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The Zuid-Willemsvaart

Introduction

When news of the German penetration of the Peel-Raamline at the vital point Mill had reached the commander of the Peel-Division, he immediately ordered his staff to prepare a strategic retreat on the (unprepared) Zuid-Willemsvaart defences, which would involve all but the most southern sectors of the Peel defences.

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Map of the German invasion (may 1940)

The Zuid-Willemsvaart ran between the city of Den Bosch (near the Maas river) in a southeastern diagonal along Weert onto Belgian soil. It was a canal that was quite narrow on most stretches, and besides, literally packed with sluices to trim its water level. These sluices were obstacles that could not be destroyed without seriously jeopardizing the water management in the sector. Moreover, most of these sluices were quite firm works, requiring heavy charges should one desire to demolish these facilities. The most considerable danger that resulted from the aforesaid considerations, was the facility these sluice-complexes offered to the Germans of crossing the canal via these intact structures. Another most disturbing aspect was the dike structure along the canal. Most of it was paralleled by a continous hardened road on the east side. More importantly, the dikes on the east side of the canal were considerably higher than those on the west side. That aspect not only blocked vision and particularly firing windows on the defender's side, but also facilitated the Germans to approach many locations virtually unseen. That along with the fact that most units defending the canal lacked mortars, made the Germans virtually illusive.  

The defences behind the Zuid-Willemsvaart would be formed by all battalions that had occupied the Peel-Raamline, with exception of the most southern sector of the Peel-Raamline (near the city of Weert) which was already situated behind the canal. We know however that some of the battalions would never make it. The two battalions that occupied the defences directly west of Mill had almost ceased to exist and two more battalions in that sector had lost considerable forces that had been overtaken by the first German units that pushed westwards in the morning of May 11 of that had been forced to take a northern route back into safetly, causing them not to be able to contribute to the defences along the canal.

Only the central sector of the Peel-Raam line could retreat virtually unharmed. In the end only about half the force that had originally defended the Peel-Raamline had been able to fall back on the new defence-line. Besides, many of the troops had left behind considerable amounts of weapons and ammunition. The three artillery battalions had been either been forced to leave their guns behind, or (in case on the central battalion) all ammunitions, which too made the guns useless. The defences behind the canal were therefore totally deprived of any artillery support. All that was left were light infantry guns, a few anti-tank guns or AT-rifles and a handful of mortars. These heavier infantry support weapons were also merely concentrated in the central sector. The northern sector had almost no means heavier than machineguns to support the defences. 

The Weert regio was already deployed behind the Zuid-Willemsvaart to begin with. Their defences were therefore quite wel prepared, with a considerable number of pillboxes and carefully prepared dug-outs. Even more so, there artillery battalion (12 off vintage 84 mm guns) was unharmed and had plenty of ammo at hand.

The most peculiar aspect of this alternate defence plan was the fact that it had not been prepared. Notwithstanding the fact that the Zuid-Willemsvaart made a logical alternative defense possible after evacuation of the Zuid-Willemsvaart - even the Germans had pre-war prepared themselves for this line to function as such - the Dutch commander (Colonel Schmidt) responsible for the Brabant defences had failed to prepare his staff for this logical alternative defence strategie. The reason for that was given by himself in his aft-war report. He had only been given command over the Brabant defences when the Dutch army staff had decided to retreat the major forces from the south during the first war-night. That had been decided end of March 1940. The CIC Winkelman had only informed an absolute minimum of his field-commanders of this revised strategy, fearing early leaks to the German intelligence. As such, of the entire Brabant army (which incorporated about 30% of the Field Army) only three division commanders and their chiefs-of-staff were informed. They were also instructed not to give even the slightest hint of the plans to their subordinates. That was the reason why the Peel-Division commander had not instructed his staff to prepare anything involving a retreat on the alternative defences along the Zuid-Willemsvaart. Although one could easily look upon this decision as utterly irresponsible, it was a fact. One should say that the Zuid-Willemsvaart posed such a natural barrier for a second line defence behind the Peel-Raam line, that even in the case of a prolonged and full Brabant defence, this alternative plan should have been worked out. Still, it had not been the case. 

The tragic short-coming described hereabove was not the only flaw in the Dutch preparations. The commander of the Peel-Division and his chief of staff showed another remarkable weakness in their operational skills. When around 10 May 2000 hrs (Dutch time) it became apparent that the Peel-Raamline at Mill was about to yield under the ever increasing German pressure, the instant decision was made to move back the entire defence behind the Willemsvaart during the night. So far so good. But when the instructions were issued to the four (involved) sector commanders - all of them Lieutenant-Colonels - it appeared that the disposition of forces in the Peel-Raamline had been projected identically onto a new position behind the Zuid-Willemsvaart. In other words, the designated sectors behind the canal had been divided as if no formations in the Peel-Raamline had seen any fight. In stead of comprising particularly the northern sector - of which the envisaged occupation had seen intensive battle near Mill - the sector (containing four bridges in total) was as stretchy as the one that had been occupied along the Peel-Raamline. In other words, the Division staff apparently expected the severly battered battalions to be able to recuperate almost entirely within 12 hours after their last battle. Obviously they command had not a clue in what state these battalions were. In addition there was no occupied withdrawal line behind the canal nor was there any reserve unit to fill the decimated ranks. Not even a single platoon was (made) available to - at least - take positions near the four crucial bridges in order to prevent those from remaining unblocked e.g. easy to cross for any chasing German stormtroop! That flaw in the strategy was the most crucial one, and one could say, one of the worst a field-command could make ...      

The opposing force

The German battle-plan, issued late night on the 10th and distributed overnight, saw the entire XXVI.AK deployed. First of all the point formations - being 254.ID (north) and 256.ID (centre) - were instructed to widen the Mill gap in the Peel-Raam defences. Subsequently these divisions had to push their mobile formations in the direction of Den Bosch and the northern sector of the Zuid-Willemsvaart. Meanhwile the 9th Panzer Division was activated from German soil, where it was at ready stations. It was to cross the Maas river in the early morning and move its formations into three different directions (northwest - central west - southwest) via the Zuid-Willemsvaart and push on to the line Keizersveer - Tilburg. Behind the 9th Panzer Division the SS Verfügungstruppe Division - comprising two SS regiments (Deutschland and Germania) along with the SS AA (reconnaissance) and SS AR (artillery regiment) - would cover the flanks of the Panzer Division. Both 254.ID and 256.ID had to make room for these motorised units that had to exploit the crossing of the Maas, penetrating fast and deep to the west.

South of XXVI.AK operated IX.AK, with its 30.ID and 56.ID side by side. These divisions were instructed to move westwards north and south of Weert. They would gradually shift their vector west-by-southwest, sliding into the Belgian area north of the Albertcanal - Scheldecanal. The German strategy - carefully tested in war-games during the months before - moved no less than four divisions, among which one motorised and one armoured, through the rather narrow area between the Maas and the Scheldecanal.

The tactic of 9.PD was that it would operate with three independant columns. That tactic was given in by both practical and strategic thinking. Practical from the standpoint of logistics. The Dutch road-system in Brabant was quite inferior. Besides one main traffic road between Den Bosch and Tilburg, there were only secundary roads, many of which not hardened and specifically narrow. A matter that would bother - more than 4 years later - XXX.Corps when it would run for the Nijmegen and Arnhem bridges. The German solution was both practical and tactically wise. They divided their reconnaissance battalion into three columns. These three columns were reinforced with pioneer units, some motorised infantry and (two of the forces) some armour. The recce unit itself had 48 wheeled AFV's at its disposal. As such fast and quite compact spearheads would chase westwards, whereas the main force (comprising most of the tanks of tankregiment 33 and the bulk of the motorised infantry of SR.9) would follow in the slipstream. It would be these reinforced recce formations that would see most of the action on the days ahead, until Breda would be reached.  

The French

This section contains some repetition of previous chapters, but it important enough for the perception to have a clear picture on the French forces, disposition and particularly the French strategy.

The most forward French forces of the 7th Army had reached the Turnhout (B) - Tilburg area in the late evening of the 10th. Also the first recce formations had moved into the Breda area. The point formations of 1.DLM (1st Mechanized Division) had reached the Turnhout-Tilburg region late night on the 10th. The first tanks would follow on the 11th. Large recce units, sent ahead of the French main formations to form protective outer-defences, had reached the Tilburg, Breda and Zeeland region. Also on the 11th the first battalions of French infantry managed to cross the the Dutch-Belgian border and move into the area between Moerdijk and Breda. It was particularly the French position at the Turnhout - Tilburg line that would come into focus on the 11th. That imaginary line, extended from Tilburg to the Dutch town of Geertruidenberg, was to become the first serious French defence in the south of the Netherlands and the far north of Belgium. It was envisaged that the formidable tank battalions of 1.DLM, of which two were equipped with the very adequate medium battle tank Somua S-35, would be deployed between Turnhout and Tilburg, in a formation with quite some depth. The light cavalerie was supposed to extend the line from Tilburg to Geertruidenberg. Behind them a motorised French infantry division. The units were supported by artillery of the 1st French Corps. The French emphasize was on the sector south of Tilburg. An area that would bring them into contact with many (strong) German formations in a later phase of the battle.

The first French formations arriving at Tilburg overnight, made contact with the Commander of the Peel Division. Quite extensive coordination meetings were held during the night and the early morning. It made perfectly clear that French and Dutch joint operations would pose more than a challenge. The Dutch had started on the wrong foot by not preparing any liaison staff comprising (adequately) French-speaking officers. More importantly, the Dutch CIC had authorized the Commander Peel-Division 'to do anything that seemed fit to accompany the French after the main Field army forces had successfully managed to evacuate to the north'. Colonel Schmidt considered it his personal duty to coordinate with the French himself and as such he was occupied most of the time meeting with several senior French officers arriving in the sector. Meanwhile his chief-of-staff, a captain of the General Staff, had the effective command over the entire Peel-Division, whereas this pluriform formation of (at that time) about 14 independant battalions had no effective means of communication and - moreover - was largely fully occupied trying to manoeuvre into its new position.

Colonel Schmidt meanwhile learnt from the French General Picard (1.DLM) that the French were not interested in exposing their troops beyond the Turnhout - Tilburg line, which caused the Willemsvaart defence to be an entirely Dutch issue. Also, the French General insisted that Dutch troops would not retreat south of the Wilhelminacanal (which ran basically east to west between Den Bosch and Eindhoven) because he did not fancy Dutch troops intervening the deployment of French forces in the defence line between Turnhout and Tilburg. General Picard did make a mild gesture to Colonel Schmidt that he would sanction the assistance of one of his light cavalry units towards the direction of Eindhoven and Den Bosch. In fact, ordinary recce parties had been planned before to be sent out into these directions to monitor the German progress. The news of 'French motorised cavalry' moving eastwards was gladly received and passed down the lines - much to strongly - to the Dutch formations coming into place behind the Willemsvaart. That in fact no more than four French platoons - each with two or three wheeled AFV's and a handful of motorbike-hussars - were sent to the east was never perceived as such by the Dutch Colonel. It was only the start of a seemingly endless series of miscommunications between the new allies.  

Pre-engagements

Although the Germans met tremendous logistic problems when all four divisions had to squeeze themselves along the shared narrow corridors and river-crossings, some forward units managed to overtake retreating Dutch units. 

One of the most serious engagements that followed out of this close German pursuit, was the one at an elder peoples home annex monastery [St. Josephgesticht] in the northern outskirts of Den Bosch, which in fact occured in the evening of the 11th. This estate had been selected by a Dutch company commander to rest his troops after the battle north of Mill and the subsequent hasty retreat overnight. He was unaware that the canal - just half a click east of the monastery - had been designated as the new defence-line, but at the same time he was unable to cross the canal since fellow soldiers on the other side had - already in the morning - blown up the bridge.

When the men were resting and able to eat for the first time in 36 hours, suddenly [at 2000 hours] a German armoured squad (of the SS Division) appeared. A fierce fight between the two formations followed and lasted with intervals until 0100 the next day. Both sides suffered casualties, but when the Germans managed to set the buildings [where the Dutch held their positions] ablaze by mortar and gun-fire, the Dutch commander capitulated. On the German side the company commander had been killed. Amazingly, shortly after the Dutch had surrendered, the SS men were called back eastwards, under orders to re-unit with their division that had been able to find a crossing more to the south.

A little more to the southeast, at the small town called Gemert two clicks from the Willemsvaart, another quite significant engagement occured. A Dutch unit [of engineers] that was resting in a castle nearby was suddenly attacked in the early morning by forward German units of AA.256. The Dutch formation, about two platoon sizes strong, was only armed with rifles and lacked even a basic machinegun. The men had taken cover in an old castle, which thick walls proved quite formidable cover against the German weapons. At 0700 hours in the morning the first Germans had been reported to the commanding Captain. This officer soon realised that his detachment was largely outnumbered. He instructed his men a cunning method of operation. They were ordered to give short bursts of fire with their carabines from different locations in the castle, as such suggesting a much more considerable occupation of the position than was actually there.

For a long time the Germans remained under the impression to be shot at by civilians and rounded up quite a number of these supposingly civil adversaries for breach of the international conventions. Gradually the Germans became more convinced that the opposition was one of military nature after all. Still, the Germans were not too anxious to fully commit into battle, not knowing what they were up against. Eventually also AFV's appeared at the scene and these started shelling the castle that soon started burning from the thatch roofs. Some very precarious scenes preceded the imperative surrender of the Dutch men. They had managed to withstand the German force - the full AA.256 later reinforced with AFV's - for over five hours. Nonetheless, the hold-up mattered little to the Germans. Other formations had already reached the Zuid-Willemsvaart and gotten engaged with the Dutch defenders there.

The defences at the northern sector of the Willemsvaart

In the meantime Dutch units had started to dig-in along the west-bank of the Zuid-Willemsvaart. At all the locations where indeed Dutch units had arrived, the bridges over the canal were destroyed. The sector just south of Den Bosch - designated for the two battalions from the Mill sector - remained empty though. It was already explained what the reason for this unfortunate situation was. The gap - around the village of Heeswijk - had a considerable width of over about six kilometres.

The Germans meanwhile probed the entire canal length with numerous recce parties and soon discovered that no fire was attracted in the sector Heeswijk, which suggested the absence of defenders. Early in the afternoon of the 11th the first forward parties reached the Heeswijk region and awaited some reinforcements. In the cause of the afternoon, not bothered by any Dutch defender, the first formation of the reconnaissance battalion of 9.PD arrived. It managed to cross at Heeswijk with a number of armoured cars and immediately pushed forward to secure the bridge area, getting into mild skirmishes with surprised Dutch squads on the extremities of the occupied defences. Early in the afternoon stronger German formations managed to cross at Heeswijk, after which the night would see strong German follow-up actions in the area, to which we'll come back.

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6-veld gun at Zuid-Willemsvaart (may 1940)

In the city of Den Bosch itself a battalion [II-29RI] of infantry was responsible for the defence. They saw no Germans but did meet up with one of the few French recce formations. At the end of the afternoon German probing parties were seen south of the city. The Dutch in Den Bosch were able to repel any German efforts to come closer. The French Lieutenant commanding the recce platoon was requested to persue these Germans, and did so after getting clearance from his commander. He went to Vught (southwest of Den Bosch) and then turned east towards the area close to the Heeswijk bridge. Before even getting there he bumped right into a German flank security. The Germans had already pushed further west and had just left minor posts on their flanks to guard those against unexpected Dutch counter measures. Although the Germans did lose an armoured car in the confrontation, it were the French that broke off the fight and vanish westwards. The commanding French Lieutenant later reported to his CO that he did go back to Den Bosch, but had found it deserted by the Dutch. That was a lie. The Dutch battalion in Den Bosch would only leave in the morning of the 12th, not been challenged by the Germans that had passed the city in their drive westwards. The Dutch battalion moved back to Keizersveer, where it would later cross the Maas safely.

South of the Heeswijk gap occured yet another engagement. Here the 256th ID advanced and soon found itself confronted with two Dutch infantry companies at Veghel. Two 5,7 cm infantry guns and an anti-tank gun were positioned near the destroyed bridges. At 0930 the first German defence probing was clearly denied by Dutch fire. At 1100 the Germans launched a more serious assault. In the first minutes of the fight a German armoured car was immobilized, soon followed by two more. No Dutch losses were suffered yer. The next German assault at 1300 hours was again rejected and at 1545 yet another assault was rejected! The Germans did not come through. But the Germans wouldn't be the Germans if they couldn't find a way through.

A little to the south, at Erp, a company - also provided with two 5,7 cm infantry guns - defended a destroyed bridge. Parts of the 456th Regiment [256.ID] supported by armour of the 9th PD operated in this area. The heavier German units [probably tanks of the types Pz.II and III] appeared to be invulnerable to the 5,7 cm grenades. After the first rounds had bounced off of the armour, the Germans grew confident that no weapons were available on the opposing side that could harm them. They were able to silence one of the two 5,7 cm guns and take aim at all the visible Dutch positions without being challenged. That advantage decided the affairs. The Dutch retreated. Hereafter the Germans proceeded northwards towards the so successful Dutch defences at Veghel. The defenders to the south-side of Veghel were powerless against the heavier German equipment, since the only anti-tank gun was situated in the sector of the northern company. Quite a number of men were killed by the gun fire. At 1730 the defences had to yield.

At around 1600 hrs the Dutch battalion commanders received instructions to retreat. Rumours of vast German formations that had supposingly breached the defences further north, and were now threatening the remaining defences in the rear, made the local command decide to retreat all battalions north of the Wilhelminacanal. Due to the fact that the rumours were false, this retreat largely succeeded. The battalions were able to move back without renewed contact with the Germans. Point was that only at Heeswijk an intact bridge had been seized by the Germans, but it had to be reinforced to hold heavier equipement. It was therefore already dark when the first heavier German formations crossed it. On the other locations where the Dutch had retreated, only small foot or bike squads had been able to pass the canal. Those were not capable enough to overtake Dutch formations that had retreated, and that had also destroyed all bridges across the Dommel (a creek west of the Zuid-Willemsvaart).

During the later hours however, one of the three independant formations of the 9th Panzer Division recce battalion had managed to cross the bridge at Heeswijk in full force. It directly pushed westwards and managed to get southwest of Den Bosch before midnight. It had only left a few posts on its flanks, one of which bumped into the French recce squad mentioned before.

The above describes the events that happened in the northern sector along the Zuid-Willemsvaart.

Adapted defence strategy

It has been addressed before that Colonel Schmidt - commander of all Dutch formations in Brabant on the 11th - spent most of the night and morning (11 May) coordinating operations with the French. After he had met with the French commander of 1.DLM, General Picard, at his HQ near Oostmalle in Belgium, Schmidt found himself much delayed by Luftwaffe presence overhead on his way back to Tilburg, where his own HQ had been established. It took him almost until noon to reach his own staff again. Confident that the front situation had been stabilized once again, the Colonel set out the results of the achieved joint French-Dutch strategy, which was such that Dutch formations would remain behind the Zuid-Willemsvaart on the north side, but the Helmond-Weert sector would be shifted to the rear and north to take a southern front behind the Wilhelminacanal. South of that the area would be French territory. After the Dutch troops would have been taken back from the south end to the north of the Wilhelminacanal, the Dutch formations in the northern sector would move back on the imaginary line Den Bosch - Tilburg, a diagonal. As such the Dutch would form a forward defence for the French line between Geertruidenberg and Tilburg.

When his staff was in the midst of designing new instructions for the Weert sector to move back in a controlled withdrawal, the first hints came out of the field that the Germans might have penetrated the Willemsvaart defences under Den Bosch and south of Weert. Meanwhile the commander of the Weert sector had been instructed to move back his forces behind the Wilhelminacanal. When the commanding Lt-Col had reposed the issue of existing German-Dutch contacts in his sector, which could jeopardize a controlled evacuation of the line when executed by day-light, Colonel Schmidt sanctioned a withdrawal under the cover of darkness. That would soon proof to be a fatal error.

Only shortly after the messages from the Den Bosch area became stronger that German penetrations of the canal defences had occurred. When this information was weighed by the staff, it was quite obvious that the entire defences were in danger should the Germans succeed in pushing through under Den Bosch. It was therefore decided that the canal defences between Den Bosch and the Wilhelminacanal would move back on the Geertruidenberg-Tilburg line immediately. That message had to be distributed to all five sector commanders, but only one could be reached. Since many troops had started retreat on their own initiative, many were already on their way south, but unaware that they had been assigned to take positions in the line Geertruidenberg - Tilburg. The chaos that was about to grow out of this desinformation would be the starting point of the total desintegration of the Dutch forces in Brabant.  

The defences in the southern sector of the Willemsvaart

The southern sector of the defences - around Helmond and south thereof - was also confronted with German offensive action.

The reader should realise that the Zuid-Willemsvaart ran from Den Bosch to Weert in a 45 degree angle south-westwards. This implies that the Germans who got through in the northern sector would already have a considerable head-start to the defenders of the southern sector. Distance-wise we talk about 20-25 km on the x-axis. It meant that the Germans that broke through in the north near Heeswijk were already more than half-way ahead of the distance the most southern Dutch troops would have to travel to get back behind the Wilhelminacanal near Tilburg. Bearing in mind that the latter were mainly travelling by foot, one realizes that the southern defences along the Zuid-Willemsvaart would have hardly any change of making it back behind the new defence-line without being cut off by German forces if these would break out. Successful defences along the Zuid-Willemsvaart in the south would therefore almost evidently lead to a defeat afterwards; a tragic and bitter conclusion. One unknown and not foreseen by the defenders themselves of course ...

Along the Zuid-Willemsvaart, around the city of Helmond, the troops had received the instruction for an orderly retreat to the Wilhelminacanal - still an instruction based on the phased fall-back plan of Colonel Schmidt. Unfortunately in the process of this manoeuvre the Germans already entered Helmond with some considerable recon units. A very peculiar event would save the day for the Dutch. When the few soldiers still occupying the positions [the balance was preparing for retreat] were preparing for a desperate defence, a Dutch police-officer appeared bearing a white flag. He transferred a message by the local German commander in which a threat against the town and its nobilities was expressed. The city would be bombed and its nobilities executed would the town and its defenders not immediately surrender. Indeed the German recce party of AA.25 had taken some 40 hostages. The Dutch commander - who saw an opportunity to get away unharmed - wisely replied that this was acceptable provided that the Dutch were allowed to march off unharmed. Not awaiting the German reply the Dutch company swiftly started its retreat. Only three hours later [1600] the Germans started their crossing of the canal. In this instance obvious German misbehaviour fired back ...

At Someren - half-way between Helmond and Weert - a local battle was fought between units of the German 56th ID and the Dutch defenders. The Germans only managed to cross the canal after 1600 hours. The confrontation with the defenders north and south of Someren continued until well in the evening of the 11th. Nonetheless, the tough defence had demanded its price. Not only in the numbers KIA or WIA, but particularly in the fact that German formations broken out earlier on the flanks of the Someren sector would cut off many of the defenders and take them prisoner. It costed the Dutch about one-and-a-half battalion of lost POW's.

At Weert the German 30.ID had managed to deploy in the area between the city and the Maas river, from where it sent out a number of recce parties. These were not only sent into the direction of the Dutch defences around the city, but also to the Dutch-Belgian border just south of Weert. Whereas the recce parties probing the Dutch lines all reported prolonged Dutch possession of the prepared defences, the recce party that had entered Belgian territory just below Weert, rushed back the news that it had found an intact and undefended bridge across the Zuid-Willemsvaart a few clicks south of the border. The Belgian border units had moved out of the area without demolishing that particular bridge. This news, received by the German division commander around noon, shifted the German strategy locally. General Von Briessen decided that he would immediately materialize on this opportunity and sent in the entire AA.1 (a strong recce unit with around 50 light and heavy armoured cars) and one of his regiments. Task was to cross the found bridge and swing around the Dutch defences with the reinforced AA.1. The regiment would use the bridge too, but proceed south of the border into Belgian territory north of the Schelde canal. A direct offensive against Weert was cancelled. In the meantime on the Dutch side, the German attack was anxiously awaited. But apart from some skirmishes with German probing elements, nothing happened. Than news came from some forward border posts that large German formations were pouring into Belgium just east of the far extremity of the Dutch defences. It caused a small panic, forcing the Dutch to shift some troops to the border area. But it was too late. The first German company of bike-infantry had already moved into the void in the Dutch rear and it demanded only limited efforts to ran off the most southern Dutch defences, that felt totally exposed in their unprotected rear. A series of skirmishes detached the entire right flank defences from their positions, causing a panic effect. The commander of the Weert sector immediately ordered his troops out of the defences, back on his HQ sector. When the remaining troops were assembled northwest of Weert, they were suddenly assaulted by a rather strong German formation of wheeled AFV's accompanied by infantry. Although the German attack was rebuffed, the following retreat of the Dutch turned into share chaos. The formations were dispersed all over the area and many were captured during the night or the next day. The Germans had been able to outflank the Weert region from the Helmond-Eindhoven area (north) and the Belgian territory south of Weert. An almost perfect encirclement caught most Dutch defenders and those that did escape were in such a state that they could no longer contribute to the country's defence in any way.  

Upon Colonel Schmidt receipt of the news of the collapsing northern front [between Den Bosch and Veghel], he immediately realised that the execution of the French instruction to occupy a defence-line between Den Bosch and Tilburg was no longer feasible according to his phased plan. As a consequence the Dutch forces would be obligated to take their positions along the improvised line Den Bosch - Tilburg at once. He also realised that especially the forces in the south would have a hard time to out-speed the Germans. He sent out numerous messengers to transfer the new orders.

The fact that Schmidt now had to deal with an unforeseen early German break-through at the Zuid-Willemsvaart meant that Schmidt had to order his southern units to forget about the Wilhelminakanaal and move directly to the northwest to the area northeast of Tilburg. This very unfortunate situation - especially caused by lacking means of communication - caused a situation that three different perspectives lived amongst local commanders in the southern sector of the canal defences. There were some who were not even aware (yet) of the general retreat order, some who had only received the order to re-occupy a position behind the Wilhelminakanaal and a few that did indeed receive the latest orders for an immediate manoeuvre towards the most recently projected defence-line Den Bosch - Tilburg. It is hardly necessary to add that this chain of events caused a chaos of major proportion, as was already sketched before.

Besides the aforementioned chaos, the Germans pursued the southern defenders far more expeditious than previously in the north. Also, German units that had managed to penetrate the defences further up north spread out and collided with retreating Dutch forces from the south. All these events created a chaotic scene in the centre of Brabant that would basically seal the fate of all Dutch Brabant-defences. Many units were intercepted by the Germans and taken prisoner. Other units managed to come through; some entirely, others only partially. Some units simply fled westwards without any further discipline left in the ranks. Many of the latter would eventually end up in the province of Zeeland where they would proof worthless for any other duty. The majority had tossed away its arms and officers were usually not in any better shape than their men. During all these individual retreats - orderly or not - the men were not only harassed by intercepting German ground units but also the Luftwaffe fighters punished anyone or anything that they could lay eye on.

Of the Dutch defenders that had occupied the south of the defences along the Zuid-Willemsvaart, less than a third made it to safe haven.  

The French-Dutch defence line

The plan of manning the Den Bosch / Tilburg defence-line was right out of the window - although this was still unknown to [and later not accepted by] Schmidt; it was to be expected though! Already in the morning Schmidt had expressed his worries over the ambition of the French plan. It was therefore even more surprising that Schmidt held on to the plan for so long regardless of the disturbing messages that reached him already around noon and that - although premature - were actually exactly in line with what he himself had expected before. But he held on even so strongly that he sent out an officer to find the French Colonel Dario (of 6.RC, regiment of 1.DLM) and ask for reinforcements in order to be able to maintain the projected Den Bosch / Tilburg defence. Colonel Dario was eventually localized in Gilze [east of Breda], after the Dutch liaison officer had first been as far west as Etten [between Breda and Roosendaal]! Obviously - and not without reason - the French Colonel again refused to send troops eastwards.

Colonel Schmidt had many messenger sent out to notify his subordinates of the shifted plans, but these efforts did not pay off. The Brabant army was in total disarray. North and south of the Wilhelminacanal the troops were flowing back and virtually all still existing structures vanished along with it. There where units had initially succeeded in evacuating their defences in an orderly way, Luftwaffe raids on the packed roads caused desintergration of even the smallest of units. It soon turned into a 'safe who can' all along.

In the meantime Colonel Schmidt had his HQ relocated further westwards, close to Breda this time. He himself and his operations staff remained in Tilburg for some time to personally direct the passing troops to their respective positions. At around 1800 hours he had a meeting with yet another French officer, Colonel de Causans [commander of the 4th Regiment Motorised Dragonders, 4th RDP - the light tank regiment of 1.DLM]. During this meeting Schmidt finally gave in and deserted the plan of defending the Den Bosch - Tilburg line. He was authorized by the French Colonel to re-assemble and recuperate his troops around Roosendaal.

At the same time it became apparent that Breda and surroundings were subject to constant Luftwaffe assault and as such - without the knowledge of Colonel Schmidt - his HQ were relocated at Bergen op Zoom. His staff was unable to reach him and as such the Colonel would return to Breda unaware of this development. There he found a MP NCO informing him that his staff had moved further west. It infuriated the Colonel. In stead of following his staff he decided to return to Tilburg, taking along his entire operations staff-section en chief of staff. Again, a major blunder. An HQ on the move, with an entire division on the move as well, should not have its commander and entire operations staff move alongside each other. A few hours later that fundamental error proved fatal. In the early hours of May 12, on his way back to Tilburg via a northern route, Colonel Schmidt and his operations staff section ran straight into the most forward recce party of 9.PD, that had meanwhile reached Loon op Zand (north of Tilburg). The Colonel and his G1 staff were taken prisoner. That very event certified the end of the operational being of the Brabant army. The army itself was desintegrated, its commander and most important staf section taken POW.  

In the evening of the 11th the German main force had made quite some progress. They had managed to reach the line Den Bosch - Eindhoven. In the north [Den Bosch] this meant that only 25 km separated them from connection with the airbornes at Moerdijk. In the centre some forward German units had already reached the outskirts of Tilburg [Moergestel, 20 km from Eindhoven!]. Some of the German recon patrols would remain active in the late evening and overnight. One of these elements saw Colonel Schmidt drive into their hands in the early morning of May 12, north of Tilburg. Only hours ahead of a connection with the paratroopers at Moerdijk!