World War II: NAZI Invasion of Belgium (May 10, 1940)


Figure 1.--Here three British soldiers pass a Belgian boy at the French-Belgian border (May 17, 1940). At this time the Germans had already broken through in the Ardennes and were driving toward the Channel. The bulk of the BEF had rushed north to help the Dutch and thus was not in place to resist the Germans in force when they struck through the Ardennes.

Belgium remained strictly neutral, but was invaded by the Germans for a second time (on May 10, 1940). The Germans struck at both the Netherlands and Belgium at the same time. It was the start of the long anticipated German offensive in the West. After a few months of the "Phony War", it was the turn of the Low Lands and France. The German initiated their long awaited western campaign on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg. The Luftwaffe played a key role in the German success in the west. King Leopold before the War had promoted the construction of important defensive fortifications from Antwerp to Namur in front of the German border. These defenses were quickly taken by the Germans. The British Expeditionary Force rushed nort to assist the Dutch. This meant that they were not present in force to opposed the Germans when they broke through in the Ardennes. Leopold, with the bulk of the Belgian Army, was surrounded by the Germans, and capitulated. Leopold ordered his army to surrender and refused to flee with officials to form a government-in-exile in England. His actions were resented by some Belgians. His surrender at a crucial point in the battle for the low countries left a critical gap in the Allied ring around Dunkirk and could have made the evacuation impossible if the Germans had pressed their attack.

Belgian Neutrality

King Leopold was an advocate of a more independent foreign policy for Belgium before World War II, Leopold twice urged mediation of the conflict between NAZI Germany and the Western Allies in the months immediately before and after the outbreak of war in 1939. Depite the German invasion in 1914, Belgian after the War returned to a policy of neutrality. King Leopold's policy of "armed neutrality" was whole heartily supported by the Belgian people. [Wybo] After the outbreak of War, the King gave a radio speech in English to the United States. He told America that the Belgian people's attitude came from "Whose feels have evolved from age long struggles", Everyone fought their fights on Belgian soil! The Belgian people wanted to be left alone and left in peace. So, no matter how the Allies or Axis countries think, Belgium wanted to be left out (October 1939).

German Invasion (May 10, 1940)

Belgium remained strictly neutral, but was invaded by the Germans for a second time (on May 10, 1940). The Germans struck at both the Netherlands and Belgium at the same time. It was the start of the long anticipated German offensive in the West. After a few months of the "Phony War", it was the turn of the Low Lands and France. The German initiated their long awaited western campaign on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgiym, and Luxemburg. The Luftwaffe played a key role in the German success in the west.

Belgian Defensives

King Leopold before the War had promoted the construction of important defensive fortifications from Antwerp to Namur in front of the German border. Although Belgium had after the earlier German invasion had joined the World War I Allies, after the War it decided to again seek security through neutrality. And there was no military cooperation with Britain and France as Hitler steadily moved toward war. Pacifist sentiment was strong in Belgium and it was widely felt that copperation with the Allies would attract German aggression. After Hitler launched World War II, the Belgian Government declared its neutrality and refused to allow either the British and French to enter the country to strengthen its defense. When thecGermans struck, the Belgian Army and the King were shocked at the onset with the fall of border defenses.

Fort Eban-Emael (May 10)

Fort Eban-Emael was a large underground fort dominating three well defended bridges over the Albert Canal. It was modeled on the French Maginot Line forts and considered impregnable. The Fort was manned by over 1,200 Belgian soldiers. A 400-man German glider force silently attacked at dawn on May 10. The German landed nine gliders directly on top of the Fort. They blasted their way through the roofs of the gun emplacements and quickly disabled the guns. With the defending artillery destroyed, the remainder of the German force was able to quickly secure two of the three critical bridges over the canal. The German armored forces were then able to cross the heavily fortified Belgian border without a fight, in a matter of hours.

The K-W Line (May 10-13)

The K-W line which the Belgians held on their own (May 10-13). This provided a very strong defense. The Germans on May 13 using Blitzkrieg tatics deployed Panzer divisions and supported by the Luftwaffe to break through the Allied lines in the Ardenne Forest whih the Belgians and French believed inpenitratible in an area where the Maginot Line ended near Sedan. When the German panzers broke through in the Sedan region and the French had to retreat, the Belgians were forced to abandon their strong positions along the K-W line.

French Command (May 13)

King Leopold put his army under the command of the overall supreme allied commanders, first Gamelin and then Weygand. In the air, the Belgian Army never got support from the French or British. Belgian soldiers complained, "We never saw any British planes, only German." The Belgian Army withdrew day after day to conform with events outside their area of control. Gamelin on May 15 ordered a retreat of French forces from Belgium (May 15). German paratroopers landed directly on top of the main defensive line at Fort Eban Emael and used flame-throwers to force the Fort to capitulate. The French sharply criticised Belgian withdrawls.

British Expeditionary Force Rushes North to Support the Dutch

Britain declared War on Germany following the German NAZI invasion of Poland (September 1, 1939). The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to the France and positioned along the Belgan 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 ordered the BEF rushed north 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. This also meant that the BEF was not positioned to confront the German armored force that broke through to the south in the Ardennes. And once committed, it is not an eassy matter to turn an army ariound once set in motion, especially when heavily engaged. The BEF was heavily commited and suffered substantial losses. The ensuinhgGerman 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.

Belgians Cut Off (May 20)

Rommel spearheading the Pazer reached the Channel near Abbeville, wetting his boots in the Channel (May 20). King Leopold, with the bulk of the Belgian Army, was cut off from the French and surrounded. As the encirclement continued, the Germans dropped leaflets telling the Belgian soldiers that their King and Government had left for England. The King, in response, on May 24 sent a message to his troops in which he indicated, "Whatever occurs, I will share your fate" (May 24). This was a promise that the King subsequently did not believe that he could honorably break. [Wybo]

Belgian Surrender (May 28)

King Leopold without consulting the cabinent or the Allies surrendered the Belgian Army and capitulated to the Germans on May 28. The British on the same day began the evacuation at Dunkirk. [Rempel] King Leopold's actions were widely resented in Belgium. His surrender at a crucial point in the battle for the Low Countries left a critical gap in the Allied ring around Dunkirk and could have made the evacuation impossible. Inexplicably Hitler ordered the Panzzers stopped and the Germans had pressed their attack. There is considerable difference of opinion as to the circumstances surrounding the caotic course of events in late May. His actions as Commander and Chief of the Army during the German invasion of 1940 have been sharply criticized. To many Belgians, Leopold's surrender to the NAZI's forces were in stark contrast to his father's gallant resistance to the Kaiser's Army during World War I. The King's surrender incurred the disapproval of many Belgians people and Parliament. Not all Belgians were critical at the time. A Belgian source rells us that the King's actions were praised by the over 2 million refugees trapped in the pocket encircled by the Germans. He also reports that the majority of Belgians are Flemish and the Flemings were supportive of the King. [Wybo] King Leopold saw the situation as hopeless. He thus decided to spare his soldirs and people further bloodshed in a lost cause. There was some support for this view. British Admiral Sir Roger Keyes was at the King's headquarters during the fighting and insisted that King Leopold had no military option but to surrender. This almost certainly true, but a few more days of resistance would have made it easier for the British and French at Dunkirk. The British and French were especially critical of the King's actions and there was considerable criticism in the Allied countries. Reynaud broadcast a vitriolic diatribe calling his majesty a traitor! One observer believes that the French, whose army was desintigrating, needed a scape goat. [Wybo] There is a reasonable qestion of who abandoned who. The Belgians were never informed that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was abandoning them. [Deightons] Certainly in thefinalmanalysis it was critical that the BEF be succesfully evacuated. If the Germans had destroyed the BEF at Dunkirk, it is difficult to see how Blgium could be liberated in 1944. Of course it understandably looked very different to many at the time.

Dunkirk (May 26-June 2, 1940)

The surrender of the Belgian Army left the BEF seriously exposed. The British fell back on the French port of Dunkirk on the Belgian border. The BEF was within Hitler's grasp. Then Von Rundstedt/Hitler (historians differ) stopped the Panzers to resupply and make needed repairs. This allowed the British a chance to evacuate their men and many French. The Panzers had been only a few klometers south of Dunkirk and facing no serious opposition. Hitler ordered the Panzers to halt. Some believe that Hitler hoped this gesture would help convince the British to comes to terms, other believe that is was just as it was described at the time, a needed pause to regroup and prepare for a more coordinated assault. [Davidson, p. 408 and Fest, p. 630.] What ever the reason, this 48-hour respite allowed the British to organize a defensive perimter around Dunkirk and begin an almost miraculous withdawl. Seven German divisions pressed toward Dunkirk which was also subjected to intensive bombing by the Luftwaffe. The Belgians had surrendered, but the surronded French First Army continuing to fight occupying key German forces while the British evacuated. The resistance of the French First Army was critical in the success of the Dunkirk evacuation. The British rushed all available craft accross the Channel. Nearly 340,000 men were evacuated from Dunkirk, including French and Dutch sholdiers. This is even more important that it sounds as almost all if the British sholdiers were regulars and would form the nucleus of the future British Army that was to play such an important role in the War. [Moss] All of the BEF's equipment, however, was lost. Leaving the British Army with little artillery and few tanks to face an anticipated German invasion. Paris soon fell and the French signed a NAZI imposed armistace. Saving the BEF, however, greatly not just enhanced the chances of Britain's survival, but n fact was crtical.

King Leopold and World War II

His actions as Commander and Chief of the Army during the German invasion of 1940 has been criticized by some Belgians and the British and French. Leopold, with the bulk of the Belgian Army, was surrounded by the Germans, and capitulated. Leopold ordered his army to surrender and refused to flee with officials to form a government-in-exile in England. His actions were resented by some Belgians. His surrender at a crucial point in the battle for the low countries left a critical gap in the Allied ring around Dunkirk and could have made the evacuation impossible if the Germans had pressed their attack. King Leopold aroused further criticism by his marriage in 1941 to a commoner, who was some looked on as pro-NAZI. To many Belgians, Leopold's surrender to the NAZI's forces were in stark contrast to his father's gallant resistance to the Kaiser's Army during World War I. Other Belgians believe that the King has been unfairly criticized. King Leopold showed great courage by subsequently refusing to administer his country under German control and lend any appearance of legitimacy to the NAZI occupation government. Leopold was held prisoner by the Germans until the end of the war, first in his castle at Laeken, Brusses, and later deep in Germany itself.

Sources

Davidson, Eugene. The Unmaking of Adolf Hitler (Univesity of Missouri: Columbia, 1996), 519p.

Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p.

Knowles, David J. Escape From Catastrophe, 1940 Dunkirk.

Moss

Rempel, Gerhard. "Hitler Moves West", December 18, 1995.

Wybo, Daniel A. National League of Veterans of King Leopold III, E-mail message, October 20, 2002.







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Created: 3:16 AM 5/1/2007
Last updated: 10:05 PM 12/18/2011