The Battle of Holland1
T WOULD BE POINTLESS AT THIS TIME OF DAY to debate at great length the question whether or no Staff talks between the then Allies, Great Britain and France, and the Netherlands would have altered the course of events in any substantial measure. Obviously, from disclosures made after the collapse of the French armies, Great Britain had no troops to spare and French strategy seemed to be chiefly concerned with holding the gates of France irrespective as to happenings elsewhere. Staff talks by themselves possibly would have been of little practical value, since both Allies had little to give and the Government of the Netherlands had no wish to infringe Dutch neutrality--even in self-defence--by opening discussions with one set of belligerents which might give offence to the other, and thereby bring about that very evil which they were so anxious to avoid. The only possibility whereby events might have been stayed might have lain in the adoption of an
historic English offer to the Netherlands, made in 1651:
That the two Commonwealths may be unfederated friends, joined and allied together for the defence and preservation of the liberties and freedom of the people of each against all whatsoever.
Modern public opinion was not ripe for such an advanced move and, anyhow, no-one on the English side thought of propounding it.
In any case, the difficulties of the situation in which the Netherlands found themselves would have made such a proposal look highly ridiculous and compromising.
The absence of Staff talks between the Dutch and their subsequent Allies, ourselves, while regrettable, may or may not have made a difference to events. The fact remains that in fighting the five-days Battle of Holland the Dutch forces, with the exception of some assistance given by the Royal Air Force, fought alone and held the superior enemy who, while using Holland as his means, was really striking at England and France. We may well be grateful to Dutch arms for their fight against odds. That they might have given the Germans a free passage without striking a blow, yielding to force majeure as did the Danes, is an awkward thought which leads on to endless possibilities. Fortunately, these did not develop into realities in their most acute form.
It was generally thought in informed circles in Great Britain that if the Germans intended to violate the neutrality of the Netherlands they would merely cut across Limburg and North Brabant in the south as one of those German military 'necessities' in combination with other operations, in order to succeed in doing on this occasion that in which they failed in 1914. Another school of thought held the opinion that the Germans would not commit the folly of locking their own front door, since the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam normally are the great entrepots for the German hinterland in the south. The present writer was of the opinion that, if the Germans invaded at all they would do so in the usual complete German manner and that, however gallant the Dutch defence might prove, they would not be able to stand up alone against a violent German onslaught. In the end, unhappily, this proved to be the correct view.2
In these critical days, when great events tumble over each other and are almost forgotten a week or two after their occurrence, the terrific clash of arms which took place in Holland before 'Dunkirk' is hardly a memory to many. Only the post-war historian will be able to say whether those five days
of battle on Dutch soil rendered the Allies invaluable service by holding up the German advance and whether the Allies were or were not delinquent in not rushing greater military help to Holland on receipt of the first signal. For the moment we can only deal with the facts as they are known.
At the moment of invasion the Dutch army consisted of 4 Army Corps, 1 Light Division, 5 reserve Divisions, 2 Air Force regiments, which were intended for use in land operations, and a number of regiments and battalions required for frontier and territorial defence.
One Army corps was charged with coastal defence; two Army corps were stationed on the Grebbe-Peel line, i.e. the line from the Yssel lake (Zuyder Zee) to Grebbeberg; two reserve divisions were stationed between the rivers Rhine and Maas. In Brabant, west of the line Grave-Weert an Army corps, the Light Division (which included two mechanized squadrons) and a reserve division were stationed, while in the 'Holland' defence area there were two reserve divisions. Frontier and territorial troops were stationed (i) on the River Maas-Maas-Waal Canal-Arnhem-Yssel line, (ii) in the Northern province, at Den Helder (the naval base in the extreme North Holland province), (iii) in Zeeland and in South and North Brabant.
The Navy consisted of light forces, principally
submarines, gunboats and mine-sweepers and a number of destroyers. Most of the more important naval units were stationed in the Far East.
The Air Force had few bombers and few fighters.
With 8 first-line divisions Holland had to meet a dozen different German attacks on a three-hundred-mile front.
For five days Holland's small conscript army bore the brunt of the German attack. Then the order was given to cease fire. The mightiest military machine which the world has ever known was pitted against an incomparably smaller force which had never been blooded but which, none the less, fought with the valour of veterans. If one is constrained to cast a thought to the Norwegian campaign it must not be forgotten that, when subjecting Norway to similar treatment as that meted out to Holland, the invaders had to cross the Baltic in order to obtain a foothold on Norwegian soil. In the case of Holland all that was needed was to mass troops on the frontier and, at the word of command, march them into Dutch territory. With immense military resources at their disposal the Germans attached little military value to the Netherlands Army. They certainly attached no value to the forms and conventions which exist between civilized peoples, since--as mentioned earlier in these pages--Germany commenced military operations against Holland
shortly after 3 a.m. on Friday, May 10th, while it was not until three hours later--at the unseasonable hour of 6 a.m.--that the German minister at The Hague presented his note to Dr. E. N. van Kleffens, the Netherlands Foreign Minister, which was so summarily rejected. At 3 a.m. on Friday, May ioth, without even a preliminary declaration of war, and certainly without the slightest intention on the German side to make even a pretence of examining the fictitious causes for complaint they alleged they had against the Netherlands, the Germans bombed the Netherlands military aerodromes at Schiphol, Waal-haven, Bergen and De Kooy. About the same time German troops crossed the frontier. The amazing effrontery of the Germans is as complete as their utter lack of political morals. Three hours after hostilities had been commenced--without the preliminary of a declaration of war by Germany-- the German Government announced in the note to Dr. Van Kleffens already mentioned, that they found themselves compelled to occupy the Netherlands; that they hoped that they would not meet with any resistance and that they expected the Netherlands to accept the 'protection of the German Reich' The Netherlands Government possibly thought of the 'protection' which the Czechs had accepted! In any event, the idea of surrendering their country to Europe's common thief would never
have entered the heads of that great lady the Queen, her advisers and her people. The Battle of Holland was begun.
From the first day the German technique was the same mixture of cunning and military science that we have seen on half a dozen occasions or more during the past few years. By 5 a.m. on May 10th three aerodromes situated near The Hague were in enemy hands, as a result of bombing, machine-gunning and the activities of parachute troops. As a consequence the enemy was able to make use of these aerodromes for the transport of air-borne troops, and as a further consequence the seat of the Government was virtually encircled and cut off. This military stroke was made possible since the main bodies of the Dutch Army were concentrated on the first Dutch line of defence which ran from Kampen on the Zuyder Zee to Arnhem in the south by way of Deventer and Zutphen, and from Arnhem across the Peel Moor to the Belgian frontier. The worst evil was averted for a while, however, by the courage of unseasoned Dutch troops, who, though they had only been with the colours for five weeks, fought with such tenacity that they were able to regain possession of the aerodromes, though with heavy losses to themselves.
Clearly, the German purpose in attacking the Netherlands was to avoid a possible menace to their
rear in their offensive against Great Britain and France by way of Belgium. In order to secure this it was essential for them to obtain control of the two great Moerdijk railway and road-traffic bridges, The Moerdijk bridges were the principal links in the main line of communication between the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The Germans had not the slightest justification for imagining that the Allies would violate Dutch neutrality. This was but a convenient fiction--the mammoth lie-- but the German High Command intended to leave nothing to chance, acting in the true Clausewitz tradition that 'the oppression of other States is of little moment if the object be gained.'3
These two Moerdijk bridges cross the wide stretch of water which separates the Province of South Holland from North Brabant (south of Dordrecht and north of Breda). It needed a new technique to obtain possession of these in a minimum of time, so as to prevent reinforcements from France and Belgium from reaching Holland. German
inventiveness supplied this new technique in violation of all the rules of warfare, by the use of German troops wearing Dutch uniform, in part parachute troops, in part transported in secret by barge and other means of canal transport. For the very purpose of securing reinforcements from their southern Allies the Dutch had not destroyed the bridges. The German use of Trojan tactics successfully deceived and confused the Dutch defenders, with the result that these main links in the line of communications with the south fell into their possession. The contemptible use of Dutch uniforms by the Germans decided the issue and solely because of this the important Moerdijk bridges were lost.
Apart from the foregoing, the Dutch forces were wholly unprepared to deal with German thrusts everywhere, from the extreme north to the Maastricht appendix of Limburg. The best troops in the world, whether Dutch or any other, would have found it impossible to give battle successfully with constant landings of harassing German air-borne troops in their rear, threatening the heart of the country. They had, so to speak, to look over their shoulders the whole while to see what the enemy was doing in their rear as well as resist the frontal attack.
Once the Moerdijk bridges were in enemy possession the fate of Rotterdam was virtually sealed.
The enemy was in control of the main highway to Rotterdam, some 15 miles distant, and to The Hague, a further 15 miles to the north-west. The position in The Hague was already critical. Fresh parachute troops were being dropped during the night of May 10/11 in the immediate vicinity.
It was at The Hague that the 'fifth column' put in its most effective work. The members of this unsavoury band consisted in the main of Germans resident in Holland and naturalized Germans. It is almost a Wellsian fantasy to read in the most reputable newspapers that these people disguised themselves as postmen, policemen, tram-conductors, and even as women and priests, so that they might the better carry out their nefarious tasks, such as sniping at the police and civilians, circulating false rumours and the like.
While operations around The Hague were mainly of a military character--the small Dutch Air Force had been destroyed at the outset by enemy air attacks on the aerodromes--the fight for Rotterdam engaged all three arms of modern warfare. On the morning of May 10th the Germans had already made themselves masters of the Waal haven aerodrome, which enabled them to land large numbers of troops there. Unfortunately, the Dutch had neither bombers nor spare guns at their disposal. The nearest guns were those of the 1st Army Corps
at The Hague, where the battle was at its fiercest. Accordingly, the R.A.F. were requested by the Dutch authorities to bomb the aerodrome intensively, which was duly carried out on the nights of May 10th, nth and 12th. The only guns that could be brought to bear on the German positions were those of a destroyer of the Royal Dutch Navy, which, on her way to Rotterdam, incidentally also destroyed by gunfire German troop-carrying planes which had landed on the beach at Katwijk. The very situation of the Waalhaven airport enabled the guns of this destroyer--the Van Galen--to be used effectively. But she was bombed repeatedly and eventually sunk. British destroyers by this time had arrived close to the scene of action to lend their assistance, but they were obliged to remain inactive, as the Germans had laid magnetic mines in the river, and the risk from dive-bombing with, presumably, little room for manoeuvring, was considerable.
Although the loss of the Waalhaven aerodrome no doubt incommoded the Germans, they soon found an alternative landing-ground for their airborne troops. And, leaving nothing to chance, they had 'imported' artillery on a Swedish steamer which, hidden among the cargo, now was speedily brought into the light of day. All this, be it noted, was on the south bank of the river, which by the third day was well held by the Germans. Only by
the fifth day were the weary Dutch forces able to bring up their guns and train them on the enemy from the north bank. But the German armoured columns, crossing the Moerdijk bridges, were already outside the city. This alone might have sufficed to oblige the Dutch to withdraw. In the German view, however, it was insufficient. The commander of the German forces in the Rotterdam sector had his orders to take the city on the fifth day at any price, which being the case ruthless bombing was carried out of the kind with which the world by now is only too sadly familiar. There were no air-defences, no fighters, no balloons, no anti-aircraft guns. The sons of Attila ruthlessly destroyed the heart of yet another city and all the suffering civilians who had their homes and businesses there. German arms had won another glorious victory. By a semi-circular sweep from east to west, then southwards, followed by a drive north, they had made themselves masters of the greatest port in Europe.
Throughout, of course, the Netherlands forces were faced by an overwhelming superiority in numbers and also by the German 'total' conception of war, which included every variety of lex non scripta, and which could not be successfully countered by the limited military resources of the Netherlands. It has been said again and again that the first
element of successful warfare is surprise. None can say--none will be able to say until the war is ended--exactly what was in the mind of the Netherlands General Staff. Certain fundamentals, however, seem to be clear. The Dutch military authorities at no time intended to defend their frontier as such. The defence of the entire length of the frontier would have been a task beyond their capacity. The first line of defence was the Yssel line, based on Kampen and Arnhem, a strongly fortified line which, however, allowed for an enemy advance which covered the whole of the province of Overyssel and parts of Gelderland and Limburg. The Yssel line was thinly held by Dutch troops, since it was intended that a stand would be made at the Grebbe line which was based on Naarden, Baarn, Amersfoort and Rhenen, thence across the Peel Moor in Limburg. The German advance was slow, and was considerably retarded by the resistance of the frontier battalions and the demolition of bridges and roads. By May 12th, however, the enemy forces were sufficiently powerful to attack on the inundated terrain--flooding was one of the Dutch stand-bys--in the neighbourhood of Rhenen. After fierce fighting, in the course of which the Germans machine-gunned the Dutch from the air and followed this up by flame-throwing and other tanks, the Germans were forced to yield their gains following
General Winkelman, the Netherlands Commander-in-Chief
a bold Dutch counter-attack, but on the unlucky 13th superior numbers told, though the enemy was too exhausted to follow up his gains immediately. In the end, however, the Dutch forces were unable to hold the line. They were obliged to retire behind the third and final line of defence, the Holland Waterline, and since the Germans--as a result of their capture of the Moerdijk bridges and their pressure on Rotterdam--were able to continue their scythe-like movement northwards towards The Hague and Amsterdam, the Dutch position had become untenable. The two maritime provinces of Holland, i.e. North Holland and South Holland, were open to the invader once he obtained a secure foothold in Rotterdam. The well-nigh exhausted Dutch army, which had fought a hard battle for five days without respite, could offer no further resistance. All that might have remained to them was evacuation by way of the sea. But the enemy was too pressing to permit of this. On the landward side the Dutch troops were completely encircled. The Dutch last line of defence, the so-called fortress of Holland, virtually enclosed the two provinces of North and South Holland from Weesp in the north to Leerdam in the south. German strategy, German tactics, superior German numbers, German treachery made all the gallant efforts of the Dutch army in the field unavailing.
There was further heavy fighting in the south, but this--though affecting the operations north of the rivers--in the main was part of the wider operations which were developing in Belgium and in France. Such reinforcements as the Allies were able to send could not stem the German advance. Once German tanks were able to cross the Moerdijk bridge the fate of Rotterdam and of Holland was sealed. The whole Battle of Holland turned on the possession of the Moerdijk bridges. It is easy to say at this time of day that the Dutch military authorities should have destroyed this vital means of entry into their citadel. The reason why the bridges were not destroyed, be it repeated, is that had Allied reinforcements been forthcoming in considerable numbers the destruction of the bridges would have been a distinct military disadvantage, since the width of the river at this point is 1,432 metres.
General Winkelman, who had led the Netherlands forces with courage, was left in supreme military command by the Queen and her Government. When at last it became apparent that further resistance would be futile he issued the following proclamation:
This afternoon Germany bombarded Rotterdam, while Utrecht has also been threatened with destruction. In order to spare the civil population and to
prevent further bloodshed I feel myself justified in ordering all troops concerned to suspend operations. To these troops is also entrusted the duty of maintaining order until the arrival of regular German troops and to retain the arms and ammunition needful for this purpose. The campaign in Zeeland continues. I impress upon the attention of the civil population that all directions to assure order and calm must be observed and that military law will remain in operation locally until the moment of arrival of German troops. I appeal to the population to secure the respect of the enemy by the maintenance of a worthy, earnest and peaceful attitude during the occupation which is in prospect.
By great superiority of the most modern means he has succeeded in breaking our resistance. We have nothing wherewith to reproach ourselves in connection with this war. Your bearing and that of the forces was calm, firm of purpose and worthy of the Netherlands.
Maintain this bearing. Do not forget that you are Netherlanders and that the Kingdom of the Netherlands, even though the Motherland may largely be occupied by the enemy, has not ceased to exist. When the war ends the Netherlands will again stand as an independent, free nation. Long live the Queen.
Thus ended the Battle of Holland of May 1940.
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