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World War II

75 years ago

September 1944

On 6 June 1944, the Allies landed in Normandy, but it took until 2 September before the first city in Belgium, Mons, was liberated. In the days that followed, British (including the Belgian Piron Brigade) and American troops liberated Brussels, Antwerp and Luik. At the same time, Polish and Canadian soldiers advanced through West and East Flanders. The Belgian Resistance also played a significant role.

 

Market Garden

In mid-September, operation Market Garden began, which had as its objective going through the Netherlands around the German West Wall. It involved a combination of multiple airborne landings (Market) with a land-based offensive (Garden), and was launched at Leopoldsburg. The operation failed; in part because the Lower Rhine at Arnhem could not be crossed (‘A bridge too far’).

 

Battle for the Scheldt

One of the main problems was that the supply lines from the French coast were much too long. Clearing the (Western) Scheldt and the port of Antwerp was the crucial solution. Subsequently, a heavy battle was waged around the Scheldt estuary and off the Belgian and Dutch coast. The Canadians played an important role in these clashes. It was not until 28 November 1944 that the first Allied ships were able to dock in Antwerp. But the Germans refused to surrender and spread terror with their new V1 en V2 (‘Vergeltungswaffe’) retaliatory weapons.

 

Ardennes Offensive

From 16 December 1944, the Germans attempted to recapture Antwerp with a large-scale offensive from the Ardennes in the so-called ‘Battle of the Bulge’. The German siege of Bastogne became legendary, perhaps only surpassed by the famous American response to the demand for surrender: ‘Nuts!’ It took until the end of January 1945 before the Allies managed to wipe out most of the progress made by the Germans. From then on, the Germans were on the defensive across the entire front. The Allied advance in Germany could finally go ahead.

 

Liberation of the camps

Meanwhile, the liberation of the concentration and extermination camps revealed the unseen extent of Nazi atrocities. It was primarily the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau on 27 January 1945 that caused mass outrage. 25,274 Jews and 354 Roma people were deported from the Dossin barracks in Mechelen. Only 1,395 were left alive by the time the camps were liberated. More than 3,600 (mostly) Resistance members passed through the transit camp at Fort Breendonk; half did not survive the war.

 

End of World War II

With the capitulation of Nazi Germany on 8 May 1945 the Second World War in Europe ended. A turbulent period of repression, mourning for the dead and reconstruction followed.