Gert Jan Kocken

Depictions of Rotterdam 1940-1945

Depictions of Rotterdam 1940-1945

Battle of the Netherlands

After France and Great Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939, the Netherlands hoped to remain neutral, as they had done in the First World War. This hope was vain: Hitler saw the Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg) as his base for attacks against Britain. He also feared that his enemies would launch attacks from these countries if he didn’t quickly establish a foothold. When Germany invaded Norway and Denmark in April 1940, the Dutch military realised that a conflict was imminent and began to mobilise. Repeated requests by Britain and France to join the war on their side were ignored, however. In the morning of 10 May 1940 Germany invaded the Low Countries without a formal declaration of war. A wing of Luftwaffe bombers crossed through Dutch airspace, giving the illusion that they were on their way to England. But above the North Sea they turned around and, together with other bombers, launched a surprise attack on airfields in the province of Holland. Immediately after the bombardments German paratroopers landed and tried to capture airfields and bridges. Meanwhile, troops came rolling in from the east. Hitler told his commanders that the Dutch had to be forced on their knees, “whatever it takes, whatever measure necessary.” Underequipped and outnumbered, the Dutch forces could provide only limited resistance against the German invasion. After four days of fighting most of the country was under German control, but Holland and Zeeland were holding out. On 13 May Hitler stated: The resistance capability of the Dutch army has proved to be stronger than expected. Political as well as military reasons demand that this resistance is broken as soon as possible. It is the task of the army to capture the Fortress Holland by committing enough forces from the south, combined with an attack on the east front. In addition to that the air force must, while weakening the forces that up till now have supported the 6th Army, facilitate the rapid fall of the Fortress Holland. Rotterdam Blitz Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring decided to bludgeon the Dutch into surrender by bombing the port city of Rotterdam, home to about 620,000 people.

In the morning of 14 May the German general Rudolf Schmidt sent an ultimatum to Pieter Scharroo, the commander of Rotterdam, and Pieter Oud, the city’s mayor. Schmidt offered them a choice between surrender or watching the city be subjected to the “severest means of annihilation”. Scharroo called the document, which contained neither the name nor the signature of the sender, a mere “scrap of paper” and requested a proper writ. Meanwhile, ninety German bombers closed in on Rotterdam. Because of the ongoing negotiations, Schmidt ordered the firing of a red flare to signal that the bombardment was to be aborted. But most of the pilots allegedly failed to notice the flares and in the span of fifteen minutes dropped 97 tonnes of bombs on the city. The fire brigade, which consisted of volunteers using nineteenth-century tools, were unable to prevent the resulting fires from turning into a firestorm. It took them months to fully extinguish the flames. By then most of the historic inner city had been destroyed, including over 24,000 houses, 32 churches and two synagogues. 850 people were killed and 80,000 lost their homes. After the war, Göring suggested that the fire brigade was largely to be blamed for the extent of the damage: The great amount of destruction was not caused by bombs but, as has been said, by fire. ... The spread of this fire was caused by the combustion of large quantities of fats and oils. Secondly – I want to emphasize this particularly – the spread of this fire could surely have been prevented by energetic action on the part of the Rotterdam fire department, in spite of the storm coming up. Shortly after the bombardment Scharroo received the revised ultimatum. He surrendered Rotterdam to Nazi Germany in the afternoon. But the German military demanded the capitulation of whole of the Netherlands and threatened to destroy the city of Utrecht unless their demands were met. Henri Winkelman, the Dutch commander-in-chief, decided that further resistance was futile and issued a proclamation: This afternoon Germany bombarded Rotterdam, while Utrecht has also been threatened with destruction. In order to spare the civil population and to prevent further bloodshed I feel myself justified in ordering all troops concerned to suspend operations. ... By great superiority of the most modern means he [the enemy] has succeeded in breaking our resistance. We have nothing wherewith to reproach ourselves in connection with this war. Your bearing and that of the forces was calm, firm of purpose and worthy of the Netherlands. Maintain this bearing. Do not forget that you are Netherlanders and that the Kingdom of the Netherlands, even though the Motherland may largely be occupied by the enemy, has not ceased to exist. When the war ends the Netherlands will again stand as an independent, free nation. Long live the Queen. Winkelman signed the surrender papers on 15 May, the beginning of five years of German occupation.


With most of the city centre in ashes and German authorities establishing themselves in the Netherlands, the Rotterdam city council feared that the Nazis and their sympathisers would take the lead in the reconstruction process. Such fears were grounded in reality: the “Greater Germanic Reich of the German Nation” envisioned by Hitler and his main architect, Albert Speer, featured a rebuilt Rotterdam as a major Nazi-style port city. The council acted quickly to prevent the implementation of such plans. Less than a week after the bombardment, the architect Willem Witteveen was ordered to make designs for Rotterdam’s reconstruction. Since the city centre was expropriated and all but four key buildings in the affected area were demolished, Witteveen was free to redesign the centre from scratch. But when he presented his plans in late 1940, some criticised them for being too traditional and offering only incremental improvement over the pre-war situation. Regardless, Witteveen’s designs were officially approved the next year. The war situation kept delaying their execution, however. In 1944 Witteveen’s successor, Cornelis van Traa, started working on a new, more functionalist redesign of the centre of Rotterdam. His 1946 Base plan offered a clear break with the past, shifting the city centre westward and creating distinct areas for living, working, and culture. It would be a blueprint for inner city development until 1970. Bombardments Rotterdam was bombed many times after the Blitz. Shipyards, petrochemical industries and German vehicles in Rotterdam and neighbouring industrial zones were subjected to 128 raids by Allied bombers. Close to 900 people died and more than 600 were wounded during these bombardments. The heaviest bombardment since the Rotterdam Blitz occurred on 31 March 1943. American bombers flew in from Britain to raid facilities in the western harbour district, but because of poor sight and strong winds their bombs instead hit nearby residential areas. The damage was extensive: large portions of the city were destroyed, over 400 people were killed and 13,000 rendered homeless. The Dutch government restricted news of the disaster, fearing the Nazis would use as propaganda. For this is reason the bombardement became known as the Forgotten Bombardment.

Roundups and Deportations

Before the war Rotterdam was home to approximately 12,000 Jews. A significant number lived in the poor neighbourhoods that were destroyed in the Blitz. During the occupation that followed, the Nazis gradually isolated Jews from public life. In late 1940 all Jewish civil servants and city council members were fired. In February 1941 a Jewish Council was established, ostensibly to support the Jewish population and inform of new regulations, but in reality to control them. In July 1942 the Nazis issued, via the Jewish Council, an order for 2,000 Jews to report for “forced labour under police surveillance in Germany”. About 1,120 people showed up at Loods 24 (Warehouse 24), the main point of departure for deportations from Rotterdam. Two more calls later that year brought in another 1,320 workers. These people were first deported to Dutch transit camps such as Westerbork and Vught, then they were taken to German extermination camps, primarily Sobibór and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Nazis grew unsatisfied with the turnout and started organising razzias to bring in more Jews for deportation. The first razzia targeted Jews originally from Germany and eastern Europe. In October 1942 Rotterdam male Jews aged 60-96 were taken from their homes together with their wives and children. In 1943 a Jewish orphanage, a home for the elderly and a Jewish hospital were raided. In April 1943 most of the remaining Jews in the area (including the Jewish Council) were deported.

Aktion Rosenstock

The last and largest razzia followed in November 1944. It was part of Aktion Rosenstock, an attempt to suppress a potential surge of Dutch resistance in response to Allied forces liberating the south of the Netherlands. Aktion Rosenstock started with 8,000 German soldiers isolating the cities of Rotterdam and nearby Schiedam by occupying the bridges and squares and cutting off phone lines. Pamphlets told citizens: By order of the German Wehrmacht, all men ages 17 to 40 must report for labour deployment. For this purpose, upon receiving this order ALL men of this age must line up in the streets with the prescribed gear. All other residents, including women in children, must remain in the houses until the action is over. Any men in the designated age bracket found to be at home during a house search shall be punished, in which case their personal properties will be broken into. Evidence of exemption issued by civilian or military organisations must be brought for verification. Those carrying such evidence, too, are required to be in the streets. The following is to be brought along: warm clothes, sturdy boots, blankets, rain gear, cutlery, knife, fork, spoon, drinking cup, and sandwiches for one day. The daily compensation consists of decent meals, articles of smoking, and the regular salary. Remaining family members will be taken care of. All residents of the municipality are forbidden to leave their residency. Those who try to flee or resist will be shot. Shortly after around 52,000 of the 70,000 (mostly non-Jewish) men in Rotterdam and Schiedam were round up; the remaining 18,000 managed to go into hiding. The men were deported to the east of the Netherlands and Germany. Labourers in German camps not only had to endure the hardships of the camps, but also Allied bombardments that targeted surrounding cities. In all, an estimated 24,500 to 29,000 Dutch forced labourers died during the war. Over 400 of them came from Rotterdam.

Liberation was followed by an unusually harsh winter. The combined effects of cold, damaged infrastructure, a German blockade, and fuel shortage caused a famine that affected the 4.5 million people living in the parts of the Netherlands still under Nazi control. Many went on days-long walks into the countryside in search for food. Ten of thousands died of starvation, exhaustion, cold and disease. An inflow of white bread in February 1945 caused some relieve, as did the food drops by Allied bombers in late April and early May. By then Canadian and British forces had crossed the large rivers in the middle of the Netherlands and were liberating the northern provinces. On 4 May 1945 the German forces in the Netherlands, northwest Germany and Denmark surrendered. People started celebrating in the streets of Rotterdam and a cheering crowd gathered in front of the home of former mayor Oud. Canadian troops entered the city on 8 May and forced out any remaining Germans. Besides festivities there were reprisals against Dutch collaborators: 5,000 people from the Rotterdam area were arrested in the few months after the war.