The German invasion of the Netherlands on 10 May 1940 is part of the conquest of Belgium and France. Through a combination of tactics, luck and brute force, the Germans swiftly force Western Europe into submission.

The German invasion

SS'ers van het Regiment "Der Führer" op het talud voor de Grebbesluis - 13 mei 1940
SS’ers of the regiment ‘Der Führer’ pose on the embankment of the Grebbesluis – 13 May 1940 Collectie J.F.D. Bruinsma WOII Archief
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In May 1940, Germany invades the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The Dutch army fights overwhelming German forces. Queen Wilhelmina flees to Britain to avoid capture by the Germans. After the German air force bombs Rotterdam and threatens to do the same to other cities, the Netherlands capitulates. The Germans also defeat the French and Belgian forces. They occupy Belgium and northern France and set up a puppet government in southern France. Within two months, Germany has most of Europe in its power.

The German invasion

Germany invades the Netherlands, Belgium and France.

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Invasion of the Netherlands

On 10 May 1940, people in Amsterdam can see Schiphol burning. German bombs destroy the airfield. Fears of war have become reality. The Netherlands has been mobilising troops for a year. Britain and France declared war on Germany after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Although there have been no battles in Western Europe, the threat of war is in the air. In April 1940, Germany invades Norway and Denmark. The Western European states brace for an attack. Even so, Dutch people hope the war will not affect them – because of their country’s political neutrality.

This proves a vain hope, and early in the morning of 10 May German forces invade. German planes enter Dutch airspace. They bomb airfields and military targets. The Alexander barracks in the Hague is attacked. At the same time, German planes are already flying in troops and dropping parachutists. The German armed forces want to take Queen Wilhelmina and the Cabinet hostage, to force the country to surrender. In the face of fierce opposition by the Dutch, and blunders by the Germans, the attempt fails.

The same morning, German troops enter Dutch territory over land, too. To halt the advance, Dutch soldiers blow up bridges. It does not work everywhere. In Limburg, the Germans manage to protect many river crossings and they gain ground. At the Grebbeberg, in Gelderland, they encounter a Dutch defence line. For three days the two armies battle it out. The inhabitants of the valley have to flee their homes. Ouwehands zoo is partially destroyed and the wild animals have to be killed to prevent them escaping. The Dutch army is eventually overpowered and the Grebbe Line falls on 13 May.

SS'ers bij de Grebbeberg, mei 1940.
Two days after the invasion of the Netherlands, German SS soldiers reach the Grebbeberg. Stichting de Greb / Stichting Kennispunt mei 1940

The queen’s escape

The German advance is unstoppable. The Dutch are only managing small successes. It is clear that the end of the battle is in sight. The council of ministers decides Queen Wilhelmina must flee to Britain, because her safety is at stake. At first, the queen refuses to abandon her country, but when the gravity of the situation sinks in she submits. On 13 May a British warship transports her to England. The British king welcomes her that very evening.

When the Dutch population learns that Wilhelmina has left, it is a big blow to morale. So far the newspapers have highlighted the small Dutch successes, but now it is clear the situation is much worse than thought. Some Dutch people criticise the queen for turning her back on the country. But the queen did not flee out of cowardice. She supports the fight against Nazi Germany in her exile abroad.

The bombing of Rotterdam and surrender

The people in the North Island district of Rotterdam find German troops on their streets as early as 10 May. Resistance by forces based in Rotterdam prevents the city being taken, but the Dutch are unable to retake the lost territory. However, the Germans want to cut short the Dutch opposition. On the morning of 14 May General Schmidt issues a message to the Dutch commander: if Rotterdam does not surrender by afternoon, the Germans will attack with bomber aircraft.

The negotiators in Rotterdam do not know that the military command in Berlin has its own plans. The head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, wants to force all of Holland to its knees by a terror bombing campaign. Before General Schmidt’s deadline has passed, German bombers appear over the horizon. At about 1.30pm they drop their bombs on central Rotterdam. When the smoke clears, 80,000 people are homeless and between 600 and 900 are dead.

Destruction in central Rotterdam, 23 May 1940 © Dia Archief Mr. A. Hustinx

The Germans threaten that Utrecht will be bombed next. Knowing the situation is hopeless, the Netherlands surrenders. The German SS units that fought on the Grebbeberg sweep into Amsterdam on 15 May. Two weeks later, the Germans set up a new administration under Reich commissioner Arthur Seyss-Inquart.

The Invasion of Belgium, Luxembourg and France

The invasion of the Netherlands is part of a major campaign to conquer France. Germany invades the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France simultaneously, and Luxembourg surrenders the same day. In Belgium, the Germans target the defensive fortress Eben-Emael with airborne forces and capture it swiftly. In the surrounding districts, German units fight with Belgian forces. The Allies - France and Britain – send troops to support the Belgians.

This is exactly what the Germans want. The apparently large attack distracts Allied attention from the main attack, further south. The French are not expecting a German invasion through the Ardennes. At Sedan, in France, the Germans break through the Maginot Line after a two-day battle. This cuts off the Allied forces fighting in Belgium from the divisions left in France. The divided armies cannot hold back the German advance. The Germans drive their opponents ruthlessly towards the North Sea. On 24 May, Hitler unexpectedly orders his army to rest and regroup, giving Britain the chance to evacuate its soldiers from Dunkirk. More than 300,000 military personnel – a third of them French – escape from becoming prisoners of war.

Without Allied help the Belgian army is no match for the Germans. The Belgian king Leopold III surrenders on 28 May. He refuses to flee and as commander-in-chief of the army becomes a prisoner of war. The Germans place him under house arrest in Laken. Some Belgians support the decision to capitulate, because it prevents further bloodshed. Others, including government ministers who do flee, criticise the king’s abrupt decision – which he took without consultation.

The battle for France, surrender and the Vichy government

The German army launches a large scale attack on France on 5 June. The Wehrmacht swiftly overruns the country. The Italian leader, Mussolini, gets involved too, declaring war with France on 10 June in the hope of territorial gains. However, this opportunism nets the Duce less land that he had hoped for after the French capitulation. Hitler only grants him a slim strip of France. On 14 June, the German army occupies Paris. The French government and many residents have already fled the city. The French government is not able to provide leadership for the army and loses legitimacy. The French prime minister resigns and is succeeded by Marshal Philippe Pétain.

The French army signs the surrender in a railway carriage near Compiègne on 22 June. The location has special significance for the Germans. In 1918, at the end of the First World War, the German army suffered the same humiliation at this place. Germany does not occupy all of France. In southern France an authoritarian pro-German regime is installed on 10 July. It establishes itself in the spa resort of Vichy under Marshal Pétain’s leadership. Not all French politicians accept this arrangement. Some go into the resistance and others flee to London, where General Charles de Gaulle sets up the Free French group.

Adolf Hitler in Paris, June 23, 1940
Adolf Hitler in Paris, June 23, 1940 © National Archives

By now, Western Europe is almost entirely under German control. The surrounding states hold themselves apart or are allies of Germany. Although Britain beats off a German attack in July 1940, the British are not likely to be able to liberate Europe in the near future.

Many people adapt to the new conditions. Others go underground to resist. The greatest fear is among Jews. Hundreds of Jews kill themselves, including some who fled Germany in the 1930s. They do not want to have to confront the Nazis.

Joodse vluchtelingen gearresteerd
German Jews who fled Nazi Germany are being arrested in The Netherlands, June 1940. © NIOD

SS'ers van het Regiment "Der Führer" op het talud voor de Grebbesluis - 13 mei 1940

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