Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Netherlands in World War II

To say that the Dutch were unprepared for the Second World War would be something of an understatement. The military was extremely small and woefully outdated. The government had basically accepted the position that the Netherlands would be protected by her policy of neutrality and that, if war came, they would have no chance of winning on their own and so any military spending would be a waste as they would, in any event, have to depend on other powers (Britain and France) for protection. The rise of Nazi Germany also did not seem such a menace to some segments of society. There was a very vocal Dutch fascist party, the NSB, which attained some notoriety but never came close to having real power. The military did what it could, under the circumstances, to be prepared by establishing fortified positions and the “New Dutch Waterline” to flood portions of the countryside to aid in defense; a very traditional feature of Dutch military thinking. Still, most hoped that they could avoid war and were encouraged by the fact that the Germans had respected Dutch neutrality in the First World War. However, the Dutch people would learn that Hitler was a much different sort of leader than the Kaiser had been. When war broke out in 1939 the Dutch military began mobilization but Germany issued a promise to respect Dutch neutrality so that most expected that this new war would be the Great War all over again.

General Henri Winkelman
It came then as all the greater shock when, after invading Poland, Denmark and Norway, the Germans attacked the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. For the men of the Netherlands armed forces, they had little to fight back with other than patriotism. Weaponry was obsolete, with only a few armored cars and tankettes there was practically no armored corps to speak of and the tiny air force consisted of less than 150 outdated biplanes and most of these were destroyed on the ground in the initial surprise attack. With only 280,000 poorly trained troops with very few heavy guns, General Henri Winkelman did the best he could to resist the crushing onslaught. Given how hopeless his situation was, Winkelman did better than anyone could have expected. The German plan for an airborne invasion of the Hague to seize the Dutch government failed and when the German forces hit against the main Dutch defensive positions of the Grebbe Line and Afsluitdijk the determined Dutch held their ground and halted the German advance. Determination was also certainly not lacking at the very top where Her Majesty Queen Wilhelmina, a grand and formidable lady, was determined to fight to the last. She was ready to pass out rifles to her household staff to defend the palace when she was finally convinced to relocate to a safer area by sea. To her frustration, once aboard ship the Queen was taken instead to London where the Dutch government-in-exile would operate for the rest of the war.

Meanwhile, the Germans were making steady progress in the south and cutting off the Netherlands from Belgium and France. Dutch counter-attacks on May 11 were repelled by the German invaders and the situation grew increasingly critical. At the main defensive position, the Grebbe Line, the Dutch fought a fierce battle for three days, desperately trying to hold off the German tidal wave as long as possible. Yet, with every passing hour it became clear that they would be receiving no help from the Allies. On May 13 the Grebbe Line finally fell and the Germans pushed up to Rotterdam. There the Netherlands Marine Corps gave heroic service, stopping the Germans temporarily at the Meuse and fighting from street to street. Hitler was becoming furious that the conquest of the Netherlands was taking so long as he had expected the job to be done within 24 hours. On May 14 the order was given for the Luftwaffe to bomb Rotterdam, killing hundreds of civilians and destroying virtually all of the old city. Utrecht was threatened with similar treatment if the Dutch did not surrender immediately. Of course, General Winkelman knew his situation was hopeless and was already trying to negotiate a cease-fire when the bombing of Rotterdam occurred. By the end of the day, Winkelman surrendered and so the Kingdom of the Netherlands was conquered after four days of resistance.

Queen Wilhelmina on Radio Oranje
The Dutch had made a gallant effort against impossible odds and General Henri Winkelman behaved like a true Dutch patriot. Taken prisoner, he was offered parole if he would give his word of honor not to oppose the German occupation. He refused to make any such promise and so remained a prisoner for the rest of the war. The Netherlands was down, but not out and the government-in-exile organized the few Dutch forces which had escaped, along with most of the navy, into cooperation with the British to carry on the war. Queen Wilhelmina oversaw these efforts and quickly sent a message of encouragement to her people living under German occupation. She showed great leadership and courage such as when she managed to have the prime minister dismissed for his wish to make a separate peace with the Germans. Using “Radio Oranje” she sent messages of support and encouragement to her people throughout the war, coordinated Dutch military efforts and made several visits to the United States to encourage support for the Allied war effort. In the Netherlands itself, an underground resistance soon grew up which passed important information to the Allied high command in Britain and which tried to shelter those who faced persecution at the hands of the Nazis.

General Hendrik Seyffardt
However, not everyone in the Netherlands was loyal to their monarch and their national struggle. As the Dutch were deemed a racially superior people, not very different from the Germans, they were permitted to join volunteer legions in the military and even the Nazi SS. Anton Mussert, leader of the Dutch Nazis of the NSB, had the only political party which was allowed to operate during the occupation but, to his dismay, the Germans never took him seriously or allowed him any position of importance. Nonetheless, he dutifully did their bidding and urged his countrymen to cooperate with and support the German war effort. Many listened, particularly after the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union and the Netherlands would contribute more volunteers to the German cause than any other occupied country. The most prominent collaborator was the former army chief of staff General Hendrik Seyffardt who was made nominal commander of a Dutch division of the Germanic-SS that fought on the Eastern front. The Germans, however, ignored his advice and he was finally assassinated by a communist resistance member in 1943. Although they would subsequently be hated by their countrymen, and not surprisingly so, in fairness it must be said that the Dutch troops fighting with the Germans fought extremely well, taking heavy casualties and proving themselves extremely capable, mostly in the Leningrad area.

Meanwhile, by the end of the next year of the war, the Netherlands gained another enemy which, by the way, undermined the NSB Nazi collaborators at home. They had been arguing that cooperation with Germany was the key to achieving their goal of a “Greater Netherlands” that would include Flanders and a strengthening of the Dutch empire. However, they were undercut in their arguments when the crown jewel of the Netherlands empire was lost at the hands of the Nazis Asian ally of Japan. In December of 1941 the Japanese launched their three-phase plan for the conquest of southeast Asia. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent attacks on the Philippines, Hong Kong, Malaysia it was no secret that the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today) was next on the Japanese menu. On December 8, 1941 the Dutch government-in-exile declared war on Japan. The Japanese invasion was organized by Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi as commander of the Southern Expeditionary Army Group and began on December 17 with the landing of troops on Sarawak at the oil production center of Miri. In command of Dutch forces in the area was Lt. General Hein ter Poorten on the land and Lt. Admiral Conrad Helfrich on the sea. Helfrich was also the overall commander of Dutch forces in the East Indies.

Dutch submarine K-XVI
Even though some Allied leaders thought any defense of the East Indies to be a lost cause, the Dutch forces were determined to put up a fight and their first success was won by the small submarine flotilla operating in the East Indies and later out of Australia. The Dutch submarine K-XVI was the first Allied vessel to sink a Japanese warship when she torpedoed a Japanese destroyer. Over 100,000 tons of Japanese shipping was sunk and over 200,000 tons damaged by the Dutch O-Boats, more than the combined forces of Britain or the United States in the early days of the war in Asia. They were so successful that the naval commander was given the nickname “Ship-a-day Helfrich”. The most successful in terms of tonnage was Lt. A.J. Bussemaker of the O-16 who sank 27,100 tons of Japanese shipping before being killed in action. Lt. Henri van Oostrom Soede sank or damaged 17 Japanese ships and Lt. Johannes Frans van Dulm sank 10 and damaged 2. This impressive record, right out of the gate, encouraged the Dutch naval commanders that they could make a fight for the East Indies but the odds were clearly stacked against them. Additionally, the nature of the Dutch East Indies meant that everything depended on the naval confrontation as without control of the seas the Dutch colonial army on the archipelago would be isolated and doomed.

Dutch East Indies colonial troops
A unified command, known as ABDACOM (America-British-Dutch-Australia Command) was formed but it was hardly a cohesive organization. General Archibald Wavell, who was in supreme command, had no confidence in their victory and preferred to focus on other areas, language differences were a hindrance between the Dutch and their English-speaking allies and even among them there were problems as the Americans used a different signal system than the British and Australians. The issue was ultimately decided by the Battle of Java Sea on February 27, 1942 when the ABDACOM fleet under Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman faced the larger and better-equipped Japanese fleet under Rear Admiral Takeo Takagi. Aside from being poorly coordinated, having mostly outdated ships and being outnumbered, the Allies were also losing their network of support before the battle even began. Japanese planes bombed Darwin, Australia, ruining it as a support base and the oil refineries and airfield at Palembang on Sumatra were lost when Japanese forces defeated the greatly outnumbered colonial forces and local militia under Lt. Colonel L.N.W. Vogelsang. Eastern Borneo and the northern Celebes were already under Japanese control. Nonetheless, Admiral Doorman was determined to fight.

Admiral Karel Doorman
The Battle of Java Sea raged from noon to midnight and was the first major clash of surface warships since the World War I Battle of Jutland. On his flagship De Ruyter, Admiral Doorman signaled the Allied ships to follow him as he led the way into the fight. Admiral Takagi employed classic Nelsonian tactics that were still just as effective as they had always been. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Allied fleet was decimated. Two cruisers and three destroyers were sunk while the victorious Japanese suffered damage to only one destroyer and lost 36 men compared to Allied losses of 2,300. The heroic Admiral Doorman was killed in action himself when his flagship was sunk by the Japanese cruiser Haguro. ABDACOM began to break down as the Allies regarded the Dutch East Indies as a lost cause. Much of this was due to a woeful underestimation of the abilities of the Japanese. Most assumed that the Japanese would not be able to carry out multiple operations at the same time on a variety of fronts. That thinking proved completely wrong and immediately after the battle Japanese forces under General Hitoshi Imamura began the invasion of Java itself. General Hein ter Poorten had too much ground to cover with too few troops, many of them poorly trained local militia and native contingents.

General Hein ter Poorten
British, Australian and American forces also fought valiantly to oppose the Japanese advance but they had little support, were badly outmatched and had to fall back to avoid being cut off. Dutch forces destroyed bridges and did whatever they could to slow the invaders but were steadily pushed back. The Japanese moved quickly to secure the key oil facilities and despite gallant opposition the Dutch colonial forces were overwhelmed one by one. At Porong the Allies offered very stiff resistance with the 8th and 13th infantry battalions and 3rd cavalry of the Dutch colonial army, backed up by the American 131st Texas field artillery regiment taking a heavy toll on the invaders. Finally, however, the Dutch defenders under Major General Gustav A. Ilgen had to retreat to Madura and on March 9 was forced to surrender. Moving rapidly south, with Tjilatjap captured, Soerabaja about to fall and their forces concentrating on Bandoeng from two sides, it became clear to General ter Poorten that further resistance would be pointless. On March 8 he announced the surrender of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army in Java. The Governor-General agreed and on March 12, with the other Allies present, the defenders surrendered with witnessing Lt. General Masao Maruyama promising that the prisoners would be treated according to the rules of the Geneva Convention -a promise that was not honored.

NSB leader Anton Mussert
The Dutch East Indies was effectively conquered. Some small groups continued to resist but large-scale guerilla warfare was impossible due to the dubious loyalty of the native population. The Dutch forces who were not included in the surrender mostly regrouped in Australia and participated in the eventual Allied counter-attack. The Dutch people in the occupied East Indies endured horrific suffering. The only positive thing about this for the Dutch government-in-exile was that it effectively killed any chance of the NSB gaining popular support with the Dutch empire being destroyed by the Nazis’ allies. Even for those Dutch people who were radical nationalists predisposed to sympathize with the Germans, they were suddenly faced with the fact that collaboration meant cooperating with those who would see the Netherlands reduced to a total nonentity while it was those loyal to the Queen who were fighting for the complete restoration of the Netherlands as a significant power around the world. Dutch air and naval forces continued to fight alongside the Allies in Europe and Asia while the resistance at home carried out important surveillance work for the Allied cause.

Dutch colonial troops in Australia
The year of 1943 passed marked by suffering, endurance and a determination, embodied by the stout-hearted Queen Wilhelmina, to fight on. The first hope for liberation came in 1944 with the Allied invasion of Western Europe. Hopes were high for a quick rescue from Nazi clutches but these were dashed with the failure of “Operation Market Garden”. The plan, consisting of a series of airborne attacks on key bridges in advance of a push by British XXX Corps came close to success but ultimately ended in disaster. The Dutch underground had tried to warn the Allied high command that the area was not so weakly defended as they believed, that they were dropping their troops almost on top of the Waffen-SS Hohenstaufen Division but, unfortunately, the Allied leadership chose to ignore the Dutch warnings and the result was a defeat that ended any hope of winning the war by Christmas and which gave a morale boost to the Germans at a time when the war effort had become a long succession of defeats. Nonetheless, despite this setback, the Allied advance into the Netherlands continued and royal leadership was to play a key part, oddly enough a royal from Germany but firmly committed to the Dutch cause.

Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands
That was Prince Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld, husband of the future Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. Like the Queen, he wanted to stay in the Netherlands at the time of the German invasion and wanted to lead the resistance. However, he was finally induced to go into exile where he joined the Dutch squadron of the British Royal Air Force, eventually rising to the position of Wing Commander in the RAF. He also helped to organize and coordinate Dutch resistance forces and in 1944 was appointed to command the Dutch military. He flew both fighter and bomber missions, served as the top Dutch liaison with the Allied high command and participating in the meetings setting out the overall Allied strategy in the war. A major problem, partly due to the failure of Market Garden, was that the Dutch had been called on to rise up against the Germans in conjunction with the Allied attack but as it did not succeed as planned, German retaliation hit hard and the winter of 1944 saw 20,000 Dutch civilians purposely starved to death.

Queen Wilhelmina inspects Coldstream Guards
However, the end was in sight and as the Germans retreated the Allies pushed forward and the Netherlands was liberated. Prince Bernhard, as commander of the Dutch Armed Forces, took the surrender of the Germans at Wageningen on May 5, 1945. At the same time, the Dutch people took matters into their own hands to weed out and punish those who had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers during the war. Of course, there was no greater moment of liberation than the return of Queen Wilhelmina who, true to character, refused to wait until the war was over but came in March to the liberated areas of southern Netherlands where she received a rapturous welcome. Still, the Queen, who had often clashed with the government-in-exile (and basically ruled as she pleased), was disappointed to see the same political divisions maintained as there had been before the war. She disliked politicians in general and received considerable push back from the political elites over her determination to see the Netherlands and particularly the Dutch empire, completely restored as they had been before the war. On the other side of the world, that struggle was still going on in the war with Japan.

Admiral Conrad "Ship-a-Day" Helfrich
In July of 1945 the largest Allied invasion of the Dutch East Indies occurred with Dutch military forces taking part. Because of the significant contribution of Dutch air and naval forces in the campaign, the Netherlands was regarded as one of the major Allied partners alongside the British, Australians, New Zealanders and Americans. The Allies land on Borneo to take back the vital oil facilities from the Japanese who, since the Imperial Navy had been wiped out, were cut off from their devastated home islands and isolated from all help. Less than a month later, while Japanese forces were still operating in the East Indies, Japan is forced to admit defeat and surrender. At the ceremony on the American battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, appropriately enough, it was Admiral Conrad E.L. Helfrich who signed the acceptance of Japanese surrender on behalf of the Kingdom of the Netherlands at 9:21 AM. The war was finally over but hardships still remained. At home, the country was in ruin and in the Dutch East Indies, Japanese forces belatedly allowed the nationalist leader Sukarno to declare independence after their forces were already defeated (unknown to Sukarno at the time), setting the stage for the Indonesian War for Independence.

The ruins of Rotterdam
In the end, the Netherlands suffered immensely from World War II, losing 205,901 men, women and children, the highest death rate of any Nazi-occupied country in western Europe. 30,000 men, women and children, military and civilian, died in the Dutch East Indies in battles, massacres, prison camps and internment camps at the hands of the Japanese or Indonesian collaborators. The fate of the Netherlands is an example of the hateful mentality that gripped more than a few countries in that era. Germany and the Netherlands had a long history of friendship, in World War I there was considerable sympathy for Germany and hatred of the British blockade. Queen Wilhelmina granted German Kaiser Wilhelm II sanctuary and rebuffed all Allied efforts to hand him over for trial as a war criminal. Likewise, no other western country had such long-standing peaceful ties to Japan than the Netherlands. Fortunately, that was one relationship that was eventually restored, illustrated by the very close friendship that exists today between the Dutch Royal Family and the Japanese Imperial Family, particularly between King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima and Crown Prince Naruhito and Crown Princess Masako. The Emperor himself has expressed to the Dutch royals his deep regret for the painful conflict between the Netherlands and Japan in World War II. All could certainly join in such a sentiment.

Field Marshal Montgomery & Prince Bernhard
In the end, the Netherlands was never the same after the war. In spite of a successful military campaign, betrayal by the American president cost the Dutch their empire in the East Indies and at home, along with the rest of western Europe, began the incremental session of powers to greater European unity all in the name of economic security and preventing another European war. The Dutch were one of the innocents of the Second World War, the victims of unprovoked aggression for the sake of control of the channel coast, airbases near to England, oil and other resources. However, the Dutch fought valiantly in defense of their territory and despite initial defeat, inspired and encouraged by their tenacious Queen with her determination and moral clarity, continued to struggle through the darkest days, contributing to the Allied war effort more than most know until final victory was achieved. It is a record that all patriotic men and women of the Netherlands can be proud of.


  1. You wouldn't happen to know of any good texts that give a history of the Netherlands in World War II?

    1. Afraid not. I would like to know myself. Oddly enough, the biggest one-volume book I've ever seen was in my university days and was all about the Dutch war of independence.

    2. There's a book, by Tom Womack, titled "Defense Of The Malay Barrier", and another titled "Rising Sun, Falling Skies."

  2. A scholar at Rutgers in NJ has written on the Dutch Navy in the East Indies during the war. I remember browsing through it.

  3. The Dutch managed to destroy 125 JU-52s /damage about 47 this is about 50% of the used aircraft.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...