Feeding the Crocodile, Belgium, 1940: Was King Leopold Guilty?
Daniel Wybo requested this essay on King Leopold and Churchill’s remarks about the May 1940 Belgian surrender. Mr. Wybo’s interest is through his father, who fought in the battle to defend the canal at Ghent-Terneuzen. Taken prisoner by the Germans, the elder Wybo escaped and became part of the Belgian underground. “My father was always bitter about how our King was treated,” Mr. Wybo writes. “He was distressed by the great lies propagated about his actions.” Churchill, it will be seen, tried to correct the worst of those lies.
Leopold III was King of the Belgians from 1934 to 1951. Born in Brussels, the son of Albert I, he married Princess Astrid of Sweden in 1926. The Queen died in a car accident in 1935, and in 1941 Leopold married a commoner, Lillian Baels. This was criticized by many Belgians, particularly after the events of 1940.
Belgium, which had declared neutrality in 1936, was invaded without warning by Hitler on 10 May 1940, and appealed for help. Anglo-French forces took up defensive positions along the Dyle River. The Belgians held the Albert Canal to the northeast. German troops captured the Eben-Emael fortress, forcing the Belgians to fall back to the Dyle before the French arrived. The resulting battle found the French still in possession of the field, but with an irreplaceable loss of 105 tanks.
A broader crisis was developing meanwhile at Sedan, France. There on 14 May, German panzers broke the French line, crossing the River Meuse. Allied forces in Belgium were ordered to withdraw. Within a week, the French Army of the North, British Expeditionary Force and Belgian Army were encircled. On the 25th the Belgian government fled to France. The Belgian Army kept fighting until the 28th, providing extra time and protection to the withdrawing Allies. Leopold remained to face the Germans. Refusing to reign as a puppet, he was imprisoned in his own palace at Laeken until 1944.
Leopold’s surrender was vilified by French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud. Churchill’s old colleague Lloyd George joined him: “You can rummage in vain through the black annals of the most reprobate Kings of the earth to find a blacker and more squalid sample of perfidy and poltroonery than that perpetuated by the King of the Belgians.”1
On 9 October 1940, Leopold made himself more unpopular by visiting Hitler in Berchtesgaden. He went to plead for the liberation of Belgian prisoners of war and improvement of food provisions. Hitler released Flemish-speaking prisoners and allowed formation of a Flemish parliament. But the Führer would not release French-speaking Belgians, and the food situation remained perilous.
Leopold continued to feud with his government-in-exile, which in late October fled France for London. In January 1944 he wrote a “political testament” in case he was not in Belgium during liberation. Without his signature, he declared, all agreements of the exile government were invalid. (They included an important grant of Allied access to uranium in the Belgian Congo.) He lived in Austria after the war, refusing to withdraw his criticisms of the exile government. In a 1950 referendum, 72% of Flemish-speakers and 42% of Francophones voted for his return to the throne. Continued controversy, including riots and two deaths in Liège, caused him to abdicate in favor of his son, Baudouin. He has remained a controversial figure to this day.
Churchill’ s comments in Parliament about Leopold’s surrender were not as censorious as Reynaud’s or Lloyd George’s. He expanded on them in rather milder terms in his war memoir, Their Finest Hour:
Upon all this there now descended a simplifying catastrophe. The Germans, who had hitherto not pressed the Belgian front severely, on May 24 broke the Belgian line on either side of Courtrai, which is but thirty miles from Ostend and Dunkirk. The King of the Belgians soon considered the situation hopeless, and prepared himself for capitulation.2
“I have no intention of suggesting to the House,” Churchill told the Commons at the time…
…that we should attempt at this moment to pass judgment upon the action of the King of the Belgians… This army has fought very bravely and has both suffered and inflicted heavy losses. The Belgian Government has dissociated itself from the action of the King… [It] has formally announced its resolve to continue the war at the side of the Allies.3
Churchill was being inordinately kind to the exiled Belgian government, led by Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot and Foreign Minister Paul-Henri Spaak. They had repeatedly asked Leopold to sign an armistice with Hitler. Conveniently, this might have allowed them to return to Brussels (as Nazi puppets). Spaak later admitted that, by refusing support, Leopold had prevented him and his colleagues from becoming collaborators. But at the time, Spaak and Pierlot considered the war lost. They did not even accompany their government when it moved from France to London in October 1940.4
Churchill’s relatively equable handling of the subject in June 1940 was too little for the excitable Reynaud. He complained bitterly that Leopold had let down the Franco-British armies. In deference to him, Churchill added in Their Finest Hour:
Concern was expressed…that my reference to Leopold’s action was in sharp contrast to that of M. Reynaud. I thought it my duty, when speaking in the House on June 4, after a careful examination of the fuller facts then available, and in justice not only to our French Ally but also to the Belgian Government now in London, to state the truth in plain terms:
“At the last moment, when Belgium was already invaded, King Leopold called upon us to come to his aid, and even at the last moment we came. He and his brave, efficient Army, nearly half a million strong, guarded our left flank and thus kept open our only line of retreat to the sea. Suddenly, without prior consultation, with the least possible notice, without the advice of his Ministers and upon his own personal act, he sent a plenipotentiary to the German Command, surrendered his Army, and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat.
“The brave and efficient army of which I spoke had indeed conducted itself in accordance with its best traditions. They were overcome by an enemy whom it was beyond their power to resist for long. That they were defeated and ordered to surrender is no slur upon their honour or reputation.”5
What Really Happened?
Two important recent accounts are pertinent here. The first is by historian Andrew Roberts:
It is indicative of the changing nature of [King George VI’s] relationship with Churchill that he did not protest against what he knew to be an undeserved slur on the Belgian sovereign. Leopold had written on 25 May warning King George of his country’s imminent surrender. The fact is proven by the George VI’s reply, urging him not to become a prisoner. The King knew that Churchill had committed a “terminological inexactitude” for considering the Belgian capitulation three days later a surprise. Britain’s special envoy to Leopold, Admiral Roger Keyes, showed George VI documents to disprove Churchill’s assertions.
Churchill did acknowledge the truth. Seven months later, to Roosevelt’s adviser Harry Hopkins, he “expressed a good deal of sympathy with King Leopold.” George VI refused to strip Leopold of his British Army colonelcy or remove his Garter banner… Admiral Keyes’s son has since stated: “Had the existence of Leopold’s warning letter to George VI, or even a paraphrase of its contents been made public… the French, Belgian and British Prime Ministers’ false allegations would have been completely demolished.”
Whilst it might be understandable for raisons d’état for the King to have kept silent in the summer of 1940… Britain desperately needed a scapegoat to explain the Allied defeat. The King permitted this unwarranted slur to continue after the war, even to the extent of Leopold not being invited to Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947. To Harry Hopkins the King had confided the view that the Belgian Monarch “should have left the country and established his government elsewhere.” Yet this was precisely the course that the British royal family has constantly been given credit for having refused to contemplate in their own case.6
George VI wasn’t the only person Leopold warned, according to a contemporary account in Time magazine:
On May 20 the Belgian King sent word to the Allies through Sir Roger Keyes. Should his troops lose contact with the Anglo-French, “capitulation would be inevitable”…. [Keyes] asked the British public to suspend its judgment until all the facts were known. For this he was attacked by the Daily Mirror and he sued the paper for libel. Last week, in getting an apology in court, he made the facts public at last.” On 27 May, the day before he surrendered, Leopold had asked Keyes “to inform the British authorities that he would be obliged to surrender before a debacle took place. A similar message was given the French.”7
For the history of Churchill’ s Leopold account in his war memoirs, the most important and scholarly source is David Reynolds’ In Command of History:
For Churchill’s publishers Their Finest Hour proved no less of a challenge than The Gathering Storm. They faced the same impossible deadlines, constant changes and autocratic demands. Reviews were also beginning to set in a mould—many being panegyrics rather than analyses. The big exception was for the French edition, significantly re-titled L’HeureTragique…. As before, reception depended on audience as much as intention.
The British had been vilified by many on the continent for deserting their allies. Churchill therefore took pains to show they did their utmost in a situation that was already hopeless—that the British Expeditionary Force was ready to counter-attack at Arras on 21-22 May 1940 but insisting that it also had to protect its line of retreat to the sea. He deflected attention onto the precipitate Belgian surrender, quoting his speech to the Commons on 4 June 1940. This followed Paul Reynaud, the French Prime Minister, in placing the blame squarely on King Leopold…. “Suddenly, without prior consultation, with the least possible notice, without the advice of his Ministers and upon his own personal act, he sent a plenipotentiary to the German Command, surrendered his Army and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat.”
As he completed Their Finest Hour, Churchill found these words coming back to haunt him. The stigma of surrender had marked Leopold ever since May 1940. Unlike the Dutch, Danish and Norwegian monarchs, he stayed with his troops rather than joining the government-in-exile. The Nazis sent him to Germany when the Allies liberated Belgium. His brother acted as Regent and left-wing parties campaigned to block his return.
The “Royal Question” became the most vexed issue in Belgian politics. Much of the debate revolved around May 1940. In mid-January 1949, three weeks before serialization began, La Libre Belgique, an ultra-monarchist paper, printed six front-page articles rebutting statements critical of the King by Churchill, Reynaud and others. General Pownall [WSC’ s literary adviser on military aspects] and Churchill checked their final draft of “The March to the Sea.” On the German breach of the Belgian line on 24 May they had written… “The King of the Belgians considered the situation hopeless, and already thought only of capitulation.” This was amended to “…soon considered the situation hopeless, and prepared himself for capitulation.”
Churchill had also made reference to Reynaud’s denunciation of Leopold’s “treachery.” After hurried research [literary assistant Bill] Deakin advised him that Reynaud had never used the word “treachery”—this was an old Vichy canard. The offending sentences were removed, as was the phrase “this pitiful episode” from the speech of 4 June 1940. These and other last-minute revisions, resulting in six new pages of proofs, were all incorporated in the final text.
Nevertheless, when the serial version appeared Churchill was attacked for his 4 June 1940 comment about the King surrendering his army without prior consultation. Sixty-eight Belgian generals published a petition in February 1949 calling his remarks “neither accurate nor fair.” After consulting the Prince Regent [Leopold’s younger brother Charles, Count of Flanders], who believed no amendments were necessary, Churchill stuck to his guns. “I am not attempting to write a History of the Second World War,” he told one critic, “but only [to] give the story of events as they appeared to me and the British Government.” Receiving no response, the petitioners took advantage of Churchill’s visit to Brussels at the end of May to reissue their declaration, to which another twenty-two generals had added their names. Deakin warned that the document was “a manifesto destined for internal Belgian consumption” and that its probable intent was to “lure you into controversy round the position of the King.”8
The Belgians, Churchill wrote, “fought with gallantry and determination” but “were put into the war so late that they could not even occupy their own prepared front lines.” By now Leopold was back on the throne and his secretary wrote to Churchill. He expressed the King’s “profound astonishment” at an attack on “the honour of Belgium.” It amounted, he said, to a charge of “criminal negligence” by Leopold as commander-in-chief. Churchill, Pownall and [literary agent] Emery Reves all agreed that silence was again the best course. The Belgian material was omitted when the statement finally appeared [in the] preface to the second French edition.9
Was Leopold Guilty?
Churchill repeated the canard: “Wherever there are three Jews it will be found that there are two Prime Ministers and one Leader of the Opposition.”10 This applies also to Flemish- and French-speaking Belgians. Belgium is a “manufactured country.” An opinion rarely satisfies both sides.
In 1936, when Hitler, unopposed, reoccupied the Rhineland, the Belgian government adopted “armed neutrality.” It refused to join an alliance with France and Britain. Instead it armed itself, remembering how the country had been trampled in 1914. As a result, Belgium was one of the better-prepared nations when Hitler marched west in 1940.
Belgium did share military information with the Allies. But it was neutral, and barred Allied forces. Oliver Harvey, British Minister in Paris, wrote in January 1940…
Poor Leopold is in a desperate dilemma. If he commits himself to a military agreement, the Germans will say he has violated his neutrality and so justify a German invasion. If he doesn’t get agreement with us and France we cannot afford him proper help if he is attacked… A vicious circle… Therefore Belgium should not provoke Germany. The answer is, I suppose, that Germany will invade Belgium if it suits, whatever Belgium does.”11
Winston Churchill took a dim view of neutrals. For him there were only two options in the face of Hitler: resistance or surrender. Neutrals, he said in January 1940, hoped “that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But I fear—I fear greatly—the storm will not pass.12
But Leopold’s stance hinged on the governments that ruled France, Britain and Belgium in the 1930s. All had refused to oppose Germany’s aggressions. Against that, however forlorn the hope that Hitler would spare Belgium, Leopold had few alternatives.
When Hitler attacked in May 1940, Holland went down in four days. Belgium fought bravely for two weeks, her artillery taking a deadly toll on the invaders. Prolonged resistance contributed to the successful evacuation at Dunkirk. Ships rescued 340,000 French and British soldiers. Nearly all the French refused to join Free French forces in Britain. They returned to France and captivity. The Belgian government-in-exile forbade Belgian soldiers to leave. In absentia, it even court-martialed Belgian pilots who had flown to Britain or North Africa. They stole their aircraft, accusers claimed.13
Leopold had little joy from his allies. General Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, pulled back from the coast to protect access to Dunkirk. He left the Belgian right flank unprotected, but did not tell the Belgians. He didn’t even inform London, until after the fact. General Pownall, commanding British troops in Belgium (who later assisted Churchill’s war memoirs) wrote them off… “We don’t give a bugger what happens to the Belgians.”14
The idea that Leopold surrendered without warning his allies is denied by the facts. True, he did not communicate with his own government, which, he thought, had cut and run. But he certainly warned King George VI and Admiral Keyes. On 27 May he warned General Crampon (French Military Attaché) and Colonel Davy (British Military Mission). They in turn informed General Percival at the War Office. Upon returning to London the next day, Keyes sought an interview with Churchill. The PM would not see him and forbade him to make any public statements. But Churchill had additional considerations.
Churchill’s position as Prime Minister was still not solid. As the Belgian Army surrendered, Lord Halifax proposed seeking through Mussolini the German terms for an armistice. The pressure on Churchill was enormous, not least from his now nearly hysterical ally Reynaud. He desperately wanted France in the war, if only as another government-in-exile.
The admirable Andrew Roberts wrote that Churchill said what he did because Britain needed a scapegoat. But, often a scapegoat himself, Churchill rarely blamed individuals for catastrophes. He certainly told his country the full nature of this debacle. The suggestion that George VI expected Leopold to reign in exile, while he himself never intended to do so, is irrelevant. Britain was never occupied; for George VI, the decision never arose.
Churchill’ s effort to keep France in the war failed. But he kept Britain in, and “won it all back,” as he had promised—Belgium included. Churchill’s postwar writings were fairer toward Leopold than his speeches in 1940. He consulted with Leopold’s brother, Prince Charles, who said no amendments were necessary. Churchill’s memoirs proved insufficient to satisfy all of Leopold’s supporters, but realpolitik was at play too. Churchill saw no benefit in sticking his finger in the collective French eye over a very sore subject in postwar France.
Much of the criticism of King Leopold was through internal Belgian politics. He was hardly the only leader who underestimated Hitler’s ruthlessness. That he went to see Hitler is hardly criminal; he was trying to reduce the suffering of his people. On the weight of the evidence, it is fair to record that Leopold III was an honorable man.
Endnotes & Acknowledgments
1 Julian Jackson, The Fall of France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), paperback edition, 93-94.
2 Winston S. Churchill, Their Finest Hour (London: Cassell, 1949), 73-74.
3 Ibid., 83-84.
4 John Cairns, letter to the editor, The Independent, London, 10 January 1996.
5 Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 84.
6 Andrew Roberts, Eminent Churchillians (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994), 42; the quotes are from Roger Keyes [son of Admiral Keyes], Outrageous Fortune: The Tragedy of King Leopold of the Belgians 1901-1941 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1984), 308-10, 396.
7 Time, 23 January 1941
8 David Reynolds, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War (London: Allen Lane, 2004), 204-05.
9 Ibid., 207-08.
10 Winston S. Churchill, Closing the Ring (London: Cassell, 1951), 470.
11 Jackson, The Fall of France, 76.
12 Winston S. Churchill, Blood Sweat and Tears (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 1941), 252. Speech of 20 January 1940.
13 Lt. Col. Louis Van Leemput, Royal Belgian Air Force (ret.) to Daniel Wyboand the author. Col. Van Leemput, who was 13 at the outbreak of war in 1940, is National Chairman of the Royal League of Veterans of King Leopold III.
14 Jackson, The Fall of France, 93.
Reprinted material by kind permission of Randolph S. Churchill and Curtis Brown Ltd., Andrew Roberts and David Reynolds. My thanks to Lt. Col. Louis Van Leemput, Warren Kimball, Daniel Wybo and Paul Courtenay for kind assistance in research. — Richard M. Langworth