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Sloedam

Introduction

The Sloedam was a strategic point in Walcheren, the last ...

As said before the dam was the only connection between the islands Zuid-Beveland and Walcheren. On both sides of the causeway mud flats made it possible for light infantry to cross the Sloe, but that was tricky business, for some parts were very swampy and one could easily sink away and drown.

The situation on Walcheren was quite unlike today, where the city of Middelburg stretches out on both sides of the canal ('Kanaal door Walcheren' - "Canal through Walcheren"). In 1940 Middelburg was situated on the westside of the canal only. The main road and rail-way across the Sloedam, went straight to the city, than turning south towards the next larger city, harbour town Flushing. Another major difference is that the Sloe (between Lewedorp and Arnemuiden) has almost entirely been closed. The causeway of those days is the E312/A58 highway of today. Using modern maps rather than the contempary sketches on this website would cause confusion!

General Deslaurens was quite hopeful that his soldiers would be able to defend the Sloedam. Theoretically seen it was well defendable position, and since some modern 4,7 cm AT guns had reinforced the defences, the General thought the defence would be able to hold for some time.

New research and findings

The last decade or so revived interest arose in the events in the province Zeeland during those dark days in May 1940. This caused funds for addition historical research to become available as well as a boost in focus of the affairs, tempting others to join in research efforts. The results were very interesting.  

Thorough research by a number of historians of reputation has lead to publications in 2010 and 2012 that kind of tilt the generally accepted reconstruction of the Sloedam battle, but particularly the destruction of the ancient Middelburg heart. It has always been stated that aerial and ground bombardments by the Germans caused the ancient city to lose its heart. Recent research has however a 'less popular truth' looming.

It appears that every bit of evidence of deliberate German shelling and bombing of Middelburg fails. Not only that, but reconstructing events, it becomes less and less logical that German means destroyed Middelburg. In 2012 a local historian managed to make a very acceptable case, in which he shows the overload of leads pointing towards French shelling of the ancient town, covering their retreat, rather than anything else. Not only did he find many leads in French archives showing that heavy batteries from the south pin-pointed targets like the exits of the city and retreating divisional arty shelling the town as well. Also a number of civil reports on recovered duds (arty shells) from the city centre, all of French origin, seem to subscribe to the very likely theory that the all destructive fires were in fact caused by French artillery shells. Also reports on the impact vectors of grenades basically show south to south-western impact angles, rather than eastern, which one would consider grenades of German origin. A last firm lead is that most devastation was caused late in the day, after the Germans were about to break out at the Sloedam, when German fire seemed to be concentrated on the French positions around the Sloe, rather than the city of Middelburg. What cause would the Germans have had to shell Middelburg in that stage? It was however this late in the day that fatal fires were caused by impacts, most likely by the covering fire of French artillery, that endeavoured to slow the German advance towards exit point Flushing.

These very convincing reports in 2010 and 2012, that went along with quite extensive scholarly authentication of the findings, forced the author of this website to edit subject chapter about the battle for the Sloedam and the chapter on the Middelburg destruction. These reconstructions were done in January 2013.      

The defences

Two battalions of the French 224.RI were deployed at the end of the Sloedam and direct surroundings. Deslaurens had chosen an in-depth defence, like the French military school stipulated. In the first line two companies would defend the actual causeway, supported by a few heavy machinegun crews and three or four AT guns, of 25 and 47 mm. Also the dikes on either side of the causeway were quite densily populated with French infantry-men. The rest of the west-bank was covered by patrols, since the wide mouth on the south-side of the Sloe made a German crossing less feasible.

The dike itself had not been undermined, nor had land-mines been laid along the slopes. French engineers had improvised some barricades, but these hastily manufactured obstacles were rather easy to overcome by any opponent. Using Dutch explosives engineers blocked the causeway itself and the crossing railway.

The French had briefly considered sending over more troops to Walcheren, but eventually considered the cause lost and therefore withheld these reinforcements. The defence of the Sloedam was considered the last bit of useful defence. A yielding defences would be followed by a general retreat of the French troops. In fact it was already being prepared, bceause the French realized that they couldn't persevere too long. Since the objective of safeguarding Antwerp and the Schelde canal had already failed to be achieved, the battles that continued at Zuid-Beveland and Walcheren had only one objective: covering the north flank of the French forces north of Antwerp.

The battle for the Sloedam starts

The Germans were having more difficulties negotiating the canal in their rear, than in cooping with the opposing forces. The canal had such a steep and tall dike profile that pontoon bridges were not suitable to put into place. Nevertheless overnight effective ferries, constructed from bridging material, came available, opening the way for the heavy artillery to be shuttled across. During the early hours twelve light 10,5 cm howitzers of the SS Artillery Regiment were ferried across the canal. Later that morning an engineered bridge came available and so did the newly attached mixed heavy artillery battalion II./AR.629 with its four heavy 10,5 cm guns and eight 15 cm howitzers. The II./AR.54 was an identical outfit, which would be able to join the others in the afternoon. It was the logistic back-log, caused by the complicated canal crossing, that forced the Germans to postpone their main thrust across the Sloedam. In the early morning neither the battalions nor the artillery were ready. The main assault - if it would be necessary - was therefore postponed to 0930 hrs. Meanwhile the Germans saw chances of successfully chasing of the Dutch-Franco defences with only mild forces, like had been seen the days before. 

But before the Germans stormed the opposing side, they were treated on their own recipy. Vought-156F (AB.1) and Loire-Nieuport LN-401/411 (AB.2) dive bombers of the French Navy dove down on the eastern side of the Sloe and raided German positions with 225 kg (500 lbs) bombs. According to the German sources it had little effect on the ranks. It was however a prelude of a day that would see very active belligerents in the skies overhead.  It was also the start of French shelling. A heavy (land based) navy battery near Breskens opened up with its 15,5 cm heavy guns, joint by the light guns of the French divisional artillery (in total two battalions of 89.RA and 307.RAP, both equiped with the vintage "soixante-quinze " field guns) that were situated around Middelburg. French ships joint the barrage of the east slopes of the Sloe.   

Click here for larger picture
Situation map of the Sloedam and east Walcheren battle zone at the 17th (may 1940)

At around 0900 hours in the morning of May 17th 1940, the Germans opened fire with their 10,5 cm howitzers, which had been positioned near Lewedorp. The barrage that followed targetted the westbank of the Sloe and the western extremity of the dam. The ordeal lasted for exactly 30 minutes. Shortly after the entire 9th Company [3rd Battalion] of the SS Regiment Deutschland under SS Obersturmführer [1st Lieutenant] Rhode started to work its way forward across the causeway.

The French artillery and the combined Allied navy units available opened a dense artillery fire on the first progressing German troops. The assault stalled immediately and for the first time in the Zeeland campaign the Germans backed-up, leaving a considerable number of killed and wounded behind. Part of 9./SS Deutschland was cut off and had to dig in nearby the French positions, where they would have to spent a frightful day. The remainder, if not dead or badly shot up, retreated as did 10./SS Deutschland that followed the 9th. At the end of the day the battle saw twelve men of the 9th Company killed. A few dozen had been wounded. The company commander himself had been badly hurt too.

Although a first success (besides the repelled reconnaissance raid of the previous night) against the Germans was overjoyed by the French, there was hardly any time to celibrate. A huge German effort of devastation was unleashed. The Germans had contacted the rear and demanded imminent air support. During the course of the morning the German artillery started blasting the entire westbank of the Sloe, while German bombers of KG.4 raided any object of importance along the entire eastern side of the island Walcheren. Particularly French arty near the Middelburg area was attacked by the Luftwaffe . Acknowledged targets in and around Arnemuiden, Flushing, Kapelle and  Veere were hit by German bombs too. The entire late morning the air was packed with German bombers and fighters, and not a single Allied fighter showed up to counter them. Ground to air defences were minimal over land, causing the German pilots to have all the time of the world to take a good look at their targets and get in well aimed.

A second minor German attack, probably to prope the results of the previous bombardments of the French positions, was seen around mid-day, but it got stuck in French fire on the west side of the Sloe. At around the same time, the French general commanding Deslaurens orders his staff to prepare for evacuation of Walcheren.

The Dutch offered troops to Général Deslaurens to reinforce the third echelon, but the French General refused that assistance. He stated that all was fine and under control. It is not an imaginary thought that the General considered any Dutch assistance more of a nuisance than an actual contribution. Deslaurens had also witnessed the Dutch performance - or rather 'lack thereof' - the previous days and shall not have been impressed. He was however - much to the contrary of his fellow officers - most corteous in his attitude towards the Dutch.

The next proof of the aformentioned (assumed) thought of Deslaurens was given by the only Dutch unit that did have a modest role in the defence of the Sloe line. This was the company of reserve border infantry men [14.RGC] that had been ordered to safeguard the Sloe from German crossings between the dam and the city of Flushing. When the German artillery barrage crept sideways towards the positions of the Dutch, the company commander did not hesitate ordering his totally untouched company to retreat to the southwest, eventually ending up in the outskirts of Flushing. Not a single man had been killed or wounded! Only the 4th section of the Company held its position and would not retreat until the SS had managed to break the defences at the dam.

Meanwhile German shelling of French positions increased, joint by Ju-88 dive bombers of KG.30, pin-pointing French batteries. They were preparing the next attack across the Sloe. At the same time French artillery fire fell on the Sloedam but on Middelburg and outskirts too. The latter may well have been preparational fire to range the exact coordinates. When the French retreat started around 1500 hrs, it seems that French artillery started to target Middelburg for real. Although at no point in time heavy, rounds continued to fall on the city centre and the southeast. Most of these were assessed as coming in with southern angles, thus being French. Fires started to ignite and the few fire-engines of the local fire-fighters, obviously not equipped to coop with a barrage like this, were unable to control the increasing number of inferno's. When also the pressure of the water supply plunched as a result of the damage, the cause was lost. Nonetheless the fire fighters continued to work, regardless of the shelling. A few would be killed, a number wounded, but all would continue to fight the soon raging inferno in the town.

The German break-through

At 1800 hours it had finally come to the third German attempt to cross the causeway across the Sloe. This time it was a show of combined arms. While the infantry advanced across the dam, the German artillery gave very close supporting fire on the French positions at the other end. The Luftwaffe birds prayed overhead and dove down on every respective gun that produced even a spark of fire.

General Deslaurens - a more than fine soldier and leader - stood by his men in the frontline. He witnessed many of his men collapsing under the constant heavy artillery barrage from the German batteries. Two or three German batteries produced a creeping barrage which lay just before and on the defences of the French. When the SS men - 10./SS had relieved the battered 9./SS - had almost reached the western extremity of the dam, the barrage crept forward again. Some French soldiers managed to aim their carabines on the appearing Germans, but when the SS men jumped up and produced a massive storm assault, screaming out of their raw throats and producing a hail of led and handgrenades, the remaining defenders ran for it or dove down in their fox-holes. The SS had taken the dam; Walcheren's fate had been sealed.

Although the intensity of the battle - especially the artillery and the heavy German air support - gave the impression that casualty rates would be staggering, the SS Regiment lost only around 25 men KIA during the entire action. A dozen of these men had fallen in the early morning and a dozen more during the rest of the day. On the French side the casualty rates were not much higher, although again exact figures are unknown. The low losses on the defenders side were quite easy to explain. The majority had evacuated or fled the frontline prior to the final German assault. When the French staff officer Captain Bichon visited the line just before the final German push, he saw not a single officer and only a handful of men. But who could blame them?

The first SS men reaching the west side immediately pushed forward and the rest of the 3rd Battalion rapidly followed them across the dam, splitting up to the south and the west. The SS fought ist way into Arnemuiden. It was around 1900 hrs. The last bit of defence crumbled and Walcheren lay open to the SS.