Saturday, May 26, 2007
A FORGOTTEN CAMPAIGN. FORGOTTEN VALOUR (PART TWO).
The advance through Belgium was no milkrun for the Germans. The photo shows a destroyed Schwere Panzerspaehwagen SdKfz 231 (heavy armoured car) in the town of Aalst, roughly halfway Ghent and Brussels. Upon entering the town, the German ccame across one of our T-13's, hidden in some narrow alley. Inhabitants of Aalst may be able to trace the exact location since AFAIK the railway viaduct in the background is still there. Although the T-13's gunsights had been busted the day before in an engagement at Willebroek the day before, the gunner had the reflex of aiming through his 47mm gun's barrel! After locking onto his target, he quickly loaded, closed the breech and fired. It's a kill!
On May 17, tanks 829 and 833 were sent to Kapelle-op-den-Bos to back up a regiment of cyclists. At around 3pm, they encountered the advance guard of the German 192nd Infantry Regiment. Tank 829, with adjutant Pulings as commander, destroyed a PaK (PanzerabwehrKanone) antitank gun but was then hit itself by a 37mm antitank round, which instantly killed the gunner, Albert Coffez, and gravely wounded the driver, Albert Lutin. Tank 833 (Dumoulin) then destroyed the Pak gun, but had to withdraw shortly thereafter since its turret jammed. In the engagement, the Germans also lost the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion/192nd Infantry Regiment, Major Kessler.
After the Battle of the Lys, haggard-looking Belgian POW's are led away by their German captors. They carry with them a wounded or dead comrade.
A sad day for Belgium and a sad day for the Belgian Army. On orders of its King, Leopold III, the Belgian armed forces lay down their arms, despite the fact that they are not beaten yet, although many formations are already less than half their initial strength. The photo is ironic in the sense that the victors, the German column to the right, use horse-drawn traction, while the vanquished, the Belgian column to the left, are fully motorized with state-of-the-art motorcycles. Very likely they are part of a "Bataillon Moto de Chasseurs Ardennais". The location is with great certainty the road between Koolskamp and Lichtervelde, to the west of Tielt.
The photo shows the bodies of two soldiers of 31st Linieregiment, who fell defending the railway dyke in Passendale, a locality (in)famous for its WWI past. In case you look for the second one, his helmeted head is visible just across the first man's shoulder. It's not that I take pleasure in posting pictures like this. I'm not a war junkie. In many ways, I'm a family man, and I enjoy being with my wife and kids. My activities are basically peaceful, if you discount the occasional leftist bashing. But the question is: are these soldiers, and indeed their families, served better if the final testimony of their presence on this earth - call it essence, if you want - remained shelved in some dusty archive for eternity, only to be glanced at every couple of years by some history student doing research? Once these two men were human beings who very likely enjoyed life just as much as I do. Men with names, men with an identity, men who fancied a drink now and then with their mates, dated girls they had passionately fallen in love with, or went home after work to enjoy the evening meal with their spouse and offspring. Maybe they were Karel and Geert, or Dirk and Albert, or Gerard and Johan. Maybe they were from Oudenaarde, maybe from Roeselare, maybe from Mechelen, Huy or Mons. I suppose there's no way I'll ever know. But whoever they were, wherever they came from, they saw themselves placed between the people they had to defend and a ruthless invader... and took up the fight, despite the odds. They were no exceptions.
Liddel Hart De Franse leiders hadden een zondebok gevonden in de persoon van Leopold om zich te kunnen witwassen van alle blunders die ze begaan hadden. En, na een moment van twijfel, nam ook Churchill hun beschuldigingen tegenover de Koning over omwille van politieke belangen en onder druk van de Franse regering”.
In 1936 Belgium started its policy of "Armed Independence", which is different than a policy of strict neutrality. The Policy of "Armed Independence" was highly supported by the Belgian people even if it meant that 25% of the national budget was spent on the military and that in times of economic recession. Nor Britain or France were able to outline such a policy. In both countries military expenditures were highly criticized by public opinion until it was too late.
The inability of the French and British government to react when Germany re-occupied the Rhine-land had brought the German army at the Belgian-German border. The international agreements were broken (Locarno pact). At that time Belgium was the only country prepared to help France in case of a war with Germany. But France didn’t react, as Britain didn’t want to support a war.
The majority of the Belgians were against the Germans, but also against the French and this goes back to what happened after WOI, where Belgium was completely forgotten by the French in the Versailles Treaty. Also by not extending the Maginot Line at the Belgian-French border, the French practically invited the Germans to attack France through Belgium. The Belgian government asked the French government, on several occasions, to extent the fortifications, but as the French post-war commission wrote the French military preferred to fight the war with Germany in Belgium. This refusal resulted in a growing mistrust of the French by the Belgian population.
In 1940 Belgium would have the best-prepared army in its history. Even Germany was impressed by the military built-up in Belgium and Hitler counted to need one million troops to defeat the Belgian army. While Belgium was doing an extraordinary effort to strengthen his army, Britain was following a policy of "no responsibility". Or in military terms, in the winter of 1939 the British Expeditionary Force was only 152.000 men strong. In May 1940 the BEF counted only 237.000 men. If it had spent the same proportional amount of its national budget on the military as Belgium, Britain would have had an army of 4.8 million men strong.
For the British government (except Churchill) these conditions were unacceptable. The French decided that they didn't need to wait for an invitation and if Holland was attacked would march into Belgium with or without Belgian approval. The speech of Churchil on the 30th March stating that the neutral countries were scared to chose a side was an insult to the efforts which Belgium had done regarding its military efforts far more greater than Britain or France.
It started in a beautiful part of Europe on a beautiful day.
10/11 May 1940: Battle at the Albert-Canal.
On a sunny day WWII started for Belgium. The Germans obtained tactical surprise by attacking without any warning a large number of military targets and succeeded in destroying most of the already small Belgian airforce on the ground. It succeeded in taking two bridges over the Albert-canal and destroyed the strong fortress of Eben-Emael.
Read it all - read about the 17 days of an incredible fighting retreat.
Battles at the Lys River: At the Lys river the most fiercest battles of the Belgian campaign occurred.
While the battles at the Derivation canal took place 6th Army of Von Reichenau attacked the positions of the Belgian troops at the Lys river. The Belgian troops had extended their front to Menin to link up with the British front. Both fronts formed a 90° angle. The British front was diagonal with the German attacking direction. Which made the German left flank very vulnerable to British flank attacks and British artillery
The Belgian front was held here held by two divisions. The 1st (only 7000 men left) and 3rd (only 6000 men left) division and the 10th in reserve. The lack of material was even worse (no radios, few machine guns left). The divisions were supported by twenty artillery formations, something the Belgians still had plenty. These two divisions faced 6 German divisions and one division (7th) in flank protection against the British front.
Already on the 23rd of May the Germans made contact. The whole day and night the German artillery bombed the Belgian positions and the sky was full of German planes. The Germans lost on the 23rd 16 planes over this area, which is an accomplished as the Belgians didn’t have any plane in the sky. The Belgian artillery also participated and as usual dominated the German one. Several German units designated to attack the next day were replaced because the casualties they had taken by the Belgian artillery.
On the 24th of May the epic "Slag om de Leie" - Battle of the Lys - began. The Lys/Leie is a 20-3à m wide, 202 km long river, left tributary of The Scheldt. It springs in Lisbourg, France (Pas-de-Calais department) and joins the Scheldt in Ghent. On 22 May, the Belgian GHQ had decided to mount a strong defense along the Lys, and built up its front the best it could, given the circumstances. On the eveof the Battle of the Lys the Belgian front resembled an eastward bulging "bag", of which the southern half ran along the Lys from Menen, a town right near the French border, till Deinze, some twenty kilometers southwest of Ghent. From Deinze the front followed the Afleidngskanaal - Drivation Canal - a waterway which made a wide northeaserly arc till it reached the coast near Zeebrugge. Somewhat apart from the rest of the Army were the two cavalry divisions, in Zeeland.
24th May: On the 24th of May 6 German divisions attacked the Belgian positions near the city of Kortrijk. The first attempt of the 30th division failed completely, as did the second, third and fourth one. But after two hours, 26inf managed to cross the river after sustaining very high losses in men and material. At two other places the German division managed to get over the Lys river, at Bavikhove (German 19th division) and Beveren. After a day of fighting the Belgian troops needed to retreat here, but some units remained fighting off the Germans until being eliminated. In the history of the German 30th division is written, "the resistance was much higher than expected"
Between Kortrijk and Menin the 31st German division attacked and managed to break through the Belgian front of the 1st division. The town of Bissegem was lost. The front was lost here as the Germans were now attacking two regiments in the flank. The Germans created a bridgehead of 3km long. The 1st division received units to perform a counterattack to retake Bissegem, but these units could only move slowly to their attacking positions because of the constant Stuka attacks. Still they managed to stop the German breakthrough and reduced the German Bridgehead(4km long and 3km depth)
The main German attack took place around Kortrijk. 4 German divisions, the 18th, 14th, 19th and 30th smashed in the front of the Belgian 3rd division. The 3rd division put up a tenacious fight, defended every meter, and inflected heavy casualties to the German troops. The division itself sustained heavy casualties and its defenses cracked everywhere. The German commander of the 18th division would later write that the attack against this elite Belgian division was very hard and costly.
It wasn’t an elite division, hell it wasn’t even on half it strength. The 3rd division was starting to give away when it supporting artillery fell out of ammo. The supply convoy had been destroyed by another air attack. At 21.00 P.M remnants of the division retreated behind the Roulers canal, leaving a temporary breach of 9 km in the front.
Between the Kortrijk area and the Derivation canal the Germans attempted also to cross the Lys river. The German 255th division failed completely. The German 216th division managed to get a foothold over the river by using two regiments (348 and 396 infantry) but they were quickly beaten back by the precise shooting of the Belgian artillery. The German commander wrote, "The enemy shoots with such a precision that we were only able to retreat back over the Lys river during the night"
25th May: On the 25th of May the Germans had created two bridgeheads, only separated by a small corridor in the Kortrijk area. This corridor included the city of Kortrijk itself. Still the city of Kortrijk was evacuated as it was endangered by encirclement. Belgian troops were moved from other places of the frontline to strengthen this sector, as there were no reserve units left.
A fight to the end.
On the 27th May Belgian command realized that the situation was hopeless and that the army was on its last legs. The army couldn’t dislodge anymore and casualties increased by the day. The supply situation was dramatic. While for many different weapon types there was simply no ammo left, the real problem was that the German Luftwaffe had gradually paralyzed the supply convoys.
The information coming from the corps commanders to the Belgian high command on the 27th was dramatic:
The I Corps reported that is was endangered to be encircled
IV corps was heavily attacked
V and VII corps reported enemy breakthroughs and that their front was broken
With other corps commanders contact was lost
It was cleat that the Belgian army was falling apart.
In the evening of the 27th of May negotiations started and unconditional surrender was accepted. The cease-fire started at 4.00 A.M the next day.
And what did that buy?
The battle at the Lys river had been very costly for the Belgian army as it had sustained 40.000 casualties (4000 KIA, 36.000 WIA), but it had managed to disturb the Germans plans and had aided, without their knowledge, in the escape of the BEF at Dunkirk.
Dunkirk. With not an hour to spare, the nucleus of the Army and the Allied forces that would liberate Europe 4 years later was saved. Saved by the Belgian Army.s