February 10, 2015

1944. Victory in the Raw in Belgium

Celebration and Violent Retaliation in Belgium
German prisoners in a lion's cage in the Antwerp zoo in September 1944 (source)
The portions in parentheses did not pass Allied censors.
Bill Downs

CBS Brussels

September 6, 1944

This is Bill Downs speaking from Brussels.

Brussels still has not paused to catch its breath, and the Belgian capital is just now beginning its fourth night of celebration with thousands of people swarming the streets, mobbing Allied soldiers. And they still cheer the Sherman tanks now passing through the city as riotously as they cheered the first tank that entered Brussels Monday afternoon.

This is victory in the raw. And you wonder why the people don't go home and rest. The whole country is still dazed by the rapid advance, and they are still pinching themselves to make sure it is true.

The British troops advanced something like 205 miles in six days rolling from the Seine to the banks of the Albert Canal. Belgium has, to all intents and purposes, been liberated. Only two large Belgian cities remain to be taken from the retreating Germans—the cities of Liege and Bruges.

British troops today reached the outskirts of Ghent. German resistance in Antwerp is almost completely overcome. Lille is now completely in our hands.

The Battle of Belgium was won in something like three days, which I believe is something of a record for the liberation of a country.

And now we have another pocket—the channel pocket where again trapped German divisions are fighting for their lives. This new pocket promises to develop into another Allied victory even bigger than the Normandy bag.

Estimates as to the number of Nazis trapped in the channel pocket vary from 50,000 upwards. No one knows exactly how many Germans there are. Prisoners continue to arrive from everywhere. How many, no one has had time to count. One unit is capturing Germans at the rate of 1,000 per day, and the Belgian White Army is holding thousands of other prisoners waiting for the British troops to take the Nazis off their hands.

With the mopping up of this pocket, the Canadians moving up from the coast from the south, and the British closing in from the east and north, this will just about wipe out the Wehrmacht in Northwest Europe. Right now there are only isolated pockets of resistance that have to be cleaned up one by one. However, as the Nazis are squeezed back toward the sea, they may be able to better organize themselves, and hard fighting can still be expected.

But it is the supreme irony of this war that the Germans in this pocket are being pressed back on the same beaches over which they chased the Allied troops in 1940—only the Germans have no boats waiting for them.

About the only way to describe Belgium today is to concentrate all the New Year's Eve celebrations you have ever seen and throw in a Fourth of July celebration and then mix them together—and then you have a liberated Belgium.

I have heard Tiperary sung at least a thousand times; I have been kissed so often that I almost wear a permanent blush of lipstick; I have refused enough wine to float a battleship; and I must admit that I have taken some along with me too.

Never have I seen so much joy. And when you contemplate that this is only the reaction to another feeling these people had for the Germans, you know that their hate must have been very great. And it frightens you . . . the hate.

The homes of collaborators are still being ransacked and burned. Odd persons are still being rounded up by the Belgian White Army. I saw a young man today bringing in one of them—an elderly man with his hands tied behind the back. As the White Army man produced the collaborator along the street with his rifle, crowds along the sidewalks hissed and booed.

The White Army lists of collaborators are very long. (A number of people have simply been shot.) Scores (of others) await trial and prison sentences. The Rexists, the fascist Belgian group, were a nasty bunch. They dealt in the lives of American and Allied flyers who parachuted into Belgium, getting as much as 10,000 francs for turning the airmen over to the Germans. They had their own little program which resulted in the death or deportation of some 40,000 Jews. Their list of crimes is long and obnoxious. The Belgian people are having their revenge.

The British advance was so swift that the Belgian forces of the interior did not go into full action. I have talked to dozens of White Army men who are just a little disappointed that they didn't get a chance to kill a few Nazis. But the White Army cooperation has been complete. They even have tanks hidden for four years—tanks for which they stole German oil and gasoline and which they maintained daily to have them ready. These tanks were abandoned during the retreat before the German army in 1940. The White Army even had an antitank gun. They only had seven shells for it, and they saved them very carefully for the day they could rise up.

Now Belgium is beginning to think of the future. The people are confused and frustrated by the actions of King Leopold. They still want a king but they also want some explanations for many of his actions under German rule. Leopold is now in German hands somewhere in Bavaria. He was taken there soon after D-Day.

But one thing is certain. Belgium now has her freedom and she is determined that nothing in the world will ever cause her to lose it again.

This is Bill Downs in Brussels returning you to CBS in New York.