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The Netherlandsmarker became involved in World War II on May 10, 1940, when Germanmarker forces invaded the country and quickly overran it. On December 7, 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbormarker, the Netherlands government in exile also declared war on Japanmarker. The country was not fully liberated until the surrender of Germany on May 5, 1945 (though the southern and eastern parts had already been liberated during and after Operation Market Garden which started in 1944).


In World War I, the Netherlands had been neutral, and when World War II broke out in August 1939, most people believed that the country would be able to stay out of this war as well. The Dutch army did immediately mobilize their army, in 1939. But it wasn't on its full strength until April 1940.

The months of 'Phoney War' that followed the situation seemed to justify this attitude - though there were some incidents, most notably the Venlo incident, where two members of the Britishmarker SISmarker were abducted and one Dutch intelligence officer killed by members of the German Abwehr. Also the army led by General Winkelman, thought they would come over the borders with tanks. This wasn't true. In 1940 the Germans landed throughout all of the Netherlands. Only the "Afsluitdijkmarker" managed to resist the Axis forces a bit.

In the first months of 1940, the government started to receive worrying signals from Berlinmarker. The Dutch military attaché there, Major Bert Sas, had established good relations with Colonel Hans Oster, who occupied a high position in the Abwehr. Oster warned Sas about German plans for an offensive against the Netherlands, Belgiummarker and Francemarker; warnings that Sas passed on to his government. However, these warnings were not taken seriously, because the offensive was postponed several times and Sas' predictions never came true. The last warning of Hans Oster was a call he made to the Dutch embassy stating "10 May this time I am sure of it" and this time it turned out to be true.

Nonetheless, in the first days of May 1940, the Dutch government received several indications of German activity near the border: on May 7, all leave was cancelled and the army was put on alert. Finally, on May 10, 3:55, the German army invaded the Netherlands.

The Dutch defence plans

In 1940, the Netherlands had known peace for over a hundred years, its last war having been the Belgian Revolution of 1830. Therefore, and also because of widespread pacifism during the 1920s and 1930s, its army was in a sorry state.Most of the Dutch army units where equipped with carbines dating from 1890, and the Netherlands had no real war industry to fight out a prolonged war. When World War I ended, the Dutch politicians decided that the army was no longer necessary to protect the Netherlands, the League of Nations was there to protect them . Due to the Great Depression, the politicians decided to cut down on the army as it was too expensive to maintain.

The drafting was slowly being cut back from 24 months of training to 6, barely enough to get everyone properly trained in military matters. Another impeding issue was funds. In 1918 the Dutch army was considered a joke, with most of its equipment already outdated by then. Not until 1936 did the Dutch realize the danger the Nazis were, and then they started increasing the funds to their army. Sadly by this time it was too late. The Dutch army in 1925 needed 350 million gulden (Dutch currency) to rebuild into a modern army. They did not get anything and funding was cut for an additional 100 million. A Dutch committee which was ordered to see if more funds could be cut from the army reiterated that the army was in such a poor state that any more cutbacks would only result in endangering the army's sustainability. The committee was disbanded and a new committee which was far more aggressive in cutting back on funds managed to cut an additional 160 million.

In 1936 the Dutch Defence ministry decided that if they were to stop any invading army they would need to modernize their army drastically. Sadly the current state of the army was so poor and most of the other countries were modernizing their own army to protect themselves that they were unable to supply the Netherlands with the necessary weapons to defend themselves. Its only tank was an old French Renault FT-17, its air force had only a few dozen modern planes (most notably the Fokker G.1), and its equipment was generally outdated. Some of its artillery for instance dated from the nineteenth century, with soldiers needing to make small "blocking hills" to prevent the artillery piece from rolling backwards and not returning to its original position.

The Dutch General Staff was led by General Izaak H. Reijnders, who was replaced on February 6, 1940 by Henri Winkelman, because Reijnders was unable to get enough funds from the defence minister Adriaan Dijxhoorn to modernize both the Waterline and the Grebbeline, the two main defensive lines that they had constructed to stop invasions from the east. The main reason for choosing to modernize only the Grebbeline was that Amsterdam would be within the range of 1940 German Artillery if the Germans were stopped at the Waterline. Under the command of General Henri Winkelman, the decision was made to make the Grebbeline the main defence stronghold, and to allocate the resources to modernize the bunkers there (Kazematten). Most of these defences were constructed from wood. Another issue that hindered outfitting the Grebbeline was that houses or forests were blocking lines of sight from many of the fortifications. The government decided it would be too expensive to cut down the trees, or clear out the houses, limiting outfitting of the line. When the German army invaded in May 1940, large parts of the line would not be ready.

In May 1940, when the German army invaded, a total of 19 battalions were operational for the defence of the country, although most of them were in a pitiful state. Most of them were outfitted with carbines dating from the 19th century. Artillery mostly consisted of old pieces from 1890. Only a few units were equipped with modern weapons. One of the reasons for the outdated equipment was that the Dutch ordered new military equipment after most European countries had already placed their orders, the Dutch orders were last in line at production facilities.

The German attack plan

For Germany, the Netherlands were only of secondary importance in their attack on France. Their main worry was the route through Limburg, to eliminate the delay caused by the Liege corridor, that had hindered them during World War I.

The aim of the attack plan was to eliminate the country as soon as possible. The 18th Army and the 9th Panzer Division were allotted for this task.

The 18th Army was to attack the Netherlands above the Rhinemarker, most notably breaking through the eastern defences of Fortress Holland (formed by the Grebbeline) and crossing the Afsluitdijkmarker. The 9th Panzer Division was to move through the southern part of the Netherlands and attack the Moerdijk Bridge.

Furthermore, the 22nd Air Landing Division and the 7th Fliegerdivision were to land around The Haguemarker, in order to capture Queen Wilhelmina, the Dutch government and the General Staff. They also were to capture the Moerdijk Bridge and the bridges over the Maas in Rotterdammarker so that the 9th Panzer Division could easily cross these.

In preparation for their attack, German officer had conducted extensive espionage activities. The Dutch did not hinder them in this - indeed, a watchtower near the Grebbe Line was not closed because, as Prime Minister Dirk Jan de Geer said, "it would harm the Dutch economy." Although after mobilization the lines would be closed from the public, a lot of high ranking officers from the German army, including a few colonels were able to see the Dutch lines and write down where the bunkers were, so artillery could destroy them.

Based on these observations, the Germans thought they could capture the Netherlands in one to two days.

The campaign

At the rivers IJssel and Maas, running through the Netherlands from south to north and from east to west, were the first obstacles that the Germans encountered. They had created special units to capture the bridges over these rivers (sometimes even clad in Dutch uniforms), but in all but a few places the Dutch defenders were able to demolish the bridges. The German advance was further hindered by a line of pillboxes along both rivers, but despite heavy resistance they succeeded in crossing both IJssel and Maas by midday.

In the meantime, the airborne landing had taken the Dutch by surprise. German paratroopers succeeded in taking the Moerdijk bridges and the bridges in Rotterdam, and they also captured the airfields of Waalhavenmarker (near Rotterdam) and Ypenburgmarker, Ockenburgmarker and Valkenburgmarker (around The Hague). However, Dutch resistance was again heavier than expected and the Dutch succeeded in keeping the paratroopers out of The Hague itself. Indeed, by the evening, all three airfields around The Hague had been recaptured by the Dutch.

The next day, the attack on the Grebbe Line started. The Germans attacked its most southern point, the Grebbeberg, where there were no inundations.Instead, there was a front line of outposts, a main defense line and finally a stop line, from which possible breaches in the main line could be contained and repaired. After an artillery barrage, the SS regiment "Der Führer" attacked the outposts. Once again, despite stiff resistance, the Germans succeeded in capturing the northern part of the outpost line, after which they could easily outflank the southern part. However, it took them until 16:00 to capture all outposts.

By now, French reinforcements had started to arrive from the south. Because of miscommunications between the Dutch and the French, and also because the Moerdijk Bridge, the only link between the eastern and southern parts of the Netherlands, was still in German hands, their effectiveness was limited.

On May 12, the German 1st Cavalry Division tried to cross the Afsluitdijk. However, at Kornwerderzandmarker, the Dutch had built modern concrete fortifications to protect the dam. Moreover, the dam offered no cover whatsoever and the attack was easily repulsed (with the help of a Dutch gunboat). The Germans would try again on May 13, but to no success. The Kornwerderzand fortification would hold out until the Dutch surrender.

On the same day, the Germans attacked the main defence line of the Grebbe Line. Sometimes using Dutch POWs as a shield (a grave violation of the laws of war), by the end of the day they had captured this line as well. The Dutch tried to organize a counter-attack during the night, as they thought there were only some hundred German troops opposing them (the real number was probably somewhere around two thousand), but these met with little success. In places, they were even fired upon by other Dutch troops who had not been notified of the counterattack.

Finally, on May 13, the 9th Panzer Division brushed aside the French and made contact with the paratroopers. However, they met with heavy resistance in Rotterdam, where their advance was stopped.

On the same day, the Germans mounted their final attack against the Grebbe Line. The stop line, the last resort of the Dutch defenders, collapsed and the Germans had broken through the Grebbe Line. Isolated pockets of Dutch troops continued to resist, but a nightly attack to dislodge the Germans failed. As there were no reserve troops, it was clear that defeat was imminent: there was nothing between the Germans and the North Seamarker but the famous Waterlinie (Water Line), which might have stopped Louis XIV of France in 1672, but was only very sketchily prepared in 1940.

On May 14, the Dutch commander at Rotterdam, Colonel Scharroo, received an ultimatum: if he did not surrender, the town would be bombed. As the ultimatum was not signed, Scharroo sent it back. A few hours later, he received another ultimatum, this time duly signed by General Schmidt, the German commander at Rotterdam. Schmidt did not know that a squadron of bombers was already on its way to bomb Rotterdam. The Germans tried to warn the bomber crews by shooting red flares, but only half of the squadron noticed this; the other half continued on their mission and dropped their bombs on the city (see the Rotterdam Blitz).

Under the threat that other major cities like Amsterdammarker and Utrechtmarker would share the fate of Rotterdam, the Dutch decided to surrender. On May 15, in Rijsoordmarker, General Winkelman signed the surrender of the Netherlands, with the exception of the province of Zeelandmarker, where the French still operated (Zeeland held out until May 19, after the city of Middelburgmarker was bombed). The Dutch colonies also continued the battle.

Fighting on

With the occupation of the Netherlands, by no means all was lost. The colonies (most notably the Dutch East Indiesmarker) were still free, and Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch government had left the Netherlands for London.

The Dutch navy had managed to get most its ships to England (one, the light cruiser Jacob van Heemskerk was not finished yet and had to be towed). Also, the Netherlands had a large merchant marine, which would contribute greatly to the Allied war effort during the rest of the war.

A few Dutch pilots also had escaped and joined the RAF to fight in the Battle of Britain. In July 1940, two all-Dutch squadrons were formed with personnel and Fokker seaplanes from the Dutch naval air force: 320 Squadron and 321 Squadron (which afterwards moved to Ceylonmarker). The Royal Netherlands Military Flying School was re-established at Hawkins Fieldmarker, Jackson, Mississippimarker. In 1943, an all-Dutch fighter squadron was formed in the UK, 322 Squadron.

In 1942, an all-Dutch brigade was formed, the Princess Irene Brigade. This brigade would go on to participate in Operation Overlord in 1944.

The Netherlands East Indies

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Dutch government declared war on Japan. Like the defence of its mother country, the defence of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) had been hopelessly neglected; the strongest naval units available were two light cruisers (De Ruyter and Tromp), there were so few planes that Americanmarker Martin B-10 light bombers had to be used as fighters, and the KNIL, the Royal Dutch East Indies Army, was poorly equipped (though better than the Dutch army had been in 1940).

In the three months following Pearl Harbor, the Dutch East Indies (along with the rest of Southeast Asia) were overrun by the Japanese. After the Battle of the Java Sea, naval assets were gone and the Dutch East Indies surrendered on March 8, 1942.

However, some personnel, especially aviators, managed to reach Australia. Later, three joint Australian-NEI squadrons were formed. The first of these, No. 18 Squadron RAAF, was formed in April 1942 as a medium bomber squadron equipped with B-25 Mitchell aircraft. The second joint Australian-NEI squadron, No. 119 Squadron RAAF, was also to be a medium bomber squadron. No. 119 NEI Squadron was only active between September and December 1943 when it was disbanded to form No. 120 Squadron RAAF which was a fighter squadron, equipped with P-40 Kittyhawks. Both No. 18 and No. 120 Squadrons saw action against the Japanese (and against Indonesian nationalists during the Indonesian National Revolution, before being disbanded in 1950).

Some Dutch ships were also based in Australia and Ceylon, and continued to operate in the Indian and Pacific oceans. Due to the high number of submarines present in the Netherlands East Indies (the major part of the defensive plans of the Dutch government), the Dutch were called, in the Asian Campaign, the Fourth Ally. The total number of submarines operating in the Eastern Theater was seventeen.

During the Borneo campaign of 1945, some Dutch army units — including some from the Dutch West Indiesmarker and Dutch Guyanamarker — were attached to Australian Army units operating in the Dutch portion of Borneomarker.


The first Allied troops entered the Netherlands on September 9, 1944, on a reconnaissance patrol; on September 12, 1944, a small part of Limburg was liberated by the US 30th Infantry Division. During Operation Market Garden, the Americans and British established a corridor to Nijmegenmarker, but they failed to secure a Rhine crossing at Arnhemmarker.

During the rest of 1944, the Canadian First Army liberated Zeeland in the Schelde Campaign, in order to free access to the harbour of Antwerpmarker. By 1945, the entire southern part of the Netherlands (up to the Waal and Maas rivers) had been liberated.

After Operation Veritable, the Allied advance from the Dutch-German border into the Rhineland, and the crossing of the Rhine at Wesel and Rees in Operation Plunder, the Canadian First Army liberated the eastern and northern parts of the Netherlands. However, they did not attack the German forces in the western part (ironically, they stopped at about where the Grebbe Line was in 1940), for fear of massive civilian casualties: the western part of the Netherlands (also called the Randstadmarker) is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The civilian population there, still suffering from the effects of the Hongerwinter ('Hungerwinter'), was now cut off from food that was available in the rest of the Netherlands. However, the Germans, having agreed to a truce, did allow the staging of an Allied relief effort, Operation Manna. The German forces in the Netherlands finally surrendered in Wageningenmarker, on May 5, 1945.

See also

Chronological overview of the liberation of Dutch cities and towns during World War II

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