LIBERATED TWICE BY TWO MEN
The village of Cuijk on the River Maas found itself in an unfortunate situation in September 1944 as being right in the no man’s land that had been created by the opposing troops during Operation Market Garden. For two long weeks the population hovered between fear and hope.
‘What a great day it is today!’
On Sunday 17 September 1944 hundreds of gliders were released above Cuijk and thousands of American paratroopers dropped and landed on the opposite bank of the Maas. The peoples’ joy was immense and one of the residents noted in her diary ‘What a great day it is today!’ There were also German soldiers in the village. On the same afternoon two Americans, the Smith brothers, landed on the wrong side of the Maas near Cuijk. Almost immediately after landing they were taken away by members of the local resistance and protected in an underground hiding place. They went into action the next day, and when they took two remaining Germans as prisoners they were treated as heroes. But the men wanted to return to their unit and on the same morning they were taken across the Maas by ferry. As soon as the resistance workers were back in Cuijk they destroyed the ferry. There was no longer any chance that the Germans could cross the river there.
Two times two
By strange coincidence Cuijk was on that very same day ‘liberated’ by two other American paratroopers. They were patrolling near the village of Mook and were searching for Germans left behind. They were ferried by two Dutchmen to the Cuijk side and they too were treated as heroes. They charted the area from the church tower and after a substantial meal they also decided to return to their section. During the crossing they stumbled on a German patrol and so they had to go back to Cuijk. They later returned to their unit via the town of Grave.
Then followed a period of utter confusion and uncertainty. The village had not been liberated, yet it was no longer occupied. On 20 September the Germans and their vehicles once again moved through the village from the south in the direction of Grave. What did this mean now? The flags and decorations in the national colour of orange were quickly taken down. Chaos reigned. To add to this, members of the resistance shot at German troops from their positions along the Maas, giving the impression that the village was already in Allied hands. Reaction was inevitable and on the same day the first German shells landed on Cuijk. Some of the residents fled, others decided to defy danger in the hope that Allied troops would soon arrive. But that would mean waiting for some time.
Two days later panic broke out again as rumours abounded that SS troops had been spotted in the area. To the relief of those who had stayed behind, this proved to be a false alarm even though on that same day, 22 September, part of the Dutch Princess Irene Brigade passed through Cuijk. But even they were not the long-awaited liberators, as these soldiers were on their way to Grave to defend the most important bridge there. In the days that followed, the occasional Dutch patrol was seen in the village and the locals went to Grave to watch the long lines of Allied troops. Cuijk found itself in an unreal no man’s land in which the inhabitants found themselves continuously alternating between hope and fear. Salvation finally came after two weeks. Before this happened, four residents, including two children, were killed by shelling and dozens of others were injured.
On Saturday 30 September the first quartermasters from the 2nd battalion of the Royal Ulster Regiment set out from Bakel to Cuijk. The rest of the British unit went to the village of Beers, five kilometres to the west on the following day, and arrived in Cuijk in the afternoon of 2 October. They established their headquarters near the railway station. The enemy presumably noticed the troop movements as the shelling increased, and on that first day the first soldier, A. Howson was killed and four others were injured. Cuijk was finally liberated.
The tragedy that occurred after the assumed liberation of Cuijk was the result of the British advance on the eastern front of Operation Market Garden, followed by the retreat of the Germans in the Peel region. For this reason the part of North Brabant between Overloon and the main route via Uden to Grave did not receive priority. It was only after the operation ended on 25 September that the British supreme command could start to fill the gaps in the lines and Cuijk was occupied by a British battalion. That peace did not return after this was due to forcing the cessation of activities of the front along the River Maas.