1st May 1941 - over the North Sea near Den Helder naval base
The day was getting worse for Jean Du Croix, the outbreak of full hostilities had caught the French a little by surprise and an urgent requirement had come down from the Navy to under a reconnaissance of the main Dutch Naval Base. When he had woken up this morning his day had not seemed to stressful but here he was in the cockpit of his specially modified Leo451 about to bank right to over fly the most heavily defended point in the Netherlands.
He understood the importance of the mission but the luck of the draw meant that whilst his colleagues were over Flanders, his was a more long range mission. He consoled himself however that as a single aircraft and with hostilities only hours old his chances of success were high although he would have to use all his skills to get back to Amiens in one piece.
He acknowledged the navigator's instruction to begin the turn and crossed himself uttering a silent prayer to the god of photographic reconnaissance , however that may be he wondered for a moment as a former classical scholar. Almost instantly he pulled himself back to the real world and began the run in. The aircraft had been equipped with cameras which took a continuous set of pictures until the film was exhausted once the start button was pressed and they crew counted down to the start point.
Suddenly four black puffs appeared in front and below him, "damm" he thought " I'd hoped to have not been seen on the inbound journey". What he couldn't know was that he route had taken him over one of the new listening stations on Texel and the 75mm AA battery had been alerted for just such a mission to be undertaken. The crew of the AA guns were highly motivated and wanted to claim the first kill of the war, they reloaded in a better time than they had ever managed in peacetime and another salvo was sent into the air. Du Croix instinctively winced as some small fragments at the end of their trajectory rattled off the airframe although not with enough force to do any damage.
"two minutes to the naval base" said the navigator Phillipe Bouselle, " ninety seconds - starting the cameras in 30 seconds"
Over Den Helder the AA batteries opened up and Du Croix suddenly felt very nervous as every gun was aiming at him personally. He'd always expected that when he first faced combat he's be part of a raid with other planes the object of some AA fire but when he became one of the elite long range Recce pilots he hadn't really realised that it would be so personal. He was acutely conscious that he was armed with nothing more lethal than 35mm film and wanted to tell the AA gunners that !.
10 minutes later Du Croix resolved to look up the god of reece pilots as although nursing a aircraft with numerous holes and a running a slight high temperature on the port engine he was still in one piece. The menacing grey ships that he had seen alongside the quays at Den Helder made him realise that his colleagues in the Marine Nationale were going to have a tough time of it, not only that but their shooting had been far too accurate.
A couple of Fokker 21s had attempted to intercept but he had managed to lose them in the cloud layer and he headed back to French airspace thanking the builders of his plane for its robustness. "I only hope that the pictures were worth it" - they were, they showed that HMNS Amsterdam the second of the new Battlecruisers was only just departing for the Dutch West Indies, the two French 8" cruisers at Fort de France would have a week to wreak havoc until their most feared foe would arrive. What couldn't be predicted however was whether the Dutch would risk the faster channel passage within range of French airpower and the 12" batteries at Cap Griz Nez or the longer but safer passage to the North of Scotland.
Along the Albert Canal
Engineer Captain Ruud Neeskens looked around at the chaos around him as the Dutch Engineer Corps attempted to re-orientate the Albert Canal Defences to face south instead on North. He looked up as the sound of a train reached his ears. The train pulled to a halt and he saw that the 'panzer-nest' prefabricated armoured MG positions that he had been digging holes for that morning were there on the third flat car. He signalled to his team to start unloading the equipment and watched with professional pride as his team quickly unloaded what looked like the vats for brewing beer he'd seen on his last visit to Bruges what seemed a lifetime ago. However he thought the contents were a little more lethal than beer, each position held a HMG which would be sited in the carefully positioned sites that his team had dug that morning. The Albert canal line was the third and main defence line in Flanders, the last before the Netherlands itself
Captain Neeskens reflected that these prefabricated MG positions were an innovative solution to the need to rapidly fortify Flanders, he knew that teams similar to his were working in many areas preparing for what was believed to be the inevitable French offensive. His second in command reported to him that all four positions were now emplaced and he told his team to swiftly load their equipment and move to the next site on the list - there really was no time to loose..
He had noticed that there was a slightly different type on the next flat car and had spoken to the train company commander about them. He had been told that they were the first of a new larger type which was designed to house a 47mm Anti-Tank gun in a open backed mounting in order to protect them from small arms fire. It was well known that
French had 'thousands' of tanks and given that the Dutch army was only just forming its first armoured brigade that the main weapon against these monsters was the Anti tank gun.
As they moved off towards west towards Antwerp they passed a railway bridge and he noticed with a professional eye that two AA positions with 20mm guns were now in position and that one of the new Armoured Trains was sitting well camouflaged in a siding next to a small wood, another good solution he thought the 'mobile fort'. The Dutch had adopted the armoured train as another element in the solution to the rapid need for fortification. The Dutch defence strategy was based upon the strategic defensive and successive defence lines until Fortress Holland was reached, the need to extend these defence lines into Flanders had not been envisaged until recently. Building concrete bunkers was not possible in the timeline so a variety of solutions had been adopted, the prefabricated MG positions were one and the use of armoured trains to provide a mobile fort were another. A number of polish officers had escaped the German attacks in 1939 and the successful use of armoured trains to strengthen improvised defences had been noted, the dense rail network of the low countries was well suited to this use and the ability to rapidly and flexibly react to a threat was seen to be a positive counterweight to their being tied to tracks. Capt Neeskens thought that the two 120mm naval guns would prove useful weapons not least because of their range.
Drawing of the "panzernest" prepared to the installation via turnover into the pit. Drawn byR. Jurga 2001.