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The German invasion of the Netherlands

War in europe

On September 1, 1939, the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland. Two days later, Great Britain and France, two allies of Poland, declare war on the German Reich. The Second World War has begun, but after the German occupation of Poland there is no fighting for a while. This period is referred to as a "shadow war" because everyone involved is aware that this is not the end of the armed conflict.

The Netherlands remain neutral

Neutrality has been a fundamental principle of Dutch foreign policy for a century in 1940. The Netherlands is staying out of international conflicts. Only in case of attack will the country take sides. This strategy worked during the First World War. The Netherlands was able to maintain its neutrality, the country was spared from fighting.

The Dutch government is therefore not taking an official position on the situation in the National Socialist German Reich. She does not want to give rise to hostility. This leads to remarkable situations: Dutch people who express criticism of Adolf Hitler's policies are prosecuted for insulting a “friendly head of state”.

Strategic interests of the Netherlands

The planned attack on the Netherlands is part of a larger attack plan codenamed Fall Gelb. The Germans aim to defeat France. They want to bypass the French defense line on the eastern border via the Netherlands and Belgium. The occupation of the Netherlands also enabled the Nazis to prevent Great Britain from establishing a base of operations on mainland Europe.

Germany wants to take Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg by surprise with a rapid attack, the so-called blitzkrieg. The Germans use spies to track down weaknesses in the Dutch defense. German officers disguise themselves as tourists and scout the area. You can also get information from Germans living in the Netherlands.

But not all German preparations are going smoothly. The Belgian army came into possession of German plans of attack when a German aircraft had to make an emergency landing in Belgium at the beginning of 1940. Hitler is therefore postponing the attack. The weather conditions also cause the time of the attack to be postponed several times.

Preparation for the German attack

In the Netherlands, the government is increasingly expecting a German attack. Soldiers will have to stay on duty longer and their vacation permits will be revoked. On April 19, 1940, the government even announced the state of siege. In this way, it can censor sensitive military information and imprison people who endanger the state. It is feared that members of the Dutch Nazi party NSB will help the Germans in an attack.

The Dutch population is unaware of many government measures. Of course, the military activities cannot be overlooked, but a war still seems a long way off. The government wants to prevent panic and calls on the population to “stay calm” and “calmly go about their usual activities”.

Germany invades the Netherlands

In the early morning hours of May 10, 1940, Dutch observers see German Luftwaffe bombers flying towards the North Sea. They believe these are on their way to the UK. Over the sea, the planes make a 180 degree turn and fly back to attack the Netherlands. The Netherlands is now at war.

Hitler justified the attack with a lie in order to influence public opinion. Great Britain and France would allegedly plan to attack the Ruhr area via the Netherlands and Belgium. Some of the German soldiers are therefore surprised that they are not British in the Netherlands

Failed attack on The Hague

Fighter planes bomb the military airports and barracks around The Hague. After that, parachutists land and German machines fly in soldiers. The Germans promise a quick victory if they take the Dutch government and Queen Wilhelmina hostage. This fails due to the fierce resistance of the Dutch military and strategic errors on the German side.

German successes

The German troops attack the Netherlands in the south as well. Dutch soldiers blow up bridges here to slow the German advance. That doesn't work everywhere. The strategically important railway bridge near Gennep falls into the hands of Wehrmacht soldiers by a trick. Dressed in Dutch uniforms, they overpower the Dutch soldiers.

The Dutch army fights the German Wehrmacht on Grebbeberg in the Netherlands for three days. This line of defense consisted partly of flooded terrain. So the intruders were temporarily stopped. Nevertheless, the Grebbelinie falls on May 13th.

Queen Wilhelmina flees to Great Britain

The Germans keep advancing. The Dutch army still has a few minor successes, but it cannot hold its own. The Council of Ministers advises Queen Wilhelmina to flee. Your safety is at stake. At first she refuses to leave the country, but the gravity of the situation forces her to do so. A warship takes her to Great Britain, where she is received by the British King.

The escape of the queen is a severe blow for the Dutch population. Until then, the newspapers have mainly reported on the Dutch successes. Now it turns out that the situation is more serious than expected. Some Dutch people criticize the queen and call her a coward. But during the occupation of the country, the queen will be an important symbol of the struggle against Nazi Germany.

Escape and Chaos

Not only the queen is fleeing. Many Dutch people have to leave their homes due to the violence of the war. One of the evacuated cities is Breda, where fierce fighting is expected. Heavily packed, tens of thousands of people set off on foot. During the evacuation there are fatalities due to the aerial battles. Since the city falls unexpectedly quickly into German hands, the residents can return to an intact city.

Others are fleeing not from the war, but from the Nazis. Most of them are people who had previously fled Germany: Jews and opponents of the Nazis. They fear that they will now be persecuted. Since there is fighting in the south of the Netherlands, many people try to get to Great Britain by ship. Only some of the refugees manage to do it. The others face an uncertain future.

Bombing of Rotterdam

Fierce fighting has been going on in Rotterdam since the attack began. The Germans fail to take the city. The German General Schmidt therefore gave the Dutch commander an ultimatum on May 14, 1940. If Rotterdam does not surrender by the afternoon of the same day, the city will be bombed.

The negotiators in Rotterdam do not know that the army leadership in Berlin has other plans. Hermann Göring, Commander in Chief of the Air Force, wants to force the entire Netherlands to surrender through bomb terror. Before the ultimatum has expired, German bombers appear on the horizon. They drop their bombs over the city center. When the smoke clears, 80,000 people are homeless and between 600 and 900 people are dead.

Surrender of the Netherlands

The Germans are threatening to bomb the city of Utrecht as well. The situation is hopeless for the Netherlands and they capitulate. General Winkelman signed the surrender document on May 15th in a school building in Rijsoord. The defeat is hard for the Dutch soldiers and civilians. At the same time, many Dutch people also feel relieved that the days of tension are over.

The situation is different for the Jewish population. She is most afraid of the Nazis. Some Jews fled Germany to the Netherlands in the 1930s and are now being overtaken by the Nazis. Hundreds of Jews committed suicide in the months following the attack.

After defeating the Netherlands, the Germans set up a new government on May 29th. At the top is Reichskommissar Arthur Seyß-Inquart, a Nazi from Austria. The Germans will rule the Netherlands for the next five years.

Why did the Netherlands lose the fight?

Contrary to what is sometimes assumed, the German attack was not entirely unexpected. The Netherlands had prepared well for war, but the policy of neutrality was an obstacle. It made it impossible to develop an adequate defense strategy together with Great Britain and France.

The condition of the Dutch army was not as bad as is sometimes claimed, but the Dutch war material was out of date and inadequate. In addition, there was not such a strong military tradition in the Netherlands as in the German Empire.

Nevertheless, there were successful military actions on the Dutch side. Unfortunately, the army command often lacked an overview, so that it was not possible to turn small successes into big victories.

Germany occupies Western Europe

After the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and parts of France also fall into German hands. The quick victory increases Hitler's popularity in Germany. Many Germans see him as satisfaction for the defeat in the First World War.

Western Europe is almost completely under German control in the summer of 1940. The neighboring countries behave neutrally or are allies of Germany. Only Britain is still free, but it is unthinkable that the British will be able to liberate Europe anytime soon.


Sources used
  • Amersfoort, Herman & Kamphuis, Piet (Red.), May 1940: De strijd op Nederlands grondgebied (Amsterdam: Boom, 2012, 4th revised edition).
  • Bijkerk, Rein, A korte oorlog: de slag om Nederland in mei 1940 (Amsterdam: Ambo / Anthos, 2015).
  • Have, Wichert ten, 1940: bewarring en aanpassing (Houten: Spectrum, 2015).