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The battle of Kapelle


During the previous day - May 15 - the entire prepared defence structure of the province Zeeland had been overrun by the SS like it hadn't been there. That was not so much due to German superiority but more an embarrassing show of incompetance by the Dutch forces in these defences. Even bearing in mind the mitigating circumstances of low moral, due to the capitulation of the main-land army and the sub-standard fitness of these troops - being older reservists, the neglectable resistance that had been put up by the Dutch formations in both the Bath- and Zanddikelines had been a disgrace.

As such the Germans were banging on the gates of Walcheren, positioning two battalions opposite the mainly French defences at the canal in the centre of the peninsula.  

Opposing forces

The SS units under SS Oberführer Steiner had halted at the canal through Zuid-Beveland after they had crossed the two defence-lines on the 15th. The 1st Battalion of SS Deutschland deployed in the far north of the canal and the 3rd Battalion on the central sector opposite the so called Postbrug (bridge). the 2nd Battalion defended the southern shore line of the gained side of Zuid-Beveland. The battalions were supported by some batteries of 10,5 cm guns and one battery of 15 cm howitzers. A few supporting units, like engineers and FLAK, were available as well. The total German force was around 2,000 men.

Opposing the Germans was a force of French formations. Along the northern coast from the northern extremity of the canal westwards lay two battalions, anticipating a maritime landing, according Général Durand's perception. On the right flank the third battalion of 271.RI and to the left of that a battalion of 224.RI. Along the canal from north (II/271) to south (I/271), the two remaining battalions of 271.RI, supported by a batallion of 7,5 cm field artillery [I-307.RA] in the central sector and another battalion [II-307.RA] covering the southern end. The northern battalion had its three companies deployed behind the 'Bonzijbrug' and the 'Postbrug'; both bridges were destroyed by Dutch engineers, although still usuable for foot soldiers. The sluice complex near the Bonzijbrug was not destroyed though. The same was applicable to the south end, where the sluice at Hansweert had also been left untouched. It made sense not to destroy these water-works, because of the devastating effects if they would have been blown-up. On the south side the three companies of I/271 were situated between the 'Vlakebrug' and the sluice at Hansweert. The entire central sector of the canal had no crossing save a ferry point that was not guarded. It is unknown whether the French had some standing patrols in this central area, but it seems that had not. It was this very void in the French canal defence that would facilitate German raiders to cross the canal overnight and penetrate well into the French defence area.

Around the village Kapelle - two km behind the heart of the canal defence - were positions of two Dutch companies of III-38.RI and two Dutch artillery battalions of II-17.RA with 12 old 8-staal guns (8,4 cm), twelve 7,5 cm guns and two 10,5 cm guns. Also a battery of (Dutch) 7,5 cm AA and (French) 2,5 cm light AA guns were available. These Dutch units were not to intervene in the defences, which were an all French affaire.

More to the southwest two Dutch battalions guarded the southside of the Zuid-Beveland peninsula. They were quite far away from the battle-zone to be. The same applied for the remnants of 14.GB that had deserted the Bathline.

The commander of the defences was Colonel Guihard, who had his headquarters quite far from the frontline in the city of Goes. The CP of 271.RI [Commandant  Périer] was situated at Kapelle and also 68.GRDI - the reconnaissance battalion with two companies of infantry and a MG squadron - was located around the village. All in all quite a force (four battalions), amounting to around 3,000 men and some 24 French artillery pieces as well as the potential support of navy arty. But of this force only about 1,250 (six companies: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th) were found in first line positions, defending an almost 9 km wide front. Nevertheless the 80m wide canal, of which all bridges had been destroyed, was quite a barrier for the offensive Germans. Crossing it required the appliance of rafts and that would seriously expose the attacking formations.

The battle at the canal

A few German landing-parties had stealthily crossed the canal overnight, making use of the voids between the two French battalions deployed along the canal, and taken some positions to the rear of the French in expectance of their own mainforce to assault. The infiltrates maintained complete silence during the night. The exact number of SS men that had succeeded to cross the canal is unknown. Remarkable is that (again) Lerecouvreaux blamed the Dutch for the fact that these infiltrates managed to cross the canal. He stated that this was due to the poor demolition of the bridges. Indeed two crossings were still accessible [and guarded by the French themselves!], but elsewhere the Germans crossed in small rafts and apparently the French guards along the canal never noticed these crossings. The reason for that was already addresses hereabove.

As said before the Germans had managed to cross and disembark small squads. These groups would later during the day cause plenty of challenges to both Dutch and French forces behind the canal, particularly because the French defence behind the canal knew no flanking defences notwithstanding the about 3 km wide gap between the left and right battalion.

Général de Brigade  Deslaurens - commander of 60.DI - had become responsible for the defence of Walcheren, and in the morning of the 16th he had taken over general command from Général de Brigade  Durand, with exception of Zeeuws-Vlaanderen [Général Beaufrere]. Deslaurens would soon witness and experience the poor state his troops were in and moreover establish the fact that most of the heavier weapons, such as MG's and mortars, had arrived yet (the convoi carrying those would reach Zeeland at 17 May ...). During the late evening of the 15th the local French top brass had gathered to assess the battlefield situation, and during that meeting all attending senior officers had expressed their inconvenience in respect to the leadership and vision of Général Durand. It had then been decided that Général Deslaurens had to take over command. A situation that must have been inconvenient to Durand, and that - if the command change would have come two days earlier - could have made quite a difference. But on the 16th it was rather late, too late ...

As the map clearly shows, the northern canal extremity was close to Tholen. This makes clear why the held-up defence of Tholen mattered to the French cause. Northwest of the canal one could find the small island Noord-Beveland. Also this - in itself insignificant - island mattered to the defence of the canal and western sector of Zuid-Beveland, as well as for the defence of Walcheren. Therefore a Dutch occupational force had been sent here on the 13th. It was a melting pot of units, all together not much more than three companies, amongst which some units formed from the quite useless Peel-soldiers [units from Noord-Brabant defences]. Although Général Deslaurens had no reason to feel comfortable with his disposition and forces available, he was quite confident that the canal defences could hold out for quite some time.

The Germans concentrated their troops in the north. The reason for this was quite obvious. The inundations set in front of the diagonal Zanddijkline collided with the eastern canal dike in the south. This was also the only location where the defence-line merged with the canal. The widest gap between the canal and the inundations was to the north, and therefore the Germans selected this sector to deploy their main-force, because that sector provided for the room to do so. Their reinforced 1st [Gruppe Witt] and 3rd Battalion [Gruppe Kleinheisterkamp] were deployed against the canal-defences.

The first Allied action was already seen during the night, when French navy Chasseur 41 opened fire with its 7,5 cm gun at some spotted German machinegun nests. Around 0330 hrs all three French Chasseurs [no. 6, 9 and 41] opened fire against German positions east of the canal and emptied their magazines. Hereafter the depleted ammo stock had to be refilled and as such the ships returned to the port of Veere. Chasseur 9 however experienced serious engine trouble and sailed to Flushing where repair would be possible.

During the night the Germans had opened harassing artillery fire on Kapelle and surroundings. Also a series of Luftwaffe ground-attack raids followed in the early morning. The German artillery action was quite modest, due to the limited number of batteries available. These limited artillery actions nevertheless ran off a number of Dutch units (further behind the canal defences) already. The officers again set the wrong example when the staffs of these Dutch units fled to Goes and sucked many men with them, amongst them many of the battery crews of the artillery units southwest of Kapelle. It was another proof of the total lack of value of these units, and more in particular, the lousy attitude of their officers who set bad examples time and again.

The Luftwaffe continued to be very much present and this had considerable numbers of French soldiers flee their positions along the canal too. At around 0700 hrs the German infiltrates started harassing the defenders behind the canal. Shortly after the German artillery, mortars and machineguns opened up. Dutch units were instructed to counter the German infiltrations, but it surprises not that those counter measures were ill prepared and often not even executed.

The French defenders of the canal had requested fire-missions against the sectors where the Germans developed action. Since the French feared the lack of precision of their own artillery, company commanders were ordered to move their units a few hundred meters back from their positions along the canal. A golden opportunity for the Germans to cross the canal undetected and moreover hardly challenged.

Général Deslaurens heard nothing but alarming news all (early) morning long, and as such decided to pay a visit to Colonel Guihard's HQ in Goes. From thereon he quickly moved on to the canal, from where he soon returned and spoke the famous words "il n'y a pas un boche a voir, mais c'est la panique " [there isn't a Kraut in sight, yet it's panic all along]. And indeed, when Deslaurens made this statement at around 1100 hours the entire French occupation of the canal defence in the northern sector gave way. A wild run to safety was the result. At one location close to the Postbrug a squad of French soldiers continued to spray the canal with led, but when the Germans organised a storm-troop at 1300 hrs also this position gave in. Twelve Frenchmen of this brave unit had been killed, by performing their duties until the last moment. With the seizure of the last stronghold the west side of the canal was secured by the Germans.

The battle of Kapelle

Although the Germans had not met much of a challenge securing the canal, the 68 GRDI and the meanwhile moved in III/271.RI put up quite a fight in and around the village of Kapelle. In fact the most intensive fight of the entire Zeeland campaign was fought at that time and location. The French initiated a series of counter measures that saw the Recce Battalion as well as 9./271, 10./271 and 11./271 countering German penetrations around Kapelle. A limited number of French soldiers showed that with a little determination much could be achieved. The main-road through Kapelle was defended by the French, and in the streets of this small town very intensive close-quarter fights developed. Both the French and the German artillery assisted their respective units, and both parties made extensive use of handgrenades. The small town suffered badly, and when late in the afternoon the fighting had finally ceased, many houses had been destroyed and streets scattered with debris, military gear and supplies as well as the dead and wounded. The Germans lost about 30 men during these fights of which nine were KIA. The French lost considerably more. Their defence along the canal and in the Kapelle region had demanded no less than 84 KIA, amongst whom at least nine officers, including the chief of staff of 271.RI, Commandant (Major) Pierre Bourgon and two company commanders. The number of WIA is unknown, but must have been considerable.

Meanwhile German engineers had started operating a ferry for the crossing of light and motorized units. Some armoured cars and motorbikes were able to cross at this point at around 1600 hours, and immediately after, these units persued to reach the Sloe soonest. Motorized units of 3./SS.AA managed to reach the Sloe dam as early as the evening of the 16th.

At some locations west of the bitterly defended Kapelle some brief resistance was put up, but at every single point the defence soon crumbled. The Germans developed a huge momentum in their push westwards and time and again just bashed through improvised defences and tangled along to the west. Follow-up forces were instructed to clear up remaining pockets of resistance. The Germans knew that if they could outrun the retreating French and Dutch units to the Sloedam [the only connection between the islands Zuid-Beveland and Walcheren] they would cut off all overtaken troops, and simply round those up. In fact it was a miniature Blitzkrieg !

The majority of Dutch units that had been around Goes had managed to cross the Sloedam or had taken the ferry to Noord-Beveland before the evening fell, but most French units had been cut off. About 700 French (of around 3,500 initially present) managed to escape death or capture. The Luftwaffe harassed every single person that endeavoured to cross the Sloedam. Again Allied fighters were absent. With exception of the 700 men escaping ill fate, the balance of 271.RI was taken prisoner, if not killed. The entire battalion of 224.RI, that had defended the coastline immediately west of the canal, was cut off by the SS 1st Battalion, surrounded and taken POW. Also a company of Dutch railway troops in Goes was caught. The two Dutch battalions that had defended the south of the Zuid-Beveland coast were trapped in the bulge of the island. Their surrender was only a matter of time. About 3,000 men had been taken prisoner by the Germans this day, most of them French.

The devastation of the area directly west of the canal was a sad display of the brief but quite intense battle that had raged the area. Although most of the bitter fighting had been seen around Kapelle, also the nearby villages and hamlets like Biezelinge, Schore and Wemeldinge showed much destruction and remnants of a quickly departed army. German artillery and aerial bombing had destroyed much of the residential areas and had also demanded death toll amongst local civilians.

French Rear-Admiral Platon had meanwhile managed to organise the availability of nine assault planes of AB2, a navy squadron of dive bombers that could deliver 500 kg of bombs each. These planes crossed over Zuid-Beveland a number of times and raided the Germans at some points. They couldn't contribute a great deal, but their presence was a small but important moral booster for the men that had up to that point merely witnessed unchallenged Luftwaffe planes overhead. Nontheless, the rest of the time the Luftwaffe was able to roam the skies unchallenged, since also the ground-to-air defences were virtually absent.

Colonel Guihard - who had just managed to escape captivity in Goes - organised a small bridgehead east of the Sloedam with the remains of 68 GRDI and some smaller units. This position was soon spotted by motorised SS units, but since the German main-force was still in transit towards the Sloe no action was taken. Some Allied navy units [the French destroyers FS Cyclone and FS Siroco and the British escort destroyers HMS Wolsey and HMS Vimiera ] started pounding several locations where German troops were suspected. According to German reports no damage or casualties were suffered from these bombardments. It shall however have helped convincing the forward SS units that an immediate assault of the Sloedam was not feasible. The German Brigadier [SS-Oberführer ] Steiner ordered his two forward battalions to prepare for a night assault though ...

Probing the Sloedam defences

Elements of 3./SS.AA had arrived near the Sloe dam in the late evening of the 16th. Besides a few armoured cars and motorbike infantry, they had a platoon of AT guns and some 8 cm mortars. With these means the SS scouts launched an assault across the Sloedam. The French had positioned a few AT guns on both sides of the causeway. on the west and east end. As such the leading German armoured car was an easy pray, hit three times by the light 2,5 cm AT guns, mortally wounding one crew-member and injuring the three others. When the second car was also hit, the Germans retreated. Both cars were salvaged. The French on their part moved back a few hundred yards, leaving behind two of their scarce AT-guns.

Oberführer Steiner went out of his pants when he heard of the event. He had not concurred of the mission and the few armoured cars available to his regiment he considered too precious to simply offer them against an "unprepared " [not battered, he meant] defence. His reaction was over the top and particularly opportunistic. It were exactly these kinds of onorthodox German initiatives that brought the quick German defeat of the Allies in May and June 1940. At all locations where the Germans gained large successes during the Westfeldzug , it had been exactly these unexpected assaults that took defences by surprise and gain unexpected and decisive break-throughs. The same Captain (commander of 3./SS.AA) lectured by Steiner for his bold initiative at the Sloedam, would have been Knighted should his attempt have been successful. The flip side of the boldness medal ...

The Germans used the evening and the night to install a heavy pontoon bridge across the canal east of Kapelle and as such facilitated the transport of four batteries of artillery to the western part of Zuid-Beveland. These batteries, amongst which at least one battery of 15 cm howitzers, were all positioned near Lewedorp, about three km from the entrance of the Sloedam. The same two artillery battalions that had borne the action against the canal, were deployed to attack Walcheren the next morning. Possibly a further one or two batteries more. German sources are unclear about that.

Général Deslaurens on his part had quickly formed a defence around the Sloedam. Again this object seemed relatively easy to defend. The brown water of the Sloe was a considerable barrier to the invaders and as such defences could be concentrated around the Sloedam. This dam was about 800 meters long, 40 meter wide and free of obstacles. The French used Dutch explosives to blow up a section of the railway track on the dam. Deslaurens placed two (incomplete) battalions at the back end of the Sloedam, one in front of the other, in order to create some depth. The entire east-side of the island was defended with improvised detachments along the coastline and the rest of the westbank of the Sloe. The French 89.RA could assist with twelve 7,5 cm guns. The Dutch artillery had virtually ceased to exist, after virtually all their equipment had fallen in German hands or yielded from age. Only the two 10,5 cm field guns had been salvaged and positioned southwest of the Zeeland capital Middelburg. There was only one Dutch unit actually involved in the defence plan, the 14th Reserve Border Infantry Company. It was deployed south of the Sloedam.

At Flushing another Dutch company was found. It was forming a thin shielding defence northeast of the city. The balance of the remaining Dutch army formations was concentrated on the west side of the island. They were basically worthless assets.

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