Saturday, June 23, 2012

Window Into the Past: Rotterdam Destroyed: the Bombing of May 1940

This series will showcase historical research I have done in order to write the biographies of the Wesselo siblings. This research spans the time from 1865 (when the first sibling was born) until 1989 (when the last of the siblings and spouses died). The focus of this series is sometimes broad – dealing with nation-wide events – and at other times very local. It’s always related to something a specific ancestor encountered, but without using sources that name that ancestor.

On 10 May 1940 Germany begins its attack on the Netherlands. Early on the Germans land with water-planes near Maasbruggen, which are the bridges spanning the river Maas in Rotterdam. The Dutch army is not able to re-take the bridges, but manage to halt the enemy. Both armies are now firing at each other across the river, in the middle of the city.

It’s the start of five days of heavy battle. Between the 10th of May and 14th of May at least 20 air strikes hit Rotterdam. Half of them by the German Luftwaffe, 5 by the Dutch air force, and 5 by the British Royal Air Force. A very heavy air strike by the Luftwaffe hits Rotterdam around midnight on May 11th. Their target are the police barracks at the Westersingel and the marine barracks at the Robert Fruinstraat. But the air strike doesn’t hit just those targets, and 40 people are killed that night.

On Tuesday 14 May 1940 the heaviest air strike hits Rotterdam. High officials in the German army order it to pressure the Dutch government into surrendering. Between 13.27 and circa 13.40 the Luftwaffe executes a big surface-bombing of Rotterdam-centre, Kralingen and Rotterdam-North. This air strike destroys over 30.000 houses and buildings. This single air strike kills between 800 and 900 people.

After the air strike Rotterdam surrenders to the Germans. Between 850 and 950 civilians have died in the five days the battle lasted. 185 Dutch military men were lost as well, 33 from the Royal Marines and 152 from the Royal Army.

Directly after the air strike of 14 May, fires erupt all over the bombed area and the hard wind only feeds the fire. The fire department can’t do much in these circumstances, much of their equipment is lost and water sources are unreachable. Tens of thousands of civilians flee the inferno that once was the centre of Rotterdam. The fire spreads over the city – even those areas not hit by the original air strike – and it isn’t until the 16th of May that the largest of the fires are doused. Over 250 hectare of the city is completely or partially in ruins.

It were these days in Rotterdam that Lodewijk Wesselo and his family – living right in the middle of the area that was bombed – survived. Even with his story on paper in his own words and these statistics, I still can’t imagine how it must have been. And honestly, I pray I never know.

Youtube movie (6.56 min) with impressions of Rotterdam before and after the bombardment, made by Pieter Ras, posted under John Doe.