An SS-VT 37mm (1.47in) anti-tank gun pulled by what appears to be a Kettenrad half-track motorcycle during Case Yellow. However, the calibre of the gun was too small to threaten Allied tanks like the British Matilda.
Officers from the Germania Regiment of the SS-VT discuss their plan of action during the campaign in the West in May 1940. Note the camouflaged smock which had just been introduced.
A favourable geographical situation also encouraged the garrison at Walcheren Island to hold its ground. Not only was the Beveland Peninsula a thin strip of land that prohibited any large-size attack force from assailing the island in a two- or three-pronged offensive, but also much of the terrain was flooded. This forced Hausser to send his battalions down a narrow, bottle-neck passage, where they were vulnerable to artillery- and machine-gun fire. At the end of the peninsula, the Germans had only one possible land-based route to the island. This passage was a strong, concrete dam running between the island and the peninsula, which was wide enough to allow an asphalt road and a single-track railway across the top.
For his attack upon Walcheren, Hausser selected two battalions from the Deutschland Regiment to use against the island garrison. SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Witt led the 1st Battalion, while SS-Sturmbannführer Matthias Kleinheisterkamp commanded the 3rd Battalion. Although they had planned to approach the island in a two-pronged formation, the flooded terrain on the Beveland Peninsula forced the 1st Battalion to close ranks behind Kleinheisterkamp’s troops.
On the afternoon of the 16th May, as the SS battalions approached the island, they began to encounter stiff resistance from the garrison. At an area around Westerdijk, the men of the 3rd Battalion had to negotiate their way through a minefield that was covered with barbed-wire, while a group of enemy soldiers who were well-entrenched in permanent defensive positions along an embanked road fired into them. Meanwhile, artillery batteries based in Antwerp shelled the SS battalions, as did the British warships patrolling near the island. During this advance, the Germans lost 16 men.
ATTACK ON THE DAM
As a participant in the assault on Walcheren Dam, Paul Schürmann of No. 9 Company, 3rd Battalion, Deutschland Regiment, described the intensity of the fighting. ‘I see one man fall,’ he recalled, ‘then two on the right and then another comrade who lies face down. Some men are using their teeth to tear open field dressings to bandage their shattered arms or chests.’ Meanwhile, ‘more and more of our machine-guns cease firing, with their crews silent, bloody and pale behind the weapons’.
During a pause in the advance, Schürmann noticed more carnage. At one point he observed a comrade wandering about with his shirt torn from him. On this wounded soldier, ‘there is a gaping wound in his back and I can see the pumping movement of his lungs’. Schürmann recalled, ‘To the left of me another comrade goes back almost marching, erect, ignoring the bullets flying through the air … paying no attention to death. His throat and chest, covered in field dressings, are blood soaked. His unfocused eyes are wide open, his face is grey and he looks straight past me.’ To the right, Schürmann noticed another fallen soldier ‘lying on his back. His twitching fingers claw at the air.’
Despite this punishing counter-attack, the SS battalions pushed forwards and fought their way across the flooded, muddy ground to reach the Walcheren Dam. Here the German attack stalled in the face of more punishing resistance from the garrison. Finding protection in hastily excavated foxholes and behind railway cars, the SS troops held their ground as Allied machine-gun and artillery crews shot at them from the other side of the dam. During this engagement, the Germans lost another 17 men killed and 30 wounded. Satisfied with the amount of damage that they had inflicted upon the Deutschland Regiment, the Walcheren garrison finally evacuated the island.
While the SS-Verfügungs Division secured German control over the western end of Holland, the rest of Army Group B had captured Brussels, swept through Belgium and northern France, and had then pushed its way to the English Channel. When the Dutch Army capitulated, the main body of the 18th Army was able to join this offensive and help create a salient that separated Allied forces in northern France from those along the River Somme. During this action, the 18th Army was preoccupied with protecting the flanks of the salient, ensuring that Allied troops trapped in the area around Dunkirk would remain where they were, with their backs to the English Channel.
On the evening of the 22nd May, XIL Corps ordered the SS-Verfügungs Division to proceed with the 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions toward the port of Calais in order to help strengthen German positions west and south of the Dunkirk perimeter, as well as tighten the noose around this pocket of resistance. Specifically, the SS soldiers were supposed to cross the La Bassée Canal and intercept enemy forces attempting to break out of the pocket at a point on the waterway south of the town of Cassel. In addition, the SS-Verfügungs Division was to establish bridgeheads across the canal and push British troops out of the Nieppe Forest.
Although Hausser’s men were now exhausted from several days of marching and fighting, they were still in high spirits and relished the prospect of playing a decisive role in the battle for Western Europe. During the march to the La Bassée Canal, the SS units covered the right flank of XIL Corps and headed for the town of Aire. Later in the night, Hausser received a message from 18th Army headquarters ordering him to remain at his current position. The SS units bivouacked for the night at an area further south, near the town of Saint Hilaire.
Unfortunately for the soldiers in the SS-Verfügungs Division, enemy troops did not allow them to enjoy any relaxation. During the course of the night, scattered groups of French armoured and infantry units charged into Hausser’s troops in an attempt to break out of the Dunkirk pocket. By the early morning hours of the 23rd May, an armoured battalion had overrun No. 9 Company, Der Führer Regiment, while other tank formations surrounded the regiment’s No. 10 and No. 11 companies.
Later in the morning, the French attacked No. 5 and No. 7 companies and charged into an area near Blessy. Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, Der Führer Regiment and the 2nd Battalion of the SS Artillery Regiment had settled at this location for the evening, only to end up engaged in a confusing battle against desperate adversaries. They were fighting like cornered animals. During the battle, Karl Kreutz, a rising star in the SS-VT Division, witnessed the death of a careless battalion commander: ‘I saw Erpsenmüller was standing beside me smoking a cigarette. He asked, “Kreutz, aren’t you firing on prisoners of war?”’ Kreutz recalled, ‘The next second, while I was reloading, I saw him fall, shot through the head. He lay face downward with the cigarette still burning in his left hand.’
Reeling from the shock of the French surprise attack, the Germans rallied and began an orderly defensive action. Although surrounded by enemy battle tanks, a platoon of anti-tank gunners from Der Führer’s No. 7 Company destroyed at least 15 enemy vehicles. As the morning progressed, the French attack at Saint Hilaire gradually lost its momentum and the Germans seized the initiative, launching well-coordinated counter-assaults that involved infantry- and anti-tank units working in close cooperation. By the time the battle was over, Der Führer’s 3rd Battalion alone had destroyed 13 armoured vehicles and the division as a whole had taken about 500 prisoners. This battle was the first occasion in which the regiment had fought against battle tanks.
Other SS units distinguished themselves during the fighting that had broken out across the front of the division at the La Bassée Canal. While commanding a 30-man motorcycle patrol, SS-Untersturmführer Fritz Vogt spotted a French armoured column heading east to the town of Mazinghem. As an officer in the 2nd Company, Reconnaissance Detachment, Vogt had already won distinction for his leadership in the attack on the Dutch garrison at the Meuse-Waal Canal. In France, his actions against this armoured column would earn him the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
With his anti-tank crews prepared to fire upon the French column, Vogt directed his men to shoot at the soft-skinned vehicles moving at the tail of the convoy. After knocking out these targets, the anti-tank crews struck the battle tanks at the front of the formation. Panicked and demoralized by this assault, the soldiers in the battalion-size armoured unit surrendered to the 30-man reconnaissance team.
Eventually, the battle near Saint Hilaire ended when the surviving members of the French assault detachment retreated to the other side of the La Bassée Canal and fell back to the Dunkirk perimeter. Although the men of the SS-VT Division had successfully repelled the attack, they were frustrated by the difficulty they had encountered against the French-built Renault 35 and other, larger, battle tanks. The German anti-tank weapons were not powerful enough to penetrate the tanks’ armour, except at close range. In some instances, enemy battle tanks had come within 5m (5.5yd) of anti-tank crewmen before being knocked out. This deficiency in firepower had contributed to the initial success of the French armoured formations in penetrating the division’s lines.
On 24 May, the SS-Verfügungs Division crossed the La Bassée Canal, established bridgeheads across the waterway, and advanced 8 km (5 miles) behind enemy lines before being intercepted by British soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Division. Despite the tenacity of the British counter-attack, the Germans held their ground and maintained their bridgeheads. Even before this battle was over, the division received a message on 26 May ordering it to move north-west and begin an attack against British forces occupying the Nieppe Forest.
The following morning, the SS-Verfügungs Division started its assault on the forest. The Germania Regiment took the right wing of the advance, while the Der Führer Regiment marched on the left. Meanwhile, the Reconnaissance Detachment pressed forward at a position situated between Der Führer’s 1st and 3rd Battalions. Not surprisingly, the densely wooded terrain within the forest enabled the British defenders to fight effectively against this attack. They also enjoyed the protection of well-constructed field fortifications.
When the SS battalions launched their assault on the Nieppe Forest, they suffered high casualties from enemy marksmen. On the right wing of the attack, sharpshooters from the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment wreaked havoc upon the Germania Regiment. Despite this difficulty, the SS units made substantial progress in their effort to push the British garrison out of the forest, exploiting their numerical superiority and fighting in a very aggressive manner.
By the end of the day, the men of the Germania Regiment had advanced as far as the town of Haverskerque, while the Der Führer Regiment had pushed through the Bois d’Amont and reached the Canal de Nieppe. At these areas, the SS soldiers found anti-tank rifles which had been abandoned by retreating enemy forces. When the Germans tested these weapons on a makeshift firing range, they found that the barrels had been bent and thus rendered inaccurate, as other weapons would later be after Dunkirk.
On 28 May, the offensive against the Dunkirk pocket became easier for the armies of the Third Reich when King Leopold III and his Belgian Army surrendered, thereby enabling the German 6th and 18th Armies to close in on the eastern end of the Allied perimeter. This capitulation – combined with successful assaults launched by the Kleist and Hoth Panzer Groups to the south and the west of Dunkirk – pushed the remaining Allied forces back to a small and narrow area extending from Ypres in the east to the Franco–Belgian border. Because the Nieppe Forest was now situated on a salient that was vulnerable to isolation and encirclement, the British Expeditionary Force evacuated the Queen’s Own and other regiments from the area, and took up positions closer to the English Channel.
While the Germania Regiment, the Der Führer Regiment, and the Reconnaissance Detachment saw action in the Nieppe Forest, Steiner and his Deutschland Regiment marched on Merville with the 3rd Panzer Division. On 27 May, the SS unit confronted a fresh line of British defences arrayed along the Lys Canal. After softening enemy positions with an artillery barrage, Steiner hurled his 3rd Battalion at the British defenders, driving them out of the area. Later in the day, two of his battalions were on the other side of the waterway forming bridgeheads for other German forces.
The Totenkopf Division was supposed to be in the area to help solidify German control over this part of the canal, but it was still several miles away when British armoured units launched a punishing counter-attack against the Deutschland Regiment. Although the SS soldiers fought valiantly, their rifles and grenades were not powerful enough to knock out the enemy battle tanks. After suffering heavy casualties, they were saved from the brink of annihilation when an anti-tank company from the Totenkopf Division arrived in the nick of time and repulsed the British armoured assault. Covered by protective artillery fire from nearby batteries, the surviving British tank crews withdrew from the area.