Battle of Zeeland


Battle of Zeeland

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Zeeland
partof=Battle of France


caption=
date=10 May18 May 1940
place=Dutch province of Zeeland
result=German victory
combatant1=flagicon|Netherlands Netherlands
flagicon|France France
flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
combatant2=flagicon|Nazi Germany Germany
commander1=flagicon|Netherlands Henri Winkelman
flagicon|Netherlands Rear-Admiral Van der Stad
flagicon|France General Giraud
commander2=flagicon|Nazi Germany Paul Hausser
flagicon|Nazi Germany Oskar von dem Hagen
strength1=10,000 Dutch
15,000 French
strength2=7,500
casualties1=Dutch: 38 KIA
115~ Wounded
Remainder Captured or Escaped to Safety
French: 229 KIA
700~ Wounded
3,000~ Captured
British: Unknown
casualties2=97 KIA
300~ Wounded

The Battle of Zeeland was a minor and little-known struggle on the Western Front during the early stages of the German assault to conquer France and the Low Countries during World War II. Several Dutch and French attempted to hold off the German onslaught by making a determined defense of the Dutch province of Zeeland. The battle lasted eight days and was a disappointing defeat for the French and Dutch forces defending the province.

Defenses and troops in the province

The province of Zeeland had received little attention from the Dutch government regarding defensive barriers and a garrison prior to the German invasion of the West in May 1940. On May 10 the Germans launched the Invasion of the Netherlands. Many civilians feared the collapse of the Dutch Army. In an attempt to raise morale amongst the Allies and to stem the tide of the German onslaught, several Dutch battalions (most notably the 14th Border Infantry Battalion) successfully attempted to rapidly construct defensive lines to make a defense of the province. The first defensive line, the Bathline (named after the nearby medieval fortress of Bath), was little more than a tank barrier, slightly reinforced with a dozen concrete casemates [ [http://www.waroverholland.nl/index_8.html War over Holland - May 1940: the Dutch struggle ] ] . The second, and more defensible line, was the Zanddijkline, approximately 15 kilometers west of the Bathline. This position was actually two lines (a frontline and a stopline) defended by just two infantry battalions (the 3rd Battalion of the 38th Regiment Infantry and the 1st Battalion of the 40th Regiment Infantry), supported by limited and obsolete AAA guns and several mortars and light field artillery [ [http://www.waroverholland.nl/index.php?url=/summary_zeeland_b43.html War over Holland - May 1940: the Dutch struggle ] ] .

May 10, 1940: The First Day

On the first day of the battle, neither sides' land troops engaged one another as the Germans were awaiting reinforcements from other sectors of their occupied territory and the Dutch were improving their defenses and waiting for the arrival of a contingent of French troops. The only action that occurred was the repeated strafings by German planes on the Dutch positions.

May 11, 1940: The second day

Early in the morning on May 11, the first companies of the French detachment began to arrive. The French force consisted of the five infantry regiments (loosely compiled into the 68th Infantry Division) and three Reconnaissance Groups (the 59th, 60th, and 68th) [ [http://www.waroverholland.nl/index.php?url=/summary_zeeland_b43.html War over Holland - May 1940: the Dutch struggle ] ] .

In the early afternoon of the 11th two French mail-boats (Rouen and Cote d'Argent) - escorted by French (FS Cyclone, FS Sirocco) and British destroyers (HMS Valentine, HMS Winchester) - arrived at Vlissingen. As they arrived they were attacked by German bombers, but the bombers were quickly driven away by AA guns. Later in the day another convoy arrived, and German fighters once again attacked, but were once again driven away although they had shot down one French fighter.

During the day, British Hurricanes had been seen over the province. They engaged the Lufftwaffe many times, shooting down 3 Germans Planes, and losing 6 of their own. German bombers dropped a series of bombs on the junction of the Bathline and the Kreekrakdam. Both the road and the railway were seriously damaged. Two of the army barracks were destroyed, and the local waterworks and telephone lines were temporarily disabled. The Dutch soldiers immediately repaired the damage.

Also during the day, the Dutch Army in the south, which was in retreat from the Germans after their defences at the Peel-Raamline had been broken, reestablished their defences in the area of Bergen op Zoom.

May 12: The third day

Early in the morning of May 12, the port of Vlissingen was targeted again by the Germans. As before, the bombers operated in so called Kettes, formations of three bombers. Witnesses spoke of at least twenty bombers in many waves, and as such it is likely that at least two squadrons operated over Vlissingen during this raid, possibly even three. The Allied ships in the port immediately opened fire on the German aircraft, as French aircraft began to get into the air. Dutch and French AA guns opened fire quickly as well. No less than four ships were sunk by direct bomb hits. Much of the harbour-facilities and infrastructure was hit by bombs. Cranes, offloading systems, storage buildings and the office of the local ferry line were damaged or destroyed. Also the railway-station was hit several times. There was almost no house in the harbor quarter that had any windows left and torn off roof tiles were all over the place. Other houses and a church well away from the harbor were heavily damaged or destroyed entirely. During the raid 5 civilians lost their lives.

The Dutch troops at the Bathline witnessed an ever growing flood of retreating Dutch soldiers that had once been the defending forces in the eastern part of Noord-Brabant. The French supreme command had meanwhile realized that the operation-plan for the 7th Army could not be executed as set forth in the instructions. The very prosperous German advance through Noord-Brabant prevented the French from the opportunity to form a firm and well prepared screen around Antwerp on Dutch soil. Moreover the Belgium first defence line along the Albert Canal had also given in under the pressure of two tank divisions and overwhelming air assaults. Soon the Belgian army would retreat to the Dyle-line.

May 13: The fourth day

In the southwest of the Netherlands the Germans had almost reached Zeeland. Although the Germans did not seem very eager in progressing westwards, the French forces around Breda and further west would be confronted with some German reconnaissance parties.

In the Bathline, which was the closest to Noord-Brabant, the fourth day of the war introduced the men to the rumbling sound of the ground war. Especially the German heavy artillery that would eventually reach Moerdijk caused the men of the Bathline to realize that their future opponents were closing in on their position. Frequent patrols were the result, and a rising tension in the lines. A squad of railway troops was given orders to destroy the railway that crossed the Bathline. These were the same men that had worked to repair this track after German bombs had destroyed it a few days before.

German fighters attacked Vlissingen AFB again. But an even bigger threat revealed itself. In the cause of the day panic broke out amongst the men when a rumour spread that German troops had reached the island and were heading for Vlissingen. People suddenly saw light signals from houses and secret marks were read from laundry that was waving of drying-lines. It wasn't until the evening that these rumours were more or less losing their effect.

On the 13th the Luftwaffe was less active over Zeeland. This was mainly caused by the fact that many squadrons were assigned to the fierce battle that was raging around the Island of Dordrecht. The bombers that had been active over Zeeland, were now raiding Dutch artillery and infantry positions at the south-front of Fortress Holland. Also direct support was given to the tanks of the 9th Tank Division that were engaged in combat on the Island of Dordrecht.

During this time the morale of the troops, paticulary the Dutch, had begun to drop. More and more Dutch troops were retreating from the East, and Queen Wilhelmina had fled to Britain(although she did it unwillingly).

May 14: The fifth day

At Bergen op Zoom units of the 12 were surrounded by two companies of a SS battalion. Meanwhile, at Woensdrecht, the French retreated, sealing the fate of their comrades at Bergen op Zoom. As the French retreated, they left behind many supplies and tanks.

A Dutch force of about 200 men had taken control of the forest south of Bergen op Zoom, however they were forced to retreat when the French troops in the surrounding area were ordered to fall back. During this time, the French launched a counter-attack at Huijbergen. Although the French had armored cars and Hotchkiss tanks available, they lost five Panhard cars and 200 men POW's. The Germans pushed on, taking hundreds of French and Dutch prisoners.

The casemate occupations did not join the almost general retreat of the infantry in the trenches. They stayed in their concrete and steel posts and it was for their efforts that the Bathline did not fall immediately. When German patrols probed the line, they were met by fierce machinegun fire from the Dutch strongholds and this was enough to deny the SS men any further access to the line. During the evening the German artillery fire gradually decreased in intensity and eventually it stopped. With exception of a few sections in the central sector and the casemate-crews, the Baathline had been deserted.

May 15: The sixth day

In the late evening of the 14th the Germans prepared a battle-plan for the assault against the remaining occupied sections of the Bathline. They planned first to send in a negotiator. A message was dictated in which the Germans demanded immediate and unconditional surrender of the line, or else the Germans would unleash an unprecedented assault. However, the threat was more of an attempt to trick the defenders, since the Germans did not have the materials to launch a massive assault. During the night the Dutch had withdrawn from the line.

Early in the morning the SS men of Regiment Deutschland cautiously approached the accesses of the Bathline, and when they indeed found the trenches and fox holes empty, hurried their way through. A few Dutch defenders - who had not become aware of the retreat - were taken prisoner.

The Zanddijkline was the main defence line of the capital islands of Zeeland. The line was formed by two lines of defence: the frontline and the stopline. Three casemates at the sluice-complex at the south, and two casemates at each side of the railway-bed were the only concrete reinforcements. The balance of the line was formed by earth and timber reinforced constructions and dug out trenches. Some minor mine-fields had been prepared at certain strategic locations along the approaches.

The Germans soon began their assault on the Zanddijkline. As they approached they were quickly attacked by Dutch Machine Gun fire. Upon this sudden threat the men dove down the slope and landed right into the mine-fields that had been prepared just days before. Numerous detonations killed about 16 SS men.

Pioneers were called forward and under cover of German machineguns they cleared the area of mines. After this hold-up, the signal for the assault was given again. About four German batteries started pounding the Dutch line, especially around both sides of the Tholseindsedijk.

The Germans once again attacked the line, this time with Air Support. Since the Dutch and naval artillery continued shelling their perimeter the Germans stayed with their noses to the ground until the artillery gradually decreased its fire. It was exactly the time needed for the Dutch to evacuate the troops in the northern sector and cross the northern bridge over the canal Postbrug.

The only section of the Zanddijkline that was not evacuated right away was the southern part. Here the remaining battalion was spared from the Luftwaffe bombers, and so the troops could be held under control. However, within a few hours they were forced to retreat as well.

Tholen

The Island of Tholen was a naturally broken off piece of land of the Noord-Brabant territory, isolated from the main-land by the Eendracht, a muddy and shallow natural waterway. The main city on the Island Tholen was the small town Tholen, which also harboured the only main-land connection with Noord-Brabant. The entire occupation of the island - a little more than two companies - was concentrated along the Eendracht.

During the day, a small patrol of German soldiers approached, but were quickly driven off by Dutch Machine-Gune fire. After this event, a German negotiater came out and demmanded the surrender of the island; the Dutch Commander refused. Soon after, German field-artillery and mortars opened fire onto the defenders. Beside a direct hit on a gas storage tank, not much damage was suffered from the infantry guns of the Germans. Then the German infantry began to advance. The Dutch let them approach until they were close to the road-barrier. Then mortars and machineguns open-end fire. It had a devastating effect on the attackers. Many were killed or wounded, and men jumped into the water of the inundations to escape the fire. The Germans gradually crawled back. German reports spoke of 20 men KIA. The defenders had lost two men KIA.

During the night, knowing that they could not hold their positions much longer, evacuated deeper into the island. Also, at 9:00 pm on May 15, the Dutch surrendered in every province except Zeeland.

May 16: The seventh day

The SS units had halted at the canal through Zuid-Beveland after they had crossed the two defence-lines on the 15th. During the night, German Soldiers on rafts crossed the canal. The two French battalions that defended the canal - no more than about 1,250 men - had to defend a front of 9 km. The canal had a width of about 50-90 metres, and as such it formed a considerable barrier for any attacker. Since all bridges had been blown up, an assault had to be executed by making use of rafts or boats.

The Luftwaffe continued to be very much present, and this alone had considerable numbers of French soldiers flee their positions along the canal too. The French defenders of the canal had requested fire-missions against the sectors where the Germans developed action. Since the French feared the lack of precision of their own artillery, many company commanders ordered their units few hundred meters back from their positions along the canal.

Soon after, the entire French occupation of the canal defence in the northern sector gave way. A wild run to safety was the result. At one location close to the Postbrug a squad of colonial French soldiers continued to spray the canal with lead, but quickly a storm-troop was organised an also this position gave in. Meanwhile the Germans had managed to repair the most northern river crossing. Some light armoured cars and motorbikes were able to cross this point and these units soon chased after the fleeing French. These motorized units would reach the Sloedam early in the evening, but avoided contact.

The majority of Dutch units around Goes had managed to cross the Sloedam or had taken the ferry to Noord-Beveland before the evening fell, but many French units had been cut off. The Luftwaffe harassed every single person that endeavoured to cross the Sloedam. Allied fighters were totally absent

Tholen

In the morning, the Germans once again sent a negotiator to try to convince the Dutch to surrender. This was not an option and he was quickly sent away. Two hours later German Artillery opened up onto the Dutch positions. During this barrage the Dutch battalion commander contacted the TC in Middelburg and asked for instructions. Van der Stad complimented him with the resistance shown the previous day and stated that the troops were allowed to evacuate the island and reinforce the island Schouwen-Duiveland. The Dutch retreated but were forced to leave their artillery behind.

Later during the day, after their retreat, the island of Schouwen-Duiveland was attacked. The commander, as soon as they were attacked, gave orders to retreat leaving the entire coastline open to the Germans.

May 17: The eighth day

The Sloedam was a strategic point in Walcheren. On both sides of the dam some mud flats made it possible for light infantry to cross the Sloe, but that was tricky business, for some parts were very swampy and one could easily sink away and drown.

The French had considered sending over more troops to Walcheren, but they did not. The defence of the Sloedam was considered the last bit of useful defence. Should that position fall, a general retreat of the French troops would become imperative. In fact it was already being prepared. Since the objective of safeguarding Antwerp and the Scheld canal had already failed to be achieved, the battles that continued at Zuid-Beveland and Walcheren had only one objective: covering the north flank of the French forces north of Antwerp.

Early in the morning, the Germans opened fire with their medium and heavy howitzers, which were all positioned near Lewedorp. The French artillery of 89RA and the joint Allied navy units opened a dense artillery fire on these first German troops. The assault stalled immediately and for the first time in the Zeeland campaign the Germans backed-up, leaving a considerable number of killed and wounded behind. The Dutch offered their assistance, but the French Commander declined the offer. The Germans then launched a massive assault onto the French defenses, and by the end of the day Walcheren lay open to the SS.

The Germans then turned on Vlissingen. They began to advance to the city, and did not meet any resistance until they were at the outskirts of the city. Many Dutch and French troops began to evacuate, however the French commander, General Deslaurens, gathered the remaining troops left and set up defensive positions. They were soon pushed back, and General Deslaurens, killed. He would be the only General to Die on Dutch soil during May of 1940. During the night the last pockets of resistance were cleared by the Germans. Here and there the remaining Dutch and French groups put up a brief fight, but before the next morning the last bit of resistance had faded away. The remaining troops on Walcheren, mostly Dutch, had surrendered.

Bombing of Middelburg

On the 17th the Germans opened a massive bombing raid on Middelburg, only to be surpassed by Rotterdam. Middelburg lost almost 600 buildings due to the bombs and the resulting fire. No less than 800 people lost their homes permanently. The Dutch press - one of the first official sources that were nazified - reported later that month and in early June about the devastation that had hit Middelburg. The massive fires in Middelburg would still expand until the evening of the 18th, when about 500 men, fire-fighters and professional volunteers, had managed to control the fire and prevent further expansion. The last of the fires was extinguished 40 days after the bombardment .

urrender

In the late afternoon of the 17th it was clear that the Germans had occupied the whole of Zeeland, with exception of Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. When the battle around the Sloedam still raged on the first Dutch units in the west of Walcheren already started inquiries at the Dutch staff office whether capitulation was already feasible. When many local commanders failed to reach the staff - which was indeed hard to get hold off, not the least due to the ongoing bombardment of Middelburg - local capitulation initiatives soon developed.

Van der Stad was time and again approached by his officers and the mayor of Middelburg with questions when the capitulation of Walcheren would be offered to the Germans. Van der Stad made it perfectly clear that this could never be the case as long as French troops were still engaged in combat with the Germans.

Late in the evening, a radio transmission was broadcasted that the Dutch forces in Walcheren and Zuid-Beveland would surrender. Half an hour later Lieutenant-Colonel Karel himself went to the road east of Middelburg along where German troops were heading southwards. He was transported to a hotel near Vlissingen, close by the sluices. Here he officially informed SS Standartenführer Steiner, commander of the SS Regiment, of the capitulation of the Dutch forces on Walcheren and Zuid-Beveland.

Noord-Beveland was officially not part of the armistice, but in the morning of the 18th a German officer was sent over under the banner of truth, and he brought the news of the Dutch surrender elsewhere. Upon this news the Dutch forces - isolated from all the rest - laid down arms too.

Aftermath

The Dutch Navy

Most of the Dutch Navy had evacuated by the 14th, however what had remained was either captured, or sailed to Britain. Many ships that sailed to Britain would later go to the Dutch East Indies.

Casualties

The Dutch had lost 38 men KIA, 5 of whom were officers. The Germans had lost 97 KIA and the French 229 KIA. French and British losses over Zeeland are unknown.

References


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