Operation Battle of The Hague

The 'Battle of The Hague' was fought between German airborne forces and Dutch army personnel for the city of The Hague, capital of the Netherlands, during the German 'Gelb' invasion of the Low Countries and France (10 May 1940).

After their initial success, the Germans had expected the Netherlands to appreciate the hopeless nature of its resistance and thus to surrender on the first day of the invasion. The Germans failed to achieve that objective, however, as their forces had been unable to hold their initial gains as the Dutch regrouped and then launched effective counterattacks. Isolated pockets of German troops, which were air-landed elements of Generalleutnant Hans Graf von Sponeck’s 22nd Luftlande-Division, retreated to the nearby dunes, where they were pursued and harassed for five days until Generaal Henri Winkelman, the Dutch commander-in-chief, was forced to surrender by major setbacks on other fronts.

The Germans planned, under the codename 'Fall Festung', to catch the Dutch off guard and then to isolate the head of the Dutch army. Their intention was thus for a mass of aircraft to fly over the Netherlands in order to lull the Dutch into thinking that the UK was their target. That was to be followed by a reversal of course to approach the Netherlands from the direction of the North Sea, and then attack the airfields at Ypenburg, Ockenburg and Valkenburg to weaken potential Dutch defences, and to take The Hague. It was expected that Queen Wilhelmina and Winkelman might then agree to surrender. However, the German plan was also to cut all the roads leading to The Hague and thereby prevent any subsequent Dutch counterattack. One of the Germans' main goals was the capture of the Dutch queen and her government. Captured plans, the so-called 'Sponeck papers', contained details and a map for the German paratroopers who landed on the Ockenburg airfield, but the landed troops were unable to penetrate the defence of The Hague and the plan therefore failed.

As schemed, Luftwaffe bombers overflew the Netherlands in the early morning hours of 10 May, but rather than deceiving the people of The Hague, the passage of these aircraft alarmed them. A different group of German aircraft flew directly to The Hague and at 04.00 bombed the New Alexander army barracks and the adjacent Waalsdorp army camp, where 66 and 58 men respectively were killed. The other German air group meanwhile circled back from the sea and bombed the airfield at Ypenburg, to the south-east of The Hague, at about 04.15. Immediately after this, Junkers Ju 52/3m three-engined transport aircraft began to drop paratroopers of Generalleutnant Kurt Student’s 7th Fliegerdivision in several waves onto the airfield and the area surrounding it, but Dutch machine gun fire inflicted casualties and scattered the landings. Many aircraft were destroyed or to severely damaged that they had to crash-land, which prevented further arrivals on runways which were now blocked. German paratroopers attacked and occupied the airfield’s main building and raised the German flag, but the Dutch managed to prevent the Germans from advancing beyond Ypenburg to enter The Hague.

At much the same time, German troops were dropped on the airfield at Ockenburg, to the south-west of The Hague. The defenders were unable to prevent the Germans from taking the airfield, but did succeed in delaying them long enough to secure the arrival of additional Dutch infantry units, which prevented the Germans from advancing into The Hague. As the Germans were using the Ockenburg airfield to increase their numbers, the Dutch bombed it to deny its use by the Germans.

To the north-east of The Hague, Valkenburg airfield was under construction at the time, but as at Ypenburg, the Germans bombed it and then dropped paratroopers and inflicted heavy losses on the defenders. Although subsequent waves of paratroopers also sustained heavy casualties, the defenders were unable to prevent the airstrip from falling into German hands. Because of the its incomplete nature, Valkenburg could not accommodate the take-off of German aircraft, and the runway was thus blocked and could not accept further landings. Many of the German transport aircraft therefore landed on nearby beaches and were destroyed by Dutch aircraft and shelling from the Dutch destroyer Van Galen. After several ground skirmishes, German troops occupied the village of Valkenburg as well as some of the bridges and buildings at Katwijk on the Old Rhine.

Although the German troops had managed to capture the three airfields, they failed in their primary objectives of taking The Hague and forcing the Dutch to surrender. Accordingly, the Dutch army launched a counter-offensive from Ypenburg several hours later. Outnumbered and relying on captured ammunition, the Dutch Grenadier Guards fought their way into a position from which Dutch artillery could bombard the airfield, which was heavily damaged. The Germans were forced to evacuate the burning buildings and so lost their strong defensive position. The Dutch grenadiers managed to recapture the airfield and to capture many of the Germans in subsequent skirmishes.

Four Dutch Fokker T.V twin-engined light bombers attacked Ockenburg airfield and destroyed several Ju 52/3m transport aircraft. The Dutch then followed with a ground assault and forced the Germans to retreat. The Dutch took prisoner several Germans, but a pocket of German troops withdrew to the nearby woods and successfully held off additional attacks by the Dutch troops, who soon disengaged and were redirected towards Loosduinen. This allowed the Germans to head back toward Rotterdam.

Having sealed off Leiden and Wassenaar, the Dutch recaptured an important bridge near Valkenburg and, after the arrival of reinforcements, began to harassing the Germans on the ground. Meanwhile, Dutch bombers destroyed numbers of grounded German transport aircraft. The Germans put up a defence on the outskirts of the airfield but were forced to retreat under heavy fire. By 17.30 the Dutch had secured the area, and the Germans had evacuated to the nearby village.

Several skirmishes to liberate occupied positions were fought between small groups of each side. The Dutch used artillery support from the nearby village of Oegstgeest, which was heavily damaged as result. By the end of the day, Dutch forces had retaken the airfields, but this tactical victory was short-lived. On 14 May, the bombing of Rotterdam by the Luftwaffe persuaded Winkelman to capitulate.

The German forces which had escaped from the airfields ended in scattered pockets among the area’s coastal dunes. von Sponeck was ordered to assist the attack on Rotterdam. On its movement toward Rotterdam, von Sponeck’s isolated group twice avoided Dutch traps, but the 1,600 men he still had under under his command were captured, and of these 1,200 were shipped to the UK as prisoners of war. von Sponeck was eventually forced to dig in with as many as 1,100 men and himself managed to avoid capture only because of the strategic bombing of Rotterdam on 14 May. A pocket of German paratroopers managed to ward off Dutch attacks at the village of Valkenburg until the Dutch surrender after the queen and cabinet had left the country for the UK, where they established a government in exile.

In the fighting for The Hague, the Dutch had suffered the loss of 515 men killed. One bomber had been shot down following a raid on Ockenburg. German estimates placed their losses as 134 men killed, but Dutch sources estimate that 400 Germans were killed, 700 wounded and 1,745 taken prisoner. German matériel losses included 182 transport aircraft, mostly of them Ju 52/3m machines. The heavy loss of aircraft had not been anticipated, and after the war Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring stated that the subsequent aircraft shortage had contributed directly to the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the 'Battle of Britain' and had been the cause of heavy German casualties in the 'Merkur' airborne invasion of Crete: the Germans' preferred method of air-landing their troops was no longer feasible, so greater reliance had to be place on the use of paratroopers.