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Famous last words

The Dutch struggle in May 1940 lasted only five days; eight days if we include the province of Zeeland. We have tried to shine a light on some important factors that may clarify the reason for the relatively short elapse of time between the hour of invasion and the final shots fired in Holland. The Dutch army was far from prepared for modern warfare, but there was a little more to it.

The lack of war experience played a role, but also the stubborn Dutch believe - against all odds - that neutrality was the best weapon against the increasing international tension. But even neutrality is forced upon the world by means of showing one's teeth. In WWI the Dutch army had been capable to convince the Germans that invasion of the south of Holland would pose them a considerable additional threat, although other reasons not to invade Holland played a role too if it came to the German decision to respect the Dutch neutrality. In 1940 this was not the case. The Germans were convinced that the Dutch would not be able to sustain their power for long and the possession of the Dutch territory was vital to the German plans.

The fact that the Dutch resistance crumbled after only a good four days of war, had certainly to do with the intensity of the German invasion. The sudden confrontation with an all out war, as off the first minute, on five fronts was too much to handle. It caused a tremendous ineffectiveness of many Dutch units, it occupied all strategic and even tactical reserves and it caused the focus of the Dutch GHQ to be 90% on the West. The small Dutch airforce was quickly outmatched. The massive airlanding operation was another element that in itself caused insurmountable problems to the Dutch army and the strategists. The army was prepared for static warfare in prepared positions - not a highly dynamic battlefield and an elusive enemy. It caused the Dutch to occupy many troops in usually very ineffective ways. Field commanders usually proved inadequate to manage larger units in the field, which sometimes had a devastating effect on units and the outcome of local battles. The Dutch army that had been trained for static warfare didn't get the chance of growing into experience and battle hardness.

The civil-soldiers of the army were forced to play a game of which the rules were set by the enemy. They felt outmatched in every aspect of the game and only incidentally units or individuals managed to rise to the occasion and make an impression. Officers - or even NCO's - who happened to proof themselves capable and proved able to coop with the exceptional stress of the battle-field showed how much could be achieved with even an poorly trained and ill equipped conscript army. Those facts in itself are proof of the theory that should the Dutch army have been trained properly they might have achieved a considerable amount more. Defeat would have still been the end result, but probably the average soldier would have felt more dignity after a war that had lasted for some time more but where defeat would have been inevitable due to the force and power balance rather than due to ill equipment, training and leadership.

It is good to emphasize that the majority of the Dutch soldiers with dedication. Many Dutch citizens in those days [and today] dismiss the Five Days' War as if our army was only equipped with a white handkerchief and a "broken rifle". In the same defeatist manner the might of the German army is often exaggerated while the Dutch army is at the same time diminished. Bare nonsense! But such a dis-balance makes it easy to conceive the thought of fleeing Dutch forces that didn't stand a chance.

The Dutch often tend to forget that it was the public in the first place that sent its army into the trenches with poor equipment and ill preparation. It was the public that offended proper investment in the defence of the country, and it was the public that required the military service [draft] to be as short as possible, because it intervened too much with day-to-day life. The army of 1940 was nothing less than a product of the close-fisted Dutch that had not been willing to invest in peace time. The maxim 'si vis pacem para bellum' [if you want peace - prepare for war] had not landed in the Netherlands. 

But that same neglected army put up a formidable fight against an ever so dominant and powerful enemy. Dismissing the Five Days' War as an incident that should be borne as a national disgrace says more of the person who thinks like that than the knowledge he bears about the facts. So much we have tried to proof with this epistle.

When one puts things into perspective, one could only conclude that five days of war in May 1940 cannot be dismissed as a disgrace or underperformance. Giving the limited means and power of the Dutch defences and projecting the very ambitious German strategy on the Dutch front, one should be convinced that the Dutch opposition to the German invader in May 1940 could have hardly been more successful than it proved to be with the means available.

Bearing the knowledge of the circumstances, the Dutch may take pride in the achievements that their army were able to perform with the minimum of preparation, equipment and support that was given to them.