The battle for The Hague - The First Great Airborne Operation in History
Thought you knew everything about German airborne operations in World War II? Think again. Unless you've been studying sources in Dutch and German, you're almost certainly unfamiliar with the details - and the magnitude - of the Wehrmacht attack on The Hague in May 1940. E.H. Brongers has written a full account of a dramatic battle little studied outside the Netherlands, and one that might cause some readers to reassess views of German invincibility during their blitzkrieg in the west.
The author sets the stage with a chapter about opposing plans and forces, with especially interesting information concerning the Dutch. Their military equipment was already obsolete at the end of World War One, and it was scarcely updated between the wars. The government belatedly made funds available to purchase a modest amount of modern equipment from other nations on the eve of WWII, but not nearly enough. At the outbreak of war some cities and private companies felt so threatened by the possibility of air attack that they collected donations to purchase AA weapons through a military program which gave ownership of the guns to the armed forces but ensured they would be placed to defend the localities which had provided the funds (and which were also required to provide volunteer gun crews). In this manner the defenses of The Hague, for example, were augmented by eleven 20mm AA guns.
According to Brongers, the battle which he covers here was basically the brainchild of Adolf Hitler. A combined force of paratroopers and airlanding troops under General Hans Graf von Sponeck, commander of the 22nd Luftlande Division, had the mission of capturing Queen Wilhelmina, the Dutch government, and the Dutch armed forces High Command by a surprise attack on The Hague. Preparations included considerable espionage by the German military attache, aerial photography, and compilation of large amounts of publicly available information about the city. Here's how Brongers describes German plans.
The attack would be carried out as follows. First, the combat aircraft would fly over The Netherlands in a westerly direction, without taking any offensive action. The intention was that the Dutch would then believe that it was a massive air attack on England. Above the North Sea, the planes would turn back. Their sudden return, combined with bombing and strafing, would only increase the surprise effect. The aerial bombardments had an objective to eliminate the defenders of Ypenburg and Valkenburg. At Ockenburg this would be achieved by strafing. In addition to that, bombing attacks on the barracks in The Hague would prevent the sending of reinforcements. At the same time, under cover of these air attacks, the paratroopers would be dropped in the immediate vicinity of the airfields.
The next phase would be the destruction of any remnants of resistance from the airfield defence left over after the bombing and strafing. This would be carried out by the paratroopers, who would have re-grouped in the meantime to secure the airfield for the in-transit transport aircraft. The landing of these planes and the disembarking of the airlanding troops would conclude the first part of the operation. The aircraft had orders to return to Germany to pick up those units of the division that had stayed behind. What was next to happen was now clear. The deployed units would advance into The Hague to occupy the Royal Palace and the government buildings, while the High Command of the armed forces would be taken prisoner. The entry into The Hague was also prepared thoroughly. Commanders were issued with maps of The Hague, published in Holland, on which the routes to be followed were marked. Important locations were noted, such as headquarters, government buildings, palaces, barracks, post offices, etc. Lists were also carried with the names of the many persons who had to be arrested immediately.
After the occupation of The Hague, General Graf von Sponeck would go to the Queen (equipped with a bunch of flowers), to persuade her to call a halt to resistance. If neither she nor the Commander-in-Chief was willing to give such an order, uncoordinated Dutch counterattacks might still be expected. The final phase of the entire operation consequently consisted of consolidating The Hague against such operations. To the east and south, this could be achieved by closing the access roads to the town, using Ypenburg and Ockenburg as bases. A proportion of the units to be landed at Valkenburg had the mission to occupy the banks of the Oude Rijn between Katwijk-at-Sea and Leiden, to prevent the movement of Dutch troops stationed in the province of North-Holland in the direction of The Hague. To link up with the eastern outskirts of The Hague, the motorway between The Hague and Leiden would be occupied. Thus, a possible escape attempt by the Royal Family and the government to the airport Schiphol could be prevented. General Putzier's air corps was ordered to destroy all the Dutch troops that might hasten to the rescue. The Germans did not expect that, after the success of the 'coup', the Dutch army would still be able to constitute a serious threat. In the worst case, the city had to be held until the armoured units advancing on the axis Moerdyk-Rotterdam had reached The Hague.
Very early on the morning of 10 May 1940, Luftwaffe aircraft flew past The Hague and continued over the sea as planned. Not according to plan, the noise of the air formations passing overhead proved sufficient to rouse the defenders who were consequently alert when the aircraft turned back to approach The Hague again. Ypenburg airfield outside the city was the first target. Luftwaffe bombers attacked the Dutch defenses and transports dropped the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Fallschirmjaeger Regiment around the area. Disregarding damage to the airfield, Dutch aircraft based at Ypenburg managed to get into the air and claimed some victories before they were shot down or forced to land elsewhere
Despite air attack and paratroopers on the ground, Dutch defenders continued to hold most of their positions along the perimeter of the airfield when Ju 52s began bringing in reinforcements from 22nd Luftlande. According to Brongers, the transports and troops were slaughtered by Dutch machine gun fire as they touched down, leaving Ypenburg littered with burned out aircraft.
The author briefly compares the situation at Ypenburg with the German capture of Fornebu airport outside Oslo in April, and that fight is worth examining in more detail. At Fornebu, the paratroopers tasked with dropping on the airfield turned back due to heavy fog, but the transports carrying the airlanding troops continued resolutely. A few Me 110s attacked the defenders and then, out of fuel, landed on the Norwegian-held runway. This proved sufficient to induce the Norwegians to begin withdrawing, allowing the transports to land with minimal losses so that German troops could secure the airfield. In short, a few Luftwaffe fighters managed to land at an enemy airfield and chase away the defenders, making the situation safe enough for the transports. The author reports a Dutch officer had witnessed the landing at Fornebu and relayed the story of events there back home, so a few lightly-armed troops had been deployed specifically to protect airfields in the Netherlands. Those precautions might have been sufficient to prevent a repetition at The Hague of events in Norway.
Reviewing the sequence of events, it seems like there were three contributing factors for the German failure to secure Ypenburg prior to arrival of 22nd Luftlande:
- The bombing attack failed to break the defenders who had been assigned to defend the airfield
- Many aircraft carrying paratroopers completely missed Ypenburg
- Others were shot down by defenders before the troops could jump
- The interval between airdrop and airlanding was too brief to allow the field to be secured by the scattered paratroopers on the ground before the transports arrived
As a result, the battle at Ypenburg would not take the same course as that at Fornebu.
Brongers provides a number of Dutch eyewitness accounts (along with plenty of nicely complementary accounts from the German side) showing that, although some of the inexperienced defenders slipped away, enough troops remained on the job to keep Ypenburg out of enemy hands. The Germans eventually regrouped, gained a foothold, and resorted to marching phalanxes of prisoners toward Dutch positions to induce the defenders to either kill their own comrades or else surrender. Meanwhile, the transports of the 22nd Luftlande began landing in desperation on the nearby Rotterdam - The Hague highway. This brought in some much needed reinforcements to help drive off the defenders, but wrote off most of the aircraft. Despite heavy German casualties and a runway blocked by wrecked planes, Ypenburg finally fell to the attackers.
At Ockenburg airstrip southwest of The Hague, a few paratroopers landed to find a considerably weaker defense than at Ypenburg. This airbase was protected only by raw recruits with a few NCOs and officers for a total of 96 men. Even so, they managed to inflict considerable casualties on the airlanding troops whose transports touched down on the field before the defenders had been pushed back. With a total of approximately 700-800 troops of 7th Flieger and 22nd Luftlande committed, however, after about two hours Ockenburg airfield was secured at around 8:00 am. Unfortunately for the attackers, their timetable - as at Ypenburg - was completely disrupted and the runway was blocked - also as at Ypenburg - by wrecked and burning transport aircraft.
Reinforced by troops from planes crash-landing on any relatively flat stretch of ground, the German units gradually began moving toward The Hague where they were initially resisted by ad hoc groups of administrative personnel, labor units, and the Royal Military Band. The tenacious defense conducted by the recruits on the field and the thin screen of service personnel managed to delay the Germans just long enough for Dutch infantry to arrive on the scene at the outskirts of The Hague. By 10:00 the German advance from Ockenburg had been halted and the reinforced Dutch troops were poised to counterattack and recapture the airfield.
North of The Hague, near Leiden, the German paratroopers attempted to seize a third airfield, Valkenburg, which was not yet complete in May 1940. Valkenburg was defended by two companies of infantry and a platoon of four heavy MGs. Here the initial Luftwaffe bombing was more effective in causing casualties and disrupting the defenders. As at Ypenburg and Ockenburg, the paratroopers had not secured the field when the transports began landing, but the Ju 52s met with considerably less fire which allowed the attackers to quickly disembark, organize, and overrun Dutch positions. However, the unfinished surface of the airfield meant that many planes were wrecked and none could take off again from the swampy ground. When the next wave of transport arrived, they were unable to land at Valkenburg, thus forcing most to turn back although a few chose to land on the beach to the west. The attackers attempted to push out from the airfield, including an advance southward toward The Hague, but without reinforcements this group would not be able to influence the main battle to the south.
Meanwhile, a few German transports, lost and/or unable to land elsewhere, made emergency landings on the beach at the Hook of Holland and on the small island of Rozenburg.
Completely contrary to German orders, paratroopers and airlanding troops landed east of the Hook of Holland and on the Island of Rozenburg in the early morning of the 10th May. As a result of navigational errors by the pilots, numerous aircraft had lost their way and consequently the greater part of a company destined for Ockenburg was dropped in the possibilities. The concentration of paratroopers near Hook of Holland had obviously wrong spot. From what has previously been described, it is clear that many aircraft full of airborne troops couldn't land anymore on the airfields and were busy looking for other induced the crews of thirteen transport aircraft to land their troops in this neighbourhood.
On the Dutch side all this was of course unknown. The obvious conclusion was reached that the enemy was after the entrance of the New Waterway (the canal between Rotterdam and the sea). That way, Rotterdam would be cut off from the sea, while the Germans then could also prevent foreign help arriving via this important point of access.
Before further happenings are described, it is necessary to have a look at which Dutch units were encamped in this new theatre of operations. As a result of the neutrality policy, all entrances of importance along the North Sea had been reinforced with troops. Amongst these was also the so-called 'Position of Hook of Holland' that had as a mission the protection of the entrance of the New Waterway and to prevent landings from the sea at this spot. A number of obsolete coastal batteries were located there, some of which could fire inland. There was also a regimental staff with one battalion, the 2nd Battalion of the 39th Infantry Regiment, and the 15th Reserve Border Company. Support troops had eight mortars and four pieces of obsolete 6 cm infantry guns at their disposal.
The Royal Netherlands Navy was represented by a number of small ships, such as patrol vessels and minesweepers. Finally, there was a detachment of naval troops consisting of sixty marines and a number of conscripts such as clerks, signalmen and medical personnel. The whole element was commanded by Commander J. van Leeuwen, RNLN (Royal Netherlands Navy).
It goes without saying that the focus of the defence was on the coast. To defend the Hook of Holland in the rear against an enemy that might have landed elsewhere, a land defence had also been prepared, so that the 'Position Hook of Holland' could be defended against attacks from all sides. The positions of the landward defences had however not been completed by the 10th May. The mainstay of the defence was formed by the infantry battalion. This was initially manned by many Dutch conscripts who lived in Germany. For security reasons, it was decided in February 1940 to send these men back to Germany. It was feared that they would give away military secrets to the Germans in their letters home or during leave. A less pleasant consequence was, however, that the battalion was severely weakened in manpower, so that in reality it was no longer a battalion. In addition to this, the unit had a reduced number of light and heavy machineguns.
In one case the strays were opposed by a force of villagers, marked with orange armbands, who attempted to deal with a planeload of Germans who had landed nearby. In the afternoon, the Dutch destroyer Van Galen shot up stranded aircraft and three Royal Navy destroyers arrived with a landing party dispatched to protect and/or demolish important installations in the area.
Although the German attack from the sky had seized three airfields and obtained scattered footholds elsewhere in the general vicinity of The Hague, the overall plan had failed. Attackers had been unable to push into the city, so that the Queen, the government, and the High Command continued to function. While German divisions poured into the Netherlands from the east, the commander of Fortress Holland ordered his local units to recapture Ypenburg, Ockenburg, and Valkenburg airfields and destroy all enemy forces in the area.
At Ypenburg, the counterattack was initially led by ad hoc groups such as a few men from a training school, a platoon of Grenadiers, a military police detachment, and fifteen recruits from the cavalry depot, relying partly on captured German weapons and ammunition. Reinforced by a company of Grenadier Guards and supported by three batteries of artillery, the ragtag Dutch troops managed to retake the airfield shortly before 3:00 in the afternoon, only to suffer an attack by British Blenheims which had been dispatched to attack the position when it was still in German hands. By evening the last of the Germans had been killed or captured in the vicinity of Ypenburg and the entire sector was under Dutch control again. While Brongers offers no hard figures, he indicates "hundreds" of Germans were captured and at least two hundred killed in the battle, many slaughtered when their transports attempted to land on the airfield under heavy machine gun fire. The issue at Ypenburg seems to have been sealed by three factors:
- The airlanded troops were nearly wiped out in their transports
- The runway was blocked by wrecked and burning Ju 52s which prevented further reinforcement
- Consequently, there were insufficient troops on the ground
- The Dutch were able to commit a few artillery pieces to support their counterattack
Ockenburg airfield was recovered in much the same manner, with artillery support and even an air attack conducted by three Dutch bombers. Here 179 Germans were taken prisoner, but General von Sponeck, commander of 22nd Luftlande, escaped capture and retreated into nearby woods where another 360 troops eventually rallied, out of action for the time being.
To the north of The Hague, where the German landing at Valkenburg airfield had been somewhat more successful and the troops had fanned out and captured additional territory, the fighting raged over a wider area in an even more confused manner, but the airfield was retaken later in the day - again with the help of artillery and support by a few Dutch biplanes based nearby at a strip untouched by the enemy. Once more, this victory seemed to result from the inability of the Germans to reinforce their assault troops while the Dutch promptly committed every uniformed man from miles around.
Meanwhile, roving groups of Dutch troops began dealing with isolated pockets of Germans who had been scattered over the terrain by off-target airdrops and emergency landings.
Here's how Brongers wraps up the situation as it stood at the end of 10 May:
The 10th May passed. Although the fighting around The Hague would continue till the capitulation, the outcome of the battle had been decided. The most extensive and surprising airlanding operation, ever seen in the world, had resulted in a catastrophic failure. Up to 200 transport planes lay in the polders around The Hague, either extensively damaged or burnt out. After a short initial success, the enemy had had to relinquish the airfields they captured and were partly destroyed, captured, or confined in a number of places. Except for the road between Delft and Rotterdam, these places were of no military value. General Graf von Sponeck, surrounded in the woods of Ockenburg, was not in contact with the other units of his division and was confronted with a hopeless task.
This result is in fact very remarkable. Especially as the first countermeasures were carried out in an atmosphere of great confusion, with complete German air superiority and in a situation in which countless false rumours greatly hampered the operations. Remarkable too, because the troops, that actually carried out the counterattacks were numerically even or hardly stronger than their opponents who mainly consisted of regulars and volunteers. Among the Dutch, there were many recruits who were firing a rifle for the very first time. An explanation can be found in their fast, immediate reaction, their courage, fighting spirit and often amazing resourcefulness. The following quote from a report by 1st Lieutenant Dr. T.J. Hillebrands is typical:
Those, who at all other times had been the laziest and most unmanageable soldiers, were now advancing, running ahead of the main infantry force, while the bullets were whistling around their ears, full of enthusiasm and with true contempt of death. This phenomenon occurred in nearly all units. Also amongst my anti-tank gunners, who certainly didn't belong to the worst. I couldn't believe my eyes. Those, who under other circumstances always tried to go slow or criticised every order, were now spontaneously ready for anything and volunteered for difficult or unpleasant jobs. No, whatever may have been wrong with the Royal Netherlands Army in those days, it was neither the morale, nor the unifying spirit of comradeship.
The Dutch troops made many hundreds of Germans, prisoners. Their number would finally add up to about 1,745. In The Hague they were quartered in the huts of the penal prison, in Scheveningen, the old Alexander barracks and the KLM building, while the wounded were cared for in the military and civilian hospitals.
With the failure of the surprise strategic attack, noted in the order of the day, the battles around The Hague were however not finished. Many mopping-up operations still had to be carried out. The conspicuous [Dutch] successes of the 10th May, did not recur in the same measure in the following days. For this there are different reasons. In the first place the enemy now had had time to consolidate the positions that were left to them and to reorganise the units that were initially mixed up. Furthermore, the areas where the remaining Germans were entrenched were difficult to approach as these were usually areas surrounded by flat open country that afforded them open and free fields of fire. Even for the best troops, an attack without support of armour over such terrain is a hazardous matter and especially against a well-trained and armed enemy, who also had excellent camouflaged uniforms. The Dutch troops did not have these and were thus visible from a long distance. Finally, the soldiers had never been able to train for attacks on a large scale. The army had always lacked the time, space and training. Consequently, the staffs lacked the necessary experience with such operations. On the first day of the war this didn't show much, as a result of the laudable initiative of all sorts of small units, so that the enemy didn't get the chance to organize or were bluffed into surrender by daring action.
After two long chapters covering the German landings and the Dutch recapture of the airfields on 10 May, the next four shorter chapters each cover one day of action as the Dutch attempted to locate and mop up all pockets of Germans in the vicinity of The Hague. Most air-dropped containers of ammunition and supplies fell into Dutch hands. Some small groups of hungry paratroopers, low on ammunition, quickly surrendered. The force of stragglers coalescing around General von Sponeck, on the other hand, proved a tougher nut to crack. When von Sponeck made radio contact with higher headquarters, instead of receiving assistance, the general was ordered to move his isolated troops south and attack Rotterdam from the north in order to aid the beleaguered German troops in that sector. Moving sometimes on foot and sometimes in commandeered civilian automobiles and buses, von Sponeck's group twice avoided Dutch traps but eventually had to dig in for all-around defense with as many as 1100 men, holding out against attacks until the end of hostilities. On the 12th, the British destroyers Verity and Venomous landed 200 marines to augment Dutch troops around the Hook of Holland, and on the next day the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards landed for a brief excursion. Brongers writes scathingly of the uselessness of the British battalion and takes issue with a number of points in the short chapter about the Hook of Holland in Fitzgerald's History of the Irish Guards in the Second World War.
Elsewhere in the Netherlands, the news was much worse for the Dutch as the German attackers penetrated the main defensive line. The French mechanized force that dashed toward Rotterdam proved unable or unwilling to make itself felt in the face of heavy Luftwaffe attacks. The Queen and her ministers escaped to London to establish a government in exile. Rotterdam was bombed without mercy, and soon afterwards General Winkelman ordered a ceasefire. While those events are mostly treated only in passing, they serve as background to Brongers' history of the fighting around The Hague, and of course the Dutch surrender brought to an end the operations designed to mop up von Sponeck and the remainder of the 7th Flieger and 22nd Luftlande outside the city.
Brongers uses his final chapter to sum up some aspects of the battle. Dutch casualties are pegged at 515 killed. German losses prove tougher to pin down, but for the battle of The Hague Brongers estimates total killed, wounded, missing, and POWs transported to England - paratroopers, airlanding troops, and aircrew - at about 2735. That number includes about 400 killed and around 1745 POWs in England. Aircraft losses were also heavy, with around 180-220 transports written off. According to Brongers, those losses had several ramifications:
- Some senior commanders began to question the viability of airborne attacks
- German airborne forces available for Operation Sea Lion were greatly reduced
- Shortage of transport aircraft hampered later planning and operations
- In particular, the shortage of transports during the invasion of Crete meant paratroopers had to be landed in waves instead of all at once, contributing to heavy casualties on the island
The author also takes exception to some accounts which claim the Dutch defenders had been reinforced and brought to readiness prior to the airdrop because of advanced knowledge about the operation. He reiterates that the troops around The Hague were never alerted, and only reacted to the sound of aircraft passing overhead and the sight of parachutes.
Who won? The outcome of the battle around The Hague tends to be obscured by Germany's decisive victory in the campaign in the Netherlands as a whole (as well as the wider campaign in Belgium and France). Despite claims by some German participants that the battle served to distract the Dutch and prevent reinforcements from reaching the main front, it's indisputable that von Sponeck's troops failed in their main goal of capturing the Queen, the government, and the High Command. Was it worth roughly 2700 casualties and 180-220 shattered and burned out transports to tie down a few light forces? It seems likely that those Dutch troops stationed in the area of The Hague would have been frozen in those positions for quite awhile simply by the threat of an airborne attack. And even if the Dutch units had been transferred to the main front, they simply could not have turned the tide against German panzers. It's also worth remembering that the operation was largely Hitler's baby, which might have made it difficult to produce an honest assessment in the aftermath of the battle.
Throughout the book Brongers does an excellent job of blending solid historical fact, thoughtful analysis, and exciting eyewitness accounts of the battle. He includes a great amount of detail about even the smallest of the hastily assembled groups of soldiers, and - although the book focuses on the Dutch - he complements his work with much information about German operations, including many reports from Fallschirmjaeger veterans. Nor are the British troops forgotten, although the battalion at the Hook of Holland might have preferred not to have been remembered, given the author's assessment of their effectiveness.
Although it's easy to recognize that the text was not originally written in English, the translation is perfectly serviceable. Information is clearly presented and easy to follow, the author provides all the right cues to help the reader remember various characters who reappear throughout the book, and all the salient events are thoroughly described without being beaten into the ground. The maps look a little ragged, but they're easy enough to read and they include all the locations mentioned in the text. Likewise, the book includes a good assortment of photos that will almost certainly prove new to readers. Among them, there are some especially nice shots of Dutch troops and equipment. The book lacks only an index.
In short, it's an exemplary work, and one that should open quite a few eyes when it comes to German airborne operations, Dutch military capabilities, and the progress of the battle in 1940. Among other things, Brongers makes it apparent that the operation at The Hague should be studied alongside the capture of Fornebu and the landing on Crete. A gem like this really deserves a wide readership among World War II aficionados, so we hope the American distributor for the Dutch publisher can place it widely enough to gain a large audience. Likewise, it would be great if this translation sells well enough to make it worthwhile for Aspekt to publish English editions of more detailed works on the Dutch armed forces and the Dutch campaign by Brongers and others. In any event, it's unlikely anyone who reads this volume will be disappointed. Highly recommended.
The Battle for the Hague 1940
Author: Lieutenant Colonel E.H. Brongers
Published: Uitgeverij Aspekt BV - February 2004
"Translated from the Dutch, this arrived here unexpectedly and proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the year 2004."
Source: Stone & Stone Second World War Books - http://www.stonebooks.com.
The battle for The Hague - The First Great Airborne Operation in History