Middelburg - literally translated into English as 'Middlesborough' - was a small, but unique and picturesque provincial town. The town itself had been founded in 1217 when the small community was given so called "city rights ", but already in 850 the first settlement had been there. Middelburg was full of unique architecture, and especially the rich centre of the town was a jewel. The town-hall was the cultural heart of the city. It was a 1452 built late Gothic style masterpiece. The ancient and unique abby on the outskirts of the city dated from the 12th century. In the days of the late Middle-ages - when Zeeland was one of the most important trade centres of Holland - Middelburg had been one of the ten biggest communities of the (later) Netherlands.
The city of Middelburg had been an important community for many centuries. The famous VOC - the first international Corporate in the world - had held its regional conferences in Middelburg and the small city had been the administrative capital of the province since long. But it had lost most of its attraction in more recent times. Particularly when towns were booming during the last few centuries, Middelburg remained behind. It had remained a very small city with less than 30,000 souls in May 1940 (48,000 nowadays).
The decision to evacuate the towns of Vlissingen and Middelburg - taken at the 14th - turned out to be a result of prophetic vision by the Mayor of Zeelands' capital. The Germans were not aware of the total evacuation of the town, although their spy-planes, that had very intensively roamed the skies over Zeeland, must have reported the migration of many civilians. The French obviously were informed.
A pearl destructed
When the Germans had reached the shores of the Sloe on the 16th the Luftwaffe started raiding both the Flushing and Middelburg area with high intensity. Squadrons of KG.4 and KG.30 were taking part in the relentless punishment of military positions on Walcheren. German artillery was mainly used for direct tactical support and (observed) shelling of French arty positions.
The French had a different dilemma. They needed an exit strategy. The retreat of the French forces was imperative. The developments elsewhere caused the French command to pull back its forces from the north, including those defending the strategic Antwerp biotope. General Deslaurens was informed accordingly. In the course of the day the determination to withdraw increased. And with it came plans to cover the retreating forces, who could only make use of the Flushing harbour to get back to the south. Artillery officers made plans how to slow down German progress. In the process of these plans the shelling of the Middelburg roads, on the westside of the 'Canal through Walcheren'. The main road Middelburg - Flushing west of the canal had to be sealed off. As such the vital Station bridge and the junctions in the centre of the city seem to have come into focus.
Recent historical research by a group of local historians, supported by some historians of reputation, have found proof that the massive destruction of the heart of Middelburg was mainly caused by artillery fire. Not the Luftwaffe but ground forces appear to have been the major cause of the destruction of the old town.
During the afternoon signs of French preparational artillery fire on the town were seen. Firemen and other servants in the city - which was mostly evacuated by then - noticed artillery coming from the Scheld side. Impacts in southern walls of housing proved that the shelling came from the south. When around 1500 hrs the French retreat started, the French artillerie seemed to have pointed some guns on the town to either discourage German pursuit or deliberately start fires to make the city impregnable or hard to cross at least. Bearing in mind that the French knew that the city was evacuated and that their troops did not use it as a prime retreating route, the leads are quite strong that it were French guns igniting the later raging fire that devastated the ancient city centre. The finding of around a dozen duds in the ruins of the city, all of French origin, makes the case even stronger. Explicit evidence fails though.
The smaller communities of Veere, Arnemuiden and Flushing shared to some extend in the fate of Middelburg (mainly by Luftwaffe raids and some German shelling), but the ancient city centre of Middelburg was far more vulnerable for the fire because of its dense structure and its many classic wooden houses. The large fires in Middelburg would continue expanding until the evening of the 18th, when about 500 men fire-fighters and volunteers from entire Walcheren (and beyond) had managed to control the fires and prevent further expansion.
The mayor and his helpers stayed in the town-hall until the building itself fell victim to the shelling and the fire. Also the Dutch headquarters were still manned during the raids against the town. Since the majority of the inhabitants had been evacuated the death-toll was relatively low. Only Nineteen civilians, one French and two (Dutch) soldiers died from the shelling. A "fortunate " result of clever thinking from the mayor who had the city evacuated in an early stage.
Middelburg lost almost 600 buildings due to the rained down destruction and the resulting fire. 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. Already these first reports showed German censorship, when the papers stated that vast French contingents had been housed in Middelburg when the Luftwaffe struck. In fact it was no more than a small French staff that had had their command post in town and that had already evacuated on the 17th when the worst was yet to come. Later some reports appeared that the RAF was the cause of it all. Particularly when indeed the RAF in August and September 1940 executed some bombing raids on Flushing-harbour - unfortunately with much collateral damage as a result - these stories appeared in local and national papers and found some believe in the eyes and ears of the civilians on the receiving end. Most people were however convinced that it had been the Germans, even though the first reports of several servants, such as the mayor, the fire fighting department and some individuals, spoke of mostly artillery fire from the south.
Only after the war the true magnitude of the May 1940 raids on Dutch cities became known to the Dutch population. Rotterdam had been a defended city and moreover a location of clear and undisputed strategic importance as being the gateway into Fortress Holland. Middelburg had neither been a military occupied or defended town nor a strategic location. Yet it wouldn't be until early 2010 before the history files disclosed the fact that besides possibly a few German bombs and shells particularly French artillery had contributed to the devastating shelling of the town on the 17th of May 1940.
Fortunately the city managed to reconstruct much of its town centre, although the vast contingent of unique wooden structures was obviously unreplaceable. Nevertheless the devastation of WWII - also caused by the flooding due to the Allied operations to reclaim Walcheren in 1944 - was overcome. Today the small provincial capital again shows much of the old grace and beauty of the pre-war years.
Below a modest display of the devastation caused by the punishment of the city ...