After the publication of “Middelburg 17 mei 1940 – Het Vergeten Bombardement”, many questions regarding the bombardment of Middelburg were still left unanswered. Should the bombardment be interpreted as an act of terror or was should it be seen as mere artillery fire inherently and inevitable to any theatre of war? Moreover, who were to blame for the destruction of Middelburg? What has been said and written about this event ever since and what can be concluded from these recent discoveries? Two authors of “Middelburg 17 mei 1940 – ‘Het Vergeten Bombardement” will try to shed a light on these matters.
Original text in Dutch by Tobias van Gent and Peter Sijnke
The 17th of May 2015, marks the 75th anniversary of the destruction of Middelburg. A large part of the inner city was destroyed during the Second World War. In May 2010, already five years ago, a book named Middelburg 17 mei 1940. Het vergeten bombardement (occasionally also abbreviated as HVB) which elaborated on the event of the Forgotten Bombardment, was published. (The publication was compiled and co-authored by Koos Bosma, Victor Laurentius, Anneke van Waarden-Koets, Peter Sijnke and Tobias van Gent.)
The book was the first substantial overview based on extensive archival research in The Netherlands and abroad (Germany, England and France), which discussed the “Vergeten Bombardement” ( The Forgotten Bombardment) in detail. It was also the first publication which made use of ‘new’ archival documents such as the “Duitse witboek of Tätigkeitsbericht Sonderkolonne Schnock” in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin and the private archive of mayor Jan van Walré de Bordes, which is located at the Zeeland Archives. Additionally, the book also provided a historiographical overview of the ‘bombardment’.
Meanwhile, five years have already passed since the publication. What has been said and written about this event ever since and what can be concluded from these recent discoveries? This article will respond to the most important publications and will comment on these accordingly, while keeping in mind three major themes:
- Was the bombardment a terrorist-like attack or was it merely a tactical operation?
- Are the Germans or the French responsible for the destruction of Middelburg (or are both parties to blame)?
- How is the “Vergeten Bombardement” ( Forgotten Bombardment) received and remembered nowadays?
However, not everyone agrees with the conclusions formulated by HVB. For example, on May 22nd Jan van der Weel former state council member stated in his feature column in the PZC (a local newspaper) that the bombardment of Middelburg was violating the International humanitarian law. In his column he even went as far as to categorize the bombardment as terrorist bombing. According to van der Weel, the book was “greatly flawed” since it failed to condemn the bombardment of Middelburg both morally and juristically.
An article in “Zeeland” (a magazine published the “Koninklijk Zeeuwsch Genootschap der Wetenschappen”), written by Tobias van Gent early 2011 responded to van der Weel’s highly critical piece. According to the co-author of HVB, historians, unlike legal advisors or those with a background in any kind of legal education, are far less likely to adhere to a normative or moralistic approach to historical events.
Infringing the “Landoorlogregelement” (LOR) (Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land)?
He continued his argument by investigating whether the bombardment was violating the then established international war regulations. Article 27 of the “Landoorlogregelement” (LOR; or Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land) states that when bombings are carried out, all necessary measures must be taken to spare religious, cultural, and scientific buildings, historical monuments and hospitals from destruction. However, as van Gent points out, soon after the LOR was formally introduced and accepted in 1910, many increasingly significant changes took place within the discipline of warfare. Both the scale and speed of military operations increased significantly during the First World War, as a result the LOR proved to be outdated already.
LOR proved to be already outdated in First World War
One of the results of the new military advancements was that the frontlines dramatically increased in size. Many miles behind the first frontlines, trenches, artillery deployments, reserve units, command posts and transport troops could still all be found. For both parties involved, the entire enemy frontline, up to 20 kilometers wide, became the new target for artillery fire and air raids. As a consequence various historical cities which were located in the vicinity of the theater of war, (for instance Ypres or Verdun) were heavily demolished in 1914-’18. Their destruction was the inevitable result of the realization that the theatre of war (which was also influenced by the lack of precise weaponry at the time) did not discriminate between civilian and military targets. Citizens would get evacuated from the cities, as a consequence of the continuously advancing frontlines.
Attempts to modify LOR remain unratified
After the first world war, several attempts were made to revise the regulations of warfare in accordance to current military practices. Van Gent points out the Hague Rules of Air Warfare (1922-1923) and the Convention for the Protection of Civilian Populations Against New Engines of War (1938). During negotiations for new mutual agreements, a fundamental difference between cities and villages was recorded. This difference is based upon whether the settlement is either directly located in the vicinity of the frontlines of the military units and bases or not. However, none of these conventions were formally ratified.
Middelburg in the line of fire
There was a good reason why the French general specifically warned the mayor of Middelburg, Jan van Walré de Bordes, that the inhabitants of his city were in danger of the advancing violence resulting from the war on the 11th or 12th of May 1940. If the French were to defend the eastern side of Walcheren in an attempt to halt the German advance, Middelburg would be located directly in the line of fire. (‘De verwoesting van Middelburg’, report by Van Walré de Bordes, May 24 1940, ZA, AdB 77).
A few days later, his warning became reality. On May 17th, a small German taskforce successfully made its way across the Sloedam and established a bridgehead on less than 6 kilometers distance from the inner city of Middelburg. The Germans were then hit by heavy fire from the French machine guns, artillery and naval artillery. The trailblazers of the SS did not advance but dug themselves in instead.
As a consequence stalemate developed, in which the French artillery fired at the Sloedam from Zeeuws-Vlaanderen and Walcheren, while the Germans fired at the French defense lines in Walcheren from Zuid-Beveland. As a result Middelburg was hit as well occasionally during this battle of artillery fire, which lasted the entire afternoon. The fire which destroyed the inner city of Middelburg, was therefore the result of tactical suppressing fire and not a strategical bombing.
A juridical condemnation of the bombing of Middelburg based upon the international humanitarian law is very difficult according to Van Gent. A rigid application of the LOR seems unjustifiable due to the fact that different articles proved to be incomplete and outdated already. As a consequence, these were ignored by all parties involved in the war, which made Middelburg’s tragedy anything but a unique event.
During the Second World War the bombing of civilian targets was not unusual. Even the Allied forces took advantage of their excessive firepower. This form of warfare caused a lot of collateral damage, of which civilians often became the victims. Moreover the Allied forces were, for instance, not afraid to flood the entirety of Walcheren at the end of 1944 in order to drive away the Germans.
Absence of proof for deliberate bombing
Prompted by Van Gent’s article, Van der Weel, in collaboration with former judge and former soldier L. W. van de Merbel, wrote another response. In their reply, which was once again published in Zeeland magazine in 2012, they largely renounced Van Gent’s interpretations. They still considered the bombing of Middelburg as infringing on the international humanitarian law nevertheless. They argued that the conventions from the 1930’s which were mentioned by Van Gent, were not applicable and therefore could not support a valid argument (pp. 18, 20).
Clearly some introspective thoughts occurred, since he still specifically referred to the Hague Rules of Air Warfare when he argued that the bombing of Middelburg was an act of terror, of which the city became a victim, in the publication of his childhood memories in 2004 (‘Opeens was alles anders’). “According to some, these [the Hague Rules of Air Warfare] have become common law (a legally binding law which is in effect, despite not being formally written down) “Volgens sommigen hebben zij zelfs de status van gewoonterecht (recht dat geldt ondanks het ontbreken van een formele grondslag)” (p.161).
Without providing any evidence, Van der Weel and Van de Werbel talked about a “deliberate bombing” (p. 20) in their article. Moreover, they state how “[the SS-general] would decide upon an ongoing and intense bombing of the city” (“dadelijk koos [de SS-generaal] voor een langdurig en intensief bombardement op de stad”)(p. 21).
The bombing also fit “perfectly within the stereotype of aggressive German warfare which stared in September 1939 with the air raids in Warschau, and then led to the destruction of Rotterdam on May 14th” (pp. 20-21). Middelburg 1940 was therefore undeservedly linked to Warschau 1939 and Rotterdam 1940.
The later two attacks were without a doubt deliberate German operations, which as a result had a completely different scale and intensity due to this fact. During the bombing of Rotterdam, which lasted less than fifteen minutes, 800 people died and 24.000 residential buildings were destroyed. Whereas the assault on Middelburg lasted several hours, only 600 buildings were destroyed and 20 people had died.
Nevertheless, the two legal advisors upheld the idea that a German terrorist bombing of the capital of Zeeland, was meant to “intimidate the enemy or to force them to surrender” (p. 22).
With their own conclusion, they ignored the conclusion published in HVB (p. 181) in with the authors wondered whether the French forces would surrender after an attack on a Dutch city.
The biggest issue was that the two legal advisors had double standards. War regulations were rigidly applied to German actions and were condemned rather quickly while Allied forces dealing with the same regulations of war, were judged more leniently. The comparison between the German actions in 1940 and the use of violence by the Allied forces in 1944-’45 was according to them “entirely unjustified… This violence was a necessary evil in service of our liberation, or in other words, was used in order to end the unlawful situation which had started years ago by German aggression. This fact already excludes these events from a comparison in accordance with above mentioned norms and regulations. Moreover, the population had also accepted the necessary violence used by the Allied forces” (p. 22).
However, even despite the fact that the violence used by the Allied military forces was surely not accepted everywhere, (for instance it was not accepted by some people in France), it also begs the question whether all instances could be labeled as ‘necessary.’ For example, the military necessity of the Allied forces flooding the entirety of Walcheren in October 1944 can be disputed, not to mention the large scaled aerial bombing of Dresden at the end of the war.
The objection against the arguments by Van der Weel and Van de Merbel is that they at least suggest that a country stands up against an aggressor which does not strictly follow the regulations of warfare. This is a controversial argument. The war regulations apply to all parties involved in the war. When one of the parties claims to fight the unjust usage of excessive violence (which is essentially a claim to fight illegitimate usage of violence), this cancels out the prior regulations and as a consequence anything goes.
Finally, the two legal advisors also argued that historians should speak up and condemn the unjust bombing of Middelburg. Such a moral condemnation becomes even more difficult however in light of a new, controversial point of view which suggests that, instead of Germans, the French would actually be responsible for the destruction of a part of the inner city of Middelburg.
Germans or the French?
At the end of 2012 the book ‘Gestold Verleden’ was published by Ton Goossens. In this publication the author emphasizes the idea that the inner city of Midderlburg was struck by a city fire, which was cause by tactical artillery fire, instead of a terrorist bombing (pp. 77-78).
What is new, however, is his argument that only French fire would have attacked the city. Although he writes on page 76 that “evidence of German suppressing fire attacking Middelburg is still missing, but it cannot be excluded entirely since indications for this possibility still exist”, he is no longer cautious at the end of his book and concludes firmly: “When considering the research results, the French artillery should without reservations, be considered to be the instigator of the fatal city fire” (p. 131).
He strongly upholds this argument ever since the publication of his book. How strongly he believes in his own theory is demonstrated by how he urged the municipality of Middelburg to remove a reference to a ‘German bombing’ on the monuments in the city. The council of aldermen and the mayor of Middelburg, however, wisely refrain from getting involved in the matter and remain impartial. Any modification of the monuments would after all mean that they would pick a side in the debate. It is a shame, however, that this is how the debate gains attention from the media and politicians, instead of addressing the matter in an academic setting (like a conference or in academic literature).
HVB (pp. 179 and 180) acknowledges that the French also fired at the city on May 17th 1940, but to conclude that Middelburg was solely hit by French grenades is too shortsighted. Goossens found some new documents in French military archives and also managed to find pictures of a German battery near Lewedorp, but unfortunately he did not succeed in finding compelling evidence to support his thesis.
The theory of the author is among other things based upon eye witness reports, findings of unexploded bombs, pictures of the damages done, and French reports. Several eyewitnesses in Middelburg reported that the grenades that hit Middelburg were fired from the south. This means according to Goossens that they were fired by the French artillery in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen or from French ships in de Westerschelde.
No evidence for exclusively French attack
The issue with these observations is, however, that a part of the German artillery, which was located towards the south-west of Lewedorp, was also situated towards the south of the inner city of Middelburg.
Kees van Westreenen, who was an eyewitness when he fourteen years old, commented in Gestold Verleden, how he witnessed two placed get hit (one against a tree and one against the little houses next to the English church) near his parents’ home at the start of the Lange Noordstraat. Morevoer, it was impossible to have executed these attacks from the south. On page 119 Goossens writes that it can be deduced from archival research that the center of Middelburg was solely hit by unexploded French shells. It is still unclear, however, which archives he consulted.
Gestold Verleden (p. 79) also includes a list containing six recordings of unexploded French shells. The list also features a statement by a sergeant of the coastal artillery, who mentions how he had seen an unexploded grenade in the Lange Noordstraat (located between city hall and the church). Van Westreenen, who lived here at the time, did not believe the story. According to him, on both sides of the street houses were on fire and therefore one did not really have the time nor opportunities to carefully study such unexploded shells. Furthermore, in later times the story of the unexploded shell in his street was never repeated, and he had not heard it since, not even from those who were trying to extinguish the fires in the streets on May 17th.
Mayor was not cited correctly
Gestold Verleden also portrays mayor Van Walré de Bordes as some kind of key witness. He supposedly witnessed how his city was attacked by French artillery on May 17th (pp. 70-71, 97, 100-101). In 2014 a biography on Van Walré de Bordes was published (‘His openness and simplicity were his biggest charms.’) (‘Zijn open eenvoud was zijn grootste charme’). Author of the biography Jan Zwemer further elaborates on the question whether the mayor was aware of who was responsible for the tragedy which demolished his city. Zwemer writes that shortly after the surrender, partially due to statements by the mayor, confusion arose about how the bombing took place. Van Walré de Bordes was cited in the Hannoverischer Anzeiger, which was published on May 24th 1940. He would have concluded from the firing directions that French grenades hit Middelburg. The newspaper article was not an official interview – the mayor spoke to a German in the streets on May 18th and did not realize they were a journalist – and contained some seriously untruthful statements. The newspaper article including comments by Van Walré de Bordes written on the side, can be found in the private archive (ZA, AdB). “Nonsense” he wrote five times on top of the article, one time he was specifically commenting on the article as it reported on how the authorities of Middelburg were supposedly unaware of the Dutch capitulation on May 14th.
Goossens (pp. 114-116) and Zwemer (p. 102) concluded that it was remarkable how the mayor did not have any comments on the following message: “Jetzt wussten wir, dass es sich um französische Granaten handelt.” (eng: “We now knew, that it were French grenades.” Dutch: Wij wisten nu, dat het Franse granaten betrof.) Nevertheless, he vehemently denied the observation in the newspaper that it would have been unclear where the first grenades came from, by saying “Integendeel, zij kwamen van Zuid-Beveland.” (On the contrary, they came from Zuid-Beveland). Zwemer included the latter as a fact, but Goossens however does not include it.
Furthermore, Van Walré de Bordes was so shocked by the controversies which started after his statements, he renounced all later insinuations of French involvement in the destruction of Middelburg.
Implications of waving a white flag
The conversation between Van Walré de Bordes and a French night scout named Platon at the end of the afternoon on May 17th 1940, played an important role regarding how much Van Walré supposedly knew about the origin of the grenades. At the Dutch headquarters in the Koepoortstraat, the mayor of Middelburg contacted the French naval officer in Vlissingen by phone some time after 17:00. According to him, the city was “heavily under attack” (heftig onder vuur genomen). Van Walré de Bordes asked Platon whether it would cause any misunderstandings if Middelburg were to put up a white flag, while the French continued to fire (ZA, AdB 77).
According to Goossens this suggests that the French attack supposedly caused the city’s surrender to speed up (p. 97). However, Van der Veur, a municipal secretary, explained the ‘misunderstanding’ quite differently in his memoirs published in 1945 (Middelburg in Oorlogs- en bezettingsjaren) (p.12). He based his explanation on statements by the mayor and lieutenant de Booy, who witnessed the phone call with Platon.
The Dutch officers feared that the Germans would think of the waving of the white flag as a trick if the French would not simultaneously cease fire. This would then be all the more reason for the German army to intensify their bombings.
In fact, Van Walré de Bordes did everything in his power to protect Middelburg from even more inevitable violence and destruction during the war. If he knew that his city was being attacked by French grenades, you’d expect a completely different conversation to take place between him and Platon. The mayor would have asked the French officer to cease fire and to halt the attack on Middelburg, since there were no Germans present. Instead, he asked the Frenchmen whether or not the city could surrender, which in turn could have provoked the French into firing at the city since the Germans would enter Middelburg if they’d surrender.
Why would the French want to attack the city?
The largest objection to Goossens thesis is that he does not have any credible explanation for the Frenct attack on the capital of Zeeland. He points out how they possibly might have wanted to destroy the Stationsbrug (bridge near the station) in order to defend their left flanks when they’d retreat (pp. 123-124). However, the questions remains however whether this was actually of importance to the French. Instead Van Walré de Bordes had opened the bridge in order to prevent the French from hiding in the city when they’d retreat (ZA, AdB 77). Yet at the end of the afternoon the bridge was closed again and many French forces moved through Middelburg (of all places) during their retreat. Kees van Westreenen even saw vehicles move through his street and once the battle had ended a lof of abandoned French military equipment was found at the Loskade and in the Stationsgebied (area near the train station).
Goossens notes how for both parties firing at Middelburg with suppressing fire was essentially useless (pp. 69, 85). This is surely the case, however these are different levels of uselessness. To elaborate, there is a significant difference whether you’d – this hypothetically being the Germans – decide to fire at a city located several meters away from your bridgehead (which is heavily under attack), or whether –this hypothetically being the French army – you’d fire at an allied city which is located behind your own frontlines!
During the chaos of war, many mistakes are made. But to let your artillery division fire (pp. 123-124) at the city center of a befriended nation and to sustain this for several hours, is too excessive. Moreover, it seems very implausible that the French would fire accidentally at their own troops from behind.
During the entire day, correspondence between the French troops on Walcheren and Zeeuws-Vlaanderen took place continuously, as a result they asked to fire at military target in Zuid-Beveland and on the Sloedam (HVB, pp. 88-90). For instance, the commander stationed in Walcheren, General Deslaurens, made an urgent call some time after 16:00, for a massive increase in support from the artillery division and the air forces near the Sloedam. Around 17:40 the French general reported a German breakthrough on Walcheren. Only from this moment onwards, it became strategically appealing for the French to aim their forces at Middelburg, but in that same call Deslaurens also requested to bomb the German forces in an attempt to halt their movements towards Waarde in Zuid-Beveland (French Military Archive in Vincennes, SHAT, 29N387).
Despite the input from the publications which have been published in 2010 and onwards, overall we still adhere to the general conclusions made in HVB. Middelburg was hit by a German attack, however French grenades were used and possibly several bombs were dropped on the city from planes as well on May 17th 1940.
It was not a intense bombing but rather a period of several hours in which the city center was hit by suppressing fire. That day’s specific conditions: the weather, the absence of water pressure and the fact that Middelburg was largely vacated; consequently enabled the attack to spark a large fire breaking out throughout the city. This fire then burned down one third of the entire inner city.
Another aspect influencing the event was pointed out by a theory by L. J. Gilde, which was recently published in an article in De Wete (3, 2014). Since the gas network was not disabled in Middelburg, which was against regulations, it fueled the fire which then burned even more intensely.
Despite the fact that the documentation organization ‘Walcheren 40-45’ has been questioning the bombardment since the 1990’s, it was primarily HVB which brought about a more significant paradigm shift. Although people until now generally assumed that the event was a German aerial bombing, perhaps even a terrorist bombing, we could now prove that the bombardment was actually a myth. HVB was received well by the public, and received good publicity both on a regional and national level.
Dutch association for Military History
Mars et Historia (jrg. 44, no. 3, 2010), the in-house publication of the Dutch Association for Military History (Nederlandse Vereniging voor Militaire Historie), called HVB a “standard reference work (een standaardwerk)” with a “monumental appeal (een monumentale uitstraling)”. The review of HVB written by Roelof van Gelder published in the NRC-Handelsblad (15 October 2010) nicely summarized everything: “The grenades of the German artillery caused fires, just like the unfortunate attacks by the French. And indeed, several bombs were dropped from planes onto military targets in and near Middelburg as well (…). It was, as the conclusion of all the research similarly notes, a case of collateral damage.”
Television series Andere Tijden
On May 15th 2014, television series Andere Tijden dedicated an entire episode to the topic of the destruction of Middelburg. (tijden/afleveringen/2013-2014/Middelburg-tussen-twee-vuren.html). New recent discoveries were not significantly insightful. Both HVB and Gestold Verleden were mentioned: “74 years later, it remains unclear who is responsible for the fatal attacks on Middelburg” and “Was it the French or the Germans? Opinions vary.”. The debate was, however, not addressed.
Master thesis Eric Lameijn 2014
Much more interesting is the – unpublished – master thesis written in 2014 by Eric Lameijn from Middelburg, graduate history student (supervised by Prof. Dr. W. T. M. Frijhoff, Erasmus University). Lameijn did research on the reception history of the bombardment. He wanted to know what has been written about the destruction of the city center of Middelburg throughout the years and how this influenced the collective memory of the event. With this goal in mind, he started a survey amongst students of the ‘Nehalennia Stedelijke Scholengemeenschap’ in Middelburg. In this historiographical review Lameijn writes the following about HVB: “For the first time, it is publicly addressed on a large scale, with the help of a compelling and sound argumentation, that there was no such thing as a German act of terror.” (“Voor het eerst werd groots, goed onderbouwd en vooral publiek gesteld dat er van een Duitse terreur geen sprake kon zijn.”) (p.54).
Surprising outcome Master thesis
The outcome of his research is rather surprising. Despite all the research, publications and new discoveries primarily published in HVB, the survey shows how more than half of the high school students (who were still in 8th grade of elementary school back in 2012/2013) think that the cause of the destruction of Middelburg was a German aerial bombing “that strongly resembles the story of the destruction of Rotterdam, which features German acts of terror as leverage in order to break the resistance.” (“met het sterk naar Rotterdam neigende verhaal van de Duitse terreur als drukmiddel om het verzet te breken”) (p. 74).
Let’s therefore end with the well-known saying by Pieter Geyl: “History is a discussion without endings.” (“Geschiedenis is een discussie zonder eind.”)
Original text in Dutch by Tobias van Gent and Peter Sijnke
This contribution has also been published in the magazine ‘De Wete’, May 2015
- T. van Gent, ‘Een toetsing van het Duitse bombardement van 17 mei 1940 op Middelburg aan het humanitaire oorlogsrecht’, in: Zeeland 20.2 (2011), pp. 59-72.
- L.J. Gilde, ‘Een halfopen gaskraan? Nogmaals, de stadsbrand in Middelburg, 17 mei 1940’, in: De Wete 3 (2014), pp. 9-14.
- A.B.J. Goossens, ‘Gestold verleden. 17 mei 1940. Frans oorlogsgeweld op Middelburg’ (Middelburg 2012).
- E. Lameijn, ‘1000 bommen – of toch granaten? Het bombardement op Middelburg in het collectief geheugen’ (masterthesis Erasmusuniversiteit, 2014).
- P. Sijnke (red.), ‘Middelburg 17 mei 1940. Het vergeten bombardement’ (Vlissingen 2010).
- M.W.G. van der Veur, ‘Middelburg in oorlogs- en bezettingsjaren’ (Middelburg 1945).
- J.J. van der Weel, ‘Opeens was alles anders. Oorlogsjaren in Middelburg 1940-1944’ (Middelburg 2004).
- J.J. van der Weel, ‘Te gast: “Ik geloof dus niets van een flankbescherming”, in: Provinciale Zeeuwse Courant, 22 mei 2010.
- J.J. van der Weel en L.W. van der Merbel, ‘Nogmaals, het bombardement op 17 mei 1940’, in: Zeeland 21.1 (2012), pp. 13-24.
- C.J.P. van Westreenen, ‘Commentaar op het boekwerk “Gestold Verleden” (zp., zj. ).
- J. Zwemer, ‘”Zijn open eenvoud was zijn grootste charme”. Jan van Walré de Bordes, inspirator en oorlogsburgemeester te Middelburg’ (Vlissingen 2014).