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Five days of war: had it been worth the sacrifices?


The Dutch struggle against the invading German armies had lasted a mere five days. It had demanded the lives of about 5,000 Dutch military and citizens and had left many communities in rubbles. It was crystal-clear that the Dutch army [on its own] did not stand the slightest chance against the formidable German army. A fact that many insiders had known years before May 1940. Had it been worth it; had it been worth the sacrifice?

The Danish model

There is quite a group of people who (still today) claim that the Dutch should have followed the "Danish model".

The Danish army capitulated hours after the Germans had invaded their country [9 April 1940 - Operation Weserübung]. Only a handful of people died. The Danish King almost immediately realized that his army had not a cat in hell's change of resisting the German army. But the first question should be whether this Danish model was - in any way - compatible with the Dutch situation at May 10, 1940?

First of all the Danish main-land was hardly defendable for a small army. It lacked strategic geographical advantages or natural barriers like rivers or mountains to host a powerful defence. The Danish mainland in itself granted hardly any feasible option to defend the country for even some time. The Danish could have opted for a guerrilla sort of war, by defending designated islands - of which were [are] a great many. That was however not a realistic option.

Perhaps more significant was that the Danish (standing) army only comprised a mere 15,000 men - 5% of the strength of the already modest Dutch army! What could a nation do - defence wise - with a mere 15,000 men?

Last but not least the Germans succeeded in surprising the Danish defences in the early hours of 9 April, much like they would endeavour in Holland with their landings around The Hague at 10 May 1940. As much success as the Germans had with this suprise attack in Denmark, as much failure would come to them one months later when their attempt to seize the Dutch Government and Military Staffs failed dramatically. The Danish however found themselves confronted with the Trojan Horse just a few hours after war had broken out. There was no alternative to a swift capitulation, the King was held at gun point and there was no army to defend whatever there was left to defend.

The comparison of both invasions and the respective circumstances is therefore not quite possible or reasonable. 

Surrender by calculation 

Another option could have been a surrender by simply calculating the odds.

One could defend that the state and status of the Dutch defences did not allow for a powerful resistance of the Netherlands and bearing that in mind, that the Dutch Government and Military Authority should have capitulated once it was established that the Germans had launched an all out offensive against the Dutch nation, which the small and relatively poorly equipped and prepared Dutch army could impossibly resist.

This - of course - is an interesting question that one should primarily answer for oneself. Nevertheless, history is a matter of broad view, of "the wider picture" and of a "helicopter view". In a worldwide conflict such as a (looming) world war, nothing stands on itself, nothing can be isolated from the balance. Every single event is a shackle in a chain of events, an epidemic happening. Clausewitz taught us that in the 19th century, and he was right. Should one isolate the Dutch theatre from the rest of the operation Fall Gelb - or from the rest of the war - the conclusion is probably justified that the Dutch should have opted for immediate surrender. But simplification by applying those non-existant arguments doesn't satisfy.

First of all, in May 1940 the reputation of especially the French army was huge. All Generals in Europe - including the opposing German Generals - rated the French army as a strong and well equipped fighting formation. On paper it outmatched the German opponent in manpower and heavy weapons. Their tanks were heavier armed and armoured and moreover superior in quantity. The mainframe of the German armoured weapon was formed by the weak Pz.I and II. Less than a quarter of the strength was given shape by medium tanks like the T.38, Pz.III en Pz.IV. And yet these medium-tanks were already inferior to a considerable share of the medium and heavy French tanks.

The French airforce was not superior to the German Luftwaffe, but still a power that could not be wiped from the skies like those of the smaller nations and that should be reckoned with. The French east front [Maginot line] was generally considered exceptionally strong, although the French conviction of its inpregnability wasn't shared by German Generals. The French manpower that could be mobilised was also met with a lot of international awe, although many realized that the numbers suggested would never be met, not even close.

Moreover, the British Expeditionary Force [BEF] was considerable in strength, although insiders were aware of its limited training level and low material standard. Still, their presence in Europe was considered a boost for moral and almost any nation highly overrated the strength of the British reserves available in the UK and elsewhere. Nobody believed - beforehand - that the Germans would run through Belgium and France like they actually would in May 1940. Particularly the major push through the Ardennes came as a complete surprise to all. When the well known French General Giraud heard of the appearance of a large German tank force in the Ardennes that had crossed the Meuze at Sedan he could only cry out "...Sedan...". To the French it all came as an unpleasant repetition of 1870, when the brief French-Prussian war had been decided in Sedan.

At the prelude of the operation Fall Gelb, the western allies were confident that they would be capable to withstand a German invasion for months. The confidence that especially the French - proclaiming themselves as the victors of WWI - showed the world and their (potential) European Allies was huge.

The Dutch army and cadre had always respected the French military as powerful and state of the art. Dutch senior officers were trained in the French army doctrine and a considerable number of senior officers had even graduated from French military staff schools. Not the famous strategist Clausewitz was studied in detail, but the military science and knowledge that was tutored at the French military schools.

People like Gamelin were celebrated as the symbols of modern warfare. In retrospect this is hard to understand, but it were the facts of those days. The many German publications on new battle tactics, the application of geometry on the modern battlefield and the other foreign publications on modern warfare - which were published all around the world - had been experienced as pointless hobbyism by hard core desk-strategists rather than being accepted as the step stones towards new standards.

Holland had not been the only country in which the military top brass had dismissed differentiating views on tactics and strategy. In France, the UK and even in Germany itself, there had been more opposition than embracement of the new visions. After all, the Germans basically melted many ideas and visions of foreign military visionairs together. Men like De Gaulle (preaching the mobility of a modern tank army), Fuller (master of tank concentration tactics), Liddell Hart (who's theories practically predicted the modern German tank armies), von Eimansberger (Austrian General in favour of emphasis of tank formations as the core of modern armies) and last but not least the American WWI General Mitchell (predicting the offensive strength of precision tactical airplanes and the use of airbornes). All these visionairs were - each and every one of them - disregarded in their own respective countries. In other words: France, the UK, Austria and the US denied the knowledge they virtually sat on. And Germany wouldn't have been different if it hadn't been for the Führer himself, who intervened with the conservative idea of his Generals and personally pushed enlightend military thinkers like Von Manstein, Guderian and Student into the spotlights. But these revolutionary thinkers were much opposed by the conservative army top in Germany and if it hadn't been for Hitler's personal intervention, indeed a modernised Von Schlieffen plan would have been applied in May 1940 in stead of the daring Von Manstein plan of the iron fist through the Ardennes.

The Blitzkrieg theory - mainly given shape by the relentless concentrated all out assault and combination of arms - was not a surprise to the Dutch alone. All invaded countries were taken by surprise by this strategy. It would be the Soviets who would first be able to match the German Blitzkrieg strategy during the second year of the Operation Barbarossa [1942-1943]. Until that moment the Germans gained success over success with it. A strategy that still today is taught at military schools all over the world and has not been considerably improved yet [although weapons and munitions have been developed to increase the effects of it]. The latest known appliance of this strategy was seen when the Americans invaded Irak in 2003.

Today we are aware that the potential of the French army in May 1940 was far overrated, and that especially their strategy and the quality of their senior command were very poor. We also know that the Allies would never have been able to withstand the might of the German army in those days, not even if a Von Schlieffen variant had been put on the table. But it's easy to play the General after the war! The confidence in the Allied strength was - as we said - huge at the verge of war, in May 1940.

Save the above arguments, one can hardly defend that the Dutch should have capitulated by simply calculating the odds. The expectations had been that a joint Dutch-Belgian-French-UK army would be quite capable of at least resisting a German invasion for a considerable period of time. The Dutch were quite aware that their country would - to none of the belligerents - represent a prime strategic objective, but at the same time still overestimated the strategic importance France and the UK attached to it. In fact both countries were well aware that there was no strategic disposition of armies feasible that would include the small country in the Rhine delta. Basically that awareness was the prime reason for General Winkelman to decide in April 1940 to basically give up on a prolonged defence of the countries provinces south of the Meuze river.

So, on one hand there was the awareness of the minor interest the French and British Generals would have for the Dutch territory but on the other hand the high hopes that a joining up with a potent Allied camp would buy enough time for the allied armies to be able to withstand the first German offensive wave.

Should the Dutch - bearing the above in mind - have yielded to a German agressor and have capitulated simply based on calculating the odds? We think not.

Was the Dutch faith realistic?

We already touched on this subject hereabove. The Dutch high command had established some informal contacts with the potential Allies in the last year before the war. From the neutral point of view official contacts had not been allowed by the Dutch Government (and according to the international law of nations). Still, contacts were established via the military attaché at the embassy in Paris. Also liaisons with the Belgians and the British had been established. Representations of the French and Belgian army had visited the Peel-Raamline in the beginning of 1940 - secretly, dressed as civilian engineers. The Dutch were also aware of the French strategy to stop the German invasion in Belgium. Not the details, but the outline of the plan had become known to the attaché in Paris.

The Allies were very confident that the Plan Von Schlieffen [WWI] would again become the basis of the German plans for a new invasion. The Maginot-line was strong enough to make a southern offensive more than unlikely. Therefore the German spearhead was expected to go through Belgium, and a side-kick was expected via the north [Holland]. The fact that the French 7th Army would march into Belgium after the first shot had been fired was well known to the Dutch ... and to the Germans too! Also, the French gave the impression that they would assist the Dutch as much as possible. This reassuring information would even get a continuation on the 10th of May when the French and Dutch Commanders-in-Chief spoke on the phone and Gamelin reassured Winkelman that his formidable 7th Army would come to aid.

The Dutch were also well aware that British assistance would be less considerable if not absent at all. The Anglo-Dutch relationship was chilly. The centuries of [trade]wars, the recent conflict in South-Afrika [1900-1901 Boer-war], the Dutch asylum to the German emperor Wilhelm II after the German capitulation in 1918 and the fact that the British navy had blockaded the Dutch waters during WWI [and sunk many Dutch merchant and fishing vessels] had not yet been forgotten. Informal Dutch attempts to tempt the British into committing themselves in sending reinforcements to the Dutch main land once the invasion would be a fact, all stranded. Compromising factor would also have been the fact that at the eve of war, at May 10, the British Prime Minister Chamberlain would abduct and be replaced by Winston Churchill. It is very likely that the latter would not have felt automatically committed to agreements that his pre-ancestor would have made. The Dutch did however rely on British sense once war would become a fact and counted on at least some support. After all, Holland was a useful buffer between the UK and Germany, especially when it came to airforce facilities and harbours which could be used by the Germans for an invasion of the UK.

The relation between Belgium and Holland was traditionally poor. Belgium had fought its way to independence from the Dutch Kingdom in 1831 [to become officially independent in 1839] and had claimed parts of the southern Dutch soil during the preamble of the Versailles Treaty. Especially the last incident had worsened the already poor relationship between the neighbouring countries. The pre-war attempts of the Dutch to have the Belgian army connect its most eastern defence-line at the Albertcanal to the Dutch Peel-Raamline failed - as had the Belgian endeavour to get a stronger Dutch force in Limburg. And with that mutual failure noted the sense of defending the Dutch southern provinces with a lot of power and efforts had become hardly feasible. It would later proof a hot potato when the French started looking for valuable excuses for the failure of their 7th Army.

The only relationship that indeed was well and could bear the title "friendly and respectful" was the one between the British Royal Navy and the Dutch Royal Navy. Extensive secret contacts had been established and also some agreements had been made. These agreements had even been hidden from the Dutch Government and Supreme Command. But, these contacts had mostly been based on the Dutch navy making immigration plans once a German invasion would occur and succeed. Separate from that only two agreements would matter for the May-War: the British assistance in transporting the Gold stock of the Dutch National Bank to England and the evacuation of the Dutch Royal Family.

What did the Dutch Supreme Command establish pre-war? Aside from the French promise to assist the defences in the southwest, not much what could actually be materialised. Both the attaché in France and England were provided with sealed envelops, which were only to be opened after Holland was actually invaded. These letters contained official Dutch requests for reinforcements. The French were requested to sent four divisions to the Fortress Holland, the British were requested to send troops, AAA, ammunition and airplanes.

The Dutch were pretty confident that the Dutch theatre was important enough to the Allies to actually provide the Dutch with a considerable share of the requested reinforcements. The Dutch staff considered the requests quite moderate on the scale of both the British and French armies. Also, it was thought that the Allies would be granted plenty of time to ship those reinforcements in. The Dutch army was thought to be able to maintain a lasting defence of three months with only modest assistance, although Winkelman himself thought more in terms of two to three weeks! That these projections were not backed-up by the necessary means to maintain an actual all out defence seemed to have been of subsidiary character. The AAA for example had an anticipated ammunition stock of one week [in fact the majority of the gun-types would use up this stock within two days!]. The ammunition stocks for the infantry and artillery weapons would have been depleted after three weeks, would the war have lasted that long. Partially the quick consumption was caused by the fact that the Germans assaulted on all fronts simultaneously, including the Fortress Holland itself. But still, the stocks of spare weapons and ammunition would have never ever lasted three months. The capacity to produce ammunition was well below consumption rate too. The perception that three continuous months of resistance against an invading German army could be maintained was far from realistic; it was simply wishful thinking based on an ancient and dusty perception of warfare.

Altogether, the arguments not to consider immediate capitulation for reasons of hope for Allied reinforcements and the expected strength of the Allied forces on the European main-land were not unrealistic in May 1940. They only proofed far too optimistic afterwards. But these pre-war expectations were not the whole reason to show some teeth upon an invasion.

Maintain a defence for reputation sake

The Dutch had to keep up an internationally sound reputation. The small homeland was not all that was governed by the politicians in The Hague. The country had an extensive interest in the world. The Dutch East-Indies were part of the Kingdom and so were the Dutch West-Indies [Antilles, Surinam]. Especially in the East-Indies huge interests were treasured. There was the spice-trade, but the crude oil interests in the East-Indies were of paramount importance. Some parts of the East-Indies were rich in oil. Also rubber and timber were enjoying growing revenues. In Surinam and also the East-Indies huge supplies of bauxite were found: an essential source for the production of planes, ships and other weaponry. In fact Surinam would proof absolutely vital to the American airplane production during WWII.

Should the Dutch have capitulated immediately after the German invasion had become a fact, the Dutch would have lost face in front of the entire world. It would be very doubtful whether the British would still have accepted the Dutch colonies as sovereign Dutch soil. Also, the Allies might have considered the Dutch all but an Ally, would they not have stood up against the common enemy. These matters may seem absurd today, but in those days of traditional politics these matters did count. And to the Netherlands they counted more than anything because it was well aware that for the defence of the East Indies it was even more dependant of the UK than it had been for the defence of the homeland.

Stone by stone, brick by brick

The last major argument to oppose the Germans - although largely in retrospect - may have been the consideration that the German power had to be broken at a certain point. That this point was far from in reach in May 1940 was experienced by all invaded countries between 1939 and 1942. But still, the true beginning of the end of the German power started in 1940, when the operations against the Western European countries started. The firmly built fortress of the German Reich had to be demolished stone by stone, brick by brick. The first stones were hammered out of the nazi building in May and June 1940, some more during the Battle of Britain.

The losses the Germans suffered in the operation Fall Gelb had not been high - even extremely modest one could say. But the losses inflicted on their airforce and their tank formations contributed to the fact that the German Generals considered the invasion of the Soviet-Union at 22 June 1941 a year too early. The Luftwaffe and Heer had not expanded as much as they had hoped and this was largely due to the costly operations in the West, the Battle of Britain, the Balkan, Crete and Africa.

We addressed before what the total loss of around 250 transport planes over Holland did to the German material records. In stead of expanding their fleet after June 1940, the Luftwaffe had to find replacements for the numerous aircrafts lost. The same applied for the sometimes truly battered tank divisions, of which many had lost up to 50% of their mechanical assets durint the race to the Atlantic. The Luftwaffe suffered [during the Battle of Britain] from the loss of about 1,500 planes during their previous operations on the European main-land. The losses they would suffer over Britain and the Channel seriously decreased the capacity of the Luftwaffe when Germany invaded the Soviet-Union some months later. Not only the heavy plane losses contributed, but also the fact that many highly experienced pilots and crews had been lost. The majority of the lost crews would either drown in the Northsea or be imprisoned for the duration of the war. Losses that could not be made up easily. In other words [as we say in Dutch]: The Germans were chasing the facts as off the summer of 1940. That was a result of every bit of resistance they had met as off September 1939 - and not a result of a series of countries instantly capitulating for the anticipated German might and power!

Thats why we say: yes - the sacrifices made by the Dutch military and civilian population during the May-War had been worth their value! No matter how insignificant, to some degree they had mattered.