British troops in the Netherlands in May 1940

Harpoon Force

Harpoon Force
Finally the British government decided as yet on 11 May to come to the aid of the Dutch. The 20th Guards Brigade, composed of the 2nd Batallion Irish Guards, the 2nd Batallion Welsh Guards and the 5th Batallion, The Loyal Regiment, was the only force that was ready for battle. The Irish Guards for example were trained in the preceding months to follow the 1st Batallion Irish Guards to Norway and was therefore immediately available.

But, on May 10th the Whitsunday weekend leave had started for the Guardsmen and many of them were on their way to their families and relatives. When the War Office was notified of the attack by Germany on the Netherlands, Belgium and France, the leave was canceled immediately. Trains were halted and the soldiers had to return to their bases. Like Guardsman Bryn James: “The train stopped suddenly and military police entered the compartment: ‘OUT’ they said. We did not have a clue of what was going on. We had to change into another train and drove back.” Some of the soldiers were already too far away to be able to return in time. The 20th Guards Brigade had been transferred to the area around Turnbridge Wells. According to the war records of the Irish Guards this was done as a consequence of the rumors that German paratroopers had landed in various locations in county Kent, which later on appeared to be not true. When the 20th Guards Brigade arrived in Turnbridge Wells it was decided to go and help the Dutch as yet. The 2nd Batallion Irish Guards was far from complete because of the leave. In order to bring the Batallion up to strength, a rifle company of the 2nd Batallion Welsh Guards was added, and the operation got the code name Harpoon Force. The unit was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Haydon.

The crossing and arrival
The total number of 651 men were carried to Dover by train where SS ‘Canterbury’ and SS ‘Maid of Orleans’ were docked. Their captains wished to sail as soon as possible in order to cross the North Sea under the cover of darkness. Food, material and other stores were hurried onboard. Because of the rush, many Guardsmen didn’t even know what their destination was. Just like Percival Tilley. He met Sergeant Obie Walker who asked Tilley: “Do you like tulips?” Tilley answered that they were not his favorite flowers after which Walker told him: “You better learn to love them quickly, we are leaving for Holland tonight.” Shortly before their departure from Dover, the Dutch Captain Phillips was added to the Harpoon Force as an interpreter. Only a few of the passengers and crew knew what the purpose of the mission was. One of them was of course Commander Haydon who had received the following orders from the War Office: “It will be your task to advance to The Hague and to cooperate with the local authorities and troops in order to repair the situation and to safeguard the Dutch government.” The British would comply with requests from the Dutch commanders, unless Haydon would judge that such compliance would unnecessarily endanger the lives of his men.

In the early morning hours of Whitsun Monday (13 May) the British convoy arrived at Hook of Holland. In the harbor HMS Verity and HMS Venemous were moored. These ships had disembarked marines in order to prepare the arrival of the Harpoon Force. The British ships moored at the quay and disembarkation started. Around them could be heard the cheering: “The British have arrived!” Their arrival spread optimism with both the civilians and the Dutch troops. They started from the presumption that the Guards came to support the Dutch Army. It was therefore a disappointment when the British started to dig in within the defense lines which had been laid around the Hook of Holland by the Dutch. Haydon addressed the Dutch commander wanting to obtain transport to advance towards The Hague. Contact was made with the troops in The Hague and they agreed to send the trucks.

They must be Germans!
Towards noon Haydon and his adjutant Captain Henry Phillpots walked up and down the quay within their perimeter. They watched a crane that was discharging the British equipment and supplies. Suddenly a number of cars entered the quay led by motor cyclists. As soon as they came to a halt, from each car a man stepped down. Phillpots did not trust the situation. “They must be Germans”, he said to Haydon and drew his handgun. One of the men approached the two officers, bowed and said: “Her Majesty the Queen of the Netherlands has arrived”. Haydon and Phillpots looked at the cars and indeed there was the Queen of the Netherlands. Haydon welcomed Her Majesty while Phillpots discussed the situation with the commander of HMS Hereward, which was to be made available to Her Majesty the Queen. Wilhelmina wanted to go to Breskens in order to govern the country from there. Her luggage was sent aboard and HMS Hereward left the harbor. On the way the ship was warned about a bomb raid on Breskens and it was decided to take the Queen to England.

In the meantime Haydon was approached by the Dutch commander with the request to send his troops to Rotterdam in order to help fighting the German paratroops that had landed there. The Brit refused this as he did not want to endanger the lives of his men unnecessarily. Some time later he also refused a request to send his men to Amsterdam. Colonel Snoeck was the commander of the 2nd Batallion of the 39th Infantry Regiment, one of the units charged with the defenses of the Hook of Holland. Also he had been optimistic when the British had arrived, but now he was disappointed: “Cooperation with the British was impossible. Not a single request for attacking nor defending was answered. They only did whatever they liked themselves.”

Air attack
Towards the afternoon the British sentries again allowed a row of cars to enter onto the quay. This time it was the Dutch government which had decided to take refuge in England. A bit later the British diplomatic corps and some Dutch industry officials, like the Philips family, reported to the Hook of Holland. Together with the government officials they left for England. In the meantime also the trucks from The Hague had arrived, but the troops did not need to advance anymore as the Dutch government had been herded into safety. Apparently the Germans had picked up the smell of something that was happening at the Hook of Holland and carried out an air raid. At this air raid seven Guards lost their lives and 23 got wounded. Captain Phillpots was one of those. Because he was of the opinion that the medics had their hands full, he decided to hide his wounds. Later, he would be awarded the Military Cross for this unselfish behavior. Haydon contacted the War Office in London. He was told that his forces would be reinforced with a second Batallion. Haydon explained that extra manpower would not change the situation. What he wanted was air support and heavier weapons.

In the morning of May 14th Haydon again contacted the War Office. No second Batallion would be sent over to the Netherlands. The Harpoon Force had complied with its task and had to count with the fact that they would be evacuated that same day. At 09:30 a new air raid by the Germans took place. This one was heavier than the day before, but the British had improved their diggings. In spite thereof the Guards again lost four men.


Part of a regiment composed of several companies. In theory a batallion consists of 500-1,000 men.
Consisted mostly of two or more regiments. Could operate independently or as part of a division. Sometimes they were part of a corps instead of a division. In theory a brigade consisted of 5,000 to 7,000 men.
Foot soldiers of a given army.
Airborne Division. Military specialized in parachute landings.
Fast military raid in enemy territory
Part of a division. A division divided into a number of regiments. In the army traditionally the name of the major organised unit of one type of weapon.

Pagina navigatie


A Dutch boy poses with a British and a Dutch soldier.
(Source: Andere Tijden)

The HMS Hereward. This ship brought Queen Wilhelmina to England.
(Source: Public Domain)


Translated by:
Fred Bolle
Article by:
Pieter Schlebaum
Published on:
Last edit on:
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