When German troops invaded Belgium, on 10 May 1940, King Leopold III of the Belgians decided (in direct opposition to the advice of the Belgian Cabinet who were relocating to London) to remain with his people rather than go into exile. On 28 May, with the military situation now all but hopeless, the King (who was in Bruges) decided to surrender the Belgian army to prevent further bloodshed both among his troops and the general populace. He also released a message, telling his people, ‘I will not leave you in these tragic moments. I shall stay with you to protect you and your families and your fate will be mine.’
On Hitler’s orders, Leopold was taken captive and sent back to Brussels, on 29 May. There, he was met at the entrance hall of his home , the Château de Laeken, by a German officer. As the hour was early, the King then proceeded to his bedroom to rest. Looking out of the window, he spotted two German foot soldiers keeping guard. This military presence quickly made him realise that he was now a prisoner-of-war in his own home.
At first life for the royal family (the widowed King and his three children, Josephine-Charlotte, Baudouin and Albert) was reasonably comfortable, despite the fact that half of the Château was soon commandeered by the German occupying forces. Furthermore, Hitler was keenly aware of the need to keep Leopold under close surveillance and so he appointed an experienced German diplomat, Colonel Werner Kiewitz as ‘gardien en chef’ to the King. Kiewitz was a fluent French speaker and any communications between Hitler and the King (and vice-versa) were channelled through him. He also acted as a ‘gatekeeper’, controlling all access to the King and accompanying him on any trips outside of the palace. When Leopold subsequently made a request to swap his palace for a villa, ‘Les Bouleaux’, at Tervuren, it was promptly turned down. The King did eventually have an audience with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, on 19 November 1940, in an attempt to persuade the Führer to release Belgian POWs, and issue a public statement about Belgium’s future independence. Sadly, the meeting proved unproductive.
However, romance was in the air and, on 11 September 1941, the King remarried in a religious ceremony held in the Royal Chapel at Laeken. His second wife was the British-born Lilian Baels, the daughter of a former Governor of West Flanders. She was given the title of the La Princesse de Réthy. Lilian gave birth to a son Alexandre in July, 1942.
Prior to the Allies landing in Normandy on 6 June 1944, Leopold had made a ‘testament politique’ for he had a premonition that the Germans might seek to relocate him and his family from Belgium. Indeed, there had already been an earlier threat to do this after the King had written to Hitler, in November 1942, remonstrating against Belgians being sent to work in factories in Germany, as forced labour. Leopold had aggravated the situation by also raising the matter twice with the President of the Red Cross in Belgium, Doctor Nolf. Indeed, on 18 February 1943, the Führer sent a special envoy (General Muller) to Brussels by air to inform the Belgian monarch that his approaches to the Red Cross (as well as those to Berlin) had irritated Hitler and instructing Leopold, ‘on pain of deportation’ to not further violate the restrictions imposed on him as a prisoner-of-war. In fact, Hitler was now firmly of the view that if the Allies mounted an invasion on mainland Europe, the King should be moved to Hirschstein Castle near Dresden.
Sure enough, on the evening of 6 June 1944, while Allied troops were beginning their invasion of Normandy, Colonel Kiewitz called on His Majesty and informed him politely that, on the direct orders of the Führer, he was being moved to a new location in Germany. They were to leave at 7am the following day. Despite the King making a last-minute appeal to the German Military Governor, General Alexander Von Falkenhausen, the decision stood. Leopold was permitted to take only one suitcase and was driven away in a German staff car accompanied by Kiewitz and an SS motorcycle escort. The first stop on the journey was made at 4pm at the Château Royal at Ciergnon. It was only at this stage that the King was informed by Kiewitz that his wife and children were also to be deported from Belgium. Fortunately, Leopold was able to make contact with Lilian via a direct telephone line to Laeken. Thereafter, although the King had still not yet been informed of his final destination, he was required to resume his journey, stopping for the night at the Hotel Brasseur, in the city of Luxembourg. Leopold eventually reached Hirschstein Castle, a medieval edifice situated on a promontory on the banks of the River Elbe, on the evening of 9 June.
In the meantime, following upon her telephone converation with her husband, on 7 June, the Princesse de Réthy had attempted to delay her departure by protesting that some of the children were ill. Furthermore, on 8 June, she lodged a formal appeal with the occupying power. This was backed up by a telegram sent directly to Hitler by the German-born Queen Mother, Elisabeth. The King had also written a note to the German authorities from Ciergnon indicating that he wished his wife and children to remain in Belgium. However, all these attempts were in vain. At 3am, on 9 June, a Major Bunting called on the Princess and informed her that her appeal had ‘been rejected’ and that she and her party were due to depart Laeken later that day. Lilian was a formidable woman and she immediately contacted Cardinal Van Roey, the Belgian Primate, as well as senior officials of the judiciary, to intercede on her behalf. Nonetheless, she eventually had no option but to comply with the German order and, at 6.30 that evening, she and her children (driven in a requisitioned royal car) headed a convoy of several cars and two lorries (carrying food and fuel) which was escorted by a group of German army outriders and a detachment of the Gestapo. Included in the Princess’ party was the children’s tutor, Vicomte Gatien du Parc Locmaria and the King’s Private Secretary, Monsieur Willy Weemaes. The Court Physician, Dr. Charles Rahier was a late addition.
Princess Lilian’s convoy followed roughly the same 500-mile route as that of the King, with the first night being spent at the Hotel Brasseur in the city of Luxembourg and that of 10-11 June at the Hotel Elephant in Weimar. It was during her stay at the latter, that Lilian was peremptorily informed that most of those accompanying her were ‘not authorised’ to proceed further. Worse still, she and her son Alexander were to travel separately from the King’s older children. Following some ‘violent protestations’ on the part of the Princess, the latter idea was quickly abandoned. Furthermore, some of the accompanying party-including the tutor and private secretary-were allowed to proceed. The somewhat diminished convoy arrived at the gates of Hirschstein Castle late on the evening of 11 June.
Meanwhile, on 14 June, radio stations in Belgium broadcast the news that the King and his family had been removed from the Château de Laeken, at the personal request of the Führer. The reason given was that the recent ‘Anglo-American’ air attacks over Laeken had rendered this location unsafe. The King’s new residence, listeners were assured, was of a standard ‘in keeping with his rank and position’. This was somewhat stretching the truth, for although the accommodation at Hirschstein was adequate (if somewhat cramped) and the family were able to take daily exercise in the extensive grounds, other conditions there were far from ideal: a new ‘gaoler’ named Colonel Otto Lurker had been appointed. He was terrified that his charges might try to escape, so he deprived them of all contact with the outside world. Soon, letters from friends sent through emissaries in neutral countries, such as Sweden and Switzerland, were intercepted with a vengeance. Furthermore, the property was surrounded by three-metre-high walls topped with barbed wire and patrolled by a team of guard dogs. For good measure, a unit of sixty SS Guards (ultimately overseen by a Gruppenführer Von Alvensleben) kept up a constant (and vigilant) watch over their royal prisoners.
On 1 February 1945, Von Alvensleben informed the King that, owing to the rapid advance of Russian forces, he and his family’s stay at Hirschstein Castle was over. He was relocating them to southern Germany, on his own initiative. However, only Leopold and his family were to be taken there. The other Belgians in the group would be transferred to another location. The King refused to agree to this and immediately telegraphed Von Kaltenbrunner in Brussels. An impasse followed but on 6 March, Colonel Lurker informed His Majesty that he and his family were now being sent to Austria. Leopold, Lilian and the children would travel by car, while other members of the royal party were to take the train.
The 300-mile journey, which commenced at 4am on 7 March, was not without incident. During a snowstorm in Munich, the royalties were forced to take shelter for the night in seedy hotel and on other occasions their progress was interrupted by Allied aircraft patrolling overhead. Indeed, when the royal family reached the outskirts of Salzburg the following day, they were forced to abandon their cars and seek shelter in a tunnel for three hours. Thus, it was late in the evening of 8 March before the little group reached their final location, a villa in Strobl, some 50km south east of Salzburg, on the shores of Lake Wolfgangsee. Conditions there were similar to those at Hirschstein, with the property again being surrounded by a barbed wire fence patrolled by guard dogs. However, the military guard had now risen to seventy. Furthermore, the accommodation was somewhat incommodious and food was scarcer to come by. Indeed, the children seemed to be constantly hungry. For the King, the one high point was the receipt of a letter-the first in nearly eleven months- from his mother, Queen Elisabeth. Nevertheless, Colonel Lurker remained a menacing presence.
On 29 March, American troops advanced into Austria, a fact of which the King remained completely unaware. Similarly, in Belgium, the liberation of which had been completed by 4 February, there was no clue as to the King’s whereabouts, so tight had been Lurker’s control of information. Then, on 7 May, while looking out of a window, Leopold spied an American tank approaching the villa. As the German guards seemed to have suddenly disappeared, he sent out one of his officials to investigate. Soon, two officers of the US Seventh Army, a Colonel Wilson and his colleague Major Howard, entered the hall of the royal residence and were astonished to find the King and his family standing there. According to Leopold’s recollection, when he informed the Americans of the whereabouts of the SS guards, they exclaimed, ‘Come on. Let’s go and shoot them!’ However, the King soon diffused the situation by saying, ‘ No, not in our house.’ He then indicated that the guards should be taken prisoner by the Americans and then brought before their Commanding Officer for questioning, adding , ‘He will decided their fate.’ Leopold’s reward was to receive a final Nazi salute and a cheeky ‘Heil Hitler’ from his former captors, as they were taken away in trucks.
Meanwhile, the King-who was now dizzy with the joy of freedom and determined to return to Brussels as soon as was practicable-requested that General Alexander Patch, who commanded the US Seventh Army, be informed of his whereabouts. This news was duly passed on by Patch to the Belgian authorities. Events then moved on quickly: Leopold’s brother Charles (who had recently been appointed Regent in his brother’s absence) arrived at Strobl on 9 May accompanied by the Belgian Prime Minister, Achille Van Acker, and representatives from other political parties. It gradually became apparent, following various meetings at Strobl and later at Saint Wolfgang (to where the royal party had relocated on 18 May) that Leopold’s return home was going to be much delayed due to various complications including social and political unrest. As the King was no longer regarded as a symbol of unity in Belgium, the question of his abdication also hung ominously in the air.
In October 1945, the King and his family moved to Switzerland and installed themselves in the smart Villa Reposoir at Pregny, a suburb of Geneva. They were to remain there until 22 July 1950 when they returned to Brussels. However, following the King’s homecoming, the situation showed no sign of settling down and support among government ministers was hemorrhaging . Thus, on 31 July, Leopold was forced to delegate his powers to Baudouin, who was now given the title of Prince Royal. On 16 July 1951, King Leopold III formally abdicated and Baudouin ascended the throne. It was a sad ending to a reign, which in the early years with his first wife, the iconic Queen Astrid at Leopold’s side, had shown such promise.