World War II Belgium: BEF Rushes Northeast to Aid the Belgians and Dutch (May 10-15, 1940)


Figure 1.--The Germans struck with massive attacks on the Dutch and Belgians (May 10, 1940). Here Belgian civilans near Louvain flee the Germans probably around May 12-14 because there are still relatively few refugees. Louvain is located in Flanders, about 30 kilometers east of Brussels. The British trops are moving northeast toward the front in a fruitless effort to reinforce the Belgians and aid the Dutch. The Dutch surrendered (May 15) by which time the Germans had broken through in the Ardennes and moving into the British rear--a position from time in menorual from which armies are destroyed. Source: Imperial War Museum.

After Hitler invaded Poland (September 1, 1939), Britain anf France declared War on Germany (September 3). The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to France and positioned along the Belgian border. At the time of the German invasion, the BEF was composed of 10 infantry divisions organized in three corps and a tank brigade. They were supported by a Royal Air Force (RAF) force of about 500 aircraft. The BEF was about a tenth of the Allied force on the Western Front. The BEF was commanded by General Lord Gort (1886- ). He was Anglo-Irish and a World War I hero. He was a highly respected officer who had commanded the Staff College. Interestingly the BEF was the only fully mechanized force involved in the campaign. The Wehrmacht had a powerful mechanized force, but a substantial part of the Wehrmact was still not mechanized and relied on horses as draft animals. (This was still the case a year later when Hitler launched Barbarossa.) Despite the example of Poland, Gort and his command were unprepared for Blitzkrieg when the Germans struck in the West. The general opinion was it was Polish weakness and not German competence that was involved. After the German attack, as the Germans anticipated, Gort activated Plan D and ordered the BEF north to aid the Dutch (May 10). Actually BEF moved east, to a line on the Dyle. Lord Gort left his headquarters and moved to a new field headquarters near Lille. He wanted to be close to the action, but was iladvised as it greatly complicated communications at a critical point in the campaign. the BEF thus rushed north and east out of its prepared positions to aid the Belgians and Dutch. The Dutch Army, however, after the bombing of Rotterdam surrendered before the BEF could reach them (May 15). This also meant that the BEF wasnot positioned to confront the German armored force that broke through to the south in the Ardennes (May 14). An army, once committed, is not eassy to turn around once set in motion, especially when heavily engaged. The BEF was heavily commited and sufered substantial losses. The ensuing German drive to the Channel meant that the BEF, the French First Army, and the Belgian Army were cut off from the rest of the French Army.

British Expeditionary Force

After Hitler invaded Poland (September 1, 1939), Britain anf France declared War on Germany (September 3). The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to France and positioned along the Belgian border. Fiven the size of the German Army, it was a relatively small force. The Belgians also braced for another attack, but did not enter the War. The BEF was thus deployed along the French-Belgian border. The French with some validity complained that the British commitment was inadequate and that they were not taking the situation seriously enough. At the time of the German invasion, the BEF was composed of 10 infantry divisions organized in three corps and a tank brigade. Virtually all of Britain's modern equipment (tanks and other military vehickes and artillery) was dispatched with the BEF. Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons were also deployed to France. The BEF was supported with a force of about 500 aircraft. The BEF was about a tenth of the Allied force on the Western Front. Interestingly the BEF was the only fully mechanized force involved in the campaign. The Wehrmacht had a powerful mechanized force, but a substantial part of the Wehrmact was still not mechanized and relied on horses as draft animals. (This was still the case a year later when Hitler launched Barbarossa.)

Lord Gort (1886- )

The BEF was commanded by General Lord Gort (1886- ). He was Anglo-Irish and a World War I hero. He was a highly respected officer who had commanded the Staff College.Despite the example of Poland, Gort and his command were unprepared for Blitzkrieg when the Germans struck in the West. The general opinion was it was Polish weakness and not German competence that was involved.

Plan D

The Allied battle plan was the Dyle Plan named after the Belgian River that was to become the Allied front line. It was thus commonly referred to as Plan D. The Allies decided when the Germans attacked that they would advance and fight the battle in Belgium. They believed that the Germans would attack again through Belgium as the Maginot Line was to strong to attack frontally. There was, however, no coordination with the Belgians who clung to the hope that neutrality woukd protect them. The British Government was determined to keep the Flemish coast from German control to prevent air attacks on Britain and to ensure naval control of the Channel. The French were determined to prevent the battle from being fought on French soil. Gamelin did not consider his army capable of winning a mobile battle against the German army on the wide operational area of northern France. He thought the Allies had a better chance in Belgium because it presented a smaller front restricting the movement of the German formations. Gamelin wanted the Allies to advance to the Dyle and there entrench. That would provide both a fortified front and save much of Belgium's industry. Gamelin did not want to simply order Lord Gort to accept Plan D. He offered the 'Escaut' variant as an option for Plan D. This involved would involve the French advamcing toward the Netherlands. The French 1st and 9th Armies, the most powerful French formations, would the Germans in Belgium, from Wavre to Givet. The French 7th Army would hold the Scheldt and link up with Dutch forces. The Belgian Army would hold the Ghent-Antwerp line. They BEF's role would be to reinforce the Belgians in their defensive positions on a line east of Brussels, from Wavre to Louvain.

German Western Offensive (May 10)

After the defeat of Poland, the Whermacht planners focused on the West. Hitler told his Wehrmacht adjutant Rudolf Schmundt even before the fighting in Poland was still in progress that he believed France could be defeated andcthe British brought to terms (Seotember 12). He still had the illusion that the Britishand French would come to their sences and make peace while at the sane time preparing for war. He informed the service commanders to prepare for an attack in the West (September 27). At the same time he offered peace to the British and French. At a Reichstag speech he offered peace (October 6). Even before the British abd French rejected the offer, he issued Führer Directive No. 6, ordering a massive western offensive. The Oberkommando of the Heer (Army General Staff--OKW) developed many plans were developed for what became Fall Gelb (Case Yellow). Invasion dates were postponed and plans changed. Hitler rejected several of the plans proposed by dominated by the Commander-in-chief Walther von Brauchitsch and Chief-of-Staff General Franz Halder. Hitler came to support a strategy propsed by Gerd von Rundstedt and Erich von Manstein--the two commanders who became the leading faces of the Wehrmacht. They departed from the general opinion at OKW. The plan Hitler approved became known as "Sichelschnitt (Sickle Stroke). One British historian describes it as the World War I Schileffen Plan in reverse. [Keegan, pp. 54-60.] It involved Army Group B commanded by General Fedor von Brock attacking the Netherlands and northern Belgium to draw the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and French out of their fixed defenses on the Belgian frontier. Army Group C commanded by General Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb would engage the French forces on the Maginot Line to tie down the bulk of the French Army. The main force with the bulk of the Panzers was Army Group B commanded by Rundstedt would then strike through the thinly defennded Ardennes, cross the Meuse River and break through to the Channel. If the BEF and French moved north they could attack this force from the rear. Even if they did not, the Germans believed that with the surprise achieved, they still had a good chance of success.

BEF Advances Northeast (May 10)

After the German attack, as the Germans anticipated, Gort activated Plan D and ordered the BEF north to aid the Dutch (May 10). Actually BEF moved east, to a line on the Dyle. Lord Gort left his headquarters and moved to a new field headquarters near Lille. He wanted to be close to the action, but was iladvised as it greatly complicated communications at a critical point in the campaign. the BEF thus rushed north and east out of its prepared positions in France along the Belgian border to aid the Belgians and Dutch. The BEF was heavily commited and sufered substantial losses.

French 1st Army Group Rushes North

The French upon receiving news of the German attacks ordered their 1st Army Group, the most powerful French formation, into Belgium. Had they remained in place they woild have been in a good position to block the German break through from the Ardennes. The 1st Army Group moved north in accordance with Plan D. They thus committed their best and most mobil force. By the time the French 7th Army reached the Dutch border, the Dutch army was in full retreat and as their had be no pre-War planning, any kind of joint action was impossible. The French withdrew back into Belgium to help defend Brussels. The French First Army did niot have time to prepare defenses when they learned oof the defeat on the Belgian border fefenses. Allied planning had been based on the Belgians delaying the Germans as they had in World War I. The French had expected the Belgians delaying the Germans for several weeks which seems extremely optimistic. The French planned to build a defensive line around the Gembloux Gap.

The Ardennes (May 10-14)

The French and British High Command focused on the fighting in the Netherlands and northern Belgium. This proved to be a feint. The primary German attack came in the Belgian Ardennes. The Germans struck in the Belgian Ardenes which allowed them to avoid the formidable Maginot Line to the south and the powerful Allied formatiins to yhe north. The French and Belgians considered the Ardennes impassable to tanks and this were convinced the Germans would not strike there. But this is just where the Germans did attack. To the amazement of the French, the Panzers swiftly penetrated the Ardenees and crossed the Meuse River. The Germans managed to easily move througj the rough terraine. The pronciple imediment was that there were only a few narrow roads. The German collumns would have made easy targets as they clogged the narrow roads in the Ardennes, but the Allies did not launch an air offensive and the Luftwaffe maintained air cover. They then crossed two substantial rivers. Belated, desperate French actions to hold at the Meuse River failed. RAF efforts to stop the German crossing at the Meuse lead to very subastanial losses of fighter aircraft. After crossing the Meuse, the Pamzers raced to the Channel ofter flat country side. Only a few days into the offensive, Premier Reynaud reported that there was nothing between the Panzers and Paris (May 14). The Panzers did not, howver, immediately drive on Paris. They instead moved west to the Channel. The French despite possessing some excellent tanks were totally unprepared for modern mechanized warfare. The XIX Panzer Corps rapidly reached the English Channel--cutting the BEF off from the French and rendering the Maginot Line uselss. The French entrenched behind the Maginot Line simply could not cope with the exposive highly mobil style of Blitzkrieg warfare.

Dutch Surrender (May 15)

The Luftwaffe bombed Rotterdam (May 14). An estimated 30,000 civilian were killed or wounded. Finally the German threat to bomb Utrecht, convinced the Dutch government to surrender. The terror bombing of Rotterdam convinced the already hard-pressed. but still in tact Dutch Army to surrender to save Utrecht. Queen Wilhilmina embarked con a Royal Navy ship. She at first asked to be landed in another Dutch port. She remarked, "... in due course, with God's help, the Netherland's will regain their European territory." The Dutch Government after the Luftwaffe's bombing of Rotterdam and the departure of the Queen ordered Dutch forces to cease resistabnce (May 15). Dutch commanders were ordered to destroy all their ammunition. Scattered resistance continued for 2 days after the surrender. The rest of the Netherlands was in German hands (May 16). Dutch forces resisted at the Ypenburg and Ockenburg air bases. German transport planes trying to land troops were shot down. The Dutch Army thus surrendered before the Allies could reach them.

Cut Off

The advance into Belgium mean that beuther the BEF or the French First Army Group were not positioned to confront the powerful German armored force that broke through to the south (May 14). An army, once committed, is not eassy to turn around once set in motion, especially when heavily engaged. An army in motion is somewhat disorganized andcdrawing down its fuel reserves. Thus the most powerful Allied formations could not be deployed to blunt the German Panzers. The ensuing German drive to the Channel meant that the BEF, the French First Army Group , and the Belgian Army were cut off from the rest of the French Army. This proved to be the decisive action of the campaign.

Sources









HBC








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Created: 11:03 PM 12/18/2011
Last updated: 11:04 PM 12/18/2011