The capture of the Willems Bridge at Rotterdam was an important first day objective for German air landing and Paratroops taking part in the invasion of Holland. These comprised a Railway Bridge and a road bridge known as Willemsbrug. The former was of limited use to the invasion forces because it had been examined pre war and considered not suited to the passage of tanks due to it being on a steep raised embankment that would make getting on and off it difficult. The Willemsbrug was however a traffic bridge which although old, had a good carrying capacity and was reasonably wide. The particular value of these bridges was because they were the only ones across the NiewMaas River near the valuable shipping port of Rotterdam.
The German main body were to be provided by the Luftwaffe and land at the Dutch airfield of Waalhaven via a Para drop and Ju52 transports. After seizing this they would then press on to other objectives and hold them all until the arrival of major land forces spearheaded by the 9th Panzer Division. The first attackers would be the III battalion, 1st Fallschirmjaeger, supported by a reserve battalion of the II Fallschirmjaeger, who were to secure the airfield to enable transport aircraft of the air landing troops to put them on the ground. These were the 22nd Air Landing Division, some elements of the 16th Infantry regiment. The 72nd Infantry Regiment would form a reserve.
It was decided early in the planning phase that if there was any sort of delay at Waalhaven Airfield, the Dutch may have time to blow the bridges before German forces could arrive. German intelligence had already concluded the bridges would be unguarded but once the Dutch were aware of the German invasion there was uncertainty as to how long it would take the Dutch to prepare the bridges for demolition. Naval Marines stationed in the harbour, were believed quite capable of this, and other depot troops could well be designated for such a task if equipment was available.
A plan was developed by which troops would be landed on the river, either side of the bridges, via some old and expendable He59 floatplanes. A dozen were allocated and modified to carry ten troops each. Each carried several inflatable boats to enable the troops to get ashore. This small force was expected to have to hold on for only a few hours. Rotterdam itself had few troops under arms. Most of the facilities were transit barracks, recruiting offices, and some minor depots. Therefore a small well armed group should be able to seize and hold the bridges. To provide ‘back up’ a small force of Fallschirmjaeger would parachute into the football stadium south of the bridgehead.
The He 59Ds swept in over Rotterdam around 0500 and in the light of dawn, landed on the Maas. The troops quickly disembarked and paddled ashore where Dutch civilians, unaware war had broken out, were on their way to work. The civilians watched with amazement, many apparently believing these were visiting troops and even helped them up the steep embankment from the river. It would take some time for most of the civil population to realise what was going on, after which their curiosity and determination to be spectators caused them to become something of a nuisance. The invaders quickly moved to hold both ends of the Willemsbrug while small parties took up position in some nearby buildings and used the higher railway bridge to gain elevated firing positions. The only incident occurred when some Dutch Police attempted to stop them putting up roadblocks and were killed. ObLt. Schrader commanding the assault group was now in charge of the bridgehead.
Meanwhile the Para drop at the Stadium had resulted in the troops becoming rather scattered and it was feared the delay may be fatal for the success of the operation. However passing trams were commandeered and the group successfully rattled its way to the bridgehead. Once united the two sections of the German force used parked cars, the tram, and other items to block the approaches from the north, in expectation of a Dutch counter attack.
Gradually the Dutch had been recovering from the initial surprise, and working out what could be done. Engineer Colonel Scharroo was in command, but had only a few troops who were armed and combat trained. Fortunately nearly all of them were on the northern side of the river. During the day groups of men became available as soldiers on leave from various Dutch regiments reported in to the nearest barracks on hearing war had broken out. As this group grew it was realised that there were only sufficient weapons for about one in seven. Rotterdam was not a major training centre and had only a small armoury. Most weapons were given to the most competent or best trained. Fortunately the 39th Infantry, who had been responsible for guarding various areas, had their own.
Scharroo did however have a full battery of twelve 10.5cm Bofors Howitzers which could command most of Rotterdam without even leaving their barracks. In addition he was reasonably well served by AA units, which although most were light, several were stationed along the NiewMaas. One of these batteries was of 20mm Olerikon and was on the north side of the river and subsequently able to provide AA fire during bombing attacks by German support aircraft.
Scharroo’s position was not helped by confusing intelligence coming into his HQ. From this, it appeared other small groups of Germans had parachuted in to various parts of the north Rotterdam, where they were spreading panic. Some were even supposed to be disguised as Police, Nuns, and Postmen. Although investigating these reports did draw off some of his men, he realised that the main enemy objective would be the bridges and commenced concentrating his forces. The first to be sent to the bridges was an under strength machinegun company of the 39th Regiment. They were ordered to take up positions from which they could prevent any further German advance into North Rotterdam.
On the southern side, a company of the 39th Infantry regiment were re-enforced by some strays from the Dutch Jaeger Regiment originally at the airfield, and some other depot type troops. Lacking other orders they decided to set up an ambush in the streets leading from the Waalhaven to the bridges. This would delay the main body of air landing troops for nine hours before they succeeded in breaking through, although some small units found ways around the ambush area.