Rotterdam bombed, RAF suffer major losses

The destruction of Dutch bridges only delayed the German forces - Pioneer troops building a temporary bridge at Maastricht, 14th May 1940.

Dutch soldiers with white flag

Dutch officers moving preparing to negotiate with German forces in Rotterdam

The Dutch garrison in Rotterdam had successfully halted the German advance on the city’s riverbank but now faced much stronger German forces, including the 9th Panzer Division and SS troops. The Dutch were in the process of negotiating with Germans when they were subjected to a massive air raid. The incident continues to attract controversy. The German commander had intended to make a combined assault supported by dive bombers to hit specific targets but Heinkel III general bombers were allotted to the raid, and the German land forces were unable to call them off whilst their negotiations continued. The area bombers eventually dropped around 100 tons on the medieval heart of Rotterdam’s commercial district. A square mile of the city was virtually flattened. Nearly a thousand people were killed, although war time estimates by the Allies put the figure at 25-30,000.

The incident led to the immediate surrender of Rotterdam and very shortly afterwards the Dutch government decided they could not risk other cities being bombed and sought an armistice. The British changed their bombing policy as a consequence, having previously avoided civilian industrial targets – on the 15th May they attacked the German industrial centre of the Ruhr for the first time.

Bombing damage to the medieval city of Rotterdam

Elsewhere the French were facing difficulties with the potential to cause equal disaster to their nation. The surprise German approach through the Ardennes had enabled them to establish a bridgehead at Sedan, and armoured columns were pouring over a pontoon bridge. The French High Command called for a supreme effort at Sedan, where their ground forces suddenly appeared very vulnerable. The whole strength of the Allied bombers in France were thrown against the Sedan bridgehead in a series of waves.

Soon after noon the few French aircraft available went into action. Attacking bridges and columns of troops, they suffered losses so severe that their remaining operations for the day were cancelled.

Fairey Battle aircraft in flight

A pre war picture of the Fairey Battle, which carried a rear gunner and observer/navigator in an unarmoured cockpit.

In the afternoon all available RAF Battles and Blenheims were despatched to the same target. The Fairy Battle light bomber was the only British aircraft capable of attacking specific targets, and it had successfully attacked German transport when there was little opposition. However it was 100 an hour miles slower than the German fighters and poorly armed. It was obsolete but the British had no alternative. In the face of German fighters and organised air defence it was extremely vulnerable, and losses were high:

No. 12 Squadron (Battle) – lost four out of five
No. 88 Squadron (Battle) – lost one out of ten
No. 103 Squadron (Battle) – lost three out of eight
No. 105 Squadron (Battle) – lost six out of eleven
No. 114 Squadron (Blenheim) – lost one out of two
No. 139 Squadron (Blenheim) – lost four out of six
No. 142 Squadron (Battle) – lost four out of eight
No. 150 Squadron (Battle) – lost four out of four
No. 218 Squadron (Battle) – lost ten out of eleven
No. 226 Squadron (Battle) – lost three out of six

In all, from the seventy-one bombers which took off, forty did not return. No higher rate of loss has ever been experienced by the Royal Air Force.

Amongst those lost Flying Officer Donald Edward GARLAND and Sergeant Thomas GRAY, who were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross:

Flying Officer Garland was the pilot and Sergeant Gary the observer of the leading aircraft of a formation of five aircraft that attacked a bridge over the Albert Canal which had not been destroyed and was allowing the enemy to advance into Belgium. All the aircrews of the squadron concerned volunteered for the operation and, after five crews had been selected by drawing lots, the attack was delivered at low altitude against this vital target. Orders were issued that this bridge was to be destroyed at all costs. As had been anticipated, exceptionally intense machine gun and anti-aircraft fire was encountered, and the bridge area was heavily protected by enemy fighters.

In spite of this the formation successfully delivered a dive bombing attack from the lowest practicable altitude and British Fighters in the vicinity. Only one aircraft returned from this mission out of the five concerned. The pilot of this aircraft reports that in addition to the extremely heavy anti-aircraft fire, through which our aircraft dived to attack the objective, they were also attacked by a large number of enemy fighters after they had released their bombs on the target. Much of the success of this vital operation must be attributed to the formation leader, Flying Officer Garland, and to the coolness and resource of Sergeant Gray, who navigated Flying Officer Garland’s aircraft under most difficult conditions in such a manner that the whole formation was able successfully to attack the target in spite of subsequent heavy losses. Flying Officer Garland and Sergeant Gray unfortunately failed to return from the mission.

In Belgium, the British Expeditionary Force including the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were consolidating the positions that they had just moved forward to:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Tuesday 14th May

Company continued digging today. Coy comdrs spent day reconnoitring position along [railway] embankment at la Hulpe. Took Peter, Kerr and Fleming down there afterwards. It was a very hot day and we put in an enjoyable half hour in a cafe when finished. On returning found there had been considerably more enemy air activity this morning, but no great damage done.

The leave party (officers) returned yesterday. CO., Ronnie Haig, Joey, No sign of Peke, David Macdonald must have gone straight to the base. This evening we spent opening and alloting houses as billets, all being evacuated by now. As it happened, were unable to make use of them as the trenches had to be manned tonight. Coy H.Q. dug good trench full size in very short line. With petrol cookers and Lorder(?) did not spend a bad night.

Self: 6 miles marching Coy: Nil.

[Entry No.5, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

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