Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Rotterdam, Destruction of (14 May 1940)

Title: Destruction of Rotterdam during World War II
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German air force attack and one of the most controversial actions of the war, undertaken to pressure the Dutch to conclude a peace. The Dutch military's resistance to the German invasion of 10 May 1940 surprised the Germans, who had expected little fighting. By 13 May, Dutch resistance was almost at an end, but the defenders still held Rotterdam. With German forces in the Netherlands ordered to end the resistance quickly to allow ground troops there to join those fighting in France, Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring decided to employ the Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers of Fliegerkorps IV to destroy the Dutch strong points guarding the approaches to Rotterdam. On the evening of 13 May, Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch government departed The Hague aboard two British destroyers, beginning their exile in Britain.

The next morning, a German staff officer entered Rotterdam under a flag of truce to demand that the city surrender. Göring then decided against using the dive-bombers and instructed the Luftflotte 2 commander, General Alfred Kesselring, to carry out a saturation bombing of the city. At noon, the Dutch commander in chief, General Henri Winkelman, entered into negotiations through an emissary with the German military to prevent such an attack, but due to faulty communications, the air strike took place just as the Dutch were preparing to surrender.

Some 100 Heinkel He-111 medium bombers appeared over central Rotterdam at 2:00 p.m. on 14 May. The Germans on the ground tried to signal the aircraft to abort the attack, and 43 of the bombers turned away and attacked other targets; the remainder, however, had already released their loads over Rotterdam. Their high-explosive bombs demolished the entire center of the city and touched off fires that created additional damage. Some 24,000 houses were destroyed, rendering 78,000 people homeless. In addition, the bombing resulted in the destruction of more than 2,500 shops, 1,200 workshops and small factories, 500 pubs, 70 schools, 21 churches, 20 banks, 12 cinemas, 4 hospitals, and 2 theaters. Some 900 civilians were killed, and thousands of others were wounded; many were children trapped in their schools. In the bombed area, little save the city hall and Laurens Church remained standing.

Early on the morning of 15 May, with the Germans announcing they would next bomb Utrecht, Winkelman issued an order for all Dutch soldiers to lay down their arms. He announced that he had taken the decision to prevent civilian casualties. A partial surrender that excluded the navy was signed that day.

At the Nuremberg war crimes trials, both Göring and Kesselring denied knowledge of the surrender negotiations, but it seems clear that the bombing was undertaken as a deliberate act of force to hasten the surrender, as had happened with the destruction of Warsaw in September 1939. And in this, it succeeded.

Annette Richardson and Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Foot, M. R. D., ed. Holland at War against Hitler: Anglo-Dutch Relations, 1940–1945. London: Cass, 1990.; Killeen, John. A History of the Luftwaffe. New York: Doubleday, 1968.

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