Military history of the Netherlands during World War II

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The Netherlands entered World War II on May 10, 1940, when invading German forces quickly overran them. On December 7, 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Netherlands government in exile also declared war on Japan. Operation Market Garden, which started in 1944, liberated the southern and eastern parts of the country, but full liberation did not come until the surrender of Germany on May 5, 1945.

Netherlands Constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Europe

The Netherlands, sometimes informally called Holland, is a country located in Northwestern Europe with some overseas territories in the Caribbean. In Europe, it consists of 12 provinces that border Germany to the east, Belgium to the south, and the North Sea to the northwest, with maritime borders in the North Sea with those countries and the United Kingdom. Together with three island territories in the Caribbean Sea—Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba—it forms a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The official language is Dutch, but a secondary official language in the province of Friesland is West Frisian. In the northern parts of the country, Low German is also spoken.

World War II 1939–1945, between Axis and Allies

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from more than 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 70 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Germany Federal parliamentary republic in central-western Europe

Germany, officially the Federal Republic of Germany is a country in Central and Western Europe, lying between the Baltic and North Seas to the north and the Alps, Lake Constance and the High Rhine to the south. It borders Denmark to the north, Poland and the Czech Republic to the east, Austria and Switzerland to the south, France to the southwest, and Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands to the west.



When World War II erupted in September 1939, most in the Netherlands believed that the country could remain neutral, as it had in World War I. The months of "Phoney War" following the German invasion of Poland seemed to justify this attitude. The Dutch army did immediately mobilize in 1939, but not in full strength until April 1940.

Phoney War early period of World War II

The Phoney War was an eight-month period at the start of World War II, during which there was only one limited military land operation on the Western Front, when French troops invaded Germany's Saar district. The Phoney period began with the declaration of war by the United Kingdom and France against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939, and ended with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries on 10 May 1940. Although there was no large-scale military action by Britain and France, they did begin economic warfare, especially with the naval blockade, and shut down German surface raiders. They created elaborate plans for numerous large-scale operations designed to swiftly and decisively cripple the German war effort. These included opening an Anglo-French front in the Balkans, invading Norway to seize control of Germany's main source of iron ore and a strike against the Soviet Union, to cut off its supply of oil to Germany. Only the Norway plan came to fruition, and it was too little too late in April 1940.

Royal Netherlands Army

The Royal Netherlands Army is the land forces element of the military of the Netherlands.

Signs to the contrary went unheeded. Among them were some incidents, most notably the Venlo incident in which members of the German Abwehr operating in the Netherlands abducted two members of the British SIS and killed one Dutch intelligence officer. More direct were worrying signals from Berlin received by the government beginning in the first months of 1940. 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, Belgium and France, and Sas passed the warnings on. The government in the Netherlands, however, did not take them seriously, as the offensive was postponed several times, even though Oster did eventually offer the correct date of May 10, 1940.

Venlo incident

The Venlo incident was a covert German Sicherheitsdienst operation on 9 November 1939, in the course of which two British Secret Intelligence Service agents were captured five meters (16 ft) from the German border, on the outskirts of the Dutch town of Venlo.

<i>Abwehr</i> military intelligence of the Reichswehr and Wehrmacht

The Abwehr was the German military intelligence service for the Reichswehr and Wehrmacht from 1920 to 1945. Despite the fact that the Treaty of Versailles prohibited the Germans altogether from establishing an intelligence organization of their own, they formed an espionage group in 1920 within the Ministry of Defense, calling it the Abwehr. The initial purpose of the Abwehr was defense against foreign espionage—an organizational role which later evolved considerably. Under General Kurt von Schleicher the individual military services' intelligence units were combined and, in 1929, centralized under his Ministry of Defense, forming the foundation for the more commonly understood manifestation of the Abwehr.

United Kingdom Country in Europe

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known as the United Kingdom (UK) or Britain, is a sovereign country located off the north-western coast of the European mainland. The United Kingdom includes the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland, and many smaller islands. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom that shares a land border with another sovereign state, the Republic of Ireland. Apart from this land border, the United Kingdom is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, with the North Sea to the east, the English Channel to the south and the Celtic Sea to the south-west, giving it the 12th-longest coastline in the world. The Irish Sea separates Great Britain and Ireland. The United Kingdom's 242,500 square kilometres (93,600 sq mi) were home to an estimated 66.0 million inhabitants in 2017.

Status of Netherlands Defenses

Dutch pre-World War II carbine (left view).jpg
Left side view
Dutch pre-World War II carbine (right view).jpg
Right side view
Dutch Mannlicher carbine from the pre–World War II period

The Dutch army was not considered formidable even at the end of World War I, and it did not prosper during the interwar years. By the time of the German invasion in 1940, a total of 20 battalions were operational for the defense of the Netherlands, most poorly prepared for combat. Only a few had modern weapons; the majority of soldiers carried carbines of 19th-century vintage, and most artillery was similarly outdated. The Dutch army also had little armor, and its air arm, the Luchtvaartafdeeling, had but a handful of reasonably modern aircraft, most notably the Fokker G.1 twin-engine fighter-bomber and the fixed-undercarriage Fokker D.XXI single-seat fighter, with which to face the Luftwaffe.

Royal Netherlands Air Force Air warfare branch of the Netherlands armed forces

The Royal Netherlands Air Force, is the military aviation branch of the Netherlands Armed Forces. It was created in 1953; its ancestor, the Luchtvaartafdeling of the Dutch Army was founded in 1913. The aerobatic display team of the Royal Netherlands Air Force is the Solo Display Team.

Fokker D.XXI airplane

The Fokker D.XXI fighter was designed in 1935 by Dutch aircraft manufacturer Fokker in response to requirements laid out by the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army Air Force.

<i>Luftwaffe</i> Aerial warfare branch of the German military forces during World War II

The Luftwaffe was the aerial warfare branch of the combined German Wehrmacht military forces during World War II. Germany's military air arms during World War I, the Luftstreitkräfte of the Army and the Marine-Fliegerabteilung of the Navy had been disbanded in May 1920 as a result of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which stated that Germany was forbidden to have any air force.

Reasons cited for the weakness of the Netherlands military include decay during the long lapse of time since its last active participation in a war, the Aceh War 1873-1903; the effects of widespread pacifism during the 1920s and 1930s; budget cuts, particularly during the Great Depression; and undue belief by politicians that the League of Nations would offer sufficient protection from aggression. Certainly, the Dutch military faced an unfavorable political climate between the wars. For example, in 1925, when rebuilding the Dutch army into a modern fighting force would have required increased funding of 350 million gulden, the government instead cut the army's budget by 100 million gulden. A committee tasked with finding further cuts concluded that the army was already so weak that any reductions would endanger its sustainability; the government thereupon disbanded the committee and appointed a new, more aggressive one, which recommended cutting another 160 million. Meanwhile, potential human capital was allowed to dissipate; compulsory service was cut back from 24 months to six, barely enough for the most basic of training.

Aceh War conflict

The Aceh War, also known as the Dutch War or the Infidel War (1873–1904), was an armed military conflict between the Sultanate of Aceh and the Kingdom of the Netherlands which was triggered by discussions between representatives of Aceh and the United States in Singapore during early 1873. The war was part of a series of conflicts in the late 19th century that consolidated Dutch rule over modern-day Indonesia.

Great Depression 20th-century worldwide economic depression

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, beginning in the United States. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations; in most countries, it started in 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how intensely the world's economy can decline.

League of Nations 20th-century intergovernmental organisation, predecessor to the United Nations

The League of Nations, abbreviated as LN or LoN, was the first worldwide intergovernmental organisation whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. It was founded on 10 January 1920 following the Paris Peace Conference that ended the First World War; in 1919 US President Woodrow Wilson was to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his role as the leading architect of the league.

Not until 1936 did the Dutch government recognize the growing threat of Nazi Germany, but the resultant budget increases were too small and too late to establish an effective defense of the country. One factor was practical: by that time, many European countries were rearming and had already placed orders taxing the available capacity of munitions plants, hindering Dutch efforts at procurement. A second factor was continued economic pressure, as Defense Minister Adriaan Dijxhoorn refused to authorize funds for modernizing both main Dutch lines of defense against attack from the east, the Waterline and the Grebbeline. The failure of General Izaak H. Reijnders, leader of the Dutch General Staff, to obtain more funding for these lines led to his replacement on February 6, 1940 by General Henri Winkelman, who opted to concentrate on modernizing the Grebbeline, with its largely wooden bunkers, because German artillery brought up as deep within the country as the Waterline would be within range of Amsterdam. Modernization of the Grebbeline, however, would not be complete or effective by the time of the invasion, in part because the government balked at the expense of clearing forests and houses blocking lines of sight from many of the fortifications.

Adriaan Dijxhoorn Dutch politician

Adriaan Quirinus Hendrik Dijxhoorn was a Dutch soldier who served as Minister of Defence during the Battle of the Netherlands. Following the outbreak of the Second World War he was appointed Minister of Defence in August 1939 as part of the second De Geer Cabinet. Dijxhoorn clashed with the Supreme Commander of the Dutch Army, General Izaak H. Reijnders, over strategy, leading to Reijnders' resignation and replacement with General Henri Winkelman. Together with Queen Wilhelmina and the rest of the cabinet he left for London and continued as Minister of Defence in the Dutch government-in-exile until his resignation in June 1941.

Henri Winkelman Dutch general

Henri Gerard Winkelman was a Dutch military officer who served as Commander-in-chief of the Armed forces of the Netherlands during the German invasion of the Netherlands.

The German attack plan

For Germany, the Netherlands was only of secondary importance in the attack on France. Germany's main worry was the route through Limburg, to eliminate the delay caused by the Liege corridor, that had hindered German forces 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 Rhine, most notably breaking through the eastern defences of Fortress Holland (formed by the Grebbeline) and crossing the Afsluitdijk. 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 Hague, 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 Rotterdam so that the 9th Panzer Division could easily cross these.

In preparation for their attack, German officers had conducted extensive espionage research. 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

In the first days of May 1940, the Dutch government received several indications of German activity near the border, and 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.

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, the traffic bridge near Dordrecht and partially the traffic bridge in Rotterdam. They also captured the airfields of Waalhaven (near Rotterdam) and Ypenburg, Ockenburg and Valkenburg (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.

Grebbeberg Grebbeberg the Netherlands.jpg

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 Kornwerderzand, 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 defense 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 Sea but the famous Waterlinie (Water Line) was only very sketchily prepared.

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 Amsterdam and Utrecht would share the fate of Rotterdam in which over 900 civilians were killed, the Dutch decided to surrender. On May 15, in Rijsoord, General Winkelman signed the surrender of the Netherlands, with the exception of the province of Zeeland, where the French still operated (Zeeland held out until May 19, after the city of Middelburg was bombed). The Dutch colonies also continued the battle.

Casualties were high in the five day campaign- over 10,000 Dutch soldiers were killed, injured or declared missing.

Fighting on

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

The Royal Netherlands Navy had managed to get most of 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 Ceylon). The Royal Netherlands Military Flying School was re-established at Hawkins Field, Jackson, Mississippi. 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.

Inside the Netherlands, both passive and active resistance was widespread throughout the country, with the first Dutch Resistance organisation, the Communist Party of the Netherlands, holding their first meeting the day after the Dutch capitulation.

The Allied Special Forces also recruited and trained a number of Dutch officers for Operation Jedburgh teams and for the Anglo Dutch Country Section of Force 136.

The Netherlands East Indies

KNIL units passing light cruiser De Ruyter in Soerabaja, c. 1940 Hr. Ms. De Ruyter moored in Soerabaja.jpg
KNIL units passing light cruiser De Ruyter in Soerabaja, c. 1940

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Dutch government declared war on Japan. Like the defense of its mother country, the defense of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) had been hopelessly neglected; the strongest naval units available were three light cruisers (De Ruyter, Java and Tromp), there were so few planes that Martin 139/166 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).

The Dutch participated in the ABDACOM, a joint-command for all American, British, Dutch and Australian units in the area to defend Southeast Asia against the Japanese advance. Nevertheless, despite these efforts, 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 (NEI) 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 (NEI) 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 (NEI) 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 Indies and Dutch Guyana were attached to Australian Army units operating in the Dutch portion of Borneo.

The Netherlands West Indies

Dutch military exercises on Curacao Dutch military exercises on Curacao during World War II.jpg
Dutch military exercises on Curaçao

The Netherlands’ colonial possessions in the Caribbean comprised the islands of Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten, and these together with Surinam, made up the Netherlands West Indies.

Aruba was of significant strategic importance as it housed the largest oil terminal in the Caribbean, from which much of Britain’s oil was shipped. Oil from Venezuela was taken by coastal tankers to Aruba where it was stored in large tanks awaiting transshipment to oceangoing vessels. These facilities were vulnerable to German attack but as the UK could spare no resources to help protect them, their defense fell to the Netherlands West Indies Defense Force. This Territorial force possessed only small arms, a handful of obsolete 8 cm. naval guns and a few small coastal patrol boats. In the summer of 1940 it was felt that the U-boat threat to the oil terminal and shipping lanes necessitated air cover and so an air support unit was created using a Fokker F.XVIII converted for maritime patrol duties.

In fact, the only military action in the area occurred in February 1942 when the Defense Force’s Fokker together with a US aircraft attacked two U-boats off Aruba which had sunk a number of allied oilers. From the summer of 1942 onwards, air cover for the area was provided by US aircraft.


People celebrating the liberation of Hague on 8 May 1945 BC856 HUI-1699.jpg
People celebrating the liberation of Hague on 8 May 1945

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 Nijmegen, but they failed to secure a Rhine crossing at Arnhem.

During the rest of 1944, the Canadian First Army liberated Zeeland in the Schelde Campaign, in order to free access to the harbour of Antwerp. By 1945, the entire southern part of the Netherlands (up to the Waal and Maas rivers) had been liberated. [1]

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 Randstad) 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, Operations Manna (RAF) and Chowhound (USAAF). The German forces in the Netherlands finally surrendered in Wageningen, on May 5, 1945. The acts of Canadian soldiers toward the civilian population during this period would be a major point of endearment and friendship in Canada–Netherlands relations, among other acts throughout the war, for many years afterward.

See also

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Fokker T.VIII 1938 torpedo bomber floatplane series by Fokker

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  1. Mark Zuehlke, On to Victory: The Canadian Liberation of the Netherlands, March 23 - May 5, 1945 (D & M Publishers, 2010.)

Further reading