Chapter 6

1940 - 1940

The Second World War

From the point of view of Dutch shipping the war can be divided into three periods: first, the 'Phoney War', from September 1939 to the invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940; second, from May 1940 to the start of the Japanese onslaught on S.E. Asia in December, 1941, and third, from that time until the end of the war.

September 1929 to May 1940.

At the outbreak of war there was an overwhelming demand for passages between Holland and the USA. All the large passenger ships, NIEUW AMSTERDAM, STATENDAM, ROTTERDAM, VEENDAM, VOLENDAM, PENNLAND and WESTERNLAND, were engaged in coping with this traffic overflow. As the rush subsided the dangers of sea travel increased and the first three Holland-America lossess were suffered:

  1. BINNENDYK, October 8, 1939, mined off Portland Bill.
  2. SPAARNDAM, November 27, 1939, sunk by magnetic mine in the Thames Estuary.
  3. BURGERDYK, February 10, 1940, torpedoed by U-boat when approaching the English Channel.

The larger passenger ships were withdrawn, the NIEUW AMSTERDAM being laid up at New York, the STATENDAM at Rotterdam, whilst the ROTTERDAM was sold for scrapping in January 1940 after an honourable and useful life of 32 years. At the same time the NOORDAM, ZAANDAM and the freighters SOMMELSDYK and SLOTERDYK were transferred to the Java-New York route, from which the Company had withdrawn during the slump in 1931.

May 1940 to December 1941.

At the time of the German invasion in May 1940 the well-balanced modern fleet of the line consisted of:

Heavy fighting occurred in Rotterdam during May 10th-14th near the Wilhelminakade, the area of the Head Office and wharves of the Company. Six Holland-America ships were in the harbour, three of which were set on fire and became total losses:


The other three less damaged ships, VEENDAM, DAMSTERDYK and DRECHTDYK, were seized by the Germans but eventually recovered after the war, in a very bad state.

DELFTDYK, the remaining 'D', had luckily left Antwerp on May 10th - just in time. WESTERDAM and ZUIDERDAM were launched under German orders but the combined efforts of the Dutch Underground Movement and the RAF prevented their ever being of use to the enemy throughout the war. Finally the Germans decided to sink them as blockships to prevent Allied vessels entering the port after the evacuation. This plan, too, was partially foiled as it was still possible for small ships to get in. The WESTERDAM was raised and completed after the war and in June 1946 sailed on the Company's first post-war passenger voyage to New York.The ZUIDERDAM was raised towards the end of 1946 but, found to be beyond repair, she was scrapped in Belgium in 1948.

To return to May 1940, the headquarters of the Line were transferred to Curacao in the Dutch West Indies, off Venezuela. After the German invasion the surviving Holland-America ships formed a very valuable reinforcement for cooperating with the British, and saw service all over the world.

The toll of the sea war continued to mount relentlessly. The VOLENDAM, outward bound from Britain, was torpedoed without warning on the 30th of August, 1940, some 300 miles from the Irish coast, with 900 souls on board including 335 children. All, with the exception of one of the crew, were safely transferred to the boats and later picked up. The ship was taken in tow and beached on the Isle of Bute, being subsequently out of service for ten months. Not so fortunate were other ships lost:

  1. BILDERDYK, October 19, 1940, torpedoed by U-boat in the Atlantic.
  2. BEEMSTERDYK, January 26, 1941, mined off the Pembrokeshire coast.
  3. PENNLAND, April 25, 1941, sunk in air attack in the Gulf of Athens.
  4. MAASDAM, June 26, 1941, torpedoed by U-boat in mid-Atlantic.

Since August 1940 the PENNLAND had done splendid service as a troopship. Her consort, WESTERNLAND, carried General de Gaulle and his staff during the ill fated Free French attempt on Dakar in September 1940.

December 1941 to the end of the war.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the USA into the war, no sea routes were left free from the possibility of an enemy attack. As the Japanese advanced south-westward the evacuation or the East Indies began. The ZAANDAM, whose normal capacity was 140 passengers, took on 892 persons, including injured, at Tjilatjap in South Java and made for Australia. On June 5, 1942, the entire fleet was requisitioned by the Netherlands Government in London, some ships being subsequently chartered to British and American authorities. In the global war two Holland-America ships were lost in 1942:

  1. BREEDYK, September 14, 1942, torpedoed by U-boat of West Africa.
  2. ZAANDAM, Novemeber 2, 1942, torpedoed by U-boat off Brazil.

The ZAANDAM (right) was struck by two torpedoes nearly 400 miles from the coast of Brazil. One hundred and twenty three men were lost and 166 survivors landed or were picked up at widely seperated points. On one raft three men out of five survived for the almost incredible period of 83 days.

In January 1943 the WESTERNLAND was sold for conversion to a Naval repair ship. To compensate for the shrinkage of the fleet some wartime-built ships were put under Hollan-America management in 1943. The first of these, NICOLAAS MAES (7,000 tons, 1942) was torpedoed before the transfer was effected. Other such ships were:

The FORT ORANGE entered Antwerp when it was still under fire from the retreating Germans, whilst the VAN DER CAPELLE was the first incoming Netherlands cargo ship to enter Rotterdam, on May 24, 1945.

During the world-wide war time activities of the fleet, DELFTDYK was bombed at Peterhead in September 1941, taking a year to repair; SOMMELSDYK survived with a 30 ft. by 20 ft. hole blasted by an aerial torpedo in Leyte on Christmas Day, 1944. In addition to the VOLENDAM, the EDAM, LEERDAM, NOORDAM nad SLOTERDYK were lucky ships which had miraculous escapes. Finally we come to the famous flagship NIEUW AMSTERDAM, whose war time career resembled that of the Cunard 'Queens'. After dry-docking at Hoboken, she sailed in September 1940 for Halifax, NS, where she was converted to a troopship, leaving January 1941 for Singapore to be armed with 36 guns of various calibres. In this capacity she could carry 8,000 troops (instead of 1,232 passengers) and, up to April 1946, transported 378,361 souls on war service, covering 530,452 miles in the process. On April 10th, 1946, she returned to her home port for the first time since she sailed from it on September 22, 1939, thus closing the log of the grim years of war.

Next Chapter:

1946 - 1965

Post-war Reconstruction and Expansion

(The above text is from H. M. Le Fleming's Ships of the Holland-America Line, John Marshbank Ltd. Publishers, 1963, 1965.)

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