On 10 May 1940 , at around 3:55 in the night,the German army crossed the Dutch borders, this is considered the start of the second world war in the Netherlands.
On 10 May, twelve hydroplanes landed on either side of the Maasbruggen bridges, which were a set of railway and traffic bridges. Followed up with a platoon of paratroopers, firstly those who landed at the Feijenoord Stadion, later those who dropped at the Waalhaven airport. They all positioned themselves at the Noordereiland, an island at the Northern edge of the Maas river. The Dutch army and marines weren't able to recapture the Maasbruggen, yet the German soldiers were also not able to move ahead of the bridges, this resulted in a 4-day battle, also known as the: “Battle of Rotterdam” or in Dutch: “Strijd om de Maasbruggen”.
At that time, about 7000 Dutch soldiers were stationed in Rotterdam, however, most of them were either still in training or working in different military divisions. As well as the 450 marines in the City, again most were still in training.
Shortly after the German army positioned themselves at the Noordereiland, and being pushed back by the Dutch forces, they retreated into the building of the Nationale Levensverzekeringbank, the Dutch forces took a position in the buildings of Het Witte Huis and the Maashotel. The German army was able to blow up the Maashotel. On the first day of the battle two Dutch marine ships fired at the German army, the first ship ended up being hit during an air attack, the other left after running out of ammunition. A “destroyer” (a warship) got shot and sunk, after being hit by Nazi planes.
Between 11 and 12 May, more Dutch troops were sent to Rotterdam, this time 3500 infantry. Dutch aerial bombers coming from Schiphol airport aimed at the Willemsbrug, however, missed the target and instead hit several buildings at the Noordereiland. The next day German aerial bombers hit the Waalhaven airport. They also bombed several other targeted locations in the City, like the marine barracks at Oostplein, the Dutch marines were able to evacuate out of the building.
Due to the ongoing battle, the inhabitants of Noordereiland lost their houses, food became scarce, and due to burst pipes, there was a lack of drinking water. A request towards the German occupation was made from the inhabitants to leave the Noordereiland, this was denied, with the exception of kids below the age of 10 and their mothers.
On the 13th of May, it was expected that the German Army’s tanks would enter the city, the Dutch troops planned a counterattack. However due to the inefficiently of the infantry battalion not arriving on time, again the marine troops were used in the counterattack. Back and forth, the German opposition tried to defend their position and the Dutch Marines tried to push forward towards the occupied building of the Nationale Levensverzekeringsbank. In this battle several died or got wounded, causing the Marines to retreat. However, several of the marine troops got isolated and had to take shelter below the road, only the next day after the bombardment, they would leave their hiding place to surrender themselves to the German army. It was later revealed that the German occupation in the National Levensverzekeringsbank had considered surrendering themselves.
On 14 May 1940, from 13.27 up till about 13.40, German aerial bombers bombed the city of Rotterdam. The bombs and the following destructive fires destroyed most of the city centre. About 800-900 people died, about 2000 got severely injured and 80.000 became homeless, which at that time was 12,8% of the population count of the city. The bombing followed into the surrendering and capitulation of the Netherlands.
On 14 May, in the morning, the Dutch commander Colonel Scharroo received an ultimatum, sent by the German lieutenant general Schmidt, stating that the city of Rotterdam will be destroyed when the city won’t surrender. In the ultimatum letter, it stated there were 2 hours for a formal reply containing the confirmation of surrender, on behalf of the city.
The Mayor of Rotterdam at that time was Pieter Oud, together with Commander Colonel Scharroo and the city council they came to the conclusion it would be impossible to evacuate the whole city within these two given hours. They decided it would be best to surrender to avoid the bombardment. Commander Colonel Scharroo noticed the ultimatum letter was not signed by an official and neither mentioned a name or title, he decided that for the continuation of the negotiation and for the ultimatum to be considered an official document, they needed signage and an official ranking instead.
After Schmidt received their message, the lieutenant general Schmidt of the German army, sent out a telegram at 12.00 in the afternoon, at that time telegrams were the fastest way of communicating, to the 2nd Luftflott. With a message stating: “Airstrike postponed due to ongoing negotiations. Return to stand-by status”. At 12.42, the 2nd Luftflott received the telegram, however, the message never made it in time to the aerial bombers, they took off by plane at 11.45.
As Schmidt handed over his second ultimatum, this time including formal signage and ranking, the aerial bombers were already on their way. The German army had arranged red flares to be shot in the sky by the Wehrmacht if negotiations were still taking place, this would have been a signal for the German army aerial bombers to have turned around. However as only the German army had captured the southern parts of Rotterdam, and the aerial bombers were moving in the biggest division towards the Northern part of the city (54 Heinkel He 111s planes) and with a smaller division (of 36 He-111s planes) flying from the south, some were not able to see any red flares being shot in the air from the North of Rotterdam. From the south, there was a large smoke cloud, which made it harder for the other 36 bombers to see the flares, however, the smaller group saw the flares and therefore turned their planes back around. While the larger group of 54 planes moving to the north never saw them, and therefore proceed to drop their aerial bombs and ended up destroying the city.
During the bombardment, about 97.000 kilos of highly explosive German bombs were dropped during the bombardment of the city. The bombardment caused huge fires, that due to a strong wind were impossible to extinguish by the fireman, the biggest fires lasted up until the 16th of May. More than 30.000 buildings were destroyed, a total of 258 hectares of the terrain is completely or for the most part destroyed.
At around 15.30, commander colonel Scharroo, commanded a ceasefire. And at 15.50 he signed the formal surrender documents. In the meantime, in Germany, the commander of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring gave out the order to again make way for his aerial bombers to bomb Rotterdam, in case the surrender took too long there were plans to bomb Rotterdam again between 19.00 and 20.00. Herby Göring wanted to force the capitulation of the country and city. At 15.30 more aerial bombers made way to the northern parts of Rotterdam. Schmidt however, receives Göring’s message at around 17.15, he in return claims to Göring that his troops have taken over the city of Rotterdam, which at this exact hour wasn't the case.
The Dutch commander in Chief Henri Winkelman decides any further resistance will be meaningless, after receiving threats that more Dutch cities will be bombed. On 14 May at 19.00, the Dutch army capitulated. With the exception of the province Zeeland (as at that time France soldiers were still battling the German army) which followed two days later, the Netherlands was occupied by the German army. The bombing of Rotterdam can be seen as the last strategy of the German army that made the country capitulate in its totality. The Netherlands was officially occupied from 14 May 1940 until 5 May 1945.
Rotterdam is the city in the Netherlands that optically shows the most urban changes, renewal and reconstruction.
Four days after the bombardment the executive board of the municipality issued Willem Gerrit Witteveen, an urban planner, to make a reconstruction plan to restore the city. At the same time, the clearing of all the debris started which lasted until November 1940. The debris of destroyed buildings of the bombardment in Rotterdam was used all across the country, for example on forest trails in the provinces of Brabant and Overijssel. But also to build dikes in Urk, and even at an airport in the province of Friesland.
W.G. Witteveen’s plan focused on existing issues that the city faced in a logistic sense, like the increasing traffic. This caused some historical canals to be filled up, like Blaak in the city centre, to make way for more roads and pavements. However the occupation stopped the reconstruction on the 1st of July in 1942, all available building materials and workforce were put into the construction of the Atlantikwall (extensive line of coastal defence and fortifications, across the coast of Europe) instead, with the exception of the work-class neighbourhoud Wereldhaven. Due to these empty plots, not being used for the years of the war, some were used for the cultivation of crops.
Due to the lack of proper housing, and the acute need for accommodation of 77.000 people and 5000 returned soldiers, various temporary houses, shops and offices were built. Others were able to live with family or in other municipalities. While some of the temporary housing facilities were made of stone, the houses in the area of the “Drents Dorp” were made out of wood, during the Dutch Famine of 1944-1945 it was so extremely cold that the occupants had to burn parts of their own house against the frigid.
During the occupation years of the war, it was hard to make progress. However after the liberation, this happened at rapid speed.
The urban planner, Cornelis van Traa (who used to be secretary of Witteveen), got appointed to create a more modern plan, on 28 May 1946 his plan “Herbouw Binnenstad Rotterdam” (reconstruction inner city Rotterdam) got launched by the municipality. This new proposal was an innovative and modern plan, and changed the whole city skyline into something almost unrecognisable from the past. For example, by relocating and expanding the city centre and creating more space for traffic with very wide streets. The architectural style became very modern, and still differs heavily from other Dutch cities.