Note by STIWOT: The article as published below has been received by us as a letter to the editor. The article provides the views of the author in this matter. The data presented herein are therefore completely and only the responsibilities of the author and by definition do neither represent the vision nor the opinion of STIWOT. By publishing this article we sincerely hope that a discussion will take place about subjects like the case in question. We express our sincere pleasure in that we have received a reaction by the authors of the book “Atlantikwall in Zeeland en Vlaanderen” [ The Atlantikwall in Zealand and Flanders].
Analysis of a discussion.
Through an article in “De Wete” [ A local magazine on regional Geography and History on (the, in those days, Isle of) Walcheren in the province of Zealand] a debate has been generated with the murder of 13 people at stake.
One is inclined to say that the proof must be crystal clear and convincing in case one wants to start accusations and that research must be carried out extremely careful. Nothing of the kind has been the case. Both parties draw conclusions from the same vague and unproven statements by which they end up completely opposite each other. In this matter technical proof is lacking completely and totally and after a period of 40 years both parties have to be satisfied only with the memory of witnesses and then build up a theory with those data. If two parties can draw conclusions so totally different and generated by the same sources, it will demonstrate that the arguments that have been used, are of a sadly low level. This would have to follow from the hereafter published analysis. Both parties use only those facts from the gathered statements that suit their own reasoning and even use the same arguments to prove their own point of view and combat those of the opposition. Time therefore for a closer analysis.
At first a general overview. After the amphibious landing near Westkapelle on November 1st, 1944, the following day, Zoutelande had been liberated on 2 November by 48 RM Commando. Actually 47 Commando under Lt. Col. Phillips should have taken over already before Zoutelande but they were very much divided during the landings and ended up at the wrong positions. Therefore they took over only after Zoutelande, advanced favorably, apart from some resistance by snipers and some more serious resistance at the ‘dragon’s teeth’ at Valkenisse. It was there that a few losses occurred.
Around 17:00 the attack was launched on the W11 in the Dishoek area. [W11 was one of a series of German fortified coastal batteries. FB]. The resistance here was that heavy that allies had to withdraw to a platform where before a searchlight had been mounted. There they spent the night. Several dead and wounded had resulted from the attack. During the night two counterattacks from German patrols took place but were rebuked. Around 08:30 in the morning of November 3rd, the assault was resumed. The battle raged until approximately 11:30 after which the last Germans surrendered.
In “De Wete” of 1981 (issue nr. 4) Mr. W.P. Roose presents a photograph of a grave of 13 Germans. Followed by a report of an investigation that has been based mainly on eyewitness reports of Dutchmen who lived in the Dishoek area at the time and from people that were involved in the matter because of their professional occupation. Mr. W .P. Roose draws the conclusion from this research that the Germans had been killed by their own people in order to end the battle.
A couple of years later H. Houterman and H. Sakkers publish their own vision in their book “De Atlantikwall in Zeeland en Vlaanderen”. They accuse 47 RM Commando of the shooting of the Germans because of their frustration at the confused amphibian landings, the non-liberation of Zoutelande and the suffered losses and casualties during the heavy resistance in the battle for the W11. They launch however a weakly reasoned case, nothing indicates that there has been a profound investigation.
But, dear reader, this does not concern a cheap detective-paperback in which an amateur ventilates his self made theories. It concerns a shooting incident of killing 13 Germans that had surrendered and were disarmed. This is in flagrant conflict with the Convention of Geneva and therefore a very serious accusation. Only in 2001 the British provided an answer. Because “De Atlantikwall in Zeeland en Vlaanderen” has only been published in Dutch they were only very late informed about the accusations and also they did not want to endanger their good relations with the Walcheren inhabitants. Later on the accusations became more specific by the introduction of an anonymous witness and Lt.Col. Phillips became personally attacked. The book by J. Forfar “From Omaha to the Scheldt” has been published in English only and coincidentally because the Provinciale Zeeuwse Courant (PZC) [ The Provincial Newspaper] dedicates an article on 12 January 2002 to the book, its existence becomes known here. That article however does not comment on the contents of the book with which the author defends himself in chapter 15 against the accusations by H. Houterman and H. Sakkers.
I will list the arguments used in both books item by item hereafter and provide the relevant comment. In order to not repeat the titles of the books I will use H/S for the book of H. Houterman and H. Sakkers and J/F for the book of J. Forfar. In J/F a letter by H. Houterman has been included in which he presents an anonymous witness.
- From the book J/F it appears that H. Houterman and H. Sakkers have, after the publication of their book, discovered a witness who has seen how Lt. Col. Phillips has executed the Germans. This witness does not want to put anything in writing remaining anonymous and he does not want to discredit the liberators.
In a reaction Mr. H. Schat who lived in Groot-Valkenisse and who is also accountable for a chapter of J/F, states that the Dutch were not allowed access to the dunes and therefore could not have been witness of an execution. While he in “his own chapter” does state to have seen the first British soldiers approach through the dunes. Indeed in the dunes all access was prohibited but at the foot of the dune area called “de vronen” people lived and worked as normal and regular with and amongst the Germans as was possible under the circumstances.
And witness F.P.J. Christiaansen, who has been introduced by W.P. Roose, states that he has seen it happening where also other witnesses claim to be the place of the grave. This location is near Pension Kaapduin (a boarding house) at the foot of the dunes. It was in those days a very open area with only a few bushes or trees, contrary to today’s situation.
- In J/F a lot of fuss has been made around the anonymity of the witness, to me however that seems not to be the essence. The quintessence is that one needs to know his own witness. What is his character? Does he like to tell tall stories? What does he favor what does he despise? And which are the strong and the weak sides of his memory? This last issue is a very important fact as one person is better in remembering figures and another retains faces and names better in memory where another one probably remembers the spoken word but has a lesser visual memory. It is even a fact that some people remember e.g. a list of ten beer brands with their specific characteristics but cannot remember a list of ten races of apples. It is therefore strongly dependent on your fields of interest. Also a story of a witness has to be tested versus the stories of other witnesses and compared with already known facts.
- The witness that sees Lt.Col. Philips executing the Germans declares that he (Lt.Col.P.) arrived in a carrier. This has been vehemently denied by J. Forfar who declares that it was impossible for carriers to arrive at that place as the south side of the location had been barred by water through the hole in the dyke at De Nolle and the north side had been blocked by the “dragon’s teeth” which had no way through according to J. Forfar.
This is not correct as there was indeed a passage (note: that passage can bee seen on a photograph which is in my possession) of about 5 meters wide and can still be seen today. I also have declarations by witnesses who state independently from each other that they had to pass a barricade with a sentry. Another witness declares that he himself, after the landings of the British, had to lay mines in the trough way.
And the report of the 47 RM Commando states even before the night of 2 November 1944: “The anti tank barricade in the southerly direction on the road (the troops arrived from Zoutelande) was reconnoitered and mines were detected, some sappers were ordered to clear a route through.“ North of this anti tank barricade a defect Buffalo (LVT) was stranded and southerly stood a defect Weasel, thus inside the relevant area. An eye witness also indicated to me the still visible tracks the Weasel had left in the concrete of the old bicycle path. And also dead bodies were collected with a transport (probably a Weasel) on November the 5th as a witness told me.
The location can be found in Klein-Valkenisse where the Vroonweg connects with the old bicycle path, this old bicycle path is still there but it serves now as a footpath. According to the witness the bodies were laying along the bicycle path northwest of the road fork; he was about twelve years of age at that time. With a small group of boys they had collected cigarettes from the pockets of the dead soldiers but to take away their watches was beyond their courage. On November 5th a truck arrived to collect the dead, the bodies were carried by their ankles and wrists and hauled onto the truck bed. This was performed by British soldiers. When these soldiers noted the eagerness with which the boys looked at the watches they got some of them. This does not prove that any kind of transport had been present in that area on November 3rd, it only demonstrates in my opinion that it has been possible to enter that area.
- Both parties take little or no notice of the witness declarations as noted down by W.P. Roose, although the persons interrogated by W.P. Roose knew the dune area well and had experienced the German occupation for years. From these declarations it transpired very emphatically that the Germans beforehand were very much afraid of being shot. Only in J/F parts of these witness declarations is being used whereas it is in a, almost childish way, constantly repeated that name and address of the witness are known, whilst as said before it is more important that one knows his witness as a person.
- In J/F the author presents another very strong issue. In case Lt. Col. Phillips would have shot the Germans, many German witnesses would have been available. Even if they had not seen anything happen they must have drawn their conclusions after they saw the dead bodies. But from the German side no protest or reporting has been noted. If Lt. Col. Phillips would have shot the Germans it seems almost inexplicable that not a single German has reported, written or said anything during the sixty years since the end of the war. The impression has been created that there is not the slightest interest from the German side to research the matter. And from a research that at one time started, nothing has been reported at all. The German Major Opalka started his research which died a quiet death after some time. It ought to be easy for this Major Opalka to retrace surviving officers and troops and why does nobody ever hear anything from this source? He even promised to the widow of one of the executed Germans to research the case and yet there is nothing heard of it anymore.
- In H/S it is being questioned how it is possible that 30 men of not too fanatical infantry personnel could ever kill the command of 150 men fanatical navy personnel. [ The coastal batteries were manned by the navy. FB] But it is nowhere documented why this sharp separation between fanatical and non-fanatical and between navy and infantry in the course of the battle had consisted or had ever consisted. This dividing has not been proven but it leaves a strong impression. But this way I can produce another theory: only some of the highest rank wanted to continue the fighting and were fanatical, all noncommissioned officers and lower ranking personnel was no longer motivated. Here you find a dividing whereby the victims are a minority but were in command, which has been a reason for killing in all human history. In the same book it has been stated that in a personnel bunker ( probably type 501) a group of Germans already surrenders in the morning of 3 November without any resistance; which is accepted as a normal situation without any question marks. One may imagine a chain reaction in which more and more Germans surrender as the battle progresses without perspective for them. And with the threatening losses in their views everything may be seized to survive. In that respect it does not seem to be illogical that in the first instance the battle prepared men were in majority but that later on, with their loss in view, the mood changed. The proposition that 30 men opposed the battle and 150 men were in favor of it during the whole fight has been perceived to be very shallow.
- Around the route Westkapelle Flushing a rumor about Germans that want to continue fighting and are being killed by their own compatriots circulates twice amongst the population. At the W13 a German has been shot by his own troops because he wanted to continue fighting. I do not know how this story has become known to the civilian people and there is no official confirmation. Also at the bunker on De Noordervroon near Zoutelande one non commissioned officer has been shot dead as he wanted to continue fighting. In this bunker a number of civilians from Zoutelande sheltered against the overflying grenades. From their statements it appears that the non commissioned officer was shot just before the arrival of the British Commandoes. Four elderly Germans that regularly inspected the civilians during the night of 1 to 2 November announced the plan in advance and tell them several times not to fear. Because, when the British will arrive, there will be no fighting but that it will end with only one shot, and that is exactly what happened.
- In J/F it has been described how two German officers, involved in the two nightly counter attacks, of the night of 2 to 3 November, found their deaths near the searchlight position. It has been speculated that they were killed by their own men (other reports state that they showed traces of a shot in the neck). It is remarkable that both Lt. Col. Phillips in his report and J.L. Moulton in his book “The battle for Antwerp and the Scheldt 1944-‘45” speak about the German counter attacks but not about the remarkable injuries of the German officers although they made a very detailed report in many ways. The reliability of this item is very important because if they were killed already during that night, they could of course not have been executed the next morning by Lt. Col. Phillips. In J/F it appears for the author of this article for the first time in a letter written in 1974 as the source. When Houterman and Sakkers ask themselves why the fact of the shots in the neck has not been investigated immediately, they receive an answer in J/F that there is no time for such thing during battle and that it is in no ones’ interest. But in the same book both the English authors notice the remarkable character of the wounds with the two German officers. In J/F it has been proposed that the Germans wanted to rid themselves of their too fanatical superiors. Into the logic of a shot in the neck no further research has been performed. If they had been shot at point blank nobody would have noticed anything special and they had been rid of their superiors also.
- By neither of the two opposing parties the idea behind the shots in the neck has been further investigated while this seems nevertheless of a crucial importance. Even when J/F makes the rather weak statement that this is a well-known Gestapo method, still J. Forfar cannot explain why such a remarkable shot in the neck was performed. Everything seems to be focused towards the fact to demonstrate the killing of the Germans as clearly as possible, the shots in the neck and the place where it happened. They have not been killed somewhere in the dunes but alongside the bicycle path in full view of some of the houses. In case the Germans would have been killed by the British, that would of course also not have been done by an obvious shot in the neck before being buried under a shallow layer of sand in a remarkable spot. It would have been more likely that the Germans themselves had had to dig a deep grave before they were shot and thrown in, where after the grave would have been filled up. Also a location on the seaside of the dunes would have been chosen out of sight of civilians. There seems to have been done absolutely nothing to hide what had happened. It had to be a clear message, the Germans were afraid that they all would die if the battle was to be fought to its bitter end. They wanted to provide a clear indication that not everyone was prepared to carry the fight to its end. Also they must have feared retaliatory measures. This fear must have been the cause for such a clear sign to the British that they had ended the German resistance themselves. It is therefore ironical that, what ought to be a clear signal to themselves, became a source of doubt later on. Because if the 13 Germans had been executed in a less obvious manner, and if they had not been buried immediately but had them put just in between the other dead bodies, nobody would have noticed and they had as well been rid of their superiors.
Of course I can miss out on the clue with my conclusions but at least I have tried to better argue than the gentlemen Sakkers and Houterman in their book “De Atlantikwall in Zeeland en Vlaanderen”, their thesis is very superficial though. And the defense by J. Forfar has so many weak spots that the total does not convince. I one of the parties with hindsight want to obtain a justification with more new witnesses or facts that harm their opponents, it will be hardly credible because of their prepossession. One is no longer objective and is only prepared to see points of view that confirm these prejudices. Only the search for somebody who confesses and no longer points at someone else could be able to surface the true events in this case.
Signed: André Cijvat, Zoutelande
- "De Wete", 1981 (Nr. 4), an issue of the "Heemkundige kring Walcheren"
- Forfar J., From Omaha to the Scheldt, published by Tuckwell Press, 2001
- Moulton J., De slag om Antwerpen en de Schelde, published by Hollandia B.V., 1978
- Phillips Lt. Col. C.F., The Walcheren operation. Pt. II: The story of 47 commando
- Sakkers H. en J. Houterman, Atlantikwall in Zeeland en Vlaanderen, published by De Citadel, 2000