Friday, January 23, 2009

Admiral Keyes on the Belgian Capitulation

Sir Roger Keyes, a former British liaison officer in Belgium, was one of those public figures who defended King Leopold III of the Belgians against the slanderous accusations of treason leveled against him by French Premier Paul Reynaud (and later, by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill). Following the Belgian capitulation in extremis to the invading Germans on May 28, 1940,King Leopold had been accused of surrendering unnecessarily to the Nazis, of failing to give the Allies due warning of his imminent capitulation, and of thereby causing the disastrous Allied defeat which necessitated the evacuations from Dunkirk. Keyes, however, who, in his capacity as liaison officer, had remained with the King throughout the 18-day Belgian campaign, was in a position to know the true facts surrounding Leopold's surrender, and to disprove the allegations of treachery.

 In the preface to Belgian historian Emile Cammaerts' book, The Prisoner at Laeken: King Leopold, legend and fact (1941), Roger Keyes wrote:

The flood of poisonous abuse which was directed against King Leopold after the capitulation of the Belgian Army last May, of course, was inspired by certain Frenchmen seeking a scapegoat to cover their own failures and shortcomings.
It is difficult to overtake a lie, and, although this calumny, which was widely believed at that time, has to a great extent died down in the light of the truth, unfair and ungenerous statements reappear from time to time. 

Monsieur Cammaerts is to be congratulated on having produced, in these pages, a wealth of evidence which should establish the truth and vindicate the honour of this King beyond all doubt.

As I was with King Leopold at the Headquarters of his army throughout the brief campaign in Belgium, and at the same time in close touch with the Headquarters of the British Army and Government, I had unrivaled opportunities of observing the course of events. I am glad to have this opportunity of declaring that King Leopold was steadfast in his loyalty to the Allies and did everything in his power to help their Armies.

I first met King Leopold in 1918, when his parents, King Albert and Queen Elisabeth, lived at La Panne, within range of the enemy, under cover of the guns of the Dover Patrol, which I commanded. 

King Leopold was then a schoolboy, and he spent his holidays as a private in the 9th regiment, which was often in action in the front-line trenches. 

A few hours after the Germans invaded Belgium on the 10th May, 1940, at the request of the Government, I left by airplane to join King Leopold as a special liaison officer. 

I remained with him until 10 p.m. on the night of the 27th May.

The King's bearing was always calm and courageous under the heavy blows he and his people suffered, through the treachery of Germany and the failure of the French to prevent the German armoured columns from forcing the Meuse at Sedan, and threatening the right flank of the allied French-British-Belgian Army in the northward.

King Leopold had placed himself and his Army under the French High Command. 

In accordance with the orders he received, and conforming to the movements of the French Northern Army and the British Army, the Belgian Army had to retire from day to day until it reached the Scheldt, where it was hoped that a final stand would be made. The Belgian GHQ was established at St. André, outside Bruges, and I stayed with King Leopold at Lophem nearby, later at Wynendael. 

On the 20th of May, the French High Command ordered the British and French Armies to prepare to fight to the south-westward, to regain contact with the main French Army to the southward. 

I was at the British GHQ at Wahagnies when these orders were received, and it was generally recognised that the abandonment of the Belgian Army was inevitable, unless it could conform to this movement. 

On my return to the Belgian GHQ, I told King Leopold of the instructions Lord Gort had received, and said that it was hoped by my government that the Belgian Army would conform and keep contact with the left flank of the British Army. 

The King of the Belgians asked me to inform the British Government and Lord Gort, that the Belgian Army existed solely for defence, and possessed neither tanks nor aircraft, nor the equipment for offensive warfare. Owing to the influx of refugees, not more than fourteen day's food remained in the small part of Belgium left to him. He did not feel that he had any right to expect the British Government to consider jeopardising, perhaps, the very existence of the British Army in order to keep contact with the Belgian Army. 

He asked me to make it clear that he did not wish to do anything to interfere with any action which the British Government might consider desirable for the British Army to undertake towards the southward. 

He asked me to say, however, that he fully realized that such an action would finally lead to the separation of the two Armies and that, in that event, the capitulation of the Belgian Army would be inevitable. 

I sent a telegram to this effect to the Prime Minister and to Lord Gort, and gave a copy to Lord Gort, personally, the next day. 

On the 21st May, I was with King Leopold at Ypres, when we met General Weygand, the new Generalissimo of the Allied Armies. General Weygand confirmed the orders which had been given to the French and British Armies on the 20th May, and requested King Leopold to withdraw from the Scheldt to the Lys, in order to allow the British Army to retire behind the strong defensive position on the frontier ... preparatory to attacking to the southward with the French Army. 

On our return to Bruges, King Leopold told me that he had agreed to take over the line of the Lys as far as the frontier, in order to release British divisions to carry out the offensive contemplated by General Weygand, although this necessitated his placing practically the whole Belgian Army along a front of 90 km., opposite which a number of German divisions had been identified. He felt, however, that the projected French-British offensive had been delayed too long and that, at this late hour, the only hope of extricating the French and British Armies, which had been cut off by the German thrust, was to establish a cover to the Belgian ports and Dunkirk, by strengthening contact with the Belgian Army and occupying the Lys-Gravelines line. He pointed out that the well-prepared frontier line, to be held by the British troops on his flank, was very strong and was unlikely to be seriously attacked, but that that to be held by the Belgian troops was weak and would be comparatively lightly held and thus invited attack. He feared that if it were seriously assaulted with strong air support, the Germans would break through, sever the connection between the two Armies and overwhelm the Belgian Army. 

The King asked me to tell my Government that he felt the difficulty of keeping touch with the British Army, if it operated to the southward, was not fully appreciated. He would like above all... to cooperate with us, but it was a physical impossibility under the existing geographical conditions. His Government had been urging him to leave Belgium, before the Belgian Army found it necessary to capitulate. Of course he had no intention of deserting his Army. If the British Government understood his motives, he did not care what others might think. I sent a telegram in this sense at once.

Late that night we heard that General Billotte- the French General in Command- had been fatally injured in a motor accident. The coordination of the efforts of the three Armies had not been very effective in his hands. In those of his successor it was non-existent. 

The difficulty of reorganizing the British divisions for the offensive ordered, along roads crowded with vehicles and refugees, was apparently not taken into account by the French High Command, and before the attack could be mounted, the communications of the British Army with its bases at the Channel Ports had been cut. 

I visited our GHQ, which had withdrawn to Premesque on the 22nd, and was told by Lord Gort that our army was already on half rations and short of ammunition- not very favourable conditions for an army to launch an attack, in cooperation with unites of the French Army which seemed to be thoroughly disheartened by the reverses it had suffered. 

On the night of the 23rd May, with grave misgivings, King Leopold fell back, as desired, from his strong position on the Scheldt to a very much weaker one behind the Lys. At the same time he sent the 68th French Division - one of two French Divisions which were in reserve on the Belgian left flank and under his orders - across the Yser in Belgian buses and lorries to Gravelines. The only Allied troops left in Belgium were the 60th French Division. 

On the 24th May General Weygand told the Commanders of the British Army and French Northern Army that the advance of the French Army from the southwards was going well, and he ordered them to attack vigorously to the southwards in order to close the gap behind the German Panzer divisions which had broken through to the coast.

By this time, the Belgian Army was heavily engaged and it was evident to the Belgian GHQ that they were faced with an attack by eight or nine German divisions with the object of driving the Belgian Army to the northwards and severing its contact with the British Army, which was now lying behind its winter line on the frontier.

It was clear to us on the spot that the dangers and difficulties of the situation were not realized by the French High Command, and, in response to an urgent request, General Dill, British CIGS, came over on the evening of the 24th. After staying the night with the British Mission he visited Lord Gort's Headquarters at Premesque the following morning.

On our return to Bruges, he told King Leopold that the attack to the southward, as ordered by General Weygand, would be carried out. 

King Leopold showed General Dill on the map the weak spot on the Belgian right flank, the weakness of their defence line generally, and the impossibility of holding it and also keeping contact, unless strong help could be provided by the British Army. General Dill promised to ask Lord Gort to do what he could... 

As the British Army was about to attack to the southward, the King felt that he could best help by keeping touch as long as possible with its left flank. He had already withdrawn his mechanized cavalry division from the left flank on the coast to reinforce the right flank, and he now gave orders for the 15th Division (infantry with not artillery or machine guns) from the Yser to reinforce that flank further. This exhausted all his reserves.

I learned later that the British 5th Division was then ordered to move to the northward to occupy the line from Halluin to Zillebeke, and the 12th Lancers to support the Allied flanks. This helped to cover the British left flank, but did not effectively ease the situation of the Belgian Army, which, in the King's great effort to help the BEF, was strung out from Halluin to the sea on a front of 90 km., and was threatened by German attacks at several points...

On the morning of the 26th, on learning of the heavy attacks towards Ypres, and the imminence of a break in the Belgian line, I went to our GHQ at Premesque to ask Lord Gort if there was anything I could do to help. He asked me to urge King Leopold to withdraw the Belgian Army towards the Yser.

I gave this message to the King, who said they would do their best, but the only way of averting an imminent and complete disaster was for an immediate British counterattack between the Lys and the Scheldt. I telegraphed this to Lord Gort and found that similar appeals had been conveyed by the British Mission from the Belgian GHQ... since an early hour that morning.

The question of the Belgian Army retiring to the Yser, if it were forced to fall back from the Lys, had been considered at the conference at Ypres on the 21st May. At that time, King Leopold thought this might be the only alternative line, but the recent German thrust, the whole brunt of which had fallen on the Belgians, had, he feared, made a withdrawal to the Yser impracticable.

The King told me later in the day, 26th May, that he had discussed the matter with his General Staff, who considered that a withdrawal to the Yser was a physical impossibility under the pressure the enemy were exerting. A withdrawal over roads thronged with refugees, without adequate fighter cover, would be costly and would only end in disaster, moreover, it would mean the abandonment of all their ammunition, stores, and food.

On the other hand, his GHQ declared that a British counter-attack on the vulnerable flank of the enemy must be undertaken, if a disaster was to be averted, and that the opportunity might only last a few hours. 

They were insistent that the British Army ... was well placed, on the flank of the enemy, to strike at his communications and bridge-heads on the Scheldt and the Lys, with every prospect of inflicting a considerable defeat on him, and relieving the pressure on the Belgian Army. 

An officer from the British Mission was sent to GHQ... to explain the Belgian views.

Having no reserves of his own, King Leopold gave orders for the remaining French 60th Division to be taken in Belgian vehicles to a prepared position across the Yser, which had by now been flooded... and its bridges mined.

The King remarked to me that if the British Army had been preparing to attack to the south-westward, as he had been informed, it would be difficult for it to mount an attack to the eastward, in time to prevent the Belgian right flank from being crushed and its line overwhelmed.

But the British Army was in no better condition to deliver the counter-attack for which the GHQ pleaded, than the Belgian Army was to disengage and withdraw to the Yser as demanded by Lord Gort. 

Although King Leopold did not know at the time, and no message to this effect ever reached him, Lord Gort had already received orders to withdraw to the coast and was preparing to do so. 

Meanwhile the fighting on the Belgian front had been continuous for four days and the Belgian Army, short of food and ammunition, had withstood a tremendous onslaught from eight German divisions, including several armoured units supported by wave after wave of dive bombers. Fighting with great gallantry, the Belgians had delivered several counter-attacks, slain some thousands of Germans and taken several hundred prisoners, but they were nearing the end of their resistance.

On the morning of the 27th May, King Leopold asked me to tell Lord Gort that he feared a moment was rapidly approaching when he could no longer rely on his troops to fight or to be of further use to the British Army. He would be obliged to surrender before a debacle.

He fully appreciated that the British Army had done everything in its power to help Belgium, and he asked Lord Gort to believe that he had done everything in his power to avert this catastrophe. 

I sent this message by wire to Lord Gort, as all telephone communications had been cut, but I understand he did not receive it.

At the time King Leopold hoped to be able to hold out for another day, but by the afternoon, the German Army had driven a wedge between the Belgian and British Armies, and pierced the line in two or three places.

Every road, village, and town in the small part (of Belgium) in Belgian hands was thronged with...thousands of refugees, and they and the troops were being mercilessly bombed by low-flying aircrafts. 

Knowing that he could do nothing further to help his Allies, King Leopold to me and the British and French Missions at his GHQ that he intended to ask for an armistice at midnight in order to avoid further slaughter of his sorely-tried people.

The British Mission informed the War Office by wireless, and the message was received in London at 5.54 pm., but all efforts to get in touch with our GHQ failed.

King Leopold had been asked by his Government, and ours, to leave his country and to carry on the war from outside, but he told me that, as Commander-in-Chief of his Army, which was fighting a desperate battle, he must share the fate of his troops. His mother, Queen Elisabeth, was with him throughout these last days and elected to share his captivity. 

The King told me that he realized his position would be very difficult, but he would make every endeavour to prevent his country from being compelled to associate themselves with any action against the countries which had attempted to help Belgium in her plight.

As the King and Queen refused to accompany me to England, and the enemy were close to Bruges, I took my leave of Their Majesties at 10 p.m. on the 27th, and made my way to Nieuport, where I was picked up by a motor torpedo boat just before dawn on the 28th May.

As is now well known, King Leopold made no separate peace, and is a prisoner of war.

Misfortune has overwhelmed his country for a second time in his life, but the Belgians may well be proud of their King, for he has proved himself to be a gallant soldier, a loyal ally, and a true son of his splendid parents.

Tingewick House,


May, 1941


Lucy said...

Wow! What a tremendously clear recollection and retelling of the facts. He certainly was loyal and clear-sighted about the King. There's no way anyone could doubt King Leopold's strength of character and intrinsic obligation to do what he deemed, the honorable thing to do, after such testimony. Thanks.

May said...

Yes, Keyes is to be thanked for this testimony. He made clear the heroism of the Belgians and the King's conscientious effort to do what he thought was best, both for the Allies and for Belgium.

Daniel said...

Hello, I'm pleased to add to this post a radio interview with the younger Keyes on his fathers notes and on his book, Outrageous Fortune

May said...

Thank you, Daniel, very much. Welcome to this blog.

Lee said...

I would highly recommend listening to the radio interview. Quite interesting!