The Battle for The Hague (Dutch: Slag om Den Haag) was a battle fought on 10 May 1940 during the German invasion of the Netherlands during World War Two. German Fallschirmjäger units were dropped in and around The Hague in order to capture Dutch airfields and the city itself.
After securing a bridgehead, the Germans had expected the Dutch to capitulate on the same day. They failed to achieve this objective, since German forces were unable to hold onto their initial gains after the Dutch, having regrouped, launched effective counter-attacks. Isolated pockets of German troops led by Hans von Sponeck retreated to the nearby dunes, where they were continually pursued and harassed for five days, until the Dutch commander-in-chief Henri Winkelman was forced to surrender because of major setbacks on other fronts.
The Germans planned (code name “Fall Festung”) to catch the Dutch off guard, allowing them to isolate the head of the Dutch Army. Their intention was to fly over the Netherlands, in order to lull the Dutch into thinking that the UK was their target. This was to be followed by approaching the country from the direction of the North Sea, attacking the airfields at Ypenburg, Ockenburg and Valkenburg to weaken potential Dutch defences before taking The Hague. It was expected that Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and Henri Winkelman, commander-in-chief of the Dutch army, might agree at this point to surrender. However, if the Dutch did not surrender, German plans were to cut off all roads leading to The Hague in order to quell any subsequent Dutch counter-attack. One of their main goals was the capture of the Queen and members of the Dutch government, as captured plans would show. These so-called “Sponeck papers” contained details and a map for the German paratroopers that had landed at Ockenburg Airstrip. These troops were unable to penetrate the defence of The Hague and the plan failed.
10 May 1940
The German Invasion
As planned, the Luftwaffe flew over the Netherlands in the early morning hours of 10 May, but rather than deceiving the citizens of The Hague, their passage alarmed them. A different group of German airplanes 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 were killed respectively. The other German air group circled back from the sea and bombed the airfield at Ypenburg at approximately 04:15. Immediately thereafter, transport planes began dropping paratroopers in several waves onto the field and its surroundings, though Dutch machine gun fire inflicted casualties and scattered their landings. Many planes were forced to land, either damaged or destroyed by the defenders, which blocked further arrivals. German troops attacked and occupied the airfield’s main building and raised the German flag to signal victory. In spite of this, the Dutch managed to prevent the Germans from advancing beyond Ypenburg to enter The Hague.
Around the same time, German troops were dropped at the airstrip in Ockenburg. The defenders were unable to prevent the Germans from taking the airfield, but were able to delay them long enough to secure the arrival of additional Dutch infantry units, thus preventing Germans from advancing into The Hague. As the Germans were using Ockenburg airfield to strengthen their numbers, the Dutch bombed it to prevent the landing strip from being used any further.
Valkenburg airfield was only partially constructed at the time, but as with Ypenburg, the Germans troops bombed the airfield prior to dropping troops, causing heavy casualties among the defenders. Although subsequent waves of paratroopers also sustained heavy casualties, the defenders were unable to prevent the airfield from falling into the hands of the German invaders. However, because of the airfield’s partial construction, the Germans could not take off from it, which rendered further transports unable to land. Many landed on the nearby beaches and were destroyed by Dutch planes, and shelling from the Dutch destroyer HNLMS Van Galen. Following several ground skirmishes, German troops occupied the village of Valkenburg as well as some of the bridges and buildings at Katwijk, along the Old Rhine.
The Dutch Counter-Offensive
Although the German troops managed to capture the three airfields, they failed in their primary objective of taking the city of 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 suitable enough to launch artillery attacks against the airfield, heavily damaging it. German troops were forced to evacuate the airfield’s burning buildings, losing their strong defensive position. The Dutch grenadiers managed to recapture the airfield, as well as capturing many German soldiers in subsequent skirmishes.
Four Dutch Fokker T.Vs bombed Ockenburg airfield, destroying idle Junkers Ju 52s. Dutch troops then followed up with an assault, forcing the Germans to retreat. The Dutch still managed to capture several POWs. However, a pocket of German troops withdrew to the nearby woods and successfully held off any additional attacks by Dutch troops, whom shortly thereafter disengaged and were redirected towards Loosduinen, which allowed the Germans to head back towards Rotterdam.
Having sealed off Leiden and Wassenaar, the Dutch recaptured an important bridge near Valkenburg. After the arrival of reinforcements, they began to harassing the Germans on the ground. At the same time Dutch bombers managed to destroy grounded German transport planes. The Germans put up a defence on the outskirts of the airfield, but were forced to retreat because of heavy concentrated 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 pockets on both sides; the Dutch with artillery support from nearby Oegstgeest. The village was heavily damaged as result.
By the end of the day Dutch forces had retaken the airfields, but the tactical victory was short-lived. On 14 May, the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Rotterdam forced General Winkelman to capitulate.
Aftermath and Legacy
The remaining German forces that had escaped from the airfields ended up scattered over the dunes in the area. Von Sponeck was ordered to assist the attack on Rotterdam. On his way to Rotterdam, Von Sponeck’s isolated group twice avoided Dutch traps, but still 1,600 troops under his command were captured, with 1,200 being shipped to the UK as POWs. He was eventually forced to dig in with as many as 1,100 men and only managed to avoid capture himself because of the strategic bombing of Rotterdam on 14 May, which some speculate was because of Hermann Göring’s insistence on preventing Von Sponeck’s humiliation in face of certain defeat. A pocket of German paratroops managed to ward off enemy attacks at the village of Valkenburg until the Dutch surrender. The Dutch Queen and cabinet were able to flee to Britain and constitute a government-in-exile.
The Dutch suffered 515 killed. One bomber was shot down following a raid on Ockenburg. German estimates list of their own 134 killed, whereas Dutch sources estimate 400 Germans were killed, 700 wounded, and 1,745 captured. German material losses include 182 transport aircraft, mostly Ju 52s. This heavy loss of aircraft was unforeseen, with Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring stating after the war that the subsequent aircraft shortage directly contributed to the Luftwaffe’s defeat in the Battle of Britain, and was the cause of heavy German casualties during the invasion of Crete. The preferred method of landing their troops was no longer feasible, necessitating an airborne assault.