Saturday, April 29, 2017

Invading Belgium

Commander K in Dinant, Belgium

Belgium, lying as it does, at the crossroads of Europe has been subject to numerous invasions.

In Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World ( we noted that Julius Caesar himself invaded the area today known as Belgium...
Julius Caesar Bust, Arles, France
"Belgium is named after the Belgic peoples of the region, first described by, yes, an Italian, Julius Caesar himself.

In 57 BC Caesar advanced into what is now Belgium after attacking the Nervii tribe. In 53 BC, after Ambiorix, king of the Eburones, destroyed a Roman legion, Caesar retaliated by ruthlessly destroying the Eburones.

In AD 69 and 70, the great Batavian Revolt affected parts of what is now Belgium, and other fighting during assorted Roman civil wars followed. Then in the late Roman period, the area became increasingly vulnerable to incursions by people from beyond the empire’s borders.

That was not the last time Italians would fight in what is now Belgium.

Italians formed a major component of the Spanish armies that fought the Eighty Years’ War from 1558–1648, as the Netherlands fought to free itself from Spanish control. A number of key commanders on the Spanish side were Italian. In the late sixteenth century, for instance, Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma, reconquered, at a key point in the war, much of what is now Belgium. And in the early seventeenth century, Genoese aristocrat Ambrosio Spinola, Marquis of the Balbases and Duke of Sesto, was another major commander on the Spanish side.

Napoleon I
Invaded Belgium and met his Waterloo
Napoleon, the French emperor with Italian roots, controlled what is now Belgium for most of his time in power. The battle of Waterloo, fought in Belgium in June 1815, was the final defeat for the King of Italy, as well as for the emperor of the French.

Fiat CR.42 Biplane
RAF Museum, London

During the Battle of Britain in September 1940, the Corpo Aereo Italiano (the Italian Air Corps) was sent to Belgium to take part in the Luftwaffe’s Battle of Britain, Germany’s attempt to make an invasion of Britain possible.

On the Allied side, Italian Americans saw heavy fighting in Belgium in the months after D-Day. For example, on September 4, 1944, machine gunner Gino J. Merli showed heroic bravery when his position near Sars-la-Bruyère came under heavy German attack. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor as a result.

The Belgians owe another major cultural debt to Italy. No Columbus would have meant no Belgian chocolate!

Belgium is a founding member of NATO, along with Italy."

Commander K with Martyrs of Dinant from 2 World Wars
Dinant, Belgium
The Germans, of course invaded Belgium in two World Wars.  In 1914 they invaded the town of Dinant the site of a beautiful; cathedral on the __ river.  Dinant was the birthplace of Adolphe Sax -- the inventor of the saxophone.

But Americans have also invaded or fought in Belgium.  In America Invades ( we noted...

They have great chocolate, great beer, and great fries in Belgium. Excellent.
Belgium seems as if it’s been around forever but isn’t even as old as the United States. In fact, at least one American was fighting on what is now Belgian soil before Belgium, as we now know it, even existed.

Duke of Wellington
London, UK
In June of 1815, Sir William Howe De Lancey and his new bride, Magdalene Hall, were invited, but did not attend, the famous Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels that preceded the Battle of Waterloo. De Lancey, born in New York City, served as the British Duke of Wellington’s deputy quartermaster general in the Waterloo campaign. His father, Stephen De Lancey, had also served as an officer in the 1st New Jersey Loyal Volunteers in the American Revolution. Sadly, while accompanying the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, De Lancey was struck by a bouncing canon ball and fatally wounded.

In August of 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, Belgium was invaded, and mostly occupied, by the Kaiser’s army. After President Woodrow Wilson led the United States into war on the side of the Allies in 1917, in part due to the violation of Belgian neutrality, many Americans would fight in and over Belgium.

For example, Robert Lovett, a Yalie who would become secretary of defense in the Korean War, served as a pioneering naval aviator in World War I. One of his missions was to bomb German submarine pens based in Bruges, Belgium. And Americans played a vital role in campaigns that liberated large chunks of Belgium in the last months of the war. In August and September 1918, the American II Corps helped the British wipe out the German-held Lys salient, and in October, the 37th and 91st Divisions joined in an attempt to cross the Scheldt. Finally, on November 2, 1918, just a few days before the Armistice, the 37th managed to get across the Scheldt at Heurne.

Over one hundred thousand Americans were involved in the fighting in Belgium then, and many of them would never return home. Hundreds of American soldiers from the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) are buried at the Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium at Waregem, only a few miles from the scene of the crossing of the Scheldt by the 37th.

In May of 1940, Belgium was once again invaded by the Germans who occupied the country until the fall of 1944.

On September 3, 1944, the US First Army crossed the Belgian border and liberated the city of Mons and the surrounding area. Advancing American troops reported being greeted by bottles of cognac and champagne and by pretty girls. Twenty-five thousand Germans would soon be captured in the Mons pocket.

However, anyone expecting a quick end to the fighting was in for a surprise. One of the largest battles in American military history was fought primarily on the soil of Belgium—yes, it’s the Battle of the Bulge.

Hitler had begun planning operation Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine) shortly after the D-Day landings in June. In spite of the Ultra decrypts, the Germans managed to achieve strategic surprise with a massive counterattack through the Ardennes. At 5:30 a.m. on December 16, 1944, a huge German artillery barrage broke out near the Ardennes forest.

General Anthony McAuliffe
Bastogne, Belgium
The Germans advanced against inexperienced US divisions or the remnants of shattered units that had been put into a quiet part of the front in order to recuperate, and the attackers were helped by bad weather, which countered Allied air superiority. The 101st Airborne, which had been rushed forward via trucks, was soon completely surrounded at Bastogne.

On December 22, 1944, Von Lüttwitz, commander of the German forces besieging Bastogne, sent two officers to request the surrender of the American garrison. Brigadier General McAuliffe, in temporary command of the 101st Airborne Division, laughed and famously exclaimed “Nuts” in response.

It was near the Belgian town of Malmedy that the most notorious massacre of unarmed American soldiers in our history took place. Sixty- seven men of Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion who had surrendered were killed by machine gun fire from SS panzers. At least four hundred, including over one hundred Belgian civilians, were killed by Joachim Peiper’s 1st SS-Panzer Division. After being tried and sentenced to death, Peiper managed to cheat the hangman’s noose, and he was released from prison in 1956.

The German offensive had already caused considerable chaos in the American rear, and Skorzeny’s English-speaking German commandos disguised as Americans just added to it. David Niven, an actor who moved to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune, served in the British Army during World War II and found himself caught up in it. When suspicious GIs demanded he tell them who had won the World Series in 1940, he had to confess he had no idea, but he was able to point out to the GIs that he had made a picture with Ginger Rogers in 1938. They let him pass.

At Patton's grave

In an Allied strategy conference held on December 19, General George S. Patton Jr. assured Eisenhower that he would be ready to counterattack in forty-eight hours. Eisenhower expressed skepticism. Patton, however, was not going to be put off. His view was that the Germans had put their heads in a mincer, and he wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to mince them.

Patton kept his word attacking two days later with the US 4th Armored Division and relieving the “Battling Bastards of Bastogne” on December 26. With the weather now improved, allowing Allied air superiority to reassert itself, as German supplies ran out and Allied support began to arrive in force, the German offensive stalled.

The Ardennes Offensive was Hitler’s last in the West. With its collapse, the Germans were once again forced into retreat, and by February 1945, Belgium was finally free from the Nazis. But it had come at a heavy price. Thousands of American soldiers from both world wars are buried in three American battle monument cemeteries in Belgium.

American soldiers who had fought in Belgium would go on to play roles small and large in other key scenes from American history. For instance, Officer J. D. Tippitt, shot and killed in Dallas on November 22, 1963, by Lee Harvey Oswald, had won a bronze star for his service in the US Army at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium.

Since the war, very close military ties have developed between the United States and Belgium. The country became a founding member of NATO in 1949. The headquarters of the NATO alliance is now located just outside Mons in Belgium. And assorted US military units have been based in Belgium since the war. For instance, today, the US Air Force’s 309th Airlift Squadron operates at Chièvres Air Base in Belgium."

You can find signed copies of America Invades
You can find regular copies here on

You can find signed copies of Italy Invades
You can find regular copies here on

No comments: