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The Attack: the 1940 bombing of Rotterdam

Most people know that Rotterdam was bombed during World War II. But the reason why the city had to be destroyed is not as widely known. What happened exactly during the days before the bombing? This reconstruction of the facts was achieved thanks to support from Uitagenda Rotterdam and Museum Rotterdam.

Author: Clint van der Hartt

ON 10 MAY 1940...

…a group of Fallschirmjäger took off in their aeroplanes in the direction of Rotterdam. These ‘hunters’ were an elite unit of the German Airforce and they were specialised in surprise attacks far beyond enemy lines. Their plan of attack was simple and effective: attacking from the air and using parachutists to let the military conquer important strategic targets. This would make it easier for other army divisions to enter and occupy the territory.

Rotterdam wakes up with the sound of aeroplanes flying over the city. It is unusual to see this many aeroplanes. But nobody really panics. Everybody thinks that the aeroplanes are on their way to England because Germany was at war with England since September 1939. The city of Rotterdam has lived in peace for 125 years. The threat of war is felt to a certain extent, but the general opinion is: The Netherlands will remain neutral – just like during World War I.

The aeroplanes are turning back when they are above the sea. Completely unexpectedly, the Waalhaven airport is attacked. First with bombs and then with parachutists. Rotterdam was not prepared for this at all. In the early 1940s, a parachute is a science fiction phenomenon. A complete novelty. In those days, the Dutch forces were mainly aiming to defend the water lines.

The aim of the German attack on Rotterdam is pretty clear. The bridges across river Maas must be conquered to make sure that the majority of the armed forces have easy access to the heart of the Netherlands. It is a purely strategic move. Some soldiers are very sorry about having to attack these friendly Dutchmen. But is essential to prevent the English enemy from hitting Germany in its industrial heart. It is painful that Rotterdam is the victim of this situation. The city of Rotterdam has very close ties with Germany. They very much rely on each other from an economics point of view. Many Germans were living in Rotterdam at that time, which lead to paranoia after the first attack.

Waalhaven airport is not the only location that is under attack. A bit further along, German parachutists are landing near the Feijenoord Stadium. They are collecting their weapons and the troops are planning to march towards the river Maas bridges. Water planes are landing on the river with soldiers. Rubber boats are taking them to the shore. The Germans are taking position on both sides of the Willemsbrug (bridge) and on the Noordereiland (small island in the river). The swastika flag is waving on the bridge. Near the Afrikaanderplein square, Dutch armed forces are fighting with German soldiers. The citizens who live near this square are watching from their windows and cheering their fellow countrymen on – as if this is a football match. At this stage it is very difficult for them to realise that this is a war.

Even though the Dutch army is quick to respond and sets up a defence in no time, the Germans have already occupied the south bank of river Maas and the island (Noordereiland). The north bank is (still) in the hands of the Dutch, with the exception of the building of Nationale Levensverzekeringenbank (life insurance bank) situated at the northern end of Willemsbrug bridge. There are some 50 to 60 German soldiers isolated there, both in the building and near the entrance to the bridge. They can’t go back to ‘their’ side of the bridge on the south bank because the bridge is constantly under fire. This situation lasts for five days.

During the four days after 10 May there is a fierce battle. Rotterdam does not surrender that easily. The city is constantly hit by precision bombing raids. Various railway stations and the marine barracks near Oostplein are hit. The Blijdorp Zoo, right next to Delftsche Poort station is also hit. There are animals everywhere, either hurt or simply on the run. A group of men are quickly building temporary accommodation for them. On 11 May the Germans are taking up position in the Holland America Line steam ship Statendam near Wilhelminakade. The Dutch are shooting from the north bank setting the ship on fire. People are hiding in the Maas tunnel, which is under construction at that time, or they are hiding in their basements. Everybody is cautious and alert. There are many rumours about treason. Soldiers no longer dare to eat the food that is offered to them.

Meanwhile the island Noordereiland is fired at from several sides. From the north bank by the Dutch artillery and from the river Maas by the Dutch navy. The air force is even dropping bombs. The local residents are in a difficult position. They are trapped on the island, as it were, and not allowed to leave. Without success, the Netherlands tries to destroy the bridges across river Maas. Bombs dropped from aeroplanes miss their target. And the efforts from the marines to regain the Willemsbrug bridge by blowing it up also fail. The Dutch Marines fail to take into account the German soldiers positioned in the Life Insurance bank (Nationale Levensverzekeringenbank) and get stuck between two firing lines. Some of these Dutch soldiers look for cover and hide underneath the bridge staying there until the major bombing on 14 May 1940.

On 14 May 1940 Rotterdam is ruthlessly bombed. Some 90 aeroplanes, of the Heinkel He 11 type, are flying over the city and dropping bombs without a specific target. It is difficult to say why this is happening. After a battle of five days, Rotterdam has ended up in a desperate situation. It is said that negotiations to surrender are already taking place. This is why bombing the city to force a breakthrough does not seem very logical. Perhaps it is the ego of Hermann Göring, the commander-in-chief that is hurt? Does he want to save face? Does he even know about the negotiations? Or is there another reason? Soon after the bombing of Rotterdam, the Netherlands surrenders. Because it is afraid that Amsterdam and Utrecht await the same fate.

Immediately, the city starts to clear the rubble. And to look towards the future. This is completely in line with the typical Rotterdam culture: a healthy work ethic. Four days after the bombing, the city’s architect W.G. Witteveen is commissioned to design a reconstruction plan. Six days later the entire area that was bombed is expropriated in one go. One reason for the swift action is that Rotterdam wants to keep control of the situation to prevent the Germans from reconstructing the city. Eventually, the plan by Witteveen is revised by his successor Van Traa. On 28 May 1946 the municipality of Rotterdam votes in favour of the Basic Plan and the reconstruction of Rotterdam officially begins.

The large-scale exhibition “The Attack – May 1940 five days of battle for Rotterdam” presents the story of the days before the bombing. The exhibition is a joint initiative of Museum Rotterdam, Rotterdam City Archives and the Militärhistorisches Museum Flugplatz Berlin-Gatow (a German museum of military history). The recently renovated Submarine Wharf was selected as its venue. There is a good reason for this. The very large building with its large doors was the only venue in Rotterdam where the pièce de résistance of the exhibition could fit: a Heinkel He 111, the type of military aircraft that dropped its bombs and destroyed Rotterdam in May 1940.

Heinkel He 111
This aeroplane is not a real Heinkel He 111 like they were built in Germany. There are only 4 left of those in the entire world. This bomber plane, from the collection of the Militärhistorisches Museum Flugplatz Berlin-Gatow (one of the co-organisors of this exhibition) is a Spanish Casa 2.111, which was licence-built based on the model of Heinkel He 111. Spain under the rule of dictator Franco was allies with Nazi Germany and had acquired the rights to build this bomber plane in its own factories. So this is the same type of aircraft but not an originally German model that has actually experienced World War II. However, it does have German colours and a swastika has even been painted on it. This is because it was used for the film The Battle of Britain (back in 1969), to replace the German Heinkel He 111, which was also used to bomb England at that time. The filmmakers painted the bombing plane and this is the condition in which it was included in the collection of the Militärhistorisches Museum.

A five-day battle
The bomber plane is the symbol of the Rotterdam bombings and an apotheosis of the exhibition, which is mainly about the fierce five-day battle in Rotterdam. This story is told from three different perspectives: the confusion experienced by the citizens of Rotterdam, the efforts of the Dutch troops and the point of view of the German soldiers. Most of the material that has been used for this exhibition are ego-documents, such as diaries, interviews and reports. Large screens with original photographs and films tell the story; historical objects around these screens make the battle more real. There are various uniforms and weapons in the display cases. Of a Dutch marine, a German Fallschirmjager and a Rotterdam policeman. Finally, scale models and images of the city of Rotterdam before and after the war show the devastating implications of these five days in May 1940.

The exhibition ends on Sunday 25 October 2015