The only part of Zeeland that in fact was not an island or peninsula was the long stretch of land to the far south of the province that was called Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. It was not even connected to the Netherlands, but surrounded by Belgian soil and Belgian and Dutch water - the river Scheldt and the Westerschelde. This was one of the reasons why Belgium had tried[in vain] claiming Zeeuws-Vlaanderen during the Versailles treaty preamble in 1918/1919.
Zeeuws-Vlaanderen is about 60 km long [west to east] and only ten to eighteen km wide. The number of inhabitants was very low in 1940, just 86,000 people [107,000 nowadays], with the cities Terneuzen and Hulst as its largest communities. An important commercial canal ran from Terneuzen - on the Westerschelde shore - to the Belgian city of Gent. The canal would serve as an important defence for days during the second half of May 1940.
Zeeuws-Vlaanderen turns into a melting pot of units
In the afternoon and evening of Friday the 17th 1940, Zeeuws-Vlaanderen received almost all the refugees that escaped the German occupation of Walcheren. All the units of the 60th and 68th Division that had been able to catch a ship at Flushing in time, disembarked in the small port of Breskens. Both French divisions had lost about one-an-a-half battalions each. The repatriated troops had lost most of their weapons and equipment too. In other words, combined both 60.DI and 68.DI had only the strength of about one division left.
The 68th Division was instructed to deploy along the coastline from the west coast up to the small bay called "De Braakman", almost halfway Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. The 60th Division took positions along the Westerschelde coast from the bay to the east, where it was flanked by some battalions of the French 21st Division that defended the last bit of coast up to the westbank of the Scheld. On the other side of the Scheld the Belgian army had taken defensive positions.
Next to the remainders of the 60th and 68th Division many fractions of other units were presented in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. Some organised companies or sections of Dutch troops from 38RI and 40RI as well as other smaller units and some Belgian units of the 1st and 2nd Cavalry Division. Also the notorious Belgian "Ardense Jagers" arrived, an elite fighting unit that apart from elite fighting skills proved to be raw men with little civilization. Their trail through Zeeuws-Vlaanderen was easy to follow by the rampage and looting of villages. Nearby were the 2.GRCA of the Group Lestoquoi - a reconnaissance brigade - and the quite strong French 25.DIM, that was deployed west of St. Niklaas.
Besides these more or less organised units some thousands of unorganised Dutch troops were found all over Zeeuws-Vlaanderen. Men from at least fourteen different regiments were identified, but a multitude of smaller units were also represented. Many of these troops tried to reach France. Some succeeded, but many were captured on their way.
Opposite the 60.ID positions, across the Scheld, lay a battalion and a part of an AT company of the German 225.ID, supported by an artillery component. On the east side of Zuid-Beveland one battalion of SS troops and artillery battalions that had helped seize Walcheren. At Walcheren itself obviously still two battalions of the SS regiment Deutschland. Opposing the Belgian army north of Antwerp was the SS regiment Germania, of the same SS division that Deutschland belonged to and to the left flank of the Germania regiment elements of the 225.ID.
HRH Prince Bernhard of the Dutch Royal Family had left the Netherlands at the 12th from Ymuiden, together with his wife, the future Queen of Holland, HRH Princess Juliana and arrived in the UK the same day. The Prince had not desired to leave, for he was, like his mother-in-law, of the opinion that he was obligated to fight with his people until the bitter end. Although he had received instruction from the Queen to stay in London, he secretly took a ship to Dunkirk on the 15th, and arrived at Sluis [just over the border with Belgium] in the evening of the 16th. He was briefed by a Dutch Major about the military situation. The Prince requested Rear-Admiral Van der Stad to meet him nearby Sluis. During the meeting the Prince again emphasized that Van der Stad should not let himself be captured and that his presence in London would be required once he had finished his obligations in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen.
Also Général Beaufrere - commander of 68.DI - had a brief meeting with the Prince. In the end the Prince requested Van der Stad to make an official announcement to the Dutch people in which a last salute of the Queen had to be made public. Prince Bernhard added that he would appreciate a little grace period before the announcement would be made or else the Germans might feel some desire to intercept him on his way back to Dunkirk. Late in the afternoon the Prince arrived in Dunkirk and boarded the Dutch gunboat HrMs Flores. Accompanied by the HrMs Van Meerlant the gunboat set course for England, where both ships arrived safely at the 18th.
The later developments in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen
Since our day-to-day accounts of the events basically stop at the 17th of May, when the last official Dutch command in the Netherlands capitulated, we shall comprehensively describe the events unfolding in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen in the days after the 17th hereunder.
In the days that followed Zeeuws-Vlaanderen became more and more isolated. At the 18th the Germans already occupied the Belgian cities Leuven, Mechelen and Brussels. They also managed to penetrate the tough defence-line around Antwerp. When soon after Guderian's formidable tank army managed to follow the Somme to the west, the huge German claw around Belgium was almost shut tight. At the 22nd the Germans reached the coast south of Boulogne. From then on its was simply a countdown to the point that the Germans would eventually occupy Zeeuws-Vlaanderen too.
Van der Stad had left Zeeuws-Vlaanderen temporarily at the 18th. He was in fact acting commander-in-chief of the remaining Dutch forces; at least regarded as such by the official Dutch government [in exile] that was housing in Whitehall [England]. One of the first efforts Van der Stad made after the capitulation of the Dutch forces in Zeeland [with exception of Zeeuws-Vlaanderen] was to convince the Dutch government to announce an official rating for the Dutch currency, so that he and his remaining troops could pay in guilders again in Belgium and France. Up to the point - where the Dutch guilder was not officially reinstated as a currency with an international rating - it was virtually worthless. Banks did not accept it. When Van der Stad returned to Zeeuws-Vlaanderen on the 19th he contacted London. Meanwhile he also agreed with the French that as much Dutch troops as possible were to be sent to Belgian and French ports for evacuation to England. The troops had no value in the last Dutch resort. After the meeting with the French Van der Stad again left for Dunkirk.
At the 20th about 1,400 Dutch soldiers boarded the French freighter FS Pavon, which had also been involved in the transit of French troops to Walcheren in an earlier stage. The ship would sail to Cherbourg. Four small French Chasseurs followed her to Dunkirk. A few miles outside the port the small convoy was attacked by German planes. One bomb hit the Pavon right behind the cunning-tower and pierced through all upper decks to detonate amongst the men in the lower compartments. At least 40 soldiers were blown to pieces right away. The captain of the ship immediately steered his crippled and burning vessel to the shore and grounded the vessel near Gravelines [Belgium]. The exact number of killed men will remain a mystery for ever. About 50 men had died. Many of them have been listed on a monument that was only commissioned in 2005 at the war cemetery Grebbeberg [Rhenen], listing the names of 138 Dutch military killed in action during the war without a known grave. The tragedy of the Pavon is still one of the dark pages in the Dutch war history, particularly due to the fact that the fate of the missing men remained unknown for so many years.
At the 20th Van der Stad had found another necessity to return south. He got jammed in traffic, spent the night somewhere in the middle of Belgium and continued when the first beams of light hit the horizon. When a little later Van der Stad and his driver found themselves again crossed by a huge column, it took them minutes to realise that their fellow travellers were Germans. The man that was so specifically instructed not to fall in German hands was captured due to his own fault.
Notwithstanding all challenges met underway, a quite considerable Dutch contingent managed to reach France. It was a group of about 700 men under the medical officer Koch. They eventually reached Caen, and were evacuated by the Dutch vessel HrMs Prinses Beatrix at 10 June 1940 from Brest. The next morning they arrived in Plymouth, and this group in particular - together with another large group that eventually reach England - would later form the backbone of the (future) Prinses Irene Brigade, the main Dutch unit that would fight with the Allies against Germany.
Yet another group of evades is peculiar enough to be mentioned. The Dutch authorities had imprisoned a group of politically undesired people just days before the German invasion. After the invasion had become a fact the group was yet expanded. Amongst these men completely innocent persons, even some of Jewish blood, but also reputed Nazi sympathizers. These men had been locked up in an old fortress nearby Zeeland, but at the 14th they had been transported to Zeeuws-Vlaanderen in anticipation of German advances. The commander of this party of detainees was also entrusted with the care over ... 115 Jewish immigrants. When the combined group had crossed the border with France the 21 political prisoners were arrested and sent to a French camp. The French sent the 115 Jewish refugees back to Sluis though. The guards and policemen were free to go and eventually reached the UK. The political prisoners, amongst whom a couple of pro-Nazi Dutchmen, were later freed by their German friends. Many of them would play questionable roles in occupied Holland. The fate of the Jewish refugees does not require any further elaboration. Their fate was sealed. Only a handful of them survived the war.
The 22nd of May the French 60th and 68th Division left Zeeuws-Vlaanderen, and a day later both Belgian Cavalry Divisions followed. These last two units did not simply leave Zeeuws-Vlaanderen; they stole everything they could find of any value. Almost every village in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen found its shops and stores back in a state of complete emptiness and often smashed to pieces. Some communities were simply pillaged. Many inhabitants of the area experienced the arrival of the German force a relief in comparison to the Allied forces. That feeling of relief wouldn't last too long though ...
At the 24th the eastern part of Zeeuws-Vlaanderen was occupied by the Germans, after some brief but quite intense fighting around Terneuzen. It would last until the 29th of May before the last bit of Dutch ground was finally occupied by the invaders. It was the day after the Belgian capitulation. It would last more than four years for this piece of Holland to be liberated of the German yoke. A dark and black era had just started ...