War on Film: The Forgotten Battle

TAYLOR DOWNING reviews the latest film releases.

In September 1944, British and American eyes and hopes in Europe were focused on Operation Market Garden, Bernard Montgomery’s ill-fated attempt to seize a set of bridges in the occupied Netherlands. The objective was to secure a bridgehead over the River Rhine and to break out into northern Germany.

The outcome of the daring plan is well known. It was too ambitious for the airborne troops involved, especially the British at Arnhem, who came up against much tougher resistance than had been expected.

And it proved impossible for the ground troops to drive a 64-mile wedge through occupied territory to relieve the airborne. With the failure of the operation, it looked as though fighting in Holland and northern Europe had come to an end for the year.

But that was not the case, and another major engagement took place just a couple of weeks after Market Garden, along the Scheldt estuary. Antwerp had been captured in early September, with its huge port largely intact. Its vast capacity was exactly what the Allies needed, as it was able to unload up to 60,000 tons of supplies a day.

But it could not be used, because the Germans still occupied both sides of the Scheldt, the channel that led up to the port. Here heavy gun emplacements prevented any Allied shipping from getting to Antwerp. Montgomery became distracted with Market Garden, but the advancing Allied armies desperately needed the use of a major port to bring in supplies.

After the failure of Market Garden, and under pressure from both General Alan Brooke and Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, Montgomery was persuaded to launch a major operation to clear the Scheldt. It took a month of bitter fighting to succeed. It is this little-known campaign that is the focus of the 2020 film The Forgotten Battle, available on Netflix since October 2021.

The film is a Dutch-Belgian co-production, directed by Matthijs van Heijningen. It was the first Dutch film to be part-financed by Netflix, and it has been made on a lavish scale. The dialogue is in Dutch and English, with some German. Its opening credits explain the movie is ‘inspired by true events’.

Holland had surrendered in May 1940 to the overwhelming German Blitzkrieg that led also to the fall of Belgium and France. At first, the German occupation of Holland had been reasonably benign. But this soon changed, and by the autumn of 1944 the Dutch were suffering the full force of the Nazi jackboot.

Everyone had to make a moral choice: to collaborate, to turn a blind eye, or to resist. The Forgotten Battle shows the different responses to the challenge that all occupied people faced during World War II.

Three narratives

The film contains three apparently unrelated narratives that all converge in a major battle towards the end. The first and principal narrative follows the Visser family in the town of Vlissingen (known in English as Flushing) on the southern coast of Walcheren. The father is a doctor who treats Germans as well as Dutch. He is well known and respected by the occupying authorities.

His daughter Teun (Susan Radder) is an attractive young woman who works in the town hall for the mayor, a collaborator. Although she is aware of this, Teun tries to remain neutral. Her brother Dirk (Ronald Kalter) is an amateur photographer who takes prohibited photos of German weapon emplacements that the Resistance want to get to the advancing allies.

The second narrative is that of Marinus (Gijs Blom), a Dutch volunteer in the Waffen-SS. He is fighting on the Eastern Front, where he is wounded in a Red Army assault. He is sent back to Vlissingen to serve in a desk job as secretary and translator to the German commandant.

The third narrative is that of a British Airborne division glider crew, practising for Market Garden. Among the men in the glider is Henk (Coen Bril), a member of the Free Dutch Forces who has volunteered to join the British Army.

At the beginning of the film, the German army is retreating through Vlissingen. The swastikas are being torn down. In the town hall, Teun is helping the mayor burn documents that clearly implicate him as a collaborator. Her brother Dirk causes an accident in which three Germans are run over by a truck. He is shot at by the retreating troops but gets away.

However, the German withdrawal, presumably because of the threat from Market Garden, is premature. After the failure of the Allied airborne operation, they return and reoccupy Vlissingen and the whole Walcheren area. They prepare to defend Zeeland and with it the sea lanes into Antwerp.

The German commandant now comes looking for Dirk, who was responsible for the deaths of the German soldiers in their earlier retreat. Dr Visser is asked to hand over his son. He is told by the German commandant that his family is well regarded because of his work as a doctor, and he receives a guarantee that his son will be well treated. No one in occupied Europe would have wanted to find themselves with no option but to hand over someone in their family. But the commandant tells Dr Visser that if he does not, then others already in captivity will die.

In a scene that brilliantly epitomises the powerlessness of those under military occupation, Dr Visser painfully hands his son Dirk over to a squad of German soldiers. It is a decision whose consequences he will have to live with for the rest of his life.

Despite the promises, Dirk is horribly tortured. It is a sequence made dreadful not because of what we see, but because of the screams we hear and the suffering we imagine. Eventually, after bravely holding out for a while, Dirk cracks and gives up names. As a consequence, all the local Resistance members are rounded up.

By this time, Marinus – the Waffen-SS volunteer – disillusioned by seeing the brutal treatment meted out to his fellow Dutchmen, has almost changed sides. He warns Teun of what is happening to her brother. But he is spotted, and as a punishment is allocated to a firing squad that takes Dirk and the other Resistance fighters to an isolated spot to execute them. He obeys orders, pulling the trigger alongside his fellow German soldiers.

Her brother’s death pushes Teun into the arms of the Resistance. She finds photos that Dirk had taken of German gun positions that would be of great value to the approaching Allies. She and her fiend Janna are smuggled off in a boat to try to cross the Slooe Channel to make contact with the advancing British and Canadians.

Meanwhile, in a parallel story, the Horsa glider taking part in Market Garden with the Dutch volunteer in the British Army is shot down and crashes in the marshes of Walcheren. The survivors are led by their officer, Captain Turner (Tom Felton, who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies). He has been wounded in the crash. They try to find their way across the flooded marshes to meet up with the Allies.

This part of the story is vital in revealing the nature of the Walcheren landscape. It is made up of flooded fields, many below sea level, lined with reeds and dykes – classic polder country. Some of it has been flooded by the Germans and, although this is not mentioned in the film, the exiled Dutch government in London also reluctantly gave permission for the RAF to bomb some of the dykes to flood more land that had been slowly reclaimed over generations. It resulted in the tragic death of hundreds of Dutch civilians.

This land will be tough to invade and is clearly not country in which armour can operate. The liberation of Walcheren will rely on infantry assaults.

Among the survivors of the British airborne group, the focus shifts from Henk the Dutchman, who it turns out cannot swim, to Sergeant Will Sinclair (Jamie Flatters). He makes it to the Allied lines and joins the Canadians.

In the finale, the Allies are forced to make a frontal infantry assault across the Walcheren causeway, just over half a mile long and 40 yards wide. The 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade and the 52nd Lowland Scottish Division were assigned to the assault.

Sinclair is part of the Allied attacking force. Marinus is one of the German defenders. On both sides the men are terrified by the close-quarter fighting they now face, with a human wave assault, World War I style, against well-prepared defences. A full-scale battle rages, in which both sides suffer terrible casualties.

Futility of war

In reality, the battle of the Walcheren causeway, intense and heroic as it had been, was a bit of a sideshow. It succeeded in fundamentally weakening the German defenders. But the liberation of Walcheren was finally carried out by British commandos, who landed on the south side of the island and captured Vlissingen.

It took until 8 November to flush out the last German defenders on the Walcheren. Only then were the guns silenced and mine sweepers able to clear the Scheldt. Antwerp finally began operating as an Allied port at the end of November. The supplies could now be brought in to equip the huge Allied armies that would go on to launch the final assault on Germany itself.

In deep water: German soldiers crossing a river via a makeshift bridge during the Battle of the Scheldt, late 1944.

The powerful and dramatic combat scenes in The Forgotten Battle are shown in full-on realism. Body parts are blown off, dreadful wounds are exposed, men scream and cry out and some lose their nerve altogether and panic.

Whether on the Eastern Front in the early part of the film or in the battle for the causeway, men on both sides of the action are shown as being entirely human in their response to seeing soldiers around them killed and horribly wounded. And the film shows how Dutch civilians were brutally caught up in the occupation and then liberation of their country.

The Forgotten Battle is ultimately about the futility of war and the horrors of civilians forced to decide what role to play while living under an evil regime.

It is rare for a Dutch film exploring these issues to be widely available and its insight is powerful. The scenes of combat are intense, a disturbing sense of menace is created, and, overall, the movie is totally compelling. The film provides a potent testimony about soldiers at war and civilians under occupation. •

Co-produced by Levitate Film and Caviar in 2020. Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen. Starring Susan Radder, Gijs Blom, Coen Bril, and Tom Felton. Available on Netflix.

The occupation of the netherlands

The story of Nazi rule in the Netherlands shows how a humane, democratic nation faced up to occupation by an authoritarian, racist, military regime. Although at first many Dutch men and women were able to tolerate a relatively mild occupation, this changed as the German military toughened its stance.

Some Netherlanders joined the Dutch Nazi Party and collaborated enthusiastically with the forces of the Third Reich. In the film, this response is represented by Marinus, who joins the Waffen-SS and volunteers to fight on the Eastern Front. About 20,000 Dutchmen did so during the war.

Others tried to get along by not giving particular support but without displaying outright opposition. This strand is represented by Dr Visser and his daughter Teun. They might have listened in secret to broadcasts from London, but felt powerless to resist the overwhelming authority of the Nazi regime. Many Dutch civil servants adopted this line for the first few years of occupation.

But over the years the Nazi regime became increasingly harsh and brutal. At the heart of this was the Nazi treatment of the Jewish population. As legislation against the Jews became extreme, so many went into hiding.

The most well-known of these were the Frank family. The diary of Anne Frank, the family’s teenage daughter, tells a classic story of living in hiding for two years. But increasingly harsh penalties for anyone found sheltering Jews made this more and more difficult, and the Frank family were finally betrayed to the German military in August 1944. After a spell in Auschwitz, Anne and her sister died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen.

Some Jewish parents sent their children for ‘adoption’ by Protestant families, and many only returned to their Jewish faith as adults several years after the war’s end. Of the pre-war Jewish population of 140,000, about 107,000 perished during the war.

Many Dutch people felt they had to make a stand against the treatment of the Jews, and railway workers went on strike, refusing to transport trainloads of Jews to the East. They were threatened with hefty punishment and the trains continued.

Another sign of the growing persecution of the Dutch was the forced deportation of about half a million men to work in dreadful conditions in German war factories.

Some Netherlanders went a step further and joined the Resistance. This group is represented by Dirk in the film. As in France and Belgium, a network was set up to help smuggle downed aircrew back to Britain, to report on military activities taking place, and to carry out occasional acts of sabotage. The sign of the Orange family, traditional Dutch leaders, became a symbol of resistance and was daubed on walls across Holland.

The winter of 1944/1945 proved particularly harsh, as supplies of food and fuel nearly dried up and millions faced famine. It is known as the ‘Hunger Winter’, and it is estimated that about 18,000 people starved to death.

Although parts of Holland were liberated in late 1944, including Zeeland and Walcheren, full liberation did not come until early May 1945, with the final collapse of the Third Reich.

Images: Wikimedia Commons.