The city of Rotterdam had the largest harbour of Europe in 1940. The city had thrived as a result of the rapid expansion of the harbour since 1875, when the Nieuwe Waterweg [New Waterway] was opened. The Nieuwe Waterweg [lit: New Water-way] is the canalized last stage of the Nieuwe Maas, between the west side of Rotterdam and the Northsea. New, modern harbour basins and quays were constructed along this canal. It made it possible for large ocean-going vessels to enter the Rotterdam harbour. During the period 1880-1900 the number of inhabitants doubled from 160,000 tot 320,000. In the same period Rotterdam outmatched the previously largest harbour of Holland, Amsterdam. The dramatic growth of the city population continued. It almost doubled again until 1940, when it had grown to 620,000. The extensive harbour created much labour, thriving business and economic value but it also had a down-side. It caused Rotterdam to suffer severly during the massive crisis in the 1927-1933 period as well as the event of the war breaking out in September 1939. Harbour economics plunched to nearly a complete stand still (only 11% of business remained), only gradually recovering when it turned out that actual hostilities between the three strategic European nations (Germany, United Kingdom and France) remained at a minimum level. Until April and May 1940 that was ...
Rotterdam was a proud city - and it still is. A city that combined Dutch traditions of labour and trade with down to earth mentality. A city too that still showed the great wealth of the ancient colonial trading successes in the seventeenth century and on the other hand the decline of the labourer's disctricts over the last fifty years, during which several crises had been particularly harsh on the labourers. It still had a considerable 'wealthy district', but also many grey areas where the better class wouldn't dare show its face. The city center and the Noordereiland [13,000 inhabitants] showed the old glamour and gold of rich times, but the true rich and better classes had already moved beyond the borders of the pre-war city: the suburbs Hilligersberg, Schiebroek and Overschie.
The Nieuwe Maas river devided Rotterdam into two parts, although in 1940 the much larger part of the city lay north of the river. Nowadays the south has developed and grown dramatically compared to that time in 1940, when besides harbours there was only modest housing. The Nieuwe Maas divided the city and made a funny S-curve meander right in the heart of Rotterdam. In the curve lay the Noordereiland - a little like the Isle de France in Paris - almost as an impartial piece of the city, not beloning to the north nor the south. It was connected to both city halfs by four bridges in total; two traffic bridges [the Willemsbrug and the Koninginnebrug] and two railway bridges. These four bridges were the only bridges to the north side of the Maas in the entire area between the coast on the west side and the far east extremity of the Island Ysselmonde. The Willemsbrug was the most western traffic bridge of the country. Hence the significant importance to the Germans of the bridges in the heart of Rotterdam.
The city had not been prepared for war, although it had traditionally seen much soldiering. It had not been expected this time, at least no front action. As a consequence of Rotterdam having this major transito harbour it had also become the main centre of military supply and intendant services, a logistic pivotal point for the military. It housed the army service corps main bases. Vast storage-wharehouses for meat and bread, beverages, blankets and sheets, uniforms and helmets, meatworks, kitchens, abattoirs, etc. etc.. These large wharehouses demanded hands to process the material and fine-distribute it by boat, train and road-traffic.
Besides those military services, it was the main habitat of the general Engineers Depot - traditionally a very substantial military branch in water-rich Holland - that had only two more (smaller) subsidiaries [Dordrecht and Schoonhoven] in the country. And there was of course the traditional navy representation. Both in the harbours and in the city itself. The Marines Corps had returned to Rotterdam some decades ago, after a long absence. The Oostplein barracks were well-known to every true 'Rotterdammer' in those days. There was a navy school too, as well as an airforce school for basic theoretical training of all airforce personnel.
Regardless of the fact that the city counted almost 7,000 military personnel, it had not been prepared for war, let alone for city defences. There were no reinforcements, no trenches and only a kimited number of civilian shelters. Heavier weapons were totally omitted. There were no artillery pieces, anti-tank guns, infantry guns or even mortars. Rotterdam had never been considered the chance of becoming a front city, let alone from the first moment of an invasion onwards. That very city would be under siege for five consecutive days and suffer a dramatic fate on the fifth day of the siege.
Rotterdam had about 6,250 men military personnel within the northern city boundaries. Another 600 or so were divided over the southern town including a company at the Pernis oil facilities, to the SW of Rotterdam. The garrison commander was Colonel (of the Engineers Corps) P.W. Scharroo, a well known member of the International Olympic Commity and amongst other things, one of the co-designers of the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam (Games of 1928). Scharroo was a reputed concrete expert in both military and civil engineering. The Colonel was the most senior officer in the town of Rotterdam and had become the sole commander over the entire garrison shortly before the German invasion. He reported directly to the Commander of Fortress Holland, Lieutenant-General Van Andel. The maritime units in the harbour as well as the Marines were not under direct command of Scharroo. They had their own command structure and reported along the navy chain of command.
Although the number of almost 7,000 men military personnel implies that at least a significant first stand could be made, only a fraction of aforementioned force was a trained combattant. Rotterdam was a military logistic centre above anything else. Let's elaborate a little bit more on that.
The marines detachment in Rotterdam is addressed first. Marines were professional soldiers - the only all-professional branch in the Dutch armed forces - and without any doubt the best the Dutch could field in those days. They had a strong tradition that went back to the year 1665, when the Marines Corps found its roots. They had since then contributed to numerous mariginal as well as famous sea- and land-battles. Their first appearance as an armed force was in the reputed Raid on Chatham by Grand Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, when a bold Dutch navy force managed to capture the British Royal Navy flag ship in it's own home port. Many battles and skirmishes followed since then. The tradition of the navy and of the marines was held high. The fact that the marines were the single military branch composed of only professional soldiers already made them an exception, but also their training, mentality and loyalty were of a level far beyond that of the average soldier that had been levied for his number and, often reluctantly, did his (short) service-time. Marines were proud to serve for Queen and country and the men that were allowed in had to go through extensive selections and constant measurement and fitness. For the duration of their entire careers they would continued to be measured against the strict standards that a marines-soldier had to comply with. The limited sizes of the Corps, only a few thousand men world wide, made that they were referred to as an elite. They deserved this title - up until this very day - above any other unit or outfit in the Dutch armed forces and still do, albeit that they are nowadays flanked by the Corps of Commando Troops (KCT) that since the 1940's have been founded as an army peer of the marines corps.
The town of Rotterdam held about 450 marines of which about 200 were still in the first two phases of basic training. Half of those were even in the first basic phase which lasted three months, the other half in the second phase. The other 250 marines were either staff, operational marines or attending an extended course to become marines NCO (corporal or sergeant), at the Navy School in Rotterdam. The marines officers were very capable and many of them experienced in the field, in the Asian colonies, where local uprisings or genuine wars were quite regular things. The marines were usually serving in the Netherlands East Indies (NEI), the West Indies (Antilles, Surinam) or on board of larger navy ships. Particularly in the East Indies the marines always needed to be stand-by. Large scale local uprisings and riots had been minimized after the last extensive series of colonial wars and campaigns [the 40-years war period in Atjeh, which had ended in 1914], but nevertheless there had been limited indigenous or political rebellions all the time over the last decades. It were usually the marines that were sent in first to suppress those uprisings.
Marines were armed like a regular army soldier but additionally equipped with a so called storm-dagger and fitted with a distinctive dark blue (blackisch) uniform coat rather than the olive-green one of the regular army. They operated the same infantry weapons like the army, were much better trained with them though. In the NEI they also had some of the MP-28 and Thompson sub machineguns of the Dutch army in the NEI (KNIL) available. That was not the case in the Netherlands. The basic weapons in Rotterdam were the Steyr M.95 rifle, the Lewis light machinegun and the storm-dagger.
Rotterdam was the Corps home town and housed the marines staff and Corps commander, at the barracks on the Oostplein, where also a battalion of marines were housed. These barracks were quite close to the river, in the northeastern part of the old centre. The operational marines in Rotterdam were commanded by their battalion commander Lieutenant-Colonel Lugt. The Corps was commanded by the then Colonel Von Frytag Drabbe, who after the war would become the first general of the marines. The small Corps had no general officers before the war, with a Colonel as most senior rank. Von Frytag Drabbe also commanded all other navy units in town and in the harbour region. In this function he was addressed as the 'Commander (of all) Maritime Means' (CMM) in Rotterdam. He reported directly to the Navy Staff in Den Helder, not to the Rotterdam town commander of the army. This odd command structure, which caused two commanders in one theatre to operate basically unattached of eachother, made no sense and was a clear indication of the lack of actual war readiness on the Dutch side.
Next to the marines delegation there was the so called 'garrison infantry bataljon', III-39.RI. It comprised three infantry companies and a heavy machinegun company. One company was positioned at the BPM (later SHELL) oil vessel yard at Pernis, in the far northeastern corner of the Island Ysselmonde. Another company was stationed in the south of Rotterdam, in the city-district called Charlois and the other two companies in the northeast of the city. The battalion was mainly built up from older reservists, which were mostly drafted from citizens of Rotterdam itself. The battalions had 750 men, of which 450 were in the northern part of town. Besides small arms and the organic light Lewis machineguns, it had eight heavy machineguns.
The actual combattants of the north of Rotterdam added up to 900 men: 450 marines and 450 trained infantry-men. These 900 men were sort of supplemented with another 150 infantry men that had come from two infantry-depot companies and consisted of recruits that had not entirely finalized their basic training yet. These men were used for guarding duties of the railway stations and a couple of vital buildings, even one or two bridges. All in all, the garrison commander had 1,050 combattants at his disposal. There had been no additional measures of defences, no buildings or structures prepared for destruction, not a single bunker had been build. A few air raid shelters for civilians were all there was when it came to explicit preparations.
The other mere 6,000 men military personnel were basically all non-combattants. Some of them had received some basic weapon training, like the engineers (of which a considerable part was only a few days or weeks under arms though) and some navy and airforce troops. The far majority had experienced no combat training whatsoever. They had often not even held a pistol or rifle (yet), or at least not been in the position to fire the weapon. Many of the intendant troops had a classic revolver (Dutch heavy revolver, cal 9,4 mm, design 1875) as a personnel weapon. Needless to say that they were useless in battle and for as far as they were not attacked themselves, none of them would be assigned any operational duties in the days to follow. Their numbers were basically a misleading figure of the Dutch strength.
The total garrison - mainly non-combattant as they were - had only 8 heavy machineguns and about 50 light machineguns all together. Heavier weapons were not available. The combattants had a few boxes of hand grenades, but that was it. There were no mortars, field guns or AT guns, nor was there any artillery.
The ground-to-air defences were mainly concentrated around the harbour, which was obviously identified as a strategic target for the enemy airforce. Besides the fighter squadron on Waalhaven, the entire defences were composed of mostly light MG's and 2 cm guns, with a few batteries of 7,5 cm Vickers guns along the Waterway. The density of AAA positions in Rotterdam itself was very modest, which made sense.
It was already addressed before. Rotterdam had not been prepared for war, nor had it been assigned a competent battle staff. The garrison commander was supposed to lead and coordinate the military presence in a military centre that was facilitating and supporting (field) battles elsewhere. Also - as off the very moment of actual occurance of the state of war - the garrison commander would be the highest authority over the city council and mayor. He would be the highest representative of the Commander in Chief ánd the Government. Needless to say that such a duty differentiated quite substantially from that of a field commander with a battle staff. Colonel Scharroo, normally being the commander of the Engineer Depot in the city, had a direct staff of two officers only, one being a legal officer assigned for the civil authority bit of his duties in case of war. Two officers, where at least about twenty would have been required for such a vast territory and such an amount of troops in battle. These two officers had not received any operational staff training. It shows some degree of the task that lay ahead for Colonel Scharroo and his direct vicinity. It meant that in case of an imminent direct threat troop-officers and technical support officers (normally running technical programs of the engineer depot) would suddenly have to be assigned operational staff duties. A novelty to all. Also bearing in mind that all the depot troops had not been organised like operational units, with clear operational structures and commands, it is clear that commanding a fragmented, operationally unstructured garisson like that of Rotterdam would be a hell of job, even if it would have been done by a fully qualified senior staff officer!
When it finally comes to the issue of readiness there had been a flaw in the system too. Notwithstanding the fact that GHQ had been convinced of the upcoming Germans overnight, it had been considered enough to alert only the field army and the border defences (including coastline defences, navy and airforce). This had been particularly a decision taken by the commander of Fortress Holland (General Van Andel). He had considered the situation such that he would not alert his troops, but leave them a last night of good sleep. This 'old school' consideration, of a general with an outdated perception of modern conflict, was born from the false premise that the Germans would come massing over the border in a traditional, conventional way. Remarkably though, his fellow general officers like the commander of the airdefences, General Best, had anticipated so much as massive airlandings and tactical airborne raids. These considerations, which would not only materialize but which had also been substantiated by the events in Scandinavia, were not conveyed to other commanders by the weak stance of the CIC Winkelman and his poor commander of the army staff, who left all commanders their own decision making. In an army that had been constructed along the line of dictated command and strict hierarchy, such a liberal act by the CIC over such a paramount issue as battle readiness was unforgiving. It was nevertheless the reality. As a consequence the commander of the most profound bit of the country was allowed the leverage to leave his defences asleep and unalerted. As a consequence only minimum duties were on, vital points not guarded at all. That also applied for the Rotterdam garisson that was nicely tugged in when the going got tough ...
The Germans had planned to land twelve Heinkel He-59D sea-planes on the Nieuwe Maas. It would contain two platoons of the 11th Coy of the 3rd Batallion, 16th Infantry Regiment (22.ID) and four engineers of the 22nd Pio. Bat.. These men - air crew and landing force - had been extensively trained on a German lake in order for them to be prepared for the quick turn-around time that was required to dismount the crampy space of a floating He-59 onto rapidly inflated tiny four-men rafts, load up weapons and ammo and peddle to the designated quay. All of this under cover of the rear-gunners of the He-59's. The entire taskforce comprised three officers (CC and two platoon leaders) with in total two full platoons of rifle men (including some men who would be a back-up/reserve) of 11./IR.16, two heavy machinegun troops, a troop of four engineers and a small company troop of probably five men and an AT-rifle. The company was commanded by Oberleutnant Hermann-Albert Schrader.
It was a small taskforce of 90-100 men, excluding the flying personnel of the planes (36 men), of which some could join the landed formation in case their plane would be crippled during the action. Each platoon was assigned to take one side of the Noordereiland and the two bridges on their own end. The first platoon under Leutnant Gottbehöde was to take the northern shore and Willemsbrug, the second platoon under Leutnant Fortmann was to raid the southern shore and Koninginnebrug. The four engineers had to check these captured bridges for demolition charges and, if found, de-mount those. If secured, the emphasis would shift to forming a bridgehead on the northern side around the landheads of both the traffic and railway bridge.
The taskforce was very small and therefore the Germans had one platoon [3rd platoon of 11./FJR1 under Oberleutnant Kerfin] of airbornes landed near the Feyenoord soccer stadium, about 2 km from the bridges. A wide open area in those days. These 36 airbornes, that were armed with at least 9 MG-34's, had to rush to the bridges as a first reinforcement. Next the (then) around coy-size German formation near the bridges had to await the main force, which in the first place would be formed by the rest of 3rd Battalion of IR.16 [commanded by Oberstleutnant von Coltitz], reinforced with some light infantry guns and AT guns. That battalion was scheduled to land at Waalhaven AFB in the first wave. ETA near the bridges would be around invasion time plus two hours [e.g. landing time plus 75 minutes] - at best.
The German landing
Almost exactly according to plan twelve He-59's landed on the Nieuwe Maas near by the Noordereiland like a wedge-formation of geese. It was around 04.50 hrs Dutch time (invasion hour plus 55 minutes). The almost 100 men infantry boarded the quickly inflated small rubber boats, offloaded their weapons and material and peddled to both sides of the river. Stunned civilians - of which many were already on their way to work in the harbours - witnessed heavily armed men in unknown uniforms climb the quays. Some civilans still reckoned it had to be a fancy Dutch army exercise, but others pointed at the smoke clouds over Waalhaven and feared or realized that war had broken out.
The Germans were very considerate in their approach of the nosy civilians, who did hamper their deployment considerably. None was harmed, although they were summoned to make way, some at gun point. The Germans quickly spread across the Noordereiland in order to occupy the four entrances of even so many bridges on the island. Those bridges were checked on explosives, which were obviously not found though. Machinegun crews took positions to repel immediate Dutch counter action. Meanwhile troops had reached the far south and far north end of the river and spread alongside the landheads. They quickly formed a defensive perimeter on both ends of the bridgehead, while small troops expanded on the direct bridge vicinity to probe the Dutch whereabouts.
The elevated railway on the north side presented an excellent window for defensive fire for the Germans, who placed one or two MG's on top of it. Meanwhile the first rounds were fired. Some Dutch policemen tried to resist the Germans, but in vain. Three were killed, others were taken prisoner and locked up in the Maashotel on the northern landhead. The Germans progressed into the northern part of town where the expanded their bridgehead, whilst the airborne platoon had meanwhile reached the south of the Noordereiland. Two of the three squads of airbrones made their way north and joint the airlanding troops who had meanwhile started forming an arcuated defence in the northern bridgehead.
On the northeastern river bank was a large train-station, called the Maasstation. It was occupied by a squad of Dutch infantry that had to guard the station against sabotage. These men witnessed the German landing, panicked and largely disappeared. One of them got caught and was added to the other POW's in the Maashotel. A few hundred metres straight north of the railway bridge was the Beursstation [station nearby the stock-exchange, which was called 'Beurs' in Dutch]. Also here the guards gave way and made a run for it. Both these squads had been the only military presence around the bridges. Within the hour the Germans seemed to be fully in control.
Meanwhile the marines at the Oostplein barracks had been awoken by the first sounds of war and not wasted time. The about 320 men present were assembled, armed and instructed. The freshmen were seperated from the trained marines and left to guard the barracks and the surrounding square. The marines that were in their second stage of training and the operational coys were prepared for action. Quickly a first patrol was sent out into the general direction of the bridges in order to gather intel, whereas the streets around the barracks were barricaded by the freshmen. A Lewis machinegun was placed on the roof of the barracks, look outs were placed around the square. The sent-out patrol recognized significant German presence around the bridges and returned with this intel. Quickly new and bigger patrols were formed around a few machinegun teams, with the intention to operate aggresively and contain German expansion. This happened so fast that these patrols would respond much earlier to the German intrusion than the latter would have anticipated.
At the garrison HQ in the town center, the first arriving staff officer instructed the entire Engineers Depot to have their troops assemble in coy formations and bring those to the square nearby, where ammunition was distributed. Unit by unit received instructions for counter measures and reconnaissance missions. The first thing command needed was intel on what was happening. That's why most of the first missions were recce missions only. In the meantime troops could be equipped and fitted for battle, assignments be drafted.
The marines-patrols had made contact with the Germans in the most forward positions near the Beursstation and the inner city-harbours [of which Rotterdam had dozens] near the bridges. The Germans were quickly contained and in some instances pushed back. Expansion of their bridgehead was stalled, a few German forward positions in the NE angle eliminated. A deserted German AT rifle was acquired. The first German and Dutch casualties lay on the streets adjecent to the traffic bridge area, a prelude of the things to come.
In the process of clearing the Beursstation area the first formation of engineers arrived in the sector, although initially shooting at their fellows of the marines [who were dressed in their black battle over-dresses]. After this misunderstanding was solved, both formations stood side by side and started to form a firm grip around the German pocket, from the center-point around the railway track to the east. Not a German could escape that grip, nor did they intend to anymore. They moved back on their narrowest bridgehead.
Both companies of III-39.RI in the northern part of town had also picked up their gear, weapons and ammo. Although not coordinated (yet) with the garrison command, the heavy machinegun company marched towards the northwest side of the German pocket in order to take positions. When they made contact with the German forward positions around the inner harbours and the river bank NW of the bridge [called Boompjes, lit: 'Little trees'], they gradually formed a determined seal on the NW angle of the German pocket, perfectly matching the engineers and marines on the central axis - without both forces knowing the other doing so.
The Germans were quite taken by surprise of so much and so quick Dutch composure and effective counter-measures, but in fact this was mostly coincidental and not at all coordinated. The quick and decisive actions by the marines on the N and NE angle of the German penetration had held the latter contained. With only few men available to materialize on the Dutch lack of ready defences, the Germans had to maintain a rather compressed perimeter. They lacked reserves to counter the still modest marines presence. When also in the W and NW Dutch troops started to arrive to the scene, the Germans gathered that teh Dutch had already rebounded from the first shock and decided to withdraw to the direct vicinity of the bridges, taking positions in a number of buildings and a few MG positions on strategic points.
Gradually more and more coordination between Dutch commanders was sought ánd found. Awareness of the events unfolding started to grow. Marines, infantry and engineers, later assisted by regular navy troops and even some airforce personnel, all worked together in sealing off and decreasing the German pocket around the bridges. The German losses mounted up and since their initial number had been small, these losses were hardfelt. The Germans came under tremendous pressure and were anxiously awaiting reinforcements. Where were those reinforcements hanging out?
The events in the south of Rotterdam
As off 0630 hrs the main force of III./IR.16 had started arriving on Waalhaven. In the first wave one could also find the battalion staff with Oberstleutnant Von Coltitz. Together with troops of his 9th Coy and some pioneers on motorbikes as well as an airbornes AT gun with crew, the battalion commander made his way to the river. Other units followed. When they came to a point on the same height as the Feyenoord stadium near the largest inner-harbour in the south of Rotterdam, the point formations were suddenly caught by machinegun and rifle fire that was fatal for some of the men. Where did it come from?
A small company of the garisson battalion had taken position on the Afrikaanderplein [a big square]. Between the Afrikaanderplein and the large inner-harbour another squad size formation, members of an intendant company, had sealed off a shortcut to the Noordereiland. They had been witnesses of the attack on AFB Waalhaven and had as such been able to prepare for battle. The company commander of the III-39.RI company had his men take a hedgehog defence around the square, controlling every angle and preventing anybody from passing undetected. The earlier mentioned company of intendant personnel was stationed in a school a few hundred metres from the infantry company. The about 200 intendants were only armed with revolvers, but a group of about a dozen men amongst them were infantry-men with rifles and two acquired light MG's. They had given shelter to a number of men that had evactuated from Waalhaven with two light machineguns. The two Lewis guns and one or two of the Waalhaven men that still dared fighting were taken along when the squad went about 150 m west from the school to take positions at the harbour-side where they could seal off some of the streets leading north. It was this very position that received the forward German units with a hale of fire. Unfortunately, like many rookie soldiers, they had fired too early, preventing a bigger shock to their opponents, but they did manage to pin them down and - for that moment - deny a quick German land connection to the raided bridges.
When the German point formation had driven into the ambush, they only suffered a brief shock after which they quickly re-organised. In the moments that followed about a small company's size of combined infy and pioneers arrived and started deploying around the anticipated Dutch positions. At the Afrikaanderplein the Dutch had yet kept their arms silent. When however a German troop moved in and approached the square, they were immediately taken under fire, dispersing them in the houses and porches nearby. After some intensive fire exchanges, the German battalion commander and his staff grew worried over the stand-off situation, whereas their presence was demanded at the Noordereiland. And from that general direction came intensive battle sounds suggesting that much was ongoing and obvious rapid assistance from the main force needed. The BC shared his visions with his staff. An officer (Choltitz adjutant) and an NCO of the battalion staff picked some men and tried to outbluff the Dutch defence by a bold storm troop assault. They had underestimated the opponent and moments later they were almost all killed or wounded, including Von Choltitz adjutant and messenger, who both perished during this assault. Then Choltitz decided to probe a de-tour with his main formations. That route would lead them along the squad of men positioned at the harbour side and leave just a minor part of his formation, mostly German engineers (of 22.Pi.Btl), in contact with the Dutch. The rest sneaked off, out of the stand-off.
The squad of the intendant company had a hard time keeping the remaining Germans off. They had been the ones rebuffing the German point formation in the first place. After the Germans had endeavoured to bypass them, which had been in vain, they decided to strike them head-on. Although the Dutch suppressed much of the Germans, they were with too few to contain the brave German soldiers who continued to work themselves forward, meanwhile tossing loads of grenades, eventually also applying their 3,7 cm AT gun. At some point a grenade slammed into the first Dutch machinegun position. It mortally wounded the machinegunner, who was brought into the school building, badly shot up. The company commander, who heard the thundering sounds of heavier weapons and exploding grenades, decided that his non-com men were not up for this. He also noted the vulnerable civilians that were all around who were in mortal danger too. He ordered the squad to withdraw, which they did. It presented the Germans finally the much desired way through. Shortly after the company of intendants surrendered. The Germans had no time on their hands to take them into custody and therefore decided to take along the officers and lock up the more than 200 men in the school, only guarded by a few soldiers.
The main force arrived at the Noordereiland when the most forward German men were holding by their finger nails. By then the Dutch had start appearing in force and were decreasing the German controlled territory consistantly. The Dutch were also starting to get more automatic weapons in the flanks of the bridges and soon even the navy would appear to assist. Von Choltitz and his first relief force were not a minute too early. After a quick briefing he had his troops reinforce the northern shore of the Noordereiland and direct heavy MG's and the AT gun to the NW angle of the island. He himself ordered to position his HQ in an icecream store along the main street across the island.
At the Afrikaanderplein the company commander had passed the command over to the Major and battalion commander of the battalion that had fled Waalhaven, who was by then determined to clear his sheet. Together with a mere 100 men of his battalion and the company of 39.RI they had started to dig in and turn the square into a fortress. Street tiles were used to pile up barricades and improvised trenches. Men were put on the roofs with machineguns and rifles and ammo was redistributed. The men were however unaware that the bulk of the opposing forces had found a hole in the defences and were moving north anyhow, simply by-passing them. They noticed the decreasing fire though, but tended to think it was due to their firm stand. To some extend it was, but in fact only about a platoon size, mainly engineers and a few cornered air landing infantry-men, were opposing them still. Nonetheless the Dutch remained a nuisance to the German logistics. All German transports from Waalhaven to the north passing this position were shot at, sometimes with casualties too.
Late in the afternoon a company of IR.16 [10./IR.16] was ordered to clear the Dutch resistance around the Afrikaanderplein. Mortars near the Noordereiland were assigned to assist. After a hair raising mortar bombardment of the square, the Dutch had withdrawn from the streets and roofs. Still they continued fighting until the last cartridge had been used. Proudly they laid down their arms after lasting almost a day. They had contributed considerably to the status of the battle further up north, although they didn't know that. But it had been their (and the intendant squad) stand at the Afrikaanderplein that had tied the large reinforcements at their location for a crucial period of time, in which it was prevented that the Germans at the bridges could expand and fortify their northern bridgehead before a firm Dutch reaction could have been mounted. When the German reinforcements finally arrived, the Dutch had already taken repossession of most of the houses and buildings around the German pocket and had squeezed the pocket back towards the bridges.
The Dutch navy assists
When the ground forces were in the process of squeezing the airbornes and airlanding troops further back, they were pleasantly surprised by two navy units steaming up to assist. The Royal Netherlands Navy staff had heard of the events unfolding in Rotterdam and had mobilised two units to steam up river and blow the Germans off of the Noordereiland and surroundings. These orders were given to the Hr Ms TM-51 [Dutch combined MTB/MGB] and the larger 270 tonnes Hr Ms Z-5 coastal patrolboat (1).
(1) The Z-class (Z-5 thru Z-8) comprised four ships, all built as shallow-water torpedo boats with four torpedo tubes and two light 7,5 cm guns. The Z-5, with a crew of 34 men, had its torpedo tubes and it's third funnel seen decommissioned after which it had been recommissioned as a coastal patrol boat. The three others had contained their torpedo tubes and three funnels, but had not been in service as coastal torpedo boats during the 1930's anymore. They remained in use for training, coastal patrolling duties and light coastal support. All four would cross the Channel during the May War, function as auxilary vessels to the British and Dutch navies during the war, when two were decommissioned and scrapped. Two would return to the Netherlands after the war and be scrapped shortly after.
The TM-51 was a Thornycroft designed and built 32 tonnes Motor Torpedo Boat that (besides torpedo-tubes) also had two powerful 2 cm Hispano-Suiza guns. The Z-5 was fitted with two 7,5 cm Bofors guns (front and aft) and two 12,7 mm Browning machineguns.
The Z-5 first steamed up alone and made contact with some Dutch soldiers on the quays northwest of the bridge area where it's captain received up to date intel and tried to establish whether or not he was allowed to use his battery on the bridges, which remained unclear however. The soldiers gave them some intel on the German whereabouts and the general situation, but to the extent that they knew only. The boat then steamed towards the Willemsbrug and started pounding German positions with its forward gun. When Germans were seen crossing the bridge it kept bothering the ship's captain that he was unaware whether the bridge was to be destroyed or not. He needed information on that from the shore and returned two miles down the river to moor again. After finally nstructions had been received not (!) to harm the bridge, the Z-5 left again for the bridges, by then joined by the small TM-51 that would be able to take aim at the bridges with its 2 cm guns, that would only scave the paint of the metal but would not destroy the bridges. Both boats emptied their weapons on German positions. In the meantime the German reinforcements had arrived and machineguns appeared on the extreme west side of the Noordereiland and took aim at both ships. Soon also the German AT gun joined. The TM-51 was not armoured and quite vulnerable, hence decided to stay in the protective shade of the bigger Z-5.
Then suddenly a Ju-88 dive bomber appeared overhead and threw four 250 kg bombs that landed right behind the wildly manoeuvring Z-5. The bombs all missed the Z-5, but dropped in the shallow water (causing massive bottom rebound of the detonations), one of the bombs lifted the nearby TM-51 so far out of the water that the hull slammed back with a loud bang, killing one of the engines and disrupting much of the superstructure. The TM-51 had to break off the battle and return to port. It later turned out it had 300 bullet and shrapnel dents and holes! One sailor had been killed by machinegun fire, one was badly wounded from bomb shrapnel. The Z-5 continued the fight until it had emptied the main ammo cache of the forward gun. Also the Z-5 had one KIA on board (one of the gunners) and four men wounded. The TM-51 moved back to the nearby Gusto yard for repairs, the Z-5 was drawn back to Hook of Holland.
Both vessels would cross the channel to the UK days later. The TM-51, that had two launched sister ships TM-52 and TM-53 commissioned but still not operation (and another 17 in several stages of production at Gusto), would leave Rotterdam on the 14th of May. Mooring at the Hook of Holland it took the local navy command on board and migrated to the UK together with a number of RN ships. The Z-5 followed and would serve as an auxilary vessel during the war. The TM-51 would form the basis of a Dutch MTB/MGB flotilla in the Royal Navy.
The captains of both ships were later awarded the MWO [highest military order for valor]. Both crews received the Bronze Cross, a medal for valour. Their performance had been regarded excellent under the circumstances.
Meanwhile another navy unit had steamed towards Rotterdam. This time a more serious piece of equipment. It was the 1,650 BRT destroyer Hr Ms Van Galen(2). It had been ordered to assist too, if possible shell the German occupied AFB Waalhaven. The Nieuwe Waterweg was quite narrow though, at least for bigger surface units, which prevented ships from effective manoeuvring against threats from war planes. The undeep canal was an additional threat. Near misses could still cause considerable damage, like deth-charges do to sub's, due to the rebound of detonation forces from the shallow bottom. Possibly even worse was the fact that the AA battery malfunctioned. It wouldn't fire when the guns came to higher elevations, which was quite imperative for a AA battery. The malfunction had not been repaired by May 1940. Nevertheless the four 12 cm guns of the main battery were considered valuable to assist in threathened Rotterdam, or so was considered by the navy staff in that early stage of the war.
(2) The Admiral Class destroyers comprised eight almost identical destroyers, of which the Hr Ms van Galen was the only one stationed in The Netherlands in May 1940. The 1,650 BRT (loaded) displacement destroyers had four main guns of 12 cm, a 7,5 cm multi purpose gun, four 4 cm AA guns and four 12,7 mm heavy machineguns, besides two torpedo tubes for 21 inch torpedoes. Like many destroyers of its day and age armour was low and the narrow and long profile made the ships hull quite vulnerable to structural damage from near misses. The class would not proof itself very sustainable to battle damage.
This rather modern (1926-1930) class of destroyers was quite capable when it comes to speed, agility and fire power, though this Class in particular was doomed with an ill fate. The Hr Ms van Galen sank during the May War, but all seven its sister ships would sink or get sunk during the series of sea battles with the Japanese navy in the period December 1941 - March 1942. During the Battle in the Java Sea (and preceding clashes) all seven destroyers would be sunk by the Japanese or as an indirect consequence of a battle with Japanese adversaries. One would be raised and recommissioned by the Japanese, but she would never make any trip again.
Half way the Nieuwe Waterweg the Hr Ms van Galen was discovered steaming up the Waterway and attacked by a few dive bombers more or less simultaneously. She was soon covered in fontains from detonating 250 kg bombs that mostly fell not too far off of her. Time and again the hull was lifted and thrown back by near misses, which caused severe structural damage to the central bulkheads and adjacent plating and killed and wounded several men. The ship couldn't sustain this kind of heavy structural damage and started to list to port side, leaking on a few of her bulkheads. Her commander realized that his ship was mortally wounded and decided that she had to be moored. And so Hr Ms Van Galen was genuinly parked against a quay, after which all hands evacuated her bringing along some weapons and belonings but there was little time to save more. Before the crew's eyes she slowly sank away along the quay. The most terrible sight for every genuine navy man. A fine destroyer had been lost during the execution of a mission that it shouldn't have had. The clear message of this event had been received in Den Helder, where the navy staff decided that no more ships would be jeopardized on the narrow Nieuwe Waterweg.
The battle continues
The men fighting around the bridges had found themselves in hell's kitchen. On both sides acts of bravery and boldness were witnessed, both sides had considerable losses, although the German losses amongst the first and and most forward positions were truly heavy. The German commander had emphasized the distribution of reinforcements on the Noordereiland. He realised that the possession of the bridges was priority, not the expansion or even the lasting defence of the northern bridgehead. As such the few dozen Germans in the pocket north of the bridges received only little reinforcements, and besides, the communication lines over the bridges had become extremely dangerous to maintain. The Dutch machineguns and rifles controlled the area and every soldier daring the odds had a more than an even chance not to survive. It soon virtually halted any bridge crossings, isolating the about 50 Germans on the most northern positions.
The marines and other troops that had occupied a growing number of houses along the Boompjes, had worked their way forward [eastwards] towards the bridges and managed to retake the Maashotel, liberating captured civilians and some military personnel. Marines and engineers had also managed to take control of the Witte Huis, an early 20th century skyscraper that controlled the entire bridge area. From the top floors the men could send their fire virtually anywhere. Gradually the Germans had to give up every position on the north side, but one: the high building of an insurance-bank company right opposite of the Willemsbrug entrance. It contained 50 men, about half of them airbornes, the balance men of III./IR.16. A few more managed to hold a positioned under the landhead of the traffic bridge, but were unable to leave that relatively safe position without fear of their live. These Germans, about 60 in total, would have to sit out the entire siege for the next five days. Their ordeal was not ended by far.
The status quo would remain for more than four consecutive days. The belligerents had reached a stand-off and would in the days to follow focus themselves on getting the other side out of his position. Neither side would succeed. But the battle had been very intense. On both sides the positions were also threatened by fire. Both Dutch and German grenades caused buildings to get ignited and entire blocks started burning. Both the Noordereiland and the Boompjes area saw extensive fires raging which had men chasing off on both sides. But new positions replaced the previous and both sides managed to hold on to their own positions. On the German side - of the original 130 men (incl. the platoon of airbornes) - many had been amongst the victims of that first day. About half of them was either dead or wounded. A German battle report, later found on a dead German of IR.16, captions it quite dramatically:
"We are able to maintain the bridgehead. On the other side of the isle [north] terrible fights rage on. Our best comrades have been killed. One after the other is carried in. (...) There another one on a stretcher; our young lieutenant with a belly wound. "Commandant, it doesn't work out, nobody can come trough that hell alive.", he says with his last strength and dies. Still we attack again. The bridgehead must stay in our hands, because in front lay R. and G. with their last men isolated. W.R. leads us now. But also we are not able to cross the bridge. One after the other gets killed. W.R. retreats. B., W., W., O., W., K. and so many more good comrades have fallen ..."
But also the Dutch side suffered losses, although not to the extend of the German losses on that first bloody day. It was a hell that would later be seen back in the Netherlands, when British airbornes under Lt-Col. John Frost would hold the Arnhem Rhine bridge in September 1944.
The true hell that his soldiers went through had not missed its effect on General Kurt Student, who had come to inspect the situation on the Noordereiland in the early afternoon of the 10th. He had met with Von Choltitz and insisted that the Lt.Col. would evacuate Rotterdam should the Dutch gain even more momentum and collapse of the pocket become imminent. Student stressed that the continued occupation of the Moerdijk and Dordrecht bridges were more important than the Rotterdam bridges should there have to be a choice by priority. In case of a growing instability on his northern end Von Choltitz was instructed to remove his formations from the currently held perimeter and gradually fall back to the south of Rotterdam and - if chased by strong Dutch formations - even as far back (SE) as the small stream at the village Heerjansdam, a few clicks to the west of Dordrecht. Von Choltitz was very upset and told his General that his men had bled for the possession of these bridges at Rotterdam and that he would not consider to give up lightly. Student appreciated the emotional outcry by his much respected battalion commander and concurred his suggestion to stand vast until further notice. Choltitz was however instructed that if indeed the Dutch would launch a dangerous counter offensive or a directive from division would be given to retreat to the instructed positions, Choltitz would dilligently submit to the instructions given. With a firm hand-shake between the two officers they parted sight. Eventually Choltitz would not get into the position that he had to consider yielding, particularly because of lacking Dutch attempts to seriously cross the river to counter the German gains. At that point in time, the evening of the 10th of May 1940, on the German side, things were very critical though. Not at all the walk in the park that is so often wrongly suggested in historical accounts of this battle. It had almost been a bridge too far.
Colonel van Scharroo - who had meanwhile become aware that his mostly non-com garrison was dealing with a massive German attack - had requested substantial reinforcements at GHQ. His demands were acknowledged. Indeed reinforcements would be sent, mostly coming from the field army reserves from behind the Grebbeline. Also the artillery battalion of the 1st Army Corps (10,5 cm howitzers), that happened to be nearby, was dedicated to support the defence of Rotterdam and shell the Waalhaven sector. Already during the first war-night the first two infantry battalions would arrive in the city to replace the non-combattants along the Meuze shores. A full regiment staff was received to form an infantry staff in support of the garisson commander. A lot of moving around of men and troops but it would take yet another full day to actually replace most non-coms by field army infantry and get some sort of tactical structure that could be coordinated by an integral staff.
The first day of the invasion ended - for Rotterdam - with a delicate situation for the Germans at the bridges. The Dutch had managed to adapt, improvise and overcome their initial shock and had shown far more resilient opposition than the Germans had expected - or rather - had hoped for. The action around Waalhaven may have been quite reassuring to Student; the more northern his troops were deployed the worse the operational situation. The invaders at the bridges had become the defenders and the German losses suffered around the bridges had been very high. It was clear that the Dutch had not at all been defeated in this sector and that the odds seemed to develop in favour of the Dutch. The Dutch had not turned out to yield as easy as Danish and most Norvegian defenders had done when confronted with these air landings.
The Dutch on their part were worried though. They realised that AFB Waalhaven - being in German hands - formed a huge liability. The continuous arrival of fresh German troops and supplies worried GHQ and there was little they could do within a short time. The Light Division had been redirected from the Merwede front to Alblasserdam, from where it would endeavour to cross the bridge and penetrate the Island Ysselmonde. In a follow up operation it would be able to march onto the south of Rotterdam. It was under orders to advance to Waalhaven first and recapture it; an ambitious plan that will be addressed in the next chapter.