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Rotterdam's city center after the bombing. The heavily damaged (now restored) Laurenskerk stands out as the only remaining building reminiscent of Rotterdam's medieval architecture.
Bombing of Rotterdam
Location Rotterdam, Netherlands
Coordinates 51°57′51.95″N 4°27′4.45″E / 51.9644306°N 4.4512361°E / 51.9644306; 4.4512361Coordinates: 51°57′51.95″N 4°27′4.45″E / 51.9644306°N 4.4512361°E / 51.9644306; 4.4512361
Date May 14, 1940
16:20 (MET - 1h 40m)
Attack type Air Raid
Weapon(s) 1,150 x 50 kg (110 lb) and 158 x 250 kg (550 lb) bombs
Death(s) 1000
Perpetrator(s) Nazi Germany
Defender The Netherlands

The Rotterdam Blitz refers to the aerial bombardment of Rotterdam by the German Air Force on 14 May 1940, during the German invasion of the Netherlands in World War II. The objective was to support the German troops fighting in the city, break Dutch resistance, and force the Dutch to surrender.



The Netherlands was strategically lodged between Great Britain and Germany, making it an ideal prospective German air, and naval "base" during Operation Sealion, the planned Battle for Britain. It had firmly opted for neutrality throughout the First World War, and had planned to do the same for the Second World War. It most notably refused to accept armaments from France, making the case that they wanted no association with either side. While armament production was slightly increased after the invasion of Denmark in February 1940, the Netherlands possessed 1 tank, 124 outdated aircraft and 280,000 soldiers, while Germany had 759 tanks, 830 modern aircraft and 750,000 soldiers at their disposal.[1]

With a significant military advantage, Germany prepared to use their 'Blitzkrieg' tactics, by first taking control of key military and strategic targets, such as airfields, bridges and roads, and then using these to take over control of the remainder of the country. An invasion of the Netherlands was first reference to on October 9, 1939, when Hitler ordered that "Preparations should be made for offensive action on the northern flank of the Western Front crossing the area of Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. This attack must be carried out as soon and as forcefully as possible."[2] Preparation was started when Hitler ordered German army officers to capture Dutch army uniforms, and use them to gain insider information on Dutch defense tactics.[3]

Germany finally attacked the Netherlands in the early hours of 10 May, 1940. The attack started with the Luftwaffe crossing through Dutch airspace, giving the impression that Britain was the ultimate target. Instead, the aircrafts turned around over the North Sea and returned to attack from the west, dropping paratroopers at Valkenburg and Ockenburg airfields, near the Dutch seat of government and the Royal Palace in The Hague, starting the Battle for the Hague. While Germany had planned to take over swiftly using this tactic, the Dutch halted the advance at the core region of Fortress Holland, slowing down the German invasion. The Battle for the Hague was one of the first losses for the German army, in World War II.

Battle for Rotterdam

The situation in Rotterdam on the morning of 13 May 1940 was a stalemate as it had been over the past three days. Dutch garrison forces under Colonel Scharroo held the north bank of the Nieuwe Maas river, which runs through the city, and prevented the Germans from crossing; German forces included airlanding and airborne forces of General Student and newly-arrived ground forces under General Schmidt, based on the 9th Panzer Division and the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, a motorized SS regiment.

A Dutch counterattack led by a Dutch marine company had failed to recapture the Willemsbrug traffic bridge,[4][5][6] the key crossing. Several efforts by the Dutch air force to destroy the bridge also failed.[7]

On the Morning of May 14, Hitler issued his "Weisung" Nr. 11. Concerning the Dutch theatre of operations he says the following:

"The resistance capability of the Dutch army has proved to be stronger than expected. Political as well as military reasons demand that this resistance is broken as soon as possible. It is the task of the army to capture the Fortress Holland by committing enough forces from the south, combined with an attack on the east front. In addition to that the air force must, while weakening the forces that up till now have supported the 6th Army, facilitate the rapid fall of the Fortress Holland."

Gen. Schmidt had planned a combined assault the next day, 14 May, using tanks of the 9th Panzer supported by flame throwers, SS troops and combat engineers.[6][8][9][10][11] The airlanding troops were to make an amphibious crossing of the river upstream and then a flank attack through the Kralingen district.[12][13] The attack was to be preceded by artillery bombardment, while Gen. Schmidt had requested the support of the Luftwaffe in the form of a Gruppe (about 25 aircraft) of Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers, specifically for a precision raid.[14][15][16]

Schmidt's request for air support reached Berlin, staff of Luftflotte 2. Instead of precision bombers, Schmidt got carpet bombing by Heinkel He 111 bombers besides a Gruppe of Stuka's focussing on some strategic targets.[6][17][18][19][20][21]

The bombing

Rotterdam's burning city centre after the bombing.

Schmidt used the threat of destruction of the city to attempt to force Colonel Scharroo to surrender the city without a fight. Rotterdam, the largest industrial target in the Netherlands and of major strategic importance to the Germans, was to be bombed. Scharroo refused and stretched out negotiations. The start of the air raid had been set for 13:20 [Dutch time, MET – 1 hr 40].[22][23][24]

Schmidt postponed a second ultimatum to 16:20.[25][26] However, just as the Dutch negotiator was crossing the Willemsbrug to relay this information, the drone of bombers was heard: a total of 90 bombers from Kampfgeschwader 54 (54th Bomber Regiment) were sent over the city.[6][17][27][28 ][29][30]

Student radioed to postpone the planned attack. When the message reached KG 54's command post, the Kommodore, Oberst Walter Lackner, was already approaching Rotterdam, and his aircraft had reeled-in their long-range aerials. Haze and smoke obscured the target, to ensure that Dutch defences were hit Lackner brought his formation down to 2,300ft (700m).[31] German forces in the city fired flares[32] to warn the bombers off — after 3 planes of the southern formation had already unloaded, the remaining 24 from the southern bomber formation aborted their attack. The larger formation came from the north-east, out of position to spot red flares launched from the south side of the city, and proceeded with their attack. 54 He 111s dropped low to release 97 tonnes (213,848 lbs) of bombs, mostly in the heart of the city.[6][33][34][28 ][31][35][36][37]

Why the formation had not received the abort order sooner remains controversial. Oberst Lackner of the largest formation claimed that his crews were unable to spot red flares due to bad visibility caused by humidity and dense smoke of burning constructions, and subsequently needed to decrease altitude to a mere 2,000 feet.[38] But the red flare, which Lackner failed to see, might have also been used by the Germans to show their location in the city to avoid friendly fire. An official German form designated red as the colour for that purpose.[39].

In total, 1,150 x 50 kg (110 lb) and 158 x 250 kg (550 lb) bombs were dropped. Many of these hit and ignited homes, churches, stores, warehouses and schools resulting in uncontrollable fires in the city centre.[6][40][41][28 ][31][42][43][44] Hooton states that bombs ignited vegetable oil tanks on the dockside, which caused fires that spread into the city centre, causing massive devastation.[45] Although exact numbers are not known, nearly 1000 people were killed and 85,000 made homeless.[46] Around 2.6 square kilometres (1 square mile) of the city was almost levelled. 24,978 homes, 24 churches, 2,320 stores, 775 warehouses and 62 schools were destroyed.[47] Schmidt sent a conciliatory message to the Dutch commander, who surrendered shortly afterwards.[31]


De Verwoeste Stad, (The Destroyed City), sculpture in Rotterdam by Ossip Zadkine
Lights along the fire line memorialize the bombing of Rotterdam, 14 May 2007

The Dutch military had no effective means of stopping the bombers (the Dutch Air Force had practically ceased to exist and its anti-aircraft guns had been moved to the Hague), so when another similar ultimatum was given in which the Germans threatened to bomb the city of Utrecht, the Dutch government decided to capitulate rather than risk the destruction of another city.[6][48][49] Western news agencies grossly exaggerated the event for propaganda purposes, portraying Rotterdam as a city mercilessly destroyed by terror bombing without regard to civilian life, with 30,000 dead lying under the ruins.[50] The fact that the number of casualties 'lying under the ruins' was relatively small, was certainly not because of the mercy of the bombers whilst destroying the city but because thousands of civilians had fled to safer parts of Rotterdam, or to other cities, during the previous four days of bombing and warfare.[51] German weekly Die Mühle (The windmill) stated that the Dutch government was to blame for turning Rotterdam into a fortress, despite multiple summonses to evacuate. It also claimed that the old city was ignited by Dutch bombs and incendiary devices.[52]

The United Kingdom had had a policy of only bombing military targets and infrastructure such as ports and railways which were of military importance.[53] While it was acknowledged that bombing of Germany would cause civilian casualties, the British government renounced the deliberate bombing of civilian property, outside combat zones (which after the fall of Poland, meant German areas east of the Rhine) as a military tactic.[54] This policy was abandoned on 15 May 1940, one day after the Rotterdam Blitz, when the RAF was given permission to attack targets in the Ruhr, including oil plants and other civilian industrial targets which aided the German war effort, such as blast furnaces that at night were self-illuminating. The first RAF raid on the interior of Germany took place on the night of 15/16 May 1940.[55]


  1. ^ Goossens, War over Holland: The Dutch Struggle May 1940, 2009
  2. ^ The Nizkor Project, Aggression against Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, 2008
  3. ^ Foot, Holland at war against Hitler: Anglo-Dutch relations, 1940-1945, 1990
  4. ^ E.H. Brongers, (ONR Part III), p. 83
  5. ^ H. Amersfoort e.a. p. 364
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Goossens, Allert, Welcome, website of 1998-2009 Stichting Kennispunt Mei 1940, Last updated on 4 August 2009
  7. ^ E.H. Brongers, (ONR Part I), pp. 242,243
  8. ^ E.H. Brongers, (ONR Part III), pp. 204, 205
  9. ^ H. Amersfoort e.a. p. 367
  10. ^ J.L. van der Pauw. p. 75
  11. ^ H. Götzel. p. 145
  12. ^ H. Götzel
  13. ^ Kriegstagebuch, KTB IR.16, 22.ID BA/MA
  14. ^ E.H. Brongers, (ONR Part III), p. 201
  15. ^ H. Amersfoort e.a. p. 368
  16. ^ H. Götzel. pp. 146,147
  17. ^ a b E.H. Brongers, (ONR Part III), p. 232
  18. ^ H. Amersfoort e.a. pp. 368,369
  19. ^ J.L. van der Pauw. p. 74
  20. ^ H. Götzel, pp. 146–151
  21. ^ Gen-Lt a.D. Lackner, report BA/MA 1954
  22. ^ E.H. Brongers, (ONR Part III), p. 235
  23. ^ H. Amersfoort e.a. p. 369
  24. ^ H. Götzel. pp.149,150
  25. ^ E.H. Brongers, (ONR Part III), p. 227
  26. ^ H. Amersfoort e.a. p. 370
  27. ^ H. Amersfoort e.a. p. 369
  28. ^ a b c J.L. van der Pauw. p. 84
  29. ^ Gen-Lt a.D. Lackner, report BA/MA 1954
  30. ^ Wilhelm Speidel,
  31. ^ a b c d Hooton, 1994. p. 249
  32. ^ De Jong, dr. L de, Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, deel 3 Mei '40 p.352
  33. ^ E.H. Brongers, (ONR Part III), p. 236
  34. ^ H. Amersfoort e.a. p. 370
  35. ^ H. Götzel, p. 151
  36. ^ Gen-Lt a.D. Lackner, {report BA/MA 1954}
  37. ^ Wagenaar, 1970. p. 307-308
  38. ^ Gen-Lt a.D. Lackner, report BA/MA 1954
  39. ^ L. Elfferich, Rotterdam werd verraden. Abcoude: Uniepers, 1990. p. 270
  40. ^ E.H. Brongers, (ONR Part III), p. 236
  41. ^ H. Amersfoort e.a. p. 370
  42. ^ H. Götzel, p. 151
  43. ^ Gen-Lt a.D. Lackner, {report BA/MA 1954}
  44. ^ Wagenaar, 1970. p. 307-308
  45. ^ Hooton, 1994. p. 249
  46. ^ NOS Nieuws, Veel meer gewonden in mei 1940"
  47. ^ Van Nul to Nu Deel 3-De vaderlandse geschiedenis van 1815 tot 1940, Page 42 Square 2 – by Thom Roep and Co Loerakker ISBN 90 5425 098 4
  48. ^ E.H. Brongers, (ONR Part III), p. 263
  49. ^ H. Amersfoort e.a. p. 183
  50. ^ Hinchliffe, 2000. p. 43
  51. ^ Wagenaar, 1970. p. 75-303
  52. ^ Weekly Die Mühle, no.22, 31 may 1940, Moritz Schäfer Verlag, Leipzig
  53. ^ Hastings 1999, pp. 54–56.
  54. ^ A.C. Grayling (Bloomsbury 2006), p. 24.
  55. ^ Taylor, Chapter "Call Me Meier", p. 111


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Further reading



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