World War II
Belgium had been drawn into the war when the German armies marched into the country in 1940. The Belgian Army tried unsuccessfully to stop the Germans - they fought very bravely for eighteen days all the way through Belgium, from the Albert Canal near the German border to the North Sea and both suffered and inflicted heavy losses but, after the Belgian capitulation on 27th May 1940, they were forced to surrender arms. The Belgian King, Leopold III, in his capacity as Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Belgian Army, had asked the Germans for a suspension of arms as he wished to spare his people further bloodshed¹. The King was made a prisoner of war and the Belgian Cabinet (which had disassociated itself from his actions) set up a government in-exile in London and announced its resolve to continue war at the side of the allies. ¹This decision had far reaching consequences for the King. Follow 'this link' if you wish to read more about Leopold's life. [See also my Blog Entry for 28th May 2005]
At this time, many thousands of Belgians were deported to Nazi Germany as forced labourers; 25,124 were Belgian Jews destined for the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau (two-thirds murdered upon arrival, 1,207 survived the war²). Many ordinary Belgians put their lives at risk to save people from deportation and to harass the occupier. It was not long before two main underground organisations emerged: the "Secret Army" and the "White Brigade". Together, the brave men and women of the Belgian Resistance finally helped to oust the Germans from their country in 1944. [It is interesting to know that the Belgian Resistance fighters became known as the White Brigade because of the white butchers' coats they assumed as their uniform on moving their operations "above ground"]. ²Statistics from 'The Mechelen Museum of Deportation and the Resistance'.
Madame Renier JANSSEN, née Marthe Leyder (also called Martha) was an active member of Belgium's "Secret Army" during World War II and was part of the official escape lines. She lived not far from the Dutch border in the village of Eisden and her own local Resistance Group was known as the 59th Brigade of Geheim Leger (Flemish for Secret Army). Through their daring and courage, and that of their many brave compatriots all over Belgium, a large number of British, American and allied men whose aircraft were shot down either on their way to bomb Nazi installations or on their way back home, were given assistance. They were guided through German occupied towns and villages to the French border where members of the French section of the Comete Line took over and guided them through France, over the Pyrenees and into Spain. A very long and dangerous journey.
There were also a number of Russian evaders. Mostly soldiers who, as prisoners of war, had been interned in Belgium, some in the "Russian Camp" (official designation, "Stalag IV H - 1304") just outside the village of Eisden. In this camp, the poor unfortunates were used as slave labour in the Eisden Coal Mines - Nazi Germany needed all the resources it could get and coal was a valuable resource.
However, the majority of evaders were aircrew. Some of these lads actually bailed out over Germany itself or Holland, and had already come a long way before reaching Belgium. Thanks to a Canadian Historian who pointed me in the right direction, I now have the names of three evaders, two RAF and one USAAF, who passed through my aunt's village of Eisden in 1944. One British lad, Albert, bailed out over Germany. Sadly, four of his crew members died and two were taken prisoner. Albert's long journey home took five and half months. The American, Chuck, bailed out over Holland and took six and half months to get back to England. The second British airman, Douglas Jennings, bailed out over Belgium and got home in just under three months. I am incredibly lucky to have found Doug, fit and well, and living about 20 miles away from me! Don't miss reading his story.
But first, let me tell you about, my aunt, Marthe Janssen-Leyder...
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