One thing that emerged from the battlefields of the First World War was the tank. Although the Netherlands remained neutral during the war, its consequences were felt nonetheless, and all events and technological advancements were followed with great interest. As such, the invention of the tank did not go unnoticed. Although the war ended in 1918, it was not until 1927 that the Dutch Army could proudly announce that they had acquired a French Renault FT light tank. It would remain their only tank before the Second World War.
The Dutch Renault FT during one of the many public tests that took place throughout the country between 1927-1930. Photo: Nationaal Militair Museum
After the Great War, the Dutch government faced several problems. There were diplomatic problems, such as the question of whether to join the League of Nations or not, territorial problems, such as the Belgian claim on Dutch land, and financial problems. The war had crippled the economy as trade was reduced significantly and mobilization during the war had consumed a lot of money. As a result, the military had lost most of its political and social support, with defense spending being especially despised. General mobilization during the First World War had ‘wasted’ a lot of financial resources and the trade with Germany, which was very important for the Dutch industry, had nearly disappeared. Obligatory military service was seen as a burden on both the people and economy, and the terrifying images of the Great War lead to a strive for disarmament.
Combined with the thought that the Dutch polder landscape was too swampy for tanks to operate properly in, and the fact that the tank had not yet completely proven its indispensable value in battle, the General Staff decided that no tanks were to be bought, neither to trial, to familiarise the army with tanks, or to operate with the army’s operational structure.
Several years passed after the war without a real desire to acquire tanks, and even armored vehicles in general, until 1925, when plans were made to buy one tank, only for testing purposes. On October 6th, 1925, the Minister of War, Mr. J.M.J.H. Lambooy, ordered the technical trade association Greve & Co. to buy one Renault FT from France. Greve & Co. imported European cars and was located in The Hague.
There was a problem, however, as the Ministry did not want to pay more than 25.000 guilders (US$125.377 in 2015 absolute worth). As such, negotiations would take two years until the tank, without armament installed, finally arrived in the Netherlands. A special Vechtwagen Commissie (Eng: Tank Committee) was established which had to test and evaluate the vehicle in different circumstances and conditions. The Infantry Inspector was in charge of the committee which consisted out of four officers: Captain B.C. van Erckelens, Captain K.A. Rövekamp, First Lieutenant F.G. Dürst Britt, and First Lieutenant N.J. Jelgersma. One of their first notes was the heavy damage that the tank caused on the roads, so a special trailer was built which had to be towed by a tractor. Both the tank and the tractor with its trailer suffered many breakdowns and were often in repair.
The tank while being loaded on the special built trailer. Source: Nationaal Militair Museum
The tank acquired by the Dutch Army was the standard FT from 1917, but without fitted armament. Instead, a 7.92 mm M.08 Schwarzlose machine gun was rather crudely fitted by the Artillerie Inrichtingen Hembrug (Eng: Artillery Establishments Hembridge) after the vehicle arrived in 1927.
Other changes included a handle which was mounted on both sides of the vehicle, spanning over the engine bay just behind the turret. A wrench was uniquely put on the left front lower side of the suspension-covering armor plate. After the modifications were executed, the vehicle was sent to the Ripperda Barracks in the city of Haarlem, its home base.
This picture was taken on March 3, 1928, during a trial in the dunes near Katwijk which was also attended by members of the royal family, including Queen Wilhelmina. The Dutch modifications are visible in this images, including a handle on the engine deck behind the turret, two attachment bits on the front hull side, a Schwarzlose machine gun, and the wrench placement. Photo: BeeldbankWO2
Basic field testing started during the course of 1927, but the first major test to be carried out before the eyes of the press, government, and army officials was on April 12th, 1928. The area chosen was a peat polder behind Huis Ten Bosch Palace in The Hague. The tank’s main challenge would be to cross a ditch with a width of approximately 1.4 meters.
The tank completely failed the test and ditched itself into the mud. Unable to reverse, it had to be dug out. The story was widely covered in the Dutch press and positively approached, because, as it seemed, hostile tanks would never be able to maneuver in the Dutch landscape and even the Army Command was convinced.
The FT which got stuck during the test on April 12, 1928. The photo indicates that attempts have already been made to recover the vehicle. Photo: Author’s collection
But a different story appeared in the magazine Militaire Spectator (Eng: Military Spectator), written by two military engineer officers a few months later. As they rightfully claimed, this ditching problem was already present during the First World War, with many attempts made to solve this problem, and with success. Examples of these solutions were unditching beams and fascines. They also mention that tanks have been improved over time and that ground pressure had been reduced with many designs, which reduced the chance of ditching. To conclude, they claimed that this test did not prove anything at all.
The Tank Committee came to a similar conclusion. Their final report was based on many tests which had taken place throughout the country on all different types of terrain, including polders, swamps, claygrounds, dunes, and forests. During these tests, local garrisons were often tasked to build anti-tank obstacles which the tank then had to overcome. The tank often won. The report stated that the tank was superior in many areas of the country, except in polder areas. Tests were also carried out using a fascine near the city of Houten. The fascine could be released from within the vehicle and proved to be rather successful, so the argument that the tank could not be used in polder area was now proven invalid too. Based on these factors, the committee advised the Army Command and Ministry to continue testing with a modern tank. This was ignored. A tank was too expensive according to the Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant-General H.A. Seyffardt.
However, a vehicle discussed by the two engineering officers was a tankette from Carden-Loyd, which had superior ground pressure over the FT. Interestingly, the Army ordered that several examples of this vehicle would be acquired in 1928, however, if this decision was influenced by these two officers is hard to say. In 1931, five of these tankettes were delivered and served until they were captured by the German Army in May 1940.
Around 1930, a dummy tank was built out of plywood and its design resembled loosely a Renault FT. It was located at Camp Waalsdorp and used by the 1e Stormschool. Photo: Nationaal Instituut Militaire Historie
The Following Years
After the last public tests with the tank in 1930, the tank was put in storage and no official plans were made to acquire more tanks. Meanwhile, armored vehicle development continued around the world and more advanced vehicles were designed every year.
Although it was announced in 1930 that no tanks were to be acquired, the first demands of Dutch officers arose for modern armored cars. The German rearmament programme, greatly intensified in 1933 by the Nazi regime, did not go unnoticed either, and officers started to express their concerns about this. However, the government initially believed that neutrality could not be retained by showing off with an aggressive army, so in the end, retaining neutrality was the main goal. However, the “si vis pacem para bellum” (If you want peace, prepare for war) notion became more apparent to the Ministry of Defence (the Ministry of War and Ministry of Navy were combined into Ministry of Defence in 1928), and so, 1934 saw the first signs of modernisation and motorisation of the army, which included a contract with the Swedish Landsverk to deliver twelve armored cars.
In February 1937, the army released an urgent program with all the needed measurements that had to be taken to make the army a serious force again. The then Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant-General I.H. Reynders, wrote that around 60 tanks, an additional squadron of armored cars, and two command armored cars were needed. Only the demand for armored cars was granted. Two years later, Reynders scaled the demand up to 110 light tanks, 36 medium tanks, and 100 armored cars.
One of the main reasons that no tanks were acquired had to do with the opinion of then Minister of Defence, Mr. Dijxhoorn. He believed that the concept of tanks had already become obsolete and saw this proven in the limited success of tanks during the Spanish Civil War. As such, he was strongly opposed to acquiring tanks, instead, he wanted to invest as much as possible in anti-tank measurements.
In November 1929, a ‘device’ was tested near the city of Houten, designed by Captain De Man. It fulfilled the same role as a fascine but was basically a wooden structure. It let the tank successfully cross ditches with a width of two meters. Photo: Nationaal Militair Museum
Illustration of the Renault FT in Dutch Service produced by Bernard ‘Escodrion’ Baker, funded by our Patreon Campaign
After the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the army quickly tried to improve the defensive lines and were able to resolve multiple issues. The Renault FT tank was also brought back to life. It had to prove that the defensive lines were still impenetrable by tanks. At the end of October 1939, the tank was tested in the ‘Peel’ area. The test was attended by the commander of the field army, Lieutenant-General J.J.G. Baron van Voorst tot Voorst and his staff. The baron even changed the course set out for the tank. Against all expectations, the tank took the course successfully. This peat area proved in the 1920’s to be impassable, but after that, many peats had been removed to be used and now the area was suddenly passable by the tank, causing panic at the High Command. With great haste, an anti-tank channel, bunkers, and minefields were created in this area.
The infamous failed test with the FT in November 1939, an event extensively covered by the press. Photo: Author’s collection
After this test, the FT was loaded on its trailer and moved to the Vlasakkers, a swampy area near the city of Amersfoort and very close to the home base of the Landsverk armored cars. The worst terrain had to be chosen and eventually, a former potato field was chosen with water standing 50 cm high.
The tests commenced, and the 21 years old FT started to plow itself through the mud. Everything went well initially until the first invisible ditches were encountered. The vehicle dived nose first into the mud, which did not cause any problems, however, when it climbed out of the ditch, the back of the vehicle became completely submerged. The dirty water streamed into the engine compartment and when it reached the magneto ignition, the engine broke down.
The General Staff, satisfied with what it had seen, came up with a cunning plan. A public demonstration was to be held, especially intended for the press, both foreign and domestic. During the demonstration, the vehicle had to fail its task ingloriously. This should, as thought out by the Staff, comfort the Dutch citizens and ultimately even cause a change of plans of a German attack.
The demonstration became a great negative success. Although the field itself did not cause great problems, the ditch beside the road did. The driver was instructed to try everything to let the tank fail, if the Renault would not fail the test itself. After the war, the driver recalled that the General instructed him to get the tank literally upside down. With a speed of 3 km/h, the tank, while slanted plowed itself into the ditch. As such, the driver had enough time to get out of the vehicle before it sunk away completely. Although portraying the opposite, the army command did realize that the tank was a more powerful machine than they wished. After the demonstration, the tank was pulled out of the mud and the necessary repairs were made.
When more demonstrations were executed, the Army Command got more and more frustrated, as the FT could actually overcome many obstacles and changed the defensive lines from a safety guarantee to a safety warning. During the winter of 1940, this frustration was expressed by an officer. The water was frozen and barricades with blocks of ice were made. Against all expectations, the tank broke through, albeit with some difficulties. One of the officers became so infuriated at this achievement that he pulled his gun out and fired multiple times at the tank. Although an interesting anecdote, it is doubtful if this actually happened, however, it portrays the hopelessness of the Dutch situation prior to WWII. It seemed that the Dutch Army not only had to make more anti-tank defenses but also had to acquire tanks themselves. This, however, was too late.
The FT during a demonstration early 1940. It took much effort for the troops to make these obstacles, made of ice blocks. In the end, they could still be overcome. Photo: Nationaal Archief
When the country was attacked by Germany in May 1940, the Netherlands did not operate any tanks. The outdated FT stayed in Haarlem. The country was overrun and the bombing of Rotterdam caused the Dutch to capitulate within five days to prevent any other city being bombed. Only in the province of Zeeland fighting continued, and only because French troops were present.
Fact or fiction?
In the Bataviaasch Nieuwsblad (Eng: Batavian Newspaper) dated November 25th, 1940, an interview was held with officer-pilot Dr. Harloff. He was a geologist at the Department of Mining and was on leave in Holland when war broke out. There he was quickly promoted to Reservist Captain and assigned to an Airforce depot in the city of Rotterdam. He managed to escape successfully to England and travel back to the Dutch Indies. During the interview he told a remarkable story about a tank at Ypenburg airfield, close to The Hague:
“After the initial German attack on the airfield, the defending forces were eliminated, except for one tank, manned by a corporal and a soldier. When German Junkers 52 planes tried to land, it would break out of its concealment, low foliage at the side of the airstrip, and shoot at the incoming planes. Apparently, it shot down a total of 23 planes, a bizarre amount. After this action, it was destroyed by a 50kg bomb”
This story is contradictory to the official story, supported by official documents and other evidence. It is true that Landsverk armored cars were stationed at Ypenburg, and he probably referred to one of these vehicles, but even with the quick firing Bofors 37mm gun, this story is very unlikely to be true.
In reality, the tank ended its life as a gate guard at the Ripperda Barracks with its machine gun and engine removed. During the war, the tank was taken away by the Germans. Its fate is unknown, but it is very likely that it was scrapped. Two FT’s survive in the Netherlands, one in the National Military Museum Soesterberg and one in Museum Overloon, however, both are German beutepanzer of which 25 were active in the Netherlands during the Second World War to defend the airfields as part of the Luftgaukommando Holland (Eng: Air Command Holland). Nevertheless, the tank at the National Military Museum has been repainted in the same color as the original Dutch FT.
The Renault FT in the Dutch National Military Museum. Although not being the original Dutch FT, it has been repainted in its original color. Photo: Author’s own
The Dutch military command did not see enough tactical value in tanks to justify the expensive acquisition of them. Too much faith was put into the Dutch natural anti-tank landscape, which maybe could stop tanks from the WWI era, but definitely not newer tanks. The FT had proven itself to be better than expected, but was not a representative of interwar tank development; newer tanks performed even better. A fact already partially realised before the war, but experienced during the war.
In 1927, a detachment of the Royal Dutch Indies Army attended a test with the Renault at the Artillerie Inrichtingen. Photo: Nationaal Archief
Renault FT specifications
|Dimensions||4.95(with tail)/4.20 x 1.74 x 2.14 m (16.24/13.77×5.7×7.02 ft)|
|Total weight, battle ready||6.7 tons|
|Crew||2 (commander/gunner, driver)|
|Propulsion||Renault 4 cyl petrol, 39 hp (24 kW)|
|Speed||7.5 km/h (4.66 mph)|
|Range/consumption||65 km (40.38 miles)|
|Armament||1x 7.92 mm Schwarzlose M.08 machine gun|
|Armor||22 mm (0.87 in)|
|Total production||3700 (France), 4 supplied to Italy.|
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Holland Paraat! Volume 2, J. Giesbers & A. Giesbers & R. Tas, Giesbers Media, 2016.
Militaire Spectator, Tijdschrift voor het Nederlands Leger 97, 1928.
Nederlandse Pantservoertuigen, C.M. Schulten & J. Theil, Van Holkema & Warendorf, 1979.
Tussen Paard en Pantser, Jan Hof, La Riviere & Voorhoeve, 1990.
Wereld In Oorlog 23, Norbert-Jan Nuij, Wereld In Oorlog, 2012.
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Bataviaasch Nieuwsblad, November 25, 1940.
De Maasbode, April 14, 1928.
Historicalstatistics.org used for converting currency