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The Battle of Rotterdam was fought during the Battle of the Netherlands in which the Germans attempted to seize the city. It would end following the bombing of Rotterdam.

Prelude

Rotterdam had no prepared defences and had not been included in any strategic defence plan. It was relatively far from the boundaries of Fortress Holland and some distance from the coast. The troops stationed in Rotterdam belonged to training establishments and some smaller miscellaneous units. A modern artillery battalion with 12 105 mm guns was located in Hillegersbergmarker. Its guns had a range of over 16,000 meters, sufficient for almost anywhere around Rotterdam. The garrison commander was a military engineer, Colonel Scharroo. The garrison consisted of about 7,000 men - of which only 1,000 had a combat function (Marines, 39RI). Around the Nieuwe Maasmarker seven platoons of light anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) were deployed; they were equipped with heavy machine guns and 2 cm Oerlikons and Scottis. One battery of heavy AAA was stationed north of the Nieuwe Maas. There were also two more batteries of heavy AAA and four AAA platoons in the Waalhaven area.

The original German plan had foreseen a taskforce from Waalhaven that would smash into town and seize the bridges over the Nieuwe Maas - using the advantage of surprise. When the plans were re-evaluated the chances of a taskforce being able to achieve success were rated below acceptable, so the Germans devised a daring new plan (some believe that Hermann Göring himself came up with the idea). Twelve specially adapted float-planes (Heinkel He-59Ds), would land on the Nieuwe Maas with two platoons of the 11th Company of the 16th Air Landing Regiment, plus four engineers and a three man company troop. These 90 men would seize the bridges. They would be reinforced by a 36 man strong platoon of airborne soldiers [3rd platoon 11./Fjr1]. They were scheduled to land at the Feynoord football stadium, close to the Nieuwe Maas. Subsequently, units from Waalhavenmarker would be sent in with additional support weapons.

The Landing

X-hour was set at (time) on (date); one hour later, the twelve Heinkel He 59 seaplanes landed on the Nieuwe Maas. Rubber boats were launched. Each boat could carry six soldiers and their equipment. The boats landed on both banks of the river and an island. The Germans quickly seized some of the bridges, which were not guarded. The only resistance they met was from some Dutch policemen.

Oberstleutnant von Choltitz, the commander of the 3rd Battalion of 16.IR, began to organize his troops after landing at Waalhaven Air Force Base. He sent them to the bridges in Rotterdam. The Dutch had not stationed many soldiers in the southern part of the city. One unit was made up of butchers and bakers and about 90 infantrymen, the latter being reinforced by riflemen who had withdrawn from the airfield. The Dutch troops hid in houses that were on the route to the bridges. There they ambushed the approaching German troops. Both sides suffered casualties. The Germans managed to bring up a PAK anti-tank gun. The Dutch had to yield under the ever increasing pressure. The German force then moved on to the bridges, quickly followed by the bulk of 9./16.IR.

Meanwhile, the staff of III./16.IR had run into the Dutch in the square. Oberstleutnant von Choltitz's adjutant took charge of an assault on the Dutch position but was mortally wounded in the process. When the Germans looked for another route to the bridges, around the Dutch stronghold, they managed to find the wedge that the pioneers had created along the quays. It was at about 0900 hours that the bulk of III./IR16 (minus 10./) made contact with the Noordereiland occupants of the bridges.

The Dutch company in the south of the city was able to stand its ground until well into the afternoon of the 10 May. It was then assaulted by the newly landed 10./IR16, assisted by mortars of 12./IR16 on the Noordereiland. The Dutch surrendered when they ran out of ammunition.

The Battle

Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft burning at Rotterdam.

May 10

The Dutch troops in the north of town had been alarmed by the noises of war, especially the roaring of planes overhead. The garrison headquarters were temporarily manned by only a Captain, who had the troops assemble and coordinated the distribution of ammo. Many small detachments were sent out to the bridges, the three railway stations nearby and areas around the Nieuwe Maas where landings had been reported. The Germans had noticed the activity on the Dutch side and the first contacts with the Dutch forced them to compress their bridgehead around the bridges.

The first Dutch counter measures were executed by a small delegation of Dutch Marines and an incomplete army engineers company. The Dutch took positions around the small German pocket north of the bridges and started deploying machine guns at numerous strategic points. Soon the first serious fire exchanges between the invaders and regular Dutch army units were seen and heard. Gradually the Germans were pushed back to the confines of the narrow perimeter around the traffic bridge. Both sides suffered quite considerable losses.

Gradually the Dutch fist around the German bridgehead grew tighter. The airlanding troops were squeezed into a quickly shrinking pocket. It was said that many civilians watched the battle. Half way the morning the Dutch navy had assigned two small navy vessels to assist the defenders at the bridges. It was a small and obsolete gunboat and an MTB. Twice the gunboat raided the Germans at the traffic bridge on the north side of the Noordereiland. The second time accompanied by the MTB. About 75 shells of 7,5 cm were unleashed on the invaders, but with little effect. During the second attempt the Luftwaffe dropped a number of bombs on the navy ships, that caused some quite substantial damage on the small MTB. Both ships retired after the bomb attack. They had suffered 3 men KIA.

Meanwhile the Germans had been reinforced with a number of PAK AT guns and a few infantry guns. They had manned the houses along the north side of the island with heavy machine gun crews and placed a few 8 cm mortars in the centre of the island. The continuous battle for the northern river bank had caused the Germans to withdraw to a large Insurance Company building, at the head of the traffic bridge. Due to the bad firing angles the Dutch had on the building, the Germans were able to hold the building without much difficulty. Dutch troops occupying nearby houses were forced to fall back, due to accurate and sustained mortar fire. That stalemate - commencing mid afternoon of 10 may - would remain unchanged until the surrender of the Netherlands on the 14th.

Colonel van Scharroo - aware that his small garrison was dealing with a serious German attack - had requested substantial reinforcements in The Hague. Many reinforcements would be sent, all coming from the reserves behind the Grebbe linemarker or from the East front of the Fortress of Holland.

May 11

During the night and in the early morning the garrison commander Scharroo received reinforcements from the northern sector of Fortress Holland. Colonel Scharroo reorganised his defences. He deployed troops along the entire river and to the west, north and east of the city. The latter was done because the Colonel feared actions from landed Germans against the city from these directions. His small staff was very much occupied with the numerous reports about phantom landings and treacherous civilian actions. The arrival of new units, the redeployment of the defences and the intensive coordination of all reports about phony landings and civilian subversion occupied the staff to such an extend that no organised counter-measures against the German bridgehead would be feasible on the 11th.

At 4AM, the fighting re-erupted around the Bridgehead. The German spearhead was still formed by their occupation [about 40-50 men] of an Insurance building north of the traffic bridge. This building and its occupation had become isolated from the balance of the German forces by Dutch progress on the 10th. All Dutch attempts to seize the building failed, but so did all German attempts to resupply or reinforce them. German dare devils that tried to reach the building by crossing the bridge by motorbike or car were either shot or forced back. The bridge had become a no-go area, dominated by machine guns from both sides.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force assisted the ground forces upon request from Scharroo. Dutch bombers began dropping bombs on the bridges, and although all of them missed, astray bombs did hit German positions nearby the bridge taking out a number of MG nests. Another raid followed, but that time the Luftwaffe responded by means of twelve Bf-110's patrolling the skies overhead. The Dutch bombers did raid the bridges but were jumped on by the German fighters right after. The Germans lost 5 planes compared to 3 of the Dutch, but to the small Dutch airforce it had been a heavy toll.

The Germans had used the HAL ship HMS Statendam for positioning some of their machine guns. These positions attracted Dutch attention obviously and soon mortar and machine gun fire was aimed at the German positions on the ship and the adjacent installations. Many fires broke out and the ship itself caught fire too. The Germans quickly evacuated the vessel that would continue to burn until well after the capitulation on the 14th.

May 12

On the 12th, fighting continued where it had ended the previous day. Although the Dutch didn't regain control over the town, the Germans were suffering from continuous assaults on their positions. Casualties mounted up at both sides and the German command grew increasingly worried over the status of their about 500 men troops in the heart of Rotterdam. Even to such extend that Oberstleutnant von Choltitz was allowed by Generalleutnant Kurt Student to withdraw his men from the Northern pocket should he consider the operational situation fit.

To the north-east of Rotterdam, at the village of Overschiemarker, the left over forces of both the air landings at Ockenburg and Ypenburg assembled. General Graf von Sponeck had moved the remainder of his force from Ockenburgmarker to Overschie, negotiating between Dutch forces in the area. In the village of Wateringenmarker the Germans bumped into a guard squad of a Dutch command post and when two armoured cars appeared to support the Dutch defenders, the Germans backed-off and took a detour. The majority of the Von Sponeck's group succeeded in reaching the village Overschie, where they joint up with the already present Germans of the forces that had survived the Ypenburg battle.

May 13

On the evening of the 12th the commander-in-chief of the Dutch troops in Rotterdam, Colonel Scharroo, received orders from the General Headquarters to put all his efforts in clearing the German resistance at the northern land head and eventually destroy the bridges. That order was a direct consequence of the arrival of the 9th Tank Division at the Moerdijk bridges, which had instantly become a mortal jeopardy to the Dutch defence of the Fortress Holland. It had to be stopped by all means. Commander of the local marines, Colonel Von Frijtag Drabbe, was ordered to destroy every German pocket of resistance on the north end and next occupy the northern bridge approach in order to secure the area and prepare the bridge for destruction. He formed a company (a little over 100 men) of his most experienced marines. Another company of navy auxiliary troops, also with a strength of about 100 men, was provided as back-up. These two companies would be supported by two batteries of modern 105 mm howitzers and two armoured cars. Also a company of six 81 mm mortars was attached to the taskforce.

As the marines advanced they were soon suppressed by fierce German machine gun fire from the south. The artillery had not fired a single round until this point, but after a brief contact with the artillery battalion commander a number of volleys were fired. All the rounds fell short or over, and after corrections failed to improve the accuracy the artillery ceased fire. Meanwhile the two armoured cars [DAF M.39] had arrived and tried to approach the bridge. The Germans responded to their appearance with fierce anti-tank fire, crippling one of the cars. Although the damaged car was able to retreat, it could no longer contribute to the assault. The second car stayed at a safe distance and wasn't able to challenge the Germans in the Insurance Building. Since also the commander of the mortar company convinced the Colonel that his mortars would not be able to lay effective fire on the high building, the assault on this eastern side of the bridgehead was cancelled.

From the Northwest a full platoon of marines advanced along the Nieuwe Maas and reached the northern land head without any German challenge. They were however unaware of the occupation of the Insurance building by the Germans. Nobody had briefed them on that tiny detail. When the platoon started crossing the bridge they were quickly spotted and the Germans opened fire from both sides. Many marines were hit, mostly fatal. The marines nevertheless immediately returned fire with their carbines and light machine guns. It was however impossible to survive the German fire that surrounded them. After a few more marines fell, the remainder retreated. Some were killed while falling back, others found shelter underneath the bridge, but were unable to leave this shelter again. The rest of the marines had found shelter under the bridge, at the northern end. They found themselves soon engaged in a fire fight with a small group of Germans also taking shelter here. The Germans in the Insurance Building kept on launching suppressive fire at this group too. The group retreated, leaving behind some casualties. After the war the German occupants of the Insurance building would honestly admit that they themselves had been on the verge of surrender. They had been very short on ammo, half of them had been wounded and they had reached the point of utter exhaustion. But just when they were about to yield, the marines had disappeared.

It was clear to the Dutch senior officers in Rotterdam that with the failed action against the bridges, all hope would have to be fixed on a successful defence of the northern river bank. In order to achieve such a firm defence, seven infantry companies were ordered to form a screen along the river. Both bridges were covered by three anti-tank guns each, and the three batteries 105 mm howitzers at the Kralingse Plas were ordered to prepare barrages on both land heads.

In the meantime the first German tanks had arrived in the southern outskirts of Rotterdam. The commanding German General Schmidt - commander of XXXIX.AK - was very reluctant to launch an all out tank assault across the bridges to the north side. They had received the reports of firm Dutch opposition and the presence of both Dutch artillery and anti-tank guns. The losses of tanks at the Island of Dordrecht and during an attempted bridge crossing at Barendrecht - where all four tanks had been destroyed by one AT gun - had impressed the Germans to such an extent that they were convinced that only a tactical aerial bombardment of the direct vicinity of the northern land head could break the Dutch resistance.

It was around this time that the German high command got involved. Hermann Goering wanted to launch an all-out aerial bombardment on the city centre. However, both Schmidt and Student were opposed to the idea and believed that all that was needed was a tactical bombardment. General Georg von Küchler, commander-in-chief over the Dutch operational area, sent instructions to Schmidt that in the morning of the 14th an ultimatum had to be presented to the Dutch local commander in which unconditional capitulation of the city would be demanded.

May 14

In the morning of the 14th General Schmidt prepared a quick note in the form of an ultimatum, which was to be handed over to the Dutch commander of Rotterdam. The text of the ultimatum was set in Dutch. Three German negotiators, with the ultimatum of Schmidt, appeared at the Maas bridges. The three men held the banner of truce, but were nevertheless treated harshly by the Dutch. They were stripped of all their weapons, which were thrown into the water, and than blindfolded. The men were then guided to the command post of Colonel Scharroo in the city.

Scharroo was handed the letter, which said that if resistance did not cease it would result that the Germans would take the worst thinkable measures of destruction against Rotterdam. Scharroo called the General Headquarters and was shortly after called back with instructions from Winkelman. The ultimatum had to be returned to the German commander with the reply that only a duly undersigned ultimatum, together with statement of name and rank of the commanding officer would be accepted by the Dutch as a legitimate parliamentary letter of ultimatum.

Colonel Scharroo sent his adjutant - Captain J.D. Backer - to the Germans with the Dutch reply. Meanwhile Göring had ordered the KG.54 - with its 90 He-111 bombers - to take off from three bases near Bremen. Geschwader commander Oberst Lackner led two-third of his wing on to a course that would bring them on to the target from a northeastern angle. The other 27 bombers were commanded by Oberstleutnant Hohne and would approach Rotterdam from the south. Estimated time of arrival over the target was 1320 hrs, Dutch time.

The Bombing

The Germans accepted the reply from Scharroo. General Schmidt had his interpreter quickly draw up a new letter, more extended than the first time too, giving the Dutch until 1620 hrs (Dutch time) to comply. He undersigned the new ultimatum with his name and function. When Captain Backer was being escorted back by Oberstleutnant von Choltitzt to the Maasbridhe, German bombers appeared from the south in the direction of the north of Rotterdam. General Schmidt - who was joined by the Generals Student and von Hubicki - saw the planes and cried out "My God, this is going to be a catastrophe!"

Panic struck German soldiers on the Noordereiland, most of which were totally unaware of the events playing between the top brass of both sides. They feared being raided by their own bombers. Von Choltitz ordered red flares to be launched, and when the first three bombers overhead dropped their bombs the red bullets swung in the smoke covered sky over Rotterdam. The next 24 bombers of the southern formation closed their bomb hatches and turned westwards.

The other, much larger formation, came from the northeast. It comprised 60 bombers under Oberst Lackner. Due to the dense smoke the formation had been ordered to lower the flightdeck and as such the angle with the Noordereiland in the south decreased dramatically. Not a chance that red flares - if at all seen - would be spotted in time before the bombs would be dropped. Indeed the entire formation unloaded over the Rotterdam city-centre. A mixture of 250 and 50 kg bombs rained over the defenceless city.

800–900 people were killed, over 80,000 people lost their homes and more than 25,000 buildings were destroyed.
The bombing of Rotterdam.


Surrender

The Dutch defences were hardly hit by the raid and basically stayed intact. Soon enough though the fires started threatening some of their positions. The troops started to pull back. In the meantime Colonel Scharroo - by then totally isolated from The Hague since all communication lines had been destroyed - had to decide over the fate of the defence of Rotterdam. The Mayor and his aldermen insisted that the city had to capitulate. The Colonel sent them away. He realized that his decision would not only decide over the fate of Rotterdam, but possibly over that of the whole country. After a brief moment of deliberation Scharroo made the decision to capitulate, which General Winkelman approved of by means of his direct representative, Lieutenant-Colonel Wilson. The latter would convey the Colonels decision - which he had sanctioned on behalf of the CIC - to General Winkelman later that afternoon. The General concurred.

The Colonel himself accompanied by his adjutant and a Sergeant Major went to the bridges to present the capitulation of the city. He met General Schmidt at the bridge and expressed his resentment over the broken word of a senior officer of the German Wehrmacht. General Schmidt - himself surprised by the Luftwaffe action - could do nothing else than express his appreciation. He replied: "Herr Oberst, ich verstehe wann Sie bitter sind" ['Colonel, I fully appreciate your bitterness'].

At around 1800 hrs the first German troops started to work their way through the blazing town. The Dutch troops in Rotterdam did no longer resist. They had laid-off their arms, as ordered by their commanding officer. In the evening the Germans reached Overschiemarker, where a brief skirmish with a local Dutch outfit - unaware of the cease fire - cost one SS man his life still.

Aftermath

Meanwhile a meeting took place between Captain Backer - being the official representative of the Dutch commander Scharroo - and the Germans led by Generalleutnant Student. The meeting was intended to arrange the final details of the surrender. Scharroo had refused to attend. He was very upset about the German "breach of their word of honour" and refused any further contact with them whatsoever.

At the same time a Dutch battalion was assembling for their surrender - as ordered by the German military authority. For security reasons a huge white flag was waived to also arriving SS men. Suddenly the German SS battalion, seeing so many armed Dutch troops in the square, started shooting. General Student, who had just opened the meeting, ran to the window and about the same time was hit by a bullet in the head. He fell, still conscious, but was severely wounded. It took the skill of a Dutch surgeon to save his life. He would recover but remain hospitalized until January 1941. The German soldiers considered the fact that their famous General had been shot a yellow act of Dutch betrayal. All Dutch soldiers and officers, including citizens present, were lined up by the outraged SS in order to be executed on the spot. Machine guns were positioned in front of them. However, Oberstleutnant Von Coltitz - present at the meeting too - stopped the execution. An investigation was launched and later proved that it had been a stray German bullet that had hit Student.

References

  1. Dutch History Site



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