World War II battleground - May 1940
Deadly cat-and-mouse on the dam halted Blitzkrieg.
In the 1920ies the construction of a 32 km long dam closing off the Zuyder Zee was decided. The Dutch military worried that this would open a new and direct route of attack to Amsterdam.
Consequently impressive defence constructions were designed with it, mainly around the offshore locks on either side of the dam.
The strongest complex of bunkers was built around the locks and bridges of Kornwerderzand, on the eastern side of the dam. If an attack came, it would most likely be from Germany, from the east.
Not only the dam and the road on it were of strategic importance. The locks as well, as they regulated the level in the new IJsselmeer, the giant lake that was formed with the dam construction. Controlling the water level was essential for a rapid execution of inundations in the Water Defence Lines protecting Amsterdam and the heartland of Holland.
May 10, 1940. German forces invaded the Netherlands.
At first they met little resistance in the wide open land of the northern sector, as the Dutch had planned a delaying defence only. A stand would be made at the Enclosure Dam, at the Kornwerderzand positions.
A detachment of about 250 men was ready in 17 reinforced concrete pillboxes or casemates. The Dutch did not like the word "bunker", that's of German origin.
May 12, late afternoon, the 1st German Cavalry Division reached the Enclosure Dam.
A first reconnaissance party was pinned down by machine gun fire.
For the next day a combined attack was planned out. First air strikes, followed by heavy artillery shelling. Loopholes and observation posts of the casemates were to be blinded by precision 88 mm Flak guns.
Then, still under cover of fire, storm troopers would advance.
The Germans were confident in the outcome, as they knew the defenders had no anti-aircraft capabilities, nor heavy guns.
However, overnight the Dutch had quietly brought in three anti-aircraft cannons and four heavy anti-aircraft machine guns.
The surprise was complete for the German pilots when they flew in the next morning. Four planes were shot down, more left the scene smoking.
After several waves of bombing by 62 planes, howitzers issued a one hour heavy pounding. With limited effect. (See eyewitness account at bottom of page)
The Dutch suffered two slightly wounded, and hardly any damage to casemates and armament at all.
When a large German force approached over the dike, the Dutch were ready to receive.
They waited till the distance was a mere 800 meters, then opened fire from one side only. Making the Germans hurrying for cover to the safe side of the dike.
At that point full Dutch fire was opened on that side as well.
No way to take cover on that bare dike. The storm troopers tried to retreat, but that was only possible when the Dutch allowed them doing so by ceasing fire.
Officially, the German army reported 5 killed, and 25 wounded. But eyewitnesses say the dike was covered with bodies. We'll never know.
The next morning, May 14 at 8 AM, German artillery resumed shelling. Confident that the Dutch were unable to respond at this long range.
But to the surprise and horror of the German commander something started taking out his batteries one by one. Now, where did that accurate fire come from ?
Under cover of night, the Dutch had positioned a war ship beyond the horizon, but within striking range of its guns. The fire could be this precise because it was directed from the Kornwerderzand casemates. Perfect view, perfect fire control.
After an hour and a hundred rounds the German batteries were silenced. The warship withdrew, as it was vulnerable to air attack. Indeed, it was sunk by German planes two days later.
Although a couple of Stuka dive bombers dropped their bombs on the casemates, again with little effect, the Germans decided to withdraw and try a passage with ships more south. Leaving just enough forces to contain the Dutch.
But it didn't come to that. Because this same day, May 14, the Luftwaffe bombed Rotterdam. The entire old centre of the city went up in flames.
The Germans proclaimed that if the Dutch did not cease resistance, other cities and Amsterdam would meet with the same fate.
The next day Dutch command ordered to lay down arms in the densily populated provinces of Holland. However, not in the south of the Netherlands where the fight continued longer.
If you read reports of those days, the anger and frustration among Dutch troops is striking. Not only among the unbeaten defenders of the Enclosure Dam.
Most parts of the Water Defence Line had not been challenged yet. The soldiers there still felt very confident. Surrender came as a shock for them.
When they stacked up their arms, there were tears and curses. And massive destruction of weapons to prevent enemy use, until Dutch command commanded that to stop.
The Dutch could certainly have kept on fighting on many places, but the large picture showed a desperate situation. Stopping the German war machine would prove impossible in the end, and the prize considered too high, after the bombing of Rotterdam.
The eastern Enclosure Dam defences are now part of the Casemates Museum.
What happened in 1940 is explained there, and also the fierce fighting of April 1945, when Canadian forces had to dislodge the Germans from these same bunkers.
During the cold war the fortifications were in military use and forbidden ground.
This explains why we today can visit very intact fortifications. With of course here and there visible scars of May 1940.
Jan van Dokkum was machine gunner in one of the casemates.
May 13 - Under fire:
Every time the casemate was hit by one of them shells ... what a bang that was !
We just sat there, thinking ... 'we're all gonna die now'...
That horrible noise ... surely, nothing could withstand that shelling.
After 45 minutes, an hour, it stopped.
One man went out to see what the damage was. But there were only a couple of black spots on the concrete.
Then we said to ourselves : 'these pillboxes are just great !'
May 15 - Capitulation:
I was sitting behind my machine gun when Belder, the telephone operator, rushed in and said: 'cut it out ! cut it out ! it's all over ! it's all over !'
We all were in tears.
Terrible ... we had no losses .. everything was intact ... despite all those Germans had done ... the shooting, the bombing, the shelling.
Everything was whole and intact, and we all were there in one piece, and then they told us 'it's over'!
Towards half five in the afternoon we all had to go to the road and stack our weapons ... just throw them on a pile ...
So sad ... we all cried.
So humiliating ...
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