Home Page

The Netherlands

NL Military flooding

Some NL history

American bombs over Dutch towns in World War II

American bombers accidentally destroyed the center of Nijmegen on 22 February 1944. Three other Dutch cities fell under attack that day, all mistaken for German territory during a quest for targets of opportunity after a failed mission over Nazi industrial sites.

About 800 people died in Nijmegen — as many as in the Nazi destruction of Rotterdam. Thousands lay wounded. Enschede, Arnhem, and Deventer, also near the border, also suffered American bombardment on what many Dutch people consider to be the worst day of the Second World War.

The attack struck Nijmegen from a clear blue sky at 1:30 in the afternoon, obliterating most of the inner city and eliminating its train station. The "jewel of Holland," arguably the oldest city in the Netherlands, fell into rubble in a few minutes of intense bombardment.

"Operation Argument," the mission that went awry on that day, was an immensely complicated plan, the largest Allied bombing run to that date — intent upon the total destruction of Nazi air capability.

Hundreds of bombers were to fly in coordinated groups of smaller coordinated groups, in a pattern of movement that would be difficult with modern technology on a clear day in peacetime.

Aside from the deep complexity of the task of moving hundreds of bombers into combat, the weather conditions that the mission would require were specific. "Operation Argument" would need a deck of clouds over England and clear skies over Germany — clouds to obscure the formation of battle-groups, and clear skies to allow visual targeting. Plans would have to be tightly synchronized between thousands of people and would have to wait for command on short notice calibrated upon prediction of the weather.

The Americans had developed a method of large-scale bombardment that was more effective — but more complicated — than that of the British. The British had been overflying targets in the form of a queue — a straight line, tip to tail. This method, clearly easier to plan, made easy targets of any but the first several craft.

In the American sytem, battle groups formed around the element of three aircraft — one in lead; another behind, right, and above; the other behind, left and below. Four groups of these, and three groups of those groups, would make an arrangement of 36 craft that would appear from ground-level to be flying almost at wingtip to each other.

These 36 bombers in formation, a "battle group," could overfly a target within moments, and at the command of the lead craft release a massive load of ordnance with an advantage of surprise.

But the organization and movement of such formations — difficult in ideal conditions — went horrifically wrong over The Netherlands on the 22nd of February 1944.

In order to form the battle groups, individual planes departed a given airfield, one or two every minute depending upon conditions, and rose in a great circle around a vertical radio beam which coordinated their arrangement "in place." This battle group would then depart for a second position above another vertical radio beam, where the group would form position relative to another battle group — and in this way organize the pattern for onward movement, into territory where the radio contact would be strategically limited.

Over Germany, each battle group had a list of three targets arranged in order of priority. The primary objective of this particular day was the aircraft factory in Gotha, not far across the border. In case the primary goal was unachievable, the battle group was to attempt goal number two, and of course the same directive would apply onward to number three.

If none of the three pre-selected objectives were achievable, the leader of the battle group would be under orders to select a "target of opportunity."

The clouds that unexpectedly covered every specified objective over German territory that day seem to have been the doom of the unfortunate eastern Dutch cities on that hard day — that and the bad fortune of the error of humans under great stress on a mission of extreme complexity.

In the confusion of moving about in a heirarchy of priority targeting, and responding to the logistics of re-directing massive groups of large airplanes along huge arcs — under fire, and in limited radio-contact — the American crews didn't realize that the cities just across the border from Germany were indeed in The Netherlands.

In 2005, the Dutch War Studies Commission determined that, rumors aside, the Allied bombing of The Netherlands was indeed accidental.*

__   ___   __

*In 2005, the Dutch Institute for War Documentation concluded that the bombardment of Nijmegen was accidental.

The principal reference was the book "De Fatale Aanval," published in 1984 by Alfons Brinkhuis, an amateur historian. The Institute called Brinkhuis' work "definitive."

  • Return to "accidental" ...