Graafse casemates: ‘Exactly as it was then, it’s unique’

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GRAVE – Sunday 17 September 1944 starts sunny and quiet in Grave. And believers, because there is a full house in St. Elisabeth’s Church. Around eleven o’clock, churchgoers hear a swelling growl of airplane engines. An armada is moving across. It is D-Day for Grav and Bro 11 over the Maas in particular. The battle for the bridge is of vital importance to Operation Market Garden, which aims to shorten the Second World War. Today’s events are commemorated on and around September 17 with numerous activities.

By Jaap Schouten

The moat, the casemates and the bridge: they are inextricably linked. The scene from the bridge on Brabant’s south bank is still the same after all these years. Two concrete spots in the landscape and the rustic Gemaal van Sasse in between. Yet fewer and fewer people who cross the bridge know the history of the fierce battle that was fought here in World War II. History is fading, Jeroen Vos (48) and his uncle Cees (78) from the Graafs Casemate Museum also note. “Many times on tours we hear people say, ‘Gosh, I drive by here every day, but I never knew what happened here’.”

Jeroen and Cees have for years been the cornerstones of the dwindling volunteer club, which wants to keep the casemats (the Dutch word for the German ‘bunker’) available to the public. It’s not easy, the couple said. Corona has left a trail of destruction through the volunteer base. “We can really use all the help right now,” says Jeroen. “The casemates can now only be seen on request if there is an attendant available. I would like to see that differently.” So take to the skies with the ugly, concrete behemoths some Grave residents suggest? Absolutely not an option, says Cees: “It is not possible at all, these are national monuments with great cultural and historical value. This landscape, the bridge, the casemates and the pumping station: nothing has changed in all those years. It is exactly as it was back then, which is unique.”

17 September 1944, just after 11am: Fighter-bombers largely take out the totally surprised German defenses of dug-in positions around Graafsebroen. Casemate trench Noord (on the meadow next to the bridge) is also eliminated. Soon after, American paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division are dropped over Velp and Nederasselt. One of them, Lt. John S. Thompson, jumps later than the main force and ends up with 15 others 600 meters southwest of the bridge, roughly where the tennis courts of Thos are now. Communication is impossible because the radio ends up in a ditch. Platoon Commander Thompson decides to advance to the bridge on his own, coming under fire from several sides along the way: from Graves, the road to the bridge, and a tower near the bridge. His men seek shelter as best they can in streams, hedges and bushes. The paratroopers surround the pumping station in Sasse with a quick action. The Germans who flee or are eliminated. The only casemate Grave Zuid is still between the American paratroopers and the bridge.

Nice collection
After the war, the casemates in Grave were forgotten. The graafian youth played in it, and a bum found shelter there for a short time, at Cees Vos. “The case worsened. Eventually the holes were walled up and the casemates were inaccessible. About ten years ago, a group of concerned diggers, including my brother and Jeroen’s uncle Evert Vos, decided to make a museum of the casemates, and the Graafs Casemate Museum was founded. Unfortunately, everything left behind by the Germans has disappeared. Fortunately, through donations and research, we have been able to build a nice collection in recent years. Material is still being found or offered. We have to be selective because there is limited space in the casemates.”
The casemates, built in 1936 and with reinforced concrete walls from one and a half to one and a half meters thick, have been restored to their original condition as far as possible and converted into a museum. “Even the original painting of Kasematgrav Zuid has been restored,” says Jeroen. “These are camouflage colors to hide the opening for the cannon. The impacts on the concrete wall date from the beginning of the war, when the Germans fired on the casemate from the opposite bank. The bridge was blown up right in front of them on May 10, 1940. We have been in regular contact with American paratroopers involved in the attack. One of them, George Roth, has the uniform here. No, John S. Thompson never came back here. His son does, I spoke to him a few years ago during the memorial service. We never again had contact with the German occupiers. At least nineteen Germans were killed in the attack, who were buried a day after the liberation on 18 September in a field opposite the Bons barracks. Later they were reburied in Ysselsteyn at Venray, in the large German cemetery.”

September 17, 1944, afternoon: The Germans in the Grave Zuid casemate, close to the bridge ramp, are still biting back and attacking the American paratroopers heavily. They take cover behind Sasse’s pumping station. Two well-aimed shots from a rocket launcher (‘bazooka’) hit the cannon on top of the casemate and the Germans have had enough. Those who can still run for their lives through the fields (now industrial area) to Grave. Around five o’clock that afternoon, the Graafsebroen is in Allied hands. Thompson and his men got the job done with no casualties on their side. The exact number of dead and wounded Germans is not known. A report goes to headquarters: “Bridge eleven is ours!”. Not long after, an endless stream of Allied troops and equipment will cross Bridge 11 to the north. The other ten bridges are on the Mook-Nijmegen route and have all been captured as well. However, the last bridge, the one at Arnhem, proved to be too far away, so Operation Market Garden effectively failed. After storming the casemates in Grave, the Americans enter the town later in the evening. The Germans have already fled at that time, Grave has been liberated. The Graafse Bridge was renamed the John S. Thompson Bridge in 2004. Thompson himself had already died by then.

The celebration of the liberation of Grave has become an annual ritual. Apart from the last two corona years, the marking is held every year in a grand style to honor the liberators. Besides the official ceremony on September 17, the wreath-laying at the Airborne Memorial at the bridge with invited guests from home and abroad, the public will also be presented with a lot of spectacular pieces. There were so-called Mock Battles, mock battles, where actors (re-enactors) in original army uniforms and with authentic weapons carried out a lifelike attack on Gemaal van Sasse and the casemates. There was a special Airborne Walking Event, camps with German and Allied ‘soldiers’ and authentic army equipment, paratrooper jumps and the temporary highlight is the spectacle piece ‘CP Cider White’ (for the former command post in the old town hall) in 2019 , where the liberation of Grave was re-enacted in the city center.

“The annual commemoration actually originates from the Graafs Kasematsmuseum, which in turn has its origins in the chamber tomb of the military tradition”, explains Jeroen. The event attracts many visitors every year, while the official authorities also like to come to Grave that day. Jeroen: “I know the American ambassador is happy to participate and appreciates our efforts.” The thread will resume with the upcoming holiday on September 17. A new camp – WW2 Camp Cider White CP – is being set up behind Gemaal van Sasse by re-enactment association MARS. On Saturday afternoon, the Liberation Concert of the Voluntary Drum Fanfare Royal Air Force starts at 2 p.m. Before the official ceremony at the Airborn Memorial by the bridge, with many invited, there is a so-called fly-town with two historic Harvard planes. The scene of the commemoration invariably remains unchanged: two casemates, the pumping station in Sasse and the bridge.

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