Swift and complete as was the disaster that overtook Holland, the Dutch put up a resistance which was all the more remarkable because they must have realized from the very beginning that they were due to go down before the incomparably massive German onslaught. Only when overwhelmed by the storm of steel and bomb, when Nazi parachutists and the local Fifth Column had riddled their defences, did they surrender.
After one of the affrays which marked the first day's fighting in Holland the Dutch turned over the body of a German general slain in action and found in his pocket orders from which it was clear that the Germans expected to occupy The Hague by nightfall. As it was, however, they did not enter the Dutch capital until four days later.
On the frontier the Dutch army of some 400,000 men put up a most gallant and resolute resistance – one fully in accord with the traditional stubbornness and fighting spirit of the burgher race. But the war in the Low Countries soon developed a vein of fantasy which finds no place in the military textbooks. Above the heads of the soldiers lining the trenches and occupying the forts passed fleets of warplanes form which were dropped, here, there, and everywhere, hundreds, even thousands, of heavily-armed parachutists. As soon as they stumbled to earth these desperadoes hurried off on the missions of death and destruction to which they had been assigned – missions in which they were all too powerfully aided by numbers of the Nazi Fifth Column. Soon there was not one front but a thousand. Every town of any size, every important railway bridge, every vital road junction and lock was attacked by these walking arsenals who left behind them a train of havoc.
Along the coast, too, thousands of Germans were landed from Nazi transports in the rear of the Dutch defences. Rotterdam was invaded by a Nazi host who for hours and days fought for the possession of the aerodrome at Waalhaven and even beleaguered the city itself. There was heavy fighting in some of the principal streets, and by the evening of Saturday, May 11, the whole of the Old Town was ablaze, together with much of the shipping in the harbour. Sniping was continuous, and the Dutch authorities had to employ light artillery to demolish houses in which Fifth Columnists – including some of Dutch race and nationality – were making their stand.
Treachery, indeed, was an ever-present danger to which the Dutch were exposed. According to report it was treachery which enabled the Germans to seize the bridge over an arm of the Rhine at Arnhem, thus opening the way for the Nazi motorized columns into the interior of Holland. An even greater disaster was the capture of the two Moerdyk bridges which form the principal link between northern and southern Holland. Here a group of Nazis, some of whom had descended by parachute and others had lain concealed in innocent-looking barges moored in the Hollandische Diep, approached the bridges. They were wearing Dutch uniforms, and chatted in most affable fashion with the Dutch guards. Suddenly they whipped out their guns and ordered the sentinels to surrender, while at the same time others of their band flung hand grenades into the guard-houses. In this way the Dutch were prevented from blowing up the bridges, and the German forces were enabled to advance against Dordrecht and Rotterdam from the south.
Yet another incident in the tale of mischance was the failure of the Belgians to destroy the bridges at Maastricht at the junction of the Dutch, Belgian, and German frontiers (see page 540). With these bridges in their hands the Germans were enabled to pour through the gap thus created in the Dutch-Belgian front, while the main Dutch army was still waiting a frontal attack.
But great as were the ignoble triumphs of the traitors, overwhelming as was the mass of armoured columns with which the Germans ploughed their way across the Dutch lowlands, the principal contribution towards the invaders' victory was made by their air force. "Our soldiers", said General Winkelman, the Dutch Commander-in-Chief, in his "Cease fire" broadcast of May 14, "have been exposed to the destruction and bombardment of the overwhelmingly strong German Air Arm, and not only the soldiers but the civilian population, our women and children, have fallen victims to the German warplanes." Rotterdam, he went on to state, had "undergone the dire fate which total war brings to towns and cities", and Utrecht and other towns were threatened with the same fate. How terrible had been Rotterdam's ordeal was only revealed later; in a communiqué issued by the Dutch Legation in Paris it was stated that at least 100,000 people were killed and a third of the city destroyed in the course of the German bombardment. Two squadrons of German bombers flew over the city in close formation, dropping delayed action bombs which "ploughed a veritable furrow of destruction". Again and again the 'planes repeated the operation, until they had completed what was rightly described as "this monstrous work of destruction, horrifying as a nightmare and absolutely without precedent".
Not until all hope had gone did the Dutch resistance cease. In the course of the five days' fighting the Dutch army had lost a quarter of its total of 400,000 men; some regiments – for instance, the Grenadiers – had lost four-fifths of their strength. Holland's entire bombing force of some fifty machines was wiped out in the fighting; when only one 'plane was left the pilot, who had still four bombs in his rack, told his comrades: "I shall let the Germans have it!" He went up, dropped his bombs on Waalhaven aerodrome – and never returned. Even after the capitulation of May 14 a section of the Dutch army maintained their resistance in Zeeland, and most of the units of the Dutch navy escaped to join the Allied fleet.