The last act of the long-drawn out battle for Antwerp ended in farce. The background of it was the canals, the narrow cobbled streets and prim houses of Middelburg in Walcheren Island. This dispatch by Alexander Clifford of The Daily Mail was dated Nov. 7, 1944.
The curtain went up yesterday evening, but even this afternoon the scene was still touched with the Alice in Wonderland atmosphere of a situation for which no one has ever invented any rules. By yesterday afternoon most of the remaining Germans in Walcheren had been washed up like so much flotsam and jetsam into Middelburg. There was no more dry land for them to fight on. A British column was coming in from the Flushing direction and another was threatening to cross the great canal from the west.
Lieut.-General Daser, Commander of the 70th, or Stomach Trouble, Division, decided that he could do no more to keep our ships out of Antwerp. From his narrow little white-panelled room in the Wilhelmina Palace he gave the order to cease fire. Somehow he communicated the fact to the British column coming from Flushing.
But the other column from the west appeared first to clean the situation up. They paddled across the canal in assault boats. Then the comedy began. It was 300 British against 2,000 Germans. It was getting dark and our men did not even know their way around. In a dazed sort of way they began to persuade the Germans to deposit their arms in the fire station.
General Daser retired to bed with a raging headache and a bag of aspirin. He said he could not formally surrender till daybreak, and he could not deal with anyone below the rank of brigadier. He pulled his yellow satin eiderdown over him on his blue velvet couch, and they locked him in and spared one man to guard him.
As darkness fell the 300 British began to try to herd the 2,000 Germans into the main square. They scoured the byways and corralled the prisoners as you might corral cattle. When they had filled the square they posted themselves across all the roads leading into it and prayed that no one would start any trouble.
The Germans were not happy sitting in the cold, damp square all night, but it was the only way to deal with them. They had no intention at all of making trouble.
By the morning General Daser had eaten his way half-through the bag of aspirin, but he had not touched the 11 bottles of champagne at the head of his bed. He gave them to the British officer who came to call him. I tried a bottle this afternoon – Veuve Clicquot of an excellent year. By morning the fire station was like a cross between a salvage dump and a war museum. There was a vast mound of German steel helmets that looked like a mammoth caviare.
There was an extraordinary quantity of hand grenades. Quite inexplicably, there were at least 2,000 green tin lampshades. Still the British were enormously outnumbered and they decided to make the Germans help themselves. So you got the 24 rowers, 12 sanitary inspectors, and nine bakers.
The rowers were volunteers. But when they found that their job was to paddle boatloads of prisoners across 50 yards of canal the sculling champions and professional oarsmen among them withdrew their offer in disgust. Eventually the prisoners had to haul their boats across by ropes stretched from bank to bank.
The sanitary inspectors were a job lot left over when all the other prisoners had been sorted. Their task was to deal with the electricity and water situation, and they were anxious to be helpful. But it turned out there was nothing for them to do – too much water and no electricity – and they were put back with the others.
The bakers were set to work to produce rations for all the others. This Stomach Trouble Division is on special diet, and its bread is a little whiter than that of the rest of the Army.
I saw General Daser across the canal after lunch. He was a burly figure in a blue-grey leather overcoat, and he turned his back angrily when some photographers pointed their cameras at him. But the boatman spun the boat round so that he was facing the cameras again, and the comedy was repeated. The waiting Germans began to smile. The general sat down stiffly in the stern and went across with his hands on his hips and a scowl on his face.
By this afternoon the Dutch had hung out their flags and put on all their Christmas gala finery and were parading the streets seeing the sights. They viewed the German equipment dump, and then they examined the British troops' clothes and arms and the amphibious landing-craft. Then they went down to the canal to see the vast queue of German prisoners waiting to cross.
In the crowd of civilians I met a gay little Italian sailor with a rosette in his buttonhole saying "Welcome". He fitted admirably into the crazy scene. He said he had been captured in Toulon last year and made to work for the Germans. Ten days ago he had hidden himself, to avoid being transported to Germany. Now he couldn't get the British to take him seriously. He insinuated that his Ambassador in London would take a grave view of it if he were not properly treated!
Middelburg was cheerful and fantastic today, and you got that end-of-a-campaign feeling – the knowledge that no more guns would be fired and no one else killed here. Middelburg has hardly suffered from this final attack. But its centre is still a weed-grown wilderness as a result of the German Stukas in 1940.
For miles along the road home I passed squads of Germans on the march. It was a day of winter sunshine, with great mounds of white clouds standing around the horizon and a terrific wind. It sept across the marshes, blowing the rushes flat and whipping the floods into waves. The screaming seabirds could barely fly against it. And the Germans marched east, bowed against the wind, and muffled against the cold, through the desolate land they had failed to defend.