Belgium found itself in a very unenviable position upon the outbreak of World War II. Geographically and demographically small it was faced with powerful warring factions on three sides of its borders. To the south east was Nazi Germany who had instigated the war through its annexation of territory in the east. To the south west was France with whom the Belgian’s shared a common ancestry and to the north west over a small strip of water was Britain. Like so many nations, Belgium suffered a form of national post-traumatic stress disorder after the First World War and so became determined not to repeat the horrors it suffered when war loomed once again. The Belgians therefore took the position of declaring itself neutral in Europe and as such had little part to play in confronting Hitler’s ambitions in 1939.
Almost invisible in the grand scheme of things throughout the 1930s, the country walked a rather fine line in maintaining its neutrality not wanting to show preference to one side or the other even if many of its citizens rightly feared the Nazis. In order to emphasize this point the Belgians took a very dim view on any of its neighbours who might try to violate its territory intentionally or accidentally and this was dramatically highlighted on the 9th September 1939. It had been a little over a week since Germany had invaded Poland prompting Britain and France to declare war in response. For the small and relatively poorly equipped Belgian air force, the Aeronautique Militaire, it meant constant patrolling to ward off any unwelcome visitors that might threaten the country’s neutrality and drag the country in to the war.
Just a short distance over the water at RAF Driffield in Yorkshire the men of No.102 Squadron, Bomber Command, with their Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley bombers were taking off for their third mission in to Germany. Much to the frustration of most of the crews involved the mission was not to drop bombs on a strategically vital target but to litter the Ruhr area with leaflets. These leaflets delivered propaganda messages encouraging the German people to either rise up in revolt against the brutal Nazi dictatorship or commit acts of passive resistance such as refusing to work in the arms factories. All involved in this effort questioned its usefulness. The Germans appeared to be holding all the cards with Britain and France apparently powerless to stop Germany from decimating Poland. Hitler had not only restored German pride but had developed an almost cult following from his people so why on Earth would they listen to a propaganda letter dropped in the night by the RAF encouraging them to rise up against him?
What the operations did do however was give the crews valuable experience in flying at night on an actual operation and this would be put to good use when bombs finally replaced the useless leaflets. In the early hours of September 9th the Whitleys began their massive ‘littering’ exercise over the industrial Ruhr. In all the squadron had helped drop nearly 60,000 such leaflets on the three operations it had carried out over the previous week and with their bomb bays now empty they began to turn for home. One thing the RAF had learned very quickly in those early operations was that their night flying ability was woefully inadequate for the job at hand thanks to a combination of obsolete training and a lack of suitable navigation aids. In the early operations this often meant that instead of a stream of bombers going in to a target area together they often arrived in dribs-and-drabs if they arrived at all. Many simply got lost and headed for home without ever seeing the target.
As the sky behind them began to singe in to an orange colour with the rising sun the crews of three Whitleys from No.102 Squadron began to suspect that as well as being separated from the main force they had also strayed off course in a northerly direction – in to Belgium. This was bad news because as well as violating international law by carrying weapons (in this case their defensive machine guns) over a neutral country they also risked being interned by the Belgians should they be forced to land or bail out. Strictly speaking; if they were intercepted over Belgian territory then they would be required to land or else the Belgians would have the legal right to shoot them down.
At around 0600hrs, as the crews tried to find their location using landmarks for reference in the early morning light, Whitley K8985 piloted by Flying Officer William Cogman was spotted by a Fairey Fox and a pair of Fairey Firefly IIMs (not to be confused with the Royal Navy’s Fairey Firefly of a few years later; the Belgian Fairey Firefly IIM was a single seat development of the two-seat Fairey Fox built in Belgium by Fairey Avions). The biplane fighters swooped down on the Whitley with the intention of forcing it to land. In order to signal their intentions the lead Belgian fighter fired a spray of bullets ahead of the bomber. For the bomber crew this was their first taste of aerial combat and they mistook the warning for an attack.
The bomber’s gunners defended themselves and fired a spray of bullets in to the lead Fairey Firefly IIM causing its engine to cough and spit. Realizing his aircraft was doomed the Belgian pilot took it down and force landed while his two wingmen now attacked for real. The fighters and the bombers exchanged fire for several seconds until the tail gunner of the Whitley scored a succession of hits on the Fox resulting in the aircraft becoming uncontrollable and the two crew bailed out. The Whitley had not come off entirely unscathed however and with one Firefly remaining the crew decided to surrender. The surviving Firefly escorted the Whitley to the airfield at Nivelles where both the aircraft and the crew were interned.
Meanwhile more Belgian fighters had stumbled across one of the two remaining Whitleys and were attempting to force it down as well. The crew were having none of it however and the tail gunner opened fire on two Fairey Fox VI biplane fighters. The lead Fox broke off its attack but the tail gunner then turned his weapons on the second aircraft causing fatal damage to the control mechanism. Once again its Belgian crew were forced to abandon their aircraft and the remaining two Whitleys escaped out of Belgian territory leaving behind three destroyed Belgian fighters and one interned Whitley.
It is a miracle that no one was hurt in the engagement but the damage to Anglo-Belgian relations was immediate if short lived. The British government offered to compensate the Belgians for their lost aircraft (reputedly by supplying Boulton-Paul Defiant turret fighters) but the deal was rejected because of the fear that it would show favouritism to the British and encourage German aggression. The RAF tried to amend its operating principles in the wake of the incident and indeed these seemed successful with only a small handful of accidental incursions occurring over the coming months including an incident where an RAF Hawker Hurricane landed in Belgium only for its pilot to literally run back across the border to France rather than be interned.
If Belgium was truly neutral in those early months of the war it certainly didn’t seem like it as 1939 gave way to 1940. The Luftwaffe frequently violated Belgian territory, far more than Britain or France ever did, and the Belgian air force fought numerous battles with their German counterparts until May 10th 1940 when Hitler dropped all pretence that he was going to honour Belgium’s neutrality and his forces smashed through country in a classic Blitzkrieg. The interned Whitley K8985 was destroyed by the Germans on the ground at Nivelles but by then its crew had long been repatriated.