Belgium and the Netherlands had no real desire to side with Britain and France. Both may have fooled themselves they could stay out of trouble. However, in strategic terms Hitler was hardly going to leave them to act as potential springboards against his right flank during an attack on France. In addition they sat at the end of France’s Maginot Line. The writing was clearly on the wall but their governments chose to ignore it.
During the uneasy months of the Phoney War the Low Countries and Scandinavia, with the exception of Finland, secretly hoped that they could remain neutral. During late 1939 and early 1940 Finland found itself embroiled in the bitter Winter War with the Soviet Union. The Finns felt they had everything to gain by siding with the Nazis if it gave them the chance to reclaim lost territory. Behind closed doors the others argued that it was not their fight. Denmark, Norway and Sweden felt that they could avoid confrontation with the Nazis. it was Britain and France who had belatedly decided to act against Hitler’s expansionism following his destruction of Poland. Any misplaced sense of security they may have felt swiftly evaporated with Hitler’s attack on Norway and Denmark in early April 1940.
After conquering Poland Hitler wanted to attack France as quickly as possible to secure his Western borders before turning East again. General Thomas, Head of the War Economy and Armaments Office, pointed out that Germany had a monthly steel deficit of over ½ million tons and General von Stuelpnagel, Quartermaster General, reported that current ammunition stocks were insufficient to ensure victory over the French. Hitler had to wait, but luckily for him the Allies did nothing during the Phoney War.
Hitler’s forces invaded Norway and Denmark on 9 April 1940 and within 4 hours it was all over for the Danish Army. Daringly a German troop ship landed men in Copenhagen, while a motorised brigade followed by an infantry division sped over the Danish–German border as paratroops landed on the Aalborg airfield. The outnumbered Danes offered virtually no resistance, but the Norwegians with belated British and French military assistance held on until early June.
Norway was a prime example of muddled Allied defensive thinking and the hand of Winston Churchill loomed large in this fiasco. An ill-fated operation in mid-April 1940 was designed to head off Hitler’s iron-ore imports from Sweden via Narvik in Norway. Operationally there was a fundamental failure to secure proper integration of the three British armed services at the executive level. The British had no Combined Operations HQ resulting in the Army and Royal Navy issuing independent and often contradictory orders during the fighting.
To make matters worse Hitler successfully pre-empted the British with Operation Weserübung launched on 9 April 1940. German assault troops rapidly and successfully occupied Norway’s main ports and airfields, taking Oslo, Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim and Narvik. This effectively took the neutral Norwegian armed forces out of the equation and obstructed British and French efforts to intervene. Even worse the Luftwaffe quickly gained control over Norway’s coastal waters, so Hitler was able to neutralise the Allies’ warships. ironically this was the first example of a modern combined operation by land, sea and air, but the Allies were not quick to learn from it.
The Royal Navy was unable to stop the German Navy or cope with the Luftwaffe, and as a result it concentrated its efforts in the north giving the Germans a free hand in southern Norway. Command and control of the Trondheim leg of the operation was jinxed from the start after losing two generals (one was taken ill and the second was lost in an air crash). The commitment of ground forces by the Allies was woefully inadequate; the French anxious about a German invasion of France sent only a demibrigade of Alpine light infantry and the British four infantry brigades. Heavy support weapons, especially tanks, were conspicuous by their complete absence.
Allied indecision over Trondheim and Narvik played straight into Hitler’s hands and completely stymied any hopes the British and French forces had of retrieving the deteriorating situation. Hitler’s invasion of France sealed the fate of the operation, and by 9 June the Allies had completed their evacuation from Norway and three days later the Norwegians surrendered. The British force of 20,000 men lost 2,060 casualties; of the 11,700 Frenchmen committed 530 became casualties. The Norwegians lost 4,000 men and although the Germans lost 5,300 they maintained control of Norway and the vital shipping lanes.
Hitler next timed his attack on the Low Countries, Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as Luxembourg to coincide with his invasion of France on 10 May 1940. The German invasion of tiny neutral Luxembourg which shielded part of the Belgian and French frontier was spearheaded by the 1st, 2nd and 10th Panzer Divisions. While most of the Luxembourg Volunteer Corps stayed in their barracks, six police and one soldier were wounded in exchanges with the Germans. Elements of the French Army, including General Petiet’s 3rd Light Cavalry Division supported by a company of tanks, crossed the southern border to probe the German advance but they soon withdrew back behind the Maginot Line.
The Belgian and Dutch Armies were confronted by the advance guard of Colonel General Fedor von Brock’s Army Group B, which rumbled into the southern Netherlands and northern Belgium. Desperate Dutch forces were quickly driven west. General Gamelin ordered the French 1st Army into Belgium to confront the Germans. Along with the BEF they took up defensive positions around Breda, the River Dyle and south toward Sedan. Hitler and his commanders can only have watched with smug amusement as the Allies helpfully removed their forces from the vital central sector. Army Group A would eventually move to ensure the British, French and Belgian forces remained in the north by attacking the Dyle.
While Army Group B pushed west into the northern sector Army Group A’s three motorised Corps, under Generals Guderian, Reinhardt and Hoth, struck in the centre toward the Ardennes. Hoth’s 15th Corps included Hartlieb’s 5th and Rommel’s 7th Panzer Divisions. Behind Hoth came the infantry of General Hans von Kluge’s 4th Army, which consisted of twelve infantry divisions. In the centre were the 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions forming General Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s 41st Motorised Corps.
The full weight of the panzers lay to the south where Guderian’s 19th Corps comprised the 1st, 2nd and 10th Panzer Divisions along with the elite motorised Grossdeutschland Regiment. This powerful force was designed to protect the southern flank against anticipated French counterattacks. Beyond this lay Colonel General von Leeb’s Army Group C consisting of eighteen infantry divisions which were to face the formidable yet ultimately useless French fortifications of the Maginot Line.
The RAF and French Air Force did everything they could to impede the Blitzkrieg. At dawn on 12 May nine Blenheim bombers attacked a column of German troops on the road from Maastricht to Tongres and were pounced on by Bf 109s losing seven of their number. Attempts to destroy the bridges across the Albert Canal that were by now in enemy hands proved equally as futile. Five Battles braved enemy flak and fighters to bomb two bridges at Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt. German 88mm flak guns claimed four of the Battles while the fifth made a crash-landing.
The Battle of Hannut fought in Belgium between 12 and 14 May 1940 and involving two French armoured divisions was the largest tank battle of the campaign. The Germans reached the Hannut just two days after the start of the invasion of Belgium. Although the French won a series of delaying engagements and successfully fell back on Gembloux, the Germans tied down substantial Allied forces at Hannut which might have supported the decisive offensive through the Ardennes.
The defence of neutral Belgium was hampered by the Belgians almost complete lack of cooperation with the British and French armies. Just as the Germans were attacking Belgium, General Bernard Montgomery, leading elements of the British 3rd Division, was not permitted to enter the country. Nonetheless, they endeavoured to take up positions to help defend Brussels, only to have their way blocked by Belgian troops objecting to their presence. The Belgians even fired on the British thinking they were German paratroops. The speed of the German Blitzkrieg meant the defence of the River Dyle and Brussels soon became impossible and the bickering became a pointless academic exercise.
The Germans easily brushed aside the Belgian Army’s pitifully few light tanks, which included a number of British-built T13B2, T15 tankettes and some Minerva armoured cars. The Belgian Army also had twenty-five French-built AMC Renault 35 ACG 1 light cavalry tanks. None of these vehicles did them any good.
Once the Germans were slicing through the Ardennes the British forces in Belgium were soon in danger of being cut off and on 16/17 May were forced to start withdrawing. This was done in an orderly manner and at this stage no equipment was abandoned. Lieutenant Colonel Brian Horrocks, leading his carrier platoon, anti-tank battery and two machine-gun battalions, claimed to be the last British soldier out of Belgium before the remaining bridge over the Escaut Canal was blown. His next stop was Dunkirk where everything the British Army possessed was abandoned to the Germans. Ten days after the Allied withdrawal the Belgians sued for peace. ironically the German general appointed military governor of Belgium and Northern France was Alexander von Falkenhausen, nephew of General Ludwig von Falkenhausen, Belgium’s military governor in 1914–18.
The Netherlands’ armoured forces were likewise non-existent. The Dutch had two-dozen Swedish-built M36/38 Landsverk armoured cars and a single Wilton- Fijenoord armoured car. They were to have received at least two batches of T15 tankettes, the first of which went to the Dutch East indies Army, but subsequent deliveries to the Dutch Home Army were interrupted by the war. The Dutch also had forty British Vickers light tanks on order, but on completion in 1939 the British War Office took them over for training purposes.
The French moved to Breda to help the Dutch fend off the 9th Panzer Division and German airborne troops intent on capturing the Dutch government at The Hague. Although the airborne attack on The Hague went horribly wrong, once the panzers had seized the bridges over the River Maas (Meuse) the Dutch were cut off. The French forces advancing without tanks bumped into the panzers and under air attack were forced to fall back. The Luftwaffe destroyed the Dutch Army Aviation Brigade within five days. All its bombers were swiftly shot from the skies. In Rotterdam Dutch Marines and the Dutch Navy bravely tried to fend off the Germans and Hitler was incensed by the delay.
The panzers were unable to break through even though the German airborne forces had captured the bridges leading into the city. Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to break the Dutch resistance on 14 May and thousands of Rotterdam’s occupants were wounded and 800 killed. The bombing and resulting fires also left almost 78,000 civilians homeless and destroyed some 25,000 houses.
The beleaguered defenders of Rotterdam had few options in the face of such devastating firepower. The Commander in Chief of those Dutch forces still holding The Hague ordered a general ceasefire late that evening. There was no questioning Dutch courage, 2,100 Dutch troops had been killed and 2,700 wounded in 5 days of fighting. Nonetheless the Dutch Army surrendered within 6 hours still virtually intact. With the Low Countries defeated Hitler could concentrate on the subjugation of France.
The war in the West begins – a German Panzer MK I in Norway in 1940. Hitler pre-empted the Allied intervention in Norway by seizing the country’s main ports and airfields before the arrival of the British and French. The Allies clung on until early June but ultimately Norway was lost to Nazi occupation.
Denmark was attacked at the same time as Norway and the outnumbered Danish Army offered virtually no resistance. These young Danish soldiers were part of a force that only numbered 6,600 in 1939. The helmets hung from their haversacks are probably the M1923 model.
Mobile troops 1930s style. Two rather comical shots of a Dutch military band on bicycles, which epitomised the German view of the Dutch armed forces. However, the Dutch Army could muster 48 infantry regiments and 22 border defence battalions numbering about 400,000 men.
It is not entirely clear why these two Dutch border guards are wearing waders in the middle of a canal or river. They appear to be wearing the distinctive Dutch Model 1927 helmet which was also adopted by the Romanian Army.
On 10 May 1940 wailing Stukas heralded Hitler’s attack on Belgium and the Netherlands causing panic and confusion on the roads, which in turn hampered the movement of reinforcements.
Confident-looking German troops on the move in early May 1940 belonging to General von Brock’s Army Group B. These men are believed to be panzer grenadiers who fought more lightly equipped than regular infantry as their kit was carried in armoured personnel carriers or lorries. They are wearing the M1935 helmet, while their standard infantry rifle was the Mauser Gew 98k and Kar 98 – the latter was also produced by Czechoslovakia. The pouch on the chest just above the stick grenades contains an anti-gas cape.
A young Dutch boy watches German infantry conferring with the crew of a Panzer Mk III. Apart from at Rotterdam, the Dutch armed forces were swiftly overwhelmed.
The Luftwaffe had no scruples about bombing civilian areas in both Belgium and the Netherlands.
The chaos caused by the resulting refugees helped to block the roads and impede the Allies trying to move forward to meet the invading German forces.
German forces crossing a Belgian canal via a pontoon bridge near the city of Nieuport, Belgium.
Dutch POWs under German guards. Their basic grey-green uniform was virtually the same as that worn during the First World War. When they finally surrendered there was no questioning Dutch courage as they had lost almost 5,000 casualties.
Under new ownership. The Belgians manufactured the Familleureux Utility B tracked light artillery tractor under licence drawing on a British Vickers-Armstrong design in the late 1930s. This tiny vehicle was only 2.4m long and came in an infantry and cavalry support variant designed to tow a 47mm anti-tank gun. Powered by a four-cylinder 52bhp engine (Ford B 3285-cc sv) mounted in the rear, over 300 were supplied by Britain or built in Belgium.
The Belgian Army relied on British and French equipment for their mechanised forces, and this included a number of British-built T13B2 tracked anti-tank gun carriers, armed with a 47mm (seen here), based on the Carden-Loyd mark VI and T15 tankettes, also based on the British Vickers-Carden-Loyd designs.
Belgian POWs, though they could easily be French. In 1940 the Belgian Army was dressed in almost the same khaki uniforms as in 1918. The soldiers’ appearance was practically identical to the French, while the officers adopted a British-style service dress in 1935. These men were part of a regular army that numbered around 650,000 men in May 1940; they were among some 200,000 who were subsequently imprisoned.
German columns, such as the one seen above, sped through the devastated streets of Belgian and Dutch towns with relative ease.
The reality of the Nazi Blitzkrieg – the smoking remains of Rotterdam. Bombing by the Luftwaffe to break Dutch resistance destroyed 25,000 homes and left some 78,000 civilians homeless. Belgium and the Netherlands lay prostrate before Hitler’s forces and were forced to surrender.