The bombing of Rotterdam
14 May 1940. A German bombardment of less then a quarter of an hour destroys the centre of Rotterdam. The city burns for days. Later the periphery of the bombardment is coined: Fire Boundary.
The first days of war in Rotterdam
The German attack on the Netherlands and on Rotterdam begins on 10th May 1940. Already early in the morning, the Germans conquer the military airbase Waalhaven and soon German water planes land near the “Maasbruggen”, the bridges across the river Meuse. By lack of resistance the enemy can quickly take up its position on both sides of the Maasbruggen, which is very essential to its advance. The Dutch soldiers, with the exception of the Marine Corps based in Rotterdam, are under the command of colonel Scharroo. They are not able to recapture the Maasbruggen. Two efforts of the Navy to try doing so, using torpedo-boats and a torpedo-boat destroyer, are of no avail. In spite of the fact that some German units manage to keep their status quo on the northern bridgehead, the enemy cannot advance any further for the time being. The German and Dutch troops are firing at each other across the river Meuse.
Five days of combat
The time span of the German attack until the Dutch capitulation took up five stirring days. When it becomes clear that the Germans have the intention to further penetrate Holland from southern Rotterdam by crossing the Maasbruggen, the Marine Corps are given the assignment to prevent this. The Maasbruggen must be reconquered on the Germans and be blown up. It is during this futile battle that heroic marines develop into “black devils”, who are supposed to have slaughtered frightened Germaaans with knives in man-to-man combats. Fact is that the marines, with little support, manage to stand firm at the Willemsbrug, because of their tough and persistent defence.
Air raids of 10th – 14th May
Between 10th and 14th May at least twenty airborne attacks are carried out on Rotterdam by the Luftwaffe (10), the Military Aviation (5) and the Royal Air Force (5). The number of casualties amongst the civilian population amounts to an estimated 850 to 950 people. On the 11th May around midnight a heavy bombardment is carried out by the Luftwaffe. Target is the barracks of police forces on the Westersingel and the shelter of soldiers on the Robert Fruinstraat. Among other things, the Schietbaanlaan is struck by some direct hits. There are 40 casualties. The Dutch armed forces lost in total 185 soldiers during those days in May in Rotterdam and surroundings because of bombardments and shootings. Of these perished soldiers, 33 of them belonged to the Royal Dutch Navy and 152 to the Royal Dutch Air force.
Rotterdam 14th of may 1940
Until today still not all questions regarding the devastating German bombardment on Rotterdam of Tuesday May 14th 1940 have been answered. It is certain that at a high German military level such a heavy bombardment was looked at as a means to precipitate the Dutch surrender. That is indeed what happened, in spite of a directed, light bombardment and negotiations with the Dutch army command preferred by the German commander in Rotterdam Schmidt. The bombardment on Rotterdam of May 14th was carried out by approximately 90 Heinkel bombers of the squadron 'Kampfgeschwader 54 Totenkopf' (KG 54), under the command of 'Geschwaderkommodore' Oberst Walter Lackner. Between 13.27 hours and 13.40 hours the big surface bombardment took place on the centre of Rotterdam, Kralingen and the north of Rotterdam. More than 30.000 buildings were destroyed. In total 800 to 900 people died as a result of this bombardment.
Images of the bombardment
The city ablaze
Immediately after the bombardment everywhere in and around the centre of Rotterdam fires broke out. A strong wind stirred up the fire and the fire brigade couldn't do anything useful in this situation. There was a lot of material damage, blocking the streets, and many springs were out of reach. Ten thousands of civilians flee from the city centre, which was transformed into an inferno. Nearly eighty thousand citizens of Rotterdam lost their homes and possessions. In Kralingen and at the Coolsingel the blaze spread even more across the city. With the turning wind fanning the fire during the night, other parts of the city fell prey to the flames as well.
Proclamation by the mayor
The bombardment was followed by the city‘s capitulation under colonel Scharroo. German demands were complied with, amongst which the immediate distribution of a proclamation, carried out by the mayor mr. Oud, who was present at the moment of surrender. The mayor had to declare that he would vouch with his own life for tranquillity in the city, that the combats with the Germans would come to a halt, and that further resistance was of no use. An appeal was made to the Dutch nation to “continue one‘s ordinary work as before as much as possible”. Due to a power failure the mayor's proclamation was printed on a manual printing press.
As a result of the bombardments and shootings that took place between May 10th and 14th an area of 258 hectares (approx. 638 acres), of which 158 hectares (approx. 390 acres) of the built-on area and 100 hectares (approx. 248 acres) of streets and open spaces, had been demolished. The devastation of buildings was largely due to the big bombardment and the resulting fires. In the stricken area of 252 streets all buildings were destroyed and of 141 streets the built-on area was partially destroyed. Soon, this area was called “the debris”.
All together 25.479 dwellings were lost in which 77.607 people were housed. Besides that, 26 hotels, 117 boarding houses and 44 lodgings, in which some 2000 people lived, had been destroyed. In total 79.600 persons, who represented 12,8 % of the population of Rotterdam, were left homeless. Of these people, as from June 15th 1940 onward, 20.887 were accommodated in other municipalities, while others, at that moment, had found a temporary shelter within the boundaries of Rotterdam. A lot of industrial premises were also destroyed: 31 department stores and 2.320 smaller shops, 31 factories and 1.319 workshops, 675 warehouses and storage companies, 1.437 offices, 13 bank buildings and 19 consulates, 69 school buildings and 13 hospitals, 24 churches and 10 charitable institutions, 25 municipal- and government buildings, 4 station buildings, 4 newspaper buildings and 2 museums, 517 café’s and restaurants, 22 cinema’ s and 184 other business accommodations.
Air raids after May 14th
After the bombardment of May 14th Rotterdam had to cope with various air raids and shootings as well. As far as is known 128 air raids on Rotterdam and its surroundings were carried out by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). An estimated half of these attacks were directed at targets within the city limits of Rotterdam, while the other half was, for the greater part, aimed at targets in the vicinity of Pernis (on oil refineries and oil storage tanks) and at the shipyards in Schiedam and the area of the ship-canal Nieuwe Waterweg (New Waterway). During these air raids 884 people died and 631 people were wounded.
The heaviest bombardment on the city of Rotterdam, after the one of May 14th, took place on March 31st 1943. On that day American bombers, coming from England, attacked the port- and shipbuilding installations in the dock area in the west of Rotterdam. The industrial area between Keilehaven and Merwehaven was hit, but a combination of strong wind and overcast also caused great damage to the nearby residential areas, especially in the Bospolder-Tussendijken District. The death toll rose to 401 casualties. About 10 hectares (approx. 25 acres) of built-on area and 8 hectares (approx. 20 acres) of public roads were destroyed. Around 16.500 people lost their homes. The bombardment later came to be known as the 'Forgotten Bombardment'. On March 31st 1993, Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers unveiled a monument of the artist Mathieu Ficheroux in the Gijzing park, as a remembrance to those killed in this bombardment.