Part IV: The German air-landing plan
In order to create more perception for the events to follow, we shall first set the stage with a brief introduction of the German air-landing plan for the West of Holland and the Dutch defence status in the projected area of operations.
In order to make life easier the landing of air-landing troops [22nd Luftlande Division - lifted in by transport planes] and airborne troops [7th Flieger Division - (mainly) parachuted in] shall be collectively addressed as "air-landing" troops. Only if differentiation between the two is required they shall be specified with the respective applicable titles.
Original air-landing plans
Around the year 1936 the first genuine German initiatives started to build a number of airborne companies for use in a small scale tactical spectrum. Both Luftwaffe and Heer developed separate plans, which would eventually melt together into the basis of a genuine airborne division in 1939. It was only when Generalmajor Kurt Student came in the picture for the leadership of the new airborne weapon that also a strategic meaning started to gloom for this new asset.
The German high command [usually referred to as the Generalstab or Oberkommando des Heeres] showed little charme for the aiborne weapon. It was the hand of the Führer himself that lifted the airbornes out of the margin. During the Poland campaign the airbornes saw some limited ground action, not in any way related to their special capacities. Shortly after the decision in Poland had fallen, Hitler summoned Student to prepare extensive plans for airborne operations in the West during the upcoming Westfeldzug.
Student was instructed to design operations in the Belgian theatre. Studies and plans were developed to drop airbornes west of the stretched Ardennes forests, in order to assist the main force in its attempts to swiftly take the Maas defences. Also major airborne operations in the Belgian defences between Antwerp and Gent [Reduit Nationale] and a special operation to take the strategic fortress at Eben Emael by a limited but bold airborne action were considered and worked out.
In this early phase of developing the plans for the Westfeldzug, Hitler and his Generals still focussed on a German push which had the obvious signature of the WWI plan that had been originally designed by Von Schlieffen. Holland was merely to be spared and the main thrust would go through narrow Belgium. Student however already started studying operations in the Netherlands way before he was officially instructed so. When finally Hitler gave orders to Student to leave the Belgian theatre out and focus on a massive operation in the Netherlands, Student had already made up his mind.
In January 1940 the outlines of the plans were ready. Eben Emael in Belgium would be left in and was to be undertaken by a special forces battalion that was mainly formed from the most seasoned airbornes and a whole bunch of specialist-engineers. The bulk of the small airborne division was however foreseen to be dropped straight into the heart of the Dutch defences, the Fortress Holland.
The first plans had been limited to a large scale operation at the so called southern front of the Fortress Holland, between the large bridges at Moerdijk and the city of Rotterdam. Hitler would later see to it that a more daring component was added. A surprise air-landing assault on the departmental city of The Hague, where the Royal Family, Government and all major Military Headquarters (including the General Headquarters) were situated. Hitler desired to force the Dutch into quick capitulation by seizing the Royal Family and Cabinet, possibly even taking out the entire military command structure too.
Student embraced this opportunity to proof the potential strategic meaning of his airborne and airlanding units. He realised that the operation incorporated the chance of defining an unprecedented new feature in the spectrum of both strategic and tactical operations and that absolute secrecy was imperative to safequard the essential surprise element. He was therefore shocked to receive instructions that an earlier scheduled Scandinavian campaign would demand a considerable portion of his airbornes and that these forces would indeed jump into action. Student feared that the veil of secrecy would be lifted and the Allies get the warning of this added 3rd dimension in the German army potential.
Indeed the Operation Weserübung - the invasion of Norway and Denmark - intervened considerably. It did not only warn the West for the German possession of airbornes and airlanding troops, but the operations also demanded the loss of quite a number of well trained airbornes and many valuable transport planes. Nevertheless, particulalrly the limited use (and knowledge) of the airbornes caused the Allies to nearly overlook the potential of this instrument. The massive airlandings at Norway though, were not missed by the Western countries. It helped a lot that a Dutch KLM pilot was an eye witness of a large scale airlanding operation near Oslo. His report to the Dutch intelligence would cause an extended package of counter measures in Holland during the month of April 1940. Many of these precautions would pay off less than a month later.
On the other hand Student and his staff had gained valuable lessons too. Besides the losses, that formed the hardest lessons learnt, the most important experiences came from the hard felt lessons that were caused by poor delivery of the airbornes by the Luftwaffe. That experience caused Student to reassure himself of the vital importance of accuracy of the Luftwaffe transport fleet, particularly during the first wave of the operation when the airbornes were to profit most of the surprise element. It caused the Luftwaffe to decide to adapt the drop-level in the Dutch theatre to the bare minimum. That this incorporated addition risks to both the jumpers and the airplanes would have to be absorbed in comparison to the operational risk of straddled landing of vital combat-formations. In that respect - the crucial element of the success of the first phase - the Dutch operation would differ little from the even more daring Eben-Emael operation, which incorporated gliders (which the Dutch theatre did not!) that had to land on a virtual brief-mark size landingstrip, on top of the fortress ceiling. A pin point operation of the highest thinkable standard, but launched even before Zulu-hour in order to gain to total suprise.
The final plan
When the plan for the Holland campaign gradually developed and gained a more firmly shape, it grew into an extended airborne operation that would see the airbornes being dropped at six main targets and air-landed troops at four locations. Airbornes would set the ball rolling, after which the air-landed troops would have to push the play home.
Two sectors of operation were designed, that would be pretty much self-sustaining. The northern component - lead by Generalleutnant Graf von Sponeck [commander of 22nd (Luftlande) Infanterie Division] - would comprise two-third of the air-landing troops and five companies of airbornes of the 2nd Airborne Regiment. These would have to seize three airfields around The Hague: Ypenburg AFB (between The Hague and Delft), Valkenburg AFB (between Leiden and The Hague) and the auxilary AFB Ockenburg (at the direct outskirts of The Hague near the coast). After seizure of these AFB's, strong combat-taskforce would invade The Hague from three directions, and a special taskforce would search and catch the VIP's on the extended list of Royals, Ministers and Generals. If the operation would be successful, the governmental and military capitulation of the Netherlands could be enforced. It was specifically determined though that the Queen of the Netherlands and her Family would remain unharmed and treated with the highest esteem possible. Should the plan fail, the troops would have to tie the nearby Dutch 1st Corps in the vicinity of The Hague.
The second sector of operations [under command of Generalleutnant Kurt Student himself] would be formed by the southern component that represented the tactical prelude to the large scale ground operation that was to be executed by the German 26th Corps (XXVI.AK). The AK was instructed to speedily bash through the Dutch defences in the south of the country and indiscriminately push for to the Moerdijk bridges north of Breda. There it would link up with the airborne bridgehead at Moerdijk. The southern theatre would get the bulk of the airborne division. Beside divisional units, it comprised nearly four battalions, being the entire 1st Airborne Regiment (including a reserve airborne company) and two reinforced companies of the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Airborne Regiment. One battalion (II./FJR.1) was scheduled to land at Moerdijk, another (I./FJR.1 minus 1st Company) at Dordrecht and two (III./FJR.1 and elms of II./FJR.2) at Waalhaven AFB [of which II./FJR.2 would be flown in conventionally]. The only available reserve airborne company would be at Student's disposal (and eventually be dropped during the battle). The 1st Company of FJR.1 failed, because it had been put out of action in Dombas (Norway) in April. One regiment of airlanding troops of the 22nd ID [IR.16] was scheduled to land on Waalhaven AFB. The I./IR.72 - a reserve airlanding battalion of 46.ID - would be lifted in on the second day. The support troops of the 7th Airborne Division would be landed on Waalhaven AFB in the second wave.
The airbornes were scheduled to land at both sides of the Moerdijk bridges, at two locations near Dordrecht, at AFB Waalhaven south of Rotterdam and in the south of Rotterdam near the the Feyenoord football stadium. Air-landing troops would land on AFB Waalhaven and a special party of about 90 men was to be airlifted by sea-planes and flown in right in the heart of Rotterdam, on the Nieuwe Maas river. This landing party was designated to take four bridges that connected the South and the North of Rotterdam, but more importantly, formed the only strategic connections between the south and the north of the country within the entire Fortress Holland.
These four main landing locations in the south of the Fortress Holland had to gain the Germans a chain of bridges that could facilitate the bulk of the XXVI.AK to enter the Fortress Holland without the huge challenge of crossing wide rivers which were easy to defend. In fact the operation was the perfect original for the future Allied operation Market-Garden. That Allied plan by Montgomery, to force an entrance into Germany by taking the Rhine crossing at Arnhem, was nothing less than a carbon copy of the German 1940 airlanding plan that was supposed to force Holland on its knees in a very short time.
The entire German plan was most ambitious. It involved about 15,000 men, of which almost 4,000 were airbornes of the 7th Flieger Division, 10,000 men airlanding troops of the 22nd Luftlande Division and about 1,000 men airlanding troops of the attached 72th Infanterie Regiment. The latter had not been trained for airlanding operations and were an operational reserve unit that would be flown in during the later stages of the battle.
This operation would obviously involve a massive fleet of transport planes. That fleet would be the Achilles-heel of the whole plan. The Germans were well aware of two major liabilities. The first and foremost was the limited capacity of the targetted AFB's. These could not handle the entire fleet at once. Moreover, the total fleet available for the Dutch theatre was not larger than about 450 transporters, all of the Ju-52/3 type. These planes could carry 12-14 fully equipped airbornes or 14-16 equipped air-landing troops. It meant that - taken some losses into account and bearing in mind that plenty of heavier equipment, weapons and ammo had to flown in too - at least four full waves had to be executed [also assisted by some He-111 bomber squadrons assisting in dropping supplies] before the entire force would be flown in. That would request very much of the flying personnel and the planes, as well as the necessary fighter protection. The air lifting operation had therefore been spread out over two full days.
The entire operation was lead by Generalleutnant Kurt Student. He would be directly commanding the operations in the southern sector, but he was also commander in chief of the northern operation. Moreover, he commanded the transport fleet and he got a large Luftwaffe tactical fleet at his disposal, which was commanded by Generalmajor der Luftwaffe Putzier under the 2nd Luftflotte [Generalleutnant Kesselring]. The operations in the heart of the Dutch defences would therefore be entirely a Luftwaffe operation. The Luftwaffe air potential that was available for the first day exceeded the amount of 1,500 planes, more than half the available fleet during the Westfeldzug. It would be a gigantic and unforgettable show of force.
We shall adress the defences in comparison to the German battle plan, starting with the northen sector.
The three to be targetted Dutch AFB's were all provided with an army occupation. At Ypenburg and Valkenburg a full infantry battalion and at Ockenburg a depot (recruit) infantry company. Ypenburg in particular had an adequate anti-aircraft artillery [AAA] representation too. Both heavy and light AAA units were positioned around the AFB, most of in the Delft area, which was alongside the main landing strip. Valkenburg lacked AAA for the field was not yet in use. It had been constructed recently and was still to swampy to be used by fighters, let alone bombers or strike planes. Ockenburg was nothing more than an auxilary strip. It was mainly in use as a test and construction base where newly procured and overhauled air-planes were fitted with the last pieces and details and test-flights were performed. As such virtually all the airforce planes on the base were not battle ready. Ockenburg AFB lacked AAA too, with exception of a few machineguns. Apart from AAA around the AFB's quite a number of batteries were positioned in the close vicinity of The Hague.
Of the three AFB's involved only Ypenburg had a ready service status. It was one of the main AFB's and homebase to a squadron of adequate Fokker D-XXI fighters and a squadron of Douglas D8-N reconnaissance / light strike planes. The latter were however assigned for fighter duties because of the hard felt shortage of fighters. They were totally unsuited for this odd role though.
In the west of the country lay the bulk of the 1st Corps of the Field Army. It had been assigned as a strategic reserve at the disposal of the General Headquarters. It meant that three infantry regiments and two artillery regiments were positioned within an 15 km range of the The Hague area. Also a regiment of motorbike hussars was available. It was stationed at Wassenaar (nearby Valkenburg AFB). Also depot battalions were available in the cities of Leiden, The Hague and Delft. All in all, about 20,000 men trained troops and some thousands of recruits were stationed near the projected German area of operations. That was about twice the size of the total of envisaged German troops for this theatre.
To the south the defence situation was much more disturbing. The South-front of Fortress Holland was occupied by forces of the reserve army only. These were more or less stationary forces merely comprising older reservists who had less modern weapons and less machineguns at their disposal than the Field Army divisions. The sector south of the Island Ysselmonde [that was the Island on which the south of Rotterdam as well as Waalhaven AFB are situated] - the genuine South-Front - contained about 8,000 men of troops, of which about 6,000 in the main branches of infantry and artillery. About 95% of these troops were older reservists. These about 8.000 men had to defend a frontline that added up to over 50 km, of which about 17,5 km was likely to be raided from a perspective of conventional warfare. That was the area between the village Willemstad in the southwest and the south side of the Island of Dordrecht in the southeast corner. Taking in account the 17,5 km width of the frontline, a mere 6.000 combattants was no more than a very modest defence potential.
Two heavy AAA batteries were positioned on the southern front sector. One at Moerdijk and one on the island called Hoekse Waard [in between the Hollands Diep and the Island Ysselmonde]. At the bridges only a handful of heavy machinegun platoons were present to protect the bridges against low altitude raids.
On the Island of Ysselmonde only the Waalhaven AFB and the Pernis oil storage had a military occupation. An infantry battalion, reinforced with two bren carriers and a number of AAA platoons were stationed on and nearby the AFB. Two heavy AAA batteries were positioned nearby too, a couple more in a wider range. The Pernis oil tank yard was defended by an infantry company. In the southern part of Rotterdam an infantry company and a company of non-combattants formed the only military presence. The rest of the Rotterdam garisson was located north of the Maas.
Rotterdam - north of the Nieuwe Maas - had a little less than 7,000 men military personnel in its midst. Rotterdam was the logistical centre of the Dutch army and it also housed many recruit barracks of all branches, not to mention a large navy representation. Since Rotterdam was the army engineer and intendance city, most of the 7,000 men available were non-combattants. Three infantry companies and about 450 marines [professional soldiers of the highest standard] were the only combattants in the city north of the Maas. The city was not prepared for defence, not the least due to the fact that an enemy was not expected this far ahead of the outer defences of the Fortress. The city garisson of 7,000 men was commanded by a Colonel of the Engineering Corps, who had only three officers in his staff. The navy and marines fell not under his command. They were led by a Colonel of the Marines Corps.
The southfront along the Hollands Diep had been prepared for defence. Quite a number of shelter casemates had been constructed along the northern shore of the Hollands Diep and inland. Four heavy casemates (block-houses) were available on the north side of the Moerdijk bridges, of which one was actually constructed on the extreme southeastern point of the adjecent island Hoekse Waard. Two of these block-houses contained only heavy machineguns, two contained both a capable 5 cm AT gun and a heavy machinegun. On the Island of Dordrecht, on the northern landhead of the Moerdijk bridges, also some shelter casemates had been constructed inland. To the south of the Moerdijk bridges a slightly fortified perimeter had been constructed, merely comprising field reinforcements, occupied by a two infantry companies. This occupation had only two 57 mm infantry guns at its disposal next to a modest amount of heavy and light machineguns. The position was scheduled to be taken over by the 6th Border Infantry Battalion that guarded the border with Belgium south of Breda. That battalion had some AT guns too. It is good to known though, that it was obviously not in the plans to defend the southend of the bridges in case of a convential German invasion. The reinforcements on the southside of the Moerdijk brigdes were only intended to prevent a strategic surprise attack and to form a safety perimeter should the bridges have to be spared until the last moment for allies to cross. Eventually the bridges themselves would be destroyed. That explains why the southend was so ill prepared for sustained defence in comparison to the north end.
The bulk of the availabe 8.000 men troops was stationed in the Hoekse Waard and the Island of Dordrecht. The entire area between Moerdijk and Dordrecht was occupied by a force that was designated as Group Kil, containing about 4,500 men of the total number of 8,000 men. In the city of Dordrecht itself about 1,500 men. They were all - but about 100 men - recruits of the army Maritime Engineering Depot. The city garisson was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel (of the Engineering Corps) Mussert. This officer was a brother of Anton Mussert, the leader of the Dutch national-socialistic movement [NSB, Nationale Socialistische Beweging].
The southfront of the Fortress Holland had quite a contingent of artillery at its disposal. About 80 guns in the calibers 7,5 cm, 12 cm and 15 cm were devided in the sector between the western and the northeastern front extremity. Many of these guns were of an obsolete type though. No less than 60 guns - the 12 and 15 cm - dated from the 1880's. Although still capable of delivering a lethal load, they were only capable of slow firing-rate and besides, fitted with fixed mounts, preventing them from participating in dynamic fire-missions. Only the 20 off available 7,5 cm guns were able to produce prolonged rapid fire, if required. Closer to Rotterdam a highly modern artillery battalion with 12 off 10,5 cm howitzers was available too. These capable weapons were able to deliver loads across distances of over 16 km and could produce prolonged rapid fire as well.
As a direct result of the fact-findings learnt from the German Scandinavia campaign, the Dutch army organised large scale obstructions on the larger secondary roads and the few highways that Holland contained in those days. Every so many hundred meters carts, trucks or other vehicles were placed, so that these paved stretches were no longer useful for airlanding. Airfields all over the country, that were not in use, were ploughed and/or obstructed with a dense formation of obstructions or obsolete vehicles. At some strategic positions machinegun crews had been posted during evening and night hours and airfield commanders received instructions that German operations in Norway had shown the substantial use of airlanding troops up to contigents of a few thousand men a time. Unfortunately the same instruction only referred to small tactical airborne operations. Commanders were instructed to have at least one platoon ready and mobile to counter these small airborne landings. So there it was: excellent preparation to counter or prevent massive airlandings, poor preps as it came to larger airborne ops.
Until half April 1940 the Soutfront Fortress Holland had had its own integral command. When in April large troop shifts occured, due to the revised strategy, the command over the Southfront troop contingents had moved back to the Commander Fortress Holland in The Hague [Lt-Gen van Andel]. As such the integral command of the Dutch defences in the future southern operation sector would be situated as far away as the Hague!
Save the aforementioned measures of precaution against airlanding operations, the Commander Fortress Holland had decided that the troops on the Southfront Fortress Holland would have their ammo safely locked away in central caches, not to be opened unless the highest of readiness was on or when war actually broke out. Only guard duties were done with a ration of live ammo. The Commander feared accidents with live ammo! This unexplainable measure would not really have mattered if indeed - like the Field Army and the strategic outer defences - the Fortress Holland units had been activated in the highest alert in the late evening of May 9, 1940. But the Commander Fortress Holland considered that the troops could use another good night of sleep and decided that the Fortress Holland would stay in the second alert status in expectance of the things to come. That meant that the ammo caches remained locked ...
The airforce and AAA units, commanded by Lt-Gen Best - commander of the Dutch air-defences - were under a different regime. That made sense for the air defence had tasted a little bit of action already during the formal neutrality phase [Phoney War period] which had been applicable since 1 September 1939. The Dutch aerospace had been patrolled and guarded by the airforce and heavy AAA batteries had seen quite some action against foreign intruders of the Dutch airspace. Therefore the air defences were under orders to be on alert [stand-by fighter flights, AAA batteries manned and battle-ready] half an hour before down. In May 1940 this meant that at 0315 hrs stand-by crews and AAA positions had to be on high alert.
Unlike the Belgian and French army, the Dutch army did not suffer from extreme leave percentages amongst the mobilized army units. The activated Belgian (625,000 men) and French (3,300,000 men) armies, which were much larger than the modest size Dutch army (280,000 men), demanded much more of their economic work forces than the Dutch army, that due to its limited size left plenty of healthy men available for labour and other economic duties. Also the Dutch leave system was quite rigid, particularly for the border infantry formations that were supposed to keep up a very high percentage of readiness. In the Belgian and French armies up to 15-20% leave number were no exception, even amongst strategically vital units. There was also the fact that the Dutch high command was convinced (in the late evening of the 9th of May 1940) of the upcoming German invasion, the Belgian army was quite reluctant to believe the 9 May warnings and the French even denied the imminent thread at all. Gamelin went to bed without putting his army - and the BEF for that matter - on a higher state of alert and would even hesitate to do so when the first news of the German invasion would reach the GQG in the morning of the 10th. With exception of the daft decision by the Commander Fortress Holland to leave his Fortress troops on the second highest alert, the entire Dutch army was as ready as it could be (save its inert limitations) for the things to come.
The German airlanding operation that would be unleashed in the early hours of May the 10th 1940, would be the first acquintance the world would make with large scale airlandings in both the tactical and the strategic spectrum. The ambition to land about 15,000 men with their material right in the heart of the opposing defences would make quite an impression on the Allies, although the magnitude of the operation would in fact never be weighed to its actual proportions during the war.
The Germans would set a trend. They themselves would only repeat this kind of operation once more, exactly a year later in Crete. Like in Holland that operation would be costly, but Crete would demand an even higher price. It would close the book on large scale German airlanding operations. The Germans considered that the costs didn't outmatch the gains and realized that a well prepared opponent would be able to counter these kinds of operations.
The Allies though just started their own little plans after Crete. They had been impressed by the German successes, apparently unable to rate these successes fairly and blind for the operational challenges. They overrated the gains and underestimated the costs and risks. In those days the western Allies started building their own airlanding units, which would see operations in North Africa, Sicilia, Normandy, Holland and finally Germany itself. Apart from operation Varsity that was launched during the time the German resistance was collapsing, all these operations would turn out to be only very modest successes or total failures. The costs would indeed be high, very high.
Kurt Student was a firm believer in his new weapon. He had designed a daring plan and a perfect appliance. The water-rich country of Holland, that had always benefitted of the strength of the water-ally, was a perfect theatre to test the first large scale operation possibilities of a large contingent of airlanding troops dropped deep into enemy territory. Besides, the Dutch army was regarded an opponent of little significance. That would leave some room to learn on the job, whereas the opponent would most likely not be able to benefit from the inevitable German mistakes.
Notwithstanding the latter qualification, the Dutch army had been the best prepared Allied force as it came to anticipation on larger airlandings. The Belgian and French army were ill prepared for such an operation, but to their fortune - apart from Eben Emael - they would not be the target of this new device.
At around 0230 hrs on May 10th, 1940, the engines of about 450 Ju-52 transport planes were fired up. Planes were boarded and when the signal came to lift off, a giant air armada got airborne. The world was about to be introduced to yet another feature of warfare ...