Dutch army strategy and armament in WWII
It is probably quite common knowledge that at the start of the German offensive in the West [Fall Gelb] on 10 May 1940, the Dutch armed forces suffered from a substantial lack of strength and capacity. The specific details and how the Dutch armed forces compared to - for instance - the Belgian and French armies are not very well known though.
In order to facilitate visitors of our WWII sites, we have tried to prepare an informative summary about the strategy, organisation, strength and armament of the Dutch armed forces in May 1940.
We would like to stress that this summary is specifically intended to present general information and not high levels of detail. We trust that the majority of our visitors shall feel quite well served with information given hereunder.
We have tried to compare Dutch ranks and military vocabulary with their English' and German equals (of those days).
The below listed common rank-system applied in May 1940:
|Dutch||English||German (Heer)||German (SS-VT)|
|Soldaat, Huzaar||Soldier, Hussar||Schütze, Reiter (etc)||SS-Mann|
|2e Luitenant||2nd Lieutenant||Leutnant||Untersturmführer|
|1e Luitenant||1st Lieutenant||Oberleutnant||Obersturmführer|
|Kapitein, Ritmeester||Captain||Hauptman, Rittmeister||Hauptsturmführer|
One should be aware that the British, French and [particularly the] German army had a much more extended NCO rank system than shown hereabove. The Dutch lower ranks were very limited though, and since the Dutch army is the basis of this summary the additional foreign ranks - not mentioned above and not matching any Dutch equal - have not been added.
We are aware that some discussion about rank comparison shall always remain.
The Dutch strategy
It may seem odd to introduce you to the Dutch strategy prior to an introduction to the Dutch army organisation of branches, troops and weapons. It is however for a good reason. The names and functions of the army organisation will get a better place in your mind once we have established the basic Dutch strategy.
Although The Netherlands maintained a strictly [political and military] neutral status in Europe, just like they did during WWI, it seemed beyond any doubt [in the late thirties] that any threats of the national sovereignty would come from Germany. As off 1935 the Dutch government and military leadership started to grow into awareness of these threats and gradually developed strategic plans for the defence of the Dutch territory.
The Netherlands was blessed with a series of natural barriers in the form and shape of wide rivers crossing the entire country. Also, the narrow central north-south axis of the country provided for a useful and short defence-line. And short defence-lines require (relatively) less troops ...
Water had been the Dutch enemy ánd the Dutch ally through its entire existance. In previous times the Dutch had often benefited from the option to flood extended parts of the country in order to prevent enemies from penetrating the western part of the Netherlands. The main flood zone was called 'De Hollandse Waterlinie' [the Dutch Waterline] and stretched from the Ysselmeer east of Amsterdam via the rivers in the heart of the country to the Hollands Diep at Moerdijk. In the 19th century this flooding area had been altered, mainly as a consequence of extended new populations. From thenon the Dutch Waterline only referred to the area east of Amsterdam, via the area east of Utrecht up to Culemborg along the Rhine. That revised Waterline was called 'de Nieuwe Hollandse Waterlinie' [New Dutch Waterline]. That much extended inundation was still applicable in the defence plans of May 1940.
The combination of these flooded areas in the central area of the country [Waterline] and the three east to west streaming main rivers Waal, Maas (Meuze) and Rijn (Rhine) provided for a more or less natural barrier against any invader coming over land. A barrier behind which a defensive force would be able to develop a potentially strong defence. This area behind the Waterline and the rivers - roughly the entire West and Northwest of the country - would become known as 'Vesting Holland' [Fortress Holland]. It was basically shaped between the larger city of Dordrecht in the south, Utrecht in the east, Amsterdam in the northeast and Harlem in the north. It included a mere two-third of the inhabitants of the country.
In the early thirties Dutch engineers had built an impressive thirty km long and thirty metre wide causeway [a dike or dam] from the north-eastern province Friesland to the north-western province of Noord-Holland. This dike - called the Afsluitdijk [Enclosure Dike] - was however also seen as a strategic liability. Its construction had after all created a direct link between the northeast and northwest of the country that could be used by an invader. It was therefore decided to fortify the dike on both extremities by means of two huge bunker-complexes. These bunkers completely sealed off the eastern and western side of the dike. Both defensive complexes each provided shelter for troops, a considerable arsenal of weapons in heavy machinegun pill boxes and strongly armoured bunkers, which were fitted with 4,7 cm AT guns. Since the narrow dike approach did not provide an assaulting force any cover, the fortified defences were considered nearly inpregnable.
The balance of the northern side of the country - particularly the northeast - was hardly defendable. The Ysselline defences [than were constructed on the west bank of the Yssel river] ran to the sector just north of Zwolle, where it merged with the Ysselmeer [Yssellake, or Zuiderzee as it was called in those days]. Beyond that the north of the country was not prepared for sustained defence. The Ysselmeer itself, a large inner-sea, was the domain of the Dutch navy. A small but quite effective flotilla of gun-boats and smaller patrol vessels could easily repel any maritime action undertaken by an invader.
The northwest of the country was quite save with its eastern flank along the Yssellake west shores. In the north the main navy harbour - Den Helder - had been constructed as a considerable fortress with quite an acceptable garrison and armament.
The Dutch Waterline had been renamed (during the interbellum) into 'Eastfront Fortress Holland'. When the mobilisation became a fact in August 1939, the Chief-of-Staff [Lieutenant-General Reynders] became Commander-in-Chief [CIC] of the Army, Army-Airforce and Navy (in the Dutch home waters). He decided that the Eastfront Fortress Holland would be designated as the main defence-line as it came to the central front.
In front of the Eastfront a rather strongly fortified and quite densily manned defence line had been constructed during the mobilisation period: the Grebbeline. This line - from the village of Spakenburg [northern extremity] on the shores of the Yssellake to the village of Rhenen at the northern bank of the river Rhine [southern extremity] - was developed along the eastern side of a sloping, hilly area that was formed during the last great Ice Age. Parts of the line had already been in use for centuries as a defensive position, mostly created by the famous late Middle Age fortification expert Menno van Coehoorn.
About one year before the German invasion, the army had started fortifying the Grebbeline with loads of small pill boxes, artillery positions, permanent obstructions, entanglements and of course much extended trench-systems. When in March 1940 the newly appointed CIC General Winkelman altered the strategy and shifted the main defence emphasis from the Eastfront to the Grebbeline, the work on the Grebbeline really started to get shape. Extended plans were prepared to fortify the defences much more, particularly with better reinforced positions. General Winkelman had considered the choice of General Reynders to designate the Eastfront as the main defence line unwise, for if it would be penetrated by the enemy the whole Fortress would be open. By moving the emphasis eastwards, the Eastfront could be a fall-back defence-line in case the main defences at the Grebbeline would yield. Funding to continue expanding both defences lacked however and as such the preparations in the Eastfront positions were ceased.
The approach area east of the Grebbeline was flooded, with the exception of three elevated area's [called "accesses" - after the access they granted through the inundations] of which two were around the larger city of Amersfoort and the third one east of the village Rhenen, at the bank of the Rhine. Needless to say that the defence-positions at these three locations required additional efforts en depth.
The defensive positions were well selected. A natural cover of quite extended forests and slightly elevated grounds to the rear of the frontline presented the defenders many options for a strong defence and adequate camouflage, as well as a covered approach for reinforcements and logistics. Furthermore, the line had a depth of two trenched lines. The first trench line was called frontline and the second stopline, combined forming the main-defence perimeter. The frontline was the best fortified one with quite dense formations of concrete and steel pill boxes, usually equipped with heavy or light machineguns. The approaches of the frontine were either inundated or - by absence of such inundation - guarded by rather strong forward positions that had a modest defensive duty too. At some locations a third defence-line had been constructed behind the stopline, but those sections were rather scarce.
A considerable amount of field-artillery had been dug-in behind the stopline. The majority of the artillerie units had infantry support roles. A relatively small number of artillery battalions had been assigned counter-artillery or high echelon logistic intervention roles.
The Grebbeline was considered the main defensive position of the Dutch Field Army and it had to be defended with all the manpower and means available. Literally the applicable motto was: "to the last man, and the last bullet." Both the 2nd and 4th Corps occupied the line. In the strategic plans of Winkelman, two more brigades would be brought into the rear of the Grebbeline as off the second day of an invasion. These brigades would come from the south were they would have been replaced (by then) by troops migrated from the south of the country. It meant that the Grebbeline would eventually have a capacity of about 65,000 troops stretched over an almost 40 km long defence-line. But, a defence-line with basically only three vulnerable positions in the form of the aforementioned accesses.
The Grebbeline connected to the southern main-defence in the Peel-Raamline by two intermediate extensions in the sector between the Rhine and the Maas. Between the rivers Rhine and the Waal these defences were called the Betuweline and between the rivers Waal and Maas, the Maas-Waal-line. These two short extensions had an almost identical shape as the Grebbeline, but lacked the natural heights and forests. On the other hands they posed an invading force less room to manoeuvre and plenty of natural obstacles to overcome. It was therefore less likely that these two intermediate defences would come under serious pressure.
In the south [province Noord-Brabant] a strong defensive line had been created in the eastern part of the province. This line was designated as the Peel-Raamline, and named after the topographical names of its extremities, being the small flood Raam and the swamp-area Peel (1). The most southern position was located at the Belgian border around the Dutch city of Weert, the most northern position close to the river Maas [Meuze]. The line was roughly 65 km long.
(1) The Dutch tend to call this type of soil 'moeras' or 'veen', literally morass or peat. We therefore refer to the area as swampy, which it actually was, but much less than it had been only few decades before. Due to the constant milling that had been done by the Dutch since the Middle Ages, the groundwater had gradually been lowered and the soil had been settled. A process that is still going on and that in fact has the country of Holland decline in height continously. Due to the milling though, the traditional peat swamps in the Noord-Brabant - that had only two or three centuries ago comprised virtually the entire east of the country -were in the process of vanishing. Nowadays only tiny bits remain.
The Peel-Raamline was a well prepared defence line, mainly formed behind a defence dedicated (flooded) canal [a giant tank-barrier, called the Defence Canal], with a rather dense line of pill-boxes behind it. It had a front- and stopline like the Grebbeline, but it lacked efficient depth, although at some locations the required depth had been created. It had a huge Achilles heal at its open end south of the Dutch-Belgian border. The Belgians refused to extend the most southern position on their territory and dug in below [south of] the Albert Canal. This resulted in a wide open gap [to which we will refer later] to the south of the Peel-Raam line, on Belgian territory, of about 40 km length (up to the Turnhout / Tilburg area) and some km wide.
During the first half of the the 'phoney war' period with General Reynders as CIC, the Peel-Raamline was destined to hold an army Corps as well as the only Dutch light division as a mobile and dynamic formation to guard the open south end between Weert and Tilburg. Assisted by three border infantry battalions the Light Division had to dynamically anticipate potential hazzards coming from the south from a outflanking adversary. In total about 40,000 men occupied the trenches and border region from the Peel-Raam line to the city of Breda. That was hardly an adequate force. Particularly the open south was a huge liability to the succesfull maintained defence of the Peel-Raamline. When CIC Reynders was replaced by Winkelman in February 1940, he had the Dutch attache in Paris secretly probe the French GQG [French supreme command staff] about their strategy of deployment. When it became apparent that the French would have no intentions to move any significant formations into the Peel-Raam area, Winkelman secretly decided to have the Peel-Raamline evacuated on the first war night. Beside a very small elite of high ranked officers, not a soul would bear knowledge of this quite dramatic decision until the very morning of May the 10th.
The Peel-Raamline was orginally supposed to be occupied by the 3rd Corps. With the change of command in the spring of 1940, and the subsequent modification of the strategy, the trenches behind the frontline were no longer destined to be used. Only the frontline was occupied on the eve of battle. 3rd Corps had been stationed well behind the line, in the area of Den Bosch. Only one battalion of each regiment was stationed in the frontline, only accompanied by two battalions (each) of the high reserve regiments from the stationary army. The Peel-Division, specially formed to contain the battalions that would be responsible for sustained defence of Noord-Brabant in both the Maas- and Peel-Raamline, was the only unit to be left behind in Brabant. Because next to the main formations of 3rd Corps, also the Light Division was scheduled to be taken back into Fortress Holland on the first night of the invasion.
Yet Noord-Brabant would still be defended by a quite considerable force of about 20 battalions. But these battalions would have to fulfill their duties without the support of artillery (with exception of three battalions of old 8 cm guns and quite a number of single gun batteries of the same old brands), without anti-aircraft artillery and without division support formations. It were basically a mere 20 battalions fighting their little wars on their own ...
In front of both the Grebbeline and the Peel-Raamline were two forward defence-lines as most forward shield defences. These thin lines were constructed on the western shores of the river Meuze in the south and the river Yssel in the north. These defences had the basic function of slowing down the German forces just enough to have the main defence-lines fully prepared for battle. Also - it was imperative to destroy all bridges crossing these main rivers in order to cripple the invaders' logistics.
These two lines provided for a first-defensive screen from the most southern extremity of Holland (city of Maastricht in the province Limburg) to the city of Kampen in the mid-northern part of Holland on the shores of the Ysselmeer. These defence-lines were extremely thin. Concentrations of forces were found at all bridges and ferry points, but in between only few prepared defences were found. Usually every 400-500 m one isolated casemate. Taking one casemate out would mean a gap of about 1 km. Only a mere six battalions defended the Ysselline; the Maasline had just a few more. These battalions lacked any artillery. At the bridges there were one or two heavy concrete bunkers, usually with one 4,7 cm AT gun and a heavy MG. Often also one or two infantry guns in open field positions. AAA and modern mobile guns as well as mortars were hardly available. These weapons had been considered to valuable to waste in the forward defences.
Also along the entire border with German border posts were manned. These post were usually manned by squads or - at more important locations - by platoons. These units had warning tasks, sometimes combined with assignement for first line destructions. Basically the bulk of formations with border security tasks were considered sacrificial units. Obviously their quality was rather poor.
It has been addressed before. The main defence of the country was envisaged along the borders of Fortress Holland. The five main legs of the Fortress defence were: 1) the southfront [along the Hollands Diep], 2) the southeastern sector Gorinchem [Merwede and Waal-Linge line], 3) the eastern leg at the Grebbeline [with behind it the Eastfront Fortress Holland] and 4) the unmanned north-front [Amsterdam - Zaandam - IJmuiden]. The fifth leg was the coastline, which was lightly defended with concentrations and coastal artillery at the sea-port areas.
Within Fortress Holland was the only strategic reserve of the army, 1st Corps. It was under direct supervision of the General HQ. Also all Army Services and Depots [training facilities and military schools] had been concentrated within the Fortress as well as about two-third of the stationary army, being the high numbered infantry and artillery regiments.
The navy and other important ports had been fortified with coastal guns and the occupation of still valuable mostly older fortresses. At Den Helder, IJmuiden, Hook of Holland, at Walcheren and Flushing important coastal batteries with 7,5 cm, 12 cm and 15 cm guns had been placed. At some locations along the Hollands Diep and the islands in the Waddenzee (north of the country) coastal batteries and small garrisons were placed too.
Last minute changes
The first Dutch CIC had run into unsolvable differences of opinion with the Dutch Cabinet and was eventually forced to resign in January 1940. The main reason was the matter of the central front. General Reynders had insisted that the Grebbeline was nothing more than a forward defence-line that had to be held until a point well ahead of yielding, after which the army would have to be taken back onto the Eastfront Fortress Holland. The Minister of Defence [a former Lieutenant-Colonel and subordinate officer to the CIC at the Dutch General Staff] didn't approve of this, for he considered the taking back of two full army corpses under pressure of a pressing enemy too much of a liability. Moreover the Minister did not fancy investing money into two main defences, both the Grebbeline and the Eastfront Fortress Holland. Beside this matter there was a difference of opinion about the maintainability of the Peel-Raamline - in regard of the open south end - and about the political character of social clubs for the mobilised army personnel. On the background however, the whole conflict was more of a clash of characters than a genuine strategic difference of opinion.
In February 1940 a new CIC was appointed, General Winkelman. Also a new Chief of Staff was assigned, replacing the previous COS, who had joint the former CIC in resigning. Both new commanding officers first started evaluating the status quo of the defences and made inventory of the army's potential. End of March a new strategy was announced and executed. In particular the defences of Brabant were revised quite dramatically, although in secret. As already briefly addressed hereabove, the Peel-Raamline was hovering idle in the south due to lack of connection with the Belgian defence.
It was recognized that should Germany be the invading country, they would probably launch an all-out offensive against The Netherlands, Belgium and France. Therefore it would be obvious that the large gap on the Dutch southern border would become a huge liability to the safety of the entire defence-line, for enemy troops would easily come into a position where they could make a sweep around the most southern Dutch defensive position. Such a manoeuvre would jeopardize the entire occupational force of the Peel-Raamline and the Light Division.
This risk had been recognized and weighted before, but the new CIC considered the situation too much of a challenge for the Dutch troops in the south. The Dutch army had suffered from twenty years of complete negligence, and only consisted of a mere 280.000 men [including navy and airforce]. This was obviously too little a number to defend the whole country and even a modest strength to defend the Fortress Holland and the main defences elsewhere. The new CIC therefore decided to file a secret order to the commanding officer of 3rd Corps, the Light Division and of the troops in Noord-Brabant [Territorial Commander Colonel Schmidt] that upon invasion, the majority of troops would retreat to the Fortress Holland during the first night of the war. Only about twenty battalions [one battalion in every regiment sector] would stay behind in the Maasline and Peel-Raamline and would remain under instruction to defend their positions for as long as endurable. These rearguard troops would be considered sacrificed. The 3rd Corps and Light Division would be brought back into Fortress Holland. The Corps would be brought back to strength with three battalions from the Fortress reserve [assembled in the so called Brigade G] and positioned in the southeast sector of the Fortress defences. The Light Division would be drawn into the heart of the Fortress as a mobile strategic reserve.
Besides the Brabant change of plan, there was more. It was decided that the Grebbeline would become the main defence for the Field Army in the central sector. General Winkelman regarded the Eastfront Fortress Holland unsuitable as the main defence. First of all because the defences in the Eastfront would bring both large cities Utrecht and Amsterdam within firing range of enemy artillery. Secondly because the Grebbeline provided much more cover and advantageous geography for a prolonged defence than the Eastfront. Thirdly because the Eastfront was mainly projected on such low country that trenches and reinforcements had to be constructed above groundlevel rather than below. Digging in this sector was out of the question because of the high groundwater levels. And last but not least because an enemy success against the Eastfront would leave no room for renewed organised defence in its rear.
Moreover the new CIC reconsidered the strength of troops and support weapons in the outer defences. A few more battalions were moved back from the outer defence sectors and modern AT guns were withdrawn into the Fortress. They were replaced by obsolete 19th century fieldguns [8-staal].
Especially the decision to give up the Brabant defences would cause much discussion in the years after the war. Nationally it would cause supporters of the Reynders strategy to point an accussing finger to the Cabinet - for sacking Reynders - and to Winkelman - for supposingly failing strategy.
General measures of precaution
It is also of importance to mention some of the most important details of the tactical plans which were not directly related to defence lines.
The Dutch had put almost all their military and civil airfields outside Fortress Holland out of service. The last batch of fields - used for neutrality enforcement airforce missions - had been closed in the first and second half of April 1940. These abandoned fields, mainly landing strips of a secondary category, were either blocked with heavy construction material, karts and lorries, or broken up with motorized ploughs. All armed and operational military planes [around 135] were either stationed within the Fortress Holland or at some airfields in the South-Western part of the country. All airfields within the Fortress had received an infantry occupation. The main fields, like Bergen [Noord-Holland], Schiphol [Amsterdam], Waalhaven [Rotterdam], Valkenburg [Leiden] and Ypenburg [The Hague] had bigger defence forces, usually about one battalion strength. The main roads between the bigger cities were blocked with obsolete lorries, carts and cars, thus preventing enemy planes from using these stretches as auxilary landing strips. Much was done in anticipation of airlanding operations that had been noted in Norway. The Dutch were the only Allied nation to take these quite extended measures of precaution.
All strategic bridges were occupied with so called Military Police units. Although their name suggests otherwise, these units were not like MP's, but had a combat function. Their ranks were occupied by well trained professional military personnel with specific assignments of national security if it came to strategic items of the defence structure, such as the bigger bridges crossing the main rivers. These bridges were usually reinforced with strong ferro-concrete bunkers, containing light calibre canons [4,7 cm AT] and heavy machineguns. As explained hereabove, the main rivers were part of a defence-line structure and as such also regular troops were incorporated in this defence screen. Moreover, at the highly important bridges at Moerdijk - each about 1,5 km long - a trench and casemate structure had been constructed that could hold a considerable force of about 1,000 men regular troops. These forces were sheltered nearby their bridgeheads.
The British and French governments had seriously endeavoured to get the Belgian and Dutch states in their court prior to a German invasion. Belgium in particular was the hinge in the most prominent French strategies, because the country was bound to bear the burden of the main German advance once again.
Since the Maginotline had been constructed, any German offensive would be forced to seek momentum on Belgian soil in order to get to the North of France. Much to the frustration of France - and subsequently the United Kingdom - Belgium set out a course of strict neutrality as off late 1936. Nevertheless, the Belgian high command (the King and his military staff) were not oblivious of the risks of total isolation, but the Dutch were. Belgium considered that conditional agreements with France and the United Kingdom were not straight-out infringements of international law for a neutral state. The Dyle strategy that was developed by the GQG in Paris was measured on the agreement that the French,
Belgian and BEF forces would jointly defend the main defence line in Belgium, once a casus belli would haven occured against Belgium. This base case Dyle strategy would see the Belgian army defend the northern part of the Dyle line [in Belgium that defence was designated as the KW-line] and the BEF and French army defend the central and southern parts. The line connected to the Dinant-Sedan defences along the Meuze river and was in itself connected to the northen extremity of the formidable Maginot-line. In other words, a contineous defence structure from Antwerp to Metz in a diagonal line through the northeast of France and the heart of Belgium. Should the northern front collapse, the BEF and French troops would fall back on an improvised line in the north of France, hinged around Sedan. It was all in anticipation of a repetition of the old Von Schlieffen and Moltke plan, where a German offensive swung through the North of Belgian driving down into the direction of Paris. The French never anticipated the opposite version of the Von Schlieffenplan, with a giant push through the Ardennes into the direction of the coast.
The Dyle strategy was quite fragile. Not only because of the actual German invasion strategy, but in itself, due to the diverging objectives of the participants. The French were merely obsessed by keeping the war from their homeland. They were totally focussed on stopping and defeating the German invasion machine on Belgian soil. The BEF was only motivated to keep the war as far away from the Kingdom much aware as they were that their army was all but ready for a large-scale war. The home country Belgium was obviously focussed on defending its own turf. These three participants had found synergy in the defence of the Dyle line. That was however the only defence milestone in the entire overall defence strategy that could rely on ample support of all three participants. If the Dyle line would collapse, the Belgian army would retreat on the western fortress that was formed around the cities of Antwerp, Gent and Brugge, or Reduite National, e.g. the Belgian version of the Fortress Holland. Such a move would mean that the northern flank of the front would be exposed and the BEF and French [1st, 7th and 9th] armies would have to close the left flank in a most expeditious way. From that moment on Belgium would be on its own. Defending the French home ground would then be all up to the BEF and the French.
But also the BEF had its own agenda. The British forces in France (and Norway) were the best that Great-Britain could produce in early 1940 and besides that, the BEF contained a major slide of the UK army potential too. The BEF was not to be jeopardized in its very existance for its loss would mean that the home country would have insufficient men and material for a firm defence of the British Islands. The commander of the BEF - Lord Gort - was operationally submitted to the French GQG, but strategically the British Government remained in charge. If push came to shove the BEF would be evacuated from the main land of Europe. The French were all too aware of that, although they continued to rely on the BEF to stand ground until the odds would really start to grow poor. But in fact the French had no other option than to rely on the BEF to stay.
All in all, the worst case scenario would throw the French back on themselves. Général Gamelin - the French CIC - realized this all too well. A more ambitious and more agressive strategy - the Dyle-Breda strategy that was officially launched in the late winter of 1940 - came from his sleeve. It was a result of the very consideration that the Belgian army in particular should be won more indefinitly for the French cause. In the process even the Dutch support could be gained, although that consideration was more of a positive side-effect than a major issue.
The Dyle-Breda strategy was more of a political strategy than a military one. In fact the increased political component in this strategy did not match the military gains, because the Dyle-Breda strategy was military-wise less desirable than the much less ambitious basic Dyle plan. The most important component was the inclusion of the main bulk of the Belgian army in the arms of the main French force in Belgium. In the basic Dyle plan, the Belgian army would be on its own covering the entire northern sector of the Dyle-line on its own. That was the sector from Brussels to Antwerp. On its right side it leaned on to the BEF, but on it left and in its rear were no French or British troops. The Dyle-Breda variant saw the French 7th Army in the rear and on the left flank of the Belgian army. That way Gamelin believed that the Belgian independance would be compromised, shackled to the French cause and that as a consequence the Belgian King [the Belgian CIC] would feel much more obligated to adjust his strategic decisions to the French demands or desires. After all, with the Breda-variant in respect to the dislocation of French and Belgian units the fate of both armies would be more intwined. A subsidairy advantage of the 7th Army on the left flank of the Belgians would be that its left wing would make contact with the Dutch armed forces. That would open up chances to gain the Dutch support for the French cause too. As such Gamelin endeavoured to gain the Dutch submission to the Dyle-Breda strategy too. He informally inquired (early 1940) whether the Dutch were willing to have their southern army representation move westwards, from the Peel-Raamline to the Tilburg-Turnhout axis. His proposition was quickly turned down by the Dutch, which in itself made sense. The Tilburg-Turnhout axis was a paper defence-line, because not a single shuffle had been put into the ground in that area to prepare defences. The Peel-Raam line was in full existance and much of the Dutch strategy (of conceit of the opposing forces) was based on that.
From a military-strategic perspective the Dyle-Breda plan was quite disastrous, which both involved French commanders [Général Giraud of the 7th Army and Général Georges of the Northern French Army] made very clear to the GQG. They had every bit of objection against the Dyle-Breda variant. Général Georges strongly believed that his most mobile army, the 7th, should be kept in the rear in Northern France as a mobile strategic reserve force that could reach the operational theatre behind the Wavre - Sedan sector within one or two days if necessary. From that point it could counter and repel any German penetration of the main central and southern defence-line. That dislocation of the 7th was indeed projected in the basic Dyle plan. But in the Breda variant the entire strategic reserve was taken away from Georges and assigned to the extreme north of the spectrum, which Georges considered a dead - and most importantly - a highly dangerous outpost. But the political issues prevailed and Gamelin informed his Generals that the Breda plan would most likely become applicable on the very moment that Holland would be invaded and if that country would show determined resistance. Eventually Georges and Giraud were (still reluctantly) persuaded by Gamelin by assigning the 7th Army the best French tank division, the 1.DLM. Both French Generals would however at no point truly adopt the Breda variant. And weighing their decision-making in the actual first two days of the campaign, the hands of deliberate temporized positioning of the most northern French forces as well as avoidance of battle becomes clear, crystal clear ...
The Belgian army was with its 630,000 men quite a force on paper. Although it was modestly equipped and trained - much like the Dutch army - it was in equalized comparison to the Dutch army tripple the size. The Belgian defence plan [involving only Belgian formations] was quite expanded. It was more or less divided over four defences. First came the alerting outposts along the border, secondly the outer defences, thirdly the first actual defences along the Albert Canal and Meuze [Antwerp - Liege - Namur] and next the main defences behind the KW-line and Dyle-line. As a last resort was the Reduit National reinstated as a defence fortress, but that would only apply after the Dyle-line had collapsed.
The Belgian defence-plan was not at all embraced by the French, but the Belgians showed little consideration with the French opinion. Obviously that was one of the already addressed liabilities of the prelimenary alliance. And who would blame Belgium that - after all - would become the main theatre of a war between two super-powers in Europa, like it had been in the 1914-1918 era. The Belgian army had decided that it would bring the bulk of the field army units in the sector east of the Dyle-line, in a forward defence area from the western city of Antwerp leading along the Albert Canal and the Meuze river to the south-east. Only modest forces would take positions in the northern sector of the KW-line [Koningshooikt - Wavre] in the first phases. The French considered this plan undesirable. They would have liked the main bulk of the Belgian army in the KW-line and strong mobile forces in the room west of the Ardennes. But the Belgian high command didn't yield top French pressure. Reason for Gamelin to introduce his plan of fast light brigades from his own mobile divisions to run ahead of his main forces in the voids that the Belgian (and Dutch) armies had left. Projected on the integral Allied strategy it meant that fix after fix and concession after concession was put in place, all a result of diverging objectives.
One more particular of the Belgian defence was of significant importance. The three first defensive structures saw some sort of comprised knot in the northeast, where the third defence-line [Albert Canal] was situated so close to the Dutch and German border that if it would be penetrated the entire sector west of it until the KW-line would be open to the invasion force. That void, that lead into the heart of Belgian, was called the Gembloux-void. The Fortress Eben Emael was one of Belgium's strongholds to prevent such disaster from materializing within short time after an invasion. Nevertheless the region between the Dutch cities of Maastricht [province Limburg] and Weert [South side of the Peel-Raamline] and the Belgian perimeter around Eben Emael formed a formidable weak-spot in the Allied defences. An early German penetration in that sector would cause a massive wedge in the Allied defence arrangements.
Last but not least the Allies had one prominent challenge once the German invasion would be unleashed. The 1st and 9th French armies and the entire BEF [around 550,000 men] had to cross the southwest of Belgium in the most expeditious way possible in order to reach the defences between Brussels and Namur in as short a time possible. The pre-war calculations had shown that at least five days had to be counted for that operation to be completed. Five days during which large troop contingents would be exposed on the roads and railways. A logistic operation that would not only demand much of the troops involved - since the vast majority had to cover the entire distance by foot - but also require much of the command and control centres. French calculations were that the Germans would require a minimum of seven days to reach the main defence line between Sedan and Brussels. One French General [Général Prételat] had however predicted that the Germans would need much less time than Gamelins expectations of seven days. His calculations would eventually proof to be only two hours off the facts as they would unfold in May 1940. Like many isolated 'visionairs' he wasn't heard though ...
It was a 'good' thing that the French and British commanders thought high of their own armies and gave themselves much chance to stop the German invasion in time. Otherwise they would have lost valuable sleep over the huge challenges that awaited them ...
The Dutch Airforce
Founded late 1913, at the eve of WWI, the Dutch airforce always remained a modest army branch. During WWI the Dutch captured many airplanes of accidentally border crossing belligerents. But the airforce obviously didn't grow in the learning curve of the fighting nations.
Although lessons of WWI had their short impact on the military awareness of the necessity of a strong Airforce - and as such a brief post-war period of rather high strength was enjoyed - the economic crises during the interbellum also backfired on the airforce. The brief period of airforce strength was quickly followed by a lull in investments which hit both acquisition of new material and pilots.
The Dutch enjoyed a rather strong national aeronautical industry. The native Dutchman Anthony Fokker - who had built a number of fighters of world fame for the Germans during WWI - fled to Holland in 1918 and founded the Fokker Aviation Company. Also Frits Koolhoven - who had designed reconaissance-planes and fighters for the British Air Force during WWI - founded an aviation plant in Rotterdam [Waalhaven] called Koolhoven. Some smaller airplane-designers contributed to the aeronautical activities too, but modestly. Although the airplane designers and producers were well represented, the Netherlands lacked indigenous production of main components such as powerful engines and armament. This seemed unimportant in the relatively stable first post-war period, but this would become a major burden in the second half of the thirties when all nations were rapidly increasing their purchases of these essential components.
The rapid developments of the aeronautical evolution shaped a forgiving circumstance for the lack of investment in the Airforce in the first 15 years after WWI as it came to material. When it became apparent in 1935 that instability in Europe was rapidly increasing, the Dutch military was finally allowed to file extensive reinvestment plans for modernisation of its strength. It was however imperative - by Governmental rules - that the indigenous industry would be preferred supplier and foreign procurement only a last resort.
Fokker developed a number of very capable planes in the second half of the thirties. Its first mono-plane fighter, the D-XXI, was considered a success and as such 36 (2) were procured. Fokker's second very successful design was the fighter-cruiser G-1. Its double boom twin-engine airframe and notorious nose armament [8 machineguns] would astonish the Paris Air Show visitors in 1936. Again 36 off were procured. It was also considered a necessity to supply the Air Force with dedicated strike planes. The Fokker T-V - originally envisaged as a fighter-cruiser - was selected after extensive interaction between military advisors and Fokker designers. The bomber was a relatively modern and fast plane, with an acceptable payload of 1.000 kg of bombs, a 20 mm gun in the nose and 5 machine-guns divided over as many fuselage positions. It was comparable to the British Wellington in performance. Only 16 off were purchased, since the Dutch airforce was still a WWI doctrine based outfit, mainly built around a [relatively] large reconnaissance fleet protected by many fighters.
(2) The principal of procuring 36 planes requires some explanation. The Dutch planners considered a squadron size of 12 planes desirable, come with 6 full spares. Hence 18 planes for each fighter squadron. Two squadrons of each formed the 36 off purchases.
The Fokker D-XXI was also exported and built on license by Finland. The Finnish pilots would achieve staggering results with this fighter in the Finnish-Russo war. Just a handful of these fighters would be responsible for hundreds of air kills. Obviously though, the average Russian plane in that stage was hardly comparable to the modern Bf-109 and Bf-110 the Dutch D-XXI's would oppose.
The large reconnaissance fleet consisted of three main types. All of these were bi-planes, and all moderately or very outdated when war broke out. The three types were known as the Fokkers C-V and C-X as well as the Koolhoven FK-51. The first two were also capable of light ground support roles and could carry a pay-load of 200 respectively 400 kg of ordinance. The latter was an obsolete plane that would not even fly during the five days' war.
Just before the outbreak of war, a squadron of relatively modern Douglas 8A reconnaissance / light ground support planes were added to the fleet. A series of 24 G-1 [alternate export version] had been confiscated in December 1939 by the Dutch authorities at the Fokker factory, and re-modelled to Dutch requirements. The assignment of these additional modern fighter-cruisers would increase the potential of the fleet considerably. However, sadly enough, at May 10th only a few were ready for service.
Two important purchases wouldn't arrive in time to join the thin lines of the Dutch airforce. An order for 32 Curtiss CW-21 interceptors was eventually shipped to the NEI, where they would oppose the Japanese aiforce in stead of the Luftwaffe. An order for 18 off Dornier Do-217 strategic reconaissance / strike planes was ready but not delivered by Germany. It surprises not ...
All this resulted into a strength of the Dutch airforce in May 1940 of only 135 operational warplanes, of which no more than about 70 were of a fairly modern type.
The Air defences
Until well in the thirties the Dutch ground-to-air defences had had only a very small arsenal of anti-aircraft artillery [AAA], and all of it was much outdated. During WWI a small number of ordinary field guns had been modified into AAA, and furthermore some units had been equipped with heavy machine guns for the same purpose. In 1934 it became apparent that massive expansion of this very limited stock was imperative in order to be able to deliver some sort of punch from the ground. A rather large modernisation program was developed.
British Vickers Armstrong 7,5 cm guns were purchased together with fire directional control systems. Also a series of identical weapons and fire controls were built on license by the Dutch Artillery Works. After 1938 no further systems could be acquired from Vickers itself and so orders were placed at Skoda (Czech Rep.). Only 9 pieces were delivered, after which export was blocked due to the German occupation of the Czech Republic. It resulted in 81 heavy AAA guns being available at May 10th 1940. With exception of one battery they would all be positioned within our on the borders of the Fortress Holland.
New medium AAA was purchased at Bofors (4 cm) and Rheinmetall Borsig (3,7 cm). The first producer quickly forbid any further export (after the start of the Finnish-Russo war). A Polish license provided for some more guns, but no more than 46 guns would be received. The Rheinmetall Borsig order was an unwise choice. With Germany as the more than likely potential aggressor, it was not very thoughtful to place an order with a main German producer. But alternatives were not available. Only one battery of three guns was received for training purposes, however without ammunition. The balance of the deliveries was confiscated by the Germans at the factory.
The newly procured light AAA was supplied by Oerlikon and Scotti. Also these orders were only partially delivered due to various political reasons. This resulted in the receipt of only 155 of these 2 cm guns by 10 May 1940.
The vintage AAA guns that had partially already been stored in the arsenals, were kept in service due to the lack of sufficient numbers of modern equipment. As a consequence 55 guns of 5,7 cm, 7,5 cm and three pieces of 9,4 cm remained available. They would prove that experienced crews would still be able to score some considerable success with vintage material. Almost all of these guns were positioned in outpost and the vicinity of Amsterdam.
The air defences were completed with a large number of anti-aircraft machine gun platoons. These platoons were usually equipped with the well known German machine guns Spandau M08 [designated M.25 by the Dutch]. But also a few hundred Vickers [designated M.18] were in use. The Spandau machine guns had been procured from German post WWI army stock. Although a proven weapon during WWI, the majority appeared to be worn out and would proof largely unfit for service. In May 1940 it would occasionally occure that platoons only had one serviceable weapon [out of 4 MG's]!
The navy had made its own purchases. In general the surface units were fitted with .50 cal. MG's, the larger units also with 4 cm Bofors. A handful of units as well as some naval airforce bases were equipped with 2 cm Hispano-Suiza guns.
In the early years of the 20th century and on the eve of WWI the Dutch army was considered a relatively strong army for its days. It may have been one of the reasons why the German high command decided not to pass over Dutch territory in the South, although during WWI such manoeuvre had been considered at a number of occasions, even in the final year of the war.
The Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations seemed to guarantee lasting peace for decades to come. This tragic assumption would blindfold many European nations in regards to their defence policy. Also the huge and extensive economic crises of the late twenties and early thirties contributed considerably to major defence cuts throughout Europe.
The Netherlands almost stopped any further investment in the armed forces, with exception of some artillery and mortar purchases. Basically one could say that the rather well-equipped army of 1918 would suffer from a full freeze until the early years of the thirties. The artillery was modernized to some extend and even a modest expansion with some dozens of modern guns was seen. Gradually a carefull motorization of some units was processed too, but that was it. Budget cuts were felt by all branches, although the Dutch colonial politics - which was actually a self-regulating authority within the Dutch Government - saw to it that some modernisation of the Dutch navy passed the votes of the house.
Not only the material side of the army was struck by these enormous budget cuts and none-investments. The disarmament politics of the post-war government also dictated cuts in the - already small - standing forces and professional officer and NCO ranks were brought back to [actually 'below'] a bear minimum. Furthermore the length of service time for the conscripts - the backbone of the Dutch army - was dramatically decreased. It would not be increased until 1938, when training would be intensified and the number of mobilisational troops would - from the levies of 1940 - even be doubled.
When Adolf Hitler's star was set at the sky at 31 January 1933, some individuals in the political arena started to see the light - or rather - the approaching darkness. It would take some more years before a political landslide occured and disarmament would swap places with the widely born desire to reinvest in the army. In 1935 the first plans developed and as off 1936 considerable investments were approved in The Hague. The Dutch military top - chaired by Chief-of-Staff General Reynders - laid out an extensive list of desired reinforcements considered to represent the bear minimum for bringing the Dutch army up to some sort of minimum standard.
The military assessment of required new weapons comprised the purchase of medium and light tanks, armoured cars, artillery, anti-tank guns, mortars, air-defence weapons and a drastic modernisation of the airforce. Although it was late in the day, surprisingly much of the requirements were met in relatively short time.
Between 1936-1940 a lot of equipment was procured and actually delivered. It resulted into a balance [see below] of available equipment that in 1930 would have been unthinkable [Air Force and AAA excluded as well as obsolete inland fortifications]. At 10 May 1940 the following was avialable:
- Around 380 modern antitank guns Böhler 4,7 cm
- Around 360 mortars Brand-Stokes 8,1 cm
- Around 3,000 heavy machineguns (Vickers, Spandau, Schwarzlose)
- Around 9,500 light machine guns Lewis M.20
- 36 anti-tank rifles 2 cm Solothurn
- Around 75 modern river casemate guns 5 cm HIH Siderius [and AI] (1931-1936)
- 210 light field guns Krupp 5,7 cm (1894)
- 304 light field guns Krupp 7,5 cm (1904, but modernized in 1920's)
- 108 obsolete light field guns 8,4 cm Krupp (1878)
- 52 modern medium field guns Bofors 10,5 cm (1926) and 2 off 10,5 cm Krupp guns (1912)
- 150 obsolete medium field guns Krupp 12,5 cm (1878, modernised in 1920's)
- 60 howitzers 12 cm Krupp and Bofors (1912, 1918)
- 30 howitzers 15 cm Vickers (1918)
- 44 howitzers 15 cm Krupp (1918)
- 72 obsolete heavy field guns Krupp 15 cm (1878, slightly modernised in 1920's)
- Around 140 coastal and harbour guns in the calibre range from 4,7 cm up to including 24 cm.
- 12 armoured cars (3,7 cm Bofors gun, 3 MG) Landsverk L.181 [Dutch designation M.36]
- 14 armoured cars (3,7 cm Bofors gun, 3 MG) Landsverk L.180, M.38 (2 command cars, only MG's)
- 12 armoured cars (3,7 cm Bofors gun, 3 MG) DAF M.39 Pantrado (3 out of 12 cars unarmed, in production)
- 3 armoured cars Morris (obsolete)
- 5 armoured universal carriers Cardon-Lloyd (1 MG Vickers)
The regular Dutch soldier was equipped with (at least) one of the following personal weapons:
- Mannlicher-Steyr rifle 6.5 mm (Infantry) or
- Mannlicher-Steyr carabine 6.5 mm (other) or
- FN pistol 9 mm or 7,65 mm, support units with a 1873 revolver 11 mm,
- Dagger or sword (officers, NCO's)
The artillery was a mix of vintage material, fairly modern and modern guns. The main field artillery (7,5 and 10,5 cm) could be considered as up to standard, although the range of the 7,5 cm field gun was limited to 10,200 metres [10,5 cm had a maximum range of 16,200 metres]. Both guns could achieve high sustained fire-rates. The other artillery pieces were either of WWI origin or considerably older. Both medium field gun of 12,5 cm and the heavy field gun of 15 cm were obsolete guns of a former generation. Their all steel bores were vulnerable to extensive use as well as regular wear and tear; their fire-rate was low and they were difficult to aim at variable angels. Also the 8,4 cm field gun could be considered hardly practical in use as a dynamic weapon in the field. The three types of howitzers were still fit for purpose, but suffered especially from too short a range to be able to coop with the modern battlefield requirements. Nevertheless the Dutch artillery would cause the Germans some havoc and prove that even a vintage weapon in trusted hands might achieve beyond expectation.
The Dutch artillery had a ratio of about 1 gun on 400 infantry men. That was the same ratio as the German army and the BEF, which both also came close to 1:400. The French had the best ratio of about 1:300 and the Belgian army 1:420 had the worst (artillery of fortifications of Luik/Visé and Namen is included). Obviously the relatively acceptable ratio of the Dutch army was much helped by the small size of the armed forces. In clear numbers, the almost 700 artillery guns (excluding the AT, 5,4 cm and 8,4 cm) were not too high a figure to impress the German command. Or anybody for that matter.
The Field Army suffered from a considerable shortage of infantry support weapons. The arsenals lacked sufficient numbers of mortars and heavy machine guns. An easy calculation shows that heavy machineguns were available for the men at a scale 1:100. That was far below what the top brass would have wanted to report. Also the number of light machine guns was actually at 50% of the requirements. Furthermore, all these weapons were far from modern, although that applied for the other Allied forces too. Both the main heavy machineguns used by the infantry [Schwarzlose and Vickers] had a medium fire-rate of around 500 rpm. This was almost half the fire-rate of the German MG.34. Both weapons however were reliable. Moreover, the Allied armies would fight the entire war against Germany (and Japan) with modern machineguns that would have firing rates that would never exceed 600 rpm.The Dutch standard light machine gun however - the M.20 Lewis - was a weapon that left much to be desired. Applied from a fixed position it achieved a fairly acceptable level of reliability, but once applied in dynamic battles or manoeuvres it turned out to be a very vulnerable weapon, that malfunctioned all the time. This would turn out to be a major problem for the infantry units of the Army in the battles to come.
The modern antitank guns and mortars were state of the art in May 1940, but were available in too small numbers to be considered a capable support for the entire army. Small numbers meant that the distribution would be wide spread, dramatically decreasing the effectiveness. For example, a first line infantry regiment had but four to six AT guns and six mortars. On a strength of about 2,300 men not a support-cache that the opposing force genuinly had to reckon with. Basically all of these modern weapons were only distributed amongst the forces defending the main defences and in the Fortress Holland. The AT guns were capable of delivering a solid AT round as well as a HE shell. But on the fabrication of the HE shells there had been a dramatic back-log, causing many units to be fitted with little or no supply of HE shells. Since German armour was concentrated in the south, the gun crews in the other sections of the defences had a quite useless cache of AT rounds and only few HE shells to make themselves useful.
The Dutch standard rifle [6,5 mm] was a fine weapon. Very reliable, extremely accurate but with one huge disadvantage: the ammunition. The round used was a full metal jacket that was fired from a cartridge that contained so much grain powder that the thrust on short distances would have the bullet easily penetrate the target and leave it again virtually homogeneously. The amount of energy absorbed by the target as well as the damage inflicted remained low. As a consequence - and particularly within ranges up to 150 m - the stopping power of the bullet was low when non-vital body parts of the target were inflicted. The same bullet was used by the light machineguns. The heavy machineguns used the same [7,9 mm] bullet as the German army, a pointed metal head.