Schiphol in wartime | Background

Between 1920 and 1940, Schiphol rapidly developed into one of the largest and most modern airports in the world. From a swampy grass track and hangars made of tarpaulin to a system of concrete tracks and hangars made of corrugated steel sheets with steel load-bearing rafters. An enormous development in just twenty years.

It was, of course, the airplane that made the development of aviation possible. But airplanes need an airport, just like a ship needs a port. Schiphol originally started as a military field, but civil aviation was soon introduced. On 17 May 1920, KLM opened its first scheduled service: the Amsterdam – London airline. Schiphol served as the landing point for Amsterdam. That year there were 440 passengers, a promising start.

Schiphol’s importance as a military airport gradually decreased, but the airport became increasingly important for civil aviation. On April 1, 1926, the municipality of Amsterdam bought Schiphol and started energetically: the drainage of the field was taken care of and the access roads were improved. A concrete platform of fifty by one hundred meters was built, and the construction of a station building and a control tower on the built-up area that had grown to thirty hectares. The driving force behind this turbulent growth was Jan Dellaert. Under his leadership, Schiphol expanded significantly during the 1920s and 1930s, becoming one of the best-equipped airports in Europe. However, the bombing of Schiphol at the beginning of World War II temporarily put an end to Dellaert’s work.

The terrace in 1929 ©Schiphol


Long before the German invasion, the threat of war was already palpable at Schiphol. All planes had to be provided with country identification, the number of passengers fell and the scheduled service was cancelled. The country identification was the result of the firing of a KLM DC-3, PH-ASM (Mees), over the North Sea. This was followed by the decision to spray paint all commercial aircraft bright orange with the name of the country of registry in large letters above the windows. Nevertheless, the airport continued to operate as normally as possible. Some routes were reopened in the months before the war. On March 15, 1940, Deutsche Luft Hansa was even given permission to reopen the closed Amsterdam–Berlin line.

German Dornier Do 17 bomber
© Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-341-0489-10A / Spieth / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

The Netherlands only began to reinforce Schiphol on 6 May. All too late because Germany bombed strategic locations on May 10 as part of the conquest of the Netherlands. The airport was in a state of serenity when the first bombs fell on the runways at two minutes past four in the morning. The planes of the ‘Luchtafdeeling der Koninklijke Landmacht’ (Fokker G-1s) that were on the airfield were not hit. They mounted a counterattack as quickly as possible, but the effect was less. The bombs had done their devastating work.

Fliegerhorst 561

Five days after the invasion, Holland capitulated. The Germans renamed Schiphol ‘Fliegerhorst 561’ and used the airport after repairs as a base for the Luftwaffe. They expanded it with a train connection, more buildings and an extension for the fog railway. As the command center for all airfields in North Holland, Fliegerhorst 561 was one of the most important German locations in the country. The Germans also captured a number of KLM aircraft undamaged, including five DC-3s, including the aforementioned ‘Mees’. They were taken into service by Luft Hansa and two survived the war.

The anti-aircraft defense was already stationed at the end of May 1940. Due to Schiphol’s leading position, a relatively large number of anti-aircraft guns were deployed around the airport. At the beginning of 1942 there were twelve pieces of 88 millimeters and twenty of two centimeters. Schiphol thus became the most heavily defended German airport in Europe. An interesting detail is that the runways were covered in a nice green paint, to make detection from the air more difficult. This of course had the opposite effect for our own pilots, who sometimes could not find Schiphol in poor visibility. To mislead the enemy even more, several ‘false airfields’ were constructed at Rijsenhout, Vogelenzang, Aalsmeer, Vijfhuizen, Bennebroek.

Read also: Fake airports with fake planes | Background – Up in the sky

Soon the now heavily defended airfield was home to many different aircraft. In May 1940, for example, the Junkers 88s of III./KG 4 arrived. These aircraft had bombed their new base a few weeks earlier. The unit took part in the Battle of Britain from here. In early 1941, the group moved to another location in the German Reich.

A Junkers Ju 88 bomber at Fliegerhorst Schiphol
Source: Collection Netherlands Institute for Military History

From the end of June 1940, the first Bf 109 fighter also landed at Schiphol. They belonged to I./JG 54. In the years that followed, units came and went. For the fighters (Bf-109s) it was a beautiful location, so close to England. The returning British bombers could thus get a kick out of crossing the North Sea. A reconnaissance unit that stayed at Schiphol for a long time was 3./(F) 122. This unit used the former airport from November 1940 to February 1944. It made reconnaissance flights to Great Britain.

A Staffel (squadron) that was at Schiphol for a long time was equipped with the Dornier 217 bombers. These were used both during the day and for night operations. After operating for a year, a number of pilots noticed that some aircraft were performing worse, especially the older ones. A sergeant on the maintenance crew found out why.

An ‘unpainted’ Do 217 from below
© SDASM Archives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Luftwaffe had the underside of the Do-217s painted black for night attacks to discourage detection by searchlights over England. But if you flew in daylight, the underside had to be neatly painted sky blue again. By repeating this often enough, some bombers got a thick and heavy layer of paint stuck to their wings, which affected their performance quite a bit.

The importance of Fliegerhorst 561 meant that the airfield came under attack from the Allied air forces. In total, around 400 tons of bombs fell on the site. The heaviest bombardment occurred on December 13, 1943. 199 American aircraft, mostly B-26 Marauders, dropped nearly sixteen hundred bombs that day. The destruction was so great that the Germans decided to abandon Fliegerhorst 561. A few months later they themselves destroyed the last remnants of the once progressive airfield so that the Allies could not use the airfield as a base.

Bombing by American B-26 bombers (1943)
© Amsterdam city archive

Schiphol and operation Chowhound

The last winter of the war, the Hunger Winter, killed around 22,000 Dutch. From 2 to 7 May 1945, Schiphol served as a delivery point for 1,982 tons of food. This was in connection with Operation Chowhound. Allied bombers dropped these packages to alleviate the famine during the Hunger Winter. In the meantime, the Germans had surrendered on May 5 and the whole of Holland was liberated. On 8 May the airfield returned to Dutch hands and reconstruction could begin.

American B-26s drop food over Schiphol as part of Operation Chowhound
Source: Collection Netherlands Institute for Military History


After liberation, Schiphol became Schiphol again. For this, the help of all available workers was called in. In May 1945, there were 440 men at work, by September that number had already increased to 1850. Sealing bomb craters, neutralizing unexploded bombs and, of course, clearing rubbish were among the tasks. It seemed like a desperate undertaking, but perseverance and the need to work on the reconstruction of the Netherlands was a great motivator. Temporary wooden barracks were erected in a new street aptly named Vrijheidsstraat.

The government wanted to help the Netherlands recover quickly from the war, and the transport sector had to play a big role in this. The reconstruction of the airport therefore began immediately. After the war, Dellaert committed himself to a rapid reopening and rebuilding of the airport. Soon after, he turned his attention to the airport’s future. His plan, presented in 1947 to build the new Schiphol Airport as a central station building with tangential runways, was revolutionary in Western Europe.

On 20 May 1945, the first plane landed at Schiphol. It was a reconnaissance aircraft, but on 8 July the first military aircraft followed, and less than three weeks later the first commercial aircraft. To speed up the reconstruction of the Netherlands, KLM opened domestic routes to Eindhoven, Maastricht, Enschede, Groningen and Leeuwarden. Thanks to the efforts of hundreds of workers, Schiphol was once again accessible from all corners of the world from November, and the airport (and the Netherlands) prepared for the future.

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