World War II: Allied Liberation of Belgium (September 1944)

Figure 1.--These Wehrmacht soldiers are POWs having surrendered in Antwerp. German garrisons in Brussels abnd Antwerp were unaware as to how rapidly the Allies were driving north. They were photographed September 16. The Allied photographer stoped this Major for a photograph. Note the boy with him also wearing a Wehrmacht uniform. He was 10 years old. We are unsure why a boy this age was in a Wehrmacht uniform. Presumably he is some kind of orderly for the major. The press caption read, "The major and the minor: Caught in sweeping Allied net in Belgium, a 10-year old ... internment along his commanding officer. He wears a regulation German uniform--proof that Hitler is throwing children into battle in desperate, futile effort to halt Allied steamroller."

The Allies after Paris pressed north into Belgium. The British reached d Brussels (September 2) and Antwerp (September 3). They were met by jubilant civilians realizing that the dark years of NAZIdom were finally over. There was hope in the Allied camp that with the German collapse in France that the NAZIs could be defeated in 1944. Antwep was the key to the Allied thrust on into Germany. The Allies reqired a deep water port in Belgium. Supplies were still being landed in Normandy and trucked through France via the Red Ball Express. This was creating enormous logistical problems and the Allies needed to shorten its supply lines. While the Allies after taking Brussels reached Antwerp the next day. Opening the port proved to be a much more difficult undertaking. The Germans had fortified islands in the Scheldt estuary. Montgomery did not initially grasp the importance. The Germans evem though cut off by the advancing Allies held out recognizing the importance of keeping the port closed. The Belgian Resistance played an important role in the costly effort to clear the Scheldt. [Moulton] Once in Allied hands, Antwerp and its harbor became a target for NAZI V-2 attacks.

Military Formations

American and British forces were the primary Allied formatiions liberating Belgium. The British units were an international formation including Cananadian and Polish units. Also with the British was the Belgian 1st Infantry Brigade--the "Brigade Piron", mamed after its commander, Jean-Baptiste Piron. This was a Belgian and Luxembourgish military unit which participated in the Battle of Normandy and subsequently the liberation of Belgium and the Netherlands. They were a part of the Free Belgian Forces.

Channel/North Sea Coast

The First Canadian Army (including some British, Polish and other formations) after the Normandy breakout d drove up the French coast troops. The Germans did not resitv strongly, butv did fortify several ports to to keep them out of Allied hands. The Candians by passed these towns and pushed on north. The Canadians encountered abandoned V-1 launch sites. This rapidly reduced the threat to Britain. They entered Belgium (September 1 and made a run east to Brussels. As a result the Canadians moved ton liverate Belgiumj friom the east while the Ameruicans further inland pushed in from the south.

Allies Sweep into Belgium (September 1-16)

The Allies after Falaise and Paris pressed north rapidly toward Belgium. The Whernacht in France was broken. The Germans did not wait for retreat orders. Every Gernman in France just wanted to get back to the Reich however possible and as rapidly as possible. There are no important natural barriers between Beklgium and France. There are some important physucal barriers which can be used as defensive lines, including the Ghent and Albert Canals, the Ardennes Forrest, and Meuse River. The Germans did not like announcing the loss of cities. This combined with the rapid Allied advance meant that the Gernan garisons in Belgium were not prepared when the Allies reached the Belgisn frontier. After liberating northern France, the Allies led by the Canadians pushed into Belgium. Canadian troops were the first to cross the Belgian border (September 2). There was no organized German effort to block the Allied advance into Belgium. The major effort was to fortify the Scheldt Estaury and a failed attempt to blow up the harbor facilities in Antwerp. There was a limited effort to stand at the Ghent andc Albert Canals, but the Germans did not have the forces to make a determined stand against the massive Allied armies sweeping into Belgium. Liberation thus in most Belgian towns and villages followed very rapidly. The major cities of Brussels and Antwerp were quickly liberated. The British reached Brussels (September 3) and Antwerp further north only a day earlier (September 4). The Allies were met by jubilant civilians realizing that the dark years of NAZIdom were finally over. One Belgian boy who was 7 years old at the time remembers the arrival of the Americans, "I can still see the American tanks, trucks and jeeps, each with the big star of the U.S. Army, rolling down the streets of my village. The bright young faces of the American soldiers smiled down at us. They threw chewing gum, Life Savers and chocolates. In return, we gave them whatever we found in our garden at the time. I remember handing them lots and lots of plums." [Henderson] The German resistance was highly variable. Some Belgian villages were vacated by the Germans when the Allied soldiers reached them. There were fire fights for other villages. Large parts of western Belgium were quickly liberated with the Germans marshalling their limited resistance in a few key places. There was a fight at the Ghent Canal and north of Antwerp. The Germans held out in the Sheldt Estuary abd the Ardennes.

Retreating German Troops: Attrocities (September)

The Germans were under no illusions about the sympathies of Belgian civilians. There were numerous incidents of Waffen-SS and Wehrmacht soldiers shooting civilians, including women and children. We note two types of incidents. In mny instances the Germans attacked civilians without any provocation except the knowkledge that the Belgians hated them and welcomed the Allies. Other incidents resulted from resistance attacks on the retreating Germans who then retaliated on whatever civilians. were at hand. These incidents took place mostly in eastern Belgium. Liberation inwestern Belgium occurred too quickly for the Germans to strike at civilans. It was different in eastern Belgium where the retreating Germans were in greater strengh as they headed for the borders of the Reich and defensible teraine in the Ardennes. An important axis of retreat ran from Valenciennes to Mons, in some places following the Mons Canal. The retreating German soldiers were harassed with small arms fire by Resistance fighters (September 2-3). The German response was a orgy of killing around the villages of Ghlin and the towns of Jemappes and Quaeregnon. Waffen-SS and Whermacht soldiers burned homes along the retreat route and in the process shot and killed some 60 villagers. Partisabns on the same day attacked a retreating column at Quevaucamps a little to the north. They killed one German. The German resoonse was to shoot 2 resistance fighters they captured and 17 men they rounded up in the town. The Germans were headed for the Meuse beyond which lay the Ardennes and Achen protected by the West Wall. All along their path they dealt out destruction and death to the Belgians. Numerours incidents occured as Brussels and Antwerp were being lliberated (September 4). Partisans shot at what was left of the shattered SS Hitler Jugend and Prinz Eugen Dic=visions. The Germans wenton a manhur in Sovet for partisans. They gathered up villigers and burned their homes. When they were dine, 18n peopkle were dead, including the village priest and three women. In the enviroment of violence created by war, these incidents whikle not excuable are understanable. The Germans had taken a terrible beating in France and the men were under enirmous strain. It should not be thought, however, that all the German attricities were provoked by Resistance actions. SS Panzer Grenidiers masacered 13 men in Anhée on the left bank of the Meuse (September 4). They pillaged the village and burned down 58 buildings. The nmen were mostly the eldely, one 82-years of age. Neearby the 3rd Regiment f the SS-HJ Sivision crossed the Meuse between Dinant and Namur. That night, raiding parties recrossed the Meuse and attacked several the civilians in several villages along the river (Godinnem, Bouillon, Hin, Warnant, and Rivière) before the Americans arrived. Treatment of Resisrance fighters was most severe, including beatings and mutiltion before being shot. German soldiers in one incident occurring at Failon arrested seven men, three menmbers of the gendermerie. They were moved to Bonsin and after brutal beatings wee shot. Some were mutilated. [Hitchcock, p. 62-63.] All of this was routine on the Western front. Only therapid avance of the Allies into Beklgium prevented even more such incidents. Unfortuntely for the Belgians, the Germans with the Bukge offensive were gioung to have a second opportunity to take our their frustrations and resentment ion them.

Market Garden: The Netherlands (September 17)

Montgomery had been pressuring Eisenhower to order one big push into Germany which of course he thought he should direct rather than Patton. Eisenhower kept insisting on a broad front advance. At this stage of the campaign. Most of the Allied supplies were still coming in over the Normandy beaches. Ports like Brest, Boulogne and Calais were still in German hands. The German V-2 attacks while not a real military threat, were terrifying civilians and it was Montgomery who was best placed to seize the launching sites in the Netherlands which could still be used to hit London. Eisenhower as a result, acceeded to Montgomery's plan to seize the Rhine River bridge at Arnhem and cross the Rhine through the Netherlands. Available supplies were diverted toward this effort, Operation Market Garden (September 17-26). While more attention is given to airborn opertions on D-Day, Market Garden was the largest airborn operation of World War II. Over 30.000 allied paratroopers were employed in the operation. Eisenhower was a proponent of a broad-front offensive against Germany. He felt this was the best way of keeping the pressure on the Wehrmacht and not expose advancing Allied armies to counter attacks. His field commnanders, especially Montgomery and Patton, wanted to focus the offensive on specific sectors (their own) to pierce the enemy defenses. Allied supply lines in September 1944 were inadequate for a general broad-front offensive against the Germans. The Germans had held on to ports to restrict Allied logistics. If there was to be an Allied war-winning offensive in Septmber against the Germans, Eisenhower had to chose a specific sector which he could adequately supply. He chose Montgomery in the Netherlands. Eisenhower has never fully explained this decission. His relations with Montgomery were far from cordial. Several factors were certainly involved. The route through the Netherlands was the most direct and shortest over the Rhine and into the industrial heart of Germany. The Germans were launching V-2 missles from the Netherlands which were causing civilian casualties in London and other British cities. Montgomery's plan offered a key objective, the seizure of the Rhine River bridge at Arnhem. In addition, the liberation of Belgium had brought with it the port of Antwerp which meant that if Montgomery was successful, supplies to exploit the crossing of the Rhine could be brought in through Antwerp, instead of the long truck routes through France. The effort achieved some success, liberating large areas of the Netherlands. Tragically it failed at Arnhem despite a valiant fight by lightly armed British paratroopers. This allowed the Germans to stabilized their Western front as Winter approached and prepare their last offensive of the War.

Rebuilding the Belgian Army (1944-45)

The Belgian Arnmy had oplayed a key rolec in slowung the German adabnce during Workd War I. The Belgian Army in World war II collapsed before the German Blitzjkrieg (May 1940). The Provisional Government with liberation disarmed the resistance. Many resistance fighters and other Belgians were then rapidly mobilised into a reformed Belgian Army to establish civil administration abnd to join the Allied fighting forces. The Belgian Army had been interned by the Germans after King Leopold III surrendered. Unklike the French Army, many of these men were released during the occupation and allowed to return home. This was an issued King Leopold constantly raised with the Germans. German motives here are niot entirely kniown, but priobably reflect the view that France was Germany's mortal enemy in the West and that Belgium was too small to be a real threat and was at any rate to be incirporated within the Reich. We suspect that racial assessments were at work here. Hitler saw the French as racially compromised (polluted). The Flemish were seen as having purer Aryan blood and thus potentially valuable genetic material. The refornmed Belgian Army consisted of many 1940 veterans. The reformed Army was regrouped into 57 "Fusilier Battalions". [Thomas, p. 16.] These Belgians battalions served in several battles in the final months of the War. [Burgaff] There were 100,000 Belgians fighting as part of the Allied armies by the time of VE Day (May 1945).

Political Developments

King Leopold III had been kept with his family under house arrest during the occupation. He was taken by the retrating Germans to the Reich. His brother, Charles, the Count of Flanders, was appointed Regent, pending a decision on the King's future role. Many Belgians were very critical of him for surendering to the Germans and for his conduct during the occupation. Many of the alegations him were were unfair and untrue. As a oprisoner, there was little he could do to protect the popultion from the Germans. His mistake was to surender rather than fleeing to London to set join the Government in exile. He had pledged to the Belgian Army that he would stay with them. While charges of treasion brandied about by the Communists were unfair, it was true that he surrendered the Belgian Army at a very critical time, almost dooming the Dunkirk evacuations. And had the British failed to get the BEF home, the Germans may well have won the War and subdued Britain which could have doomed Belgian to NAZI tyranny. Achille Van Acker replaced Pierlot as Prime Minister (February 1945). [Fadoul]

The Battle of the Scheldt (September-November 1944)

While the Germans retreated north and west leaving Belgium to the Allies, they did leave behind a nasty surprise in the Scheldt estuary, Antwerp's connection with the sea. Antwerp was located at the southern end of the long Schedldt Estuary. Unfortunately, the port itself was useless unless the Sceldt was ckeared. Recognizing the importace of Antwerp, the Germans had heavily fortified islands in the long Scheldt estuary and the Scheldt garrisons were ordered not to evacuate, but stay and fight. Montgomery in his push north did not initially realize the importance of the Scheldt islands. The port could not be used until Scheldt Estuary was cleared. The Germans garisions there while cut off were well supplied and fortified. They thus held out in an effort to block Allied use of the Antwerp port. Attacking the well prepared German positions proved costly. Canadian and Polish forces in Operation Switchback attacked the German Breskens pocket on the southern bank of the Scheldt. The Belgian Resistance also played a role in the Allied effort to clear the Scheldt Estary. The Allies suffered heavy casualties. [Moulton] Taking the Breskens pocket was followed by an extended campaign to clear the peninsula dominating the Estuary. The campaign was finally capped with an amphibious assault on Walcheren Island (November). Canadian forces captured Zeebrugge, the last pocket of German resistance in Belgium (November 2). The First Canadian Army was the primary Allied formation involved. Clearing the Estuary was vital to the Allied campaign as it greatly eased the supply situation that had been restricting the Allied advance into Germany. Once in Allied hands, Antwerp and its harbor became a target for NAZI V-2 attacks.

The V Weapons

The Allies were anxuious to end the rain of V-weapons on London and other British cities. This was one reason Gen Eisenhower gave Mongomry the go ahead for Market Garden. The Allies as they rapidly moved into Belgium overran V-1 coastal launching sites along the coast as well as Brussels and Antwerp further inland. These were the last V-1 sites that could reach Britain. The Germans, however, could still hit Britain with the V-2s fired from the Netherlands. And the mobile V-2 launchers were much harder for Allied aircraft to hit. The Germans having failed to destroy the Antwerp port in the rapid evacuation , attempted to disrupt Allied efforts to use the port by hittihg it with V-1s and V-2s. Some 2,300 German missles (mostly V-2s) fell in Antwerp and irs environs. The V weapons were accurate enough to hit Antwerp, but not accurate enough to hit the port. And the Allies rapidly had the port up and running. The city and civilians in it were battered by the attacks. Germans in the Scheldt Estuary, kept Antwerp closed. The Germans also fired small numbers of V-weapons at other Belgian cities, such as Liége. They had no military inpact, but killed about 5,000 Belgian civilians.

The Ardennes (September-December)

The Americans moved into the Ardennes, but not in force. The U.S. First Army commanded by General Courtney Hodges liberated large areas of Belgium south of Brussels and Maastricht (early-September 1944). Two corps of the First Army were then deployed elsewhere. The First Army's VIII Corps was used to man a a long stretch of the front from the area south of Liège, across the Ardennes and into Luxembourg. The extensive length of the line meant that the Corps' front line was very lightly defended. [Cole, p. 56.] The Germans did not contest the Allied advance into most of Belgium, they did resist in the Ardennes Forrest in eastern Belgium. As a result, the front lines in the Ardennees were quiet. The Americans did not want to press forward there. Assulting the Germans positions in the rugged Ardennes was not the best use of their advantage in mobility and firepower. Thus the Ardenndes proved to be a quiet sector of the front, lightly held by a relatively small American force. The Americans even began used the quiet Ardennes to rest battle-tired units. This was the only area of Belgium west of the Rhine that the Germans held. They were already planning the Bulge offensive and needed jumping off points and supply depots west of the Rhine. The Allies had overweakming superior forces on the Western Front as the Allies pressed forward with Eisenhower's Bioad Front approach. The Germans by concentraring their forces in the Ardennes, managed to achive tactical superority.

The Bulge (December 16)

Unhapilly, Hitler was not finished with Belgium. Only 3 months after lineration, Hitler launched the last important German offensive of the War at a weak section of the Allied line in the Belgian Ardennes. The Wacht am Rhein ("Watch on the Rhine") was thecsecondcGerman World War II offensive through the Ardennes. The resulting Battle of the Bulge was the largest ground battle ever fought by the American Army. Almost all of it was fought in Belgium at great cost to Belgian civilians. The Germns achieved tactical superority in the Ardennes and broke through Allied lines. Unlike 1940, they did not have the military capacity to exploit the breakout. And the offensive exposed Germany's last remaining reserves to the superior Allied firepower. Hitler ordered a last desperate offensive again driving through the Ardennes Forrest of Luxenbourg and Belgium. The goal was to divide the Western Allies and seize the all-important port of Antwerp. The Wehrmacht launched a carefully planned attack against weak Anerican units in the Ardennes (December 16, 1944). The offensive was commanded by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. The NAZI panzers stormed westward along a 60-mile front stretching from Saint Vith in Belgium south to Echternach in Luxembourg. The German goal was to break through the American lines, sweep through the Ardennes, and seize Antwerp. The port of Antwerp was essential to the Allied offensive. The major limiting factor to the Allie was supplies and the Allies were beginning to repair the Antwerp port facilities. With Antwerp the British and Canadians in northern Belgium could be cut off and encircled. The Allied thought the Wehrmacht was esentially defeated and incapable of mounting amajor offensive. The Germans were also careful to avoid sending messages bout the offensive electronically. Thus Ultra did not have a clear picture, although Allied commanders were given some warnings.

More German Attrocities (December 1944-January 1945)

The Germans noted the glee with which the Belgian people greeted the advancing Allied armies in September. German sldiers, especially the SS, which stormed back into Belgian as part of the Bulge offensive were not gentle with the Belgian civilians once more under their control. German soldiers, especially but not exclusively Waffen-SS units, commited a serious of attrocities during the fighting in the Bulge. The best known is the Malmedy massacre. Waffen-SS units massacred 86 unarmed American soldiers that had surrendered. A Waffen-SS unit commanded by Colonel Peiper shot Americans captured at Baugnez. (Peipher was a commander in Sepp Dtrich's 6th Waffen-SS Panzer Army. Detrich was notorious on the Eastern Front for executing 6,000 Russian POWs in repriasl for killing 6 Waffen-SS soldiers.) The Americans were shot on a road near Malmeddy. The SS had captured 140 men. They succeeded in shooting 86 men, but 43 men escaped. While small compared to what went on in the East, the Malmedy Massacre was the worst atrocity committed against American troops by the Germans. The SS killed other American soldiers who had surendered as well as Belgian civilians, but the Malmedy massacre is the best known incident, in part because it was a botched attrocityvand so many Americans escaped. After the War, the Americans made a major effot to track down and bring those responsible to judstice. Rumors of the massacre spread rapidly throughout the American army. This affected how the Americans viewed surrender. It also affected the treatment of German soldiers trying to surrender once the tide of battle turned. American soldiers were not the only target of the Waffen-SS. The Germans were under no illusions about the sympathies of Belgian civilians. There were numerous incidents of Wffen-SS soldiers shooting civilians, including women and children. A SS unit commanded by Joachim Peiper murdered 93 civilians in Stavelot. (A huge American fuel depot was located only about 1 mile from Stavelt. The Americans set it afire before Peiper's Panzers could reach it.) Civilians told the American soldiers that retook the town that the Germans shot the children, because their crying was annoying. There were numerous other such incidents.

Retribution for Collaborators

Immediately following liberation, there was rough vigilante justice meeted out to collaborators. One Belgian, a boy at the time, describes the scenes he observed, "Those first days were heady, emotional days, but they had their dark side too. Amidst all the feasting and rejoicing, there was recrimination and reprisals were taken out on those who had been friendly or collaborated with the Germans. One incident I shall never forget. It was a chilling, cruel spectacle. A jeering crowd stood around an open lorry. On the back of the lorry were chairs in which sat a group of women who had been rounded up and had their heads shaved. They were ashen faced and trembling. The sight made me feel sick and my mother and I quickly walked away. Further on we came to a house that was being vandalized and destroyed. All the furniture and contents of the house were being thrown out the windows and came crashing to the pavement below. The occupants of the house had fled. In our own street the same thing happened to a family whose daughter was engaged to a German army officer. The parents and the girl had managed to escape through their back garden and found refuge at a sympathetic neighbour's house. It was a sad reflection of humanity to see, amidst so much happiness and celebration, the resentment and hatred that had been festering." [Key] As in other liberated countries, the Provisional Government began investigating suspected collaborators. The Government investigated 400,000 Belgian suspects. Some 56,000 were actually prosecuted. Some 250 were executed. One prominant collaborator was Léon Degrelle. He was a Walloon Belgian politician, who founded The Rexist movement and after the German invasion collaborated with them. The Rexists collaborated with the Germans and thus was supported by German occupation authorities. The NAZIs declared the waning Rexist Party to be the only authorized political party in Wallonie, just as at the same time they declared the VNV to be the only authorized political movement in Flanders (May 1941). Aspiring NAZI accolytes to imoprive their standing needed military srvice. Degrelle joined the Waffen SS and led the Walloon contingent which fought in the East. Degrelle was setenced to death by Belgian courts. He managed, however, to escape to Spain where he was priotected by the Franco regime.


Burgaff, Eric. "Les Belges à la libération". Le Soir (December 16, 2004).

Chen, C. Peter. "Liberation of Belgium: 2 Sep 1944 – 2 Nov 1944".

Clarke, Frank William. Letter to his sister Vera (September 7, 1944). WW2 People's War (BBC).

Cole, Hugh M. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office., 1965).

Fadoul, Karim. "De van Acker à Verhofstadt". La Dernière Heure (June 13, 2007).

Henderson, Françoise. "An invitation to Gen. Bradley," The Washington Post May 28, 2004, p. W11.

Hitchcock, William I. The Bitter Road to Freedom (Free Press: New York, 2008), 446p.

Key, Frank. "Ghent in wartime," (October 20, 2010).

Moulton, J L. Battle for Antwerp: The Liberation of the City and the Opening of the Scheldt, 1944 (BCA: London, 1978).

Thomas, Nigel. Foreign Volunteers of the Allied Forces: 1939–45 (London: Osprey, 1991).


Navigate the CIH World War II Section:
[Return to Main World War II campaign page--second phase]
[Return to Main World War II offemse slows page]
[Return to Main World War II European liberation page]
[Biographies] [Campaigns] [Children] [Countries] [Deciding factors] [Diplomacy] [Geo-political crisis] [Economics] [Home front] [Intelligence]
[POWs] [Resistance] [Race] [Refugees] [Technology]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Return to Main World War II page]
[Return to Main war essay page]

Created: March 31, 2004
Last updated: 2:10 AM 6/30/2013