Print this page

Part I: The south


The fifth day of the war would see a new front opened in the province of Zeeland [reference is made to our journal of the battle in Zeeland 10-18 May]. A German SS formation - part of the SS Verfügungsdivision - had been tasked with the taking of the island Walcheren. The main island of the southwestern Dutch province, on which the capital Vlissingen [Flushing] housed both Dutch and French headquarters. The Germans wanted to reach the Northsea shores soonest. On one hand prevent any (further) allied landings and on the other hand control the Scheld shores being a vital instrument to control the Antwerp water-way approaches. Zeeland was occupied by a modest Dutch force, but a considerable French force. About two French divisions were present.

In the province of Brabant only one standing defence force was left. This was a detachment in the village of Willemstad, at the shores of the Hollands Diep [15 km west of Moerdijk]. Besides a few stray Dutch remnants some French units occupied the area in the triangle Etten - Bergen op Zoom - Roosendaal. But they had been instructed to gradually fall back to the south.

Skirmish at Willemstad

The occupational force of the little ancient fortress city Willemstad comprised a small infantry company [some troops had been drawn back with the French], supported by only 4 heavy and 8 light machineguns as well as two 8 cm mortars. No infantry guns or anti-tank guns were available. The defences could find a modest support in some inundations around the village. Roads that were elevated from these inundations had been blocked or barricaded. Of the defending forces [about 100 men] a section of about 20 men had been stationed at an [obsolete] fortress half a click south of the village.

In the morning of the 14th the Gruppe Wüttlitz [reconnaissance squadron of the 9th PD, the same that had established the first contact with the airlanding troops on the previous day] approached the village from the east, with a force of probably 8 armoured cars. The Dutch did their utmost to chase of the enemy but the heavy machine gun bullets bounced off the armour. Nevertheless the Germans were forced to halt in front of the road blocks and returned a few hundred meters. Here they unloaded some infantry that quickly advanced against the Dutch. Mortar fire chased these men off, back to their vehicles.

In the meantime armoured cars approached the fortress from the north. The locally commanding Dutch Lieutenant immediately surrendered, much to the frustration of his men. Yet another officer, the commanding Captain, decided that his troops would be powerless against the German cars and he started negotiations with the German commander for surrender. After he had come to agreement with the Germans, he surrendered, but forgot to inform two of his platoons [about 70 men] in the village itself. A silly mistake since they formed the bulk of his small company. After these men continued resisting the Germans for another 45 minutes [meanwhile 40 men had escaped, crossing the Hollands Diep] they also surrendered for indeed they found themselves in no position to fight the German armour. Yet their opposition facilitated half their company escaping to the north. Something their commanding officer had not even considered. The Germans were furious about the seemingly breach of the agreed truth, and right they were! The Dutch commanding officer had surrendered its troops to them but yet the bulk of his force had continued the fight. That was an infringement of the rules of the international code and as such these men were lined up in order to be executed on the spot. Notwithstanding the fact that the men claimed that they had been totally unaware of their commander's order, the Germans proceeded with the execution preparations. Then the Dutch Captain appeared. His convincing statement that he indeed had overseen these two platoons saved the day for the poor men. The execution was called off. The 'defence' of Willemstad was a show of embarrasing poor command though. On the Dutch side 4 men had been killed during the skirmishes. German losses are not accounted for.

Events elsewhere in West-Brabant

The last French efforts in Brabant were noted at the far western region of the province. Especially the south-western corner, around the city of Bergen op Zoom, was of importance to the French. The city was situated on the shores of the Westerschelde, close to the mouth of the river Scheld [that leads to Antwerp]. From there all sea-traffic could be controlled. Bearing this in mind, it was imperative that the city formed a key-element in the French assignment to safeguard the entrance of the Belgian seaport. It is therefore safe to conclude that a firm French defence could have been expected there.

The city itself was occupied by a modest French force. Modest we say, because the French had thousands of men available and with the strategic importance of this city one would have expected a far more extended occupation. It was not the case. In total about 300 men [12 GRDI: 12th Battalion Divisional Reconnaissance Group] and 14 heavy Panhard armoured cars were involved, supported by some 25 mm anti-tank guns and heavy machineguns. Also a Dutch platoon was available.

To the south of the city at Woensdrecht the French had deployed a squadron of tanks [Hotchkiss H-35 type, of the Assault Group Lestoquoi]. To the south of this point - in the room Hoogerheide - we find a considerable French force. Two entire reconnaissance groups with three companies of motorised infantry [motorbikes], two companies of heavy machineguns and anti-tank guns, one squadron of armoured cars and last but not least a squadron of tanks. To the south of that, partly south of the border with Belgium, a company of the 38th Infantry Regiment. Also a modest Dutch formation of 250 men had been deployed in the woods around Huijbergen. Altogether a force that - on paper - could stand firm against their adversary [who had no tanks whatsoever]. Commander over all these troops was the French Colonel Beauchesne. The French author Lerecouvreux - who published a work with the title L'Armee Giraud en Hollande - claims that the Dutch never arrived. This is proven nonsense, but this author must have had the intention to save the French reputation because the aforementioned book is one huge collection of fiction and distorted facts [many of which are easy to refute].

Overnight the French commander had moved his CP from Zeeland to the city of Antwerp. An absurd decision, for the distance between his most northern troops and his CP was now over 30 kilometres! Also, again, the French did not inform their Dutch allies of this. Overnight the Dutch heard a lot of noises of engines and tracks and the idea was built that the French once again retreated without notice. When in the morning the Dutch commander found out that his French superior had left his CP [without leaving any notice] and he also noted retreating French forces around Hoogerheide he ordered his troops to move back to Zeeland. A considerable portion of his troops went to Belgium though. The majority reached Antwerp safely.

A little earlier the French had made contact with the SS Standarte Deutschland. The Germans were on their way to Woensdrecht. A brief but intensive battle resulted in - again - a French retreat. Although the French had some heavy Panhard cars and some Hotchkiss tanks available [both superior to the heaviest German armoured unit available, the SdKfz 231], the Germans soon gained the upperhand, counting one KIA [12/SS Deutschland] in their midst. They counted five French armoured cars destroyed and 70 POW's as well as a treasure in material caches gained. Within no time [the battle took no more than an hour] the Germans had succeeded in reaching the shores of the Westerschelde. The French tanks had not even tried to come to aid, but moved back to the south for as far as they were not abandoned! The roads leading to and from Woensdrecht were packed with deserted French tanks, armoured cars and trucks. Like a massive German invasion had overtaken a fleeing army by surprise. Nothing of that kind had happened. It was simply a panicking French force that had left much material behind in its eagerness to flee the scene.

At around 1000 hours the Germans sent an aggressive patrol [of 15.MG Batt.] into the direction of Bergen op Zoom. This move was rejected and the patrol lost 4 men KIA. The commanding French officer Michon - again a man of little determination - had his troops withdrawn after the second German attempt at 1400 hours was supported by heavy mortar fire. Although no German armour appeared, the French retreated westwards from the southern and central defence-points. Soon after Michon realised that he was had been surrounded and permitted his troops to surrender or flee on their own initiative ...

Basically one could say that already on the 14th of May the French failed in their mission to safeguard the Antwerp-port - although they had a far superior force available against the Germans. The German SS Standarte Deutschland was by then ready for advancing in the direction of Walcheren [Zeeland]. Their southern flank was protected by the SS Standarte Germania that had together with SS Standarte Deutschland chased off all French forces in Brabant before 1200 hours.

Summary of French contribution in Brabant

Summarizing the French contribution to the struggle in the southern province of Brabant one cannot conclude otherwise than that their achievements had been shockingly poor. The French army, in comparison to the other allied European armies a well equipped and large army, had performed far below expectation. They totally lacked any commitment and determination and failed time and again to coordinate their manoeuvres with their Dutch allies [or even amongst themselves!]. Although the Dutch performance in the province of Brabant was also far from impressive after the first day [battle at the Maas and Peel-Raamline], one could have expected more of the well reputed French 7th Army. This unit in particular was highly regarded for its strength and quality and was regarded one of the crack French units. Its commander was one of France's most esteemed Generals, Giraud. It failed to show any of these features in its confrontations with the Germans in the period 10-14 May in Holland.

After the war the French showed quite an attitude towards the Dutch [and the Belgians!] about the presumed poor performance of the Dutch army in Brabant. Already during captivity French senior officers blamed their Dutch counter parts [and fellow prisoners] for their poor defence of the eastern defences in Brabant. A very unfair analysis of events - and not only due to the fact that especially the Dutch defences at the Maas and the Peel-Raamline had been quite tough and very costly to the Germans.
The French senior command had already been informed of the Dutch strategic plans in the early months of 1940. The fact that the Belgian defences did not connect to the Dutch defence-lines caused the Dutch to give up their plans for a persistant defensive strategy in Brabant. The Dutch had no other option. The French GQG were well aware of this but - again - did not communicate this knowledge with their officers in the field. A flaw in the French communication and not a matter that the Dutch could be blamed for. Left to themselves, the Dutch had to concentrate on the only strategy feasible: emphasis on the defence of the Fortress Holland.

We will see much more of the French performance as we describe the chain of events in Zeeland during the period 10-18 May. Also we shall analyse the French performance in a closing chapter later on.