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French complaints


Were the French alone in their poor performance? Did they have any righteous claim when they stated that they felt betrayed by the Dutch army? We shall try to answer these two prominent questions hereunder.

The relevant pre-war events

The complex situation of the defence of the southeast of The Netherlands has been addressed before.

The Dutch national defence strategists had long before May 1940 selected the Peel-Raamline as the main defence in the south [Noord-Brabant]. This location had not been randomly picked. The terrain in general, the geostrategic specifics of the area and the general persued defence-strategy had been carefully studied.

The wide and long stretched area's of swampy grounds in the southeast offered a perfect opportunity to prepare a defence-line behind. Approach areas for heavy weapons and equipment were much limited. Besides the south of Holland did not have the dense infrastructure like the west of the country already had, and that element too limited the operational options of an aggressor. As such a rather strong defence could be built in this area. Moreover, the defence-line was a logical and strategically imperative extension of the central defence-lines in the country - as well as it was a selected location that would shield off the Belgian soil from a wide open northern flank.

The Peel-Raamline was not a thin defence-line like the Bathline and Zanddijkline. It had considerable depth, and the frontline [first defensive position] was largely constructed behind a deep and fairly wide tank-barrier - in those days known as the Defence-Canal [the extension behind the Zuid-Willemsvaart]. A quite dense line of concrete casemates was constructed along this frontline. Behind it was another line of casemates. As such any penetration of the front-line could be countered by this second line. Behind that the main-defence trenches had been constructed with in front of them extended mine-fields and barbed wire obstructions. If any of the Dutch defence-lines in 1940 adhered to the French doctrine of how to build a proper prepared defence, it was the Peel-Raamline. In other words; plenty of money and efforts had been invested in the defences at this location.

The Dutch strictly [or should we say: naively] adhered to the neutral status of the country. The Dutch Government prohibited any official contact of Dutch military with foreign armed forces. Only on the eve of WWII in the West - after the 3rd of September 1939 - some secret contacts were sought with French and Belgian staffs. These secret contacts were few in number and limited in intensity. The Dutch Government still disapproved of these contacts and as such they were even kept secret from the War Department.

When it however became apparent from these contacts that the Belgian forces persisted not to connect to the Peel-Raamline in the south, and the French didn't intend to advance into eastern Brabant, the Dutch were confronted with a huge challenge. The lack of sufficient numbers made the option of deploying considerable units along the southern cap [along the border with Belgium] hardly feasible. Next to the lack of sufficient troops to man the gap sufficiently, the long stretched gap [about 40 km] required units deployed there to be highly mobile. The only fully mechanised or mobile units the Dutch had were the Light Division and the six Cavalry regiments. The first was suitable - in its original configuration with motorbike hussars, armoured cars and mobile artillery - the second [branch] was far too light. Efficient coverage of the southern gap would have required at least about 20,000 to 25,000 men, plenty of artillery and preferably a few dozens armoured cars. None of these requirements were available. Moreover, the occupation of the Dutch national bastion [Fortress Holland] with sufficient troops was already at stake when the 3rd Army Corps and the Light Division would remain deployed in the Peel-Raamline. That option wouldn't work.

The second option was to give up the defence-line and construct a new one at Tilburg, where the Belgians did seem prepared to connect and that would be in line with the French Dyle-Breda strategy. This line was indeed studied [and had been studied before] - and even baptised the Orange-line. But the first studies already showed that it was not feasible to seriously work out this option. Not the least due to the fact that the Peel-Raamline was nearly finished, whilst the new defence-line would still have to be constructed all along. Mind you: it was already 1940 when the Belgian/French staffs suggested this Orange-line to be considered. Besides the time factor, the geostrategic factor was highly important. The line would have to be constructed in a wide open country, with a large city in the centre and hardly any natural barriers to incorporate in the defences. Both arguments were less than attractive. One attractive aspect of the Orange-line though, was the much shorter dence area that it covered. That way the line could either be better defended by the same Brabant formation or it could do with lesser troops. Knowing the Dutch challenges in respect of resources, it would have most likely resulted in the Light Division to be withdrawn from the south all along.

Peculiarly the commander of the Dutch Field Army had suggested this Orange-line already before the French GQG approached the Dutch about its possibilities. The Commander Field Army had considered the advantage of the Orange-line to be the shorter evacuation route of the Field Army formations. He considered the short distance Tilburg-Moerdijk favourable over the long distance from the Peel-Raam to Fortress Holland. Apparently this General forgot that a crumbling defence usually shows a pressing opponent and since the Tilburg area would definetly see one of the opponents emphasises in the northern sector (since the roads were very suitable for such a northern concentration), a break-through in that sector would immediately cut off a northern escape route for the entire Dutch representation in the south. Fortunately the questionable tactical skills of the Commander Field Army were countered by all other Dutch army Generals. They were very much opposed to the Orange-line defence and as such it was abandoned before it had grown beyond the planning-stage.

The French had considered - brainstorming an even more northern extension of their units than Breda - to expand their disposition as far as Dordrecht (in order to control the waterway approaches to Rotterdam). They had rapidly abandoned those thoughts considering the Moerdijk bridges too much of a liaibility to the logistical side of such an operation. As said before, the Dutch Generals (but one) thought alike.

The Dutch were very much aware that modern warfare would get along with air-power, and air-power was generally seen as the biggest threat to the welfare of ground troops. Especially when these ground forces would be in transit from one point to another over entirely open country as well as the necessity of crossing two or three major rivers such an operation would be extremely risky.

These factors added up, caused the Dutch commander-in-chief Winkelman to decide that the 3rd Army Corps and the Light Division had to be withdrawn into the Fortress Holland 24 hours after the invasion would have become fact, under cover of darkness.

Winkelman's predecessor - General Reynders - had maintained the plan to defend the Peel-Raamline until the bitter end. This had been one of the main reasons for his replacement in January 1940. Reynders considered that the Germans would try to break through in the north [at Mill] and would not take the time to swing around the south. Notwithstanding the fact that he was right that the primary German tactics were to bash through at a few designated points, they would certainly have swung around should the Peel-Raamline not have yielded. This was already indicated by the fact that on the 11th a German recon party [of the 30th ID] indeed established that the area south of the line was undefended. But before this result was reported back the news of the successful penetration at Mill reached the unit making the discovery insignificant. The division therefore advanced into Belgium. Although some claim that the Germans would have never wasted their time on an outflanking manoeuvre this seems hardly defendable. The Germans showed time and again that they would either launch a concentrated assault or outflank a certain defence-line. Persistent defence of the Peel-Raamline would have certainly drawn the Germans into a massive outflanking operation, not the least as a result from the progress they had already made in Belgium on the 11th. It could have resulted in cutting off about one quarter of the Dutch Field Army.

Although the evasive manoeuvre of 3rd Corps and the Light Division was probably the most sensible element of the Dutch strategy, it posed the logical question how the future Allies would react. The Belgian staff was much aware of the Dutch considerations regarding the planned evacuation of the Peel-Raamline. During secret meetings between Dutch and Belgian staff officers the Dutch made perfectly clear that a Belgian refusal to extend the line on Belgian soil would have its definite effect on the anticipated lifetime of the Peel-Raamline. The Belgian staff even sent a number of staff-officers [under cover] to inspect the line. The visiting officers were not at all impressed with the defences. On itself a remarkable assessment, since none of the Belgian defences with exception of some isolated fortresses were even close to the (passive) strength of the Peel-Raamline. Their own defence lines were mostly poorly reinforced and gained their strength basically from the vast formations occupying them rather than the character of fortifications and obstructions.

When the Dutch officers made clear that a hovering open end of the Peel-Raamline would definitely result into evacuation of the Peel-Raamline soon after a German invasion, the acting Belgian military commander-in-chief Van Overstraeten [the Belgian King was the actual CIC] uttered: "then you choose the option of total strategic isolation". The General had a point, but the Allies did not - to any extend - promise any reinforcements to either the Peel-Raamline or the Fortress Holland, nor did the Belgians show any intend to extend the Peel-Raamline defences. Moreover, the conceited attitude of the Belgian General was misplaced. It was after all their strategy and that of the French projecting their first main defence line in the central part of Belgium, since the Albert Canal line was nothing more than an outer shield defence that would buy the main defences in the KW-line time. So what options did the Dutch CIC in fact have? Practically none!

It is certain that the French staff, CIC Gamelin in person, were very much aware of the Dutch strategy in Noord-Brabant. The contacts between the French and Belgian armies had been quite intense up to 1939, notwithstanding the fact that this intensity had decreased as off 1937 when Belgium had suddenly declared absolute neutrality. It was also known in The Hague - from Belgian-Dutch intelligence contacts and the Dutch military attache in Paris - that the French 7th Army would only advance up to the line Tilburg-Breda. Even if the French were not already aware of the Dutch reluctance to defend the east of Brabant (beyond token resistance) before the 10th of May 1940, they were certainly informed in the morning of the 10th when Winkelman and Gamelin spoke on the phone for at least twenty minutes. That was well after Winkelman had ordered 3rd Corps and the Light Division out of Noord-Brabant, aware as he had become of the German assault at Mill. Gamelin knew all about the Dutch plans and so it is hard to predict why none of the French officers that would arrive in the days that followed appeared to have been informed of this. It does however explain the French attitude in the POW camps when they battered senior Dutch officers with stories of betrayal!

There may well be one very good reason why Gamelin did not inform Général Georges, commander of the French Northeastern Army. Georges, Billotte and Giraud were three French Generals much opposing the progressive Escaut [Schelde] and Breda variants on the Dyle strategy. They considered the 7th Army best applied as the dynamic strategic reserve of the Northeastern Army into the rear of the French 2nd and 9th Army. They saw huge operational challenges in moving the 7th Army up north and had done everything within their power to convince the GQG of this. Gamelin had put his foot down and forced the Generals to develop operational plans for the Dyle-Breda strategy. Reluctantly they had adhered to their CIC's instructions. Should Gamelin have decreted the Dyle-Breda variant (like he did in the early morning of the 10th of May) ánd informed Georges that the Peel-Raamline would be evacuated by the Dutch main forces, the chances of Georges and his Generals adhering to the Dyle-Breda variant would have been rather miniscule. They probably would have found operational excuses not to persue the actual execution of the strategy and that would have taken away the one chance for Gamelin to establish a jumping point for offensive counter measures against the invading Germans. And Gameline would not let that happen. The aforesaid is simply a hypothesis by the author, but may well be the reason for Gamelin not to inform his field commanders of the Dutch plans. Fact is that the French field commanders were unaware and as such totally surprised to find out that already on the first day of the war the Dutch had evacuated their main forces northwards ...

The Dutch defence of East Brabant

The Dutch forces that did stay in Noord-Brabant, in the Maas region and Peel-Raam defences, fought well. At some locations very well. The German losses along the Maas in Noord-Brabant and Limburg were considerable and far beyond German anticipation. Their effort to penetrate the Peel-Raamline at Mill was paid with a very high price and consumed much more time than expected. Hundreds of men fell [KIA and WIA] in those 24 hours of battle at Mill against a loss of a mere 40 defenders.

All these Dutch forces - at every single event much inferior in manpower and equipment to the Germans - fought without the support of modern artillery and lacked any air-support. The units that defended the Maas-line and the Peel-Raamline gave their best - almost without any exception - and sometimes much more than that. The troops that later reached Zeeland were mostly the units from the un-attacked sectors. These men were ordered from one position to the other between 10 and 13 May 1940. On their way ever more west they were battered and bruised by the relentless Luftwaffe. When these men later arrived in Zeeland they had lived through the ordeal of three consecutive days being pray to the ever present Luftwaffe birds. It is no wonder that many of them lacked any motivation to get back into discipline again after what they had been through in the days before. The fact that these men were not reorganised into disciplined outfits again is mainly to blame on their officers. But more about that in the next chapter - about leadership.

French deployment options

The French that arrived in Brabant, during the first three days of the war, were often very unaware of their precise orders and moreover proved not to be bothered by any genuine intentions to coordinate with their Dutch allies. Numerous accounts of this attitude were noted. They also refused to march on to the eastern district as much as they were reluctant to support any Dutch efforts to retake the Moerdijk bridges. In fact it was clear from the start that the only goal of French presence in The Netherlands was the shielding off of the Antwerp district.

That a prolonged defence of the Peel-Raam line would have facilitated the French in building up the Antwerp shield goes without saying. But the assumption that French troops would have progressed to the east - claimed by French officers and a handful of historians later - is absolute fantasy (or lies). The French were under instruction to build-up a main defence in the Dyle-line [Belgium] area with a northern extension around Antwerp. DLM's and GRDI's had been assigned protective flank positions for as long as the main French defence in the Dyle line and around Antwerp had not be finalized. There was a critical window of five days for that part of the operations. Indeed some French formations reached the northeast (the east of Brabant) via Belgian soil. But before a methodical deployment was even started they had been ordered back. The penetration of the Höppner formations straight for the Gembloux gap countered any French ambition in the northeast. That matter had nothing to do with the breached Peel-Raam line and all with the general battlefield status in the central front in Belgium.

Would the French have progressed north-eastwards, they would have exposed their entire right flank far beyond the Belgian KW-line [and extensions]. That would have been inconceivable and would have made no operational sense whatsoever. Indeed, the French agony over the Dutch decision to evacuate the Peel-Raamline only came from the lacking facility to gain time for a proper defence organisation in the areas of Tilburg [outerline] and Breda [inner defence-line]. Nothing more, nothing less. And should the time have been bought (by the Dutch) to fully occupy these projected defence-lines, they would have been abandoned exactly according to the analogy that they actually were during the events in May 1940. Because not the Peel-Raam evacuation mattered, but the fact that the German 6th Armee had managed to approach the Gembloux gap at the 12th already. That deep penetration into the Belgian dispositive voided any feasible defence beyond Breda, unless the French would like to have jeopardized their entire northern position to be flanked or worse, being cut off entirely.  

Although the French were unpleasantly surprised by the Dutch evacuation of the Peel-Raamline, the events of the 11th and 12th of May in Belgian were of overriding importance. Since the Belgian army had already crumbled in the outer defences in the northeast of the country, the odds were soon shifted to the KW- and Dyle-defences. This made any prolonged defence of Noord-Brabant beyond the city of Tilburg hardly feasible anyway. The French units in the north had to deal with a constant flow of revised orders and counter instructions. As such the French deployment in the Netherlands and around Turnhout appeared to be inefficient and chaotic, hence caused by their own commanders. The commanders of the French 1st Army Group and the 7th Army had instructed their field commanders to avoid any serious clashes with the Germans. General Giraud was more occupied with the cohesion and formation of his disposition than anything else. He was a chess player, moving his pieces around avoiding the critical moves in the crucial midfield. It caused his units to be shifted around all the time, never able to even set the odds for a defence that would stand the slightest chance of success.

The result of the poor French field command in the north saw Belgian and Dutch troops in the north being witnesses of seemingly ever moving allies, that seemed to avoid every bit of friction with the opponent. This stunned them, and not only demotivated the northern allies, but also pleasantly surprised the German adversary. In fact, the units of the 7th Army [including the DLM] were much better equipped than any German unit they met. But the actual events made it seem the other way round. It were the Germans that ran off the French tanks and armoured cars, usually with regular infantry units lacking any tanks in support. The recon parties of the 9th Tank Division that made contact with the French counterparts, managed to chase them off on every occasion, but one.

The seemingly extremely poor French performance was further emphasised in two more embarrassing events. The first being the French assistance of the Dutch 6th Border Infantry Battalion that endeavoured to retake the Moerdijk bridges. Although the available French heavy armoured cars would have had a huge change of kicking the handful of German airbornes out of their pockets at the southern bridgehead at Moerdijk, they failed dramatically and ran off. The next disgrace was the German assault of the considerable French force around Bergen op Zoom and Woensdrecht at the 14th of May. The French had quite a number of very able medium tanks and a clear superior force in the area. Still they were chased off by two battalions of German infantry that had less than a dozen of armoured cars and hardly any artillery. The French simply disembarked vehicles and tanks, and took off! Dozens of tank's - many in fine state - were simply left behind [and later gladly accepted as German loot]. That had seriously effected the blazon of the French army, with friend and foo.

So, on one hand we have the genuine French operational excuse that deployment east of Tilburg after the 11th of May was out of the question - with all consequences of such in respect to the necessity to shift their units about - and on the other hand the poor performances when it did come to clashes with the Germans.

The Dutch performance in Zeeland

We have established that the Dutch units in Noord-Brabant had lived up to the (Dutch) expectation and we are able to compare that result to their comrades in Zeeland.

We can - without any doubt - conclude that the Dutch troops in Zeeland performed extremely bad. On one hand one could think of extenuating circumstances like the armistice elsewhere in Holland and the departure of Queen and Cabinet. But on the other hand one cannot overlook the fact that notwithstanding any extenuating argument, the Dutch troops in Zeeland simply neglected their principal duties. And although "generally speaking" often discriminates many individuals exceptions, in the case of the Dutch performance in Zeeland one cannot escape the strong feeling that hardly any exception could be identified. It was simply a collective neglect of duties by about 8,000 men Dutch troops! This may well have been the main reason why the struggle in Zeeland has temped only very few Dutch authors to dedicate some words on paper in tribute to these events. And the ones that actually did were almost without exception inhabitants of the province itself ...

At the 14th of May, when the ground-war had reached Zeeland, about 8,000 Dutch soldiers were available in the theatre of operations. Of these soldiers at least 4,000 were still available in organised units. When the Bathline was attacked, the bare minimum of enemy pressure yielded these defences. That was still no disaster since in fact the Bathline was nothing more than a forward defence in front of the main defences in the Zanddijkline. The Zanddijkline was quite suitable for a defence but also there the Germans managed to penetrate the line without the necessity of putting up too much efforts. The first serious assault by no more than a company-size formation broke the back of the defenders. Within 24 hours - of which much was consumed by simply deployment of troops - two defence-lines were scattered to pieces by minimum effort on the German side. The total Dutch loss of only nine KIA in these lines says it all!

The French must indeed have been stunned that both the Bathline and the Zanddijkline had been lost in just one day. At that time they could not know what little effort the Dutch had put into the defence, but it was already clear from the fact that many troops were able to return to safety that none of the lines had actually been overrun in force. How should the French have felt after they had witnessed that? Impressed?

Next it was their turn. At the canal and at the Sloedam the French themselves proved to be as conceivable as the Dutch for the fear and anxiety of intensive shelling and bombing and the French too evacuated their trenches and fox-holes upon the first serious assault. Nevertheless French forces to the rear of the canal put up some tough and determined local defences, which meant that they already outperformed the Dutch that simply ran off time and again.

The only element one can bring up into French advantage - in comparison to their hosts - was the fact that the French fought on foreign soil - and the Dutch defended their own. That didn't seem to bother the Dutch, because there are plenty of examples of Dutch soldiers expecting the French to eat the hot potato and to take care of the Germans. Running Dutch soldiers who "kindly" donated their weapons to French soldiers in their fox-holes ... "There you go comrade, you and your mighty army may bite the bullet!" A clear show of disgraceful Dutch behaviour.

The defence of the last stand in Zeeland, Walcheren, was a total French show. The Dutch had mainly retreated to the west of Walcheren. The Germans assaulted the Sloe defences with much more might and effort than they had used the days before. The Luftwaffe was present in force and six battalions of artillery had been deployed. The French managed to deny the first assault, but after extensive punishment from aerial and land forces, the defences yielded. Notwithstanding the assessment that the French had not shown all of their teeth, simply dismissing their defensive efforts as it comes to the Sloe defence on the 17th would be unfair. They did what they could and showed quite some perseverance and courage on occasions.

The questions answered

So - how do we answer both questions? Were the French alone in their poor performance and did they have any righteous claim when they stated that they felt betrayed by the Dutch army?

In Noord-Brabant the French performance had been very poor, although this performance was not seen (by the Dutch) in the right operation context. The French field officers suffered from revised orders all the time and were instructed to avoid serious clashes with the Germans. To the Dutch this seemed like cowardice actions all along. That is an unfair assessment, but understandable. 

The panic retreat on the 14th in the Bergen op Zoom area was a poor show by the French, that was fully to blame on underperformance on the French side without a proper excuse. Moreover the deliberate poor coordination of the French with the Dutch cannot be justified. The Dutch felt abused and betrayed in the way their French counterparts acted. A complaint that was shared by many Belgian officers with the same experience. One could conclude that the French performance in Brabant was far below the expectations of their ally and even of their adversary. There had been operational excuses for their avoidance of battle, but at locations where their skills had been demanded, they utterly failed. Not at all a convincing performance.

In Noord-Brabant, particularly in the east, the Dutch units performed well, often even very well. Many German officers expressed their awe and respect for the performance of the Dutch along the Meuze and that was often more than just plain courtesy. After Mill the Germans thought for three days that they had defeated the entire 3rd Corps. In fact they had lost hundreds of men and one full day against no more than about two battalions. Three regiments had to be deployed to settle the score at Mill. In retrospect the Germans couldn't believe it. That this distinguished Dutch defence was not conceived as such by the French field officers is fully understandable. What could these field officers know at that stage? The field commanders were not at all aware of the fact that the Dutch strategy was based on a quick evacuation of the southern main defence-line. The French officers who arrived on Dutch soil on the 10th and 11th were therefore unpleasantly surprised by the German progress. They thought that 40,000 men Dutch troops had been ran off in one day. It totally whacked their own plans and especially their own time-schedules. Their lack of intel was to blame on their own chain of command though. It was this matter in particular that would have French senior officers rage against Dutch senior officers in POW camps.

Like the Dutch didn't know the slightest bit about the French operational issues, the French lacked any insight in the Dutch performances in the east of Brabant, let alone about the evacuation of the Peel-Raamline. Basically both forces could blame eachother, and both were quite wrong in doing so.

In Zeeland the matter was quite different. Had it been the French performing quite poorly and the Dutch giving their best in the east of the province, in Zeeland it was more of the other way round. The Dutch performed badly, in some instance embarrassingly poor, where the French defenders performed not too bad and at least put in quite some efforts at Walcheren.

Both questions can now be answered. The French performance in Brabant was definetly sub-standard and occasionally poor. Much as there can be said for their operational excuses the French should have performed much better than they did, especially when it came to command and control, allied coordination and determination when such was required. In Zeeland though, it were the Dutch subperforming dramatically. The French had every bit of right to complain about the Dutch attitude in Zeeland. And moreover, the French had not been able to bear knowledge of the Dutch performances along the Meuze river and in the Peel-Raam defences. Their references were purely built up around wandering Dutch formations in Noord-Brabant, the rumours of a failing defence in the Peel-Raamline and a disgracing show of incompetance in the Zeeland defences. So who would blame the French for being disappointed and angry about the Dutch defence of their own soil?

In summary: the Dutch may have had their rightful doubts about the French efforts in Brabant, but the French were fully entitled to their bit of fury about the Dutch. One thing is clear. The French and Dutch had only been allies on paper. Both armies had failed to live up to the perception of being allied in wartime.