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.
Before 1936 Belgium was obliged to help France or Germany when the other attacked the other one and vice versa. French generals and politicians saw Belgium not as an independent state but as the ideal battleground to fight another war with Germany. As tensions grew all over Europe Belgium needed a policy which was supported by the majority of the Belgian people, "Armed Independence".
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.
The British government supported in the 1930's the Belgian policy. The following is written in official documents of the Foreign office: The military built-up in Belgium, and the strengthening of their defenses, increases their chances to remain neutral, an attitude, which is beneficial for France and for ourselves.
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.
In 1939 France, Britain and Germany pressed Belgium to join their ranks. As these countries knew that Belgium would defend itself when being attacked. The German generals preferred to wait until France and Britain invaded Belgium before starting an attack in the West. In this way Germany would not be blamed to violate the neutrality of Belgium (letters of Von Rundsted and Leeb to Hitler ). The military built-up in Belgium had also an influence on the Germans military plans. The decision to start "Fall Gelb" was postponed for two months (new starting date: 12 november 1940). The German generals argued that the principle of surprise was lost because of the preparedness of the Belgian army and the defense positions of this army in the Liege area (Von Reichenau).
The neutral status of Belgium gave also the French and British army the extra-time which they clearly needed knowing the state of their armies. By remaining neutral Hitler hadn't an excuse to invade Belgium, an excuse, which he needed to convince the German public opinion of the necessity of a war in the west. It was only Hitler against the advice of all his generals who decided to invade Belgium and the Netherlands and violate their neutral status. But before he made his final decision, he postponed five times the operations in the west (12th November, 17th January….). If Belgium had allowed French troops to take positions in their country, Germany had certainly attacked much earlier in 1940.
When on the 10th of January German military plans were captured when a German plane crashed, Belgian King Leopold III was prepared to accept allied troops in his country if the following conditions were agreed:
--Peace negotiations are not started without Belgian participation
--Belgium's integrity and of his colonies would be guaranteed after the war
--Financial support when Belgium needed to rebuilt his country after the war
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.
Organization and Equipment
The Belgian army counted 650 000 men (22 divisions). With another 150 000 men drafted in May 1940 to be sent to France to form reserve units. Totaling 800 000 men out of a population of 8 million In comparison it was three times a strong as the BEF (British Expeditionary Force). The majority were infantry divisions (all around 17 000 men strong), 2 divisions "Ardense Jagers" which were considered by the Germans as elite units, 2 divisions Cavalry (motorized infantry), a heavy artillery division, and several specialized regiments.
The infantry equipment was totally renewed after WOI. The standard gun was the 1935 Mauser. The automatic-gun Browning and the grenade launcher D.B.T. were good weapons. The standard anti-tank gun 47mm was one the best anti-tank weapons available at that time and could take out any tank (Panzer). This weapon would save many units during the eighteen days the Belgian army fought. Also to their disposal, 76mm mortars and Maxim machine guns.
Each division had three regiments of infantry, one reconnaissance unit, one regiment artillery and one-battalion engineers.
We need to make a difference between the active and 1st reserve divisions (12 divisions) and the 2nd reserve divisions (6 divisions). The first were fully equipped, but the 2nd reserve divisions, because of lack of budget were totally under-equipped. Meaning they lacked anti-tank weapons, mortars, machine guns, etc. In theory these divisions would be placed in quiet sectors of the frontline, but the events which occurred in May 1940 forced the Belgian army otherwise.
The "Ardense Jagers" divisions had additionally a battalion of AFVs to their disposal. Also their artillery was motorized and all regiments had bicycles, which made them quite mobile divisions.
On the whole the infantry lacked anti-air weapons and radios. The divisions also lacked sufficient mechanized transportation. During the war the divisions had to move mostly on foot. Also very painful was the low number of automatic guns. Something the Germans had plenty of.
The cavalry was completely motorized, with about 270 AFVs and 16 tanks. The reason for this low number of tanks is merely political. The Belgian politicians were convinced that such an offensive weapon was inappropriate for an army of a neutral country.
--T13 (5 tons, equipped with a 47mm anti-tank weapon and machine gun, only armour at the front
--T15 (6 tons, completely armoured and equipped with a 13.2mm machine gun on a rotating copula
--Renault AMC 35 (15 tons, equipped with 47mm anti-tank weapon and a 13.2mm machine gun). This was the only real tank.
The cavalry also had motorized artillery, sidecars and a lot of bicycles.
On the whole the cavalry divisions were good equipped but the lack of tanks was inexcusable.
The Belgian artillery had around 20 different pieces (totaling 1338 pieces), which made supply rather complex. The standard artillery guns were 75mm and 105mm and the motorized ones 120mm. The heavy artillery division also had six pieces of 170mm and five of 280mm and one of 305mm but these pieces had to be used on railways and were very inaccurate. They dated from WOI and were originally German.
On the whole the Belgian artillery was very well trained and outclassed the German artillery in May 1940.
The airforce was the weakest point of the Belgian army. The Belgians didn’t have an industry like the Dutch, with Fokker, to built airplanes. Therefore they needed to buy modern ones. Unfortunately there was a shortage in the global market and the Belgian politicians realized too late how important this weapon was. Ultimately Belgium only obtained 9 hurricanes (not armoured) from Britain. Belgium had also ordered 40 Brewster Buffalos from the United States but these weren’t delivered on time.
So the Belgian airforce counted 140 planes of which 9 modern. The Belgian army was obliged to count on its allies to give sufficient air support, a very unwise judgement as during the whole eighteen days they could count on one hand the number of times allied planes intervened over the Belgian front.
On the whole the airforce was outdated and no match for the German Luftwaffe.
The Military plans and Defence lines/Fortifications of the Belgian army
The Belgian command had prepared a delaying line from Antwerp to Arlons (200 km). This line followed the Albert-canal at the Belgian-Dutch border and the Maas river and fortifications around Liege and Namur till the French border.
The main defense line went from Antwerp to the French border, mostly on the Dyle river. This line was very well prepared and especially indented to stop Tanks (Panzers). Every 350 meters there was a bunker equipped with a 47mm anti-tank gun. Miles and miles of anti-tank elements where placed, the so-called Cointet-elements. This line was unfortunately not finished around Gembloux (French sector).
The last prepared defense line followed the Escaut-river and included the Bridgehead Gent. Here all the large depots were situated. Once this line crossed the Belgian army would run fast out of ammo and possibilities.
On a high-level there was discrete consultation with the French high command. The French knew what the Belgians would do (troop movements... even reconnaissance flights) and vice versa the Belgians knew a little of what the French would do. Brian Bond writes " detailled plans were worked out which enabled the French to advance to the Albert Canal in case of a German attack". Hautcour, French military attaché in Brussels wrote that " Gamelin was pleased with the rapid progress of the anti-tank positions built in the Leuven area."
Mayor Ellis, author of the Official History, wrote "there were no staff meetings between the BEF and the Belgian army". This is incomplete as the Belgians did pass all the information they had to the French and BEF but the BEF refused to have discrete consultations with the Belgian army. In The Official History you will also read that the Belgians were not prepared to exchange information about their military plans. Liddlel Hart writes about this the following: " This is a clear example of the difference between " official history" and real history".
It was clear that France and Britain would march into Belgium and take positions on the Dyle river (plan D). Therefore the Belgians had made this river their main defense line although it meant giving up half of their country. They would defend on this line the part between Antwerp and Leuven.
The Allies, and in particular France, wanted to fight another war with Germany, not on French soil but on Belgian soil. The memories of the destructions of WOI were still fresh. An advance into Belgium would also mean that the Belgium army could be incorporated in the allied camp before the Germans destroyed it. French leader Gamelin wrote that "this incorporation was utterly important due to the low resources in men available in France (low birthrate)". He also didn’t want the Belgian army on the extreme left flank, but in the middle of strong French armies. The reason for this fear is that the Belgian army would act independent, like in WOI were it retreated not into France, but to the Fortified position of Antwerp.
The Ardennes were only lightly defended. The reasons are quite obvious as the delaying line already 200-km long took practically all the resources of the Belgian army. Secondly these troops in the Ardennes could be easily cut of from the main body of the Belgian army if the German main thrust would be in the North. Therefore only two divisions where to defend this area and were not be engaged in large battles in order they could retreat and link up with the other Belgian forces on the Dyle river.
Like we all know the main German attack occurred through the Ardennes. Which could have been not a big problem. In March 1940 Belgium had obtained information from the German Colonel Oster, that the main German attack would be through the Ardennes and at the Maas river between Givet and Longy. This information, with all the evidence, was passed to Gamelin who replied that there were sufficient defense positions in this region. In reality there were only third-rated troops of Corap 9th Army.
10/11 May 1940: Battle at the Albert-Canal.
On a sunny day WOII 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.
The delaying line on the Albert Canal actually consisted of two lines, the so-called opening line, which followed the Belgian-Dutch border and the frontier-canal and the Albert-canal itself. One problem here was that in the south especially in the Eben-Emael region the frontier was only 200 meters away from the Albert canal, which made it quite difficult to react in case of a German attack. The most important position of the opening-line was the Bridge at Maaseik, which was defended by elements of the 14th division.
The Belgian 7th division needed to defend the area of Eben-Emael, about 18 km (much too long). In this sector there were several important bridges over the Albert-canal (Vroenhoeven, Veldwezelt, Kanne, Briegden, Gellik, Lanaye and Petit-Lanaye). The Germans needed to capture a bridge intact, and decided to use glider planes. They simultaneously attacked in this way the bridges at Vroenhoven, Veldwezelt, Kanne and the fortress of Eben-Emael. The capture of the fortress was extremely important as it dominated the whole region and protected all the bridges in this region
German elite-pioneers troops succeeded in landing on top of the fortress, and in a matter of minutes destroyed the majority of the guns of the fortress. As the whole IV and VII corps of Von Richtenhoven Fliegerkorps were pounding the area the whole communication system of the 7th division collapsed. Only two hours after the Germans had taken the top of the fortress did the commander of the 7th division succeeded in passing orders to counterattack and hours were lost in moving units to the vicinity of the fortress.
Three counterattacks occurred, but these were performed by too small units as no-one knew how many Germans were on the roof of the fortress and were very badly hampered by constant attacks of German Stukas. These attacks were also performed without the necessary artillery-support (no communication was possible). The last counterattack had to be stopped because the Belgian troops ran out of ammo, as supply was impossible because the German planes attacked everything that moved in that area. A group of 200 men had to move on foot in groups of 10 while being attacked by German Stukas.
The Germans didn’t succeed in taking the bridge at Kanne, as this was destroyed on time. But succeeded in taking the bridges at Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt. The Belgian troops here took heavy casualties but succeeded in containing the bridgehead and drove the Germans back to the bridges. But no sufficient reserves were available for a large-scale counterattack, which was needed to re-conquer the bridges.
The main reason why these bridges were not destroyed on time was because the Germans had bombed the local headquarters at Lanaken. And therefore the orders to destroy the bridges didn’t come. The soldiers defending the bridges were not aware of the situation and were completely surprised by the glider-plane attacks from the rear and were all killed before they could start the destruction.
That same morning, 6th Army of Von Reichenau (11 divisions) started to attack the opening-line at the Belgian border but couldn’t stop the destruction of the bridge at Maaseik over the canal-frontier. The German 269th division was also stopped in his attempts to cross this canal and was badly mauled by the Belgian artillery. The retreat of the light infantry units from the opening-line to the Albert-canal succeeded without much difficulty. During the day the Germans were constantly dropping paratroopers to support the already dropped units at the bridges and the fortress of Eben-Emael.
On the 11th May things were getting worse. The Germans had crossed the Maas river in Holland and quickly reached the bridges at Vroenhoven and Veldwezelt. Especially, the arrival of the 4th Panzerdivision was too much for the Belgian 7th division as it could no longer rely on the Eben-Emael fortress to support it. The Germans expanded the bridgeheads and drove the Belgian troops back. The German Luftwaffe resumed their attacks.
The Germans also succeeded in linking up with the paratroopers on top of the fortress of Eben-Emael. Something they could not do on the previous day as all attempts to cross the Albert-canal were repelled by the 2nd grenadiers (7th division). But on the 11th May these troops were attacked from three directions, by the 111 infantry from the left, by the 152 infantry from the right, and by the 269th division finally getting over the frontier-canal. Once 35Panzer arrived and attacked from the rear the last resistance was broken at 18.30 P.M. At that time the fortress of Eben-Emael had surrendered.
Of the 17 000 men of the 7th division only 3500 managed to get back to the Belgian lines. All heavy equipment was lost and the division needed to be sent to France to reorganize. The Germans had managed to give the Belgians a tactical defeat. As the Belgians had hoped to stop the Germans for three days at the least at the Albert-canal, but in reality could only hold the line for one day. Also the loss of the Eben-Emael fortress was a serious psychological blow but in the end the Albert-canal was only a delaying line and if the retreat of the Belgian army to his main line of defense at the Dyle river succeeded, nothing was lost.
Note: The allies never intended to advance any further than the Dyle-river.
Meanwhile in the Ardennes
The Ardennes were defended by two divisions, the 1st "Ardense Jagers" division (but their artillery regiment was located near the Albert-Canal), which formed the first line, and the 1st cavalry division which formed the second line. Their mission was to support the engineer units in their demolition work and once these were completed, retreat northwards to the Maas River and join the main body of the Belgian army at the Dyle river. One division had to cover a frontline of 85 km.
The first battles occurred on the 10th of May at Martelange just over the Belgian border, where the German XIX Panzercorps (1st, 2nd, 10th Panzerdivisions and the Gross Deutschland regiment) were stopped by one battalion for two hours.
After this delay the 1st Panzerdivision reached Bodange were they were again halted for 5 hours by two platoons of the "Ardense Jagers". For the 2nd Panzerdivision things were even worse as they were halted near Strainchamps and only got over the Sure river the next day. The Germans were surprised that day that they lost so much time because of these small units and destroyed all documents so their superiors couldn’t find out what happened.
In the Bastogne area the German 23rd and 3rd infantry divisions were also stopped. In the Stavelot area the II Panzercorps( 5th and 7th Panzerdivision) moved forward and the 7th Panzerdivision was stopped near Chabrehez by three platoons for nearly 7 hours. Rommel would later write about the effective delaying tactics the Belgian army performed and would call them the "Grey Wolves" Also Guderian would write that the destructions performed by the Belgian army were so good that his advance units were not able to penetrate deeply into Belgium. Meanwhile French light troops intervened in the Neufchateau area.
For the "Ardense Jagers" it was a well-known receipt, resist until destructions were made and retreat towards new positions before they were encircled and start all over again. The French troops, which intervened in the Ardennes were forced to retreat behind the Maas River.
When the Germans reached the Maas river on the French border on the 12th of May it were the Belgian troops who destroyed the bridges over the Maas as the French 9th and 2nd Army were still moving to their positions. In fact the Germans reached the Maas river faster than the French. And at the town Houx (flanking position) Belgians troops halted the German Panzer advance. At Yvoir the bridge was destroyed when two German armoured vehicles passed over it. The same thing happened 3 km further when the Belgians destroyed a railway-bridge. Also the Belgians destroyed the bridges at Dinant.
For the Belgian troops it was mission accomplished and it was now up to the French to defend this part of the Maas river.
In general the negative point of the Ardennes Campaign was the lack of cooperation of the Belgian and French troops. Both troops executed their plans without looking at what the other was doing, for that reason there were between both many disagreements and incidents. Still in 1944 the Germans could have reached the Maas river also in much worse weather conditions after two days if they had brought enough fuel with them. Many tend to forget this when petrifying the resistance in the Ardennes in 1940.
Retreat towards the Dyle river
Once the delaying line at the Albert-canal was broken on the 11th May a general retreat towards the Dyle river was performed. This retreat was necessary, as a strong Belgian army was needed on the left flank of the allied front. In most cases this retreat succeeded without too much difficulty but for some divisions it was a very hazardous undertaking.
Especially the 3rd and 2nd divisions, which were located in the Fortified position of Liege, south of the 7th division could be cut off or encircled if the Germans exploited the situation. The fortified position was a ring of fortresses on the right bank of the Maas river. It was a strong position as in the original planning the Maas River would be the main defense line. By evacuating this position, the fortresses would be left alone to fight the Germans in case of an attack. Which happened and the last fortress surrendered only on the 29th of May. During this time they had inflicted serious losses on German troops (German 253rd division and German 269th division) and supply convoys.
When 4th Panzer-division reached the city of Tongeren on the 11th of May, an acceleration of the evacuation of the 3rd and 2nd division was necessary. The 1st Cavalry division was sent from the Ardennes to the Tongeren region. This division blocked the German Panzer advance in the direction of Landen. At 22.00 P.M the 1st Cavalry division joined the 2nd Cavalry division on the Gete river.
During the retreat of the 2nd and 3rd infantry divisions a lot of material was lost because of the incessant attacks by the German Luftwaffe. Still the Germans couldn't exploit the situation and both divisions managed to escape and on the 12th of May reached Mehaigne, already defended by the French 2nd mechanized division. The French General Bougrain didn't want his troops mixed with the Belgian troops and the Belgian general Krahe decided to retreat further to Flemalle.
Also the 4th division which was located north of the doomed 7th division was now attacked in the flank. But the line held and this division fought itself during 120-km back towards the Dyle river. This continuous battle had exhausted the men of this division and they wouldn't get the time to recover during the following weeks.
The Belgians had prepared a temporary line on the Gete river. This line was made to give the Belgian troops time to take positions at the Dyle river. The Cavalry divisions defended this temporary position, which was not fortified between Diest and Tirlemont.(25km) . 4th Panzerdivision now moved towards Gembloux where it would meet the French Cavalry units of Prioux and would fight the first tank battle of WOII.
During the 12th and 13th of May the temporary line at the Gete river was heavily attacked by the German infantry at Halen, Geetbets and Goetsenhoeven. All attacks (in total eleven) were repelled and the Belgian cavalry divisions only retreated when they discovered that the French on their left had already retreated. This defense enabled also the BEF to take positions on the Dyle line without being attacked by the Germans
In the north the Belgian divisions took temporary positions at the Dessel-Kwaadmechelen canal. Here there was a good cooperation with the French troops of the 7th Army. The German 56th infantry division, which had created two bridgeheads, was attacked by Belgian infantry in cooperation with French tanks and had to abandon these bridgeheads.
The Belgian 18th division covered, once the situation in Holland was lost, the retreat of the French units towards the Dyle. On the 12th of May two German infantry divisions, the 19th and 14th, attacked the Belgian 14th division at Lummen. Because of the fast retreat of the 6th division, this division became isolated. After two days of fighting it was encircled and only one regiment was able to retreat towards the Dyle river.
The Dyle river
On the 14th of May the Belgian army had taken positions on the Dyle-river. It gave the Belgian soldiers back their confidence, which was shaken after the previous battles. Each division had to defend only 6 km behind strong fortifications and well placed artillery positions.
--Fortified position of Antwerp: 17th and 13th division
--Antwerp-Lier : 12th and 15th with the 18th in reserve
--Lier – Louven : 6th , 11th , 2nd , 5th , 10th and 9th in reserve
--Fortified position of Namen, which was between the French 1st Army and 9th Army: 2nd Ardense Jagers and 8th inf
The general reserve consisted of the Cavalry Corps, 1st and 1st Ardense jager division. Also the 3th, 4th and remnants of the 14th division were reorganizing in Flanders. The 7th was sent to France.
From the 10th of May the BEF had entered Belgium, 3 divisions took positions at the Dyle line. The rest stayed in the rear to form a defense in depth. A first incident occurred when the 3rd infantry division of Montgomery wanted to take positions in Leuven, which was already defended by the 10th infantry division. To avoid further incidents, Belgian command decided to retreat its 10th division and let the British 3rd inf. division defend this area.
The relations of the Belgian army with its allies, especially the BEF were in general very bad. Especially with General Brooke who commanded the British corps placed next to the Belgian army. Brooke had a very low esteem of the Belgian army. From the moment he arrived at the Dyle-river he was making plans for a retreat and placed his headquarters some 30-km away from the frontline. He not only placed his troops so they confronted the Germans but also the Belgians. Belgian liaison officers were either shot or taken prisoner when they tried to make contact with the British division located next to them. General Brooke would later write that Belgian army fought poorly and retreated everywhere. The American historian Telford Taylor writes about this: "Not once can he (Brooke) give a clear example, the reality was that the Belgians did put up a stiff resistance earning the respect of the Germans troops, respect they never got from their allies".
The troops at the Dyle river were not particularly hard pressed and two attempts to cross the Dyle river were fairly easily beaten off. The Belgian artillery formations pounded the advancing Germans and a large motorized column was destroyed in only 10 minutes.
For the troops located in the fortified position of Namen problems were much bigger. Once the 1st and 9th French army started to retreat because of the pressure of the German attacks, the position needed to be evacuated. Their retreat was extremely difficult, as they needed to cross the retreat direction of the French 1st Army. The 2nd "Ardense Jagers" division lost one/third of its material and the 8th division was almost entirely absorbed by the French 1st Army and elements would only return to the Belgian army on the 23th May.
On the 16th of May complete surprise as the BEF started to leave the Dyle river and soon orders came for the Belgian army to retreat. The Germans had broken trough at Sedan and were racing towards the coast threatening to cut of the Armies in Belgium from the main body of the French army.
Another retreat towards the Escaut river
On the 16th of May Belgian high command received order from Bilotte, French commander of the 1st French army and coordinator of the Northern front, to retreat towards the Escaut river. The Belgian army would take up positions at the Terneuzen-Gent canal, the Gent bridgehead and from Gent to Audenaerde at the Escaut river, where it linked up with the British front. Temporary defense positions would be taken at the Willebroek canal and the Dender river. The retreat would be performed in two stages. The first in the night of the 17th /18th of May and the second in the night of the 18th /19th of May
Retreating from the Dyle river towards the Escaut meant also leaving the fortified position of Antwerp, not to mention the loss of the capital Brussels (only Gent and Brugge remained as important cities). This forced retreat was a serious blow on the morale of the Belgian soldiers, who couldn’t understand why they had to retreat and leave their strong positions at the Dyle river.
For the Belgian command the difficulty was to find suitable roads to retreat as the only three main roads were already taken, two by French 7th Army moving south and one by the II corps of the BEF. The Belgian troops needed to take secondary roads and the engineers had to build pontoon bridges to cross the different rivers and canals.
On the night of the 17th /18th of May the general retreat started. First the ammo and heavy material had to be transported. Off course not all ammo could be transported and a lot was destroyed. For the artillery it meant a night of high activity as it fired the shells, which couldn’t be transported. The Belgian soldiers retreated on foot as everything that had a motor was used to transport the ammo out of the depots. Still 50% of the ammo- reserves of the infantry were lost.
For several divisions it meant a retreat of 100 km, which had to be done on bad roads, clogged with refugees, which were their compatriots and who they couldn’t ask to free the roads. As the Belgian army had to take secondary roads, huge traffic jams were the result. At several places it took 24 hours to cover 20km.
During the night of the 17th /18th of May all eight divisions on the frontline dislodged and started their retreat. The 13th division was attacked during its retreat from the fortified position of Antwerp by the German 208th and 256th divisions. The division suffered serious casualties but eventually the Germans were stopped at the towns Schoten and Dryhoek. Eventually the 13th division got over the Escaut river and the bridges were destroyed before the Germans could pass over.
The 12th division was also hard pressed by the German 216th division but managed to retreat without too many difficulties. The situation of the 15th division was somewhat different as it had to longest way to go and was constantly attacked by the German 56th division. After heavy fighting the Germans were stopped at the towns Duffel (The Germans took the town but were counterattacked and forced to retreat) and Lier. The 15th eventually crossed the Willebroek canal, held by the 1st infantry division. Here the 4th division of the BEF had already left (like planned), which made the position of the 1st division rather precarious as it was waiting for the 15th to cross.
The 1st division was attacked at several points by the German 56th division. Several attacks were stopped at the towns, Kapellen op de Bos (where two Belgian tanks proved to be decisive) and Willebroek. But the Germans were now crossing everywhere the canal. The German 30th division took the town het Sas, crossing the canal over a not completely destroyed bridge. Eventually the 1st division managed to contain this treat. Several miles to the north the German 19th division failed in its attempts to cross the canal at Verbrande Brug and Vilvoorde.
On the night of the 18th /19th of May the retreat was protected by the cavalry divisions and the 1st "Ardense Jager" division. When the Germans crossed the Escaut by using a tunnel not completely destroyed in the Antwerp region fierce battles occurred around Zwijndrecht between the German 309th infantry and units of the Belgian cavalry. The German infantry was not able to advance further due to the attacks performed by Belgian tanks and AFV's (T13) and at 18.30 P.M the Belgian units retreated behind the Gent-Terneuzen canal.
The divisions more to the South retreated and crossed the Dender river without serious difficulties. The Dender river was defended by the 1st "Ardense Jager" division. First it repelled two attacks of the German 56th division and when the German 30th division also attacked, it performed a fighting withdrawal towards the Escaut river. This fighting withdrawal was a fine example of a mobile unit well trained and well equipped.
An army loses a lot of its strength after every retreat, loss of material and men, and this was not different for the Belgian army. Several units were captured during their retreat. The difference with the French army and BEF was that the Belgians also needed to transport their ammo as much as possible from one defense line to another as their factories which produced the ammo were now almost all in Germans hands. Furthermore the three northern armies, the French 1st, the BEF and the Belgian army, used different kind of weapons, which made it impossible to use each other’s supplies.
Battles at the Escaut river
The Belgian army had taken positions on the Terneuzen canal , Gent bridgehead and the Escaut river.
--1st and 2 cavalry at the estuary of the Escaut
--Terneuzen Canal: Sluiskil – Zelzate : 17th , 6th divisions
--Terneuzen Canal: Zelzate – Langebrugge: 13th , 11th divisions
--Gent bridgehead: 18th , 16th divisions
--Gent bridgehead from Kwatrecht – Escaut: 2nd , 4th , 5th divisions
--Escaut river: 9th , 10th division
In reserve: 3rd (still not recovered from its retreat from the Liege position) , 12th, 14th (shaken by previous battles), 15th end the two "Ardense Jagers" divisions.
The frontline now totaled 70 km, and each division needed to defend 6km, which is normal for a division at full strength, but most divisions had already lost 1/3 of their material. Only the area around Kwatrecht was fortified with around 240 bunkers.
For the Belgian troops arriving at their new positions it was organizing immediately their defenses as the German method was now well-known. While the Belgian infantry was performing their difficult nightly retreats the German infantry was having a well-needed sleep. On the first daylight the German motorized units attacked the Belgians before they could organize their defenses. And every morning the German planes returned attacking every movement performed at daylight.
On the 20th of May three German divisions went over on the attack. The German 208th division tried to cross the Terneuzen canal at Zelzate and Terdonk, attacking with two regiments. They stormed towards the canal but the attacks were a complete disaster. 208th suspended al further attacks till the 23rd of May.
The German IX and XI corps started to attack the Belgian positions south of the bridgehead Gent. A large battle took place at Kwatrecht, where the 234 inf of the German 56th division conquered several streets. The 117inf was stopped at Gijzenzele. The Belgian 2nd infantry division immediately started several counterattacks. Three counterattacks were performed the same day. The counterattacks failed, but under the subsequent attacks the German 234 inf. cracked and retreated in panic. The Germans resumed the attack the same evening by regaining some ground previously lost.
The following morning the Belgian 2nd division performed its 4th counterattack after a heavy artillery bombardment. The village Kwatrecht was completely retaken. The German attack now shifted towards Gijzenzele where the 171inf. and 192inf. attacked. But the Belgian troops here defended stubbornly without losing any ground and at 17.00 P.M. the Germans went over on the defensive as they were not able to dislodge the Belgian troops at Gijzenzele. The German 56th division lost at Gijzenzele 355 soldiers and 15 officers.
The third major attack on the 20th of May occurred at Zingem, where the Belgian 10th division was entrenched. On its right was the British 44th division and on its left the Belgian 9th division. The German 30th division wanted to create several bridgeheads over the Escaut, which could be used as a base for future actions. After heavy artillery and air attacks the Germans managed to create two small bridgeheads which could not be expanded because of the accurate fire of the Belgian artillery. The following morning the Belgian 6th Jagers regiment counterattacked and cleaned the area of all German troops.
The German commander concluded that the Belgian 10th division was too strong and shifted its attention towards the British 44th division. After a day of heavy fighting the Germans created in the sector of the 44th a bridgehead of 3km and took the town of Petegem some 2km behind the Escaut.
Conclusion: All German attacks were repelled on the Belgian front and the Germans weren’t able to create bridgeheads over the Escaut and the Terneuzen Canal. Belgian command was confident that the Germans could be stopped at the Escaut, it expected from the British that they would put more effort in the defense of the Escaut.
The Weygand-plan and the B.E.F. plans
While the situation at the Belgian front was stable, elsewhere things were worse. The Germans had reached the Channel breaking the allied front in two. The French and British troops were rushing to positions at the different channels (the so-called canal-line) in order to be not cut of from the main harbors (Dunkirk). French leadership had also changed as Weygand was now the French supreme commander.
On the 21st of May he unfolded his plans to the Belgian command and French general Bilotte. The commanders of the BEF, Gort and Pownall, couldn’t be found so the meeting started without them. He wanted to attack southwards by cutting the Panzer-divisions who had outrun their infantry, which was some 50-km behind. After some discussion he concluded that the BEF would perform this attack and that the Belgian army would cover the north- and northeastern flank.
His first idea was that the Belgian army needed to retreat behind the Yser river, luckily he changed his opinion and asked the Belgians to extend their line at the Escaut and take over positions of the British 44th division. The French 1st army would also take over the positions of two British divisions. These divisions together with French would be used to attack southwards. Unfortunately Gort and Pownall weren’t at the meeting to convince Weygand that this plan was too ambitious and asked too much of the BEF of which all divisions were now engaged at the frontlines.
For the Belgians a retreat towards the Yser river would be dangerously and costly as it meant retreating another 200 – 300 km for the already exhausted frontline troops. But more important it meant that all the rearguard services had to reallocate behind this river, which would normally take weeks. Furthermore the last days the German Luftwaffe was showing more and more activity over the Belgian front The reason for this was that the Germans wanted to break through the Belgian front so they could encircle the BEF.
In the evening, when Weygand had already left, Gort and Pownall arrived. They had their owns plans and the Weygand plan fitted perfectly. The British commanders had decided to retreat to their pre-departure positions on the 10th of May at the fortified Hale –Mauldewijn line to shorten their front so more troops could be sent to the rear to defend the canal-line (this decision was taken on the 19th of May). This meant for the Belgians that they had to retreat once more from a now defendable line to a much weaker line, more precisely the Lys-river.
Gort writes about the 44th division in his Despatches:
"Everyone knew they could no longer hold out than 24 hours. We discussed the possibility of retreating to our old lines at the border, where we had built trenches, anti-tank ditches and bunkers. This retreat would have few impact on the French at our right flank, but would have a serious impact on the Belgians who defended the Escaut and the Gent-Terneuzen canal."
Furthermore the British generals asked the Belgian to take over positions of the British 4th division. This division would have been in the path of the German 6th army at the Lys river, but the British generals wanted also this division to retreat behind the Hale-Mauldewijn line avoiding German 6th army. This meant that the Belgians had to extent their line, making their frontline dangerously thin.
What happened with the Plan of Weygand is history. While the British generals had told the French and Belgian commanders that the replaced divisions would be used in a counterattack, the reality was somewhat different. The British 2nd and 48th replaced by French divisions were sent to the canal line and the 4th and 44th took positions behind the Hale-Mauldewijn fortifications.
After the meeting the Belgian command knew perfectly well that they would not be able resist long at the Lys river, but if the agreed attack southwards by British and French troops would succeed maybe the pressure on the Belgian front would reduce.
Another retreat from the Lys river towards the Yser river was also prepared but events at the Lys river would make it impossible for the Belgian troops to dislodge from their German opponents.
What is written in the Official history makes again no sense. Ellis writes that the 90° angle between the Belgian and British front had to be straightened by a retreat from the Belgian army towards the Yser river. In fact what should have been done was a retreat of the French and British troops of their badly oriented defense positions towards the Lys-Grevelingen water-line. In this way a large circle-shaped defense line (TORRES VERDAS principle) would have covered all the main harbors and a large part of the coastline.
If the Belgians had retreated toward the Yser river, Dunkirk would be the only main harbor left. Not to mention that when the Belgian army had retreated, without being able to reallocate its rearguard services, it would only have ammunition for two days. The Germans would be in the North at 30km from Dunkirk!
Taking up new positions at the Lys –river
Another retreat another nightly march for the Belgian soldiers. On the 24th of May the new positions were behind the Leopold canal, the Derivation canal and the Lys river. This retreat was performed without too many difficulties (except the Gent bridgehead) as the Germans were as surprised as the Belgian soldiers of this new retreat. But again the Belgian army lost vast amounts of ammo and material, which couldn’t be transported.
--Leopold Canal: 1st and 2nd Cavalry
--Derivation Canal(38km) : Stroburg-Oostwinkel: 17th , 6th and 18th in reserve
--Derivation Canal(38km): Oostwinkel –Brugge : 12th , 11th
--Derivation Canal(38km): Brugge – Deinze: 2nd , 5th , 4th
--Lys river: 2nd Ardense Jagers, 8th and 9th in reserve
--Lys river: till Menin: 1st , 3rd and 10th in reserve
Only one division in reserve: 1st Ardense Jagers
Furthermore two divisions (15th and 16th) had to be sent to the coast to organize defenses in case of a German breakthrough in the Dunkirk/Boulogne area.
The frontline was 110 km long, each division had to defend 10 km on the Lys river and 6km on the derivation canal. The new defense line was therefore too long and had several disadvantages First there was a shortage of equipment (few barbed wire, mines, telephone wires etc.). Secondly there was the Lys river itself, which was very shallow, had a lot of curbs and was mostly only 50cm deep (it had been unfortunately a very dry season). The riverbank on which the Belgians were located was lower than the riverbank on which Germans were approaching. This and the spring vegetation, which couldn’t be removed on time, enabled the Germans to approach the Belgian lines without being noticed.
The German 6th Army was now joined by 18th Army, which had conquered Holland. On 24th May 10 German divisions faced 12 Belgian, or 7 Germans faced 3 Belgians on the Lys river and 7 Belgians faced 4 Germans on the Derivation canal. But 2 new German divisions in the Kortrijk area would reinforce 6th Army.
Battles at the Derivation Canal
Simultaneously when the Germans were attacking on the Lys river the Belgian front was attacked on three places at the Derivation canal. Because of the worsening situation on the Lys river units were pulled out of the frontline at the Derivation canal and sent to the Lys river to reinforce units there, which weakened the line on the Derivation canal.
24 May (Ronsele)
German 208th division attacked the 12th division at Ronsele. The Germans managed to get over the canal in a surprise attack. The 12th division suffered heavy casualties and was driven back, his first echelon broken, its second holding out. When the Belgian artillery started to attack the Germans positions the advance was completely stopped. The next day one regiment aided by several AFV (T13’s) counterattacked and conquered the lost ground and eliminated the created German bridgehead. 200 German soldiers and 5 officers were captured.
German 56th division attacked positions of the 4th division. First the Germans tried to penetrate the front at Deinze, but were repelled and three attacks failed. When they shifted their attention to Meigem, they were able to cross the canal and overran the Belgian 15th regiment. Even the supporting artillery needed to evacuate its positions. Two other regiments were now also attacked from behind. The 1st "Ardense Jagers" division was sent to the town of Vinkt to reinforce the front. During the day Germans tried to cross the canal at several other places but all these attacks were repelled
The next day the German 56th and 225th divisions attacked the positions near Vinkt. The German troops were stopped and could not take the town of Vinkt. Seven attacks were repelled and the German troops suffered heavy casualties. The Germans even attacked by using POWs as a human shield. Each Belgian battalion faced a German regiment at Vinkt. The Belgian AFV's terrorized the German soldiers who saw them as real tanks. Specialized German pioneer troops under command of lieutenant Haase also tried to take the town without much success.
On the 27th May Belgian troops evacuated Vinkt, as the front more to the south was broken. Belgian losses at Vinkt were 39 and 1 officer, German losses were 160 and 11 officers. German frustration was that high that 84 civilians were killed in cold blood after the Belgian troops had left.
26 May (Oostwinkel)
German 256th and 208th divisions attacked the 17th division. After one day of fighting they had created two bridgeheads and had broken the first echelon of this division. On the 27th May the 17th was driven further back and elements of the 12th division sent to its aid were too weakened by previous battles at Ronsele to turn the tides. The 18th division was now also exposed on its flank. The three Belgian divisions were low on ammo as no supply happened the last days. Therefore a general retreat was ordered and performed under clear daylight. The supremacy of the German Luftwaffe made this retreat even more difficult.
Note: Supply became extremely difficult because of the supremacy of the German luftwaffe.
Meanwhile the Germans were finally stopped at Maldeghem by the 17th division and four attacks were repelled. The Belgian troops had taken positions from Knesselaere to Maldeghem. The 2nd Caribiers Cyclist regiment, a unit borrowed from the cavalry corps, attacked the Germans at Knesselaere. They took the German troops of the 208th by surprise by maneuvering their AFVs behind the German troops. They took more then 130 prisoners and many more were wounded or killed. But this didn’t discourage the Germans who stayed on the attack. After two days of heavy fighting the Germans took the town of Maldeghem. The German 256th division lost here 340 men and 14 officers.
At 22.00 PM the order was given for a new retreat (cavalry, V, II, VI corps), which was performed in the night of the 27th of May. Positions even weaker then the previous ones, but the units not aware of the situation on the Lys river still believed in a retreat toward the Yser river like in 1914. The situation was very confused and the 5th division started its retreat from the Derivation canal only at 13.30 P.M. on the 28th of May. Several units also retreated through enemy lines to their new positions.
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 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"
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. The 2nd Cavalry division (or what was left of it) was sent to this region. It suffered heavy air attacks (one motorized battalion was completely destroyed) during its movement. The problem here was that this division had to move from the extreme left to the extreme right of the frontline and this under a sky fully dominated by the German Luftwaffe.
Nevertheless, in the morning the Belgians performed two local counterattacks to reduce the bridgeheads, one failed and one succeeded. The Germans on the other hand were not able to exploit their successes of the previous day and were everywhere stopped or forced on the defensive as the Belgian artillery had concentrated its fire on the two bridgeheads.
Two new German divisions entered the Battle, the 254th and the 61st, which will together with the 14th and 18th division attack the Belgian positions at the Roulers canal the next day.
After a heavy artillery and air bombardment German units overran several Belgian positions at the Roulers Canal. The 9th division was forced to retreat and the Germans (46 infantry) was only stopped at Meulenbeke. This retreat endangered the 8th division, which was now not only attacked from the front but also from the left and rear. Another breakthrough at Oeselgem enabled the Germans to attack also this division from the right.
An immediate counterattack was necessary but only after hours sufficient men were found. Finally a group consisting out of artillery-men, engineers and infantry-men was formed. The counterattack started and after heavy losses the Belgian troops managed to drive the German 455 infantry back over the Roulers canal..
The 2nd Ardense Jagers division suffered also a heavy attack by the 216th German division. This attack failed but German units managed to infiltrate between the Belgian positions.
On the evening of the 26th of May the situation was precarious (the whole VII corps was endangered with encirclement) and a general retreat toward the road Tielt- Deize was performed during the night. For the 8th division it was a night of agony, as they need to retreat through enemy lines. Several units made it, other did not, and others did not receive the order to retreat. These encircled units resisted the Germans untill 20.00 P.M the next day. On that the Belgian artillery also lost more than 100 artillery pieces. The artillery had been ordered to cover as much as possible the retreat of the Belgian infantry.
On the same day at the extreme right of the Belgian front the Germans also attacked in the direction of Ypres. By now there was a gap between the British and Belgian front (this gap was only patrolled by lack of troops). And to make matters worse only the Belgians tried to keep the front continuous while the British troops were staying behind there fortified positions.
The Germans had intercepted a British radio message, which told them that the British troops were not to defend the area between the Lys and Yser river. Therefore the Germans didn’t need to consider a British flank attack. Meanwhile a British patrol had captured documents which included the plans of 6th Army the following days. As a true ally the British General Brooke didn’t pass this information to the Belgians.
The German 101 infantry was driven back out of the Ledegem , the German 11 infantry was driven back out of Dadizele by the 2nd Cavalry division after taking these towns. The German 18th division was halted near Geluwe. But the German 31st and 61st divisions marched at the French border unharmed towards the Ypres-Komen canal under the eyes of the British soldiers. The British troops didn’t open fire to save ammo (their artillery was forbidden to open fire). In result the 2nd cavalry division was soon threatened by encirclement as the German 31st and 61st divisions advanced and started to attack from the south. Another retreat was necessary.
At the end of the 26th May all Belgian troops were no longer behind the Lys river but were still able to keep a continuous defense line, but which was by now very thinly manned. By lack of reserves the Belgian army was now only able to perform a static defense.
The Germans attacked in the early hours. The German 18th and 31st divisions created two bridgeheads over the Ypres-Komen canal in the sector of the British 5th division. Meanwhile the 18th German division enlarged the gap between the Belgian and British front. Only 300 men and two T13’s were available to meet this division. The Belgian army was low on ammo, weapons and especially men, several artillery formations ware transformed to infantry battalions when they ran out of ammo and practically al the engineer units were now fighting at the front.
The commander of the 18th German division wrote the following, Belgian troops fought with an extraordinary courage against all odds covering the retreat of the English, which didn’t help them one moment. We need to say that their generals forbade the British soldiers to open fire, although the certainly wanted. Brian Bond writes, " the British reason not to help the Belgians is not only a matter of the low reserves available to the BEF but also has to be found in the negative attitude of the British commanders towards the Belgian army."
The British decision not to help the Belgian army is hard to understand, because by helping the Belgian army it helped itself. If the Germans had broken through the Belgian front, they would have been able to pass behind the British left flank and link up with the Panzer divisions in the South. After the 26th of May BEF had also few reserves because most of it troops were now moving towards the Dunkirk perimeter to be evacuated and the 5th and 55th British divisions took up only defense positions and blew up the bridges between them and Belgian army.
The irony is that when the British troops were leaving, Belgian commanders asked if they could use the left material. The British officers, embarrassed by the situation, refused and told them the Canadians would come and needed this material. The Canadians did come, only 4 years later.
The 15th division ( a division with no artillery regiment and equipped with WOI material), which was sent from the coastline to the extreme right of the Belgian front, took positions at the town of Passendaele where it was attacked by the German 14th and 254th divisions. The first attack of the 11 infantry was repelled, but the second broke through the front of the 4 lansiers regiment, where several battalions fell out of ammo. This setback forced the division to give up Passendaele. At 17.30 P.M. the division counterattacked and retook the town, which was again lost later in the evening. But the front here stabilized, as the German advance was everywhere halted. But at in the evening of the 27th of May the 15th division and the 2nd cavalry division were only able to create a defense line, consisting of one echelon with no reserves.
In the center of the front, the German 14th and 19th divisions attacked the Belgian 10th division supported by elements of the 6th division. The Germans attacks failed everywhere, and the German 59 infantry regiment was decimated. But the successes were nothing compared to the tragedy, which occurred in the sector of the Belgian VII corps, which cracked around the town of Tielt
The Belgian VII corps (16th, 8th and 2nd Ardense Jagers division) was having serious problems. Supply didn’t happen the previous days and the troops were exhausted. Some regiments didn’t have a night sleep since the retreat of the Escaut river. The 16th and 8th "divisions" were low on men and material, especially transmission material, which didn’t favorite the cooperation between units. But most of all the units didn’t have the time to prepare their new defense line.
At 4 a.m. the Germans XI corps attacked and broke through the new defense line in the sector of the 16th division and in the sector of the 8th division. The Belgian troops were now only capable of resisting at the different small towns, but in the open fields their defenses were fast overrun. After cleaning out the remaining nests of resistance, the advance of the German 19th and 30th divisions couldn’t be stopped anymore.
The German 26 infantry was finally blocked at Izegem at 19.30 p.m after fierce fighting by the 2nd Ardense Jager division and the frontline in this sector was more or less stabilized. The German 46 infantry, who had broken through the front at Meulenbeke encircled several artillery positions, which didn’t stop firing until the last shell. At 17.00 p.m. the town of Tielt had been lost. The German troops had created a large gap in the front, which couldn’t be sealed off anymore and were only at 15km of the city of Brugges.
More to the north the 6th Belgian division and the German 255th division had fought each other in the Ingelmunster-Tielt area. For these two divisions the war had been very costly and both divisions had sustained serious losses.
German commander Wetzel wrote: " The Belgian infantry fought courageously. Their fire was postponed till the last moment and only at short distance, which had serious effects on the morale and tactics of the German infantry". About the artillery he wrote, "Their artillery has given the 255th division many difficulties. They fought a mobile war moving with small units or even isolated pieces. We need to stress that they have inflicted heavy losses in human lives."
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.
Belgian trucks transported the French 60th division (C-division with only WOI equipment) to the Yser-river). On the 27th May Belgium also informed his allies that the limits of the Belgian army's resistance had been reached and that the Belgian army was forced to ask a cease-fire. In fact the Belgians informed their allies already on the 25th that a defeat of the Belgian army was a matter of days now.
From the 21st of May numerous warnings were sent to Gort and Churchill stating "that every movement of the BEF to enable the survival of this army would be accepted, but that if the BEF left the Belgian army alone it would lead to the capitulation of the Belgian army.
Mayor Elis wrote that Belgium never informed its allies and Gort only received the news one-hour before the actual capitulation. Only 13 years later, after written his official document, Ellis admitted that Gort received the news in the morning of the 27th of May. This says a lot about the "accuracy " and "truth" written in this document.
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.
On the 24th May Hitler had halted its Panzer-divisions before the canal line (they were only 15km from Dunkirk!). He had ordered Von Bock that the German 6th and 18th armies were to quickly break through the Belgian front and cut of the B.E.F. from the coast. The reason why he halted his panzer divisions is not exactly known but the German conviction they could break through the Belgian front played a significant role.
On the 26th May German high command realized that the Belgian resistance was much higher than expected and a breakthrough hadn’t occurred. The commanders of 6th and 18th army needed to go to Hitler, who was furious about the slow advance of these two armies (source: German General Jodl.).
The same day Hitler ordered his panzer-divisions to resume the attack to the west and the infantry in the direction of Dunkirk. This would encircle the French 1st army(1/3) in the Lille region but was too late to crush the Dunkirk perimeter. The French and British soldiers in this perimeter had been given the time to prepare their defenses.
In the north the Germans divisions of 6th and 18th army needed until the 30th May to reorganize after the bloody battles it had fought with the Belgian army. In consequence, the Dunkirk perimeter was only attacked in a coordinated way in the north from the 1st of June (five days after operation Dynamo had started). This minimizes certainly the myth or miracle of Dunkirk , which has increased over the years, like for example the importance of Bastogne in December 1944.
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