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Bath- and Zanddijkline

Introduction

In the late evening of the 14th the Germans prepared a battle-plan for an assault against the Bathline. They figured that the defenders wouldn't put up much of a fight. As such they decided to play a bluff card.

A ghost defence

The battle plan (on the 14th) was developed by the commander of the XXVI Army Corps [General Wodrig] himself and the commander of the SS Verfügungsdivision [SS Gruppenführer Hausser] and their joint staffs. In their HQ at Ginneken [southwest of Breda] - quite a distance away from the events - they decided to first send in a negotiator. A message was dictated in which the Germans demanded immediate and unconditional surrender of the Bathline, or else the Germans would unleash an unprecedented barrage from at least twenty-one (!) artillery battalions, six wings of Ju-87 Stuka's and five wings of medium bombers.

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Bathline and Zanddijkline (may 1940)

The initiators of this ultimatum had quite an imagination! The Germans had no more than one artillery battalion, two squadrons of Stuka's and perhaps three squadrons of medium bombers at their disposal. Even more so, the entire 18th Army and Luftwaffe lacked the resources dictated in the ultimatum! Still, the old bluff card was played (or ... the ultimatum was poorly translated into the history books). The negotiator [staff officer Hauptmann Herre] was sent to the Dutch HQ behind the Bathline when it was already pitch-dark, around 2000 Dutch time. The four-men-strong party was warned by the SS posts - which were supposingly the most forward German positions - to avoid the main causeway for it had been found undermined. Adhering to that advise the German captain and his three followers negotiated their way into 'enemy territory' but failed to find any reference to a military presence. Much to their surprise they found the line completely deserted and quickly turned back to share the good news. Before dawn on the 15th they had been back.

Early in the morning the SS men of Standarte 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 general retreat - were taken prisoner. The first German troops [led by the SS Gruppe under Oberstleutnant Kleinheisterkamp] reached Krabbendijke at around 0600 hours; a position right between the Bathline and the Zanddijkline.

Scouting the Zanddikeline

The troops that eventually reached Krabbendijke are specifically known from the preserved German marching order. It were the three complete battalions of the SS Regiment plus all regimental support units, the SS Artillery Regiment [12 pcs of 10,5 cm], one battery of II/AR.54 [4 pcs of 15 cm], the SS Panzer Jäger Abteilung [36 off 3,7 mm AT PAK 36], SS FLAK Battalion [12 off 20 mm AA], the Pioniere Abteilung [2 companies of pioneers with bridging material and storm-boats] and two batteries of heavy FLAK from I/FLAK 49 [8 pcs of 8,8 cm]. Also included were a platoon of armoured cars and motorized infantry of 3./SS.AA [SS Reconnaissance Battalion]. Altogether about 7,500 men. The fire-power of this contingent was quite impressive, especially when one realizes that all FLAK guns were suitable for effective ground-fire too.

From the Zanddijkline positions the first German patrols were spotted at 0800 hours. They didn't come unexpectedly after the retreating 14th BIB had partially fallen back via the bridges over the canal.

The Zanddike-line under attack

The Zanddike-line [Zanddijkstelling] was the main defence line on the capital islands of Zeeland. As said before it was a prepared line with some depth and an quite extended inundation in front of it. It had five elevated approaches that peaked out over the inundations. The two most important of those accesses were the railway bed and the main causeway [Tholseindsche Dijk]. The defence was formed by two trench lines: the frontline and the stopline. Three casemates near the sluice-complex in the south and two casemates on each side of the railway-bed were the only rigid bits of fortification. The balance of the line was formed by earth and timber reinforced constructions and dug-outs. A quite extended number of small-size mine-fields had been cunningly set at certain strategic locations near and on the evident approaches.

The defending troops had been shifted around during the previous days. The trenches and fox-holes were manned by three battalions of old reserves. These troops were supported by four 8 cm mortars, 40 heavy machineguns, four modern AT guns and six infantry guns of 5,7 cm. Altogether a force of about 2,000 men. Twelve obsolete 8-staal [8,4 cm] guns, two useful howitzers of 10,5 cm and twelve quite modern 7-veld [7,5 cm] guns formed the entire artillery arsenal. One battery of modern AAA was available some distance behind the main defences. Also three batteries of French 7,5 cm field-guns were available, but not intwined in the Dutch chain-of-command. Hours before the battle actually commenced, the twelve obsolete 8-staal guns had changed direction to the north - upon a French instruction to do so - and would therefore not be able to assist on first demand. Two French battalions of the 271.RI had taken positions behind the canal [westbank] that was situated slightly west of the Zanddike-line, as was a Dutch company, forming some sort of tactical reserve.

On paper two impressive forces would meet at the narrow land slide where this Zanddike-line had been constructed. Although the German fire-power was more impressive than the Dutch-Franco arsenal, the latter had the advantage of defending a rather well prepared line under protection of inundations that limited the enemy's options quite fundamentally.

The first German attempt was performed by the SS Gefechtstruppe Kleinheisterkamp, about a battalion size taskforce. This group was reinforced with 15./SS, some mortars and 7,5 cm infantry guns. After they had left Krabbendijke behind them, they advanced along the narrow Tholseindsedijk, the main causeway in the area. When they had progressed a few hundred meters Dutch machineguns and mortars opened up at a pre-designated point to cut off further advance. Upon this sudden threat the SS men dove down the slope of the dike where one squad landed right into one of the mine-fields that had been prepared just days before. A series of detonations killed and wounded quite a number of men. The SS.AA formation probing the road to Yerseke suffered also a loss of a few men by these land-mines. The very heavy Dutch landmines slammed three metre wide holes in the ground, that impressed the German SS men causing some sort of a landmine-mania during the rest of the battle for Zeeland. That makes a lot of sense when one realizes that basically every German had to pass the same essential points on the causeways in order to get any further West, so that all could witness the massive craters along the causeway, where - during the first day of battle here - the many badly mutilated corpses of unfortunate SS men remained exposed until the nearby mine fields were extensively cleared ...

SS Pioneers were called forward and under cover of German machineguns they cleared the area of mines. After this most inconvenient delay, the signal for the assault was given again. About four German batteries started pounding the Dutch line, especially around either side of the Tholseindsedijk. The SS men jumped forward in intervals. Close to the Dutch fox-holes along the dike they made a northern turn. At this point again a few of them were killed by cleverly positioned landmines. Meanwhile Allied naval shelling of the approach area slowed down the Germans, although most grenades landed well off target. Three Allied ships - amongst whom the French destroyer FS l'Incomprise and a Dutch gunboat - tried to lay a dense perimeter fire on some dike sections, but such a precision arty routine was not too practicle when performed by rolling and pitching naval gun platforms. Most grenades over-shot or landed short. When they were joint by the twelve guns of III-17RA [8-staal], which had shifted direction again, the rain of steel proved more of a challenge to the Germans, but the fire wasn't directed by observers, causing much of it to be idle or off target.

If it wouldn't have been for the Luftwaffe, the SS assault would almost certainly have been rejected, but just at the point where the assault stalled, a large number of bombers [probably Ju-88's] appeared overhead and intensively bombed the northern and central sector of the defences. An SS artillery battalion joint the raid on the Dutch defences. Fighters strafed the trenches with seemingly endless passes. The men of the 3rd Battalion [38.RI], on whose sector most of this seemed to be focussed, yielded for so much buzzing led. Many of them ran for their lives, infecting others to join them. The most forward German squads did not immediately realize that the very intensive dive-bomber attack had broken the back of the defenders, for they too had taken cover. Since also the Allied artillery continued shelling their perimeter the Germans stayed with their noses in the dirt 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]. They had left behind most of their heavy weapons. It wasn't until the evening before the Gruppe Kleinheisterkamp reached the same point that had - by then - been destroyed.

The SS Gruppe Kleinheisterkamp had suffered 22 KIA, of which sixteen in the two mine-fields they had ran into. The casualty rate was low if one considers that the SS men had had to negotiate the narrow dike-body, and as such had lacked any room to manoeuvre. Bearing in mind that the twelve Dutch guns of III-17RA had fired no less than 1,100 grenades on the Tholseindsedijk, and that the Allied ships with their light and medium calibre guns had also contributed substantially, the German loss of just six KIA [caused by other means than the land mines] can be considered very low. The Dutch on their part had lost only seven men, which is obvious proof that the quite significant German ground- and air-assault had only borne a very modest effect too. That is to say, when it comes to victims. The psycho-effect of the hauling dive bombers and intensive shelling caused - after all - the defenders to take off, not to return.   

The larger part of the main defence-line of Zeeland had already been abandoned after one fierce combined-arms assault by the Germans. Like everywhere else in Europe in those days, the flying artillery of the Luftwaffe proved that the opponents of Germany were unable to coop with the psychological stress of an intensive air raid. Usually men could stand intensive artillery shelling, but the sounds of buzzing and the shock-waves of detonating bombs combined with the screaming of dive bombers, was point break to many infantry men in those days.

The front at Sedan - in the northeast of France - was also decisively penetrated that same day. A quite well defended position, occupied and reinforced by plenty of French forces and quite an arsenal of potent arty. The massive attack of surface and dive bombers of the Luftwaffe paved the way for Guderian's XIX tank army and sort of degraded all of the French potential obsolete. At the most intensive day of the fighting for the Sedan position itself - the 13th - about 1,250 sorties were flown by German bombers against this very stronghold. An unprecedented show of airpower to that point in history. French infantry, artillery and cavalry were simply pounded away, mostly by the Luftwaffe. At the crucial Sedan position it was also the Luftwaffe that settled the score. A counterattack by formations of a French tank-division was simply denied by the Stuka's of the Luftwaffe, although the Germans did suffer some serious tank-losses.

The German airforce was one of the keys to the success of the German campaign and Zeeland was no exception. On the 16th the German tanks were just some clicks east of French Montcornet, where they would meet their last serious opposition in the days to come. After that the whole of Northern France would open up. In Zeeland, the Germans had managed to get through the last organized defence-line too. It was clear that there would be little that could stop them in their flow.

The last resistance in the Zanddike-line

The Dutch occupation of the Zanddike-line experienced great difficulties to cross the canal that ran to the rear of it. The French detachment of the 271.RI, that had taken positions along the western bank, often fired on the retreating Dutch troops that they envisaged as hostile Germans. Also, the French had blown up two bridges before the Dutch troops had crossed the canal. Only one bridge [in the north] remained intact. In the south a stranded wire was pulled across the canal, as an aid to cross the canal with a small flat boat. Troops could board this boat and pull themselves over to the other side. A slow process and many decided to try to cross the canal more northwards. Many would fail to find safe shelter again.

The wounded had been evacuated to Goes, the largest town to the rear of the line that had been declared an open city by the Dutch. All retreating military had to go around the town for the open city declaration implied that no military personnel were allowed in [although the French would later break that rule].

The only section of the Zanddike-line that had not been evacuated right away was the southern section. Here the still remaining battalion was spared from the Luftwaffe bombers and so the troops could be restraint. When suddenly a scout patrol with four German armoured cars [of 3./SS.AA] accompanied by a squad of motorbike infantry appeared, the units in the forward position opened fire. A requested fire mission from the 7-veld batteries was promptly given and also the French destroyer FS l'Incomprise assisted. The German infantry took cover, while the armoured cars gradually crept forward. The Germans were apparently reinforced from the rear and didn't give in. After two hours the forward positions were called back into the main-line defences. They had lost one man KIA.

At 1300 hours the determined SS men were within half a click of the main defences of the Zanddijkline. At this point - when increasing machinegun and mortar fire was felt in the trenches - some men started pulling back. The German pressure gradually increased and at 1400 hours the order for evacuation of the southern sector was given. The battalion - or what was left of it after the individual retreats - made a run for it and left most of its gear and equipment behind. Some units had the questionable courage to dump their machineguns in the hands of French soldiers who defended the canal-zone in the south! As in: 'you take care of them!'

Eight hours after the first Germans had shown themselves in front of the Zanddike-line, it had been deserted by the Dutch. No more than eight soldiers had been killed by German fire. Although the French author Lerecouvreaux exaggerated when he stated in his work [l'Armee Giraud] that the line was a "caricature de defence en profondeur" [the line was a caricature of an in-depth-defence], he was totally right to dismiss the actual defence-attitude by the Dutch as a straight out disgrace.

Aftermath

The only two prepared defence-lines of Zeeland - defended by the Dutch themselves - had rapidly yielded to the first German pressure felt. The whole process had lasted less than 24 hours and at a total Dutch cost of exactly ten KIA. The Germans had lost 30 men, of which two-third by cunningly placed land-mines.

The outcome of it all was that at 1500 hours in the afternoon of the 15th the narrow and shallow Canal through Zuid-Beveland had become the frontline. The French battalions [271.RI] behind the canal anxiously awaited the things to come, dug behind the lower west bank of the canal. The French were poorly equipped since the majority of their heavier material was still in transit, but then again, who could have expected the two Dutch lines to yield within 24 hours?! No more than three AT guns and a handful of 6 cm mortars were the heaviest weapons available to the French infantry. Three French batteries of 7,5 cm guns could still assist, and so could the naval artillery. But the communication lines were poor. What would await them the next day ...?

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