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Chapter 7 - Disputed territory

General review

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May 1940 - The battle for the Netherlands

This chapter sees on the events that took place in the Dutch territory south of the Maas, e.g. the provinces Limburg, Noord-Brabant and Zeeland. The title is a reference to the mild resistance that the German invasion army faced in the south of the Netherlands.

The Dutch defence strategy had substantially been changed in March and April 1940. When the new CIC Winkelman had studied the most challenging issue of the country's defence - which had to be done with a relatively small army, that was quite poorly equipped and that wouldn’t be counting on substantial allied assistance - the General decided that the defence emphasis would be on the rich and densily populated northwest of the Netherlands. The province Limburg was even so lightly defended that it best certified as ‘symbolic’. The odds were shifted in Noord-Brabant, where a quite well prepared defence had been constructed in the eastern sector, but which would be largely dismantled. The former CIC had one third of the Field Army positioned behind the so called Peel-Raam line, but the new CIC considered those defences particularly weak for its open southern flank, caused by the odd Belgian defence plan that saw no serious defences north of the Albert-canal. As a consequence the entire defence-force in Brabant would be brought back to the so called Peel-Division, that comprised around 14 battalions of older reserve units and that would be reinforced with six battalions of the 3rd Corps in order to man the defences along the Dutch-German border (Maas-line) and the Peel-Raam line. These twenty or so battalions lacked any modern artillery and air-defences, had been stripped of most of their modern AT guns and had particularly a very poor C&C organisation due to small or absent staffs and lacking communications. The balance of the 3rd Corps as well as the Light Division would be taken back into the Fortress Holland on the second day of a German invasion. This dramatic change in strategy had been given in by intelligence, making clear that the French had no intention of deploying strong forces east of the Dutch city of Breda and the Belgian defence strategy that caused the entire north of that country to be virtually undefended. Finally the province of Zeeland had always been only lightly defended. In fact the defence of that province had been focussed on the two shackled main islands Zuid-Beveland and Walcheren, where most of the population lived and where the principal cities of Middelburg and Vlissingen were situated, the latter with an important harbour. Moreover the Westerschelde, south of the islands, formed the entrance for the Scheld that connected the port of Antwerp to open sea. In the Dutch defence system Zeeland was of hardly any significance though.

The German invasion plan called for a relatively weak formation that was supposed to cut through Noord-Brabant. It was represented by the 26th Corps, that had two reserve infantry divisions, a motorized SS division, the smallest German tank division and two more reserve infantry divisions that would be activated only when the Breda region would have been reached. The strength of the Corps implied the German expectance of only limited resistance on the way to Breda. At that very point the Corps would be split-up into 26th and 39th Corps. The first would only contain three reserve infantry divisions and the motorised SS Division and was tasked to seal off the Antwerp region from the north and take Zeeland. The 39th Corps would be composed of the tank Division, one infantry Division and one motorised SS Brigade, as well as the remnants of the air-landed forces in the Fortress Holland, and push deep into the Fortress Holland. These compositions were not mandatory though. It were the battle-field circumstances that would determine which and how many units would turn north to enter the Fortress Holland and which units were to face Antwerp.

On the left flank of 26th Corps operated the right flank of the 6th Army, that would contribute with 9th Corps as to the taking of the southern part of the Peel-Raamline, but subsequently turn slightly south into the north of Belgium. 

The French strategy [Dyle-Breda plan] would see the strong 7th Army deploy in the north, in the Turnhout – Breda – Antwerp region. That army comprised two motorized infantry divisions and a strong mechanized division besides some regular infantry units and an additional tank brigade. It was largely composed of so called ‘active’ formations, the best the French army could produce. The Germans expected – peculiarly enough – particularly British forces to be pushing north and guarding the Antwerp-Scheld region. The basic idea of the allied strategy was quite well appreciated by the Germans, but they considered Antwerp more of a British interest than a French. According to the logics of that era the German perception was well founded, but they had not anticipated the irrational strategy that Gamelin produced months before the campaign started, which was materialized in the Dyle-Breda variant. A strategy much disputed amongst French generals and only advocated by the French generalissimo Gamelin.

This long introduction is necessary to grasp the things ahead. For as far as the battle of the Netherlands was an all Dutch affair, the theatre below the Maas river would become part of the integral main battle plan of the major players. That had not – as such – been recognized by the Dutch CIC, who had set all his cards on pulling back within the Fortress Holland and leave Noord-Brabant for what it was – a Dutch side-show. It would have serious consequences for the entire battle for the Netherlands.

The 7th Chapter of the book is of reasonable quality and shapes a good picture of the events in the south of the Netherlands, although a more thorough elaboration on particularly the French side of the story would have taken the quality to a considerably higher level. After all, the developments in the south of the Netherlands were very closely linked to the main battle in Belgium and the overall strategy of the allies. The Zeeland part of the chapter is of very good quality, like it already was in the 2005 edition.

The quality of this chapter being quite good surprises to some extend, since the same author [H.W. van de Doel, Ph.D.] wrote the terribly poor Chapter 10 too. Yet there is still quite some criticism to give in the margin, although in this Chapter 7 mainly of less significance than in Chapter 10. 

Criticism

[p.207] The rank of SS Gruppenführer was not an equivalent of Generalmajor but of Generalleutnant, e.q. Lieutenant-General. In that era the lowest general-rank was Oberführer [Brigadier], the second lowest Brigadeführer [General-major] and Gruppenführer as such the third general rank. Obergruppenführer [General] and Oberstgruppenführer [Generaloberst, as off 1942] came after. 

[p.207 / p.208] It is suggested that Winkelman decided not to defend the Peel Raam line. That is inaccurate. Winkelman had instructed the commander of the Peel Division to defend the Peel Raam for as long as feasible and afterwards submit to the French local command with the remnants of the Division.

[p.208] It seems to be a firm myth that Hitler himself opened the issue of assault commandos to take the Maas bridges. It is very likely however that it was the Abwehr itself that posed the idea of such operation during the 27 September 1939 meeting in Berlin, where all senior ranks of Heer, Kriegsmarine, Luftwaffe and Abwehr attended. Outfits to execute such operations had already proven themselves in Poland, in particular the Verband Ebbinghaus. That Hitler sanctioned an idea of this character of operations goes without saying, but it is almost certain that it was Abwehr chief Canaris who proposed the outlines first.

[p.209] The Brandenburger outfit was considerably stronger that the 110 men stated here (which was taken from the aft-war account of commander Walther). The zbV 800 outfit counted (at least) 499 men (of which I posses the entire name, rank and unit list). The company involved in the central part of the country already comprised four platoons, of which 1st Platoon [60 men] and 2nd platoon [40 man] already had 100 men amongst them. On 3rd and 4th platoon I have no exact strengths. It is true though that the 110 men from the Walther outfit were used for the 26.AK operational sector. But other sectors were attacked too by members of the Brandenburger. In total and excluding other involved zbV units, more than 500 men were involved in the stealth operations from Bau-Lehr Batallion zbV 800 en zbV 100.

[p.209 / p.210] It seems that the railway bridge at Neerbosch [across the Maas Waal canal] hasn’t caught the attention of the author. It was intended to siege that bridge with a surprise party of the SS AA [independent recce battalion of SS Verfügungsdivision] and cross it with a goods train containing a battalion of troops of 254.ID. That train was to cross the railway bridge at Ravenstein next and unload the infantry behind the most northern sector of the Peel Raam line.

[p.212] The few lines spent on the southern Limburg events fail to mention that the most principle bridges had all been blown up. Particularly the failing bridge seizures in the Maastricht region caused the Germans to lose important momentum. All heavy bridges were destroyed (just) in time, after siege attempts by Brandenburger and a special army task force had failed. This caused particularly the 4th Tank Division to be restraint behind the Maas for another 24 hours and furthermore delayed the 3rd Tank Division 48 hours. It were only light formations that were able to negotiate the Maas and Julianan canal on the first day.

[p.214] Heavy shelling was not at all the reason for light casemates to crack. It were direct hits from flat projectory AT guns of 3,7 cm and 8,8 cm that cracked these nuts. The heavy shelling by 10,5 and 15 cm howitzers failed to pay off.

[p.215] The essential thing however was that the railway bridge at Gennep fell into German hands undamaged …’

That … is a well preserved myth. There was nothing essential about it, but it certainly was fabricated as an essential issue by the Dutch historians after the war, (apparently) including the author of this chapter.

The capture of the intact bridge at Gennep failed to pay out beyond any minor significance. The Germans benefitted little to none of this bridge, besides the two trains that went across as well as some infantry battalions, but that contributed little to the battle outcome in the end. Besides, the poorly planned German logistics saw the arrival of an engineering team to make the Gennep railway bridge passable for heavy transport and tanks only late on the 11th, which forced the entire 26th Corps to a crossing of the Maas over two heavy pontoon bridges near Gennep and Mook and a ferry service south of Gennep. Only on the 12th the Gennep railway bridge contributed to the logistic challenge along the Maas, but that was by that time operationally irrelevant. 

The battle at Mill

[p.217] Mill is addressed as one of the most tactical positions in the Peel Raam line. It was the most strategically valuable position though.

[p.217] Anti tank artillery? That is a wrong term. The Dutch army had no anti-tank artillery, but only anti-tank guns for short ranges. Artillery is a term used for weapons that project munitions beyond visual range.

[p.219] An odd phrasing: ‘The crew of the German armoured train had spent the first few hours of war in great suspense. Their passage across the undamaged railway bridge at Gennep was a relief, however.’

It is – in itself – of minor significance, but the war broke out at 0355 hrs (Dutch time). The armoured train passed Gennep at around 0400 hrs and was through the Peel-Raam line within thirty minutes after the official invasion hour. It is therefore incorrect to state that ‘the first few hours were spent in great suspense’ and that ‘the passing of the Gennep bridge’ was a relief of that tension. In that case the tension couldn't have lasted for more than a mere 30 minutes!

[p.221] Time-wise an inaccurate reconstruction of the Schenk assault. The seizure of the Dutch casemates and the command post in the forest nearby the railway was not done before 0830-0845 hrs. The KTB of 256.ID and Schenk’s personnel account are quite clear on that.  

[p.221] A suggestive assessment of the Commander Peel Division. Although it must be said that he would indeed proof himself an extremely poor field-commander, the Peel Division lacked even the most modest reserve unit. More importantly, General-Major v Nijnatten remained the highest Military Authority in Brabant until 1600 hrs on May 10, 1940. Contrary to the commander Peel Division, he had every bit of opportunity to release units from his command to repair the void that had been created in the Peel-Raam line at Mill. He did too, but utterly failed to do the same in respect to Moerdijk, where he should have supported too, but left that to the weak 6th Border Battalion. A strategic blunder that would count dearly later on.

[p.224] It should have been added here – when the chaos of German traffic is mentioned – that the railway bridge was hardly in use due to the lacking timber frames that could have prepared it for motorised traffic to pass.

[p.224] The text suggests as if the 481st Regiment had remained passively awaiting its commander’s decision making, whereas in reality several attempts had been made to cross the Defence canal west of Mill. All those attempts had been repelled by the defenders.

[p.224]However Kaufmann left the final decision to the commander on the ground.’

Which was exactly what the German Auftragstaktik was all about.

[p.225] No artillery support, but one battery of 10,5 cm howitzers had been available.

[p.225]The shaken Dutch soldiers quickly surrendered to German superiority’.

That is a very poor reproduction of the facts. Indeed in a small area between the railway line and the Langeboomsweg some squads yielded, after their casemates had been extinguished and their positions bombed. But most of the troops in that sector had withdrawn. It was only a small sector though. Reason why the Germans had to continue the battle well into the next morning. Meanwhile the narrow cleared perimeter was used to pour in more troops, that pushed ahead some clicks to the west to halt there for the night.

Passage through Noord-Brabant

[p.228]Artillery, machine guns and ammunition were left behind.’

A typical example of an almost deliberate inaccurate reproduction of the events. This quote suggests as if the units evacuating the Peel-Raam line left their ammo and MG’s behind, which is far from accurate. Indeed a good share of the (relatively) large ammo caches was left behind at some locations due to lacking transportation. At other locations all, or the better part, was taken along. MG’s were almost everywhere taken out of the casemates and carried along. Only occasionally units considered the heavy machineguns too much to carry. 
 
[p.228]The Dutch battalion commanders at Mill (of I-3.RI and I-6.RI) were not informed of the retreat during the night of 10 May and remained at their stations.’

Funny, on page 225 (see comments hereabove) the author still stated that the Dutch quickly surrendered at Mill. So how can it be that the battalion commanders stayed at their CP’s overnight, if the aforementioned had been the case? Good that the author corrects his previous error, but all in all a poor show of inaccurate accounts on page 225.

[p.229] It is suggested that Colonel Schmidt only got news of his liaison task with the French on May 10, 1940. This is highly inaccurate. Schmidt learnt about that task late March 1940 when he was informed by the CIC himself of the revised Brabant strategy. The only thing that Schmidt learnt in addition – on the 10th – was that the GHQ had no instructions to go along with the liaison function.

[p.232] ‘… did not fit with the ideas of the acting commander of the 2nd Light Armoured Brigade, colonel P.E.A. Dario. The latter had his Brigade, part of the 6th Cuirassier Regiment, of which he in fact was also commander, and the 4th Motorized Dragoon Regiment take up positions between Tilburg and Turnhout.’

The author is poorly informed on the French army organisation, as is also seen in Chapter 10.

Colonel Dario was the commander of 6.RC, Colonel de Beauchesne of 2.BLM. Since the latter had been assigned the duty of commanding a merged recce unit, Dario acted also as commander of 2.BLM [Light Brigade]. His own 6.RC was the armoured reconnaissance regiment of the division [1.DLM] and was not a part of 2.BLM, nor was 2.BLM – being a much larger unit than the 6th Regiment Curassier – part of 6.RC, like the above quote claims.

[p.237] The French troops indeed were amazed to see the Dutch flee. The author failed to add that Gamelin had been informed by the Dutch attaché in Paris (before the war) that the Dutch would evacuate the main army formations out of Brabant. The French generalissimo decided not to inform his already (against the Dyle-Breda plan) protesting Generals of this. That caused the local French command to be very displeased by something they considered being close to treason.

By the way, the ‘Sale Boche du Nord’ abuse also referred to the Belgian army. When Belgium too capitulated, whereas the French troops had not all been evacuated yet, they received the same ‘honourable’ title from the French. It is quite popular amongst authors to refer to these cheap labels given by the French, but at the same time, it wasn’t compensated by French excellence in their performance on the battle-field either. Particularly the Belgian army was confronted with an ‘ally’ that was entirely focussed on their own objectives, like also the Dutch forces in the Netherlands experienced. The Sedan show along the Maas showed also the French army to be non-resistant to the German might. The French had plenty to worry about themselves. It is a pity that the tendency of authors to print aforementioned quote usually goes without context. The French had no reason whatsoever to blame anybody but themselves, but that usually doesn't agree with them ...

[p.239] On the capture of the Commander Peel Division it should have been added that this commander had thought it wise to travel with his entire combat-staff and XO all along. As such not only the Commander of the Peel Division was captured by the Germans, but the entire battle-staff too. That truly beheaded the Division, particularly because it had hardly been led by the Division Commander – who had been travelling back and forth – but by the XO and the small battle-staff.

[p.239] Somehow Dutch historians continue to state that the first 9.PD elms reached the airbornes at 1645 hrs Dutch time. It was in fact 1430 hrs when the forward unit of Major Lüttwitz reached the airbornes at Zevenbergschen Hoek/Moerdijk, followed by a company of motorized infantry and a mechanized battery of 3,7 cm FLAK. It was 1645 hrs when this outfit crossed the Moerdijk bridges. But contact was established at 1430 hrs, not 1645 hrs. These time tables could have been easily read from the KTB of 9.PD and the Gefechtsbericht of the Recce Battalion as well as of the battle report of II./FJR.1 that clearly reports on the first armoured cars reaching Zevenbergschen Hoek at around 1430 hrs and a meeting of Lüttwitz with C II./FJR.1 at 1530 hrs.

Zeeland struggles on

[p.247] It is stated that 12.GRDI was led by Chef d’escadron [Major] Michon. This is a true fact, but it should be said that Michon was the executive officer of 6.RC and acting as such until he was put in charge of 12.GRDI after its commander [lt-col Moslard] had been badly wounded by a strafing German fighter near Bergen op Zoom [Steenbergen] on 13 May.

[p.248] It is stated that a French detachment of the 60th DI arrived on Zuid-Beveland that amongst other unit contained the 27th Infantry Regiment. That should read the 270th Infantry Regiment. A clerical error.

The Final pocket of resistance eradicated

[p.253] There was no German ‘attack’ on the Sloedam in the evening of the 16th. It was a weak attempt to surprise the French defence with a motorized SS recce formation reinforced with a few light AFV’s, and easily repelled.

[p.255] The supporting air attacks were indeed aimed at Arnemuiden and Flushing, but not on but close to Middelburg. French and Dutch artillery positions around Middelburg were raided by He-111’s of KG.4, and Ju-88 of KG.30, as well as Ju-87 Stuka’s. The claimed air-bombardment of Middelburg has been disputed by a growing group of Dutch historians over the last few years – amongst whom yours truly. A group of Zeeland historians have presented thorough research earlier 2010 that presents plausible evidence that it was in fact the German artillery causing most devastation in the Middelburg city-heart.

Conclusion

[p.257, p.258] Again the conclusion pops up that ‘an important reason behind this success was the capture on the early morning of 10 May of the bridge over the river Maas at Gennep’ added with ‘the train at Mill played a decisive role in the fall of the Peel-Raam Position.’

That may be a popular conclusion amongst certain historians, but it is impossible to substantiate. In fact the Gennep bridge seizure played hardly any role due to the fact that it could not be used by the motorized forces of the 26th Corps. It was only accessible by light infantry and when the follow up infantry found itself stuck on clocked roads east of the Maas even that prerogative failed. In the end the Germans massed behind the Maas, waiting for pontoon bridges and ferries to become operational. It were just two infantry regiments coming across at Gennep on the first day. That was not more than elsewhere along the Maas, where pontoon bridges and ferries were put in use. Hence, no reason to state that the Gennep bridge – in that respect – was an important reason for success.

Even less significant was the armoured train and the consecutive troop train. They did unload a battalion to the rear of the Peel-Raam line, but when that battalion found itself cornered by Dutch counter-measures it stayed passive until it had been liberated by own troops. The author totally fails to substantiate his claim that the train played a decisive role in the fall of the Peel-Raam Position. As if it had not yielded around the same time if the train wouldn’t have driven through?!

Obviously the matter of the Gennep bridge and the troop train at Mill have earned themselves a paramount importance in the popular Dutch history books. It is after all easy to claim the opponent cheating and not playing by the rules when the match is lost. It doesn’t however live up to reality. The matter was rather insignificant in the end.

[p.258] The harsh words to the poor strategy and operational preparation of CIC Winkelman are fully supported by yours truly. It could even be considered mild what the author says. Winkelman had simply sacrificed his Brabant troops and their commander and he and his inner circle had utterly failed in preparing at least a basic model of how to interact with the French.

On the other hand was the decision to withdraw the bulk of the army up north understandable since the Tilburg defence option only occurred in February and March 1940. The area lacked any form of natural barrier to support a powerful defence and had not been prepared – in any way – whatsoever. Not a single bunker had been built, not a trench dug. It is fully understandable that Winkelman couldn’t get along with the Belgian / French proposal to shift the main defence in that late stage of the defence preparations. What could have been said about the crumbling Dutch defence at the Peel-Raam and Zuid-Willemsvaart is that the Dutch tactics were extremely poor. Colonel Schmidt had not prepared himself or his battle staff for any alternative strategy after a decisive penetration of the Peel-Raam defences. Moreover, his plan to evacuate to the Zuid-Willemsvaart was inapt, due to lousy planning. It had most likely been better to hold the remnants of the Peel-Raamline and continue local fighting for as long as possible or alternatively put up concentrated defences by small formations on crucial road-junctions, than moving around battalions across long stretches. The lack of tactical gogme on the Dutch side was startling.

The Belgian accusation of the isolation politics by the Dutch was quite cheaply said. The Belgian General Van Overstraeten – traditionally not an admirer of the Netherlands – had himself refused to extend the Peel-Raam line on Belgian soil, which would have been a relatively easy gesture from the Belgian forces. In stead the Belgian General deliberately left the entire north of Belgium undefended. He himself was the one causing the huge void in the Dutch-Belgian defences along the entire Weert – Tilburg region south of the border. Moreover, Belgium was assisted by the BEF and the French Northeastern Army. No less than around 2,0 million allied soldiers massed on Belgian soil along with a mere 600,000 Belgian soldiers. On the Dutch soil there were the mere 280,000 Dutch, marginally assisted by a mere 20,000 French in the West of Brabant (and some 15,000 later on in Zeeland). These figures show the unbalanced comparison of forces between the Dutch and Belgian soil. Doesn’t that make the Belgian General at least a bit of a cheap fellow accusing the Dutch of isolation politics? Had the Dutch been left any other choice?