The NAZIs launched their long-awaited Western Offensive (May 10). The Wehrmacht first focused on the neutral Netherlands and Belgium to the south. There was no declaration of war or other warning. The Germans struck on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg. The Luftwaffe destroyed the small obsolete Dutch Air Force was hitvhard on the first day when the Germans seized a key air base. The Dutch Army could do little to impeded the power of the Wehrmact. The Dutch had assumed that as in World War I, the Germans would not invade. The British and French had anticipated that the Germans would attempt to outflank the Maginot Line by striking though Belgium. The cream of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were thus positioned on the Belgian frontier. The British and French responded by leaving their prepared defenses and moving north to releave the Dutch and Belgians. The terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the already hard-pressed Dutch Army to surrender (May 15), before the British could reach them. Queen Wilhelmina fled to London to establish a government-in-exile. Princess Juliana, the next in line, was sent to Canada in case Britain would also sucumb to the NAZI onslaught. The BEF and French units which moved north to aid cthe Dutch and Belgians were out of place when the main Germanblow struck in the Ardenes Thisc allowed the Germans to outflank the formidable Maginot Line. The French and Belgians considered the Ardenes impassable to tanks. The Germans managed to easily penetrate the rough terraine, crossed two substantial rivers, and the XIX Panzer Corps rapidly reached the English Channel--cutting the BEF off from the French and rendering the Maginot Line uselss. The French entrenched behind the Maginot Line simply could not cope with the exposive highly mobile style of Blitzkrieg warfare.
The Germans began planning the invasion of the Lowlands (Belgium. Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) during the Sudeten crisis. Hitler provoked the Sudeten Crisis (August 1938). For a time it looked like the war might result. Whermacht planners began to consider an attack on Belgium and the Netherlands. Tge primary objective was Czechoslovakia, but war in the West had to be considered as the British and French were supporting the Czechs. Wehrmacht planners saw the advantages of bases in these countries. They wiould provide the Luftwaffe nases from which attacks on Britain could be launched. At the time, Germany's industrial heart in the Ruhr was in range of Allied bombers, but Britain was beyond the reach of the Luftwaffee. Britain anf France abandobed Czechoslovakia at Munich, but war was not averted, only postponed. Hitler in violation of the Munich accords seized Czecheslovakia (March 1939) and then began another crisis, this time targeting Poland. Hitler told hos military commanders that he had made an irrevocable decision to attack Poland, and foresaw the possibility at least of a war with England and France (May 1939). He did not think Prime Minister Chamberlain in particular would have the spine to fight, but it was clearly a possibility requiring planning. As a result, he ordered that "Dutch and Belgian air bases must be occupied .. Declarations of neutrality must be ignored." His concern here was the Ruhr which he described as Germany's 'Achilles heel'. The Allies declared war when Hitler invaded Poland (September 1939), but did not attack Germany. After Poland was occupied, the Phoney War resulted in the West. But the Ruhr was still vulnerable to Allied attack. The Allies did not bomb the Ruhr at this time, but the Ruhr would later became the focus of the Allied Startegic Bombing Campaign.
After the defeat of Poland, the Whermacht planners focused on the West. Hitler told his Wehrmacht adjutant Rudolf Schmundt even before the fighting in Poland was still in progress that he believed France could be defeated andcthe British brought to terms (Seotember 12). He still had the illusion that the Britishand French would come to their sences and make peace while at the sane time preparing for war. He informed the service commanders to prepare for an attack in the West (September 27). At the same time he offered peace to the British and French. At a Reichstag speech he offered peace (October 6). Even before the British abd French rejected the offer, he issued Führer Directive No. 6, ordering a massive western offensive. The Oberkommando of the Heer (Army General Staff--OKW) developed many plans were developed for what became Fall Gelb (Case Yellow). Invasion dates were postponed and plans changed. Hitler rejected several of the plans proposed by dominated by the Commander-in-chief Walther von Brauchitsch and Chief-of-Staff General Franz Halder. Hitler came to support a strategy propsed by Gerd von Rundstedt and Erich von Manstein--the two commanders who became the leading faces of the Wehrmacht.
They departed from the general opinion at OKW. The plan Hitler approved became known as "Sichelschnitt (Sickle Stroke). One British historian describes it as the World War I Schileffen Plan in reverse. [Keegan, pp. 54-60.] It involved Army Group B commanded by General Fedor von Brock attacking the Netherlands and northern Belgium to draw the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and French out of their fixed defenses on the Belgian frontier. Army Group C commanded by General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb would engage the French forces on the Maginot Line to tie down the bulk of the French Army. The main force with the bulk of the Panzers was Army Group B commanded by Rundstedt would then strike through the thinly defennded Ardennes, cross the Meuse River and break through to the Channel. If the BEF and French moved north they could attack this force from the rear. Even if they did not, the Germans believed that with the surprise achieved, they still had a good chance of success.
The German Army Group B and the Luftwaffe launched their long-awaited Western Offensive (May 10). The Dutch were surprised and unprepared. They assumed that as in World War I, the Germans would not invade. They were, however, dealing with a very different Germany. Hitler had demonstrated after Munich that he had no regard for treaties and accepted standards of diplomatic behavior. The Wehrmacht in fact first focused on the neutral Netherlands and Belgium to the south. There was no declaration of war or other warning. The Germans struck with massive force on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg and their small armies.
Late at night, outposts along the Dutch and Luxenbourg frontiers with Germany began reporting intense activity and movement of military vehicles.
The surprise attack began before dawn when Luftwaffe bombers attacked early in the morning. The initial objective was to destroy the small Dutch Air Force. The first target was Waalhaven airfield just south of Rotterdam. This was the first sugnificant use of paratroops in warfare and something the Dutch had not anticipated. The bombers were followed by a paratroop drop to seize the airfield. Dutch troops at Waalhaven resisted, butwere overwealmed by the German paratroopers. This gave the Germans a key air base in the Netherlands. And during the first say the Germans desroyed half of the Dutch Air Force, 62 planes out of the 125 planecv force. The Luftwaffe began bombing the city and harbour of Rotterdam. In the midst of the onslaught, German diplomats in the Netherlands, Belgium, amd Luxembourg a memorandum claiming that the British and French Armies, with the consent of Belgian and Dutch Government, were planning to launch an offensive through the Lowlands to attack the Ruhr. There was no such plan, but this was the German justifation for the invasionn. The Germans in the memorandum assured the Dutch and Belgians that their territorial integrity and possessions would be respected. More paratroopers were dropped on Dordrecht, 10 miles to the south-east. Their objective was the strategic bridge. Possession permitted the Germans to move armor and troop carriers into the Netherlands. The small Dutch Air Force also fought back. They attacked the Waalhaven airfield seized by the Germans four times, destroying a number of Luftwaffe planes. By the end of the first day, the Germans held Waalhaven airbase and the key Dordrecht Brudge. They also entered the southern outskirts of Rotterdam. They used Waalhaven to bring in troops. The Germans used 250 Junkers 52 transport planes to airlift the troops.
The Dutch plan of defense was the samne they have used in their long fight against the Spanish and French--retreat into a bastion around the low-lying area around Amsterdam and Rotterdam. [Keegan, pp. 65.] There from fortress Holland they could use canals and rivers to fight off the invading force. The German seizure of Waalhaven and the use of Junkers transports to bring in troops, however, meant that the entire German 22nd Airborn Division was in the heart of the Netherlands and awaiting Army Group B's Panzers. They were lightly armed, but Dutch military commanders failed to mount an all out attack. The Germans began broadcasts demanding that the Dutchb surrender. “Surrender, or we will bomb every city in the country flat to the ground like Rotterdam”. The Dutch forces contibued to surrender. The Dutch cut trees and built barricades on the roads. They blew up bridges to delay the attacking Germans. Several German attemps to seize key bridges failed. The major battle at Grebbeberg began.
The Dutch used small naval craft to impede the German advance. Canals and other watersway criss cross thec country. To support them Commander-in Chief of the Royal Netherlands Navy, Vice-Admiral Fürstner, ordered naval ships into the waterways. The destroyer Van Galen' entered the
Nieuwe Waterweg. Unable to maneuver, the ship was targeted by Luftwaffe bombers and was badly damaged. After the seizure of the outposts the previous day, the focus of the German force was on capturing the Frontline, which ran along the eastern slope of the Grebbeberg. The Dutch reinforcements begin to arrive in the afternoon.
Army Group B Panzer spearheads joined up with the 22nd Division paratroopers at Waalhaven. The Germans now had the heavy weapons need to complete the occupation of the Netherlands. After thard fighting, the Germans gain the upperhand at
The Germans decided to smash Dutch resistance by mounting a masive attack on Rotterdam. The assault on Rotterdam began (May 14). They claimed British troops were landing on the Maas River, threatening German positions. The Luftwaffe bombed the seaport. The city center was devestated. Nearly 1,000 people were killed, although initial press reports were higher. It was widely believed at the time to be a NAZI terror bombing. This was a tactic in the NAZI War effort. Hitler describes the tactic as "Schrecklichkeit" (frightfulness), the use of terror to break a country's will to resist. It worked. The German ground attack began after nonnon and within hours the Germans were in the center iof the city. An estimated 30,000 civilian were killed or wounded. Finally the German threat to bomb Utrecht, convinced the Dutch government to surrender. The terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the already hard-pressed Dutch Army to surrender to save Utrecht. Queen Wilhilmina embarked con a Royal Navy ship. He at first asked to be landed in another Dutch port. She remarked, "... in due course, with God's help, the Netherland's will regain their European territory."
The Government after the Luftwaffe's bombing of Rotterdam andcthecdeparturecof the Queen ordered Dutch forces to cease resistabnce (May 15). Dutch commanders were ordered to destroy all their ammunition.
Scattered resistance continued for 2 days after the surrender. The rest of the Netherlands was in German hands (May 16). Dutch forces resisted at the Ypenburg and Ockenburg air bases. German transport planes trying to land troops were shot down.
A Dutch readers tells us about his experience. "I remember the events in May 1940 very well. I was 11 years old when the Germans invaded Holland. We heard and saw the airplanes covering the sky. My father and I were standing in the backyard of our house.
My father had tears in his eyes and kept repeating: "This is terrible. This is terrible". The weather was beautiful, sunny and warm. It was May 10th. The next day everybody in our street was ordered to leave their house, since the Dutch and Germans were fighting nearby. We were allowed to take some clothes in suitcases and we moved in with people who could stay where they were a few miles away, out of the frontline. Fortunately it only lasted 3 days and we were allowed to return. Nothing happened to our houses and possesions, but there was dead cattle and horses in the fields. In the meantime the Germans came marching in, endless columns on foot, on bicycles, cars and horseback. Later the tanks came and even a music band playing those German marches. We started talking to some Germans and our neighbor told them in German: "Wir sind verraten worden", "We have been betrayed".
We noticed the ashes in the air from the attack on Rotterdam, at that time not really knowing what happened, but fearing the worst. After 5 days it was over. We had no idea what was in store for us, 5 years of hardship and suffering. But that was the next chapter." [Stueck]
Queen Wilhelmina fled to London to establish a government-in-exile. Princess Juliana, the next in line, was sent to Canada in case Britain would also sucumb to the NAZI onslaught. Queen Wilhelmina fled to London after the German invasion. Important Dutch officials like Prime Minister de Geer also reached London. They at first hoped that France would conterattack and quickly liberate their country, but soon the enormity of the NAZI victory became apparent. The British and French moved north to come to their assistnce, but were soon cut off and forced to evacuate at Dunkirk. The French srrender and Marshall Petain's decession to collaborate with the NAZIs through the Vichy regime raised the issue of what the Dutch should do, At the time the NAZI victory seem overwealming. Britain itself looked like it might be the next country to fall. De Geer in fact wanted to return to the Netherlands and colaborate with the NAZIs. The Quuen was adament there would be no collaboration. She fired de Geer anf appointed Gerbrandy. While the Netherlands was occupied, there were colonial pssessions, especially the Dutch East Indies, one of the most important oil ptoducers at the time. The Quuen through her support bhind the British and hoped for eventual American entry into the War. Her action after the War received the support of the Dutch Parliament (1946). Her decisive action impressed Churchill who called her "the only man in the Dutch government".
The British and French had anticipated that the Germans would attempt to outflank the Maginot Line by striking though Belgium. The cream of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were thus positioned on the Belgian frontier. The British and French responded by leaving their prepared defenses and moving north to releave the Dutch and Belgians. The Dutch Army could do little to impeded the power of the Wehrmact. They surrendered before the BEF could reach them. Buth the Allied rush north had disaterous consequences. When the Army Group A Germans broke through in the Ardennes, they did not encounter strong French units are the BEF. Rather they encountered what most military commanders can only dream about, the rear of an attacking army.
King Leopold was an advocate of a more independent foreign policy for Belgium before World War II, Leopold twice urged mediation of the conflict between NAZI Germany and the Western Allies in the months immediately before and after the outbreak of war in 1939. Belgium remained strictly neutral, but was invaded by the Germans for a second time in the Spring of 1940. King Leopold before the War had promoted the construction of important defensive fortifications from Antwerp to Namur in front of the German border. His actions as Commander and Chief of the Army during the German invasion of 1940 has been criticized by some Belgians and the British and French. Leopold, with the bulk of the Belgian Army, was surrounded by the Germans, and capitulated. Leopold ordered his army to surrender and refused to flee with officials to form a government-in-exile in England. His actions were resented by some Belgians. His surrender at a crucial point in the battle for the low countries left a critical gap in the Allied ring around Dunkirk and could have made the evacuation impossible if the Germans had pressed their attack. King Leopold aroused further criticism by his marriage in 1941 to a commoner, who was some looked on as pro-NAZI. To many Belgians, Leopold's surrender to the NAZI's forces were in stark contrast to his father's gallant resistance to the Kaiser's Army during World War I. Other Belgians believe that the King has been unfairly criticized. King Leopold showed great courage by subsequently refusing to administer his country under German control and lend any appearance of legitimacy to the NAZI occupation government. Leopold was held prisoner by the Germans until the end of the war, first in his castle at Laeken, Brussels, and later deep in Germany itself.
The BEF and French units which moved north to aid the Dutch and Belgians were out of place when the main German blow struck in the Ardenes. This allowed the main German force, Army Group A, to outflank the formidable Maginot Line. The French and Belgians considered the Ardenes impassable to tanks. To the amazement of the French, the Panzers penetrated the Ardenees crossed the Meuse River. Desperate French actions to hold at the Meuse River failed. RAF efforts to stop the German crossing at the Meuse lead to very subastanial losses of fighter aircraft. The Germans managed to easily penetrate the rough terraine. The critical breakthrough at Sedan ocuured (May 13), ahead of OKW's timetable. Army Group A crossed two substantial rivers, and the XIX Panzer Corps rapidly reached the English Channel. The French despite possessing some excellent tanks were totally unprepared for modern mechanized warfare. This cut the BEF off from the French and rendering the Maginot Line uselss. The French entrenched behind the Maginot Line simply could not cope with the exposive highly mobile style of Blitzkrieg warfare. After crossing the Meuse, the Panzers raced to the Channel ofter flat country side. Rommel's Panzer division was at he head. Only a few days into the offensive, Premier Reynaud reported that there was nothing between the Panzers and Paris (May 14). The Panzers, however, moved west to the Channel. The goal was to cut off and destroy the BEF and Fench forces to the north in Belgium. Paris could wait.
Keegan, John. The Second World War (Penguin: New York, 199o), 607p.
Stueck, Rudi. E-mail, June 22, 2010.
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