Friday, May 10, 1940
The call from Central Command Zeeland came shortly after midnight, “Be ready! German troops are massed at our borders. The western invasion is imminent. ” Major Fredrik Alberts sighed, put down the phone, and spent the rest of the early morning hours of Friday, May 10, 1940 in his headquarters at Breskens issuing telephone orders to ensure all final preparations were in place for his battalion. Major Alberts’ Second Battalion of the Dutch 38th (Reserve) Infantry Regiment (II-38 R.I.) was tasked with defending the Schelde estuary ports of Breskens and Terneuzen and the Belgian border area of Zeeuw Flanderen. And Major Alberts, he was my Opa, my Dutch grandfather.
The Zeeland situation on May 10 [Adapted from WarOverHolland.nl]
Around 03:00 hours, after all units had confirmed his orders, he could hear the sound of aircraft overhead, but their nationality could not be determined. Were they German? Soon there were rumours that Schiphol Airport had been attacked. Then there were rumors that paratroops had landed in various strategic centers in Rotterdam, Amsterdam and the Hague. It was not until 8 a.m. that radio communications finally confirmed that the neutral Netherlands was at war with Germany and had joined allied Britain and France in a fight for their small nation’s survival.
German paratroopers landing near the Hague in the opening hours of the invasion. [Wikipedia, Dutch National Archives (H. Lamme)]
Around 14:00 hours, a group of three French officers presented themselves to Major Alberts at his headquarters in Breskens on the southern bank of the West Schelde, asking for his assistance to get to Zeeland Command Headquarters in Middelburg across the river on Walcheren Island. Guided by Alberts’ liason officer, the French officers crossed over to the town of Vlissingen (Flushing) by fishing boat and from there proceeded up to Middelburg by car.
At 16:00 hours, Alberts observed the first of many motorized divisions of French troops start arriving and deploying across the West Schelde area with the help of the Dutch battalions.
Saturday, May 11
More French troops arrived throughout the night, and by Saturday morning Major Alberts was starting to wonder about this influx of French troops that were setting up positions to the east and west of his headquarters. Were they there to support him? Or was he to support them, taking on a subservient role? He had received no instructions regarding the strength of the French arrivals nor the status of his command of his assigned area of Zeeuw Flanderen (Dutch Flanders).
Meanwhile in headquarters in Middelburg, the French Brigadier-General Durand had presented himself as commander of all the French divisions that were arriving in Zeeland. It quickly became apparent to the Dutch Commander of Zeeland, Admiral Van der Stad and his staff, that the Dutch-French collaboration was to be primarily a French non-collaboration, an operation overseen by the somewhat grumpy and haughty Durand who had already criticized the Dutch defences and started redeploying them, much to the consternation and confusion of both Dutch and French officers.
In the afternoon, Major Alberts and his staff observed several dogfights between German bombers and support fighters and allied planes directly above Breskens. They also heard reports that the harbour in Vlissingen, across the river and filled with several British gunboats, was being attacked by German bombers. The attacks were successfully repelled this today, but the allied ships there and in the other harbors of Zeeland started to leave for England. The Netherlands was fighting bravely, but was quickly being overrun by Nazi Germany. Although their infantry troops were far from Zeeland at this point, it would only be a matter of days at this rate.
The bridge in Nijmegen was blown up on May 10th in an attempt to slow down the flow of German armour [http://fotos.serc.nl/gelderland/nijmegen/nijmegen-26018/]
Finally getting through to Zeeland Command by telephone, and having asked for clarification of any further orders given the large influx of French troops in his area of command, he learned that two border patrol companies under his command were to depart for reassignment in the evening.
Sunday, May 12
Having had no further orders by Sunday morning, and not knowing what exact responsibility he had for the defense of Breskens harbor, Alberts requested a 10 a.m. meeting with the recently arrived French Battalion (III-271 RI) Commander in Breskens, Captain Veuillon. As a result of this meeting, Alberts was to give orders that his third company would leave the coastal front, except the occupation of the port complex and the land front, which was to remain occupied mainly against the possible landing of enemy paratroopers. The French were indeed taking a central role. Furthermore, to warn locals about the dangers now inherent to the defense of Breskens, Alberts and the Veuillon issued the following joint bulletin:
It is prohibited for citizens to remain in the dunes, coastal area and the breakwaters. Between sunset to sunrise, it is also prohibited to remain in the vicinity of the reinforcements around Breskens. Those without authorization will be shot without warning. Residents near the coastal dunes or reinforcement may obtain authorized access from Captain Dijke (3rd Company Commander) in Breskens.
Monday, May 13
By Monday, May 13th, the situation in Holland was critical. The Germans had made great gains through the central and southern part of the country, and were trying to get through to Antwerp, the major port of Brussels some kilometers upstream on the Schelde. German paratroopers had indeed landed near the major cities of Amsterdam in the northwest and Rotterdam to its south to secure military targets before their infantry was to arrive. On one hand, the Dutch cabinet decided to fight on, even though the situation looked hopeless. On the other hand, the Dutch cabinet also finally convinced the Royal Family, headed by a reluctant Queen Wilhelmina, to board British ships at the Hoek van Holland, west of Rotterdam and somewhat to the north of Alberts’ position in Zeeland, and to depart the Netherlands for England. But my grandfather knew no details about these events until later the next day.
Newspaper clipping of Queen Wilhelmina arriving in England still clutching her Dutch army helmet. [Historical Images Archive]
Realizing that his duties in Breskens and its environs had been taken over by the French, Major Alberts was not surprised on Monday morning to receive orders to report with his staff at Zeeland Command Headquarters in Middelburg. He handed over his tactical assignments to Captain van Dijke and journeyed throughout the day, crossing over to Walcheren Island and arriving in Middelburg at 15:00, where he immediately reported to Central Command and received his new orders. He was added to the staff quarters of Zeeland Command and assigned into the Peel Division, which had retreated from North Brabant and was to be redeployed in Zeeland. His assignment was to first work with the former commander of North Brabant West, Commander Teman, to form new troop deployments as speedily as possible. He would then command those units in their occupation and defense of the island of North Beveland, just to the east of Walcheren.
The historic town of Middelburg just before the war. The town hall would be severely damaged by artillery fire on May 17. [digitaal.dezb.nl]
Tuesday, May 14
With little or no sleep Alberts struggled through much of the night and into the next morning to track down Teman in order to work on new troop formations with him. However, by Tuesday morning he found out that Teman had abruptly left Middelburg and set up his staff quarters in the village of Oost Kappelle, to the north. With much effort and danger to his life, as by this time the Luftwaffe was cruising over the Netherlands at will, Alberts spent most of the day in making his way through the chaos to him up there.
Once connecting with Teman’s staff, he succeeded in putting together some new companies to replace those he lost to the French forces, and, with the help of a Major Buytelaar, found out the names of some officers in the nearby town of Serooskerke to lead them. Alberts then ordered these hastily-organized new units to proceed to agreed-upon positions in North Beveland under the cover of darkness that evening.
At 19:20, a confusing message came through that the supreme command of the Dutch army and navy had surrendered. This was quickly followed by further instructions from Zeeland Command that no surrender would apply to forces still holding Zeeland. Indeed, Dutch forces had been working out a surrender arrangement with the invading German forces earlier in the afternoon. However, German high command found out too late about these surrender plans and had carried out their threat to send the Luftwaffe to bomb the hell out of the port city of Rotterdam. By that point, there was little left of the main Dutch forces to fight for, and the surrender was officially accepted.
Rotterdam after May 14, 1490 [U.S. Holocaust Museum, Instytut Pamieci Narodowej]
The message of surrender was not welcomed by the troops, and due to the contradiction by Zeeland Command, they did not even fully believe it. However, at 22:00 hours the capitulation message was confirmed over the radio.
My grandfather wrote,
Everyone was then very demoralized to learn that the Dutch Royal Family had left the country; not just the lowly privates but also the officers, and that was worse. The officers spoke jointly to the troops, doing everything possible to raise the morale of the party again. To my delight, this managed to re-instill a grain of courage in them to persevere.
Wednesday, May 15
In the morning, Major Alberts instructed his battalion medical officer, Dr. Boone, to depart with his medical personnel for North Beveland to set up the medical arrangements for the newly reconstituted II Battalion’s operations there. He was happy to hear that the units he had sent over to the neighboring island had successfully set up their defensive positions.
By evening and long into the night, German bombers dropped bombs in the neighborhood Major Alberts and his staff occupied, perhaps as they were close to the headquarters of the French General Command of the French troops in the Netherlands. There was an air raid alarm which sent Alberts and his comrades into the “French” trenches. Trenches that, Alberts wryly observed, had been built by the Dutch not so long ago.
Thursday, May 16
After his tasks regarding forming new companies was completed in Middelburg , Alberts wanted to go to Kortgene with the rest of his staff to officially take command of the Noord Beveland defence. First, however, he was summoned to the Zeeland Command office at around 14:00, where he found things in a state of great agitation.
Present there were a French Admiral and some French high officers. Although he wasn’t directly informed, Alberts understood from the French Admiral’s telephone calls and orders being given by him that the French troops were in the process of retreating!
Central command then informed him that the whole situation in Zeeland had apparently changed: the German troops had already reached South Beveland and were quickly advancing on the main defensive lines there. Effective immediately, his mission was to change its focus from simply occupying Noord Beveland to stridently defending this island from German attack across from Zuid Beveland. In fact, the situation was already worse than my grandfather was told. The Germans had already breached the first of two main defensive lines of Zeeland that were located on South Beveland: the Bath and Zanddijke Lines that very morning.
After failing to get a phone connection, he sent instructions to his command staff to leave as soon as possible for Noord Beveland, without their horses and vehicles, via the crossing of Veere, since all the bridges and connections between Walcheren and Noord Beveland were broken. The horses and vehicles remained behind in Middelburg in the care of the commander of combat transportation. Ammunition and food products, however, were taken. Around 16:00, Alberts himself joined his troops and crossed at Veere onto Noord Beveland where he finally caught up with his three company commanders.
ca. 1940 Postcard of the sleepy town of Kortgene [digitaal.dezb.nl]
He apprised them of what was known of the enemy forces and positions and was able to orally give his next commands as follows:
Co. 3-II-38 R.I. under Captain J.S. v. Dijke was to remain at Colijnsplaar and guard the northern coast of the island.
Co. 1-II-38 R.I. under Captain A.M.M. Franck to remain at Kats and guard the coast from Kats to Kortgene.
Co. 2-II-38 R.I. under Captain M.H.A Ubaghs to shift his command post and company from the Wissekerke – Geersdijk area and monitor the coast of Kortgene to Kamperland.
All patrols along the coast are to be mutually coordinated between units. First Lieutenant Boetzelaar is to set up artillery pieces in Kortgene Harbour and the Ferry House at the Anna Polder. Follow-up orders regarding further instructions and subdivisions are pending.
Around 20:00 hours, the captains went to take up their latest positions. On Alberts’ responsibility, the telephone cables of the island were also cut to avoid possible subterfuge. Captain J.J. Wolf, had the idea to bring all shore blocking ships from Zuid Beveland to the northern island and if this was not possible then to sink them as obstacles.
On Alberts’ arrival on Noord Beveland, he noticed that besides his own troops, other troops were present. These consisted of retreating units from Zuid Beveland, such as the III-38 R.I. under Major Noordenbos and 14th Border Patrol Battalion under Major Triebel, and other Dutch-French liason officers. Since it had withdrawn retreating troops, especially those of III-38 R.I. were very demoralized, and Alberts was determined to prevent the contact of these troops with his own units. He actually would have preferred that his troops contact the enemy! He conferred with Noordenbos and Triebel and decided to send all troops not directly a part of his battalion, II-38 R.I., to be garrisoned at Kamperland. He appointed Major Triebel as leader of this cantonment and arranged for Lieutenant De Boer of the marine detachment to monitor these men. Lastly, he disarmed all of these troops and distributed the weapons amongst the retreated Peel Division members of his new units, who were badly equipped, having lost many of their arms in their retreat from the center of the country earlier in the week.
Friday, May 17
Major Alberts got word from his company commanders during the night, that they had taken their positions. However, the flour stock on the island was not designed for so many troops, and realizing they may have to hold out for some time, he commanded his medical officer to source with the farmers enough milling flour and milling wheat for one week and send it to Kortgene.
The Kortgene grain silo in the 1940s [Low resolution copy from Thuisbeurs KVR antique postcards]
Since telephone traffic was completely broken, he tried to contact Zeeland Command on the island’s radio link that he had fulfilled his battalion’s redeployment assignment, but a link could not be established. When he attempted to send Captain Wolf to Walcheren in order to connect with Zeeland Command, Wolf reported back that Walcheren was already invaded by the enemy!
At this point, the citizens of Kortgene made several requests to Alberts that his soldiers should lay down their arms so that their beautiful island could be spared from the rest of the destruction the Netherlands had seen, and even Major Noordenbos, one of the commanders of the Kamperland stationed units, made some attempts to persuade him that continued resistance would be futile and that he should be trying to negotiate with the enemy! Alberts found this lack of support and easy willingness to surrender shameful and a waste of his time and efforts. He saw no reason to lay down arms voluntarily, without even being challenged. Instead, he found the morale of II-38 R.I. was good, and the attitude of the officers was praiseworthy. During the day he had travelled around the small island personally to all the subdivisions, making inspections, and even saw defensive improvements made here and there.
Situation in Zeeland on May 17: The Germans go right past Noord Beveland into Walcheren. [From WarOverHolland.nl, A. Goossens]
May 17th indeed saw the Germans breakthrough to the island of Walcheren, and that afternoon they hit Middelburg very hard with artillery. Unbeknownst to my grandfather, the acting officer of Zeeland Command, Lieutenant Colonel Karel, surrendered all of the Dutch forces on Walcheren and Zuid Beveland in the early evening, leaving just the unwitting commanders of Noord Beveland and Zeeuw Flanderen as the only Dutch troops still in the war against Germany. But for my grandfather in command of Noord Beveland, that state of affairs did not last much longer…
Saturday, May 18
In my grandfather’s notes, he wrote:
At about 10:00 hours, it was reported to me that Commander Karel of Zeeland Command had arrived on the island…but in the company of a German officer, Hauptmann Kilian.
Karel, who was very well known to me personally announced that he had been acting Zeeland Commander and had come with the message that Ned. Troops on Walcheren and North Beveland had to lay down their arms. These weapons were to be collected as soon as possible and turned in. Further orders would follow. The officers had to take all weapons. Probably would be returned later, which was not done.
Given the presence of highly demoralized troops in Kamperland, there were very good reasons that disturbances would arise, so I asked Hauptmann Kilian, to leave some weapons and ammunition on the island. We agreed that 25 guns with 250 cartridges, five pistols with 40 cartridges must remain behind. Lt. de Boer with his section Main Tropics was charged with the maintenance of order on the island. However, there were no serious disturbances.
For the first time since the outbreak of the war, most of us could enjoy a well deserved sleep…
May 19 to May 23, 1940
Over the next few days, Major Alberts, along with other Dutch soldiers in Zeeland, were taken first to Goes on the island of Zuid Beveland, and then marched, then entrained, and then marched again to eventually arrive in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. There the Germans were collecting many of the defeated Dutch soldiers of the southern provinces in a makeshift prisoner-of-war camp in the cattle market. There were rumours that the prisoners might be sent to Germany, but after a couple of days, the majority of them were relieved to learn that they were to be released. As my grandfather was the highest-ranking officer left in the 38th regiment, he acted as its paymaster as his troops were paid out, registered by the Germans, given leave notices, and sent on their way, as he put it, on their “groot verlof”, a great military leave period.
Major Fredrik Alberts on military parade as a reservist a couple of years before the war.
This chronology was translated by me (with help from Google Translate) from loose notes and recollections of my grandfather from March 1942, since his original war diary of the II-38th R.I. was sent in by him to officials in August 1940 but never received. Thankfully, my cousin, Claire Mulder, found this military record of his in the Dutch archives. Furthermore, I would especially like to thank and credit the website War Over Holland, created and maintained by Allert M.A. Goossens, a Dutch war historian, for being an incredibly good source of detailed information about these days of May 1940.