The Belgians responded to the occupation with a mixture of shock, fear and apprehension. With the exception of the Vinkt massacre, during which between 86 and 140 civilians were killed in retaliation for the Belgian Army’s resistance in the village, the occupying forces did not initiate the wave of terror unleashed in some other countries.
Paul Struye, publisher of the clandestine newspaper La Libre Belgique, wrote in his diary:
”During the first months there really was no enmity to be detected between the population and the army. It was a pleasant surprise for the Belgians to see the German soldiers, correct in their attitude and other behaviour. They had nothing in common with the imperial troops of 1914-1918. Belgium was occupied by an army in which order and discipline reigned without outrages.”
There appeared little appetite or interest in organised resistance at the outset of occupation, not least because most people presumed that Great Britain would quickly capitulate to the Nazis so opposition would be futile. What did occur was on a small scale and unorganised.
Things slowly began to change. The German occupation became more repressive, the British were fighting back against the Nazis and people were getting over their initial shock. On top of this food shortages were beginning to bite, only increasing resentment and opposition to the Nazis.
Resistance came in several forms. There were numerous and quite separate intelligence networks set up, such as Leopold Trepper’s Red Orchestra network and Clarence, which received information from 1,000 people. Two other prominent intelligence services that were established were Zero, under command of Frans Kerkhofs, and Luc (which from 1942 on was known as Marc).
There was also a huge number of underground publications in Belgium, ranging from the serious to the humorous. La Libre Belgique had a regular circulation of 40,000 by January 1942, peaking at 70,000, while the communist paper, Le Drapeau Rouge, reached 30,000. The spoof Faux Soir, a play on the pro-occupation newspaper Le Soir, was read by 50,000 people. In total, there were 567 separate titles during the occupation.
The Belgian Communist Party led a strike of 70,000 workers in mid-May 1941, which only ended when the Germans agreed to a 8% pay increase. However, the strike leader was subsequently arrested and sent to a concentration camp in Germany, while other key strikers were imprisoned locally.
In memoriam cards of executed Belgian WWII resistance fighters. (Photo by: Arterra/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The Resistance Grows
As the war progressed, links between the Belgian resistance and the British grew. Intelligence was passed over, supplies and munitions were dropped in and armed resistance and sabotage were coordinated. The British SOE helped set up the Groupe Général de Sabotage, after SOE agent, André Wendelen, was dropped in January 1942 into Belgium with orders to establish a new sabotage group. By the spring of 1943 the group, split into four units, was up and running and over the next two years was responsible for attacking rail and communication points, destroying bridges and even adding sugar to petrol tanks. At its peak, GGE had about 4,000 active members.
Another armed group was De Partizanen, the armed branch of the Belgian Communist Party. Initially its actions were limited to basic and low level resistance, but from the summer of 1942 their actions got tougher and more targeted – with collaborators and informers being particularly sought after.
The Germans ruthlessly targeted the resistance movement, both interrogating and torturing anyone arrested and also running informers inside the groups. An incredible 30,000 people involved in the resistance movement were arrested by the Germans, of which 16,000 were executed or died in captivity.
Belgium’s Secret Army
A number of Belgian soldiers who did not accept the country’s defeat to the Nazis in May 1940 made up Het Geheime Leger (also known as the Secret Army).
While it initially operated independently, by 1943 it had formed a close relationship with the British, and attacks on Nazi forces and key infrastructure were increasingly coordinated. However, it was after D-Day, when the Allies landed in France, that the group really stepped up its attacks.
Almost 100 railway bridges, 15 canals and 17 tunnels were destroyed in the summer of 1944, but at the same time, the group also acted to try to stop the retreating Germans from blowing up similar key transport infrastructure in order to allow the Allies to pursue their enemies.
It has been estimated that 54,000 people were involved with the Secret Army, with 4,000 being killed.
The German policy towards Jewish people infuriated many Belgians and there were numerous examples of people and organisations deliberately refusing to carry out Nazi orders. The Committee of Secretary-Generals, a panel of Belgian senior civil servants tasked with implementing German demands, refused point blank to enforce anti-Jewish legislation. In June 1942, a conference of the 19 mayors of the Greater Brussels region refused to distribute yellow badges to Jews in their districts.
The refusal of Brussels’ council, later to be joined by the city of Liège, to distribute badges allowed many Jews to go into hiding before the deportations began.
The Belgian underground newspaper La Libre Belgique called for people to make small gestures to show their disgust at Nazi racial policies. In August 1942, the paper called for Belgians to “Greet them [Jewish people] in passing! Offer them your seat on the tram! Protest against the barbaric measures that are being applied to them. That’ll make the Boches furious!”