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On the eve of war

On the eve of war - at May 9, 1940 - the Netherlands had a standing army of 280.000 men that were poorly equipped, largely badly trained and hardly prepared for the things to come.

In our topic "Dutch army strategy and armament in WWII" we addressed the Dutch defence strategy and the 'Rearmament' section shows the results of a last minute sprint towards a better equipped army during the last few years before the war.


It should be clear that the strategy to defend only a carefully calculated part of the country against the German invaders was the most sensible solution. That decision was mainly given in by two components: 1) the geographical advantages of the major rivers and the shape of the country and 2) the lack of sufficient manpower and heavy weapons to defend the entire territory. The fact that the southern province of Brabant was left out of the main defence-system has been addressed in previous sections.

All in all the Dutch had prepared themselves for a "traditional" war. A war in which the invader would conservatively assault the outer-defences, possibly combined with minor tactical airborne operations within the Fortress Holland or behind main defence lines. The Dutch had even anticipated some minor maritime operations against the Islands (in the north) and possibly against some port facilities. It would all go along - so they thought - with considerable airforce support.

The counter measures that had been taken against possible tactical airborne operations were considered sufficient. And indeed these measures did seem adequate, at least much more extended than any of the allies (to be) had taken. All airfields had received dedicated defensive units, and the bigger bases even some additional AAA units. An extensive system of air-warning posts was in place for adequate and quick air-assault warnings and the readiness of the airforce was high. Main roads had been obstructed by parking cars, trucks and buses every so many hundred meters. Submarines were roaming the coasts to be able to counter any unsuspected German maritime operations.

Anticipation of a sustained defence

How long the army would be able to resist was a matter of different opinions.

It is uncertain what the army-top really believed to be a feasible window in which the Dutch armed forces would be able to manage a serious defence. In the twenties and early thirties the general conception had been  that the Dutch defences had to be able to sustain for three months - without considerable assistance from any potential allies. It is hard to believe that still some believed this in 1940.

The commander of the Field Army was a positive thinker and believed that the Grebbeline alone would last for many weeks. General Winkelman most likely accepted a perception of no longer than three weeks, and that calculation was based on immediate and considerable Allied assistance. It is very likely that Winkelman was less optimistic when it came to sharing his thoughts with his direct staff. He was very much aware of the alarmingly low ammunition caches and the fact that the small number of resources would pose a problem that was impossible to overcome without considerable allied assistance. He knew that if the enemy chose to advance simultaneously on many fronts, that this would quicly absorb all strategic and tactical reserves and that such a situation would inevitably, quicker rather than gradually, lead to a lost situation.

Last measure taken

When as off the 7th of May the tension rapidly rose, the outer defences were put on full alert and the main defence lines [on the central axis of the country] on the second highest alert. Bearing in mind that the enemy would be delayed by the most forward defences, the General Headquarters considered the second level of alert high enough for all other defences but the border-units and outer-defence-lines. The troops along the south-front and elsewhere within the Fortress Holland had also been put on the second alert status. It was considered that also these troops would receive sufficient warning when the borders would be crossed by the invaders. This was the general perception, and it wasn't too far off what one may consider normal or acceptable in those days.

On 9 May 1940 the tension briefly decreased and Field Army units were instructed that urgent leave requests could be granted again. This gave an unintended but wrong signal to the army, that believed that the utmost urgency of the general status had been lowered again. When overnight the Field Army including all outer defences were put on the highest alert again, many believed that it would blow over like all previous alarms had. But nothing was less true this time.

Peculiar was the fact that General Winkelman left it up to his commanders to decide on their measures of precaution, except for the border-defences and those on the central axis of the country. Eventually it was only the Commander Fortress Holland and the commander of the Zeeland forces that considered not to raise the alert status to the highest level. The Commander Fortress Holland strongly believed that even if the Germans would come overnight, his troops would be better served having a last good night of sleep than anything else. As a consequence the entire Fortress Holland would be surprised in its sleep, with exception of the air-force and ground-to-air defence units (including the base defence formations). After all the wise precautions taken against an enemy surprise from the skies, this decision by the Commander Fortress Holland was nothing less than irresponsible. General Winkelman was to blame that he had failed to instruct all his commanders to have their forces ready and on the highest alert.

Another very peculiar event was that the GHQ was hardly manned with senior officers overnight. Although General Winkelman and his COS were convinced that the Germans would come overnight, they both went home for a good night of sleep. Only a single Colonel remained as a senior General Staff representative. Considering the German plans for The Hague, the decision of Winkelman and his COS to leave the headquarters could have been devastating. Given the fact that the CIC and COS had shared the thought that the invasion would be on for the coming night, the decision to spent the night well away from the headquarters simply inexcusable. Nobody has been able to give an acceptable explanation for these two very odd descisions by the top two Generals. They can only be filed as utterly naive, deliberatedly avoiding more expressive vocabulary! (1)

(1) After the war Winkelman was quite extensively interrogated on this very subject by the Dutch Parliamentary Inquiry Commission, that had been appointed to investigate on the matters of political and military decision-making before and during the war. Winkelman had defended himself by stating that a good night of rest at his residence had been prefered to staying at the headquarters where he would undoubtably have been disturbed in his sleep. He had added that should he have to make that decision once again, he would have acted alike. Obviously Winkelman was criticized harshly by many, but not by the former Minister of Defence Dyxhoorn, who had supported Winkelman's decision. Dyxhoorn was the same man that had made many odd decisions in the period 1936-1940, first as a General Staff officer, later as Minister of Defence. Amongst other incidents, Dyxhoorn had in 1937 - as a Major in the General Staff supervising material purchases - advised against the purchase of tanks, motivating that advise by stating that he had strongly felt that the Spanish civil war had utterly proven what had already been seen at the end of WWI: the introduction of anti-tank guns on the battlefield had made tanks obsolete ...

When General Winkelman had left the General Headquarters at the Lange Voorhout in The Hague during the first hour of the 10th, he apparentely said the words: 'Let them come now. We have done everything that laid within our power. I think we are ready for them.'