Only one division of panzers could be spared by the Germans for the conquest of the Netherlands, which was accomplished in five days largely by parachutists and by troops landed by air transports behind the great flooded water lines which many in Berlin had believed would hold the Germans up for weeks. To the bewildered Dutch was reserved the experience of being subjected to the first large-scale airborne attack in the history of warfare. Considering their unpreparedness for such an ordeal and the complete surprise by which they were taken they did better than was realized at the time.
The first objective of the Germans was to land a strong force by air on the flying fields near The Hague, occupy the capital at once and capture the Queen and the government, as they had tried to do just a month before with the Norwegians. But at The Hague, as at Oslo, the plan failed, though due to different circumstances. Recovering from their initial surprise and confusion, Dutch infantry, supported by artillery, was able to drive the Germans—two regiments strong—from the three airfields surrounding The Hague by the evening of May 10. This saved the capital and the government momentarily, but it tied down the Dutch reserves, which were desperately needed elsewhere.
The key to the German plan was the seizure by airborne troops of the bridges just south of Rotterdam over the Nieuwe Maas and those farther southeast over the two estuaries of the Maas (Meuse) at Dordrecht and Moerdijk. It was over these bridges that General Georg von Kuechler’sEighteenth Army driving from the German border nearly a hundred miles away hoped to force his way into Fortress Holland. In no other way could this entrenched place, lying behind formidable water barriers and comprising The Hague, Amsterdam, Utretcht, Rotterdam and Leyden, be taken easily and quickly.
The bridges were seized on the morning of May 10 by airborne units—including one company that landed on the river at Rotterdam in antiquated seaplanes—before the surprised Dutch guards could blow them. Desperate efforts were made by improvised Netherlands units to drive the Germans away and they almost succeeded. But the Germans hung on tenuously until the morning of May 12, when the one armored division assigned to Kuechler arrived, having smashed through the Grebbe–Peel Line, a fortified front to the east strengthened by a number of water barriers, on which the Dutch had hoped to hold out for several days.
There was some hope that the Germans might be stopped short of the Moerdijk bridges by General Giraud’s French Seventh Army, which had raced up from the Channel and reached Tilburg on the afternoon of May 11. But the French, like the hard-pressed Dutch, lacked air support, armor, and antitank and antiaircraft guns, and were easily pushed back to Breda. This opened the way for the German 9th Panzer Division to cross the bridges at Moerdijk and Dordrecht and, on the afternoon of May 12, arrive at the south bank of the Nieuwe Maas across from Rotterdam, where the German airborne troops still held the bridges.
But the tanks could not get across the Rotterdam bridges. The Dutch in the meantime had sealed them off at the northern ends. By the morning of May 14, then, the situation for the Netherlands was desperate but not hopeless. Fortress Holland had not been cracked. The strong German airborne forces around The Hague had been either captured or dispersed into nearby villages. Rotterdam still held. The German High Command, anxious to pull the armored division and supporting troops out of Holland to exploit a new opportunity which had just been opened to the south in France, was not happy. Indeed, on the morning of the fourteenth Hitler issued Directive No. 11 stating: “The power of resistance of the Dutch Army has proved to be stronger than was anticipated. Political as well as military considerations require that this resistance be broken speedily.” How? He commanded that detachments of the Air Force be taken from the Sixth Army front in Belgium “to facilitate the rapid conquest of Fortress Holland.”7
Specifically he and Goering ordered a heavy bombing of Rotterdam. The Dutch would be induced to surrender by a dose of Nazi terror—the kind that had been applied the autumn before at beleaguered Warsaw.
On the morning of May 14 a German staff officer from the XXXIXth Corps had crossed the bridge at Rotterdam under a white flag and demanded the surrender of the city. He warned that unless it capitulated it would be bombed. While surrender negotiations were under way—a Dutch officer had come to German headquarters near the bridge to discuss the details and was returning with the German terms—bombers appeared and wiped out the heart of the great city. Some eight hundred persons, almost entirely civilians, were massacred, several thousand wounded and 78,000 made homeless.* This bit of treachery, this act of calculated ruthlessness, would long be remembered by the Dutch, though at Nuremberg both Goering and Kesselring of the Luftwaffe defended it on the grounds that Rotterdam was not an open city but stoutly defended by the Dutch. Both denied that they knew that surrender negotiations were going on when they dispatched the bombers, though there is strong evidence from German Army archives that they did.*9 At any rate, OKW made no excuses at the time. I myself heard over the Berlin radio on the evening of May 14 a special OKW communiqué:
Under the tremendous impression of the attacks of German dive bombers and the imminent attack of German tanks, the city of Rotterdam has capitulated and thus saved itself from destruction.
Rotterdam surrendered, and then the Dutch armed forces. Queen Wilhelmina and the government members had fled to London on two British destroyers. At dusk on May 14 General H. G. Winkelmann, the Commander in Chief of the Dutch forces, ordered his troops to lay down their arms and at 11 A.M. on the next day he signed the official capitulation. Within five days it was all over. The fighting, that is. For five years a night of savage German terror would henceforth darken this raped, civilized little land.