The city of Rotterdam had the largest harbour of Europe in 1940. The city thrived as a result of the rapid expansion of the harbour after 1875, when the Nieuwe Waterweg [New Waterway] was opened. The Nieuwe Waterweg is the canalized last stage of the Maas, between the west side of Rotterdam and the Northsea. It made it possible for large sea-going vessels to enter the Rotterdam harbour. In 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 essential harbour also caused Rotterdam to suffer a major blow from the war break out in September 1939. Business plunched to nearly a complete stand still of the harbour (only 11% of the business remained), only gradually recovering when it turned out that actual hostilities between the three nations (Germany, United Kingdom and France) remained at a minimum level. Until May 1940 that was ...
Rotterdam was a proud city - and it still is. A city that combined Dutch traditions of labour and trade. A city too that still showed the great wealth of the ancient colonial VOC trading successes in the seventeenth century, and on the other hand the decline of the labourer disctricts during the last fifty years. It still had a 'gold coast', but also many grey areas where the better class wouldn't dare show its face. The city centre and the Noordereiland [13,000 inhabitants] showed the old glamour and gold of rich times, but the true rich and better classes had already mostly moved beyond the borders of the city: Hilligersberg, Schiebroek and Overschie.
Rotterdam was divided into two parts, although in 1940 the much larger part of the city lay north of the river Nieuwe Maas. Nowadays the south has developed and grown dramatically compared to that time in 1940. 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 almost as an impartial piece of the city, not beloning to the north, not the south. It was connected to both city halfs by four bridges; 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. 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. Because Rotterdam had this major transito harbour it had also become the main centre of military supply and intendant services. It housed the army Service Corps main bases. Vast storage-wharehouses for food, beverages, blankets and sheets, uniforms and helmets, meatworks, kitchens, slaughterhouses, etc. etc. Besides those military services, it was the main habitat of the 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 had returned to Rotterdam some decades ago, after a long absence. The Oostplein barracks were well-known to every true 'Rotterdammer'. 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 about 7,000 military personnel, it had not been prepared for war, let alone for city defences.
Rotterdam had about 6,250 men within the northern city boundaries. Another 500 were divided over the southern part and at the Pernis oil facilities. The garrison commander was Colonel (of the Engineers Corps) P.W. Scharroo, a well known member of the International Olympic Commitee and amongst other things, one of the co-designers of the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam (Games of 1928). The Colonel was the most senior officer in the city and commander over the entire garrison, with exception of some navy units. He reported directly to the Commander Fortress Holland.
Of the total number of 7,000 men, only a very modest part was combattant. We shall address these in more detail.
There were 450 marines in Rotterdam. They were professional soldiers and without any doubt the best soldiers the Dutch could produce. They had a tradition going back to 1665, when the Marines Corps was founded and contributed to many famous sea- and land battles. The tradition of the navy and the Marines was held high. The fact that the marines were the single army branch that contained 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. Their entire careers they would be measured against the strict standards that a Marines soldier had to comply with.
Of the 450 marines in the city about 200 were still in basic training. Half of those were in the first basic phase of three months, the other half in the second phase. The other 250 marines were either fully trained or in training for NCO. The officers were very capable and many of them experienced in the field in the colonies. The marines were usually serving in the Netherlands East Indies, the West Indies or on board of 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 large colonial war [the 30-years war in Atjeh], but yet there were small indigenous or communist rebellions all the time during the last decades. It were usually the marines that were sent in first to suppress those uprisings. The marines in Rotterdam were commanded by their Battalion Commander Lieutenant-Colonel Lugt and fell under the Commander of the 'Maritime Means' in Rotterdam, Colonel of the Marines Corps Von Frytag Drabbe. Both officers had their quarters in the Oostplein barracks.
Next to the marines 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 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 virtually all were drafted citizens of Rotterdam itself. The battalions had 750 men and besides small arms and the organice light machineguns, it only had eight heavy machineguns. Of these 750 men, at least 300 were not stationed in the northern part of Rotterdam.
The 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 finalized basic training. These men were used for guarding duties of the railway stations and a couple of vital buildings. All in all, the garrison commander had 1,050 combattants at his disposal.
The other 6,000 men military personnel were 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, but the better half of them had experienced no combat military training whatsoever. They had often never even held a pistol or rifle. Many of the intendant troops had a revolver (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.
The total garrison - mainly non-combattant as they were - had only 8 heavy machineguns and about 50 light machineguns all together. Mortars, AT guns, infantry guns or whatever other heavy weapon were totally omitted. The combattants had a few boxes of hand grenades, but that was it.
The AAA in Rotterdam itself was very modest, although around the city there were more units available. In the city itself only one platoon of heavy machineguns and a volunteer militia platoon of light AA guns, that had six 2 cm Oerlikon's. Both were active along the Nieuwe Maas.
As addressed before the city 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 battle 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 had a staff of two officers, 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 were required for such a sector and such an amount of troops in battle. Two officers that like the Colonel himself had not received combat General Staff education, like section officers in a battle staff had enjoyed. It shows some degree of the task ahead for Colonel Scharroo and his direct vicinity ...
The Germans had planned to land twelve Heinkel He-59D sea planes on the Nieuwe Maas. These planes would contain two platoons of rifle men of 11./IR.16, including two heavy machinegun crews, a troop of four engineers and a company troop of five around the company commander. It was a small taskforce of 90 men, excluding the flying personnel of the planes (36 men). Each platoon was assigned to take one side of the Noordereiland and the two bridges on their own end. The four engineers had to check these captured bridges for demolition charges and if found demount those. If secured, the emphasis would shift to forming a bridgehead on the north side of the city around the landheads of both bridges.
The taskforce was very small and therefore the Germans had one platoon [3rd platoon of 11./FJR1] of airbornes land at the Feyenoord soccer stadium, about 2 km from the bridges. These 36 men had to rush to the bridges as a first reinforcement. Next they had to await the main force, which would be formed by the rest of the 3rd Battalion of IR.16 [Commander: Oberstleutnant von Coltitz, the last commander of Paris in 1944, who would save the city from destruction] reinforced with some infantry guns and AT guns. That battalion was scheduled to land at Waalhaven AFB in the first wave.
The German landing
Twelve sea planes landed on the Nieuwe Maas close by the Noordereiland at around 0450 hrs. About 90 men boarded small rubber boats, offloaded their weapons and peddled to both sides of the river. Stunned civilians - of which many were on their way to work - witnessed heavily armed men in uniforms climb the quays. Some civilans reckoned it had to be a fancy Dutch army exercise but others pointed at the smoke clouds over Waalhaven and realized that war had broken out.
The Germans quickly spread across the Noordereiland. The bridges were checked on explosives, which were not found. Machinegun crews took positions on the north end of the railway bridge. The elevated railway presented an excellent window for defensive fire. 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 quay. The Germans progressed into the northern part of town, whilst the airborne platoon reached th south of the Noordereiland. Two of the three squads of airbrones made their way north and joint the airlanding troops who had formed an arcuated defence in the northern bridgehead.
On the quay on the northeast-side of the Willemsbrug was a train-station, called the Maasstation. It was occupied by a squad of Dutch infantry. These men witnessed the German landing, panicked and disappeared. One of them got caught and was added to the other POW's in the Maashotel. A few hundred metres north of the railway bridge was the Beursstation [station next to 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 not wasted time. The about 320 men present were assembled, armed and instructed. The first patrol was sent out in the direction of the bridges and the streets around the barracks were barricaded. A machinegun was placed on the roof. The sent-out patrol recognized German presence around the bridges and returned with this news. Quickly new and bigger patrols were formed around a few machinegun teams. They were soon sent on their ways.
At the garrison HQ in the town centre, the first arriving staff officer instructed the entire Engineers Depot to assemble at 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.
The marines-patrols had made contact with the Germans in the most forward positions near the Beursstation and the inner harbours [of which Rotterdam had dozens] near the bridges. The Germans were pushed back at some locations and were forced to make a stand. Expansion of their bridgehead was stalled. Also the first German casualties were suffered, a prelude of things to come.
In the process of clearing the Beursstation area the first engineers started to arrive in the sector, although initially shooting at their fellows of the marines [who were dressed in black battle dresses]. After this misunderstanding was solved, both formations stood side by side and started to form a firm grip around the German pocket.
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. When they made contact with the German positions around the inner harbours and the quay west of the brdige [called Boompjes], they gradually formed a seal on the westside of the German pocket.
Marines, infantry and engineers, later assisted by navy troops and even some airforce personnel, all worked together in sealing off and decreasing the German pocket around the bridges. 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 also the battalion staff with Oberstleutnant von Coltitz. Together with some pioneers on small motorbikes and an AT gun with crew, the battalion commander made his way to the Noordereiland. 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 the city, they were suddenly caught by machinegun and rifle fire that was fatal to some of the point men. Where did this come from?
On the Afrikaanderplein [a big square] a company of III-39.RI had taken positions. Between the Afrikaanderplein and the large inner-harbour another squad size formation, members of an intendant company, had sealed off this shortcut to the Noordereiland. They had been witnesses of the attack on Waalhaven and had prepared 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. A large 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 15 men were infantry. They had given shelter to a number of men coming from Waalhaven with two light machineguns. The two Lewis guns were taken along when the squad went about 150 m west from the school to take position 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 they fired too early otherwise the price of the opponents had been much more considerable.
When the German point formation drove into the ambush, they only suffered a brief shock after which re-organised. Meanwhile about a company's strength had arrived and started deploying around the anticipated Dutch positions. At the Afrikaanderplein the Dutch had yet kept their arms silent. When a German stick moved in, they were immediately taken under fire, spreading them up in the houses and porches nearby. After some time of intensive fire exchange, the battalion commander and his staff grew worried over the stand-off situation while their presence was demanded at the Noordereiland from where the sounds of war showed that an intense battle was ongoing. An officer and an NCO of the battalion staff picked some men and tried to outbluff the Dutch defence by a sudden storm troop assault. They were almost all killed or wounded though, including von Choltitz personal adjutant. Then the Germans decided to take a de-tour, which would lead them along the squad of men positioned at the harbour side.
The squad of the intendant company had a hard time keeping the Germans off. They had been the ones rebuffing the German point formation in the first place. The Germans didn't give up though. Although the Dutch managed to force them to dismount, the brave German soldiers continued to crawl forward, meanwhile tossing loads of grenades, eventually also applying their 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. The company commander, who heard the thundering sounds of heavier weapons and exploding grenades, decided that his men were not up for this and besides the vulnerable civilians around were in mortal danger too. He ordered the squad to withdraw, which they did. It presented the Germans finally the much desired way through. 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.
At the Afrikaanderplein the company commander had passed the command over to the Major (and battalion commander) 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. 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 meanwhile found a hole in the defences and were moving north. 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 some remaining air landing troops, 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 on 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. When the German reinforcements finally arrived, the Dutch had already taken possession of all 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 even further back across the bridges, 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 mobilised two small units to steam up and blow the Germans off of the Noordereiland and surroundings. These orders were given to the HrMs TM-51 [Dutch MTB/MGB] and the larger HrMs Z-5 coastal gunboat.
The TM-51 was a large Motor Torpedo Boat that also had two 2 cm Hispano-Suiza guns. The Z-5 was fitted with two 7,5 cm Bofors guns and two 12,7 mm Browning machineguns.
The Z-5 first steamed up alone and made contact with some Dutch soldiers on the quays, that passed them some intel on the German whereabouts. The boat then steamed towards the Willemsbrug and started pounding German positions with its forward gun. It occured to the commander though 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. After the instructions had been received not (!) to harm the bridge, the Z-5 left again for the bridges, by then joined by the small TM-51. 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 manoeuvring Z-5. The bombs all missed but one of them lifted the 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 structure. The TM-51 had to break off the battle and return. It had 300 bullet and shrapnel 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 wounded. The TM-51 moved back to the Gusto yard for repairs, the Z-5 was drawn back to Hook of Holland.
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.
Meanwhile another navy unit had steamed towards Rotterdam. It was the 1,700 BRT heavy destroyer HrMs Van Galen (1). It had been ordered to assist too, if possible bombard 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. Worse was the fact that the AA battery malfunctioned. It wouldn't fire when the guns came to higher elevations. Nevertheless the four 12 cm guns of the main battery were considered valuable to assist in threathened Rotterdam.
(1) The Admiral Class destroyers comprised eight identical destroyers, of which the Hr Ms van Galen was the only one stationed in The Netherlands. The 1,700 BRT 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. This rather modern class of destroyers was quite capable, though it was doomed. The Hr Ms van Galen sank during the May War, but all seven sister ships would sink or get sunk during the many 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. One would be raised and recommissioned by the Japanes, but she would never make any trip again.
Half way the Nieuwe Waterweg the Hr Ms van Galen was attacked by at least a Staffel [squadron] of dive bombers. The ship was soon covered in fontains of the 250 kg bombs that fell around her. Time and again the hull was lifted and thrown back by near misses, which caused structural damage and killed and wounded several men. The ship couldn't sustain this kind of heavy structural damage and started to lean over to port side. The commander decided that the ship had to be moored and so she was genuinly parked against a quay, after which all hands evacuated her. In front of the crew she slowly sank away along the quay. A fine destroyer had been lost during the execution of a mission impossible. The clear message of this event was 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. The German commander had emphasised 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.
The marines that had occupied a growing number of houses along the Boompjes, worked their way forward [eastwards] towards the bridges and managed to retake the Maashotel, liberating 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 sent 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.
That status quo would remain in place for 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 the German side - of the original 100 men - many men had been amongst the victims of that first day. A German battle report, later found on a dead German of IR.16, says it all:
"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.
Colonel van Scharroo - aware that his mostly non-combattant garrison was dealing with a massive German attack - had requested substantial reinforcements in The Hague. Some reinforcements would be sent, all coming from the reserves behind the Grebbeline.
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 surprise, 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 assuring 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 extremely 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 on their part were even more worried. They realised that Waalhaven - being in German hands - was a huge liability. The continuous arrival of fresh German troops and supplies worried the General Command 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. It was under orders to advance on to the airfield and recapture it; an ambitious plan that we will address in the next chapter.