After their success in France, the Anglo-American armies swept eastwards across Belgium and Luxembourg in a concerted push towards Germany.
The First US Army crossed the Belgian border on the morning of 2 September 1944, passing through the hamlet of Cendron before liberating the city of Mons the following morning. The British reached Brussels on 3 September and Antwerp the next day; the Americans liberated Liège on 7 and Luxembourg on 10 September. By the middle of the month, both countries were largely free of German troops.
Belgium had been occupied for four years, ever since May 1940 when the German army invaded and encircled the Allied armies via a daring advance through the Ardennes. The official Belgian response to invasion was divided: Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot and his ministers wanted the king and government to move to France; King Léopold III wished to remain in Belgium. To the disgust of the Allies, the king surrendered to the Germans, prompting his ministers to head for France anyway. When France fell, an attempt at reconciliation by Pierlot was rejected by the king, who now viewed his prime minister as a traitor. Léopold hoped to negotiate with Hitler to achieve some form of autonomy for the country, but failed to do so and his status and influence declined as the occupation continued. Shortly before the liberation in June 1944, he was deported to Germany. Meanwhile, Pierlot and his ministers had formed a government-in-exile in London, but their distant relationship with their homeland made them less effective allies than the Poles or the Czechs. However, many Belgian soldiers and airmen fought as part of the British forces.
Belgium was governed by a Wehrmacht military administration, presided over by SS-Gruppenführer Eggert Reeder. Most of the day-to-day running of the country was managed by existing Belgian authorities, with key positions in central and local government going to members of the right-wing Flemish nationalist group, the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond (VNV). Wallonia, the Francophone half of the country, also had its own fascist party, the Rexists. Both had paramilitary wings – the Flemish Legion and the Walloon Legion – which sent units to fight alongside the Germans against the Soviets.
Resistance to the Nazi occupiers was sporadic and disorganized, particularly in the early years. Activities increased with greater Nazi oppression and the realization, after the Normandy landings, that the Germans were likely to be defeated. The biggest resistance group was the Armée Secrète (AS), which had ties to the Pierlot government but remained loyal to Léopold III. They were responsible for acts of sabotage and, in connection with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in London, were part of the organized escape lines for Allied airmen who had bailed out over Belgium. One great motivator for resistance was the German economic exploitation of the country, not just in terms of goods and raw materials, but in the Reich’s insatiable demand for labour. By 1943 more than 500,000 Belgians had been forced to work in Germany or France, and many people went into hiding to avoid deportation.
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Belgium’s Jews numbered between 65,000 and 70,000 in 1940, mostly concentrated in Antwerp and Brussels. Many were stateless refugees who had arrived after World War I. Nazi racial laws were applied almost immediately, but with less efficiency or enthusiasm than in other occupied countries. Many Belgians objected to how Jews were treated, including the country’s leading Catholic, Cardinal van Roey, but Belgium’s administrators were willing collaborators, and there were plenty of anti-Semites happy to join in the Nazi persecution. In April 1941, the VNV and others set fire to two Antwerp synagogues, which the fire brigade was prevented from putting out. Many Jews simply failed to register and others went into hiding, but in July 1942 deportations began in earnest when the Dossin Barracks near Mechelen was converted into a transit camp for Jews. Nearly 26,000 left here on trains to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps; fewer than two thousand deportees survived the Holocaust.
Even as they were driven out of Belgium in September 1944, German troops continued committing barbaric acts, often random and disproportionate retaliation for small gestures of resistance. It was a foretaste of what was to come during the massive counteroffensive, known as the Battle of the Bulge, that was launched by the Nazis later in the year.
Luxembourg has an area of 2586 sq km, slightly smaller than the US state of Rhode Island and slightly larger than the English county of Dorset. The eastern side of the country borders Germany, with its boundary along the Our and Moselle rivers.
In 1940 Luxembourg had a population of 296,000 but no standing army, making it easy pickings for the Wehrmacht. The invasion took place on 10 May 1940, prompting the reigning monarch, Grand Duchess Charlotte, to leave the country with her ministers. The departure of the government left the state functions of Luxembourg in disarray. For her first two years Charlotte was in Canada and after 1943 in London, from where she broadcast regular morale-boosting messages to her countrymen.
By August the country was under direct German administration, with the Gauleiter of Mosseland, Gustav Simon, put in charge. His role was to assimilate the country into the Reich, a project strongly resisted by a generally hostile population. In October 1941, Simon organized a referendum which posed questions about national identity. Encouraged by the resistance, over ninety percent of citizens declared themselves Luxembourgish, prompting the Nazi regime to become markedly more harsh. All languages apart from German were now banned and citizens were forcibly conscripted into the German armed forces. The following summer a general strike against compulsory national service was only halted after its ringleaders were executed and hundreds of protesters sent to concentration camps. Of those Luxembourgers conscripted, possibly as many as 25,000 died – most shot as deserters.
Northern Luxembourg was devastated during the Battle of the Bulge, as Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army bombarded US positions in its December push into Belgium, and then again when the Americans forced the Germans back in January and February 1945. Around 3500 homes were damaged or destroyed, some 45,000 people became refugees, and about one-third of the country’s farmland was unable to be cultivated.
Top image: The Ardennes, Belgium © Alain grimplet/iStock