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Koningshooikt Wavre Line (KW line)

Belgium, recalling four years of enemy occupation in the Great War, took various measures to strengthen its defenses in the 1930s. Parliament passed a plan for restoring, modernizing, and constructing fortifications and in 1932 the construction of Fort Eben Emael began. Politically, Belgium entered into many agreements in hopes of handling future conflicts in the region. The Belgium declaration of neutrality in 1936 precluded forming a joint defense policy with France and Britain.

In 1939 General Maurice Gamelin, Chief of the General Staff of National Defense for France, developed Plan D to counter a repeat of the German 1914 Schlieffen Plan. Given the solid bastion of the Maginot Line, Plan D focused on countering a German attack through France's northern flank. Plan D called for a defense along the Dyle Line (so named for the Dyle River which runs from Antwerp to Namur). The river, coupled with French planners' hopes of the Belgian border fortifications holding for five days, would allow French and British forces to assemble east of the Dyle Line and stop a German advance. The French strategy did not rely solely on the Dyle Plan. The Maginot Line was constructed to force the Germans to mount a costly frontal attack or attempt to outflank the fortification through Belgium or Switzerland. General Gamelin did not believe that the main German attack would come through the Ardennes; the roads were narrow and winding throughout a dense forest among rugged terrain.

Before World War I, the Belgian fort designer, Henri Brialmont, identified the "Gap of Vise" as being of such vital strategic importance that a decision not to construct a fort to cover that area was one over which the Belgian nation would "weep tears of blood." Ironically, General von Kluck's 1st German Army crossed the Maas River not far from Fort Eben Emael in 1914. The Albert Canal, completed in 1929, connects the important industrial region around Liège with the port of Antwerp, Belgium. This feat of engineering produced near vertical cliffs along the Caster hill near the towns of Eben and Emael. These newly constructed cliffs, coupled with an existing cliff along the Meuse River, provided protection for two flanks and an ideal location for a fortification. In April 1932, construction began and continued at a relentless pace until its completion in 1935.

In 1936, the international situation deteriorated when German troops occupied the left bank of the Rhine. Experience had taught Belgium that, in spite of declarations and solemn undertakings, it would be in grave danger of being used once again as the battlefield of the Great Powers in the event of a European conflict. It became clear that Belgium would have to adjust its foreign policy, and on 14 October 1936 King Leopold III proclaimed the Independence Policy. By declaring neutrality, Belgium was prohibited from consultations with other countries and subject to many Articles of the Hague Convention. Belgium's declaration of neutrality did nothing to help circumstances at fort Eben Emael. France, which funded roughly eighty percent of the fort's construction costs, stopped funding when Belgium declared neutrality. Many projects remained unfinished due to lack of funding.

Fearing that the French would not honor the Dyle Plan, the Belgium general staff developed a plan to delay the Germans with the existing fortifications at the border and stop them in depth at the Koningsooikt Wavre Line (KW line). The KW line was a series of newly constructed fortified positions that ran from Antwerp through Brussels and ended in Namur.

Fort Koningshooikt had been built using concret between 1906 and 1914. When the war broke out, the installation of the guns was not yet fully completed. During the German offensive in September 1914 on the line Walem-Lier, the Fort Konigshooikt was taken under fire by gun position, in the villages of Boortmeerbeek and Rijmenam. On Thursday October 2nd, the Fort of Koningshooikt was considered lost and was abandoned on the next day. Wavre, a town of Belgium, in the province of Brabant, 14 m. S.E. of Brussels, had a population in 1904 of 8,517. It was on this place that Grouchy advanced on the day of Waterloo, gaining a useless success here over a Prussian corps while the fate of the campaign was being decided elsewhere. The Prussians erected here a fine monument by Van Oemberg in 1859.

The Cointet-element, also known as a Belgian Gate or C-element, was a heavy steel fence of about three meters wide and two meters high, typically mounted on rollers, and used as an anti-tank obstacle. The Cointet-element was the main barricade element of the Belgian KW-line, a tank barricade that was built between September 1939 and May 1940. A total volume of 77,000 pieces was ordered by the Belgian Ministry of Defense and produced by 28 Belgian companies. A large number were installed on the KW-line between the village Koningshooikt and the city Wavre to act as the main line of defense against a possible German armored invasion through the heartland of Belgium. The Cointet-elements were placed next to each other in a zigzag-line and connected with steel cables. Near main roads they were fixed to heavy concrete pillars that were fixed into the ground.

Hitler backed the plan of General von Manstein, which proposed an attack into the Netherlands and Belgium as a supporting attack with the main effort going through the Ardennes near Sedan. This plan would work only if the Allied forces committed to the Dyle Line. The concept hinged on the destruction of Fort Eben Emael and the capture of the Albert Canal bridges, at the very beginning of the campaign. The German attack on 10 May 1940 was furious.

The Allied troops had been complaining about what they called the "phony" war, and which had been explained away by the impossibility of attacking the Germans behind their famous West Wall. Now the Germans were out in front of it; the objection was no longer valid. The troops were elated.

Allied GHQ issued orders, which had been prepared in advance, directing that the Belgian Army north of Liége was to delay the enemy at least until 11 May 1940, inclusive. If necessary, it would then fall back to the K-W Line from Antwerp to Wavre, both inclusive. The British Expeditionary Force (General Gort) was to advance to the K-W Line; left in contact with the Belgians, right at Louvain, inclusive. The First French Army (General Billotte) was to advance on the right of the British, and occupy the K-W Line from junction with them to Namur, exclusive. The British and French troops occupied their respective parts of this line before evening, without opposition.

French mechanized and motorized units from five different divisions belonging to the First Army, were rushed beyond the K-W Line. In all there were around 400 armored cars and tanks. Both sides claimed the victory of the first battle of large mechanized forces on 11 May 1940. The German advance in this sector was stopped; but the field of combat remained in their hands, the Allied forces retiring to the vicinity of the K-W Line. The general results of this day's fighting were that the Germans did not reach the K-W Line.

Reports to Belgian GHQ indicated that their own troops were greatly exhausted, and not in good condition to continue the delaying action in front of the K-W Line. Belgian GHQ decided to withdraw, less the fortress of Liége, which would continue to resist the enemy, and thereby to block the enemy lines of communication through or near that city. The troops south of Liége were ordered to withdraw to the fortress of Namur; the troops north of Liége to that part of the K-W Line from Antwerp to Wavre.

By morning of 12 May 1940, the movements ordered were well on the way. They were completed during the day, witthout noticeable interference by the enemy. Belgian GHQ was at the Chateau de Benghem, near Lippelo. Their impression was that the K-W Line would hold. It had been built to do so, and was fully manned.

The only disagreeable factor was the refugees. They had increased enormously. Everybody who lived in front of the K-W Line seemed to have arrived at the simultaneous conclusion that he had to flee back of it. Roads were jammed with refugees. They caused extreme disorder, filled the rear areas, delayed the withdrawal, got in everyone's way. However, it was expected that this condition was transitory and that the situation would stabilize (at least temporarily) on the K-W Line.

German troops followed the withdrawal and closed in on the K-W Line. They reached opposite the advance works of Namur and the east bank of the Meuse River. The Germans had ponton trains drawn by large tractors, and pneumatic mattresses, motor boats, rubber boats, etc., which they assembled in ravines on their side of the Meuse. One of the most thorny problems in mechanized warfare is the support that artillery must give to the tanks in the attack. The tank is not effective in all circumstances. It is not always able to penetrate into a position; anyhow it cannot do anything in the piercing of a fortified line or a strong natural barrier. At Sedan it did not play any role; the German tanks were unable to dent the K.W. Line as long as the artillery was not in position.

On 13 May severe fighting was reported in the sector of the First French Army, in advance of the K-W Line, where the French mechanized elements still were. As soon as the French had been driven off the heights the Germans started to construct bridges across the Meuse. The Belgians immediately lost confidence in the French Army, feeling that if it could not hold a strongly prepared line, covered by a formidable river obstacle, it was not likely to stop the enemy now that he was over. No one could understand how the French Ninth Army could have given up their strongly prepared line. The French officers had no excuses to offer; many were in tears.

On 14 May 1940 the Germans generally reached the K-W Line throughout. They pushed the French near Sedan south and southwest, those near Namur to the west. The two sets of retreating French lost contact, and by night there was a 50-kilometer gap between the two.

On 15 May the Germans attacked all along the K-W Line north of Namur. They gave no one any rest, made no progress. The British Army was particularly encouraged. They believed they were much better soldiers than their opponents, could whip them any day, even against big odds. The Belgians and the First French Army, although satisfied with the local situation, were horrified by the reports from south of Namur. Beyond Sedan the Germans moved west another 20 kilometers; in Belgium they broke across the Sambre.

Allied GHQ recommended that the troops on the K-W Line, north of Namur, be withdrawn immediately. The British Prime Minister, Mr. Winston Churchill, with great vigor and anger, and with the example of the British ranks standing fast at Louvain, stated that this was no time to retire. He minimized the importance of the German advance across the Meuse. He recommended a counterattack from the K-W Line. He was completely opposed to abandoning Louvain or Brussels. He wanted to fight, not withdraw.

On 16 May, the Belgian Army withdrew to the new line at the Sambre south of Tamines;. They felt bitter, thought that this catastrophe was no fault of theirs; it was the French ally, or Allied GHQ, who were responsible. The marches were tiresome, as the roads were filled with refugees. Everybody between the K-W Line and Brussels who had transportation (and many who had none) appears independently to have decided to leave for France. The troops of all armies reached the new line, had time to occupy it. Many supplies had to be abandoned at the K-W Line, including the depots which supplied this line. The Belgians had a shortage of ammunition, found difficulty in issuing rations.

The strongly prepared K-W Line, with its depots, fortifications and armament, was gone. In May 1940, due to a relocation program, the Cointet-elements didn't form a continuous line and thus were easily by-passed by 3rd Panzer Division and 4th Panzer Division. After the German victory in Belgium on 28 May 1940, the Belgian Gates were reallocated across Europe to serve as German barricade elements on roads, bridges and beaches. The Germans gave it the name C-element.

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Page last modified: 20-11-2011 19:08:12 ZULU