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Julianakanaal Sluice  /

Like a supply-chain heart bypass, the construction of the Juliana Canal created a navigable waterway alongside the coalfields of Limburg just where the natural Maas became frustratingly shallow - preventing its use as an industrial shipping route. Opened on the 16th September 1935 the canal was an engineering feat that mixed traditional canal cutting with the use of raised dykes and completed a crucial connection to the larger waterways of the Rhein Delta to become the veins and arteries of the industrial heartland around Sittard-Geleen.

The original purpose of the 36.6 kilometer canal was to allow the movement of fuel, goods, and people throughout the region. However, less that five years after opening, the waterway that promised mobility came to be used as a means of preventing the movement of the forces of Nazi Germany as they began their march across Europe.

As wartime rhetoric increased in neighbouring Germany the Dutch Government had announced general mobilization on the 28th August 1939, four days before the German invasion of Poland. Throughout the country defensive lines were drawn, one of the most important of which was the “Maaslinie” along the course of the river that used the waterways as a natural barrier to infantry engagement. This strategic defense included the fortification of the Juliana Canal alongside Born with soldiers and conscripts being stationed along its entirety charged with ensuring no German troops crossed the water - seeing all of the bridges rigged with explosives for demolition should an attack take place.

The crossing at Born however presented a problem.  Being integrated into the sluice the bridge could not be destroyed without draining the upstream canal and breaking the defensive line. Instead the sluice was left defended by an infantry platoon. The West bank being armed with two antitank guns and three heavy machine-guns on casements; the east wielding groups of light machine gunners.

On the early morning of the 10 May 1940 300,000 German troops started their ground offensive against the fortified lowlands as part of the invasion of France codenamed “Fall Gelb”. Though under-manned and less well armed the troops of the 37th Infantry Regiment stationed on the banks of the Maas fought back viciously, defending their positions and blowing the bridges wherever possible. The troops at Born, however, had no option of last defense and, though able to hold their line for several hours using machine guns and mortars, they eventually ran short on ammunition, having to retreat back towards the river.

With the crossing still intact eight volunteers stayed behind to defend the sluice and ensure the safe retreat of their brothers in arms. A further four hours of fighting ensued during which time the remaining defenders attempted to construct a barricade, a task that ended the life of one Piet Walraven when he took a bullet to the head. Nevertheless, local boy Harie Custers of Einighausen holed-up in one of the casements continued to fight on until both his gun and defensive position were destroyed by two direct German mortar hits. Though taken to the Maasland hospital in Sittard Custers died two days later from his wounds aged only 21.

Today the locks at Born admit little of their dramatic history. The freight and pleasure cruisers passing through the 11.35m lock being largely unaware of the military events that once took place there. Similarly most road traffic simply speeds over the bridge once defended by Custers without a second glance. But quietly positioned next to the sluice there is a small memorial to the soldiers killed in action and an acknowledgement to the part played by the local hero who post-humously received the Bronze-Cross in 1948.

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Julianakanaal Sluice Secret Cities