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Holland: The army and the interbellum

The conscript army

In 1940 The Netherlands counted 8.800.000 inhabitants [16.200.000 nowadays]. The nation had already opted for a conscript army during the previous century. It meant that only a very tiny basis of professional NCO's and officers formed the cadre, and thus the majority of the cadre and all of the regular military would be formed from conscripts who qualified for these functions.

The conscription system that the Dutch maintained provided for a yearly draft of about 19.500 men. As off the 18th year a regular healthy Dutch man was supposed to be drafted after which he would actually join the army in his 20th year. For reserve personnel that would fill the higher ranks the age could differ due to unfinished education.

The conscripts would serve for a certain prolonged period [designated as "the first exercise"] in which they would receive their basic training and skills. Hereafter the conscript would be discharged from the military and be listed in a reservist-system, with the obligation to serve once in every so many years for a few weeks [reserve exercise]. Officers had to come back every three years - and received some theoretical training in between - and regulars were supposed to return every six years or so. During the interbellum the "first exercise" period was decreased to even the insufficient level of less than six months. Regular soldiers were kept in the reserve system until the age of 35. For officers and NCO's the ages were much higher.

Since the yearly levies often did not even match the minimum of 19.500, the total number of reserve personnel was far below the expected minimum that would have amounted to 330.000 at 10 May 1940. Although it had been decided in 1938 that the amount of new conscripts would be almost doubled, this would first be applicable to the drafts of 1940. Obviously at 10 May 1940 it had not contributed to any increase of the ranks. As a consequence of this all only about 280.000 men were under arms at the eve of battle; and that was including the professional nucleus of the armed forces.

Quantative analysis

Before we go into quality it is interesting to focus a little more on the quantitative analysis. As said, the Netherlands had a total population of 8.800.000 [January 1940]. Basically one can rely on the fact that half this population was of the male sex. This means that out of 4.400.000 men, only 280.000 served in the army. This is 6% of the men: a very low figure.

Should one compare this figure to for example Belgium, one comes to staggering results. Belgium had approximately 7.700.000 inhabitants in 1940, of which to the same standard as previously applied, 3.850.000 men. The Belgian army counted no less than 630.000 men, which is 16% of the male population of this country; triple the Dutch [relative] size!

We already established that the artillery:infantry ratio of the Dutch army matched that of most armies, including the German. The BEF, German and Dutch army all had a 1:400 [gun/infantry] ratio. The French army had the best ratio with around 1:300, the Belgian army the worst with aroun 1:450. The total number of Allied artillery pieces was almost double the German strength.

The number of mortars and machineguns in the Dutch army was comparable to the representation of these weapons in the armies of the British and Belgians. The Germans had slightly more machineguns. Both the German and French army had considerably more mortars, also due to the fact that light mortars were in frequent use with these armies too.

Motorization in all the belligerent armies of 1940 was poor. All armies had specific mobile units, but the bulk of all belligerent armies was mainly depending on the foot-march. The fantasies about the highly mobile German army in 1940 should be forgotten. They would apply all their mobile units in front in May 1940, which gave the false impression that the German army was one huge mobile and mechanised monster. It was not. Less than 10% of the units was motorised. That was the same for the other armies, also the Dutch.

The Dutch army was the only army of the belligerents that had no tank whatsoever. It did have about 30 operational armoured cars with a 3,7 cm main gun. These cars were fine armoured cars, but such a small number had limited impact obviously. The Belgian army had a number of light tanks but lacked armoured cars with ample armament. The German, French and BEF forces had plenty of tanks. In total the Allies largely outnumbered the German tankforce. Both quantitative and qualitative.

Qualitative analysis

Aiming our magnifying glass on the quality of the Dutch army the picture doesn't become prettier. The "first exercise" of the military personnel - regular soldier, NCO or officer - was far from sufficient. When during the twenties this period was even shortened to a few months, the basic elements of any ample military training went right out of the window. Moreover, the training-time was only spent learning the bare essentials of the military trade as well as marching or riding [many functions required horse-riding abilities]. Sufficient time for weapon practise, tactical aspects and field exercise was not available at all. And would time have been available, the money lacked for ammunition or costs for exercises. In the late twenties and early thirties the defence budget was not even sufficient enough to keep the war ammunition stock at its bare minimum - let alone facilitate exercises and weapon practise!

The tactical development of professional officers was aimed at following the French school, which was considered superior to the British and German equivalents. Promising officers were sent to French staff eductions, although even a few were lucky enough to add that experience to their palmares. The far majority of officers was educated within the confines of the self-centred inner circle of Dutch general staff officers. The teachers at the Dutch staff school had been trained and educated by the happy few that had earnt detachements at French staff schools. The far majority of the officer-students would never themselves get taught out of first hand at those schools abroad. It resulted in very limited development and education in the new tactics of war.

Notwithstanding the fact that British, Italian, French and German senior officers, strategists and other military experts published much of their new theories on modern warfare, the Dutch military schools only reluctantly introduced bits and pieces of the new war features to their students. And often - very often - presented in such a conceited way that the teachers blended foreign knowledge with their own perceptions. The much damaging result was that hardly any Dutch officer that served in May 1940, was at any acceptable level of knowlegde and skills as it came to modern warfare and modern tactics.

When the education of professional staff officers was poor, it is quite obvious that the none staff officers and especially the conscript-officers were educated on an even lower standard. The same applied to the NCO's, that were on their part responsible for the training of the regulars.  

Due to lacking funds the Dutch army had no true options to train its formations in field exercises and manoeuvring. Besides the available infantry and artillery weapons did not invite for modern mobile warfare. Also communication in the field was usually very rudimentary. On company level the buggle-player was still in use, on battalion level they had one or two telephone sets available and regiments also had to operate with just a handful of telephone sets. All these telephones were wired with ordinary 2.5 mm2 thin wires - not able to withstand a soldiers boot, let alone an all out war-theatre. Furthermore all kinds of rare items were in use for communication: a few flare-pistols, some flare-rockets, ocassional light signal equipment and for some of the artillery units even a genuine wire-less radio set [for short distances].

The means of transport for the ordinary soldier were usually his own two feet. The cavalry and one or two other units were equipped with horses and bikes. The Dutch army had no less than 30.000 horses in May 1940. Cars and trucks were rare items to the front-troops, with exception of the Light Division and Cavalry which were the only all-mobile units in the army. Some modern artillery tractors had been procured, serving mainly with the modern and older howitzer regiments. All in all, an army that had neither means nor training to operate as a mobile force.

The Dutch armament was like that of the other belligerent, a mix of modern and older weapons. The Field Army possessed the best share of the modern weapons. Their material value was therefore much comparable to the average French, BEF or Belgian units.

Command structure

The organisation of the Dutch field army was quite comparable to the French and German army. The command-structure of the Dutch differed much though, especially compared to the German army. The Dutch had like the French a strict chain of command and a strict 'according to order' discipline. The Germans on the other hand had a much more liberal command-structure. Their 'Auftragtaktik' [order-tactics] envisaged that any commander was given the tactical objective of the entire unit, the tactical objective of his own unit as well as the parameters like time, space, resources and means. With this information he was free to act as he thought well. As long as he would gain his objective. This subtile system of liberal tactical room given to any field commander contributed to a much more inventive operational behaviour that paid off well. The German officer, and even the NCO, was thoroughly educated in this system of Auftragstaktik. It would prepare them for the 'adapt, improvise and overcome' attitude that the Germans wanted to see in the field.

The German Auftragstaktik - which was a standing doctrine throughout the ranks up to even Armee Korps level - combined with their unit-structure [which was not much different to those of the Dutch and French] resulted in a much more effective utilisation of the weapons, weapon-systems and resources than the Dutch and French with their almost identical army organisation but paralyzing 'according to order' command doctrine.

The aforementioned may become clearer with an example. If a Dutch officer was instructed to take a certain position, he would be instructed to take that position, following a premeditated route, get a time to gain his objective and be sure about it not to go off-track. If the Dutch officer would establish that the instructed route to his objective was blocked, he would return to his senior command with the simple message that his order could not be executed. His German equivalent would have been informed of the tactical reason why he was given a certain objective, he was given the time when to have reached his objective, possibly some relevant other information and off he went. Any obstruction on the way would be dealt with. He would adapt, he would improvise and he would overcome - anything to fulfill his objective. 

Apart from this very important difference in the command and control spectrum, the German army was trained all along to make use of the means available. Although like the Dutch and French army the Germans had an unit organisation in which branches were organised in seperate units, they had a totally different approach towards combining the strength of different weapons, weapon systems and moreover blending different units in order to organise the appropriate or required fire power. Dutch and French units had huge organisational challenges to overcome if units of different branches had to taken out of their homogeneous context and blended into a taskforce. The fact that they hardly ever managed to get a feel for the dynamics of blending units on the field, created a void in their abilities to grow to maximum fire-power out of the available resources and means. Some studies have shown that the average German soldier was at least 30% more effective than the average Allied opponent, even in the last stages of the war. That had little to do with the alleged superior warrior-blood of the average German, but it had all to do with their effective command-structure, the ability to improvise and the reflexes to organise maximum output out of the available resources and means.  

In a way the Dutch army compared to the German army was one of statics versus dynamics. Everything about the Dutch army, its organisation, its doctrine and its attitude was pointing towards static warfare, whereas the same on the German side was pointed at dynamic warfare.  

Even without looking at the Dutch strategy one could conclude that the Dutch army was condemned to defensive static warfare.