Luftwaffe Terror Raids: Rotterdam (May 1940)


Figure 1.--

The Dutch seaport of Rotterdam was bombed by the Luftwaffe (May 14, 1940). The city center was devestated. Nearly 1,000 people were killed, although initial press reports were higher. It was widely believed at the time to be a NAZI terror bombing. This was a tactic in the NAZI War effort. Hitler describes the tactic as "Schrecklichkeit" (frightfulness), the use of terror to break a country's will to resist. The bombing of Rotterdam was not, however, ordered by Hitler as far as we know. Considerable difference of opinion exists as to whether the bombing was planned as a tactical operation or being used by German commanders to cow the Dutch into surrendering. It worked in the Netherlands. The terror bombing of Rotterdam and threats of similar bombings of other Dutch cities convinced the Dutch that resistance was futile. The Dutch Army surrendered on May 15. A Dutch reader tells us, "When Rotterdam was attacked by the Luftwaffe in 1940, I was 11 years old and living 65 km miles east of that city. I do remember the airplanes in the sky. They flew very low over our heads, ready to drop the bombs. We did not hear the actual bombing, but the next day the westwinds blew clouds of ashes in our direction. Pretty soon everything was covered : the roof on our house, the plants in our garden. Then we knew that something terrible had happened."

Phony War

After the NAZI and Soviet destruction of Poland, there was little action on the Western Front. The Allies were disinclined ro launch an offensive, in part because of the superority of the Luftwaffe. To the suprise of the Allies, Hiitler did not order the bombing of French and British cities. He was still hopeful a negotiated settlement could be worked out, especially with the British, that would allow him to persue his territorial objectives in the East. The Allies likewise refrained from bombing German cities which at that time were in range of French airfields. The RAF dropped of propaganda leaflets over German cities.

Freiburg-im-Breisgau

At the on set of the German Western offensive, the open city of Freiburg-im-Breisgau was bombed (May 10, 1940). There were 22 children, 13 women, 11 men and 11 soldiers killed. The nationality of the planes involved is still unproven. Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, however, used the attack in his propaganda broadcasts and threatened that the Luftwaffe would answer the attack on Freiburg-im-Breisgau "in a like manner."

German Western Offensive

The Germans proceeded to conquer virtually all of Western Europe. After a few months of the "Phony War", France's turn came. The Germans struck on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg. The Wehrmacht first focused on the Netherlands. The Dutch had assumed that as in World war I, the Germans woulkd not invade. The British and French had anticipated that the Germans would attempt to outflank the Maginot Line by striking though Belgium. The cream of the French Army and the British Expoditionary Force (BEF) were thus positioned on the Belgian border. The British and French responded by leaving their prepared defenses and rushing north to releave the Dutch. The terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the already hard-pressed Dutch Army to surrender on May 15 before the British could reach them. Queen Wilhelmina fled to London to establish a government-in-exile. Princess Juliana, the next in line, was sent to Canada in case Britain would also sucumb to the NAZI onslaught. The Germans then struck in the Belgian Ardenes which allowed them to avoid the formidable Maginot Line. The French and Belgians considered the Ardenes impassable to tanks. The Germans managed to easily penetrate the rough terraine, crossed two substantial rivers, and the XIX Panzer Corps rapidly reached the English Channel--cutting the BEF off from the French and rendering the Maginot Line uselss.

Tactics

The same tactic of "Schrecklichkeit" used in Poland was employed in Germany's western campaign. This time it was Rotterdam (May 1940).

The City

Rotterdam was chartered as a city in the Middle Ages (1328). It was notavle for the home of the scholar Erasmus. Rotterdam was until the 19th century a city of minor importance. It is located in the province of South Holland. The city is situated along the Nieuwe Maas River nears its mouth on the North Sea. A waterway constructed in the late 19th century made it accessable to large cargo vessels. Waterways connected Rotterdam to the Rhine making it a port of enormous importance. It quickly became the second largest city in the Netherlands. It thus became the Netherland's principal port city. Only Antwerp in Belgium exceeded Rotterdam in trade volume.

NAZI Invasion (May 10, 1940)

The Dutch had no real chance against Hitler's war machine. Not only was militarry spending mininimal before the War, but the Netherland's neutral status precluded any cooperariin with the Allies. The small Dutch airforce was lrgely destroyed on the ground (May 10). Some pilots including student polots managed to get to France. The Netherlands were left without any air defense for their cities.

The outmanned Dutch Army did fight against overwealming German forces without Allied support. The Netherlands was a neutral country and thus there was no military cooperation with the Allies (Britain or France). The Allies were attempting to reach the Dutch, but it took several days to move through Belgium. The Dutch Army also had no air support as the Dutch Air Force had been largely destroyed. The NAZIs issued an ultimatum. If the Dutch didn't surrender immediately, the Luftwaffe would begin destroying cities, starting with Rotterdam and Utrecht. The Dutch Army met with Wehrmact to discuss surrender terms. The Dutch attempted to stall at these talks hoping for relieft by the Allies who were moving north through Belgium. Bombing raids around Rotterdam were reported (May 13). We are unsure to what extent German negotiators used threats of bombing to convince the Dutch to surrender. We have noted references to threats about attacks on Rotterdam and Utrech, but do not yet have definitive historical sources to verify this.

Bombing of Rotterdam (May 14, 1940)

The Luftwaffe has been accused of targetted Rotterdam AFTER Roltterdam had been declared an open city and surrended. The details of the Luftwaffe attack on Rotterdam, however, are more complicated. Luftwaffe Combat Squadron 54 of Heinkel 111 bombers stationed in northern Germany was assigned a target in Rotterdam (May 14). At this time we do not have details on the precise target. Some German sources say that it was an artillery position. What was attacked, however, was the center of the city. The Luftwaffe strike was launched while the negotiations were in progress. The raid was planned 3:00 pm. The flight run was about 100 minutes to the target areas in Rotterdam. The terms for the surrender were finally reached about 5 minutes before the time established for the attack. At this time I do not know if the strike was entirely a tactical strike or if the German commanders were using it to pressure the Dutch to capitulate. We would be interested in any appropriate references readers can suggest on this topic. Dutch commander-in-chief General Winkelman surrendered. Critical in his thinking was that the Germans threatened to bomb Utrecht and other cities.

It does appear that German commanders attempted to recall the strike as soon as the Dutch agreed to surrender. (This suggests to us that the German negotiators were well aware of the impending strike.). The recall did reach some of the bombers that had sent against Rotterdam. The recall order, however, did not reach the bombers that had already crossed the Dutch border. After crossing the border, the bombers reeled in their trailing aerials that permitted long range reception of signals from Germany. This was standard operating procedures. The Germans made other efforts to reach the bombers. A fighter which was faster than the bombers was sent in an effort to reach the bombers. A German panzer group in Rotterdam that had received the signal to terminate the mission fired signal flares to warn off the bombers. Just at this time the bombs began falling.

Rotterdam was bombed by 84 Heinkel He-111 bombers. About 40 of the bombers had turned back in time. There is no evidence that the Luftwaffe made any effort to avoid civilian casualties. In fact targetting the center of the city appears to have been designed to maximize civilian casualties and without any real military objective. The bombers hit the main water supply system which made it difficult to fight the emsuing fire. The bombers did not drop incendiaries, but a margarine plant was hit which helped feed a tremendous fire. Considerable damage occurred in the bombing, but even more in the ensuing fire. Erasmus' house and other historical buildings were destroyed. The center of the city was devestated. The raid killed 980 people and destroyed 25,000 buildings, essentially the entire city center. There is one lone block left of Old Rotterdam. Ossip Zadkine after the War depicted thisc with his statue Stad zonder hart (City without a heart). Like Warsaw, the city had to be rebuilt after the War.

Dutch Accounts

A Dutch reader writes, "There were two Luftwaffe units that attacked Rotterdam. One was commanded by Colonel Wilhelm Lackner and the other one under Lieutenant Colonel Otto Höhne. Lackner's unit consisted of 54 Heinkels, the other unit had 36 Heinkels. They were supposed to appear around 1.20 above the city. Both commanders knew that they were to cancel the attack when they would see the red Verey lights. Höhne's squadron did see the lights and did not attack. However, Lackner continued and started to drop bombs on the city. The ultimate command had come from General Kesselring, who's boss was Hermann Göring, the Head of the Luftwaffe. Dutch General Winkelman was not prepared to capitulate. Göring was loosing his patience and ordered another bombardment later that day, but General Schmidt saved the city from further harm when he reported that his troops had taken the northern part of the city, which was not true. When the Germans threatened to also bomb the city of Utrecht, Winkelman finally decided that more resistance would be devestating to the civilian population and thus surrendered."

A reader writes, "I just read a Dutch account of the destruction of Rotterdam on May 14th 1940. Rotterdam was put in a posture of defence by the Dutch army. It was after all a very strategic spot. The Dutch were quite successful in preventing the Wehrmacht from entering the city. In order to conquer the Dutch and end the war with Holland, Hermann Göring as the Luftwaffe Commander gave the order to bombard the city. He threatened to also destroy Utrecht in case the Dutch did not capitulate after the attack on Rotterdam. The next day Holland gave up all resistance. There were 800 civilian deaths to mourn. 80 000 people lost their homes. 24 000 houses were destroyed. The historians are still debating whether the attack was considered to be a terror bombing. Some (even Dutch) argue that Rotterdam was being made a fortress. On the other hand, since so many civilians lost their lives, we could classify it as a terror attack, although it certainly was not on a level with later bombings on London, Coventry, Hamburg, or Dresden."

One Dutch account describes the situation in Rotterdam that led to the bombing. The German military commander concluded that "the resistance near Rotterdam had to be broken with all means" and this included "threatening and enforcing the destruction of the city". The Dutch reserarcher continues, "To Schmidt (the German Commander) one thing was clear, a possible artillery or air bombing should be limited, since the German Panzers (tanks) should be able to manoeuver through the streets when it comes to fighting in the city. In Rotterdam the negotiations were getting under way after the delivery of a first ultimatum by the Germans. This first ultimatum was received by the Dutch commander of Rotterdam, Colonel Scharroo. In it was the threat to destroy the city if no surrender was to follow. The impression was created that an artillery bombardment would take place at 1 pm (13 hr.) which would be followed by an air bombardment 20 minutes later. In the interim the bombers were taking off in Germany meanwhile. Scharroo, supported by General Winkelman saw no immediate cause to surrender. Since he considered the ultimatum just a scrap of paper, it was hand-written and unsigned (at the bottom only: The Commander of the German troops), the German negotiater was sent back with the request to return with a more official document. Since May 11th Colonel Scharroo had gotten reinforments of no less than 5 battalions. In spite of this force he was not successful in driving the German troops away. By order of General Winkelman Colonel Wilson was sent to Rotterdam in the company of two staff officers with the order, if necessary, to take over Scharroo's command. Once arrived, Wilson had to conclude that Scharroo could not have done otherwise than he did. Too many Dutch troops needed to be deployed in order to protect Rotterdam against possible attacks from the North, East and Western directions: in connection with the many dispersed German airborne troops in the area and against alleged actions of the Fifth Colunm (Dutch traitors). Since on the German side one had the impression that the Dutch commander was ready to negotiate, Schmidt at 12 noon sent a radio order to postpone the planned bombardment. They let him know, however, that the bombers already were on their way and radio contact was no longer possible. The bombers could only be stopped by means of red Verey lights. Scharroo had sent Captain Backer to the dividing line to receive the new ultimatum. This just now drawn up ultimatum he got and at 1.20 pm (13.20 hr) he left for Scharroo's headquarters." [Vermeer]

Allied Propaganda

Following the Luftwaffe bombing of Poland (September 1939), the attack on Rotterdam was widely reported as another German terror bombing. The actual bombing as discussed ablove was much more complicated. Unlike some of the German raids it was not ordered by Hitler as a tertror bombing. It is not yet clear to us why it was ordered and to what extent it was a tactical operation or an effort by German commanders to cow the Dutch into surrendering.

Other Opinions

A former Luftwaffe pilot writes at length denying that the Luftwaffe bombing of Rotterdam was a "terror raid". He insists that the Dutch were still defending Rotterdam which meant it did not qualify as an "open city". He also claims that the bombing was accidental and only 97 tons of were dropped, all high explosives, not incendiaries. He blames the destruction to the hands of an unprofessional Dutch fire fighting service. [Becker] Of course bombs in warfare are dropped by accident. We can not yet assess the accuracy of this claim that the attack was accidental, but the fact that the center of the city was struck does not suggest that the attack was accidental. Stukka attacks, however, are not high level attacks which tendc to be inaccurate, they are low-level precission attacks. Becker may be correct that the Rotterdam fire service was inadequate, manu readers will however be offended by the efforts of a Luftwaffe pilot after attacking a neutral country and bombing its cities to blame the destruction on the inadequate local fire service. A reader writes, "Rotterdam contrary to popular belief was not a terror bombing. RAF terror bombings of Germany in August 1940 preceded Luftwaffe terror bombings on the U.K. Civilians were killed in Rotterdam; but it wasn't deliberate; contrary to British war propaganda." [Bhattacharya] Our reader appears to forget Guernica (1937)as well as Warsaw (1939) terror raids carried out by the Luftwaffe before any RAF attacks on German cities. Not to mention that it was Hitler who used the term "Schrecklichkeit" as a NAZI tactic in the War. Our reader has susequently written to tell us that he has changed his opinion and now regognizes that the attacks on Guernica and Warsaw preceeded the attack on Rotterdam. [Bhattacharya] Of course there were other attacks on Spanish and Polish cities, but the raid on Guernica and Warsaw are the most notable. German authors often want to discuss the air war as if it was just between Britain and Germany, foregetting Poland and other British allies. Some authors contend that the raid in Rotterdam was not a terror raid. This is a little difficult to sort out. It is in fact true that there were military targets in Rotterdam. It is also true that the Germans at the very least conducted the raid with total disregard for posible civilian casualties. To say that the German did not delberately kill civilians when they bombed the city is perhaps true (although we do not have information on the Luftwaffe planning process), it is also true that in bombing cities, civilian casualties could not be avoided. It is also true that the Germand threatened similar raids on other Dutch cities if the Dutch did not surrender. So whatever their original intentions, the Germans themselves used Rotterdam to terrorize the Dutch into surrendering.

German Account

Luftwaffe records indicate that a Luftwaffe raid was ordered to target a Dutch artillery position. When the Dutch offered surender terms, the strike force was recalled. One squadron returned, but a suandron of Henkel 111s carried out the attack. The damage by latter standards of the War was not severe. The planes hit a margerine factory and the resulting fire did cause extensive damage. [Jacobsen]

Dutch Assessment

A Dutch reader was intrigued by the HBC discussion of the Rotterdam bombing. He has forwarded the opinion of a NIOD spokesman on the bombing of Rotterdam. He tells us, "It looks like is isn't going to be very helpful in providing a definative assessment of the bombing. challenger. I must say that I was more than surprised myself about the leniency accorded to the German Luftwaffe, but there it is, and as I have indicated before, NIOD is a reputable and authoritative body in these matters."

Effectiveness

Hitler describes the tactic as "Schrecklichkeit" (frightfulness), the use of terror to break a country's will to resist. It worked in the Netherlands. The terror bombing of Rotterdam and threats of similar bombings of other Dutch cities convinced the Dutch that resistance was futile. The Dutch Army surrendered on May 15.

Dutch Reaction

The Dutch people were apauled by both the German invasion and the bombing of Rotterdam. The Netherlands had been neutral in World War I. Actually there was considerable sympathy for the Germans. Dutch charities were active in Germany and Austria in the difficult years following the German surrender (1918). After the War the Dutch sheltered the Kaiser, even after the Allies demanded he be turned over. Even with the rise of the NAZIs many Dutch did not believe that Grmany would ever invade their country, let alone bomb an open city.

Reader Accounts

A Dutch reader tells us, "When Rotterdam was attacked by the Luftwaffe in 1940, I was 11 years old and living 65 km miles east of that city. I do remember the airplanes in the sky. They flew very low over our heads, ready to drop the bombs. We did not hear the actual bombing, but the next day the westwinds blew clouds of ashes in our direction. Pretty soon everything was covered : the roof on our house, the plants in our garden. Then we knew that something terrible had happened."

Conclusion

The many varried accounts of the Rotterdam bombing make it difficult to eassily access the German actions. Here is my summary of what I have been able to learn. It seems true that Rotterdam as the principle Dutch port was an important military target thus an assault on the city was not mindless terror. At this point of the War, the Dutch air force had been destroyed. Rotterdam and other Dutch cities had no air defenses or bomb shelters for the population. The Dutch were resisting with some success and the Germans were taking casualties. The Dutch do appear to have been stalling in the surrender negotiations with the Germans. The Germans negotiarors in these negotiations were threatening the Dutch with destrucion of the city. The military commanders thus decided on an air assault to bludgeon the Dutch in to surrendering. At this time I do not know precisely who made the decession nor if the commander cleared it with the political leadership (Goering and Hitler). I see no evidence I have found that the Luftwaffe was given specific military targets such as artillery emplacements. (I do not, however, have the specifuic ordders given to the Liftwaffe strike force which is needed to definitively assess this.) Rather the strike was at the center of the city which is a strong indication that the objective was terror rather striking st military targets. . The strike did take place after the Dutch agreed to surrender, but this was not because the Germans were intent on destroyong the city, efforts were made to recall the bombers and some of the strike force did get the message and aborted the mission. The Luftwaffe did not use incendiaries, an indication that they wanted to limit the damage to the city. The German military negotiators clearely threatened to bomb the city (and not just military targets) and the targets do not appear to have been military, but rather the civilian center of the city. The objective was to force the Dutch to surrender by bombing the city, it thus does seem quite proper to classify the bombing as a terror bombing.

Sources

Bekker, Cajus. The Luftwaffe War Diaries.

Bhattacharya, Anirb. E-mail nessage, April 30, 2004 and April 27, 2006.

Brongers, E. De oorlog in Mei 1940.

Jacobsen, Hans Adolf. Wehrwissenschafltiche Rundschau.

Vermeer, Wilco. "Bombardement op Rotterdam, 14 mei 1940," August 7, 2003. Vermeer has an excellent bibliography for readers who want to persue the subject in greater detail.







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Created: November 1, 2002
Last updated: 9:57 PM 5/11/2012