May 1940: Belgium protects its neutrality
Belgium, a neutral country following the wish of the European nations that ratified its independence in 1831. As such it had the obligation of forbidding the passage through its territory of any nation whatsoever wanting to attack another.
In 1887 it therefor started building a belt of forts around Liege (facing Germany), Namur (facing France) and Antwerp (facing Holland).
These forts will serve a first time in 1914 and again in 1940 when an extra four larger forts were added.
The fort of Eben-Emael was considered the strongest in the world and reputed impregnable…
…when, on May 10th at dawn, 9 German gliders out of the 11 that left Germany, each of which carried 8 to 10 men, landed on the roof of the fort near the gun cupolas and pillboxes.!
We were witnessing the very first airborne commando operation of history…and fifteen minutes later the fort was taken thanks to a new device, the hollow charge.
The DFS-230 gliders had done their job and the role that was to be fort’s in the defence of the territory was finished!
The 7th Infantry Division and the 2nd Fusiliers Regiment, alongside the Canal Albert, did their best to contain the German advance but were soon submerged.
It’s here, to cross the canal, that pneumatic rafts were used for the first time. They would soon become known under the name of “Dinghy”.
The other forts resisted as well as they could but succumbed one after the other under the power of the enemy forces.
Battice fell after 12 days of fighting when a Stuka bomb penetrated the command post by a fluke ricochet, killing 28 people.
Tancrémont only surrendered on May 29th, the day after Belgium had capitulated.
The road to Maastricht, the Meuse and Antwerp was open.
It’s interesting to note that the three first days of the war saw three novelties, never seen before in warfare, used against small neutral Belgium: the gliders, the hollow charge and the dinghies.
Hitler’s Plan of Attack:
It’s Hitler himself who, in October 1939, planned the attack on Eben-Emael
and decided to modify the initial plan of attack that was to force a way through Sedan. The idea was to create a diversion and to incite the allied armies to penetrate Belgium, thus facilitating the push through Sedan.
The Allies taken by surprise:
Belgium was counting till the very end on its neutrality being respected. In fact it was only hours after the taking of Eben-Emael that the German ambassador in Brussels officially declared that the sole reason of the German offensive was to defend Belgium’s neutrality against the menace of an invasion by the British and French!
The Allied Battle Plan:
Two British Army Corps were to advance rapidly to the line Louvain - Wavre and link up with the French troops on the right and Belgian troops on the left. The third Army Corps staying in reserve.
Note the presence of the 3rd Infantry Division under the command of Major-General Montgomery who was soon to win fame in Louvain and later in North Africa.
On the French side the 7th Army of General Giraud was on its way to Flanders and Antwerp while the 1st Army settled between Wavre and Namur. The Cavalry of the 2nd and 9th Armies went forward to the Meuse and the light elements went on to Marche, Bastogne and Neuchateau.
The Belgian units held the line Antwerp – Albert Canal – Namur. General Keyaerts was the commander of task force K comprising the 1st “Chasseurs Ardennais” Division, three Cavalry regiments, one cyclist regiment and a motorcycle battalion.
They were sent to the high ground of the Ardennes with the aim, not of stopping the German troops but only of delaying them in their advance towards the real defence line on the River Meuse.
The 1st Chasseurs Ardennais Division was to cover a 55 mile front along the eastern border.
While these were delaying the advance, General Deschamps division was to destroy the bridges and set road blocks before retreating.
The road blocks:
The destruction on the Ardennes roads seriously hindered the German advance as the vanguard did not dispose of the necessary heavy equipment to get rid of the barrages. The Belgians had created zones 200 yards deep comprising: 3 anti-tank ditches 26 ft wide and 13 ft deep, trees felled from both sides of the roads and intermingling across the tracks, mine fields…
It was a hindrance but it could only delay the advance of the invaders.
The German steam-roller:
While the German 6th Army advances through Holland towards the Antwerp – Namur line, the 4th Army pushes through the Ardennes, from Aachen to Bastogne towards the Namur – Givet line. The 12th Army attacked to the south, between Bastogne and Arlon towards Bouillon and Sedan.
Regardless of the delaying actions in the Ardennes and the resistance of the Allied forces, the power of the German army was such that it could not be held up for very long and our town fell to them one after the other.
Liege on May 12th
Bouillon on May 14th
Couvin on May 16th
Antwerp on May 18th
Brussels on May 18th
Ghent on May 24th
Tielt on May 27th
Diksmuide on May 28th
In 18 days the German steam-roller invaded over 95% of the territory. Only La Panne, Veurne, Poperingue and a few hamlets were still free , but only till June 1st. On May 31st the British retreated to Dunkerque with the hope of evacuating as many men as possible to England.
War was over for the Belgians…and long years of occupation were ahead.