The shell of the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam is one of the few structures still standing after the devastating German bomb raid of 14 May 1940. The entire medieval city center of the old port city was wiped out in fires, and it was most likely due to a communications mishap which was to have far-reaching consequences.
The German army invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, and three days later troops stood outside Rotterdam, commanded by General Rudolf Schmidt. The Dutch garrison put up a spirited defense, and Schmidt planned a combined arms operation for the next day. He requested air support by Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, but got Heinkel He 111 bombers instead, which were more suited for area bombing. In the negotiations with the defenders, the threat of destruction of the city was used to make the Dutch Colonel Pieter Scharroo surrender it. The negotiations were still underway when the bombers appeared in the sky. The Luftwaffe commander on the ground, General Kurt Student, tried to call off the attack, but the bombers were never reached by the order to abort the attack. Bombs began to rain down, and the crowded, cluttered medieval cityscape was soon ablaze. The fires continued well into the next days.
Some 900 people were killed, and the city surrendered. A result of the raid, where initial reports in Allied media claimed that 30,000 civilians had been killed, was that the Royal Air Force abandoned their policy to avoid civilian targets. The air war took a more brutal turn, with hundreds of thousands of victims to die around the world in the following five years. In an ironic twist of fate, US Army Air Force bombers mistakenly bombed a civilian neighborhood on 31 March 1943 while attacking German targets, killing up to 400 Dutch civilians. That raid was hushed down for 50 years, though.
The rebuilding of Rotterdam began during the war, and while a few official buildings were restored, including the Laurenskerk seen in the photo, no attempt was made to bring back the old city. Modern buildings now dominate central Rotterdam, but the memories of the fateful attack still remain.