Allies' dilemma over 'cowardice' of Belgian king

War papers: Secret memos reveal how bitter memories of Dunkirk influenced Churchill's decision not to help Leopold III return from exile
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The Independent Online

Bitter memories of the debacle of May 1940 when King Leopold III's surrender of the Belgian army jeopardised the Dunkirk evacuation and branded him a coward, influenced Winston Churchill's decision to refuse to help the king to return to his country after his release from German captivity.

In a personal minute he went so far as to tell the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden: "I agree that our influence in so far as it can be properly exerted should be against the return of the Belgian king."

Churchill's and Eden's contempt for the king's neutralist stance and capitulation, in stark contrast to his father, King Albert's stand in 1914, is vented in startling language in secret memoranda from the closing months of the war, which emerged yesterday in a release of the 50-year state papers at the Public Record Office in Kew, south-west London.

The British government faced a dilemma with the impending release of Leopold and his family, including his son and heir, Baudouin, who had been taken from house arrest in their palace at Laeken near Brussels on 7 June 1944, and flown, as hostages, to the security of a castle near Heidelburg.

Churchill had to decide whether to help a man who had surrendered unconditionally - opening a vital flank through which the Germany army flooded up to the Dunkirk bridgehead - to return to a country which his behaviour, including a visit to Hitler at Berchtesgarten, had left bitterly divided, or whether it was more politic to steer clear of this minefield in newly liberated Europe. He decided on the latter.

The Prime Minister received a personal telegram from General Eisenhower on 9 June 1945, stating: "Continued uncertainty as to the future of the Belgian king appears a possible cause of military embarrassment, particularly if he asks to return to Belgium."

A week later Churchill signed a personal telegram which was sent by the Foreign Office to Sir H Knatchbull-Hugessen, British ambassador in Brussels. The telegram said: "The essential thing is that if the king returns to Belgium he should not arrive in the country in a Shaef [Allied military command] vehicle or aircraft, or be escorted or accompanied in his drive into Brussels by any Allied officers or personnel. His journey and arrival should be a purely Belgian affair - signed WSC."

Churchill's feelings towards the king were influenced by a secret memo which Leopold had smuggled out of Laeken before his deportation to Germany, marked for King George VI and which finally arrived in Britain via Field Marshall Montgomery's private pouch. Intended as a statement of Leopold's aims for Belgium after his return, it angered both the British and the Belgians, for its total lack of regret, or personal accountability, for the events of May 1940.

Churchill wrote to Eden in October 1944: "I confide this particular king to your care and that of the Foreign Office. In the days of the Spanish Inquisition the Holy Office, in handing over any persons they had examined to the Secular arm, used always to recommend that they should be treated with all possible tenderness and that above all there should be no effusion of blood. They were invariably burnt alive.

"I agree with you about the poor showing which King Leopold made before the war and the ingratitude with which he treated the British and French who had left a million graves in his country. He was not the only one in Belgium who fell into this error."

The upshot was that Leopold retired to Switzerland. On 12 March 1950, a popular referendum resulted in 57.7 per cent in favour of his return and he came back to Belgium on 22 July 1950. He devolved his constitutional powers on to Baudouin, finally abdicating formally on 16 July, 1951.