Wouter van Gorp
Aa-bridge in Veghel, between: Hoogstraat & Markt
Invasion May 1940

The Peel-Raam line ran from Grave to Weert; a defensive line of rivers, canals and bunkers dividing North Brabant from Limburg. The area around the village of Odiliapeel was defended by young men from Hegelsom, Horst, Deurne and the village of America. From August 1939 they were armed. Toon Geurts and his school friend Hendrik Beelen were among them.

Toon and Hendrik knew each other well. As neighbours in their home village of Hegelsom they became friends and were both eligible for national service in 1930. Now, ten years later, they were fighting for their country.


The unsustainable line

On 9 May 1940, fear became a reality: Germany attacked. The German army had invaded the country by train only a few kilometres away. The line at Peel seemed unsustainable.

The Germans quickly spread out. Planes also crossed the border and Toon, Hendrik and the rest of the soldiers of the 2nd battalion had to retreat to the Zuid-Willemsvaart canal. “One of the few things we could do was fire at the aircraft.”

For Toon Geurts, a mobilised solider from Hegelsom, this was the start of a retreat that would be characterised by confusion, adversity and fear.


The bridge at Veghel

The retreat passed through Veghel, where the soldiers were ordered to blow up the bridges over the River Aa. The objective was to delay the German advance. It was a matter of urgency: the Germans were close on their heels and fired at the Dutch retreating across the fields. Hendrik was hit in his helmet. Fortunately, it was a grazing shot and Hendrik survived the attack.

That fate was not set aside for everyone. In the early morning of 11 May, the battalion retreated across the bridge over the River Aa in Veghel, which was loaded with explosives. While Toon, together with a comrade, operated the machine gun in response to the German fire, the last soldiers ran over the bridge. The order was given to blow up the bridge a few seconds too soon.

Through the blast, the windows in the houses around the bridge exploded. Pipes broke and facades cracked. Soldier Johan Beurskens was still on the bridge.

When the dust settled and the devastation became clear, it was all too obvious: Soldier Beurskens had not survived. At the age of 29, he became a victim of the retreat. A gruesome end that would stay with Toon until the end of his days.


Missed the boat

There was no time to stop and mourn the loss: the retreat continued by truck to Zeeland. Toon wanted to accompany Hendrik on the truck but a sergeant took his place. “You take the bike.” At Vlissingen, Hendrik and the others took the boat to England, but Toon arrived too late. He joined other soldiers and cuts a new uniform to size. They then heard the news that the Netherlands had surrendered.

After being held as a prisoner of war for two weeks, Toon was sent home. The Netherlands was occupied. Toon would not see his friend Hendrik again until after the war.

A story of generations

In 1950 a monument for the fallen soldiers of the battalion was erected in Odiliapeel. Johan Beurskens, the last man on the bridge, was listed first. Every first Sunday in May the veterans march to the monument. Toon Geurts attended each year until his death in 2007. He retold his story, objectively and realistically to his son and grandson. “The ordinary German soldiers did as they were ordered. Much the same as the Dutch soldiers did.”