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Analysis of one day of war


In the chapters referred to as summary, which can be found at the end of each of the war-days' sections, we shall summarize the major events and - if applicable - elaborate a little more on the chain of events. This first day has been summarized in a more profound analysis of the events.

Surprise or not?

The Dutch politicians had been quite oblivious of the clear and present danger of a German invasion. The 1940 Cabinet had not even been united in its believe of imminent German agression against the friendly neighbour state Holland. The Cabinet had prevented that it had come to any incident that would formally jeopardize the neutrality of the country and strictly adhered to the stipulations that the international law laid upon neutral states. Belgium and France had tried to convince the Dutch that at least some sort of conditional pre-agreement could be established that would not infringe with the international laws and regulations, but the Netherlands had been very anxious that such an agreement would leak and provoke the Germans. The Netherlands believed that they would be able to copy the 1914-1918 status. At least the politicians did.

The military top was largely convinced of the contrary, although even amongst these professionals some remarkable disbelievers of a German invasion could be found. After September 1939 not many high ranking officers still believed that Holland would be able to walk the gauntlet. After the German invasion of Norway, virtually all had seen the light. But many of them had but only one year before maintained hope. Hope against all odds. Like some Dutch strategists had already predicted many years before, the French Maginot line would force a German agressor to move its forces more to the north. In other words, the artificial German manoeuvres in 1914-1918 to squeeze a huge army in the small gap between the south of Holland and the north of France in order to avoid violation of Dutch soil, would hardly be copied in the next war. Should Germany again initial agression against France, it would at least involve the violation of the southern Dutch provinces. Possibly the entire nation.

The Dutch government had muzzled the media. Not by means of suppression, but by means of a patriotic appeal. Later, when the mobilisation had become a fact, the press was officially subordinated to Government approval. Yet the press hardly ever showed any resistance against the strict rules of consorship that had been laid upon them. It seemed like a national effort to prevent any provocation of the eastern neighbour.

Provocations were however staged by the Germans themselves. First of all they were able to track most of the Dutch aerospace violations by foreign airplanes. Mainly by deduction from course and flight paths eventually leading back to the Dutch room. If no Dutch airforce action was recorded and no formal complaint to the British filed, the Germans would time and again blow the incidents up beyond proportion, thus trying to create a picture of the Dutch favouring the British. More severe was the major intelligence service set-up that would eventually lead to a large international scandal. German Abwehr and SS agents had worked to get the British intelligence service in Holland compromised. The British involved the Dutch GS-III military intelligence office. A Dutch 1st Lieutenant was attached to the British team as a liaison. The German agents made the other side believe that they were part of a major cell that was planning a governmental throw-over and assassinate Hitler in the process of it. When the Anglo-Dutch team was loured to Venlo at the Dutch-German border to meet the 'leading officer', a German hit-commando struck and arrested the British. The Dutch Lieutenant was killed during the action and his body was taken along by the Germans. The result was that the Germans had an embarrising card on the Dutch, which they held to play at any time convenient to them.

The man in the street and the subaltern officers, NCO's and lower ranks were totally oblivious of the game that was played over their heads. In those days one was minding one's own business. Information exchange was on a strictly 'need-to-know' basis and it was still fairly easy to withhold sensitive information and keep it undisclosed from the public domain. The citizens - especially those beyond the busy west of the country - were totally kept in the dark. The Dutch society was a closed one, almost to the point of isolation - especially regarding international affairs. Beyond the west of the country many people lived in closed communities, couldn't effort reading the paper or weren't interested in the news. There were plenty communities in the outer provinces that didn't even consider any German agression. Especially those areas where countless generations had traded with the neighbouring Germans, where both German and Dutch communities had commuted and traded in eachothers region like borders were not there. They visited eachothers schools, churches and grocery stores; they had mixed circles of friends and spoke eachothers languages (or dialects) fluently.

In the west of the country people were less oblivious. Especially the upperclasse was rather well informed, mainly because they occupied the better jobs and as such got involved in international trade affairs, military affairs and parlemental affairs. Also their access to the press and international news was much better. Reading the paper was daily routine rather than an ocassional event. Nevertheless even the upperclass strongly believed in the wisdom of the Dutch politicians, relied on the existing band with Germany and believed in the virtual illusiveness of the neutral state Holland. In hindsight one can address this attitude as naive and foolish, but with the contemporised vision of 1939/1940 it wasn't that obvious to expect German agression against the Netherlands. At least not from the standpoint of the man in the street.

In the last month before the German invasion, basically the entire officer corps had been convinced that something was about to happen and that a German invasion was more of a 'when' than an 'if' matter. Their worries were usually not shared with their NCO's, let alone with the regulars in the trenches and on post. The numerous elevated alert statusses during the period April - May 1940 were therefore felt as an increasing nuisance rather than an increasing warning. Already starting November 1939 these ocassional 'high alerts' had punished the men, cancelling their leaves and having them suffer the elements in the trenches, especially during the severe winter that went over Europe in 1939/1940. They had started seeing these alerts - and particular the inevitably following decrease of alertness - as a further proof that nothing would happen. Again, in hindsight, a seemingly foolish attitude. But with the limited knowledge of the ordinary soldier, the reassurance that the Government preached time and again and their often indifferent officers around them - who can blame the regular soldiers and citizens to experience the ocassional alertness as more of a routine matter than anything else? It had been the same in 1914-1918, and also then no enemy had turned up!   

The military supreme command had not been surprised. On the 9th of May they had received ample warning of the upcoming events. These warnings mainly originated from two Abwehr officers that were already in 1940 part of the rebellion around Hitler. Their existance was doubted by the Dutch intelligence. They believed that the Prussian officer would never betray his country. Still the leads on 9 May 1940 were strong. Not only the (ill believed) Dutch military attachee in Berlin reported the immenent invasion hour, but also the Vatican warned the Belgian and Dutch commands. That they had the same sources as the Dutch and Belgian intelligent services was unknown. This time however, the warnings coming from the verified channels had been combined with rather alarming news from many of the border posts. It was reported that extensive troop movements and noises were heard from the neighbouring side of the border.

General Winkelman was convinced that in the morning of 10 May 1940 the German invasion-beast would be unleashed and that he had to lead his ill prepared army into battle. The entire staff at the GHQ was informed and overnight the Field Army and outer defences were put on full alert. It was then a matter of waiting and seeing what was coming ...

One cannot say that the Dutch were surprised by the invasion. But the German strategy would nevertheless take the Dutch completely by surprise. We shall refer to that very topic in an analysis of the entire May War in a separate chapter.

The morning of the 10th

Taken by surprise or not, the morning of May 10 was the worst nightmare a General could think of. An enemy that does not walk the tradtional paths of offensive warfare but seems to be all over the place within hours, totally failing communications, piles of contradicting and conflicting reports and an enemy that has landed in the backyard too. There was no clarity whatsoever what the invaders had in mind. And the worst thing that can happen to a General is not being able to anticipate.

In the morning of the first day, the General Staff was totally puzzled by the events. The airlanding had been expected on a tactical level, but never on the scale that was experienced that very morning. Besides, the enemy's plans in the south seemed pretty clear, but the definite plan for the landings north of Rotterdam were misty all along. The failure of the German Fall Festung Nord - which was mainly shown by the scattered pattern of landed and stranded air landing troops - was the enigma on the staff table in The Hague. What were they up to? 

It would take German documents to bring in the appreciation of the outline of the German plans. When a Ju-52 crashed in The Hague and the raging fire in the wreckage had been extinguished, papers were found on the body of a dead officer. These papers showed the plans for the outfit the Ju-52 crew had belonged to, and suddenly made the German plans clear enough. Efficient counter measures could be taken.

Nevertheless, the early hours of the German campaign accurately revealed the incompetence of the Dutch chain of command. An army that was so entirely depending on clear and straight directives from the top, that had given so little room in respect of tactical and operational autonomy of its lower commanders, was extremely vulnerable for communication-line failures. The ocassional 'irrational logic' of Dutch commandstructures, like the exceptional positions of garrison commanders and the large burden of the Fortress Holland command, levied a contraproductive and sometimes excessive effect on both the integral and the local commands. Both were effected, neither worked. It immobilised units or had exactly the opposite effect. Local commanders stalled in decision-making or started acting like little generals. Ocassionally these commanders acted with wisdom and gained unexpected successes, usually they excelled by making failure upon failure.

Gradually the picture in the west had become clear, but at the same the German airlandings had involved the one and only strategic reserve [mainbody 1ste Corps] and moreover the main portion of tactical reserves from the Field Army. In other words, the operation in the west had totally taken away the Dutch option to dynamically respond to any other German threat elsewhere, since the strategic reserve had been occupied and tied in full.

Although the German Fall Festung required almost all attention of the GHQ, the report of the penetration of the Peel-Raamline in the first hour of the war, had been received with equally a giant shock. The entire 3rd Corps and Light Division - more than a quarter of the Field Army - was in danger. That danger was amplified by the German seizure of the Moerdijk bridges, which was the main point of crossing for the Light Division. As a result over 25,000 men and their gear, weapons and material had to cross the Maas and Waal rivers by full day-light in a very narrow room. It didn't take a genius to predict that the Luftwaffe would be able to seriously jeopardize that capital (strategic) retreat.

The German operation that unfolded - and the gravity of the surprising elements thereof - had the GHQ been overtaken by the events time and again. The first half a day of the war on the GHQ can only be typified as the moment that the initiative was 100% into German hands. The news was bad and worse - all along - during the morning.

The afternoon and evening of the 10th

Gradually the news improved a little. It turned out that the Peel-Raamline was holding after all, that the main defences had been fully manned, that the retreat of the Field Army from the south seemed to proceed fairly prosperous and that the forward defences seemed to adhere to their duties and instructions.

In the west the news of the retaking of Ockenburg AFB and Ypenburg AFB was reported and the Germans at Valkenburg seemed to be withheld in their shrinking pocket. The battleplan for The Hague had been retrieved and had cleared up the best part of the huge morning enigma. Nevertheless the GHQ feared renewed German landings around the Hague. The troops of the 1st Corps were ordered not to undertake any manoeuvres beyond company size. An order that would stand until the 14th! It was intended not to lose control over larger units with the immenent threat of large new air landings over their heads. It would proof to be probably the worst order given during the entire May War.

At the southfront of Fortress Holland there was plenty of sat-back and hardly a glimpse of hope. The Germans had taken the bridges at Moerdijk, Dordrecht and in the heart of Rotterdam. Waalhaven had become the berth to continous German transports of fresh troops. This was a leaking crane that if not plugged would overflow the bath that was called Fortress Holland. The only glimpse of hope would have been the reassuring telecon General Winkelman had had with General Gamelin, the supreme commander of the French. The Dutch had set high hopes on the mighty French army for decisive assistance. Gamelin had promised Winkelman to come to his aid with the bulk of the 7th Army. He assured Winkelman that his troops would make contact with the Dutch and that the area west of Tilburg would be occupied in full force. Even the retaking of Moerdijk could rely on French support. Also a liaison officer would be sent to the Hague, General Mittelhauser, officer to the staff of Gamelin. Reassuring words from the French that let Winkelman believe that he could focus on retaking Waalhaven - or at least stop the German flow of troops there - rather than retake Moerdijk in order to close the wide open back-door.  

The state of the airforce obviously worried the GHQ. The airforce had performed well, but had suffered from the first strike and early missions. The German air supremacy had been expected, but not to the extend that was witnessed that first day. The early losses and the German appearance in the backyard had forced the GHQ to relieve the Field Army of its air force squadrons and all missions to be executed would have to be sanctioned by the GHQ. The airforce came to the full disposal of the Fortress Holland theatre with a rare exception for air reconnaissance capacity that was a basic necessity for the Field Army too.

At the end of the first day the GHQ issued a communique that was set in a very hopeful tone. It contained untrue or outdated information only. It did not - to whatever extend - give any accurate information. It did give hope though to those troops who were oblivious what was happening and those that were not referred to in the untrue parts of the content. In fact the GHQ was worried, but certainly not over pessimistic. They had finally managed to establish a rather reliable overview of the events and the German troop dislocations. They had neutralized the German assault around The Hague. The defence-lines along the Yssel and Maas had done their work. The Peel-Raamline had withheld the essential first day and the retreat of the main force from Brabant had succeeded. More importantly, the French had committed themselves to stand aside the Dutch in Brabant and Zeeland. That summary of events was a reason not to dispair. The general perception was even that with some fortune the odds could be shifted and the Germans could be stopped with assistance of the Allies ...

Balance of a day on the battlefield

On the German side there had been mixed emotions. On one hand the Fall Festung Süd had developed successfully during the first phase. All objectives had been achieved. But there was reason for restraint optimism only. The battle in the heart of Rotterdam was undecided and the odds seemed against the airlanding troops. A considerable Dutch army unit had been discovered at Alblasserdam and there was fear for Dutch counter measures from the Hoekse Waard against the fragile airborne corridor between Rotterdam and Moerdijk. On the other hand Fall Festung Nord had been an utter disappointment. None of the prime objectives had been achieved and moreover, the loss in men and material had been hard-felt. The Luftwaffe had lost over 250 airplanes, mainly Ju-52 transporters.

Elsewhere the achieved progression was behind schedule. In the north the 1.KD had managed to penetrate the Dutch defensive screens, but had not reached the first target-lines by far. In the centre the X.AK had been able to break through the Ysselline, but it had taken the entire day. The objective to break through the Grebbeline on the first day - although ambitious in its kind - had not been achieved by far. The northern division group had not even managed to cross the Ysselline in force, while the southern division group had only managed to deploy its forward units east of Wageningen.

The southern front had seen much less successful seizures of intact bridges than anticipated and the logistical planning had been disastrous. The biggest challenge in the Maas area had not been the enemy but the own planning and coordination. The masses of comprised units in the sectors east of the Maas required much of the Luftwaffe fighter capacity - to be withheld elsewhere - in order to have no doubt about air supremacy over the vulnerable and exposed army masses. Besides the army command worried over the fact that the slow progress into the room between the Maas and the Dyle-line would expose their forward forces for powerful counter-attacks by the Allies. The Germans required a large space to be able to execute the manoeuvres necessary for the large 6th Armee.

The break-through at Mill had not been materialized yet, when the 11th of May turned on the calendar. The narrow penetration had to be widened and materialised on the second day of the campaign. Nevertheless the troops were on schedule and the 9th Panzer Division would be instructed to start the engines and roll its way into Holland. The forces had another two days to reach Moerdijk and maintain schedule. It was imperative though to outrun the French 7th Army in order to prevent that from blocking the way.  

The Allied perspective

For the Allied commanders the first day had been disastrous. It had clearly shown the weakness of their defensive strategy in particular and the liability of a conditional alliance that was only to materialize after a casus belli had occured.

It had been Gamelin who had warned the Belgian army that their most forward defences were weak and that the dynamic units in front of the Dyle line were far too weak to counter any serious opposition. As a counter-measure Gamelin had detached many of the most modern light cavalry units [GRCA's and GRDI's, reinforced with tanks from DLM's] from their divisions and designated those light mobile forces for a dynamic forward defence in front of the Belgian Dyle-line and behind the Peel-Raamline of the Dutch. These units had to buy the French northern army and the BEF ample time (at least five days were considered necessary) to get deployed in the Dyle-line. Since the balance of the BEF and French forces designated to man this main defence-line were depending on foot-marches, and since both forces had to await a German casus belli [and a Belgian go-ahead] to enter Belgian soil, it was all Gamelin could do. But he had been right to fear the quick German deployment of masses of troops along the Maas river. All the more remarkable that the same Gamelin was the only senior French officer to see the clear advantages of the 7th Army being pushed into the dead corner of the future front around Antwerp, rather than withholding this mighty force as a dynamic strategic reserve in the rear of the southern Belgian theatre, where it could be employed to counter possible German penetrations between Wavre and Sedan. Nevertheless the 7th Army was ordered to bring the strategy Dyle-Breda to effect in the morning of the 10th.

Most peculiar detail had been that the same Gamelin had not lifted the alert status of the French and BEF in the evening of the 9th when alarming messages started to arrive that the Germans were about to launch their major offensive. On the contrary, Gamelin went to sleep and when the first reports of the German invasion were brought to the GQG, they were dismissed as 'not alarming enough'. It all resulted in the most peculiar situation that the French and BEF forces were only put on full alert when the war had been on for hours already!

The failure to put the French army in the highest alert status on the eve of war had also a second negative consequence. The organisation of the French motorised units was such, that motorisation had been organised in independant units. These were only merged with their potential cargos when the highest alert status was on. Consequently in the morning of May 10, the motorised columns had yet to be brought in before the main bulk of northern French army divisions were able to start moving. In the end most of them only started displacing in the afternoon of the 10th. The GRDI's and GRCA's that had been mobilised to take positions in Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland had preceeded the main divisions, but since also they had suffered from the delay at the GQG in Versailles, they would come (at least) hours too late on virtually all their projected destinations.

The Dyle-Breda strategy was announced applicable by Gamelin in the morning of the 10th, around 1000 hrs Dutch time. It was the go-ahead for Général Giraud to take his army north of Antwerp and take positions in the west of the Dutch province Brabant and the east and south side of Antwerp. Général Georges, commander of the French Northern Army - a mere 2,250,000 men - had always hammered on the option to abondon the Dyle-Breda strategy, which was strongly disliked by him. He had rather seen his 7th Army freed from the suicide mission in the north to be able to hold it in reserve in the south of Belgium. Yet when the Germans managed to decisively penetrate the Albert-Canal line in the northeast of Belgium on the first day already, the Dyle-Breda strategy was not recalled by the GQG. Général Georges was quite upset to learn that the Breda variant was still on, whereas the Germans would be able to jump in the void that lay between Maastricht and Turnhout - a 50 km stretch. If the Germans would perform that wedge manoeuvre, it would seriously jeopardize the projected French 7th Army position in the Breda variant. And Général Georges was positive that the Germans wouldn't miss this window of opportunity. Notwithstanding his perfect assessment of the odds and threats, the GQG reconfirmed the standing orders and so the 7th Army's most precious divisions and brigades moved to the north. The tanks had mostly been embarked on long trains that were heading north too. The French 7th Army was riding into a trap that their supreme command had - in a way - set themselves.

The Belgian headquarters had to swollow the bitter pill that their precious and much enchanted fortress Eben Emael, containing a mere 1,200 men troops and supposingly illusive to any enemy trying to oppose her, had yielded to a German special force of about 80 men. The fierce and massive counter attacks by large units of two Belgian divisions against the 'bold bunch' of about 500 German paratroopers, meanwhile reinforced by small units with AT and FLAK guns, had been in vain. The German Luftwaffe ruled and had rejected all Allied counter measures on the ground as well as in the sky. The next day the Belgian army would abondon the defence-lines that had supposed to withstand the Germans for so much longer. It also sealed the fate of the Dutch Peel-Raamline, although that had already been given up due to the German successes at Mill.

The news of the Belgian retreat from the forward defences along the Albert Canal would be consumed by the French on the 11th. Hereafter the GQG worried more over the remaining time to man the Dyle defences between Wavre and Sedan, than the fate of the 7th Army. 

The giant German tank manoeuvre in the Ardennes had still not been detected. It was noted than German tankdivisions operated along the entire Maas front, but the massive Panzer force in the Ardennes would only reveal itself in a later stage. The Belgian army units that had to oppose the forward armoured spearhead of the Germans, in particular the 'Ardense Jagers', put up a formidable fight, but were pushed back indiscriminately. A French mobile cavalry brigade that had been assigned to preamptively occupy key-junctions in Luxembourg arrived too late to outrun the Germans. The latter had dropped infantry platoons by making use of light planes that had landed on the designated locations to block any French intrusion. When the French finally arrived they were halted only to discover a little later that their changes had gone. They retreated.

The Belgian airforce had lost virtually all its modern planes on the ground. They had had only a modest modern contingent, but it had vaporised when the Luftwaffe struck in the opening hours. They were left with the old biplanes and a few Fairly Battles. Also some of the foward French units of the l'Armee de l'Air suffered losses from the first German strike, but the losses were less than would be suffered during the first battles in the sky. The Luftwaffe had tossed everything it had to the opponents on this first day, and it gloriously came through.

All in all, the first day had been devistating for the Allies. But little of this devistation was appreciated yet on the respective headquarters. Especially the French were under the impression that there would be plenty of time to reset the odds and correct what had gone wrong. But they were consistently wrong as the Allies had been with all their estimates thus far.

A comforting thought must have been that the devistation and chaos of the first day of the German invasion could hardly be exceeded by the second day. Things could only get better - but would it ...?