Adolf Hitler with a group of awarded paratrooper officers of the Koch assault battalion of the 7th Air Division. Officers were awarded Knights Crosses for the successful capture of the strategic Belgian fort Eben-Enamel on May 10, 1940
Blitzkrieg in the West. 80 years ago, on May 28, 1940, Belgium surrendered. Belgian society, feeling completely safe behind the wall of “impregnable” fortifications and counting on the help of England and France, was mistaken. In Belgium, they were waiting for a positional war in the image of the First World War, and received a psychological and lightning war.
Belgium's readiness for war
Officially, Belgium was a neutral country. However, Germany was considered a potential adversary, while France and England were allies. The Belgian military passed on to the French information on the country's defense policy, on troop movements, fortifications and communications. The Belgians had strong fortifications on the border with Holland and Germany. After the Nazis came to power in Germany, the Belgian authorities began to modernize the old and create new defenses on the border. Fortifications in Namur and Liège were renewed, great hopes were pinned on Fort Eben-Enamel (erected in 1932-1935) on the Belgian-Dutch border. The fort was to prevent the Germans from breaking into Belgium through the South Netherlands. Eben-Enamel was considered the largest and impregnable fortress of Europe, controlled the most important bridges across the Alberta Canal, located north of the fort. The Belgians also erected new fortification lines along the Maastricht-Bois-le-duque canal, the canal connecting the Maas and Scheldt rivers, and the Albert Canal.
The Belgians planned to defend the fortifications along the Albert Canal and the Meuse, from Antwerp to Liège and Namur, until the Allies arrived on the Dil line. Then the Belgian army retreated to the second line of defense: Antwerp - Dil - Namur. The allies adopted the Dil plan. According to this plan, while the Belgians fought back on the front lines, the allied forces were to arrive on the Dil line (or the KV line), which ran from Antwerp along the river. Dil and the Diel Canal, then through Louvain, Wavre to the fortified area of Namur. The Dil plan made it possible to reduce the distance and time of the transfer of Anglo-French forces to the aid of the Belgians, reduce the front in central Belgium, free some troops for reserve, and cover part of the center and east of the country.
Map of Belgium fortifications according to the plans of Belgium and the plan "Dil"
The problem was that this plan was designed so that the enemy would deliver the main blow in central Belgium. If the Germans struck the main blow south (which happened), then the allies would be in danger of flanking coverage and encirclement. Belgian intelligence suspected that the Germans would launch a major invasion through the Belgian Ardennes and break through to the sea in the Calais region to block an enemy group in Belgium. The Belgian command notified the supreme allied command of this. But their warning was ignored (like other "bells and whistles").
By the beginning of the war, Belgium mobilized 5 army, 2 reserve and one cavalry corps - 18 infantry, 2 divisions of Arden rangers - mechanized units, 2 cavalry motorized divisions, one motorized brigade and one brigade of border guards. Plus artillery and anti-aircraft units, garrison fortresses and other units. A total of 22 divisions, about 600 thousand people, in reserve - 900 thousand. In addition, there was a fleet, three naval divisions defended the coast. The army was armed with over 1330 guns, a small number of modern French tanks (AMC 35 tanks were only 10). The main combat unit of the armored formations was the T-13 anti-tank self-propelled gun, the T-13 of the B1 / B2 / B3 modifications was 200; there were also several dozen T-15 tankettes, they were armed with machine guns. Aviation had about 250 combat aircraft (including light and transport aircraft - over 370). The fleet update has just begun. Thus, in general, the Belgian army consisted of infantry units and hoped for strong fortifications, natural obstacles (canals, rivers, the Ardennes forest). The army lacked tanks, anti-aircraft artillery and modern aircraft.
Leopold III, king of Belgium, examines a column of tanks
Belgian Air Force Fairey Fox Light Bomber
Immediately after the outbreak of the war, the Belgian army was to be supported by the numerous and well-armed forces of the allies - the 1st, 2nd, 7th and 9th French armies, the British expeditionary army (about 40-45 divisions in total). The 7th French army was to cover the northern flank, with its mobile units (1st light mechanized division, 2 infantry motorized divisions) to leave for Holland, in the Breda region, and render assistance to the Dutch army. The British corps (10 divisions, 1 artillery pieces and 280 tanks) were supposed to cover the Ghent-Brussels area. The central part of Belgium was occupied by the 310st French Army (it included the 1nd and 2rd light mechanized divisions). The 3th French Army was located on the southern flank of the allies (there was only one motorized division in the army). The troops of the 9th Army were located south of the river. Sambras, north of Sedan. The 9nd French Army defended the Franco-Belgian border between Sedan and Monmedi and the northern flank of the Maginot Line on the Belgian-Luxembourg border.
That is, the two weakest French armies covered the area where the Nazis struck the main blow and concentrated a powerful armored fist. Here were the French divisions of the reserve of the first and second stage. They did not have mobile units, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, which reflect the attacks of tanks and aircraft. Therefore, the 9th and 2nd armies did not have a chance to stop the German breakthrough. The most efficient and mobile allied formations were between Namur and the coast, and could not prevent the breakthrough of the German strike group.
“The situation could have turned out completely differently,” the former Hitler general and military historian K. Tippelskirch noted after the war, “if the French command, leaving its troops west of the Maginot line near the French-Belgian border with its powerful field fortifications, would trust, contrary to all "political considerations, the Belgians and the Dutch to prevent the advance of the German armies and would have kept the main forces of their mobile forces in reserve behind the front line." The German general was most afraid of this decision. Therefore, the news of the entry of the three armies of the left wing of the allies (1st and 7th French, British expeditionary) to Belgium caused great joy in the German camp.
British troops in Belgium
The British Army in Belgium May 10, 1940 Belgian girls give flowers to the British
German soldiers at the abandoned Belgian self-propelled gun T. 13B3
German tank column in Belgium, May 1940
Abandoned French B1 bis tanks in Beaumont, Belgium
In Belgium, the Germans did without the threat of air terror. Belgium, like Holland, was defeated by a wave of fear. Here the Germans also successfully used special forces. On May 5–8, 1940, the Abwehr sent Brandenburg-800 special forces soldiers to reconnoiter the border fortifications of Belgium and Luxembourg. Special forces disguised as tourists. They traveled through a travel agency and photographed enemy fortifications.
On the first day of the war, May 10, 1940, the Nazis won an amazing victory in Belgium. They took the impregnable fort Eben-Enamel (Eben-Emael). Thus plunged Belgium into shock and awe. The Germans took the fortress as a landing force from gliders! At that moment, it seemed like a miracle that paralyzed the will of the Belgians to resist.
The fort was the foremost achievement of military engineers of the time. The fortress stood 10 kilometers south of the Dutch Maastricht and northeast of Liège. The Alberta Canal stretched south to Liege - a serious water barrier that had to be forced to step on the country's capital Brussels. The banks are sheer, reinforced concrete bunkers are located along the stream (every 500-600 meters). The canal covers the old fortress of Liege, the center of the entire fortified area. Fort Eben-Enamel is the northern nodal point of this fortified area. He covered the most important bridges over the Alberta Canal, which were prepared for the explosion. It was impossible to restore the bridges under the fire of the fortress artillery. Also, the artillery of the fort could shell the railway junction and bridges in the Dutch Maastricht itself.
The fortress was located on a hilly plateau, was a fortified area measuring 900 by 700 meters. From the northeast, the stronghold was covered by a 40-meter cliff adjacent to the canal. From the northwest and south is the moat. The fort was considered impregnable and had to drown any attack in the blood. The fort was armed with dozens of guns and machine guns in casemates and rotating armored towers: 75- and 120-mm guns (with their help it was possible to fire distant targets), 47- and 60-mm anti-tank guns, anti-aircraft, machine guns and light machine guns. All firing points were connected by underground galleries. Plus observation posts, anti-tank ditches, floodlights and underground structures. The garrison was over 1200 people, but the fort was located about 600 people, the rest were in reserve outside the fortress.
The Belgians took into account the experience of the First World War, when the fortifications died under the blows of powerful artillery. For construction, reinforced concrete was used instead of ordinary concrete. The cannon casemates were hidden at great depths in the plateau, which made them invulnerable even to 420 mm siege guns. Dive bombers and tanks were powerless against the casemates on the slopes (the Germans did not have heavy tanks then). The Belgians would easily have shot German tanks from existing guns. In addition, the neighboring forts, Pontiss and Brachon, could cover Eben-Enamel.
Thus, in order to invade Belgium, the Nazis had to take Eben-Enamel. By all accounts, the Nazis would have to spend two weeks on this. The fort was supposed to forge two divisions. The Germans needed to pull up siege artillery and a strong aviation group. In the meantime, the Germans would get bogged down at the walls of the fortress, French and British divisions would come up, reinforce the Belgian army with a second echelon and reserves. Belgium will stand, the war will take a protracted character, deadly for the Reich. Therefore, under the protection of Eben-Enamel and other fortifications, the Belgians felt quite confident.
The shock of the Belgians was even stronger when the Nazis took the fort on the very first day of the war. On May 10, 1940, 78 paratroopers of the 7th Air Division (Koch assault squad) landed on the fort with the help of gliders. Such an attack came as a complete surprise to the Belgian garrison. With the help of explosives and flamethrowers, the Nazis destroyed part of the fortifications. The garrison settled in shelters and did not dare to counterattack. When reinforcements approached the German paratroopers, the Belgians surrendered.
Exploded tower of the Belgian fort Eben-Enamel
Captured fortifications of the Belgian fort Eben-Enamel
Wehrmacht sappers cross the blown up bridge in Maastricht
Hitler's Mental Strategy
It is worth noting that the capture plan was invented personally by Hitler. He rejected the traditional methods of dealing with fortresses. There was no time for this. The Fuhrer came up with an original solution. I decided to attack using cargo gliders. They silently descended to the fortifications, landed a strike group, the armament of which had just appeared cumulative charges to crush the fort's armored caps with directional explosions. The plan was fantastic, any mistake could lead to failure, so it was terrifying for military professionals. However, it worked. The Germans conducted a detailed reconnaissance of enemy fortifications, from the end of 1939 began the preparation of a small group of paratroopers, who worked out the landing and assault on the layout.
The Belgians knew about parachute and landings in Norway and Belgium, were ready for them. But they were waiting for the appearance of entire squadrons of "Junkers" with hundreds of paratroopers over the fortress and bridges. They were preparing to shoot down planes and shoot paratroopers in the air, to hunt for surviving paratroopers on the ground, until they gathered in groups and found containers with weapons and ammunition. Instead, silent gliders appeared over Eben-Enamel and landed directly on the fort. A handful of special forces bravely rushed to undermine the fortifications. The garrison was stunned and demoralized.
In addition, the Nazis were able, with the help of intelligence, to find headquarters in the vicinity of the fort, from where an order to blow up bridges across the Alberta Canal was to come. Several diving bomber Yu-87 (the crews trained hard before) on May 10, struck a point strike and destroyed the headquarters. The order for the explosion of bridges over wired communication did not pass. The order was sent with a liaison officer, as a result, only one bridge was late and destroyed. At the same time, German aircraft attacked the fortifications around the fort and surrounding villages, the Eben-Enmal garrison disappeared underground and missed the moment of the attack. On the evening of May 10, the Germans bombed Antwerp. Within a few days, the German Air Force gained dominance in the sky of Belgium.
On the same day, German special forces destroy the Belgian communications center in Stavlo, disorganizing control in the south-east of the country. Also on May 10, the Nazis were able to organize an uprising in the border region of Eipen. From a military point of view, the operation did not mean anything, but had a great psychological effect. After World War I, two border regions, Eipen and Malmedy, were cut off from Germany, giving them to Belgium. Since the 1920s, organizations of German nationalists have been operating there. Already under Hitler, the core of the Nazis arose, who disguised themselves as a hang glider club. When the Third Reich launched the Belgian campaign, veterans and young Nazis rebelled. This created the effect of a powerful performance of the “fifth column” in the country.
Thus, Hitler delivered several powerful psychological blows to Belgium at once. New methods of the Reich war plunged Belgian society into shock and prostration. The simultaneous operation of gliders with paratroopers, the almost instantaneous fall of the “impregnable” fortress, which was to stop the German army for a long time; Luftwaffe punches; the allegedly massive uprising of the “fifth column” and the actions of sabotage agents demoralized the Belgians. Plus, the widespread offensive of the Wehrmacht and the rapid fall of Holland. The Germans did everything synchronously and with lightning speed. The Belgians were cut down by a series of powerful and overwhelming blows.
German motorcyclist on a city street in Belgium
A British demoman is preparing to blow up a bridge near the city of Leuven in Belgium to delay the advance of German units
Column of a telephone company of the 137th Mountain Jäger Regiment of the Wehrmacht on the street of the Belgian city
Belgian society and leadership were not ready for such a war. Feeling completely safe behind the wall of fortifications and counting on the help of the great powers (England and France), the Belgians made a great mistake, relaxed and were quickly defeated. In Belgium, they were waiting for a positional war in the image of the First World War, when most of the country outside the front line lives on the whole with an ordinary life, and received a psychological and lightning war.
The rapid decline of Eben-Enamel and the entire border system of fortifications caused a wave of panic in the country. Rumors circulated about treason at the top, the only way to explain the collapse of “impregnable” positions and forts on the border, the Germans crossing the Albert Canal. Then in Brussels, terrifying rumors appeared about Hitler's secret weapon - poison gas and "death rays." There was nothing of the kind. Berlin during the Second World War did not dare to use chemical weapons (the enemies had the same arsenals). Rumors about waves of gliders with toxic substances, thousands of Hitler agents who wreaked havoc in the rear, and about the poisoning of water pipes and food, also quickly spread. About the corrupt officials who betrayed the country, about the thousands of German militants who rebelled in Belgium.
The Germans launched a chain reaction of an epidemic of fear. The demoralized and stunned Belgian authorities by their actions only intensified chaos and general panic. New scary rumors were rolling: in France, a coup, power was seized by supporters of an alliance with Hitler; Italy attacked France; the Maginot line fell and German troops were already in France; all villages around Liège Germans mercilessly destroyed. Immediately the roads were filled with flows of refugees, which interfered with the movement of troops. As in neighboring Holland, espionage broke out and a stupid fight began with the “fifth column” (the scale of which was very exaggerated), which disorganized the rear. The flood of signals from vigilant citizens, who saw enemy agents, spies and paratroopers everywhere, flooded the Belgian military.
On the third day of the war, it was announced on the radio that German paratroopers, dressed in civilian clothes and equipped with portable transmitters, were landing in the country. This message was erroneous. Almost all German airborne forces were involved in the Netherlands at that time. On May 13, the government reported that disguised Germans attacked police stations. Later it turned out that there were no such attacks. So in the country the mental panic epidemic spread.
The collapse of the country along ethnic lines began. The units where the soldiers were called up from Eipen and Malmedy were disarmed and sent to dig trenches. They were considered potential allies of the Germans. Historically, Belgium has consisted of German-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Wallonia. The Walloons and Flemings did not like each other. Germany supported the Flemish nationalists before the war, and fascist Italy funded the Walloon nationalists. With the outbreak of war, Brussels ordered the arrest of all Flemish and Walloon national activists. And the local authorities were zealous, throwing everyone in prison. The police grabbed all the "not so", all who seemed suspicious. As early as May 13, the prisons were overcrowded. Deportations of German citizens began, among which there were many Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Among the "suspicious" were nationalists, communists, Germans, and generally foreigners (Dutch, Poles, Czechs, French, etc.). Some of those detained were shot during general horror.
The collapse of the Belgian army began. The soldiers deserted, talked about the invincible German army, causing new waves of fear. In parallel, all roads in southeastern Belgium were flooded with refugees. The government ordered the railroad and postal and telegraph employees to be evacuated, and all the others rushed after them. The roads were clogged. The troops lost mobility. 1,5 million people have gathered in western Belgium. And the French closed the border for several days. And when the border was opened, the Germans through the Ardennes were already breaking through to the sea. Refugees mixed with retreating from Belgium to northern France, French, British soldiers. It is clear that the combat effectiveness of the Union Army in such an environment sharply sank. The troops also spied on, here and there, "enemy agents" were seized and shot, indiscriminate firing was carried out on ghostly saboteurs. French counterintelligence shot on the spot all those who were suspected of espionage and sabotage.
To be continued ...
German gunners driving through Saint-Lambert square past the city hall in Liege
Belgian refugees and German troops
French tank Char B1-bis No. 309 "Rhone", blown up by its own crew on the city street. During the retreat from Belgium to France on May 16, 1940, the tank, passing along one of the streets of Beaumont, stopped due to lack of fuel. The crew had no choice but to blow up the car and continue the retreat on foot. The machine from the 37th tank battalion of the 1st tank division
Four destroyed French tanks Char B-1bis on Beaumont Street