Chapter III: The Lion’s Den
October 1, 1936
Just over 6 kilometers from Amersterdam’s city center, I. Abteilung, 1. Panzer Regiment, 2. Panzer-Division was fighting its way through the tenacious resistance of the of the Javanese colonials that had been deployed to defend the eastern approaches to the city. Oberleutnant Günther Taubert and the four surviving PzKpfw Is under his command had been in intermittent combat for almost two hours. It was now mid-afternoon, and Taubert sat atop tank 211 with the hatch open for greater visibility. Binoculars hung from his neck, but as the landscape around them became increasingly urban as they drove westward, tunnel vision could rapidly become lethal.
They were coming to a fork in the road. Taubert picked up his two signal flags and ordered the three other light tanks of 1. Zug, 2. Panzer Kompanie to go right.
He called down to his driver, Gefreiter Witz: “Right at the intersection.”
They were racing through a sprawling residential neighborhood, trying to reach the docks and cut off the escape of dignitaries and secret papers onto the British destroyer waiting there. It had been a perilous ride into the city, though. The country beyond the Vecht bridges suddenly opened up as the panzers raced toward Amsterdam along the Nijkerk highway. Here, the road ran along the shore of the IJmeer, where three British destroyers sat at anchor, shelling the German armor as it advanced on the city. The panzers had been forced to sprint across a 2 kilometer stretch of highway that was fully exposed to the punishing British gunfire.
British destroyers HMS Duncan (pictured), HMS Diamond and HMS Scimitar anchored in the shallow IJmeer to bombard German forces as they entered the city. Meanwhile, HMS Basilisk took on those members of the government who had been trapped in Amsterdam by advancing Wehrmacht forces.
Taubert was still jittery. Tank 214 had taken a direct hit from one of the destroyers’ huge shells a kilometer back up the road. The round had hit at a very shallow angle, burrowing into the crew compartment and blowing the back half of the small vehicle off completely. Schmidt and Petra, the driver and commander, had been killed instantly.
The crews of the surviving tanks had been immensely relieved to slip into the protected suburbs and out of immediate danger. Looking ahead, he saw dozens of plumes of dark smoke winding into the sky from points all over Amsterdam -- results of the Luftwaffe bombing and the light artillery exchanges that had occurred as fighting closed in on the Dutch capital. A steady rumble of of explosions and gunfire shook the city, and now and then Taubert caught the distant drone of aircraft engines. He could sense that the Javanese were beginning to break, as small arms fire in the vicinity faded considerably.
German PzKpfw I races toward the heart of Amsterdam. Defensive destruction of the city’s more than one thousand bridges proved impracticable.
So went the campaign. Despite resistance much fiercer and more spirited than anticipated, and despite Dutch success in destroying many of the southern bridges, Operation Gewürz had gone forward with irresistible force. Concern persisted about a rapidly coalescing pocket of stable defenses around the Hague, but Taubert and the other tankers knew that the window for the British Army to arrive and tip the balance was very nearly closed, if it wasn’t already. The day before, a besieged Rotterdam had fallen when attacked from the rear by elite units carried by motorboats and seaplanes. The Grebbe Line had cracked, with most of its inundation zones kept dry by the action of small teams of glider troops. Rumors of an upcoming attack upon the Hague with the main body of assault pioneers had thus far proven unfounded. German propaganda encouraged fear and uncertainty about when and where the victors of Eben-Emael would strike again.
Movement along a narrow sidewalk caught Taubert’s attention, and he ducked down into the turret and closed the hatch just as a dark face in a Dutch helmet darted into the roadway with a rifle and knelt. Taubert fired the PzKpfw I’s twin machine guns right at him. The man momentarily disappeared in a cloud of dust and asphalt. It cleared, revealing a motionless blood-stained body. Taubert felt Witz slow the tank to steer around it.
The sharp clink of rifle bullets against the hull alerted Taubert to the presence of more Javanese. Where were they? He peered through the narrow viewport, trying to see where the shots were coming from. From behind, Taubert heard the deeper clatter of tank 212’s machine guns and saw the corner of a nearby building disintegrate into yellow plaster dust.
There were no more shots. Heart pounding, Taubert opened the hatch, and after several more seconds, pulled himself back into the commander’s seat. He scanned both sides of the street. No more enemies were visible. He retrieved his signal flags and ordered the following tanks to increase speed.
To Witz: “Increase speed to 50 kilometers per hour.”
The tanks bounded down the well-tended streets, straining their gears to make it deeper into the city. The frequent report of the destroyers’ guns from across the water spurred them onward.
In the distance, there appeared to be a burning vehicle of some kind in the street. Taubert raised his binoculars to his eyes. The vibration of the tank prevented him from resolving an image.
“Slow to 20 kilometers per hour.” The tank slowed.
Taubert raised the binoculars again. The image was still too shaky.
“Slow to 10 kilometers per hour.” The tanks were crawling now, and Taubert could at last make out something through the binoculars. A small truck was turned on its side and was burning fiercely, throwing curls of black smoke smoke high into the air. There were men behind it. Taubert stilled his breathing. He counted at least ten men with rifles, probably Javanese. He was struck in an instant by how narrow he had allowed his focus to become. Dropping the binoculars, he scanned the street and buildings around him.
Taubert turned to find the other tanks stopping a short distance behind. He retrieved the small city map that had been issued to him, and stared at it under the cover of the open hatch. He traced their position with a grimy fingernail. Taubert was far from certain that he was correct in his reading of the map, but its poor quality afforded him no better information. He turned back to his other tanks. They were close enough to hail by voice, but with the crackle of gunfire and the throb of the gasoline engines, hearing would be difficult. He conveyed his message with the signal flags. Reverse to previous street. Maintain formation. Taubert passed the order on to Witz.
Starting with tank 215 in the rear, the panzers of 1. Zug threw their engines into reverse and crawled back up the street. A few desultory shots from the men behind the roadblock -- now evidently aware of the panzers’ presence -- were enough to force Taubert down into the turret, but did no further harm.
After a minute, the treads of Taubert’s tank finally drew level with the nearest cross-street. He ordered the tanks down it at full speed. 2. Zug was not far behind, and Taubert judged that he could count on Oberleutnant Bauer’s five tanks to provide support if they blundered into stiff resistance.
“Bear right, then bring it back up to 50.” The line of nine tanks was now hurtling toward the docks at the eastern edge of the North Sea Canal. Occasionally, Taubert caught glimpses of the British destroyer in the gaps between buildings. It was no more than a thousand meters away. Taubert caught glimpses of civilians, mainly on foot, trying to make it to the British vessel, but they stayed well clear of the onrushing panzers.
The evacuation from an embattled Amsterdam left the Venice of the North in desperate chaos.
Bent down to read the grainy map, Taubert heard a yell from Witz as they rounded a corner. The tank lurched to a stop. Instinctively, Taubert slipped down into the turret and closed the hatch. Looking through the viewport, Taubert gaped. The intersection was full of horsemen. There were easily fifty of them -- old-fashioned cavalrymen in crisp dark blue uniforms with red piping. They wore cloth caps, not helmets, and their breasts were not covered by cuirasses, but they were clearly some sort of ceremonial guard. They were wearing sabers, but the few armed men he saw carried pistols or carbines.
The surprise on their faces was total. Taubert’s fingers rested on his triggers. He heard Feldwebel Presky’s tank 212 pull up next to him on the far right side of the street to lend its support. That he had managed to hold his fire was admirable. Taubert couldn’t tell whether seconds or minutes had elapsed.
Out of nowhere, a black automobile sped through the intersection heading toward the docks, between what must have been a gap in the cavalrymen’s formation. He deduced almost immediately what had just happened -- and had barely decided not to open fire, when Presky’s twin MG-13s cackled to life. Taubert now had no choice. He added tank 211’s firepower to the fight, and in seconds, the combined four machine guns’ rapid fire scythed the cavalry down.
It was sickening, but Taubert fought to think clearly. “Ahead as fast as it will go and make a right at the intersection!” he roared to Witz below him.
The delicate tracks of the Panzerkampfwagon I were not designed for particularly heavy obstacles, and despite Witz’ best maneuvering, they became stuck in the mass of fallen horses and men midway through the intersection. Taubert turned the turret to find the black automobile moving rapidly toward the crowded docks, which were now in sight at the far end of the street.
Taubert fired a warning burst over the roof of the car. Seeing that it was not slowing, he knew that he had only seconds to get a clean shot. He held down the triggers, riddling the rear bumper and back tires with bullets. The car skidded to a halt.
Throwing the hatch open, Taubert surveyed the situation. 2. Zug was now forcing its way through the left side of the wide intersection, and Oberleutnant Bauer’s tank 221 was already racing up the cross-street in the direction that the automobile came from, where a few surviving cavalrymen seemed to be retreating.
The engine roared and chugged, and with a heavy thud the front of the tank landed back on level ground. Taubert signaled for the tanks behind him to reverse to give him room to maneuver. Witz took tank 211 back a little bit further, and Taubert finally ordered it back through the littered intersection with a running start.
They made it. Taubert ordered Witz to approach the stricken automobile, whose occupants were now starting to open the doors. As the panzer pulled up behind it, four men and a red-haired women cautiously emerged, their hands held high in the air. They were well-dressed and the woman was wearing a comically absurd amount of ostentatious jewelry.
“Here,” she said, calling up in German to the black-uniformed tanker, “take this and let us go.” She removed a golden chain from around her neck and flung it up to him. Taubert caught the bad throw easily. The chain was set with five huge blue jewels, each the size of a cherry. “Please! For the love of God, take it and let us go.”
“Take your glass and brass and try to bribe the prison guards, madam.” Taubert tossed it back down to her. “You and all the others must walk with your hands up back to the intersection where you will be attended to in accordance with the laws of war.”
“You oaf!” the woman screamed. “You can’t arrest us! We -- we -- we have diplomatic immunity. My husband here is Ambassador to the League of Nations! Leave us at once!” She was sobbing.
“Leave the engine on, Witz. I’m getting out, but if you start taking fire from the destroyer or anything down the street, get out of here. Clear?”
Taubert unholstered his service pistol and climbed down from the tank. “Walk.”
As he marched the five Dutch back up the street toward the intersection, he ordered Presky’s 212 into position abreast of tank 211 on the narrow street. Tanks 213 and 215 idled behind them. He could see that 3. Zug was just now arriving at the intersection, along with the stern commander of 2. Kompanie, Hauptmann Bruckelt.
Taubert came to attention next to Bruckelt’s tank. “This road has been secured, Herr Hauptmann. Tank 214 was lost with both crewmen on the road here. All other tanks and crew unharmed.”
Bruckelt eyed his first platoon commander with approval and pulled the cigar from his mouth. “Good. Who are these prisoners?”
“Apparently the Dutch ambassador to the League of Nations, Herr Hauptmann. We got into a fight with these cavalry,” Taubert gestured at the bodies all around him, “and stopped a car that was trying to evacuate to the destroyer.”
“Good work, Taubert. Leave the prisoners here. I’m sending 3. Zug closer to the docks to engage more evacuees. You are to return to your men and take 1. Zug deeper into the city after Blauer and his tanks. You must hurry. I have called for reinforcements and we may find ourselves under heavy fire soon.”
“Yes, Herr Hauptmann.”
“Do you know who those cavalry were, Taubert?”
“No, Herr Hauptmann.”
“Those are Netherlands Royal Guards. That means that as likely as not, there are still members of the royal family loose in this city trying to make it to the destroyer, probably very close. It is our job to get to them first. Clear?”
Taubert paused, taking in the smoking chaotic enormity that was Amsterdam. “Clear.”