Print this page

Part I: The south

Introduction

On the previous day the French had instructed the mayor of Breda to evacuate the entire city. Elderly had to leave on the 12th, the younger citizens were ordered to leave the day after. The mayor was instructed that the citizens had to be directed southwards and southwards alone. Reason for that was that they would frustrate the French approach routes if another evacuation route was chosen. The evacuation was thought necessary due to the fact that the French had planned to defend Breda and its surroundings for a prolonged period.

In the late evening of 11 May the Germans had reached the line Den Bosch - Eindhoven - Valkenswaard, with some forward formations even near Tilburg. The first actions against the thin Willemsvaart defences by German point formations had been followed by some lively local fights along the improvised line. At the city of Veghel for instance, where the first units of the 9th Tank Division operated, intensive fighting had taken place during the afternoon of 11 May. It had cost the Germans some light armoured units. After deploying a medium tank platoon the Dutch defenders were hopelessly outmatched and had to surrender. At most positions where the Germans developed concentrated assaults, the defences had to yield at some point. Besides those local penetrations, which were often not materialised quickly after due to lacking bridging material, the Dutch defence in the sector between Den Bosch and the Wilhelmina canal crumbled during the second half of the afternoon (11 May). The way to the west lay open. Next the Germans would finally meet with the French. High hopes were in the hearts of the Dutch defenders, who witnessed their powerful ally with all its modern equipment. The Dutch were certain that the odds would be shifted. Now the Germans would meet their equal, was the general perception. This perception would soon grow into a deception ...

The German 9th Tank Division approaches

The 9th Tank Division had divided itself over two main marching routes. The northern formation took the road Den Bosch - Loon op Zand - Oosterhout [north of Breda] and was under instructions to link-up with the besieged airbornes at Moerdijk. The southern formation took the road Veghel - Tilburg - Breda, the same road that had been hammered and strafed by the ever so active Luftwaffe.

A third column would follow the northern route, after which the 254th Infantry Division followed. The SS Verfügungs Division [Standarte Deutschland, Standarte Germania] and as off May 13 the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and the 256th Infantry Division were sent along the route Eindhoven - Hilvarenbeek - Breda. South of this the 30th and 56th Infantry Division progressed too, basically aiming for the area around Belgian Turnhout. Behind all this four more reserve infantry divisions followed, of which 208.ID and 225.ID across Dutch soil.

What units would these troops engage on their path to the west?

The Dutch defenders of the Maas-line and Peel-Raamline - for as far as they had managed to escape death, injury or capture - were gradually leaving the province of Noord-Brabant, and most of them retreated as far back as Zeeland [the most south-western province of the Netherlands]. Some units would find themselves back in Belgium, later on even the southwest of France [from where hundreds managed to escape to the UK]. The organic Brabant army - basically referred to as 'Peel Division'- had ceased to exist. Although here and there insignificant formations would still contribute to local defences, the bulk of the Dutch army in Brabant had been put aside by the Germans. Those able to gather in Zeeland, around 5.000, were generally seen as unfit to be re-employed in the defenses.

It was almost entirely up to the French to force the Germans to a halt. These allies had deployed a considerable part of the 1st Corps [of the 7th Army] in Brabant. The 25th Motorised Infantry Division [25.DIM], the 2nd Mechanised Brigade and a number of smaller armoured units. These troops had formed two screens after which some sort of improvised defence was organised. The first and most eastern screen was arc-shaped from the city of Oosterhout [near the river Maas] to Tilburg and than south into Belgium. The small distance between Oosterhout and the river Maas had not been occupied due to mismanagement on the French part. Evil analysis may also suggest that this 'logical' German path was deliberately left open by the French as to 'lead' the Germans into the relief corridor via Moerdijk. That small gap that the French left was after all precisely incorporating the route that the most forward German unit (and follow-up formations) would select. The second line of defence was situated behind the small river Mark which ran through Breda. That second line defence - determined as the first main defensive perimeter of the 7th Army - had been the reason to summon the evacuation of the city of Breda.

The defence line through Tilburg was - in the north - occupied with the forces of two major reconnaissance units. They counted about 1.800 men, equipped with a lot of motorbikes, 6 cm and 8 cm mortars, anti-tank guns [25 mm] and 11 AMD-178 Panhard heavy armoured cars. In Tilburg itself the 6th Regiment Kurassiers [cavalry] was deployed, with 37 Panhard armoured cars at its disposal. Adjacent, to the south, the 4th Regiment of Dragonders [cavalry] was operating, with on its right a squadron H-35 light battle tanks of 4.RC. 4.RDP was the best equipped French unit on Dutch soil. It had about 70 light tanks [AMR-35 - Renault light tanks], a great number of light armoured infantry vehicles [Renault VE] and many 4,7 cm anti-tank guns. Also two artillery battalions were attached. The strong battle-tank formations of the French had remained on Belgian soil.

The defence line through Tilburg showed an impressively powerful occupation ... on paper. The fact however that the aforementioned void in the line remained [due to the delayed French GRDI that was scheduled to occupy this room], was a huge liability to the entire defence-line. As said before. it was exactly this void in the defences that was scheduled to be on the route of the most forward German reconnaissance party! But some clashes between the French and Germans would preceed.

French-German clashes

Already the day before a number of French Panhard cars had run into enemy armour. South of Moergestel [east of Tilburg] a section of Dutch engineers and infantry men guarded a bridge over the small river Reusel. When they made preparations to blow up the bridge, a German reconnaissance squad with armoured cars and a few trucks approached at high speed. They raced over the bridge, but nevertheless the Dutch were able to detonate the charges and the last truck went down the river [killing one man] together with the bridge. At the same time this event took place the French cars arrived, and the first literally crashed into the German point car. The heavier French armoured cars soon immobilized the other German vehicles. After that the French withdraw from the scene, taking some German pow's and a few captured motorbikes with them. The follow up force of the Germans would find the bridge destroyed and as such move about to find another crossing, which they would eventually find during the night (11/12 May). Another clash between French armoured cars and German scouts on the 11th had occured southeast of Vught. Also there the Germans had to yield, but again it were the French moving back.

The Germans had prepared themselves for some serious battle after this event. Aware as they were by then of the French presence they assaulted the city of Tilburg. Much to their surprise they found the eastern part of the town undefended. The French troops along the Wilhelmina Canal had retreated after all bridges had been destroyed!

After the war the French commander at this position, filed a report that masses of refugees prevented his troops from proper defensive action. This reason couldn't be true though. Hardly any refugees were spotted in Tilburg. The reason for the French retreat from the eastside remained mysterious, like so many simular French moves during these early war days. However, more westwards, in the town centre, they did pick-up the sword. The first German squad to enter town was received by a small French-Dutch force with blazing guns. When the Germans reinforced their forward positions the French retreated, some even panicked and fled back to Breda, totally losing connection with their units. The French then evacuated all of their forces alongside the Tilburg defence line and drew back to Breda. The Germans didn't even have to deploy their main forces. Tilburg was theirs. It had cost them a mere three men KIA ...

Click here for larger picture
Abandoned French Hotchkiss H-35 medium tanks in Brabant (may 1940)

To the southeast the French attitude was much more determined. It were 4.RDP and a squadron of H-35 light battle tanks of 4.RC - both units of 1.DLM - that had taken various positions in a triangle shaped area east and southeast of Tilburg. At the villages Diessen, Lage Mierde and Hooge Mierde crossings were blocked and defended. It was particularly the heaviest French unit in the area, the 4th Dragonder, that got engaged into some heavy fighting with their opponents. Here a considerable amount of armour, including French medium tanks, took part in the battle. They were confronted with two German formations. The first consisting of the 25th Reconnaissance Squad [reinforced with a heavy machine gun unit] of the 56th Infantry Division, the second formation consisted of two SS Battalions of the Standarte Deutschland. The Germans lacked heavy armour and also artillery at that time. Again the French donated fantasies to their war-reports as the commander of the French forces claims that German tanks, equipped with 75 mm guns, took part in the fighting. Probably he endeavoured to find an excuse for the French menace, but German Pz.IV tanks - or any medium tanks for that matter - were never even close to the fight. From German journals it is obvious that the medium tanks operated to the north and that only some heavier armoured cars type 231/232 and some Pz.I and II light tanks were involved. These were fitted with machineguns and/or a light 20 mm gun! The battle between the French and Germans in this area would drag on until well into the next day. When the French were executing a tactical draw back towards the general direction of Turnhout, they were continously pressed by German formations, later also German artillery. The French left (at least) four of their armoured cars and a number of tanks destroyed or disabled as well as (at least) 14 KIA and many POW's on the battlefield, whereas the Germans suffered at least 15 KIA. The two days battle in this sector east of Tilburg was the most intensive one that was fought between the French and German forces in Brabant during the May War. It continued onto Belgian soil on the 13th and 14th, driving off the French from Turnhout.

The quite strong French forces were defeated by a German units that were less well equipped. The German reports on these actions was suffering from quite some disbelieve about the weakness of the French opposition. If one considers the force the French had deployed in this room and the fact that the Germans didn't even deploy their main forces during these series of skirmishes, it is save to call it a disappointing performance by the French. It were basically the French orders not to get engaged into binding battles east of Breda that caused the French to operate so carefully. In the end their losses, particularly in material and POW counts, were heavy after all, which more or less proved the failure of their strategy of reluctance. That became only clear after the facts however.

Other events in the south

The bridge over the river Maas at Keizersveer [northeast of Breda], connecting the south with the road to Utrecht, was the last remaining intact cross-over point in Allied hands at 12 May. It was imperative that this bridge had to be destroyed prior to the arrival of German forces. It was occupied by a Dutch force of about half a company on the north side and a full cavalry squadron at the southern land head. This detachment had been quite successful against the German Luftwaffe, and had shot down at least three planes. On the 12th two platoons of hussars from a more northern stationed cavalry unit were sent to explore the room south of the bridge. They hoped to liaise with French troops. In fact they bumped into some forward recce units of the 9th Tank Division. After a brief skirmish they hastily retreated and reported the German presence. The Germans on their behalf left the Dutch defenders where they were. Their objective was Moerdijk and all else was insignificant.

In the meantime the Dutch commander of the Brabant forces, Colonel Schmidt, had decided (during the night 11/12 May) to go back to Tilburg together with the operations section of his staff in order to establish the situation overthere, whereas the remainder of his staff had been moved to (as far as) Bergen op Zoom. Apparently Schmidt had not been aware that Tilburg had already been evacuated by French troops. As he and about 75 men of his staff rushed down the road from Breda to Loon op Zand he and his officers ran straight into the forward units of the 9th Tank Division. It was around 0600 hrs in the morning. Schmidt was astonished to find German armoured formations so nearby at that point in time. The staff was taken prisoner and as such the last true Dutch military authority in the south was put out of action. During questioning of the staff by the Germans later that morning, the Colonel and his operations staff gave up most interesting information on the Dutch strategy. The Colonel had been filled with so much indignancy about the weight of his task and the lack of support from his superiors that he forgot all about the protocol not to give any information to the opponent. When the smoothly operating German Lt-Col (intelligence section, 26.AK) complimented the Colonel with the defence of the Mill sector in the Peel-Raamline, the Colonel offloaded his chest. He claimed he had achieved that defence with total lack of modern artillery, AAA, adequate infantry reserves and everything else. The anxious and curious German officer fed the Dutch officer with even more compliments, meanwhile reporting to his superiors that the 26.AK had not defeated the 3rd Corps and Light Division, but that these had in fact moved towards the North. Intel that was brand new to the 26.AK at that time, so claims their KTB (battle report), but so comfortably served by an offended Dutch Division commander ...

The Germans reach Breda

After the walk in the parc around Tilburg the Germans rolled on westwards. Along the road Tilburg-Breda they were witnesses of a massive graveyard of cars, busses and other material left by retreating French and Dutch troops. Also numerous wreckages of destroyed vehicles - victims of the ever present Luftwaffe - were silent witnesses of preceding tragedies. The French on their part had decided to send an armoured patrol down the road, in order to slow the German advance. Again, a Luftwaffe assault - not causing a single victim or any damage - was sufficient enough to have the French retreat in great disorder. It was the same unit (6.RC) that had fled from the scene at the Moerdijk bridges the day before.

It was then up to the forces at Breda to halt the Germans. It would come to only one genuine French-German confrontation on this third day of the war in Holland. In the Breda city-district of Ginneken the French would for the first time show some muscle. At a bridge over the tiny river Mark, a German column ran into a road barricade defended by a determined French unit. The battle that developed would continue onto the next day. It would be the last confrontation of the 12th in the south. It was 2200 hours.

The French commander of the 7th Army, Général Giraud, had been telegraphed on the 11th by the commander-in-chief of the French forces, Gamelin, that if possible he had to undertake the reconnection of the French with the Dutch forces north of Moerdijk, but that operations east of Breda were forbidden. This instruction - 24 hours after the telephone conversation between Gamelin and Winkelman on the 10th - was reluctantly executed by Giraud on the 12th when he issued instructions for a defensive line to be prepared north of Breda to the Moerdijk Bridge. The sector had to be cleared from German opposition. One GRDI (about 1.500 men strong) had to be assigned for this ambitous task. The order by Giraud should have been executed on the 11th, when there had been plenty of opportunity for success. On the 12th it seemed odd to execute the order diligently. The Dutch defence in Brabant had collapsed, the reported German masses seemed unstoppable and the 7th Army had been instructed to prepare for a simplified defence of Antwerp. The ambivalent Gamelin order (no actions beyond Breda, if possible assistance of Dutch efforts to retake Moerdijk and reconnection with Dutch forces over there) was basically laid aside by Giraud. The instruction to one GRDI to take position between Breda and Moerdijk was only a weak attempt to continue the frontline north of Breda. When the instructed GRDI protested that it wouldn't be able to take the positions before late that night, it was not replaced or expedited at all. Giraud silently recognized the ambivalence in Gamelin's instruction and (apparently) left the door to Moerdijk open in a sort of deliberate way. And who would blame him? It made perfect sense that the French were primarily focussing on the defence of Antwerp rather than attracting all German power onto themselves.

The French reluctance to attack the modest German force at the bridgehead at Moerdijk would turn out to set the tune for the fat lady to sing. At exactly 1620 hours a strong reconnaissance group of the 9th Tank Division - under the name Gruppe Lüttwitz- reached the outskirts of the German stronghold southeast of Moerdijk. The armoured column, mainly formed by armoured cars of types 221 and 231 and some motorized infantry, crossed the Moerdijk traffic bridge within 30 minutes after the first contact with the airbornes.

If the Germans would succeed linking-up the forward recce unit with the first tank column, the fate of Fortress Holland would be sealed. Also, it would seal the fate of the French Dyle-Breda strategy. But by the time that would become clear in Versailles (13 May), the French supreme command had other matters to lose sleep over ...