To Arms for Defense
AS THE Netherlands Government became more and more convinced that the calamity of war between the great powers of Europe was imminent, it took measures accordingly. As tension grew, and even before the 20th of August, measures of a military order were gradually taken to put the defenses of the country in a state of readiness.
Like so many other democratic nations, Holland had been economizing on her defenses. Instead of using money for armaments, she had used it to improve the social status of her industrial workers and peasants, to develop her educational system, to build bridges and roads. Steps had now to be taken rapidly to try to make up for arrears which had been accumulating in the field of military preparedness. But the armament industry of the country possessed a very limited capacity. We were forced, given the rate and extent of our rearmament, to place many orders for arms and munitions abroad. This was done in many countries: the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, France, Hungary, and also in Germany.
Germany had agreed to supply us with antiaircraft guns and some other war material, but only on the condition that part of the payment was to be made in advance. Since
we could not obtain all we wanted on less onerous terms, the only course left was to accede to that demand. But after one or two guns had been delivered, no more were forthcoming. We claimed, we protested, we tried to investigate where the source of the trouble lay. On careful inquiry we found that it was not the economic authorities who were making difficulties; even the army bureaus had no objections. The man who was stopping the deliveries was Herr von Ribbentrop. As may be imagined, this circumstance was not at all to our liking, for although Hitler is reputed to make all vital decisions by himself, my German colleague is commonly supposed to be one of those who have found favor in his master's eyes. He is supposed to be "in the know" about some of the more important secrets. If, therefore, Herr von Ribbentrop was out to prevent war supplies from reaching Holland, he either knew of plans already decided upon against us by his Fuehrer, or he believed that Herr Hitler was engaged in evolving some such plan. Of course there was the possibility of its all being "Nervenkrieg"--fortunately, we were by now used to facing such situations coolly. We continued trying to get as much information as possible and to act according to our lights with the knowledge that in this world one cannot be aware in every issue, however important, of all the relevant factors.
Various quarters had expressed doubt as to whether the Dutch would fight, if attacked. Such doubts have always been strongly resented in Holland and events have shown
how utterly unfounded they were. The Netherlands have at all times been ready to defend their liberties. Although they detest any glorification of militarism as it is to be found in the writings of German philosophers like Clausewitz and Treitschke, they are well aware of the fact that no nation deserves its liberty which is not prepared to defend it. They also know that, even if military resistance is temporarily overcome, it holds the promise of national resurrection at a later date.
The Dutch are not naturally inclined to give much time or money to military preparations. When they feel that they must fight, they are better soldiers than those of many another nation. But they dislike all that is disciplinarian, and their heart is not in routine drill, mock fights or manoeuvres, however necessary they know them to be. As a result, there is a perpetual tendency to pay too little attention to the requirements of national defense, social welfare and education being regarded as more congenial objects of expenditure.
After the war of 1914-18, considerable economies had been effected at the expense of military preparedness. The belief that the League of Nations would inaugurate a long spell of peace was the justification. But when it became apparent that the advent of the Third Reich meant war, measures were taken, although not nearly on as vast a scale as circumstances really required, to make up for arrears.
When by the end of September the Polish campaign
came to an end and Herr Hitler transferred the bulk of his troops to the West, a situation soon developed which clearly showed that these military preparations should be pressed forward with all possible energy. Early in November our Intelligence Service received reliable information to the effect that the Germans contemplated an early attack on the Low Countries: on Belgium as well as on Holland. These reports were soon borne out by various kinds of circumstantial evidence. The situation had to be regarded as decidedly serious. Of course there was always a chance that the Germans were trying, in a particularly intense degree, their methods of "Nervenkrieg." It was not only the fact that the Germans were massing troops and material along our southeast frontier which alarmed us, although the array of their preparations was impressive enough. Munition dumps had been established in the immediate vicinity of our territory, innumerable pontoons were lying in readiness to assist attempts at crossing rivers, airdromes were being laid out in the same neighborhood in great haste. An additional disquieting factor was the discovery that all kinds of Dutch uniforms, belonging to the Army, the police, postmen and railway conductors, were being smuggled into Germany. What did the Germans want these uniforms for unless it were in order to use them as camouflage in an attack? This smuggling of uniforms, far from being a mere rumor, is a well-established fact. Several arrests were made on the strength of irrefutable evidence.
The military authorities tried to speed up their preparations as much as they could, although at that time, scarcely two months after the war had started, the work was not nearly completed. At the same time those responsible for conducting the Kingdom's foreign policy did their best, as they had always done, to prevent the armed conflict from spreading. On October 6th, at the end of the Polish campaign, Herr Hitler had made his well-known speech in Berlin. Although this speech was far from clear, it adumbrated the establishment of a Polish State, be it only after amputations. It did not give the impression of excluding an autonomous Czech State. Its chief defect seemed to be that it pointed towards an intention on the part of the Germans to gain effective and exclusive domination over all the peoples of Central Europe. But it seemed to me worth-while that Germany's exact terms should, if possible, be ascertained. It still is my firm conviction that Herr Hitler meant his speech to convey his readiness to enter into negotiations for peace and that this peace could have been had on terms which at least deserved consideration. The very same evening the speech was made, I thought it my duty to ascertain, through a suitable private intermediary, whether there was any readiness on the part of the Allies to examine such possibilities as there might be. It must be admitted that Hitler did not make it easy for any outsider to understand that he really might be ready to compromise. In any case, I received no encouragement, and it all came to
nothing without having even been attempted. In the light of subsequent events this seems greatly to be deplored. When war actually broke out in September, the progress of Dutch military preparedness was by no means inconsiderable. Much, however, was still left to be accomplished, in the field of equipment and training as well as in that of building lines of defense on modern principles.
The invasion of Norway taught our military authorities a number of lessons. From the manner in which that unfortunate country had been so rapidly subdued, the chief conclusion was that it was imperatively necessary for us to take some effective action against the possibility of the Germans landing considerable numbers of troops from aircraft coming down either on airdromes or on broad motor roads. Holland possesses mile after mile of broad, concrete roads, on which, provided only there is not too much wind, such landings may readily be effected. For long distances there are no trees or other impediments to make this impossible, A complete plan had therefore been worked out to frustrate any such attempts. Tall steel plates were to be erected in the middle of these roads in the direction of their axis, at given distances; these plates were available in sufficient numbers, so that this plan could have been carried out in three weeks along the roads we feared the Germans might use. When, however, the news came that we had seriously to count on the possibility of an immediate attack, emergency measures were taken.
Instead of using steel plates, we tried a more expeditious method: part of the roads were obstructed by any kind of obstacle--old lorries, old buses and other material suitable for the purpose. Traffic on these roads became, of course, somewhat hampered, but this seemed more than justifiable. Events were to show that this emergency measure, coupled with the placing of various kinds of obstacles on airdromes, reducing the size of some and making others unfit for use, meant a great disadvantage to the Germans and seriously upset their calculations. Instead of reducing Holland to impotence in one day, on which it was proved later they had firmly counted, they had to fight hard for five days in order to overcome in the greater part of the country the stubborn resistance of the Dutch land forces.
Vigilance had reaped one of its rewards. Whatever margin the German General Staff may have allowed for errors of judgment and possible setbacks, it goes without saying that the execution of a plan designed to be carried out with clockwork precision must be seriously impaired if some important part of the project requires a period five times as long as had been counted on. Some measure of disorganization, loss of impetus and troops, as well as a chance for the opponent to improve his position must be the inevitable result.
In every sense, our military preparations were increased to the utmost. Leave was canceled on all sides; near the frontier, watchfulness was doubled. Roads and bridges could be blown up at a moment's notice; trees were ready
to be felled by dynamite with a view to obstructing roads.
How grave the Government thought the situation to be can be no more strikingly illustrated than by the fact that, whereas during the whole war of 1914-18, in which the Netherlands preserved its neutrality, not a strip of land was inundated in order to give support to the army, this time dykes were pierced and large stretches of country were flooded as early as the last days of August. Inundations form a characteristic element in the defenses of Holland. It is a well-known fact that every effort has to be made, day and night, to prevent, through means of powerful pumping installations, large areas of the country from being flooded by the sea or the large rivers, the Rhine, the Meuse and the Yssel. It is extraordinary to see, when comparing a modern map of Holland with one of, let us say, a thousand years ago, how much of the country as it now is, was gradually through arduous toil and great engineering skill reclaimed from the sea, and this reclaiming goes on until the present day. Only a year ago my wife and I motored across country with waving cornfields on either side of the road, over which we had spent many a happy day sailing not five years before when it was still at the bottom of the "Zuyderzee." The picturesque isle of Urk is an isle no longer and is now reached by motor car. Large areas of valuable and fertile land have thus been added to the country--the only way in which Holland ever wishes to increase its "Lebensraum."
This explains why very considerable tracts of land are
below sea level. So large a part does water play in our country that the Netherlands even have a separate Governmental department, with a Cabinet Minister at its head, to deal with "Waterstaat"--the state of the water. Water has had a great influence on the formation of the Dutch national character: it has bred into the Dutch race perseverance, steadfast purpose, patience, endurance and courage. Floods have often in the past ravaged the Dutch countryside; but if to that extent the water has been a constant foe, it was not only by bringing out the qualities just mentioned that this uncertain element has many a time proved itself a benefactor to the people of Holland. For in times of war, inundations have often in history rendered great service to the Dutch. Even for a modern army, as the German campaign in Holland of May, 1940, confirmed, flooded areas are a very serious obstacle; did not the Yser inundations make it possible for the Belgians in the last war to occupy right up to the armistice that last strip of their territory in Flanders where King Albert and his valiant soldiers held their own to the very last?
Inundations, in order to form a military obstacle of the first order, need not be deep; all that is necessary is about four to five feet of water. If barbed wire entanglements are placed on the bottom, that makes them even more effective. This was done by the Dutch wherever the nature of the terrain permitted, and through the engineering skill of the Dutch sappers and the Waterstaat personnel inundations were prepared in places where this was not
naturally possible. If, in May, 1940, the German onslaught on Holland was held up for five days, one of the decisive factors was the fact that the flooded areas made a frontal attack well-nigh impossible.
The mobilization of the Dutch army and navy was completed in four or five successive stages. A surprise attack, a lightning stroke on the part of Germany, or, for that matter, any other power, thus seemed out of the question. It should be emphasized that the Netherlands Government took measures on the sea frontiers as well as on the land frontiers of the country; whereas on the latter the army was conspicuous, our naval forces were prominent along the coast. In this manner the country demonstrated its firm determination to observe a well-balanced neutrality, even before the war around it actually began.