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The Bathline

Introduction

Perhaps its good to re-evaluate the qualities of the Bathline defence.

The thin defence-line passing the hamlets Bath and Rilland, sealed off the eastern entrance of the Zuid-Beveland island. The defences were intended to slow down enemy formations in order to have the main defences in the Zanddijk line prepare for the things to come. A somewhat strange consideration by military planners, since both defences were so far into Dutch territory that the defences in the Zanddike line would be ready anyway, should an enemy appear in front of the gates. But it was simply so that the Bathline was nothing more or less than a basic holding obstacle.

Bearing this in mind the line was only slightly reinforced. Its main character was sand and timber reinforced trench-works with the ocassional ferro-concrete casemate for machinegun positioning at some road and causeway crossings. Three modern AT guns and two light infantry guns were positioned at the main causeways. The approach area had been flooded and as a consequence the only practical approach sectors that had remained were near the causeways and the single railway track of which the track-bed was elevated.

The trenches were occupied by a mere 400 men of the 14th Border Infantry Battalion. These men had less than two dozen light machineguns and six heavy machineguns at their disposal. Most of these MG's were positioned in the 12 casemates available.

Artillery and AAA was not available. Artillery support would have to come from navy ships. The Dutch gun boat HrMs Flores (three 15 cm main guns) and Allied destroyers could assist. This assistance had only been planned with the Dutch navy units though and since Hr Ms Johan Maurits van Nassau was no longer available in the south, HrMs Flores was the one standing-by artillery component able to assist on call.

Prelude to the battle

In the afternoon of the 14th suddenly desolated French troops appeared at some of the road-blocks. The defenders of the Bathline were amazed to witness their formidable Ally - who had just a few days before impressed them with their professional appearances and modern material (1) - return from the battlefield in a state of utter defeat and dispare. The French troops told those who spoke a word of French that they had been overrun by a mighty enemy. The last bit of courage that was left in the hearts of the Bathline defenders faded away ...

(1) The formations of the French 60.DI and 68.DI - forming the Walcheren defence - were not modern at all. They comprised old reservists fitted with weapons and material from the reserve arsenals, mostly vintage WWI or older quality. They lacked motorisation. Their strength and equipment did not outmatch the Dutch regiments. The formations that had been witnessed by the Bathline troops though, were mechanised or motorised units of the Beauchesne brigade. Those were of the best quality the French army had to offer. Hence the quite unrealistic impression the Dutch had gotten from the French army.

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Bathline and Zanddijkline (may 1940)

With the ceased flow of retreating Dutch and French comrades from the east, it was about time to shut the door entirely. Additional land-mines were placed along the roads, closing the last corridors in the approaches. Signs indicating the mine fields were removed. Some patrols were sent out to establish the enemy's whereabouts. Most patrols returned confirming the German presence nearby.

In the evening a patrol of five men was sent out along the railway, but this time the patrol did not return. Gun shots in the dark distance had the men in the trenches fear the worst. Later it appeared that the patrol had been caught by a German unit and that the patrol commander - a sergeant - had been killed. He would later turn out be one of the only two victims that would fall to German doing in the Bathline.

The commander of the 14th Border Infantry Battalion summoned his company commanders to gather in his command post at around 1730 hours. When the three officers had just reported to the CP, the sound of the first detonations of German artillery fire against the Bathline rolled over the country. The battalion commander sent his company commanders back to their respective CP's, wishing them the best of luck, instructing them to hold their positions and report by phone regularly about their statusses.

A show of incompetence

The lieutenant that commanded the central company hastily returned to his own CP and witnessed the German artillery fire air-bursting over the area. It fortunately fell short or long. Not a single round detonated on or right above the trenches.

The other two company commanders, both Captains, failed to return to their respective CP's though. They were hesitant to go forward under the roaring artillery fire. When they later reluctantly did return - after the battalion commander had insisted so - it was to no avail. One near miss at an AT gun position in the northern sector, injuring two or three men, was the signal for the entire company to make a run for it. An inapt company commander was enough to infect the entire company to run like hell. Soon other troops in the adjecent positions were infected by the panic and many followed the northern company comrades.

The company commander of the southern sector proved even more inapt. When he had finally returned to his CP he immediately telephoned the battalion commander stating that the Germans had already landed in his rear. Upon the angry denial and punishing words of correction by his commander he hung up the phone and simply evacuated part of his company by boat!

After this grant show of incompetance by two out of three of the company commanders, the defence line was virtually deserted. Only in the central sector and the casemate locations few troops remained.

The casemate occupations had not joint the almost general retreat of the infantry in the trenches, mostly because they hadn't been aware of the events unfolding. They stayed in their concrete posts and it was due to their efforts that the Bathline did not yield that very evening already. When German patrols probed the line, they were met by fierce machinegun fire from the Dutch strongholds and this was enough to deny the SS men any further access for the moment. One SS man of 6./SS Deu was killed. The Germans were quite convinced that the artillery fire had not won them the day.

During the evening the German artillery fire gradually decreased in intensity and eventually stopped.

Aftermath

Although only a handful of German batteries [three batteries of 10,5 cm; one battery of 15 cm] had taken part in the shelling of the Bathline and the fire intensity did not exceed the level of harassing fire at any moment, it had set almost the entire defending battalion on the run. With exception of a few sections in the central sector - commanded by the aforementioned Lieutenant - and the casemate-crews, the line had been deserted. Just two men had been killed!

The Germans had only tested the defences to verify whether it was still occupied. They had only the 2nd Battalion of the SS Regiment Deutschland available. The patrols that had been sent out had returned with the confirmation that the line was still defended. As a result the Germans prepared a plan for a morning assault on the 15th.

Meanwhile the commander of 38RI - who was in charge of the Bathline defences - had realised that the defences could not be maintained with the extremely thin occupation that had stood ground. At 2000 hours the order was issued to evacuate the line.

The lightest possible pressure of the defence-line had it crumbled. The performance of the Dutch soldiers at this location had not been satisfactory to any extend. Nevertheless, the Bathline had only a delaying function as a first buffer to the main-defence: The Zanddijkline. That line had to be held at all costs.