In the late 1930’s memories of the Great War were still fresh in the minds of many people and another European conflict seemed unthinkable. Over 37 million casualties, including around 17 million deaths had generated a feeling that peace was to be preserved at almost any cost.
Simply nobody could have expected or imagined the years of terror and bloodshed that lay ahead. While World War I was still fought in the trenches the second World War would prove to be an event of cataclysmic proportions.
Targeted, large scale attacks on civilians, organised genocide, years of heavy battle and siege warfare resulted in more than 70 million casualties of which near to almost 50 million civilians.
However, it is said we will never know the exact amount of human loss and devastation brought upon us by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi-regime.
Too Little, Too Late
The warning signs were there, but it was all too easy to ignore the rise of German militarism. Adolph Hitler found himself in the right place at the right time and to the demoralised German population he was the charismatic leader who could put their country back on its feet once more.
The darker side of the Nazi Regime and Hitler's enormous personal ambitions were seriously overlooked. It wasn’t until Germany began to talk of annexing some German-speaking territories belonging to other nations that countries like Britain and France began to take notice.
Even after his troops had marched into the Czech Sudetenland, Hitler managed to talk his way out of the crisis. He successfully persuaded British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain that he had no desire to annex any more territory.
However, on 1st September 1939, the German army marched into Poland. Britain and France were treaty bound to do something and Germany was ordered to withdraw its troops.
After Germany refused to comply, World War II officially began on 3rd September 1939. King Leopold III of Belgium was in a dilemma. He was very much aware that once the fighting began, both the French and the Germans would fight each other on his country’s soil.
King Leopold knew that French General Gamelin and German General Von Manstein had both formulated plans to advance into Belgium and eliminate the other’s army. Throughout its history the territory that was now Belgium had only seen pain and suffering from its central position in Europe.
Whenever there was a war to fight, it seemed to take place on Belgian soil. With memories of the devastation caused to his country by the Great War less than a quarter of a century old, Leopold was anxious not to plunge Belgium into a new nightmare.
He was an advocate of an independent foreign policy for Belgium and had authorised the construction of a series of heavy defensive fortifications stretching from Antwerp to the edge of the Ardenne Forest near Namur along the German border.
After the Great War Belgium had returned to its policy of neutrality and Leopold’s vision of armed neutrality was widely supported by the country’s population. On two occasions, even after the outbreak of war, he had advocated mediation to solve the conflict between Nazi Germany and the Western Allies.
In October 1939 Leopold made a radio broadcast to the United States. Speaking in English he told his audience that the feelings of the Belgian people were based on age-long struggles fought on Belgian soil.
The Belgian people simply wanted to be left alone and in peace and whatever the Allies or the Axis countries might think of each other, Belgium wanted to be left out of it.
Here Come The Germans (Again)
For several months not a great deal happened and then on 10th May 1940 all thoughts of a “phoney war” were shattered when the Germans issued the code word “Danzig” and put into action their invasion plan, Feld Gelb. The main attack was expected to come through central Belgium along a similar line to the German attack on France in 1914.
Leopold hoped to hold off the Germans at Fort Eben Emael, north of Liege near the German border. This was a large underground fort that dominated three well-defended bridges over the Albert Canal. It was manned by over 1,200 soldiers and was considered to be impregnable. Its weakness however, was that it was vulnerable to attack from above.
At dawn on 10 th May the Germans launched a daring attack using a 400-man glider force. Nine gliders were landed directly on top of the fort and paratroopers blasted their way through the roofs of the gun emplacements quickly disabling them. Heavy attacks by Stuka dive-bombers finished things off.
Fighting had been fierce and there were many casualties, but the fort surrendered.
With the defending artillery destroyed, the remainder of the German force was quickly able to secure two of the three bridges, allowing the German forces to cross the heavily defended Belgian border.
The King, the Belgian Army, the Belgian people and the allies were stunned not only by the attack, but by the fall of the border defences. Fort Eben Emael was in its time the largest fort in the world and is open to visitors.
Gathering The Troops
The French and British forces were much better equipped than the Belgian army and they quickly moved north to counter the expected attack through central Belgium. However, they too were treated as invaders when they tried to cross into Belgium.
Pacifist sentiment was strong and it was widely felt that any co-operation with the Allies would attract German aggression. Fortunately government officials recognised Germany as being the greater threat and did what they could by opening the border for the Allied armies.
Eventually Leopold decided to come down on the side of the Allies, but by then precious time had been lost. There was a serious problem: the Allied and Belgian armies had never worked or prepared to work together.
Even as war approached there was no military co-operation and two completely different command structures and ways of doing things were now expected to mesh together.
Allied men and machines began pouring into Belgium ready for the major fight that was expected to take place just as it had 25 years earlier. But the invasion of the Low Countries, although strategic in nature, was really only a cover for the main invasion that was taking place through the Ardennes.
Previously the Belgians and the French had believed the Ardenne Forest to be impenetrable, but after months of training in the Black Forest, the Germans had developed new military techniques and tactics.
Generals Rommel and Guderian’s Blitzkrieg techniques, with Panzer divisions supported by the Luftwaffe enabled their fast-moving tank formations to break out of the Ardennes on 13th May and head west towards the coast.
Belgium’s last hope in stopping the advancing German armour now pouring through the centre of the country was the so-called KW Line that been set up after the outbreak of the war as a last line of defence southeast of Brussels. The Belgians managed to hold this on their own for nearly four days, before handing over command to the French.
The resistance didn’t last long though, as on 15 th May the French General Gamelin ordered the withdrawal of all French forces from Belgian soil.
Five days later Gamelin was sacked for not doing more to stop the German advance. Further south, Rommel and his Panzers reached the Channel coast near Abbeville on 20th May. The Belgian army and the British Expeditionary Force were now completely surrounded and cut off from the bulk of the French army.
The King’s Struggle
Controversy has always surrounded King Leopold’s actions during World War II. The Germans dropped leaflets on the Belgian troops telling them that their king had deserted them. Leopold countered this by telling his men that whatever happened to them, he would share their fate.
On 28th May 1940 and without consulting his cabinet, King Leopold III surrendered the Belgian army and capitulated to the Germans.
This was the same day that the encircled British began their evacuation at Dunkirk. His surrender left a crucial gap in the Allied defence of Dunkirk and if the Germans had exploited this, the evacuation would not have been possible. To many Belgian people and the parliament, Leopold’s conduct was in stark contrast to those of his father,
King Albert I, who had gallantly resisted the Kaiser’s army in the Great War. Other Belgians, including the two million refugees who were trapped in the pocket encircled by the Germans, supported the king’s action.
His supporters say that the King saw the situation as being completely hopeless and decided to spare his people from further bloodshed by not continuing to fight in a lost cause.
In the event the British Expeditionary Force lost all of its equipment, but nearly 340,000 men were evacuated from Dunkirk. Had these men been lost along with their equipment, it is hard to see how Britain could have remained in the war and how Belgium could subsequently have been liberated in 1944.
For Belgium And Honour
Leopold honoured his pledge to his troops to share their fate and he refused to flee to England as part of a government-in-exile, but despite this the British and the French were very critical of his actions. In 1941 he aroused further criticism, particularly in Belgium, when he married a commoner that many considered a Nazi sympathiser.
In spite of this he showed great courage in stoutly refusing to administer his country on behalf of the German occupiers, which would have lent an appearance of legitimacy to the Nazi government.
As a result he effectively became a prisoner of war; initially in his castle near Brussels, but when the Allies advanced towards the end of the war, at another location deep within Germany.
It is said that during his imprisonment, King Leopold saved a significant number of women and children from deportation to munitions factories in Germany when in 1942 he wrote a personal letter to Hitler pleading on their behalf.
Eighteen days after the German invasion and once the country had been completely overrun, civil administration was placed in the hands of the Wehrmacht, army. Their headquarters was set up at Wilrijk just south of Antwerp and a host of Fascist French, Flemish and Walloon collaborators assisted the occupation authorities.
From here they administered the whole of Belgium, together with two departments of Northern France. Before long the first anti-Jewish measures were introduced.
Just before the outbreak of war the Jewish population of Belgium was at its peak, numbering roughly 70,000. About 35,000 were living in Antwerp and 25,000 in Brussels.
It is estimated that some 22,000 of this number were German refugees and that only 6% were of Belgian nationality. Initially these anti-Jewish measures were limited to stopping certain religious rites.
But before long the Nazis were prohibiting Jews from professions such as law and education. By 1941 property was being confiscated, curfews were set up and Jews were confined to cities. In early 1942 Jews were ordered to wear yellow badges
The Belgian Holocaust
In September 1942 the first round-ups began. In all, approximately 45% of the Jews in Belgium were deported to concentration camps, primarily Auschwitz. Only 1,200 returned. Figures indicate that 28,900 Belgian Jews perished between 1942 and 1945.
Belgium’s National Monument of the Jewish Martyrs is in Brussels and more than 20,000 names of Jewish dead are inscribed on its walls.
Many Jews were saved as a result of an active resistance movement. A higher proportion of Jews was saved in Belgium than in most other occupied countries. The Belgian constitution does not permit the mention of religion on civil documents so initially the Germans had trouble identifying Jewish families.
Many Jewish children were hidden by Christian families and with the help of the Jewish Resistance about 800 Jews were hidden in the city of Antwerp alone. Whilst in exile the Belgian government also helped fund the rescue of thousands of children by the resistance.
In 2012 the Jewish Museum for Deportation and Resistance was opened at the Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen.
Sleeping With The Enemy
Racial purity always featured very highly on the agenda of the German occupation forces. The Flemish population of Belgium was considered to be purer than the French-speaking Walloons and the original intention was that only Flanders should be incorporated into the German Reich.
The Wehrmacht stoutly resisted this since it would seriously disrupt the valuable support that Belgian industry was giving to the German war effort. Collaboration in occupied countries is always a delicate issue. Many viewed the king as a collaborator, but his role is very difficult to assess.
After the successful invasion, the Germans seemed to be sweeping towards certain victory and to many people there seemed to be little point in putting up any form of resistance. There are other delicate issues: were the police who so effectively rounded up all the Jews in Antwerp and Brussels acting as collaborators?
After the war no action was taken against them on the grounds that they were simply acting on the orders from superiors in their own organisation, who in turn were acting on orders from civil servants further up the chain.
Although after the war a number of civil servants lost their jobs, it was felt that any major investigation would simply open a Pandora’s Box. In Antwerp collaborators even got locked up in the lion cages of the local zoo. Nationally tens of thousands were convicted for aiding the occupiers or joining the Waffen-SS and some were even executed.
Putting Up A Fight
Most of the population gave no thought to collaboration. Belgian Resistance was highly organised, although it took a number of different forms, with resistance fighters performing a number of different roles.
These included sabotaging Nazi installations and helping to rescue shot down airmen. With most of the major rail routes between Germany and France passing through Belgium, other networks specialised in providing the Allies with intelligence on the movements of rail traffic.
Resistance groups were formed immediately after the surrender. The atmosphere of resistance is described as having been “relentless”. Reportedly more Germans were killed in Belgium during 1941 than in occupied France. So many Belgian citizens expressed willingness to aid the resistance fighters that supply lines were established and evasion routes charted.
Belgian resistance fighters were determined to aid the Allies in every possible way. However, there was never a unified organisation of resistance groups, which from a security point of view was probably a very good thing.
An important role for the resistance was to help downed airmen. Aircrew were being shot down in their hundreds and after every raid the Germans sent out patrols with dogs and motorcycles to look for them. The resistance took great pride in finding them first. Parachutes had to be buried and airmen hidden away.
The so-called Comet escape line had a series of safe houses throughout Belgium where airmen could be given civilian clothes and moved from house to house.
They would be provided with false papers and guided to neutral or Allied-occupied territory. This was a highly sophisticated operation and many airmen were able to escape successfully.
Capture usually meant interrogation by the Gestapo, followed by imprisonment in Belgium or transport back to a German POW camp.
The Terror Of Sabotage
Sabotage was another weapon in the Resistance’s armour and a good example was the attack on the Bridge over the Amblève River. German troop trains were constantly passing through Belgium and the resistance identified when and where these trains would be travelling.
They planned to destroy a vital bridge between the towns of La Gleize and Stoumont, southeast of Liege. A band of 40 members of the Resistance assembled at the bridge and placed explosives under the central arch.
This explosive was detonated as the train approached and, being unable to stop, the train plunged into the river killing all 600 German soldiers on board. Sabotaging trains always had spectacular consequences and the German Army lost thousands of trains to acts of sabotage.
Railway lines were often targeted to disrupt the flow of materials and military personnel. The loss amounted to many millions of Reich marks.
Resistance fighters lived in a world of constant danger. They were always at a risk of being captured or betrayed. The Germans had special agents whose job was to infiltrate the underground communities in order to gather intelligence. Hundreds of resistance fighters were arrested.
Seemingly safe escape routes were sometimes traps and many downed airmen and resistance fighters were caught in this way. Resistance fighters caught by the Germans were imprisoned or shot. One of them was Jean (“Johnny”) Vost. He was arrested in 1942 for alleged sabotage and sent to Dachau concentration camp where, somehow, managed to survive. He was originally from the Belgian Congo and is documented as the only black prisoner to serve time at Dachau.
The achievements of the Belgian resistance movement were significant. In addition to providing an escape route for downed Allied aircrew, resistance fighters were also credited with stopping a train transporting Jewish prisoners to Auschwitz.
In addition to having an important effect on the morale of German soldiers, acts of sabotage gave an enormous psychological boost to the civilian population who could plainly see that something positive was being done to get back at the occupying power.
In 1940 hundreds of Belgian soldiers had managed to escape to Britain and were organised into several military units. In June 1942 the Belgian Forces in Britain were officially made available to the Allies. By the end of the year a restructuring had led to the creation of the 1st Belgian Brigade under the command of Major Jean-Baptiste Piron.
It soon gained the nickname “Brigade Piron”. Belgians came from around the world to join the Brigade, which was said to contain speakers of 33 different languages.
The Allied invasion of Europe, the D-day landings, took place on 6th June 1944. The Belgian brigade had trained extensively for this, but to their intense disappointment they did not take part in the landings. They had been placed in reserve to take part in the liberation of Belgium. After Major Piron lobbied to the Belgian government in exile, the Belgian Brigade arrived in Normandy on 30th July entering active service on 9th August under the command of the British 6th Airborne Division.
After taking part in some very fierce fighting and sustaining a number of casualties, on 2nd September they were transferred to the 2nd British Army to allow them to move as quickly as possible to the Belgian border.
After an overnight journey they entered Brussels the next day, just after the British. Needless to say, after five years of occupation the Belgian people were ecstatic.
Many thought that the Brigade Piron were French Canadians since Belgian troops were the last soldiers they expected to liberate them. Other Belgian cities were quickly liberated, along with a number of V-1 “Doodlebug” launching sites. German troops tried to limit the usefulness of the port of Antwerp to the Allies by attacking it with V-1 and V-2 rockets.
These attacks were far from accurate and although a considerable amount of damage was done to the city, the port facilities remained intact and were captured by the Allies on 4th September.
The Final Chapter
By November most of Belgium was in Allied hands, but on 16th December the Germans launched a last-ditch attack in the Ardennes. Known to the Americans, who bore the brunt of the fighting, as the Battle of the Bulge, this was launched through the same densely forested region where Rommel had made his celebrated Panzer breakthrough in 1940.
The German aim was to split the British and American line in half, recapture Antwerp, encircle and destroy four Allied armies and force the Allies to negotiate a peace treaty in favour of the Axis powers.
Fierce resistance from the Americans destroyed the German’s schedules before improved weather conditions enabled Allied air attacks to disrupt German supply lines. These factors combined to seal the fate of the offensive. Both sides suffered heavy casualties and around 3,000 civilians were killed. There were 89,500 American losses, including 19,000 killed; and 1,408 British losses, including 200 killed.
Figures for German losses vary, but an authoritative source puts German losses at around 85,000, of whom nearly 16,000 were killed.
The Germans lost just about all of their equipment and vehicles; a loss of manpower that was critical at this stage of the war.
You can find out more at a recently opened museum. In spring 2013 the new Bastogne War Museum opened its doors, right next to the famous Mardasson Memorial in Bastogne.
After The Smoke Had Cleared
Belgium was finally declared free of German forces on Sunday 4th February 1945. The country had not suffered the damage of many other European countries, with most of the damage having been incurred during the Battle of the Bulge.
King Leopold and his family were released from imprisonment in Austria, but his position was untenable and in 1951 he abdicated in favour of his son, Baudouin. The “Brigade Piron” later went on to become the nucleus of the post-war Belgian army.
In the post-war era Belgium’s location has worked to its advantage. Belgium is no longer an insignificant little nation to be used as a convenient battleground.
Since the founding of the European Community in 1958, Brussels has effectively become the de facto capital of the European Union and the regular meeting place of the European Council Heads of Government.
How fortunes change.