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Introduction - a recapitulation

The situation in the heart of Rotterdam had been quite stable after the opposing forces had forced each other in fixed positions on the first day of the invasion. The major events all concentrated around the Nieuwe Maas, especially the Noordereiland [the Eiland in the river between south and north Rotterdam]. This island was connected to the mainland by means of a traffic and a railway bridge. These bridges had been the prime target of the German landing party in the morning of the 10th. As we saw before the invaders had soon been driven off the bridges, but they had fortified themselves in the direct vicinity.

After the German airbornes and airlanding troops landed at the Feyenoord [Football Club] stadium and at Waalhaven, reinforcements had been sent to their company at the Willemsbrug (traffic bridge). These reinforcements were not able to cross or hold the bridges, but they had been able to concentrate all their troops on the Noordereiland. About 600 men - commanded by Oberstleutnant [lt-col] Von Choltitz (1) - equipped with a few 3,7 cm AT guns, heavy machineguns and mortars - defended this strategic stronghold with all their power.

(1) Oberstleutnant Dietrich von Choltitz [1894 - 1966] was commanding III./IR16 in May 1940 and appointed commander of the task-force that had the Maas bridges in Rotterdam as their objectives. In the late summer of 1940 he became regiment commander of 16.IR. After excellent performances during the battle at Sevastopol [SU] in 1942, he was promoted to Generalmajor. A year later to Generalleutnant. In 1944 he was promoted full General and in August of that year he was appointed governor of Paris. When he arrived in Paris on 9 August 1944 the Allies were about to break out the Normandy peninsula in the direction of the capital of France. In the days to follow Hitler instructed Von Choltitz to burn Paris and leave nothing of its glamour standing. The instruction to destroy the architecture and culture of the French capital was issued on the 23rd of August. The General stalled the execution of the destruction orders until he was able to negotiate a total city surrender to the French forces that approached Paris. He saved Paris from disaster. Von Choltitz was one of the examples of the old Pruissian chivalry that still [in the German army of 1945] survived amongst the far more exposed war atrocities ...

At the northern head a small but determined German squad had occupied a high building [insurance company building]. The group comprised the last standing airbornes and some airlanding men. They were below platoon size. By the fact that the Germans occupied buildings on both the north and south end of the traffic bridge they totally controlled the bridge, although they were unable to cross it due to Dutch machine gun positions that covered both the bridge and its approaches. The rest of the south end of town had been German territory since the evening of the 10th.

Dutch attempts to destroy the bridges

When the bridges at Moerdijk and Zwijndrecht / Dordrecht had been definitely lost to the Germans and the 9th Tank Division had reached the Island of Ysselmonde, all Dutch cards were set on the destruction of both main bridges crossing the Nieuwe Maas in Rotterdam. In order to be able to destroy these bridges it was imperative to clear the German occupation of the building at the northern head of the bridges. That was easier said than done. The Dutch troops had already executed numerous endeavours to drive the Germans off from the northern land head, but had failed time and time again.

In the evening of the 12th the commander-in-chief of the troops in Rotterdam, Colonel Scharroo, received orders from the GHQ to put all his efforts in clearing the German resistance at the northern land head and eventually destroy the bridges. At 0300 hours the commander of the local marines, Colonel Von Frijtag Drabbe, was ordered to defeat any German occupation at the north end and afterwards occupy the northern bridge approach in order to secure the area. He formed a company [a little over 100 men] of his most experienced (professional) marines for the main task. Another company of navy auxiliary troops, also with a strength of about 100 men, was provided as back-up. These two companies would be supported by two batteries of modern 10,5 cm howitzers and two armoured cars. Also a company of six 8,1 cm mortars was attached to the taskforce. All in all a considerable force on paper. But - typical for almost all Dutch offensive actions during the May war - coordination almost lacked completely.

As the marines advanced towards the Jan Kuitenbrug [near the German occupied building on the northend] they got soon suppressed by fierce German machine gun fire from the south. It soon became clear that crossing the bridge would not be feasible as long as the assaulting units would not be closely supported by artillery or armoured cars.

The artillery had not fired a single round until that point though, but after a brief contact with the artillery battalion commander a number of volleys was fired. All rounds fell short or over and after corrections failed to improve the accuracy, the artillery ceased fire. Meanwhile the two armoured cars [with 3,7 cm Bofors guns] had arrived and tried to approach the bridge. The Germans responded to their appearance with some well aimed anti-tank fire, crippling one of the cars. Although the damaged car was able to retreat, it could no longer contribute to the assault. The second car then stayed at a save distance and as such wasn't able to challenge the Germans in the Insurance Building on the other side of the Jan Kuitenbrug. Since also the commander of the mortar company convinced the Colonel that his mortars would not be able to lay effective fire on the high building, the assault on this eastern side of the bridgehead was cancelled. Again a show of little determination and a lack of improvisation.

From the west a full platoon of marines advanced along the Nieuwe Maas and reached the northern land head without any German challenge. The latter had not spotted the cautiously stalking Dutch yet. Unfortunately these marines had not been made aware of the German occupation of the Isurance Building. They considered the northend free of enemy! When the section carefully moved forward at the southern bridge ramp, they did not realise that they exposed their rear to the German occupation of the Insurance Building. Disaster struck when the first men had almost reached the middle section of the bridge. Suddenly the Germans opened fire from both sides and many marines were hit [2 were KIA during the action].

Nevertheless the brave marines immediately returned fire with their carbines and light machineguns. It was impossible however to survive the lethal German fire that cornered them. After a few more marines fell, the remainder retreated. Some were killed whilst creping back, others found shelter underneath the bridge, but were unable to leave this shelter again [until after the large bombardement of the 14th]. The rest of the marines had found shelter under the bridge, at the northern end. They found themselves soon engaged in a fire fight with a small group of Germans also taking shelter nearby. The Germans in the Insurance Building kept on launching suppressive fire at this group too. The group retreated, leaving behind 6 casualties. After this dramatic fight, that took hours of intensive close-combat action, no further offensive action would be developed against the bridges.

Concern and acceptance

To the senior officers in Rotterdam it had become clear that with the failed action against the bridges making use of the most able troops under their command, all hope would have to be fixed on a successful defence of the northern river bank. In order to achieve such a defence, seven infantry companies were ordered to form a screen along the river. Both bridges were covered by three AT guns and the three available batteries 10,5 cm howitzers were ordered to prepare barrages on both land heads.

A massive bombardment plan

In the meantime, at around 1600 hours, the first German tanks had arrived in the southern outskirts of Rotterdam. Although the Dutch were close to desperation, the Germans were very much unaware of this. The commanding German General [Schmidt] and his two most important Generals [Student and Von Hubicki] were very reluctant to launch an all out tank assault onto the north side. They were very aware of the reports of firm Dutch opposition and the presence of both Dutch artillery and anti-tank guns. The losses of tanks during the downtown battle at Dordrecht had impressed them to such an extend that they were convinced that only a tactical aerial bombardment of the direct vicinity of the northern land head could break the Dutch resistance.

First the Germans ordered their troops at the Noordereiland [600 men] to evacuate and retreat to the south, leaving behind just a few men to keep the bridges closed. The German command feared for the fate of these troops once a massive tactical bombardment would be executed. The retreat did fail however, due to the fact that a major portion of the troops could not be reached by messengers due to intense Dutch fire in the approach zones. As a consequence the Luftwaffe target zone was shifted to a wider arc around the bridges. Only a limited number of bombs would be aimed at the northern area of the bridges, the balance would be aimed more to the north.

It must have been around this hour that the High Command in Germany got involved. The Germans feared prolonged tough Dutch defences at Rotterdam and anticipated that the river-crossing could only be achieved at an extremely high price. Moreover the Heer command insisted on having the 9th Tank Division made available for the southern front soonest. At that time the critical Meuze crossing manoeuvres had not paid out yet. Hermann Goring meanwhile, had grown very worried over the fate of his suffering air landing troops north of Rotterdam and at Valkenburg. Also the high losses of transport planes [around 300 at that time] were a thorn in his side. He was persistent that Dutch resistance would be broken soonest in order to save his exhausted troops. German documents and authors claim that also the increasing fear of French and British landings within Fortress Holland contributed considerably to the later decision to treat Rotterdam on a massive air bombardment.

Anyway, the many top-brass decision-makers in Germany agreed on one thing. The raid should have to be of such a magnitude that the city would capitulate, after which the entire country would lay open for the Germans. In the afternoon of the 13th, orders were prepared to shift the entire 54th Bomber Group [Kampfgeschwader 54, about 90 He-111 medium bombers] from the Belgian to the Dutch front.

The German High Command fancied an all out air strike forcing the city to capitulate, so much is clear. On the other hand, the local commanding Generals, Student and Schmidt, only desired a tactical air strike of considerable magnitude but with a lot of precision; preferably with the accurate Stuka's, which were available to a number of 90 planes in total [IV/LG1 and two Gruppes of StG.77]. Both Generals considered an all out non-discriminating bombardment very undesirable - and not particularly for reasons of humanity. The flattening of the city of Rotterdam would create such a wasted landscape that a tank advanced could well be seriously hampered by such destruction. Furthermore, both commanding Generals were decent and professional soldiers. They seriously opposed the idea of a massive bombardment for it was obvious that the civilian population would be the major victim of such an operation.

The field Generals protested to the proposed plan of the huge strike suggested by the High Command. Fact remains, that General Kesselring [Commander of the German 2nd Air Fleet], with or without explicit instruction from the Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe Hermann Göring, ordered the air strike to be executed by the entire KG.54. This bomber group, which had already suffered some losses over Belgian air-space, probably comprised between 80-90 He-111 medium bombers [capable of 1.500 kg pay load] when the assault was launched. The strike was planned for the midday hour May 14, after which the XXXIX Corps was ordered to advance over the river and proceed in the direction of The Hague, Leiden and Gouda. The X Corps - operating against the Grebbeline - would advance towards Utrecht. As such the Dutch forces would be squeezed in between these two armies.

In the evening of the 13th a liaison officer of the Luftwaffe KG.54 appeared at the headquarters of Student and Schmidt in Rijsoord. Data was exchanged, pinpointing the current German and Dutch positions. Overnight the entire staff assembled in Rijsoord and General Schmidt actually took over command of the XXXIX Corps incorporating the Student forces. All troops in the Fortress Holland then resided under his command. General Von Küchler - commander-in-chief over the Dutch operational area - sent instructions that in the morning of the 14th an ultimatum had to be presented to the Dutch local commander in which unconditional capitulation of the city would be demanded. It would be the prelude to a dramatic day to follow ...