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The Zeeland-defences before 0-hour


The province of Zeeland - especially Walcheren - comes back in the WWII history books when we look up the year 1944. British and Canadian divisions - assisted by a number of smaller allied units [Norwegian, French, Polish, Belgian, and Dutch special forces] - were about to undertake a daring and unprecedented assault on the Island Walcheren in the months of October and November of that year.

The attempt to seize Zeeuws Vlaanderen, Walcheren en Zuid-Beveland was part of the series of operations Switchback, Vitality and Inflatuate, jointly better known as "the battle for the Scheldt".

The Allies tried [and succeeded] in clearing the south-west of Holland of all German forces. Operation Switchback was intended to clear the area north of Antwerp up to the Dutch port Breskens of German pockets. Operation Vitality had been designed to clear Zuid-Beveland (South Beveland) of German occupation, which was successful too. Last but not least Operation Infatuate was the major milestone in the clearing of the Scheldt waterways. It was the operation to clear the strongly fortified Zeeland island Walcheren of German forces and formidable coastal defences.

On the island of Walcheren this operation was paired with a very special preparation. The Germans were to be flushed away! Some weeks prior to the launch of the ground-operations Allied planes bombed the dikes and coastal defences of Walcheren. Over 9,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped. As a result of these massive bombardments almost the entire island was flooded, forcing the Germans to move all their mobile units off of the island or onto very vulnerable high places. This preparation was followed by the main attack overseas, in which the forces landed on three different locations on the Island and clearing it - in a couple of days of fierce and bloody fighting - of all German occupational forces. The price the island and its inhabitants paid was high. This operation was part of the endeavours to make the Antwerp harbour free accessible for Allied transports in order to boost the nasty logistic back-log of the huge Allied armies in Europe.

The clearing of the Scheldt operation was extremely costly to both sides. The Allied lost almost 13,000 men KIA, WIA and MIA during the series of battles involved. The German losses are unclear but mounted somewhere between 10,000-12,000 KIA and WIA and 41,000 men captured. The Dutch civilians paid a huge price too. The communities on entire island Walcheren were either wiped of the map or at least heavily damaged. A few hundred civilians perished.

The defences in Zeeland - 1940

The province of Zeeland got no specific significance in the Dutch strategic defence plans. Apart from her seaports [especially Vlissingen, or Flushing] and her strategic position in relation to Antwerp, Zeeland was no more than a subsidiary defence-area to the General Staff.

Zeeland was considered marginally important for two reasons: the first being the defence of the Island Walcheren as the civil anchor of the province, with the capital Middelburg and the important harbour of Flushing. The second being a political issue. Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, the most southern part of Zeeland, had been subject to Belgian claims during the proceedings of the Versailles treaty. The Belgians had filed a claim to this piece of Dutch soil due to the strategic position it had in relation to the access of Antwerp. Notwithstanding the fact that the British and Americans had rejected that Belgian claim in 1919, the Dutch military thought it wise to station some troops in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen to prevent Belgian operations here and as such any renewed Belgian claim on this piece of land. It clearly shows at what level the Dutch-Belgian relationship hoovered on the eve of battle in 1940!

The only two Islands that harboured defensive forces of any significance were Walcheren and Zuid-Beveland, connected to the main-land [Noord-Brabant] by bridges. The other islands were not connected to the main-land [or just connected by a long bridge] and had small insignificant occupational forces that would not be able to withstand any invasion of serious proportion. Aside from these few army units, Zeeland had a number of coastal defences, formed by several batteries at strategic points. Obviously these mainly served as defences against possible maritime ambitions of the adversary.

Two defence-lines had been prepared in the province, both on the island of Zuid-Beveland. In the centre of this island, partially along an intersecting canal, it had the main defence-line called the Zanddijkstelling [hereinafter called Zanddijkline], with a thin line in front of it, the Bathstelling [hereinafter Bathline]. These two lines were situated on the eastside of the main peninsula that was formed by two connected islands: Zuid-Beveland [to the east] and Walcheren [to the west]. As said hereabove, these two islands - considered as the main islands of Walcheren - were the only two which were well connected to the Dutch mainland. The most southern part of Zeeland - Zeeuws Vlaanderen - was also connected to mainland [in fact it is "mainland" itself], but it was separated [isolated] from the rest of Holland by Belgium. As such connection with the province of Zeeland was only represented by intensive ferry-services from the port of Vlissingen to the [Zeeuws Vlaanderen] port of Breskens.

With exception of the two defence-lines addressed hereabove, no prepared defences were to be found in Zeeland. It was however quite well fortified along the coast-line. Quite a number of coastal defences and fortress's were present and manned and the harbour of Flushing was fortified too.

Six coastal artillery batteries had been constructed in earlier years and were still in use in May 1940. Four of these batteries were situated along the coast-line of Walcheren. At Dishoeck [three guns of 15 cm], Westkapelle [three guns of 12 cm], Oostkapelle [three guns of 15 cm] and at Vlissingen harbour [three guns of 7,5 cm]. The fifth battery was situated at the northern island of Schouwen and had three 7,5 cm guns. The last and sixth battery could be found at Nieuwe Sluis, on the west coast of Zeeuws Vlaanderen. This battery was formed by three guns of 7,5 cm too.

In terms of occupying Dutch forces Zeeland was also an insignificant factor. The commander of Zeeland was a naval officer, Rear-Admiral Van der Stad. Due to reasons of an extended coastline, the presence of an important navy base and the peace-time task of maintaining neutrality in the waters of Zeeland, a navy officer had been appointed territorial commander. The other territorial commanders were all army officers. The locations Amsterdam, Hook of Holland, Ymuiden and (Fortress) Den Helder also had navy commanders, but that were fortified positions rather than territories.  

The Territorial Commander Zeeland had about 7,500 land-based men under his command. The main body of his troops was formed by two infantry regiments, the 38th and 40th. Both regiments were of the "high number type" and mainly comprised older reservists; these regiments had smaller supporting units [than the first 24 - low numbered - regiments]. Also a border-infantry battalion [14 GB], two reserve-border-infantry companies [14 GC and 38 GC] and a company of guarding-troops fell under his command. A small navy auxilary formation with a few dozen Marines was present in Flushing harbour. They mattered little in respect of fighting capacity.

Furthermore Van der Stadt had an incomplete regiment of artillery. This regiment comprised an entire battalion of obsolete guns [12 off 8-staal guns]. Besides the entire first battalion had been expedited to the Southfront at the location Dordrecht. Only twelve 7-veld [7,5 cm] and two medium field guns 10 lang 30 [10,5 cm] remained besides the twelve obsolete guns. As such in fact only one battalion of modern artillery was available.

All in all Rear-Admiral van der Stad's units amounted to no more than 7,500 men, with a very modest support of heavier weapons, and all troops were of medium to poor quality as it came to battle-readiness.

The defence force was mainly concentrated on both islands Walcheren en Zuid-Beveland. About six battalions of infantry and naval troops and one incomplete artillery regiment were present there. A force of about two more battalions was divided over Zeeuw-Vlaanderen and Schouwen-Duivenland.

Zeeland had two airforce bases on its soil. The Haamstede AFB [secondary air training school] was situated near the coast on Schouwen-Duivenland and the Souburg AFB [elementary air training school] was situated just north of Flushing on Walcheren. Both AFB's only housed unarmed training planes, although in relation to Haamstede AFB, this would change in the course of the first day of the war. At Veere the navy had established a small base for a squadron of six older sea-planes.

AAA was only available at both the airfields [three off 7,5 cm guns at Vlissingen; three off 4 cm guns at Haamstede] and a battery at the Zanddijkline [three off 7,5 cm guns of an obsolete type]. The harbour of Flushing had two platoons of heavy AA machineguns. It was considered that the navy units present at the second largest navy facility in The Netherlands would add enough AA fire against hostile air-raids. At Veere, to the northwest of Zuid-Beveland, where the small navy seaplane base was located, the third AA heavy machinegun platoon was stationed. The navy base commander also had three navy 20 mm Hispano Suiza guns at his disposal for AA duties.

Last but not least, the port of Flushing was an important navy base and also an economically important harbour with rather significant docking and mooring potential. The navy and civil yard "De Schelde" was of importance too. It was one of the main ship-builders of the country and considered [by the Dutch] a prime target for enemy planes. The yard was constructing four new navy units in May 1940, of which three [a large gunboat and two very modern sub-marines] would be timely evacuated to England, and would later serve the Allied cause in the Royal Navy [with Dutch crews].

Bigger surface units like the light cruiser HMS Sumatra and the heavy gun-boats HMS Johan Maurits van Nassau and HMS Flores were anchored off shore Flushing at 10 May. The large gun-boats [15 cm main batteries] were designated to assist the defenders of the Bathline that lacked any land based artillery support. Furthermore quite a number of smaller units were stationed at Vlissingen when the Germans invaded. These smaller units were 15 off auxiliary navy vessels [mostly militarized civil tugs and pilot boats, with either a 3,7 cm or 5 cm deck gun], 2 mine-layers [three 7,5 cm guns each], 2 auxilary mine-sweepers and two obsolete gunboats for shallow waters. A militarized cargo ship and a hospital ship completed the navy fleet in Flushing. Besides the navy representation, many small and medium sized civil vessels were present in the harbour, amongst which a number of large and modern ferries.