While the 4th KOSB made slow progress along the canal towards Middelburg, Brigadier McLaren faced a dilemma. An assault on the town, a difficult operation in view of the floodwaters, would result in high casualties amongst the civilian population. However, a long drawn out siege could lead to an equally high mortality rate. Large parts of Middelburg remained above water and thousands of people had moved in with friends and relations to escape the floods. By the beginning of November the population had virtually doubled and conditions in the town were deteriorating fast. Fresh water and food supplies were coming to an end and sanitation was becoming an issue as the influx of people put the sewerage system under severe strain. Middelburg was on the verge of an epidemic.
The population was trapped in an ever-tightening cordon as first Flushing and then the villages along the coast were liberated. Meanwhile, the 2nd Canadian Division was approaching from the east, advancing along the South Beveland isthmus. As the cordon around Middelburg tightened, tension mounted as everyone speculated what the trapped Germans would do.
Brigadier McLaren and his commanding officer, Major-General Hakewill Smith, estimated that there were about 2,000 Germans in Middelburg; the commander of the island, General Daser, was also known to be in the town. Over the past two days several local people had escaped the town and braved the floods to contact the British forces on the coast. Cornelis Antheunisse and Pieter de Kam, of the Dutch Resistance organisation Ordedienst, made the first attempt, rowing across to Domburg on 3 November. Three attempts were made the following night. Middelburg surgeon Everard Nauta made his way by canoe to Zoutelande, reporting to 47 Commando south of the village. Koudekerke solicitor Marinus Terwoert also reached Zoutelande by boat, accompanied by four rowers. Meanwhile, Flushing policeman Jacob van Holst made the most influential visit to 155 Brigade’s headquarters in Flushing. He was convinced that General Daser might surrender under the right conditions. If 155 Brigade could reach the town with tanks, the General would be able to capitulate honourably, after all he had no armour of his own.
Middelburg at the end of October 1944.
On the afternoon of the 5th a reconnaissance party set out towards Koudekerke, after repeated attempts to make signal contact with the town had failed. Lieutenant Joesph Brown, the Royal Scots’ intelligence officer and Captain Walwin Jones, the Brigade Liaison Officer had two objectives. The first was to try and make contact with German outposts near Middelburg, in the hope of starting negotiations for surrender. The alternative, and more likely option, was to reconnoitre the far side of the town:
To determine whether it is possible to land a battalion (transported in Water Buffaloes) to the North Road leading into Middelburg.
Progress was extremely slow across the flooded fields and great care had to be taken to avoid underwater obstacles, any of which could be booby-trapped with anti-landing charges. The suspense was lifted momentarily in Koudekerke when the Dutch mobbed Brown’s Buffalo, while others shouted greetings from upper storey windows and rooftops. Although they assured them that there were no Germans outside Middelburg, the recce party turned back before it reached the town. Captain Jones decided it was unwise to continue in the failing light. He was becoming increasingly concerned by the lack of contact with brigade headquarters on the radio.
The return journey in the dark was fraught with danger and the Buffalo eventually grounded on a flooded bridge. For twelve hours Captain Jones and Lieutenant Brown waded across the flooded fields to report back and early on the 6th Brigadier McLaren welcomed the two sodden officers into his headquarters. He was interested to hear how far the Buffalo had travelled without encountering any resistance. Jones summed up that an operation was
… not practicable by night; but, with time and good navigation by day, it would indeed be possible, but, a percentage of casualties must be expected owing to mined areas.
Initially Brigadier McLaren intended to transport all of the 7/9th Royal Scots to the far side of the city, however, the 11th Royal Tank Regiment could only muster twelve Buffaloes, enough for a single company. Even so McLaren was prepared to try and reach Middelburg before nightfall. At 11:00am, Major John Dawson, the Royal Scots acting CO, briefed Major Hugh Johnston, A Company’s:
You will advance from here, across the airport along the road south of KOUDEKERKE and then proceed along the road to MIDDELBURG. It is believed that the Germans wish to surrender. You will therefore send in a party in a LVT under a Flag of Truce to demand the surrender of the city. Be careful around TER HOOGE as there may be Germans there who intend to fight.
Johnston would be reinforced by machine-gun platoon of the Manchesters, bringing his small force to 120 men mounted in a dozen personnel carriers; hardly a strong armoured force. A Norwegian RE officer, Lieutenant Johan Goldfarb, would accompany Johnston to act as his interpreter, in case the opportunity to parley arose.
The Royal Scots route to Middelburg.
Crowds gather round a Buffalo, the first sign that liberation was imminent. H Houterman
At 12:30pm Lieutenant Vernon Lowe drove his Buffalo out onto the flooded airfield at the head of the column. He was accompanied by a willing civilian acting as a guide across the flooded landscape. At first progress was slow and the Scots were forced to cut a way through a network of poles and wires installed to prevent gliders landing on the airstrip! Once at the far edge of the airfield, the crews floated their Buffaloes across a heavily mined anti-tank ditch with baited breath.
As the convoy edged forward Major Johnston was pleased to see a white flag above Koudekerke church tower and as they entered the village ‘wild scenes of welcome’ greeted the Royal Scots. Everyone was eager to help their liberators and the Buffalo drivers were quickly guided onto the Middelburg road. As the Buffaloes moved off line ahead towards Ter Hoge, Johnston called up Typhoons to cover the next stage of the advance.
Pushing on as fast as possible, the column reached Ter Hooge Chateau at 3:00 pm. The chateau had been an important headquarters during the occupation of the island and Johnston was concerned that there might be active bunkers in the area. As the Buffaloes moved forward Johnston ordered Sergeant Edward Milton’s and Corporal Cooper’s Buffaloes to search the woods south of the road. Minutes later they came under fire from a hidden machine-gun and Johnston ordered Lance-Corporal David Sykes to drive across to assist. However, before Sykes had travelled twenty metres from the road, disaster struck. The Buffalo detonated a mine mortally wounding several men including the driver.
Soldiers and civilians watch the prisoners gather, note the underground member armed with a pistol. H Houterman
While the casualties were cared for in a nearby house, Johnston called back his Buffaloes ready to resume the journey into Middelburg. He could not afford to be distracted by a solitary machine-gun. A civilian joined the column, giving directions as the Buffaloes approached the edge of the town.
Lieutenant Lowe’s Buffalo entered the town first, unsure of what to expect but after a brief reconnaissance Johnston was relieved to hear there had been no opposition. In fact Lieutenant Lowe had so far only encountered civilians, delighted at the prospect of being liberated. The remaining Buffaloes, seven in total, quickly followed making a tremendous racket as they climbed out of the water onto the cobbles. Roaring through the streets the Buffaloes entered the main square, taking up positions to cover all the exits. They were met by dozens of Germans intent on surrender and while Johnston organised the growing body of prisoners, Captain Jones and Lieutenant Goldfarb set off in search of the German headquarters.
As Major Johnston took stock of the situation, the number of people congregating outside the town hall was growing to alarming numbers. He knew that there were over 2,000 Germans in the town and it seemed as though they were all congregating in the main square. With no immediate hope of reinforcements, Johnston approached the local Underground Leader for assistance. Eighty men were quickly found and after being armed with German rifles, they took their place alongside the Royal Scots. Proudly sporting orange armbands, the Dutch Resistance helped to intimidate the prisoners and calm the locals gathering to watch the spectacle.
Meanwhile, Captain Jones’ Buffalo was met with surprise when it pulled up outside the German headquarters in a nearby square. 70th Infantry Division’s staff had been based in two offices in Damplien ever since the flooding had forced them to abandon Ter Hooge. The two officers were quickly granted a meeting with General Daser but once inside Jones found the general to be uncompromising. As he explained the terms of surrender with the help of Goldfarb’s translation, Daser willingly handed over his pistol. However, he refused point blank to capitulate to Jones on a matter of principle.
A Buffalo parks outside the German headquarters.
He regarded it as not the done thing to surrender to an officer junior to himself.
Thinking on his feet, Jones informed Daser that his staff colonel (actually Major Johnston) was on his way to complete the formal surrender and, in the meantime, he could set proceedings under way. Again Daser refused to co-operate.
With the situation outside the town hall under control, Major Johnston made his way to General Daser’s headquarters accompanied by Major Thomas Newton-Dunn, the Buffalo’s commanding officer. As three Buffaloes parked outside the headquarters ready to transport the prisoners to safety, Johnston was aware that the general expected to meet a full staff colonel. He did not want to disappoint the German staff officers and borrowed the ‘pips’ from his subaltern’s tunic to look the part:
In view of the heavy preponderance of field-grey in that square, the time seemed right for some accelerated promotion.
A young soldier keeps watch over the gathering crowd of prisoners. H Houterman
Johnston found General Daser in a surly mood and he paced back and forth in front of his staff officers as Lieutenant Goldfarb translated the conditions of surrender. Daser eventually relented, having stipulated two conditions. The first requirement was simple to comply with, the General wanted to surrender in private to avoid humiliating in front of the people of Middelburg. The second condition was rather more unusual. Although Daser would help the Royal Scots round up the remaining Germans in the town, there was one individual he did not wish to approach. The officer in command of strong points on the canal south of the town had severed contact with headquarters several days ago. According to Daser, the officer was a determined fanatic who would not hear of surrender. It was the same ‘Mad Major’ that had pinned the 4th KOSBs down for the past two days.
Major Johnston leads General Daser into captivity.
Prisoners gather in Damplein. Zeeland Library
While Johnston negotiated with the German staff, Major Newton-Dunn began a tour of the billets in the town accompanied by a senior German officer. Although many Germans had gathered in the two squares, hundreds still remained unaware of the imminent surrender; others would only surrender to a member of the Royal Scots, fearful of the crowds of Dutch gathering in the streets.
Meanwhile, in Damplien hundreds of German soldiers watched as General Daser emerged from his headquarters and escorted to a waiting Buffalo by Sergeant Grayson and two drivers. Major Johnston was anxious not to arouse the General’s suspicions but at the critical moment shots were fired from across the square. Rushing across to investigate, Johnston found that two of his men had shot a prisoner as he pulled a grenade from his pocket. All he could do was order the two soldiers to strengthen the guard on General Daser.
During the commotion Major Newton-Dunn entered the square having completed his circuit of the billets. By now the German staff officer accompanying Newton-Dunn had realised how weak the British forces were and as the Buffalo pulled up alongside General Daser, he tried to raise the alarm. While the British soldiers looked on in bewilderment, Lieutenant Goldfarb immediately understood what the staff officer’s intentions were. A short scuffle followed and the enlightened officer’s protests were quickly stifled. Before General Daser realised he had been tricked, the troublemaker was locked in a cellar.
With the situation under control, Major Johnston established a headquarters in the Burgomaster’s house and radioed for assistance. Although Brigade promised to send help as soon as possible, the ‘Mad Major’ blocked the shortest route from the south. In the meantime, the Royal Scots would have to sit tight and wait. The 5th Highland Light Infantry, were known to be approaching from Nieuwland to the south-east and Lieutenant Lowe, with a party of resistance men as guides, was sent to find them.
Soldiers keep watch as the local population turn out to greet their liberators.
One thing Johnston was not short of was advice, either from the Underground or town dignitaries and he quickly established that many of the bridges into the town had been prepared for demolition. Under guard, General Daser’s chief staff officer, ‘a typical Nazi called Major von Kleist’, led the German engineers to make the bridges safe. Although the fact is not mentioned in the war diaries, some sources say that Major Karl von Kleist was made to stand on each bridge as his men disabled the charges as an insurance against shoddy work!
While the Royal Scots waited for reinforcements Johnston asked Major Newton-Dunn to ‘put on a show’ to calm the mood of the captured Germans and throughout the night the Buffalo drivers drove around the streets, keeping up the pretence that there were many in the town. Meanwhile, the thousands of Dutch locals milling around the streets were becoming a cause for concern. Although many celebrating the liberation peacefully, a few went hunting for hidden parties of Germans. Sporadic firefights around the town added to the tension and according to Johnston:
It needed only one of them to fire into that mob in the square to precipitate a stampede that would have ended in a massacre of German prisoners and the swamping of the Royal Scots picquets.
The German prisoners were becoming increasingly nervous and although they sang the Horst Wessel in a show of camaraderie, the onset of rain only exacerbated the situation. With so few guards Johnston could not afford to let them under cover and instead ordered the German cooks to make bread to appease the prisoners.
Around 3:00 am on 7 November, Major Johnston was relieved to welcome Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Rhoddy’ Rose, commanding officer of the 5th Highland Light Infantry, into his headquarters. They had been met by Lieutenant Lowe south-east of the town, and guided in by the Dutch resistance. It had been eleven hours since the Royal Scots had entered the town facing odds of twenty to one. As Captain John Arnold, GSO3 of the 52nd Division, prepared to interrogate the German officers more reinforcements arrived. Brigadier McLaren had taken steps to send as many men as possible from the south. Captain Roger Kirk led the rest of the 11th Royal Tank Regiment Buffaloes, sixteen in number, into the town carrying the 4th KOSBs. Major Johnston was also pleased to see Major John Charteris with C Company of the Royal Scots.
As the new arrivals took over responsibility for guarding the prisoners (the tally eventually came to 2,070), Major Johnston kept one man captive to the Royal Scots: General Daser;
I felt he was ours, and that Royal Scots should continue to guard the first General we had captured.
As the Buffaloes took the Germans to Flushing and into captivity, General Daser must have reflected on the deception that had lead to his defeat. Major Johnston’s combination of boldness and good fortune had prevented the loss of hundreds of lives. One wrong move and it could have all been so different for Middelburg.