Prince Bernhard’s leadership during World War II inspired Dutch men and women around the world to fight on to defeat the Axis. Born in 1911 to German nobility, a childhood brush with death left him with a zest for life. Earning a law degree in 1935 and unhappy with the turn of German politics, he left the country to work in France. Shortly after meeting Princess Juliana, heir to the Dutch throne, at the 1936 Winter Olympics, they married. As a member of the Royal Family, he was commissioned into the Army and Navy and began a long association with the Dutch military forces.
In May 1940, the German blitzkrieg overran his new country and the Royal Family escaped to England. There, Prince Bernhard began the difficult role of rebuilding the Dutch forces in exile. Appealing to Dutchmen all over the world, he eventually raised more than $10 million for Dutch war efforts. As combat raged in the skies over England, Prince Bernhard, an RAF-trained pilot, could only envy the gallant efforts of Allied airmen. Frustrated, he would be forbidden to fly in combat until 1944. Concentrating on directing his nation’s war effort, he headed the Royal Netherlands Military Mission in London in 1941 as a colonel. A year later, as a major general, he planned for the return of a free government to the Netherlands.
As a representative of the Netherlands, he met often with many of the world’s great leaders, including President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and General Eisenhower to discuss the war and their visions of the future. In 1944, Queen Wilhelmina appointed 33-year-old Prince Bernhard Commander of the Netherlands Armed Forces with the rank of lieutenant general. With the Queen’s blessing, he then led Dutch forces in battle to reclaim their homeland. After the war, Prince Bernhard served as Inspector General of the Netherlands Army, Navy, and Air Force. During these critical years, his national and international contacts played an important role in the economic reconstruction of the nation.
Traveling all over the world to promote trade, and often accompanying Queen Juliana on state visits, he helped revitalize his nation’s economic base through many trade partnerships. Prince Bernhard is an active pilot with over 12,000 hours in more than 150 types of aircraft, including the F-16 Fighting Falcon. He holds his nation’s highest military award, the Knight Commander of the Military Order of William, and honors from many other countries, including Britain’s Grand Cross of the Order of Bath.