Rotterdam, The Netherlands May 14, 1940

On this date in 1940 in Holland, the German Luft­waffe bombed Rotter­dam’s medi­e­val city cen­ter, killing nearly 1,000 people and leaving 85,000 home­less. Rather than endure more fero­cious bombings—leaf­lets dropped on Utrecht indi­cated it was next Dutch city in German cross­hairs—the Dutch Army surren­dered the next day. The German offen­sive against the Low Coun­tries had been launched four days earlier, on May 10, with­out a decla­ra­tion of war before­hand, when German air­borne/­air­landing assault divi­sions and ground forces began seizing strategic locations in Holland and Belgium.

The surprise assault on the Low Countries was part of Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), a German offen­sive plan that included attacking France, which, like Great Britain, had been at war with Germany since Sep­tem­ber 3, 1939, two days after Adolf Hitler had unleashed the Wehr­macht (German armed forces) on his east­ern neigh­bor, Poland. Fighting con­tin­ued along the Dutch-Bel­gian border, where several Dutch bat­talions, aided by French units, put up a limited defense.

It was in Belgium, in principle neutral, that France moved to halt the German advance, believing (falsely) its north­ern neigh­bor to be the Wehr­macht’s main thrust in the West. After the French had fully committed the best of their armies in defense of Belgium between May 10 and 12, the Germans enacted the second phase of Fall Gelb, a sickle cut through the heavily forested and rough terrain of the Ardennes in Southern Belgium and Luxem­bourg, devoid of Allied forces, and advanced toward the northern French coast. (The term “sickle cut” was first used by British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill to describe the encircle­ment of Allied troops in France’s northern­most region, Nord-Pas-de-Calais-Picardy, and separating them from units to the south.)

The Germans with their superior mechanized Panzer divi­sions, supported by Luft­waffe dive bombers, reached the English Chan­nel after five days. Their sickle cut entrapped the French, Bel­gian, and British armies between a rock (the Wehr­macht) and a watery grave. (A British Expe­di­tionary Force had been deployed mainly along the Franco-Belgian border since Sep­tem­ber 1939.) The Germans grad­u­ally shrank the Allied pocket to the resort beaches and harbor at Dun­kirk. Belgium’s new young king, Leopold, and the Belgian armed forces, which had just 10 modern tanks and 180 service­able air­craft, capit­u­lated to superior German forces on May 28, 1940. The Germans would have totally anni­hi­lated the British and French armies had it not been for the extraor­di­nary im­promptu sea­borne evac­u­ation of over 338,000 Allied troops from Dun­kirk between May 27 and the morning of June 4, 1940, and the fero­city and tena­city of the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Com­mand over Dunkirk’s harbor and beaches, where British Spit­fires and Hurri­canes fought the German Luft­waffe almost to a stand­still. The “Miracle of Dun­kirk” delivered a psycho­logi­cal boost to British morale, and the rescued British troops pro­vided the nucleus of the British Army that returned to help liberate the continent in 1944.

German Invasion of the Low Countries and France; Dunkirk Rescue

Fall Gelb (Case Yellow): Rotterdam burning, May 1940Fall Gelb (Case Yellow): Rotterdam after its destruction, 1940

Left: Dense black and sulphur-yellow clouds rise into the misty sky above Rotter­dam’s burning city center after the Luft­waffe rained down 158 500 lb and 1,150 100 lb high-explo­sive bombs—97 tons. (The Germans called such bombings Schreck­lich­keit—fright­ful­ness.) The mas­sive confla­gra­tion was abetted by an exploding mar­ga­rine fac­tory that spewed burning oil over Rotter­dam’s old-timber houses. Three months passed before the last embers of the fires died out. On the night of May 15/16, 1940, the RAF made its first raid on the inte­rior of Germany, attacking civil­ian indus­trial targets in the Ruhr district (prin­ci­pally petro­leum and steel-making facilities) that aided the German war effort.

Right: The heavily damaged Laurenskerk (St. Law­rence Church) and Rotter­dam’s med­i­eval city cen­ter after the removal of bomb debris. Around one square mile of the city was nearly leveled in less than an hour, and 24,978 homes, 24 churches, 2,320 stores, 775 ware­houses, and 62 schools were destroyed. Left home­less were 80,000 people. An erro­ne­ous report stated that 25,000 resi­dents had perished, a figure that shocked the world. After the war the Dutch lowered the death toll to 814. The German occu­pa­tion of neutral Nether­lands offi­cially began on May 17, 1940, several days after Queen Wilhel­mina, her family, and Dutch minis­ters had fled to London, there to estab­lish a govern­ment in exile. Five years would pass before the Allies liberated the Nether­lands, during which time over 300,000 Dutchmen died.

Fall Gelb (Case Yellow): Rescued British soldiers, DunkirkFall Gelb (Case Yellow): Rescued French soldiers, England

Left: Rescued British troops gathered on a ship at Dun­kirk (Dunkerque), Northern France, where, according to Prime Minis­ter Churchill, “the whole root, core, and brain of the British Army” was trapped. For every seven British and French soldiers who were rescued in what was named Oper­a­tion Dyna­mo, one man was left behind as a pri­soner of war, even­tually ending up in Ger­many. Those below the rank of cor­po­ral worked as slave laborers in German industry and agriculture for the duration of the war.

Right: Dunkirk-rescued French troops dis­em­barking at a port (likely Dover) on the south coast of England. Of the French sol­diers evacu­ated from Dun­kirk, only about 3,000 chose to con­tinue the struggle against Nazi Ger­many, joining Charles de Gaulle’s Free French Forces (Forces françaises libres) in London. The rest were repatri­ated back to France, where about one half were redeployed against the Germans before the Franco-German armis­tice at Com­piègne was signed on June 22, 1940, after which they were made POWs by the German Army. Nearly two million captured French soldiers were taken to Germany to work as forced laborers. Although some would even­tu­ally be released, most remained prisoners for the next four years.

Churchill’s Speech to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940: “We shall fight them on the beaches, . . . and we shall never surrender.” Photo Album and His Account of the “Miracle of Dunkirk”