Herman Amersfoort and Piet Kamphuis, editors. May 1940: The Battle for the Netherlands. History of Warfare series. Leiden: The Netherlands, 2010. ISBN 978-90-04-18438-1. Maps. Notes. Annex. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxviii, 463. $128.00.
There are few studies of the German military invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940. But there are many myths about the five-day conflict. Dr Herman Amersfoort, Professor of Military History at the Netherlands Defence Academy and the University of Amsterdam, and Piet Kamphuis, Director of the Netherlands Institute of Military History, have edited a collection of essays by six historians that aim to put the record straight. The study was originally published in the Dutch language in 1990.
During the First World War (1914-1918), the Netherlands had declared and maintained neutrality. The last Dutch experience in combat had been in the early nineteenth century. As such, the Dutch hoped to remain neutral in the conflict that broke out in Europe in September 1939. After the fall of Poland, the so-called “phony war” became hot when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway in April 1940.
On 10 May 1940, the German Wehrmacht launched Operation Fall Gelb, with the main objective of defeating French and British forces in northeastern France. The main thrust crossed through Belgium into northeastern France. At the same time, German forces invaded the Netherlands. The German attack on the Netherlands was of secondary importance, since the Dutch armed forces were on Germany’s far-right flank. The Germans had superior firepower during the invasion. The German Blitzkrieg, consisting of tanks, motorized infantry, and airpower, was overwhelming. The Dutch had started its rearmament too late. The Dutch had no tanks. Its army lacked combat experience. Despite military preparations the Dutch people were caught unprepared for a war with Germany. The Dutch armed forces fought and lost the battle against the German Wehrmacht. Germany would occupy the Netherlands until 1944-1945.
Herman Amersfoort emphasizes the severe “shock” that the Dutch experienced in the German invasion and victory during the five-day conflict. Many had believed that the Dutch armed forces could resist the Germans for several weeks until the Allies could come to their assistance and turn the tide. However, Germany had more advanced tanks, modern aircraft, air transport, and paratroopers than the Dutch military could counter. The Dutch royal family and government evacuated to England, and it was left to the Dutch commander-in-chief, General H.G. Winkelman, to surrender to the Germans. As Amersfoort writes: “The capitulation on 14 May 1940 dealt a harsh blow . . . . It was a traumatic experience” (p.4).
The shock of such a quick defeat led to the creation of many myths. Some Dutch citizens believed that the Germans were aided by fifth column German agents and Dutch traitors, and had violated the laws of war, such as fighting in Dutch uniforms and using prisoners as human shields. The idea that treachery was involved made it easier for the Dutch to swallow their rapid defeat. Others began to believe that the Dutch army was more successful in meeting the German invasion than was expected. The Dutch army had achieved success against German paratroopers that had landed at airports near The Hague. The Dutch Marine Corps gave such stiff resistance to the German invasion near Rotterdam that Germany resorted to the aerial “terror” bombing of the port city of Rotterdam, which razed the historic city center, to encourage a Dutch capitulation.
As noted above, a group of Dutch historians have examined the prewar planning and five-day war of May 1940. They examine key military plans and actions, and by relating what actually took place seek to set the record straight, destroying many myths in the process. In his essay, H.W. van den Doel sets the scene by discussing international politics, focusing on Germany, during the interwar period. C.M. Schulten, P.M.J. de Koster, and J.W.M. Schulten then discuss the Dutch and German armed forces, along with their strategies and operational plans in the preparation for a war in Europe. Herman Amersfoort and J.W.M. Schulten next explore the execution of military plans during the five-day war. The remaining essays by C.M. Schulten, H.W. van den Doel, and Piet Kamphuis consider, at the tactical level, the course of the battles in the various theaters of operations. This includes the German airborne attacks on airfields near The Hague; the fighting in the provinces of Limburg, Noord-Brabant, and Zeeland; the battle for the Grebbe Line; the fighting in the northern provinces; as well as the battle for the Moerdijk bridges, Dordrecht, and Rotterdam. Amersfoort provides an important discussion regarding myth and reality in the conclusion of the study. He states that: “The new picture that has gradually been forming as 1940 recedes into history is more prosaic and less exceptional than the old picture. It certainly does not have the same epic eloquence, but it reflects better the historical reality of how the German forces conquered the Netherlands” (p.417).
May 1940: The Battle for the Netherlands is an outstanding piece of military history. It examines the events from the Dutch and German sides during the five-day war. The work is based on solid academic research and should be read by all students and scholars of the Second World War. There are many photographs and illustrations, and the color maps are a great feature of the study.
Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota