Threat of war

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the railways in the Netherlands, NS had planned to stage a major retrospective exhibition and a festive programme of shows, parades and speeches. However, the celebrations were overshadowed by the growing threat of war. The Dutch government hoped the country could stay neutral, as it had during the First World War. However, when Adolf Hitler concluded a non-aggression treaty with the Soviet Union, the risk of being dragged into a war with Nazi Germany became almost unavoidable. The Dutch government decided to proclaim a general mobilisation on 28 August 1939. The railways were requisitioned by the Dutch armed forces and placed under the command of the General Staff's Logistical Services. NS faced the challenge of transporting more than 150,000 soldiers, tens of thousands of horses and loads of military equipment in just a few days. The operation was quite successful; indeed, regular train services could resume not long after. At the same time, NS itself took precautions in case war broke out with Germany. For example, station masters were warned they might be asked to destroy trains and signal boxes to prevent the enemy getting hold of them, and employees were prepared for the use of gas masks. Despite these precautions NS, like the rest of the Netherlands, was taken by surprise when the Germans invaded the country on 10 May 1940.

One hundred years of railways

1939 marked the 100th anniversary of the railways in the Netherlands. NS had intended to celebrate this centenary in a big way, for example by staging a retrospective exhibition on the history of the railways in Amsterdam, and a replica of one of the first steam locomotives, De Arend, was built for the occasion. However, due to the mobilisation the celebrations were rather more subdued in character, with some events being scaled down or cancelled altogether. According to the NS's own data, the retrospective nevertheless drew 258,724 visitors and was a major success.


In response to the increasing threat of war with Nazi Germany, the Dutch government proclaimed a general mobilisation on 28 August 1939. On the first day of the mobilisation alone (29 August), NS deployed 430 trains from its regular timetable plus 85 additional trains to transport some 144,000 soldiers to their designated positions. The transport also included 16,000 horses. This meant that only passengers who wanted to go abroad could take the train. On the second day, however, NS resumed a restricted timetable. Diesel and electric trains were not used, as the mobilisation schedule had already been drawn up in the early 1930s, when most of the trains in operation were steam-powered.


NS took various precautions in connection with the threat of war. For example, trenches were dug near office buildings to provide shelter, evacuation plans were made and an air-raid defence service was established. Railway employees joined the Voluntary Home Reserve Corps [Vrijwillige Landstorm], a civilian organisation set up to support the armed forces. Members' activities included drills with equipment such as gas masks, as it was feared that the Germans might use poison gas, as they did in the First World War. NS also drafted its own ‘Instructions’ for personnel in preparation for a German attack.

The Martini Code

In April 1940, when it became clear that war was almost unavoidable, NS was instructed on behalf of captain J.J. Jurrissen of the Railway Services Unit to destroy equipment in the event of a German attack on the Netherlands. The secret code to trigger this operation was ‘Martini’. Despite the many preparations, the German invasion of 10 May 1940 took NS - and the rest of the Netherlands - by surprise. As a result, the designated equipment was not destroyed in time at several railway stations.

Five days of warfare

During the war with the Netherlands, the German armed forced not only used aircraft and tanks, but also six armoured trains plated with steel to protect them against projectiles. The intention was for these trains to break the Dutch defence lines so as to secure strategic railway bridges. However, the Germans arrived at most of those bridges just in time to witness how they were being blown up by Dutch soldiers. Despite these successful actions, it soon emerged that the Dutch forces were no match for the superior German army. Queen Wilhelmina and the entire Dutch government left for London on 13 May. NS President Goudriaan also wanted to flee to England with his family, but failed in his attempt. In order to force the Dutch army to surrender, the Germans heavily bombed Rotterdam on 14 May 1940, destroying the entire historical city centre. Some 850 people died in the raid, and around 80,000 were left homeless. The Germans then threatened to bomb other cities too, which caused the Dutch army to capitulate on 15 May.