Print this page

West-Brabant

Introduction

As one may remember, the situation in the west of Brabant at the end of the first day of the war had been that the German airbornes had taken firm positions around the Moerdijk bridges and that Dutch counter actions had only decreased the preliminary German bridgehead. That was it. Artillery barrages and an aerial bombardment by four light bombers of the Dutch airforce had not contributed to any further progress.

Overnight the first French troops had arrived south of Breda. It was a cavalery reconnaissance battalion that had established contact with Colonel Schmidt - commander of the Brabant army - in the Breda townhall.

The French main force arrives

The Breda-Roosendaal area was the projected sector for the French 25th DIM (25th motorized infantry division) to deploy. This infantry division [mainly mobilized by Parisian busses] was designated to deploy its force in the sector northeast of Antwerp in a main-defence formation behind the strong 1st French Mechanized Division. The 1st DLM would form the forward defences with its mechanized units in the Tunrhout (B) - Tilburg area. The French schedule granted the 25th DIM at least three days to get fully deployed and prepared. Three forward formations - each comprising an infantry battalion, some pioneers and two or three artillery batteries -  reached their designated target areas on the 11th. Two of those on Dutch soil, west of Breda, the third one southwest of Breda on Belgian soil.

When the Dutch got news of the first French arrivals all pre-war dreams seemed to come true. Finally the French would be able to assist them in kicking some German ass. The commander of the Dutch 6th Border Infantry Battalion was ready to have his 700 men infantry line up with French armour to retake the Moerdijk bridgehead and restore the outskirts of the Fortress Holland defences in the south.

Indeed at a certain point in time [1030 hrs Dutch time] a French Major [Michon] - executive commander of 6th Kurassier [1st DLM] - contacted the Dutch in order to get information on the battlefield status of the Moerdijk sector. The men and weapons of 12th Squadron Dragonders joined by one squadron of his own outfit were at Major's disposal. The formation had been sent by 6.RC commander Colonel Dario to see what the strength of the Germans was near Moerdijk. If feasible the Michon formation was allowed to assist the Dutch in offensive action, but was not to jeopardize its own survival. A few hours after the first French outfit had arrived, another two platoons of Panhard armoured cars appeared at the scene, commanded by 1st Lieutenant Martin. This force came from 25th DIM (5.GRDI) and escorted the French GQG officer Général [Eugene Desité Antoinne] Mittelhauser, who was assigned by teh French CIC Général Gamelin as the lead liaison officer for the Dutch General Headquarters in The Hague. The two platoons Panhard cars - accompanied by some motorbike hussars - under Lt Martin had to accomplish this quite optimistic order. They were under the impression that the few reported Germans at Moerdijk wouldn't pose much of a challenge ...

The raid on Moerdijk

The French Major Michon had not been too keen on attacking the Germans at Moerdijk, but when he heard of the assignement of Lieutenant Martin, he decided to act after all. It had taken him half the day to get to that point. Meanwhile his armoured cars had been driving up and fro the German positions in order to carefully explore the German front as well as the Dutch positions and, what seemed to be an imperative reflex amongst French field-commanders, the excessive exploration of possible escape routes. The Frenchman also feared the Dutch presumed eagerness to blow up all bridges in the approach area! His motivation for these thought were not much appreciated by the Dutch, since they had manned all the bridges particularly to prevent destruction, not to cause it. But the Frenchman didn't believe the Dutch battalion commander. A common feeling of distrust that was seen between the French and Dutch all the time; between the French and every other Ally for that matter.

Click here for larger picture
Moerdijk bridges (may 1940)

The Dutch forward lines had grown courage over the sighting of French troops and light armour near Zevenbergschen Hoek. That feeling grew even more when German troops were seen retreating from their most forward positions. The German retreat had however another reason than the French appearance. The constant French movements had obviously been spotted by the anxious German airbornes. They had constantly tried to get in contact with the Luftwaffe via their headquarters on the Island of Dordrecht, but for a long time those efforts had been in vain. When they finally got hold of the Luftwaffe C&C centre via the airborne HQ near Rotterdam, they informed them of considerable French armour that had been spotted. Those reports merged with the ones received from Luftwaffe scout planes that had roamed the skies since the invasion hour for glimpses of Anglo-French formations rolling north. The airborne report alarmed the Luftwaffe to such an extend that an entire Gruppe [III./KG.4] of bombers was scrambled to raid the Breda - Moerdijk - Zevenbergen area.

When the French had finally made up their minds and were just about to attack [at 1630 hrs - 6 hrs after their arrival!] along the main road leading to the Moerdijk bridges, the rumbling of German airplanes suddenly disturbed the - until that point - pretty quiet sky over Moerdijk. Screaming sounds of bombing planes blended in with the loud bangs of exploding bombs. Some French hussars opened fire with their machineguns, but the Luftwaffe planes didn't hesitate a bit. Bombs tore houses apart and sent clouds of dust high in the sky. All the villages around Moerdijk were targetted but Zevenbergen en Zevenbergschen Hoek, where most troops were exposed to sighting from the sky, were targetted in particular. Both villages were severly punished by a rain of light and medium bombs. No less than 150 houses were destroyed and 32 citizens killed. Also one Panhard armoured car was immobilized and five French soldiers got killed.

Click here for larger picture
Panhard Zevenbergschen Hoek (may 1940)

The three Dutch companies that had been manning the most forward lines had not been hit by the raid and remained in their positions, with exception of one formation that fled the scene. The French unit was ordered to fall back. It left a very depressing moral on the astonished Dutch infantry that saw the much better equipped ally leave, not to return.

The aftermath

The French armoured cars did not explore the situation at the Keizersveer bridge, about ten km to the east of Moerdijk. It was still in Dutch hands and could have been crossed by Général Mittelhauser and his escort. Instead the French moved west, were relentlessly attacked on their way to Roosendaal, and Général Mittelhauser eventually managed to reach The Hague only on the 14th, where he was immediately informed of the imminent capitulation of the Dutch army, causing him to quickly turn about and escape with one of the last ships leaving defeated Holland. He'd return to Dunkirk the same day.

The Luftwaffe would not disappear from the skies anymore. Once it had been established that the French main force was finally in arrival, the Luftwaffe was constantly praying the skies over the south of Holland and the Northwest of Belgium in search of French targets. The German airforce relentlessly strafed the roads, junctions and suspected hide-outs around Tilburg, Breda, Etten-Leur and Roosendaal. At some locations bombers dropped their payloads on French concentrations that had been spotted in the field, in the villages or covering under groove and in woody areas. These intensive and prolonged raids caused much collatoral damage to civilian areas, whereas the Luftwaffe deliberately seemed to spare strategic roads and junctions, eager as the Germans were not to hamper their own future logistics in this area. It was a constant ordeal for troops and citizens, and due to the virtual absence of ground-to-air defences and allied fighter-planes, the Luftwaffe totally dominated the sky.

Breda

In the afternoon of the 11th the French 7th Army had been instructed not to engage in any significant battle east of Breda. One of the French recce battalions that had been instructed tot occupy the line Tilburg - Geertruidenberg (along the Maas river) deliberately stalled its march into the designated area, later counter-proposing the hold a rear line south of Breda, which was concurred. This resulted in a situation where in fact the French deserted the defences north of Tilburg overnight, although the Tilburg-Turnhout line remained occupied as a forward defence by 6.RC, 4.RDP and some artillery. Breda would be firmly defended though and as such the Dutch military and civil authorities were informed to evacuate the entire city!

It was Lieutenant-Colonel Denis, commander of the French 38th Regiment Infantry [25th DIM], who ordered the immediate evacuation of Breda. That instruction went along with the directive that the evacuation was only allowed to proceed in southern direction! On the 12th the evacuation had to start. Breda would be defended by the French, so the French officer firmly claimed.

It was bad news to the city council and its mayor. Breda had never been envisaged as a front area and as such no evacuation plans had been prepared. It would have made little difference, for pre-war plans would most likely not have included evacuation in the direction of Belgium anyway.

The news was announced to the population of the city, and to make things worse, all means of transport had been commandeered by both the Dutch and French forces in and around the city. The citizens had to go by foot.

Lerecouvreux

After the war [1951] a French officer [M. Lerecouvreux] produced a remarkable book on the events in Holland, called 'l'Armee Giraud en Hollande 1939-1940'. Although this officer had been present during the campaign, he managed to produced an embarassingly biased piece of work on the events in which he turned the events in French favour in a very calculated way. Regarding the debacle at Moerdijk he managed to state that the Dutch companies around Moerdijk had fled the scene during and after the German air-raid. In reality it had been only one Dutch outfit (comprising two platoons), that had been in the midst of the raided area, that had fled. The balance of Dutch formations had remained in place, whereas it had been the French that had vanished, leaving the stunned Dutch companies behind. Two out of the three Dutch companies were still in position in the evening of the 11th. They were only ordered back towards Roosendaal at 2200 hrs in the evening. We shall come across the phantasies of this French 'croniquer' again ... 

Missed opportunity

The French-Dutch raid on Moerdijk would have had all possible chances of success once it would have been launched in a persuasive way. The Dutch battalion joint up with the French heavy armoured cars and motorbike hussars would have had a realistic chance of overrunning the lightly defended German bridgehead. The Germans had only a few light anti-tank guns and two light field guns at their disposal. Should the Dutch and French have been able to force the Germans into retreat across the bridges and retake the southend, it would have changed a lot. It would certainly have opened up the option to destroy the bridges.

The French didn't seem determined to assist the Dutch any further. That makes a lot of sense after the Gamelin directive later that 11th, in which the 7th Army was instructed not to engage into battle beyond Breda. That directive was of a nature that implied already a modest modification of the Dyle-Breda strategy, most likely as a result of the previous Belgian evacuation of their forward defences. At that point, linking up with the Dutch troops north of the main rivers didn't matter any more, because the frontline would be drawn around Antwerp and no longer in a wider arc from that city exposing the front-line in the north. The French benefit of a retaken Moerdijk bridge was gone. It had even become an objective to leave the bridges to the Germans. After all, should the bridges have been retaken by the Dutch, they would almost certainly have destroyed these unique connections to the Fortress Holland. That would not only have seriously jeopardized the German strategy in the Netherlands, but it would also have caused the entire German XXVI.AK [comprising at that point: 9.PD, SS-VT Div (mot.), 254.ID, 256.ID and reserve divisions 208.ID and 225.ID) to swing front towards the French 7th Army and Antwerp. Intact Moerdijk bridges would however facilitate the Germans to penetrate Fortress Holland and as such relief the pressure on the 7th Army and the Antwerp region. In other words - the retaking of Moerdijk was not in the Allied interest, particularly not after the Dyle strategy was back into focus when the Breda-plan failed along with the Belgian withdrawal front the outer defences. No wonder that after the weak 11 May attempt to assault he German bridgehead at Moerdijk, no repitition was saught by the French. And who would blame them?

For the Dutch it would mean that all was lost as it came to the vivid hope (in the Hague) for closure of the back-door at Moerdijk, by failing of which the Germans would easily gain access to the main Dutch defences. That this fear would soon materialize was not genuinely considered by the Dutch. Even worse, the Dutch were not informed that the Dyle-Breda strategy was already scaled down, let alone that the promised convincing assistance at Moerdijk was off. The Hague was still under the impression that, south of Moerdijk, a firm and determined French defence was being built. That defensive force alone would shield the Moerdijk approaches. No need for extreme worries ...