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Flushing

Introduction

After the defences at the Sloedam had crumbled and the Germans had managed to clear the streets of Arnemuiden of French opposition, they immediately pushed southwards.

The German main push was directed to the south, to Flushing. Since the Dutch company had deserted its positions along the Sloe and the defences south of Middelburg failed, the Germans did not find much opposition on their trail southwards. They totally ignored the capital Middelburg [that was still being bombed and shelled] and tried to reach Flushing as quickly as possible, very aware that they would be able to cut off the French forces from their chance to evacuate the island.

Operation Dynamo on the Westerschelde

Général Deslaurens had escaped the Germans by an inch at the Sloe battle. He had quickly seeked his way towards Flushing. The General was very much aware that the swift evacuation of French forces from Walcheren was imperative, Indeed all vessels in the harbour were soon packed with French troops anxiously awaiting departure from the giant mouse trap in which they had found themselves. The evacuation was in the hands of Admiral Platon. Deslaurens meanwhile organised a screen of defences just north and northeast of Flushing. He decided that he would lead this defence himself because he feared that otherwise his troops would simply run off.

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Situation on the 17th of May, end of the day (may 1940)

The entire 7th Army had received revised orders. The Army would be taken back behind the Gent-Terneuzen canal in Belgium. A further retreat southwards was already in preparation. One should realise that at the 17th the last French effort to counter the German break-through in the northeast of France had failed. Guderian's tank army had broken out of the Sedan bulge and was countered by an improvised French tank-division [4. Division Cuirassée de Réserve] lead by Colonel Charles de Gaulle [the later leader of the Free French] at Montcornet. Although this French counter attack in the German flank costed the Germans some severe losses, it was eventually rejected by a maximum effort of the mighty German 8,8 cm guns and the Luftwaffe. To the French high command however it became clear that France was in great danger. The changes of being locked in a fatal grip by the German armies were hard to miss. As a result the French would take the far majority of their forces in Belgium back to the south and concentrate on defending own soil. And right they were!

After the unexpected resistance at Arnemuiden had been broken, the SS had quickly reorganised. They requisitioned all cars and bikes they could find. Formations of the 1st Battalion were the first to reach the outskirts of Flushing at around 2000 hours on the 17th. The Dutch forces they met on their way south surrendered. No opposition was felt until Flushing itself had been reached. But once the city outskirts were entered the precautions taken by Deslaurens in person started paying off.

On the background of this all, a massive exodus had started in Flushing, under the fine leadership of Contre-Admiral Platon. One could say that it was a miniature preview of Operation Dynamo in Dunkirk, when the masses of French and Dutch soldiers were witnessed boarding all kinds of vessels in the harbour. During the afternoon all ships available started a shuttle service between Flushing and Breskens, a distance of about 4 km [one way]. Also the French warships [Chasseur no. 5, 6, 10, 41 and 42 and mine-sweeper FS Mardyck were still present] contributed considerably. Heavy weapons were left behind, most of the time intact.

The British demo party started placing its charges at the waterworks and harbour cranes, but their work was poorly done. None of the charged obstacles was destroyed beyond repair, some hardly damaged. Their rather limited supply of charges ought to have been applied for less obstacles of which demolition could then have been assured, rather than trying to damage as much as possible, but leaving facilities that could be repaired in no time. It wasn't to be and as such the Germans would shortly after reinstate all harbour facilities and prepare Flushing for its part in Operation Seelöwe [invasion of England]. After the two dozen men of the demo-party had done their job they quickly left Holland on board a British destroyer.

A hero has fallen ...

Meanwhile Captain Bichon [adjutant to the General] and General Deslaurens had gathered a handful of men around them and taken positions along the roads that led to the harbour. Deslaurens himself was in charge of the most northern position, while Bichon organised some sort of harbour defence. They managed to slow down the pushing SS men but eventually they were unable to prevent the Germans from gradually gaining terrain.

At 2200 hours Deslaurens sent an officer to Platon informing the Admiral that the Germans had come within 500 meter from the quays. Upon this message Platon sent Bichon to the General with the instruction that Deslaurens had to board the last available Chasseur [No.5]. Bichon was however unable to deliver the message when he realized that the Germans had already passed the point where previously the position of Deslaurens' squad had been. He concluded that the General would have been captured and returned to the harbour. He boarded the Chasseur under fire of the first German troops to reach the harbour area. Blazing from all machineguns and the 7,5 cm main gun, the French vessel left port, with Bichon and Platon on board.

General Deslaurens had not been taken prisoner by the Germans though. The General had been wounded but was still leading his last few loyal soldiers. Eventually he was witnessed by a Dutch doctor at around 2200 hours. This doctor was trying to make it to the last ship with his wife. General Deslaurens again showed his noble character when - looking at the doctor's wife - he uttered "Mais qu'est ce que vous faites ici, ma petite?" [But what do you do here, my love?] and pointed her a safe place to take shelter. The doctor later stated that the General had died at 2215 hours, apparently of a head-shot. The General had indeed been "the last man standing", and died a hero. Mort pour la Patrie ...

General Deslaurens was the only General who died on Dutch soil during the May War. This General had shown a great deal of determination, notwithstanding that his troops were often unable to materialize on the Generals expectations. Deslaurens had time and again shown his face in the frontline, acting more like a German commander than a French one. He was - and is - regarded a genuine hero. Still - during the yearly remembrance ceremonies - he is remembered as the one symbol of bravery in Zeeland. The Zeeland population still expresses its respect and gratefulness for his offer - and that of 228 of his fellow French soldiers - on a yearly basis.

Aftermath

The French FS Mardyck was heavily damaged during the last minutes of fighting in Vlissingen port. She was quickly hooked on to a tow line and tugged by the Chasseur no.5. Although the crippled vessel did indeed reach Breskens, it soon sunk as a result of the sustained damage under the water-line. With these two ships the last transports had left Walcheren. A considerable portion of the French troops on the island had been salvaged, but many French had been left behind during the previous days. And to those still wandering around, the final fate would be five years of captivity.

During the night the last pockets of resistance were cleared by the Germans. Here and there the remaining Dutch and French groups put up a brief fight, but before the next morning the last bit of resistance had faded away. The remaining troops on Walcheren, mostly Dutch, had surrendered.

Flushing had suffered a lot from the eight days of war overhead, and in the last stages, on the ground. And its suffering would continue for quite some time. The brief lull in the destruction of the harbour city wouldn't last for a month. Soon after the Allies had left, the British realized that their Kingdom would be Hitler's next objective. Port cities all along the west coast of Europe would be visited by the RAF and that included Flushing. The poor aiming of the RAF in those early days of the war, would soon demand a considerable toll of the residents. Hundreds of houses and many dozens of inhabitants would fall victim to the British raids in the months to come. And in 1944 this part of Holland - Walcheren in particular - would pay a very high price for liberation. But that was more than four years ahead of the episode described here.