The German bombing of Rotterdam, also known as the Rotterdam Blitz, was the aerial bombardment of Rotterdam by the Luftwaffe 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 army to surrender. Almost the entire historic city centre was destroyed, and nearly 900 people were killed, as well as making 85,000 more homeless.
The psychological and physical success of the raid, from the German perspective, led the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL) to threaten to destroy the city of Utrecht if the Dutch Government did not surrender. The Dutch capitulated early the next morning.
The Netherlands during the Second World War was strategically lodged between Great Britain and Germany, making it an ideal prospective German air and naval "base" for any air or sea attack against the British Isles. The Netherlands had firmly opted for neutrality throughout the First World War and had planned to do the same for the Second World War. It had refused 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 April 1940, the Netherlands possessed 35 modern wheeled armoured fighting vehicles, no tracked armoured fighting vehicles, 135 aircraft and 280,000 soldiers, while Germany had 159 tanks, 1,200 modern aircraft, and around 150,000 soldiers at their disposal for the Dutch theatre alone.
With a significant military advantage, the German leadership intended to expedite the conquest of the country 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 made reference to on 9 October 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 was to be carried out as soon and as forcefully as possible, as Hitler himself commanded. Preparation was started when Hitler ordered German army officers to capture Dutch army uniforms and use them to gain inside information on Dutch defence tactics.
The Wehrmacht 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 aircraft 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.
Battle for Rotterdam
The situation in Rotterdam on the morning of 13 May 1940 was a stalemate as it had been over the previous 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, the key crossing. Several efforts by the Dutch Army Aviation Brigade to destroy the bridge also failed.
On the Morning of 14 May, Hitler issued his "Weisung" Nr. 11. Concerning the Dutch theatre of operations he says the following:
General 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. The airlanding troops were to make an amphibious crossing of the river upstream and then a flank attack through the Kralingen district. 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 Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers, specifically for a precision raid.
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 Stukas focussing on some strategic targets.
Schmidt used the threat of destruction of the city to attempt to force Colonel Scharroo to surrender the city. 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].
Schmidt postponed a second ultimatum to 16:20. 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 were sent over the city.
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 2,300 ft (700 m). German forces on the Noordereiland fired flares to prevent friendly fire — after three aircraft of the southern formation had already unloaded, the remaining 24 from the southern bomber formation under Oberstleutnant Otto Höhne 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. Fifty-four He 111s dropped low to release 97 tonnes (213,848 lb) of bombs, mostly in the heart of the city.
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 2,000 feet. 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.
In total, 1,150 50-kilogram (110 lb) and 158 250-kilogram (550 lb) bombs were dropped, mainly in the residential areas of Kralingen and the medieval city centre. Most of these hit and ignited buildings, resulting in uncontrollable fires that worsened the following days when the wind grew fiercer and the fires merged into a firestorm. Although exact numbers are not known, nearly 1,000 people were killed and 85,000 made homeless. Around 2.6 square kilometres (1.0 sq mi) of the city was almost levelled. 24,978 homes, 24 churches, 2,320 stores, 775 warehouses and 62 schools were destroyed. Schmidt sent a conciliatory message to the Dutch commander General Winkelman, who surrendered shortly afterwards, at Rijsoord, a village southeast of Rotterdam. The school where the Dutch signed their surrender was later turned into a small museum.
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. Dutch and British sources informed the public through Allied and international news media that the raid on Rotterdam had been on an open city in which 30,000 civilians were killed (the real number was around 900) "and character[ised] the German demolition of the old city as an act of unmitigated barbarism". The number of casualties was relatively small, because thousands of civilians had fled to safer parts of Rotterdam, or to other cities, during the previous four days of bombing and warfare. German weekly Die Mühle (The Windmill) stated that the Dutch government was to blame for turning Rotterdam into a fortress, despite multiple summons to evacuate. It also claimed that the old city was ignited by Dutch bombs and incendiary devices.
The United Kingdom had a policy of only bombing military targets and infrastructure such as ports and railways which were of military importance. 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. This policy was abandoned on 15 May 1940, one day after the Rotterdam Blitz, when the RAF was directed 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.
Due to the extent of damage from the bombardment and resulting fire, an almost immediate decision was taken to demolish the entire city centre with the exception of the Laurenskerk, the Beurs (trade centre), the Postkantoor (Post Office) and the town hall. Despite the disaster, the city's destruction was often regarded as the perfect opportunity to redress many of the problems of industrial pre-war Rotterdam, such as crowded, impoverished neighborhoods, and to introduce broad-scale, modernising changes in the urban fabric which had previously been too radical in built-up city. There seemed to be no thought of nostalgically rebuilding the old city, as it would be at the expense of a more modern future.
W.G. Witteveen, director of the Port Authority, was instructed to draw up plans for the reconstruction within four days of the bombing, and had presented his plan to the city council in less than a month. This first plan essentially used most of the old city's structure and layout, but integrated into a new plan, with widened streets and sidewalks. The largest and most controversial change to the layout was to move the main dike of the city alongside the riverbank, so as to protect the low-lying Waterstad area from flooding. This was met with criticism from the newly formed 'Inner Circle of Rotterdam Club', who promoted integrating the city with the Maas River, and claimed the dike would create a marked separation from it. A number of new or previously incomplete projects – such as the Maastunnel and Rotterdamsche bank – were to be completed under Witteveen's plan, and these kept the Dutch people in work during the German occupation of the city, until all construction was halted. Herman van der Horst's 1952 documentary ‘Houen zo!’ presents a vision of some of these projects. During this time, Witteveen's successor Cornelius van Traa drafted a completely new reconstruction plan – the ‘Basisplan voor de Herbouw van de Binnenstad,’ – which was adopted in 1946. Van Traa's plan was a much more radical rebuild, doing away with the old layout and replacing them with a collection of principles rather than such a rigid structural design. The 'Basisplan' placed a high emphasis on broad open spaces and promoted the river's special integration with the city through two significant elements; the Maas Boulevard, which re-imagined the newly moved dike as an 80m wide tree-lined street; and the "Window to the River,’ a visual corridor running from the harbour to the centre of the city. Both were meant to show the workings of the harbour to the city's people.
Because reconstruction work began so rapidly after the bombing, by 1950 the city had again retained its reputation as the fastest loading and unloading harbour in the world.
Around the same time, the city centre of Rotterdam had shifted North-West as a result of temporary shopping centres set up on the edge of the devastated city, and new shopping centre projects like the Lijnbaan were expressing the radical new concepts of the 'Basisplan,’ through low, wide open streets set beside tall slab-like buildings. In fact, Rotterdam's urban form was comparatively more American than other Dutch cities, based on US plans, with a large collection of high-rise elements and the Maas boulevard and 'Window to the River' functioning primarily as conduits for motor vehicles. In later years, Rotterdam architect Kees Christiaanse wrote:
This larger-scale, 'wholesale-quantity' approach was used equally for hospitals and parks (such as Dijkzigt Hospital and Zuider Park) as retail centres, but close attention was still paid to creating human scale, walkable promenades, especially that of the Lijnbaan which presented broad sunny walkways for shoppers and spectators, and tried new retail techniques like open glass walls to blend interior and exterior.
While urban reconstruction can be fraught with complexity and conflict, Rotterdam's status as a 'working' harbour city meant it did not receive the same resistance to rebuilding as a cultural or political centre (like Amsterdam or The Hague) may have. However, there was still significant movement of people away from the city centre during Rotterdam's reconstruction to purpose-built neighbourhoods such as De Horsten and Hoogvliet, which are now inhabited by mainly lower-income households, where social capital is realised at a much more local, than at a city or neighbourhood scale.
Today, van Traa's 'Basisplan' has been almost completely replaced with newer projects. For example, The Maritime Museum blocks the "Window to the River", and Piet Blom's Cube Houses create another barrier between the city and river, where in the 'Basisplan' there was to be a connection between them. The Euromast tower built in 1960, is a related attempt at creating a visual link between the city and port, seemingly one of the last related to van Traa's 'Basisplan' before later attempts like the 'Boompjes Boulevard' in 1991.