1909 the bridge needed repair and after a closed quotation from nine applicants the company of Petrus de Groot was granted to do the job for 478,- guilders.
On the 8th and the 17th of April Woensel billed Nuenen for half the cost.


On January 1st, 1920 the Municipality of Eindhoven became Greater Eindhoven, annexing Woensel. The Western half of the Bridge became property of the city of Eindhoven from then on.

In May 1922 the bridge was inspected by an official from the Provincial Water Works and subsequently, on the 24th of May 1922, the Province reported to Nuenen and Eindhoven that the bridge’s road surface needed repair.

On the 21st of June 1922 Eindhoven had the pine wooden bridge deck repaired and billed Nuenen for half the cost.


On the 18th of March 1924 Eindhoven informed Nuenen that, regarding their liability if accidents would occur, they were about to post a sign on their side of the bridge reading "maximum allowed wheel load 2480 kilograms.; total weight 7440 kilograms" and advised Nuenen to do the same on the East end of the bridge.


On the 21st of March 1935 a construction expert named D. Breukers reported to the mayor of Nuenen that the municipality of Eindhoven had repaired their stretch of the bridge's road surface. Because the surface on the Nuenen stretch was in a bad shape, repair was much desirable.
This was the most recent document on file in the Archive.
 

We assume that, as a result of the Mr. Breukers's report, the bridge was repaired again and possibly improved. This assumption was made because various accounts about the events in September 1944 speak of a road sign saying that the Soeterbeek Bridge could take a maximum load of 8 tons.

 

Actual strength
From Mrs. Petra Wendstedt-Pulles (president of the Screaming Eagles of World War Two-foundation), we received copies of several publications on the event at the Soeterbeek Bridge.

Of interest is that in many accounts the German vehicles at the bridge were described as 'tanks', and not 'half-tracks' as in the account by Mr. Kortie. Tanks would mean Panzerkampfwagen V 'Panther' tanks of the 107th Brigade, weighing 44 tons and halftracks the 8 ton Sonderkraftfahrzeug 251.

Significant for this Battle Study are two interviews with Mr. Willem Hikspoors, held shortly after the war.
In the Eindhovensch Dagblad (Eindhoven Daily Newspaper) of October 19th, 1946 we read:
"It was then decided to return and the soldier, who had inspected the bridge climbed back into the tank.
If only they had known, that not even that long ago, a tractor with a road roller, together weighing at least 50 tons, 'came across the bridge', and that some days thereafter many American tanks would cross the bridge without any worries, after having first neatly driven off the side railings, which gave too little room.
"


The Lichtstadkrant (City of Light Newspaper) of September 18th, 1947 also featured an interview with Willem Hikspoors. In the article we read:
"Hikspoors is a modest man: he does not add anything to the facts, and takes nothing away from them, but the bridge was not too weak for Churchill tanks to roar across it on the 20th of September in order to engage the enemy, the same enemy who, the night before had made an about turn at hardly 5 kilometers distance from the liberated city-in-celebration."

(click to enlarge)


Willem Hikspoors posing on the Soeterbeek
bridge for the 1946 and 1947 newspaper articles


CONCLUSIONS
:

There have been many speculations as to the real reason for the reconnaissance team of the 107th Armored Brigade to decide not to cross the Soeterbeek Bridge.

Hikspoors was bluffing and the bridge may have held the weight of the German Panther tanks
If a tractor-roller combination, weighing 50 tons and Churchill tanks, weighing approximately 40 tons, did not cause the bridge to collapse, one or more German Panther V tanks, weighing 44 tons, may have also been able to reach the Eindhoven bank of the Dommel River safely.

Viet Nam veteran Joseph M. Bossi, former president of the 101st Airborne Division Association, explained to Battledetective.com the US Army policy when encountering a bridge of questionable strength: "You send one vehicle across the bridge and let it drive slowly without shifting gears. If the bridge holds, send more vehicle across, one at a time. This called a 'critical crossing'. The rule of thumb is that you can easily cross a bridge with vehicles that are 10% heavier than what the bridge rating indicates. But when your vehicles are 50% heavier or more, you are looking for trouble.'"

 

The Germans could have tried this.
A bridge rating on a sign does not show the exact amount of stress that it takes to make the bridge deck collapse.


German reluctance to pick a fight in Eindhoven
It has also been suggested that battle weary tankers at the Soeterbeek bridge did not want to drive into Eindhoven because that would lead to a certain clash between them and the numerical superior elements of the British XXX Corps. This can be considered as not the real reason. The 107th Brigade showed no hesitation when engaging the US 101st Airborne and attacking the Bailey Bridge at Son, that same day. And later on the 22nd when the brigade cut Hell's Highway at Koevering near Veghel, the 107th showed an aggressiveness unseen in battle weary units.


No tactical advantage for a drive into Eindhoven
It is our belief that the tankers made their decision to return, on their own judgment. They had a marching order: attack the bridge at Son. Lead elements of the Brigade were driving towards it via Nederwetten. Finding another road that would allow a second column to advance parallel to the original route of advance, would suit the attackers, as it would double the force arriving at the objective.
The road across the Soeterbeek Bridge would not get the Panzers to Son in a manner comparable to the route through Nederwetten. This was not the time to start a tank battle in a built-up area. Besides, military tactics dictate that you cut a supply line (which Hell's Highway in fact was) were it is most vulnerable. The Bailey bridge at Son was such a weak spot. And so was the open terrain at Koevering which gave no concealment for the traffic on Hell's Highway.


It is not our intention to prove the "Gardener who saved Eindhoven-"story wrong, but in conclusion we feel safe to say that it is very doubtful if it was Hikspoors pointing to the 8 ton-sign alone, that convinced the Panzer crew to retrace their route. They had more reasons not to go across. Hikspoors, nevertheless showed  great courage in both his efforts to convince the Germans not to go into Eindhoven and, subsequently distracting the captors Jan Smits-van Oyen.
 


 

EXHIBITS:

The rural area between Nuenen and Eindhoven seems uninfluenced by modern times. Especially the stretch of road near the Dommel River Bridge and the Soeterbeek Estate look as if nothing has changed since 1944. This is an impression of the area:
 

(click on the thumbnails to enlarge)


 

 

 

 

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