The Netherlands National Military Museum (NNM) stands on the site of the former military Soesterberg airbase, the history of which itself could fill a museum. After it became the first Dutch airfield in 1910, it was designated a military airfield in 1913, a nazi bomber ‘Fliegerhorst’ (large military airbase) during World War II, and from 1954 to 1994, the home of the USAF 32 Tactical Fighter Squadron (who donated an F-15 multi-role fighter to the museum when they left). These days, some of the concrete shelters that still remain house a flock of sheep and a bat colony.
Since 2014, it is the home of the Netherlands National Military Museum, an amalgamation of the former NL Army Museum, the NL Air Force Museum and several smaller collections. With over 400,000 objects, including quite a few military aircraft, tanks, and other armoured matériel, it necessarily is a pretty huge building complex. You’ll need a few hours see it all, stilettos are not recommended. Not on display by the way, are items that concern the Royal Netherlands Navy, which understandably but also rather snobbishly, has its own museum at the navy base in the Dutch city of Den Helder.
The collection ranges from prehistoric arrowheads to a M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (somewhat hidden away under a tree near the entrance), and not surprisingly, focuses on Dutch military history. Thankfully, the museum signage (the display information) which I consider a declining art in many museums, is good. There is lots of information available in both Dutch and English, and many if not all of the video presentations have English subtitles.
As it is a very modern museum, it not merely showcases the implements of war, death and destruction, but also provides a factual historical background on everything on display as you wander through the museum’s halls. This is quite a radical departure from the former National Army Museum which I visited last as a teenager in the 1970s when it was situated in the city of Delft, and which has now been integrated into the NMM. It reminds me of the transformation of the Imperial War Museum in London, which on my first visit, decades ago, was a blatant celebration of British military might through the ages. Nowadays, the Imperial War Museum focuses on historic accuracy, and avoids sidestepping the less-than-successful or questionable exploits of the British military, or warfare in general for that matter.
The NMM too, sensitively approaches historical facts, including the less palatable ones. The little Kingdom of the Netherlands, for instance, once had a mighty colonial empire which encompassed the so-called Dutch East-Indies (modern-day Indonesia). Of course, the NMM pays considerable attention to the Dutch military effort against the Japanese during World War II in that region, but also includes the bitter fight for Indonesian independence immediately after the war. Indonesia became an independent nation in 1949, but not after having endured a number of atrocities perpetrated by Dutch troops. These war crimes were subject of intense historical scrutiny and as recent as 2022, led to the Dutch prime minister offering his deepest apologies for the “structural violence” inflicted on the Indonesian people by the Dutch military. This is what I like to see and learn in a museum.
What I also like to see, are personal items that convey a sense of intimacy. There is nothing personal about a 43-ton main battle tank, but a British sailor’s straw hat of a model worn between 1850 and 1920, a so-called sennit hat, makes me wonder about the owner. The ribbon with the ship’s name, HMS Cockatrice, could be any of the five ships bearing that name between 1860 and 1912.
The NMM also has lots of paintings. Heroic portraits abound of seventeenth-century military commanders in full armour with orange sashes slung across their body to signify their allegiance to the Dutch royal house of Orange-Nassau. But there are also less ostentatious works of art, such as ‘The Changing of the Guard’, showing three Dutch soldiers marching through a bleak and windy landscape during World War I, when the Netherlands managed to stay neutral but needed to keep up its vigilance.
And of course, there is the obligatory Arms Room, the must-have of any military museum, with its gaudy ceremonial uniforms and other military bling. In a modern glass and steel structure like the NMM, this room has a distinctly anachronistic look-and-feel about it but the Arms Room tradition must be honoured I guess.
For a boomer like me, the 5-year nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War 2 is not-so-distant history as my parents and grandparents lived through it. For me, this makes the WW2 collection all the more interesting. One item that stood out to me was the desperate attempt in the last year before the German capitulation, 1944, to win the hearts and minds of the Dutch people by means of an excruciatingly naïve propaganda poster.
In Dutch it says: “Retaliation! A bill from the Dutch people to England. The Dutch still have to settle a bill with England”. What follows is a list of 17th and 18th century Dutch-Anglo wars, the British takeover of Ceylon in 1802 and Transvaal in 1899, intended to incite a feeling of collective Dutch indignation against the ‘Englander’. The typical 1940s Dutch reaction to that however, would have been, meh, so what?
But what makes this poster really insufferably moronic is the addition of the “Bombardment of Dutch residential areas” and “Strafing of Dutch civilians and trains” between the years 1942 and 1944.
By 1944 the Dutch population was painfully aware of who to blame for the civilian suffering during the occupation blame (and where to send the bill for that matter), and it certainly weren’t the ‘Englander’. My guess is that the nazi propaganda machine was already in its death throes and as such, completely unable to read the room.
The larger pieces of the collection, such as tanks, cannon, missile systems and aircraft, are on display in giant halls. Between all those grand and impressive military machines with guns sticking out from every corner, sits a tiny DAF all-purpose vehicle. To Dutch people of a certain age, DAF cars often evoke a sense of nostalgic endearment. The civilian version was a small and affordable, Dutch-made car with a tiny 53 BHP engine. Think Fiat Cinquecento or Morris Mini but without the iconic design. It was reasonably popular in its time but most car enthusiasts would not be found dead in one. Notwithstanding its less-than-martial image, the frugal, Dutch army quartermaster-general ordered 1,200 ruggedised versions of these cars in the 1970s, to be used as all-purpose vehicles. They were sold off on the civilian market in the 1990s and now fetch obscene prices among a new generation of car enthusiasts and collectors.
Much of the original airbase on which the NMM now stands is still intact and outside the museum buildings, a number of military aircraft are parked on the apron alongside the original runway. Among other things, you will find a few iconic Cold War adversaries of the early jet age, an American F86 Sabre and a Soviet MiG-21 which a mere 65 years or so ago, would have been fighting each other to the death.
Verlengde Paltzerweg 1
3768 MX Soest, Netherlands
The NMM is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 10:00 to 17:00 hours, with the exception of King’s Day (27th April), Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Parking is free as is WiFi.
Public transport: The NMM can be reached by public transport during the museum’s opening hours. With bus 575 from railway station Driebergen-Zeist or Soest-Zuid you can easily travel to the museum (except on Sundays).
The NMM has a coffee corner, a restaurant and a museum shop.
The entire museum is accessible to wheelchair users. Do bear in mind that the National Military Museum is a large museum and you may need to cover considerable distances.
There are toilets for the disabled and wheelchair users.
The NMM has a limited number of wheelchairs for people who are mobility-impaired. Please bring your own cushion to make sure you are comfortable. The wheelchairs are coin-operated, so you will need a € 1 coin. Wheelchairs cannot be booked in advance.
The museum’s toilet rooms have baby diaper changing facilities.
For more information, please see their website: https://www.nmm.nl
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Wil Eelsing is a project manager with the Netherlands civil service who, after obtaining an MA in literature from Leiden University, spent a few years working as an editor and news photographer before hopelessly getting lost in the world of policy-making. To counterbalance the everyday realities of his professional life with his broad cultural and historical interests, his travels always include multiple museum visits, which brings the added bonus of being able to stay out of the sun as he is not a fan of beach holidays.