Armies Can’t March in Clogs: The Dutch Defence of 1940

So much has been written about the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1940, but the lion’s share focuses on the trail the Wehrmacht blazed through the Ardennes and into heart of France and Belgium. Very little concentrates on the plight of the Netherlands at the hands of the Nazis.

A possible reason for this is due to the fact that it wasn’t a surprise at the time that the Dutch were so soundly beaten. The nation was neutral during World War I and had mostly neglected the opportunity to rearm and upgrade fully during the inter-war years. As the Wehrmacht war machine rumbled west, the Netherlands surrendered in just six days. A much inferior military and a border with Nazi Germany was a recipe for disaster.

The Blitzkrieg blew a panzer-shaped hole into the eastern part of the country as cities such as Eindhoven, Amsterdam and Rotterdam all fell. Rotterdam in particular suffered intense bombing from the Luftwaffe, who gave no quarter in their aerial assault with 30,000 civilian casualties. In total, 198,000 civilians would perish in the country by the end of the war.

So, why was the Dutch army so poorly equipped despite the threat of Hitler’s stormtroopers?

The failure of the Dutch military in WW2
Dutch soldiers on guard

The seeds of poor preparation

Despite remaining neutral, the country wasn’t entirely sheltered from the effects of the Great War. Dutch soldiers regularly patrolled their borders and the nation was a safe haven for Belgian refugees fleeing their homeland. The Germans were so concerned about the movement they set up an electric fence across the border between the two countries coined ‘the Wire of Death’. The influx of refugees eventually put a strain on the Dutch economy and even after the war ended, food shortages were common in the country.

Neutrality worked so well in the war that it was considered the way forward once again in 1939. Like the majority of nations, the Treaty of Versailles was taken too literally. Military cutbacks were introduced in the country during the inter-war period, but here it was even worse due to a severe depression. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t any sort of rearmament though. The military budget was increased when Germany introduced its rearmament policy and escalated once again when Dutch territory in the Pacific came under threat from the rise of Imperial Japan.

Lines of pillboxes and trenches were set up in what became known as the Grebbe Line but funding for this operation was much less than it should have been. In the end the line was 40 kilometres (24.8 miles) long and was manned by approximately 65,000 troops. There were also fears of an invasion by sea so defences were set up along the coastline. Some of the largest plans were put in place to prevent plane landings. Cars and trucks were stacked up to block the main roads between cities and the largest airfields where enemy aircraft might try and land. Every bridge that could be used for strategic gain was occupied by military police units armed with heavy machine guns.

However, all these efforts for ‘Fortress Holland’ would be in vain when the Nazi juggernaut rolled into town on 10 May 1940.

The failure of the Dutch military in WW2
Some Dutch women began relationships with German soldiers, which wasn’t looked on upon too fondly at the end of the war.

Arms available to the Netherlands on 10 May 1940:

– 380 modern anti-tank guns
– 360 mortars
– 3,000 heavy machineguns (Vickers, Spandau, Schwarzlose)
– 9,500 light machine guns (Lewis M.20)
– 36 anti-tank rifles
– 210 light field guns (1894)
– 304 light field guns (1904)
– 108 obsolete light field guns (1878)
– 52 modern medium field guns
– 150 obsolete medium field guns
– 60 howitzers 12 cm
– 72 obsolete heavy field guns Krupp 15 cm (1878, slightly modernised in 1920s)
– 140 coastal and harbour guns
– 12 armoured cars (3,7 cm Bofors gun, 3 MG) Landsverk L.181
– 14 armoured cars (3,7 cm Bofors gun, 3 MG) Landsverk L.180, M.38
– 12 armoured cars (3,7 cm Bofors gun, 3 MG) DAF M.39 Pantrado
– 5 armoured universal carriers Cardon-Lloyd (1 MG Vickers)

The importance of the Netherlands to Hitler

With a total disregard for Dutch neutrality, the soldiers of the Third Reich crossed the border and overwhelmed the 19 Dutch battalions. Hitler desired the Netherlands as a base of operations for future assaults on France and Britain. The Dutch airfields were ideal to launch Messerschmitts and Fokkers at Britain while the shoreline could be used as coastal defences.

The importance of the Netherlands to the Allies

In the lead up to war, the British and French governments endeavoured to coerce the Dutch into joining the Allied side. However, both the Dutch and the Belgians favoured staunch neutrality and declined the proposal. This came to haunt the Allies as the Germans successfully outflanked the Maginot Line.

The failure of the Dutch military in WW2
The US 101st Division with members of the Dutch Resistance

The make up of the Dutch Army

Due to the Dutch inability to re-arm appropriately, the German attack caught the military by surprise. From the first paratrooper attack in Waalhaven, they were doomed.

On the eve of the war, the Dutch Army was made up of 280,000 men, far too few to defend the country and its borders. Therefore the plan was made to retreat to Fortress Holland as quickly as possible when under attack. The airforce was similarly undercooked with only 135 operational planes to its name, and only 70 of these weren’t even remotely up to modern standards. Anti-aircraft weaponry was in a similar state. AA Guns were purchased from the companies Vickers and Skoda until the imports were blocked by Germany. The army then tried to trade with the Germans themselves but this was not a wise move and only one battery of guns (without any ammunition) arrived from their future aggressor.

Ultimately, 81 heavy AA guns were operational by May 1940 and the vast majority of these were placed around Amsterdam. For each soldier of the Dutch Army, arms were hard to come by. Heavy machine guns were available at a ratio of 1:100 and only 50 per cent of the required light machine guns were available. The machine guns of choice, the Schwarzlose and the Vickers, were World War I relics and paled in comparison to the MG 34. Every Dutch arm seemed to be dated or not plentiful enough. Worse still, the Dutch Army was the only major army that didn’t have a tank to its name.

War in the Low Country

As the Netherlands is dominated by navigable waterways (more than 6,000km/3,728mi worth), naval craft played a role in the response to the Blitzkrieg. The most prominent of these craft was the destroyer ‘Van Galen’, which put up a good fight but was eventually incapacitated by a series of near misses by German shells. The Royal Netherlands Air Force also got in on the act with four sorties against the Waalhaven air base, which had fallen into German hands. 62 planes were lost as the valiant defence (which resulted in the awarding of a Militaire Willemforce, the Dutch equivalent of the Victoria Cross) came to nothing. The Royal Netherlands Army made a decent fist of putting up a fight, with running battles at the Ypenburg and Ockenburg air bases, shooting down 11 German transport planes over the former.

All Dutch forces were ordered to lay down their arms on 14 May. Small skirmishes lasted for two more days but by 16 May it was all over and the Netherlands was in the hands of the Nazis.

The failure of the Dutch military in WW2
What remains of the Grebbeline today

“The Dutch command and leadership often left much to be desired. Another important factor in the failure to finish off the (German) airborne troops was lack of insight into the real strength of the German troops.”
Lt-Commander F C van Oosten

Fierce Resistance, official and unofficial

Upon the Nazi invasion, Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch Royal Family fled to the safety of Britain. Resistance continued in the country as the population made occupation difficult for the Germans. Attacks were infrequent with most efforts concerned with forging ration cards, counterfeit money, hiding Jews and aiding Allied soldiers. The four largest resistance organisations were:

• LO (‘Landelijke Organisatie voor hulp aan onderduikers’ or National Organization for Help to People in Hiding)
• KP (‘Knokploeg’ or Assault Group)
• RVV (‘Raad van Verzet’ or Council of Resistance)
• OD (‘Orde Dienst’ or Order of Service)

Perhaps their greatest scalp was the assassination of turncoat Dutch general Hendrik Seyffardt. The Nazis didn’t take kindly to this, killing 50 residents in return. Conversely, many of the Dutch joined the German military and supported the Nazi regime. There are also various stories of Dutch women starting relationships with German soldiers.

By 1944, the constant meddling of the Dutch resistance had become too much for the Germans who cut off all food supplies to Dutch civilians after a particularly damaging rail strike. 30,000 were to die of starvation, cold and disease and the ordeal would be known as the Hongerwinterfamine.

The failure of the Dutch military in WW2
All the Dutch efforts against the Blitzkrieg were in vain as Amsterdam lay in ruins.

Challenging the Nazis in exile

In Britain, Queen Wilhelmina never stopped supporting her country. While in exile she was in frequent contact with her country, encouraging her subjects in a series of late night radio broadcasts. The Dutch people also helped in a military capacity as well. The RAF’s No 320, No 321 and No 322 Squadrons formed in 1943 were made up of Dutch airmen ready to take the fight back to the Third Reich. Out at sea, Dutch vessels did all they could to supplement the Allied navies and the Princess Irene Brigade was established ready for D-Day.

The Dutch soldier

The regular Dutch soldier was equipped the following:
– Mannlicher-Steyr rifle 6.5 mm
– Mannlicher-Steyr carbine 6.5 mm

The failure of the Dutch military in WW2

– FN pistol 9 mm or 7.65 mm
– 1873 revolver 11 mm,

The failure of the Dutch military in WW2

Dutch vehicles

With no tanks to call upon, the Dutch Army had to rely upon armoured cars such as the Landsverk L-180

The failure of the Dutch military in WW2


The reasons for the Dutch military failure in World War II

• Re-armament started too late
• Affect of Depression on the country
• Overwhelming Wehrmacht numbers
• Insistence on neutrality
• Minimal defence industry
• Lack of imported arms


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