Operation Battle of Zeeland

The 'Battle of Zeeland' was fought between German and Allied forces in the Dutch province of Zeeland during the early stages of the German 'Gelb' invasion of the Low Countries and France (10/18 May 1940).

Several Dutch and French units attempted to hold off the German onslaught by making a determined defence of the Dutch south-western coastal province of Zeeland. The resulting battle lasted eight days and ended in defeat for the French and Dutch forces.

The defence of the province of Zeeland had received little attention from the Dutch government before the German invasion began on 10 May 1940.

In an attempt to raise Allied morale and to stem the pace of the German onslaught, several Dutch battalions, most especially the 14th Border Battalion, rapidly constructed defensive lines in Zeeland. The first was the 'Bathlijn', named after the nearby mediaeval fortress of Bath, was little more than a tank barrier, slightly reinforced with 12 concrete casemete positions. The second, and more defensible, line was the 'Zanddijklijn', approximately 9.3 miles (15 km) to the west of the 'Bathlijn'. This was actually two lines in the form of a front line and a stop line, and was defended by just the 3/38th Regiment and the 1/40th Regiment, supported by a limited number of obsolete anti-aircraft guns, a number of mortars and some light field artillery.

On 10 May there was no fighting in Zeeland, for the Germans were awaiting reinforcement from other sectors of the territory they was already taking, and the Dutch were improving their defences and awaiting the arrival of a contingent of French troops. The only action that occurred was thus the repeated strafing of the Dutch positions by German warplanes.

Early in the morning of 11 May, the first elements of Général d’Armée Henri Giraud’s French 7ème Armée began to arrive. The French force was five infantry regiments loosely combined as the 6ème Division, and the aircraft of the 59ème, 60ème and 68ème Groupes de Reconnaissance. Early in the afternoon of that day, a pair of French mailboats (Rouen and Côte d’Argent) arrived in Vlissingen under escort of the French destroyers Cyclone and Sirocco and the British destroyers Valentine and Winchester. The ships were attacked by German bombers, but these latter were quickly driven away by anti-aircraft fire. Another convoy arrived, and German aircraft again attacked, but were once more driven off, though not before shooting down one French fighter.

Throughout the day, Hawker Hurricane single-engined fighters of the Royal Air Force had been evident over the province. They engaged the Luftwaffe many times, shooting down three German warplanes, but losing six of their own number in the process. German warplanes bombed the junction of the 'Bathlijn' and the Kreekrakdam. Both the road and the railway were seriously damaged. Two of the Dutch army’s local barracks were destroyed, and the local waterworks and telephone lines were temporarily disabled, though Dutch soldiers soon repaired the damage.

During the day, the Dutch forces in the south, which were in retreat after their defences on the 'Peel-Raamlijn' had been broken, re-established their positions in the area of Bergen-op-Zoom.

On 12 May the port of Vlissingen was again targeted by German warplanes early in the morning. As before, the bombers operated in Ketten, which were formations of three aircraft. Witnesses spoke of at least 20 bombers in many waves, so it was likely that at least two and possible three squadrons operated over Vlissingen during this raid. The Allied ships in the port immediately opened fire on the German aircraft, as did ground-based Dutch and French anti-aircraft guns, and French aircraft began to get into the air. Four ships were sunk by direct hits,and much of the harbour and local infrastructure were hit by bombs. Cranes, offloading systems, warehouses and the offices of the local ferry line were destroyed or damaged. The railway station was hit several times, most of the houses in the harbour quarter had no windows left intact, and tiles blown off roofs were scattered everywhere. Other houses and a church well away from the harbour were also destroyed or badly damaged, and five civilians were killed.

The Dutch troops on the 'Bathlijn' were now seeing an ever-growing flood of retreating Dutch soldiers who had only recently been the forces defending the eastern part of North Brabant province. The French supreme command had meanwhile realised that the operational plan for the 7ème Armée could not be executed as envisaged, for the German advance through North Brabant had prevented the French from establishing a firm and well prepared screen around Antwerp on Dutch soil. Moreover, the Belgian first defence line along the Albert Canal had also crumbled under the pressure of two Panzer divisions and overwhelming air assaults. The Belgian army would soon retreat to the 'Dyle Line'.

In the south-west, on 13 May, the Germans had almost reached Zeeland. On the 'Bathlijn', which was the Dutch fixed defence closest to North Brabant, the fourth day of 'Gelb' introduced the Dutch troops to the sound of the ground war. The noise of German heavy artillery, which would eventually reach Moerdijk, caused the men of the 'Bathlijn' to realise that the Germans were closing on their position. Frequent patrols were carried out, and the state of tension grew steadily. A squad of railway troops was given orders to destroy the track that crossed the 'Bathlijn', and it was these same men who had worked to repair this stretch of line after German bombs had damaged it a few days before.

German fighters attacked the Dutch air base at Vlissingen, but an even more significant threat then emerged: during this day, panic broke out amongst the men when a rumour spread that German troops had reached the island of Walcheren and were advancing on Vlissingen. There was a rash of people suddenly seeing light signals from houses and secret marks were read from laundry that was waving on drying lines. It was not until the evening that these rumours lost their effect.

The Luftwaffe was less active over Zeeland on 13 May. This resulted mostly from the fact that many squadrons had now been reassigned to the fierce battle that was raging around the 'island' of Dordrecht. The bombers which had been active over Zeeland, were now raiding Dutch artillery and infantry positions on the southern front of the 'Vesting Holland'. Direct support was also being provided for the tanks of Generalmajor Alfred Ritter von Hubicki’s 4th leichte Division that was engaged on Dordrecht 'island'.

During this time, the morale of the troops, particularly the Dutch, had started to decline. Ever larger numbers of Dutch troops were retreating from the east, and Queen Wilhelmina had been evacuated, somewhat unwillingly, to the UK.

On 14 May, at Bergen-op-Zoom, units of the 12th Regiment were surrounded by two companies of an SS battalion. The French retreated from Woensdrecht, sealing the fate of their comrades at Bergen-op-Zoom and abandoning many tanks and large quantities of supplies.

A 200-man Dutch force had taken control of the forest to the south of Bergen-op-Zoom, but was forced to retreat when the French troops in the surrounding area were ordered to fall back. The French launched a counterattack at Huijbergen using a force with armoured cars and Hotchkiss H.35 light tanks, but lost five Panhard 178 armoured cars and 200 men taken prisoner. The Germans pushed forward, taking prisoner hundreds more French and Dutch troops.

The men holding the casemate defences did not join the almost general retreat of the infantry. They remained in their concrete and steel bunkers, and it was due to their efforts that the 'Bathlijn' did not fall immediately. When German patrols probed the line, they were met by fierce machine gun fire from the Dutch strongholds, and this was enough to deny the SS troops any further approach to the line. During the evening, the German artillery fire gradually decreased in intensity before it eventually stopped. With the exception of a few sections in the central sector and the casemate garrisons, the 'Bathlijn' had been deserted.

With the exception of the forces in Zeeland, the Dutch army laid down its arms at 19.00, and the formal capitulation agreement was signed on the following day.

During the late evening of 14 May, the Germans prepared a plan for an assault against the remaining occupied sections of the 'Bathlijn'. They planned first to send a negotiator. A message was dictated in which the Germans demanded immediate and unconditional surrender of the line, or else the Germans would unleash an unprecedented assault. The threat was more of an attempt to trick the defenders, since the Germans lacked the resources for so massive an assault. The Dutch had withdrawn from the majority of the line during the night. Early in the morning of 15 May, the men of the SS Standarte 'Deutschland' cautiously approached the 'Bathlijn' and the, on finding the trenches and foxholes empty, hurried through the line. A few Dutch defenders, who had not received the order to fall back, were taken prisoner.

The 'Zanddijklijn' was the main defence line of the islands of Zeeland. Three casement positions at the sluice-complex in the south and two casement positions on each side of the railway were the only concrete positions. The rest of the line comprised earth and timber-reinforced constructions and trenches. Small minefields had been laid at certain important locations along the approaches to the defences. The Germans soon began their assault on the 'Zanddijklijn'. As they approached, the Germans came under Dutch machine gun fire, which persuaded many men to dive down the slopes on each side of the railway and landing in the minefields that had been prepared just days earlier, and 16 SS troopers were killed by mine detonations. German pioneers were now called forward, and under cover of German machine gun fire cleared the area of mines. After this delay, the signal to resume the assault was given, and four batteries of German artillery began to pound the Dutch line, especially the sectors round both sides of the Tholseindsedijk.

The Germans once again attacked the line, this time with the benefit air support. The Dutch naval artillery continued shelling their perimeter, forcing the Germans to remain under cover until the artillery gradually decreased its fire. It was enough time for the Dutch to evacuate their troops in the northern sector and cross the bridge over the Postbrug canal.

The only sector of the 'Zanddijklijn' that was not evacuated immediately was the southern part. Here, the remaining battalion was spared the attentions of the Luftwaffe, but within a few hours was also forced to retreat

Tholen, a natural island which was formerly part of North Brabant, is separated from the mainland by the Eendracht, a shallow and muddy natural waterway. The island’s main centre of population is a small town also named Tholen, which had the only connection with the North Brabant mainland. The entire force for the occupation of the island, a task which needed little more than two companies, was concentrated along the Eendracht. During the day, a German patrol approached, but was quickly driven off by Dutch machine gun fire. As a result, a German negotiator was sent to demand the island’s surrender, but the Dutch commander refused to do so. Soon after this, German field artillery and mortars opened fire on the defenders. Other than a direct hit on a fuel storage tank, little damage was inflicted by the German guns. The German infantry then started to advance. The Dutch let them approach until they were close to a road barrier, and then opened fire with mortars and machine guns, devastating the attackers. The Germans suffered heavy casualties, and some men jumped into nearby pools of water to escape the shooting. The Germans were forced to retreat, and their reports spoke of 20 men killed. The Dutch defenders suffered two losses. However, after realising that they could not hold their positions much longer, the Dutch retreated farther onto the island during the night.

On 16 May, the SS units had halted at the canal through Zuid-Beveland after they had crossed the two defence-lines on the previous day. During the night, men were able to raft across the canal. The two French battalions defending the canal, totalling no more than 1,250 men, were holding a front 5.6 miles (9 km) long. The canal had a width of between 55 and 100 yards (50 and 90 m) and as such constituted a considerable obstacle for any attacker. Since all the bridges had been destroyed, an assault crossing had to be executed by means of rafts or boats. The Luftwaffe continued its morale-sapping presence, persuading considerable numbers of French soldiers to flee their positions along the canal. The French defenders had requested artillery fire on the sectors in which the Germans had deployed, but the French feared their own artillery’s lack of precision and many company commanders ordered their men a few hundred yards back from their positions along the canal.

Soon after this the entire French occupation of the canal defensive area in the northern sector gave way, resulting in a desperate dash for safety. At one location close to the Postbrug, a squad of French colonial soldiers held out, but the Germans quickly organised an assault group to fall on it and this position was soon abandoned. Meanwhile, the Germans had managed to repair the northernmost river crossing. Some light armored cars and motorcycles were able to cross at this point, and pursued the fleeing French. These motorised units reached the Sloedam early in the evening, but avoided contact.

The majority of Dutch units around Goes had managed to cross the Sloedam or had taken the ferry to Noord-Beveland before the evening, but many French units had been cut off. The Luftwaffe had driven off all Allied warplanes from the region, giving them free rein over the retreating defenders.

At Tholen, during the morning the Germans again sent a negotiator to try to convince the Dutch to surrender, but once again the Dutch rejected the offer and two hours later German artillery opened fire on the Dutch positions. During the barrage, a Dutch battalion commander contacted the headquarters in Middelburg and asked for instructions. Henrik van der Stad, the Dutch commander, complimented him on his force’s resistance over the course of the previous day and stated that the troops were to be allowed to evacuate the island and reinforce the troops on the island of Schouwen-Duiveland. Later that same day, Schouwen-Duiveland was assaulted by the Germans. As soon as his force was attacked, the Dutch commander ordered a retreat, leaving the entire coast open to the Germans.

The Sloedam was a strategic point on Walcheren island. Some mud flats on both sides of the 'dam' made it possible for light infantry to cross the Sloe, but this was a chancy undertaking as some parts were very swampy and one could easily sink and drown. The French had considered sending more troops to Walcheren, but did not do so. The Sloedam was considered to be the last bit of useful point for resistance, and should that position fall, a general French retreat would become inevitable. Since the objective of safeguarding Antwerp and the Scheldt waterway had not been achieved, the battles that continued at Zuid-Beveland and Walcheren had only one objective, namely to cover the north flank of the French forces to the north of Antwerp.

Early in the morning of 17 May, the Germans opened fire with their medium and heavy howitzers from the area of Lewedorp. The French artillery and the Allied naval vessels replied with a heavy barrage on the first wave of German troops in the assault which immediately stalled, and for the first time in the Zeeland campaign the Germans faltered and withdrew, leaving a considerable number of dead and wounded. The Dutch offered their assistance, but the French commander declined the offer. The Germans then launched a major assault on the French defences, and by the end of the day Walcheren lay open to the SS troops.

The Germans then turned their attention to Vlissingen with an advance toward the town. The Germans met no resistance until they were at the outskirts of the town. Many Dutch and French troops were already being evacuated, but the French commander, Général de Brigade Marcel Deslaurens, commander of the 60th Division, gathered the remaining troops and set up defensive positions. The French were quickly pushed back, however, and Deslaurens was killed: he was the only general to die on Dutch soil in May 1940. During the night, the last pockets of resistance were cleared by the Germans. In some places the Dutch and French troops put up a brief fight, but before morning all resistance had faded away. The remaining troops on Walcheren, most of them Dutch, had surrendered.

On 17 May, the Germans launched a major air raid on Middelburg in the centre of Walcheren. This was surpassed in severity only by the 'Blitz' on Rotterdam, and almost 600 buildings were destroyed by the bombing and resulting fire, and 800 people were rendered homeless. The massive fires in the town continued to grow until the evening of 18 May, when about 500 firefighters and volunteers managed to bring the fires under control and prevent further destruction. The last of the fires were not extinguished until some 40 days after the raid.

By the late afternoon of 17 May, it was clear that the Germans had taken the whole of Zeeland apart from Zeelandic Flanders. The battle around the Sloedam was still raging, but Dutch units in the western part of Walcheren were asking the Dutch headquarters whether or not capitulation was feasible. When many local commanders failed to reach the headquarters, which was difficult as a result of the ongoing bombardment of Middelburg, local capitulation became common. van der Stad was repeatedly queried by his officers and the mayor of Middelburg about when the capitulation of Walcheren would be offered to the Germans, but the Dutch commander made it clear that this could never be the case so long as French troops were still fighting the Germans. Late in the evening, a radio message was broadcast stating that the Dutch forces on Walcheren and Zuid-Beveland would surrender. Half an hour later, Karel himself went to the road to the east of Middelburg, along which German troops were heading to the south-ward. He was taken to a hotel near Vlissingen, close to the sluices, where he officially informed SS-Standartenführer Felix Steiner, commander of the SS Standarte 'Deutschland', of the capitulation of the Dutch forces on Walcheren and Zuid-Beveland.

Noord-Beveland was officially not part of the armistice, but on the morning of 18 May a German officer was sent to the island under a flag of truce and delivered the news of the Dutch surrender elsewhere. Upon this news the Dutch forces on the island, isolated from the rest of the Dutch army, surrendered.

The majority of the Dutch naval forces had been evacuated by 14 May, and the few ships that remained were either captured or sailed to Britain. The ships which reached the UK would later go on to defend the Dutch East Indies after that colony was invaded by the Japanese.

In the Zeeland campaign, the Dutch lost 38 men, of whom five were officers. The Dutch forces' French allies fared somewhat worse, losing 229 killed in action. Their German opponents suffered 97 dead. The British losses over Zeeland are unknown.