Monday, June 18, 2007


May 28. 1940. 8.30 am. French PM Paul Reynaud in a radio address:

"The Belgian Army has brusquely and unconditionally surrendered, in full campaign, on the orders of its King, without warning to its French and English brothers-in-arms, opening the road to Dunkirk to the German divisions. Eighteen days ago, the same King sent us an appeal for help. To this appeal, we responded according to a plan drafted up last December by the allied general staffs. Well then, here's how King Leopold II (sic) who, before May 10, always trusted the word of Germany as much as the one from the Allies, King Leopold II (re-sic), without warning General Blanchard, without regard, without a word for the French and British soldiers who, after his distress call, had come to the rescue of his country, King Leopold II (re-re-sic) of Belgium has laid down the arms. This is a fact without precedent in history."

Such were the words of a man white with rage at the sudden Belgian capitulation. The message stuck with the French. Belgian refugees in France suddenly faced a hostile population. The scornful soubriquet "Les Boches du Nord" was born. But worse than this still was the reaction of the British, and especially their Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In a subsequent radio address to the British people, Churchill suggested that the Belgian surrender was an act of cowardice and the king a traitor. Often I have been wondering if not, in these two radio broadcasts, lies the origin of the low esteem for my country, especially in defense matters among allies, ever since that fateful month in that lang ago Year of the Blitzkrieg. But while the poor reputuation my country enjoys in this field may be justified in the world of today, and the lackluster Belgian support in the WOT thus far is but one example, debunking Belgium for its alleged traitor role in May 1940 is grossly unfair. I'm honored to be able to tell a part - because that's what it is, even if it is just a very small part - of the real story. What had really happened in these 18 days since the beginning of the German invasion?

Throughout the latter half of the thirties, it had become clear to most Europeans that war, sooner or later, would break out again. To the credit of the Belgian government, it must be said that it understood this full well from an early stage on. Starting in 1936, and following an announcement by the Belgian King, Leopold III, our small country on the North Sea pursued a policy of "Armed Independence", reckoning that any attacker - any - planning to militarily deploy on its territory would think twice before doing so. King Leopold III, son of King Albert I, during prewar manoeuvres. In the background is a T-15 light tank.To be sure, before 1936 it had had a pact of mutual assistance with France, but as the war clouds over Europe grew more menacing, and the French strategy seemed to be to wage the next war with Germany on Belgian rather than French soil, Belgium's government thought it wise to return to a policy of the strictest neutrality, to be safeguarded by the strongest army ever in Belgium's history. To this end, no less than 25% of the GDP was spent on military purposes, a figure nowadays belonging in the realm of phantasy. This surge in military funding had by early 1940 led to a total of 650,000 men under arms - an impressive number by any standard. The bulk of these served in the Army, which fielded 22 divisions - 17 of them infantry, two Cavalry, one heavy artillery, several specialized regiments and last but not least, two divisions of the famous "Chasseurs Ardennais", elite formations which would give the Germans a hard time. The other two services, the Militair Vliegwezen (Air Force) and Marinekorps (Naval Corps) were small and, especially in the case of the latter, actually rather neglected. In early May 1940, another 150,000 men were drafted to be organized in reserve formations in France. Thus, by the outbreak of the war, a total of 800,000 men were either in active service or on their way to reserve units. If you count that the Belgian population numbered 8 million at the time, one wonders if World War II would even have taken place had Belgium's allies invested comparatively in their armies. Because then Britain would have fielded an army of 4.8 million instead of the paltry 237,000 it had in the 10 divisions plus auxiliary units of the BEF, the British Expeditionary Force under Lord Gort, on May 10. Judging by numbers, the French armed forces, totalling over 6 million men, represented a fearsome adversary, but of these, only 2.2 million served in the North on May 10, organised in 93 divisions, and morale was low. As for the Dutch, they had only mobilised 350,000 men, out of a population of over 10 million. Their ground forces numbered no more than eight or nine divisions, all very badly equipped and with barely a couple of armored cars for AFV's.

T-13 tank hunterBelgium did possess a small albeit not negligible armoured force at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939. Estimates place the number of Belgian (tracked) AFV's at around 278. However, their effect on combat operations was purely local since none were assigned to "true" armoured divisions. Instead, they were dispersed piecemeal among the infantry, cavalry and Chasseurs Ardennais divisions. Belgium's most potent AFV available in a comparatively significant number was the T-13 which, though it had a rotating turret, was a self-propelled gun rather than a tank. This gun, a caliber 47mm of Czech origin, was quite potent for its time and was also used widely throughout the Belgian army in its tracted version. The T-13's undercarriage was actually a Vickers-Carden-Loyd design, up-armoured and upgunned as a stop-gap measure to circumvent the politicians' decision not to buy, or build, actual Renault tanks (see later). As it was, almost 200 T-13's were built under licence by the Ateliers de Construction de Familleureux and the Miesse company at Buizingen. Panzerkampfwagen IbOf course the T-13 was a diminutive vehicle, but so was the bulk of the Panzerwaffe, of which only a couple of hundreds were the heavier PzkW (Mark) IV type, which the T-13's gun was quite able to deal with. The majority of German tanks were the lightweight Mark I (armament only two machineguns!) and II types and the Mark III. The era of the German heavies, Panther and Tiger, still lay some three years into the future. It was tactics and concentration in armoured divisions which made the German tanks Kings of the Battlefield.

Belgian soldier, 1939Despite some powerful voices like a De Gaulle in France and Liddell Hart and Fuller in Britain, French and British military thinking in the interbellum hadn't evolved much beyond the 1918 stage. It was with little imagination and even less attention for novel tactics that the military planners envisaged how the coming conflict with Germany would develop. In fact, generally it was assumed that the German offensive would be a simple copy of the Von Schlieffen Plan used in summer 1914, which had guided the mass of the German army over Belgian territory north of the Meuse river, thus avoiding the Ardennes Forest, towards the Borinage border region whence the major southern thrust towards Paris had been made. In fact, the first plan drafted by the German General Staff under Halder envisaged just that. But Hitler, not content with merely repeating Schlieffens "strong right one", wanted something else. And two field generals, Guderian and Von Manstein, did come up with something else: while the "classic" approach opposite Liège would go through, as it had in 1914, the real knockout would be delivered by two Panzer groups consisting of a large number of armored divisions. These Panzer Groups would - and herein lay the novelty - attack right through the Ardennes Forest, deemed impenetrable for tanks. Once on the other side and across the Meuse/Maas river, they would move as fast as they could towards the coast in a wide arc roughly following the Franco-Belgian border, thus trapping the French and British armies, coming to the rescue of the Low Countries, in a gigantic bag. This manoeuvre was the famous "Sichelschnitt" move.

Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), the 1940 German attack with the Sichelschnitt in the south

War in the West started on the 10th of May. Among the first to know it were the pilots and ground crews of Belgium's small air force. By the end of the day, at least one quarter of its two hundred planes would be lying like smoldered wrecks on the airfields. The following is an excerpt from a log written by Captain Max Guisgand, commander of the 15 Gloster Gladiators of the 1st "Comet" squadron, 1st Fighter Group at Schaffen airfield, in Belgium's east. Since the Belgian High Command suspected the Germans knew the exact locations of all operational airfields, every squadron had been assigned a "secret" (so it was hoped) airfield to which the planes would redeploy before assuming combat operations:

Belgian Gloster Gladiator, Comet squadron
A glance on my watch, it's 4.20 am. Already the first engines are humming. They turn, sputter, give up, start again. In the pale blue sky white trails appear and these become ever more numerous. Big offensive against England! That's the opinion of the majority of those present. An alarm just like the other ones. Once again we will get off with tiredness and agitation. Suddenly I have a feeling of looming danger. The pilots walk by still sleep-drunk. One looks for his goggles, the other one for his flying helmet, yet another one for his maps. I hear Rolin bitch and curse in a hundred different ways while young Pirlot looks on laughing and Wegria carefully closes his equipment bag before it is loaded onto a truck. Suddenly I give a series of frantic commands: it would be too foolish to be caught off-guard by the planes with the black crosses. I shout on the top of my lungs to shake off the apathy, which was the result of numerous useless alarms. They have understood me and everyone hurries to his plane. At 4.25 am the fifteen Glosters are ready, engines running, the wheelblocks are removed.

400 meters to the right the eleven Hurricanes are lined up. They are the only Belgian planes which are qualitatively a match against the enemy. They are lined up impeccably. The engines have been tested but the planes don't take off. The minutes crawl by slowly. Finally a Hurricane is taxying, then another one but the second wingman does not seem to be in a hurry. The waiting starts again. I can't take it any longer. Contrary to the given orders, I give the "Go!" sign to my Glosters. I quickly cross the field followed by my two wingmen and we lift off after a few seconds and set course for Bevekom (Le Culot). During the flight we hear explosions from the direction of the airfield."

For the Glosters it was not a moment too early. The commander of the 2nd "Thistle" squadron, whose Hawker Hurricanes were the most advanced fighter planes of the BAF, was not as alert as Captain Guisgand. At 4.32 am, the first three of eighteen Heinkel He 111 bombers swooped over Schaffen airfield, strafing everything on the ground with machinegun fire and dropping 50kg bombs. The last two of the fifteen Gladiators were shot up or bombed to rubble, as were nine of the eleven Hurricanes. The cream of Belgium's fighter aircraft was destroyed on the ground, a scene repeated on most Belgian airfields that morning. Only Captain Van Den Hove and Corporal Jacobs succeeded in taking off with their Hawkers amidst the inferno. Between Leuven and Brussels Van Den Hove spotted a formation of some fifteen Heinkel bombers. After three attacks from an angle of 90 degrees, he saw how the right wingman of the last Kette of three bombers dropped away from the formation. This is believed to be the only aerial victory by a Belgian Hurricane during the Eighteen Day Campaign. At Schaffen airfield, Belgian AA guns accounted for one Heinkel bomber shot down.

Destroyed Hawker Hurricane on Schaffen airfield

The opening shots of the Blitzkrieg were just as devastating for the garrison of Fort Eben-Emael, Belgium's eastern bulwark guarding the Meuse/Maas river crossings and dubbed "the strongest Fort in the world" by Hitler himself. Although it contained more than 700 men and boasted 16 75mm guns, two 120mm guns and several machinegun cupolas, it was rendered useless in a couple of hours by no more than 85 German glider troops who landed on the fort's "roof" in a surprise attack and neutered most of the guns using the novel "hollow charges", able to blast a hole through 30cm of armor.

Part of Fort Eben Emael lies on top of the plateau to the right. Just visible is one of its bunkers. The photo shows the place where the Albert Canal joins the Zuidwillemsvaart, visible in the background, which leads to the Maas river

Indeed, Eben-Emael was no fort in the classical sense of the word, but a 65 meter high rocky hill with a diamond-shaped plateau, measuring 800 by 650 yards, on top. Out of this plateau protruded the numerous gun emplacements, observator "bells" and machinegun cupolas, while inside the "Rock" were endless hallways, ammo compounds, sick bays, communication centres and so on. As it was, 11 DFS-230 gliders landed with hair-raising, cold blooded determination in the concrete "stub-field" which was the fort's "roof" and spilled their deadly charge. This was one engagement which the men inside the bunkers could never have envisaged. The hollow charges killed the men inside after which the glider troops took possession of the bunkers. Ground troops from 7th Division counterattacked and at one point forced the Germans to the northern end of the fort's plateau, but they were unable to dislodge them completely. Also, they were constantly under aerial attack by Stuka divebombers who could pinpoint every enemy move. Major Jottrand, the fort's commander, asked the nearby forts of Pontisse, Barchon and Evegnée to lay an artillery barrage on his own fort's roof to get rid of the invaders and in one day and a half 2,200 rounds were fired, but this had the adverse effect of making the counterattacks impossible, while the Germans were relatively safe inside their concrete strongholds. It was to no avail, for German ground forces were soon crossing the Maas river in two localities nearby, Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt. Only in the third village, Kanne, was the bridge across the Maas blown up in time, but there the Germans immediately set to work on a pontoon bridge. Gradually, as the German bridgeheads across the Maas were consolidating, the full weight of Von Reichenau's Sixth Army with its eleven divisions, attacking over the roughly 30 kilometers wide river front, was making itself felt. Eben-Emael, with its long-range 120mm guns, had been designed specifically to cope with the threat of such a breakthrough between The Netherlands and the Ardennes. But most of its guns had been silenced one day after the attack, and the scene inside the fort was hellish, with electricity cut off and ammo dumps exploding. At noon on May 11, Major Jottrand decided to surrender, and nearly 700 men went into captivity.

The loss of Fort Eben-Emael, deemed invincible, was a terrible blow not only to Belgian, but to allied morale as a whole.

Crews of Fairey Battle squadron 'Egyptian Falcon' during a briefing just ahead of a prewar exercise

Without the fort's strong support, and under constant aerial attack, the Maas defense was crumbling. Despite occasional successes, such as the heavy losses sustained by the German 269th Infantry Division, it was clear that the undamaged bridges across the Maas at Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt, as well as another one at Briegden, a little further north, would seal the fate of the Belgian defense. The High Command ordered bombers to destroy them, but this attempt failed completely. For one thing, the only bombers technically capable of such a task, were the 15 Fairey Battles of 5th squadron, III Bomber Group of the 3rd Aerial Regiment. Of these, only 9 could be readied for the attack, and to make matters worse, on its emergency airfield not even 125kg bombs were available. The nine Battles took off with the useless 50kg bombs, escorted by six Gloster Gladiator fighters. The few bombers which reached their assigned targets barely scratched the bridges' surface. Of the 15 aircraft, 10 were shot down.

BEF and French troops come to the rescue of Belgium, but Panzers break through the Ardennes, making for the coast and threatening to cut them offThus ended the first two crucial days of the War in the West. In the north, Von Kuechlers 18th Army had succesfully invaded The Netherlands. In the centre, Von Reichenau's 6th Army had cracked the Maas/Meuse defence. And in the Ardennes, the entire Army Gropu "A", consisting of 15th Panzer Corps under Hoth, 41st under Reinhardt, and 19th under Guderian, were advancing like a whirlwind through the rugged woods, deemed impenetrable for tanks. They were pushing aside the thin screen of Belgian Chasseurs Ardennais and French Cavalry troops and would soon reach the Meuse, Dinant and Sedan in a broad, southwesterly sweeping manoeuvre (blue arrow). One hundred and fifty kilometers to the west, the British Expeditionary Force and the French armies of the north, crossed into Belgium along a northeasterly axis (dotted red arrows), thinking the main adversary was Reichenau's army. The Sichelschnitt was about to begin, and the harvest would be rich.

(end of Part I)