The Mechelen Incident
January, 1940
 
  Wednesday, January 10, 1940  
  A Bf 108 'Taifun' made a forced landing under foggy conditions near Mechelen-aan-de-Maas in the Belgian Province of Limburg starting what became known as the Mechelen Incident. Piloted by Major Eric Hönmanns, the liaison aircraft also held a passenger, Major Helmuth Reinberger, Adjutant to Colonel Bassenge, Commanding Officer of Dienststelle Fliegerführer 22O, 7. Flieger Division. Reinberger was responsible for organizing the supplying of the unit that was to land paratroopers behind the Belgian lines at Namur on the day of the coming attack. Soon after the crash the two men were arrested by the Belgian Gendarmerie. Reinberger was carrying top-secret documents divulging the invasion plans for the Low Countries. Reinberger attempted several times during his arrest to destroy the documents, however without success.  
   
  News of the Mechelen Incident reached Berlin via press reports about a crashed German plane. In the OKW it caused a general consternation, as it was soon deduced that Reinberger must have had the attack plan with him.  
   
  The Belgians have the documents recovered in the Mechelen Incident quickly translated by the Deuxième Section (military intelligence) of the general staff in Brussels. Most had indeed been badly damaged by Major Helmuth Reinberger's consecutive attempts to burn them, but the general outlines of an attack against Belgium and The Netherlands were clear from the remaining passages, though the date of the attack was not mentioned.  
   
  Thusday, January 11, 1940  
  Enraged by the Mechelen Incident Hitler fired both the commander of 2. Luftflotte, General Helmuth Frey, and the latter's chief of staff Colonel Josef Kammhuber. It was nevertheless decided to proceed with the German attack on the Low Countries as originally planned, while the Luftwaffe attaché in The Hague Lieutenant-General Ralph Wenninger, and the military attaché in Brussels, Colonel Friedrich Carl Rabe von Pappenheim, would investigate whether the plan had been fatally compromised or not.  
   
  The contents of the translated document fragments recovered in the Mechelen Incident confirm earlier warnings from the Italian Count Galeazzo Ciano about a German attack to take place around 15 January. It was concluded by one of King Leopold III of Belgium’s key advisors, General Raoul van Overstraeten, that the information was basically correct. That afternoon King Leopold III decided to inform his own Minister of Defense General Henri Denis and the French supreme commander Maurice Gamelin. At 5:15 p.m. the French liaison officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Hautcoeur, was given a two page abstract of the contents without any explanation of how the information had been obtained. Lord Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, was warned and Leopold personally phoned the Dutch Princess Juliana and the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg Charlotte telling the first: "Be careful, the weather is dangerous" and the second: "Beware of the flu", predetermined code phrases indicating the Belgians considered a German attack to be imminent.  
   
  Friday, January 12, 1940  
  General Alfred Jodl, the Wehrmacht's Chief of Operations, gave Hitler an assessment of what the Belgians might have learned from documents recovered in the Mechelen Incident. A note in Jodl's diary summed up what he had said to Hitler: “If the enemy is in possession of all the files, situation catastrophic.” The Germans would at first be falsely reassured by Belgian deception measures.  
   
  Reinberger and Hönmanns meet the German Air and Army Attachés to Belgium, Wenninger and Rabe von Pappenheim, while their conversations were secretly recorded. During this meeting Reinberger informed Wenninger that he had managed to burn the papers enough to make them unreadable.  
   
  French supreme commander Maurice Gamelin held a meeting with the highest French operational army commanders and the Chief of Military Intelligence Colonel Louis Rivet. Rivet was skeptical of the warning but Gamelin considered that, even if it all were a false alarm, this would be an excellent opportunity to pressure the Belgians into allowing a French advance into their country. Both to intensify the crisis and to be ready for any occasion that presented itself, Gamelin ordered 1st Army Group and the adjoining Third Army to march toward the Belgian frontier.  
   
  Dutch Queen Wilhelmina and her government are alarmed when notified by the Belgians of the contents recovered in the Mechelen Incident. Dutch supreme commander Izaak H. Reijnders was skeptical of the information. When the Belgian military attaché in The Hague, Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre Diepenrijckx, handed him a personal memorandum from Van Overstraeten, he reacted: "Do you believe in these messages yourself? I don't believe in them at all." The Dutch were not informed of the precise source and the Belgians hid the fact that the Germans only intended a partial occupation of The Netherlands, without the Dutch National Redoubt, the Vesting Holland.  
   
  Saturday, January 13, 1940  
  Vicco von Bülow-Schwante, Germany's ambassador in Belgium, telegraphed to his superiors concerning the Mechelen Incident: “Major Reinberger has confirmed that he burnt the documents except for some pieces which are the size of the palm of his hand. Reinberger confirms that most of the documents which could not be destroyed appear to be unimportant.” This appears to have convinced General Jodl. His diary for January 13, 1940 included the entry: “Report on conversation of Luftwaffe Attaché with the two airmen who made forced landing. Result: dispatch case burnt for certain.”  
   
  The Belgians receive a message from Colonel Georges Goethals, Belgium's Military Attaché in Berlin, included: "Were there tactical orders or parts of them on the Malines plane? A sincere informer, whose credibility may be contested, claims that this plane was carrying plans from Berlin to Cologne in relation to the attack on the West. Because these plans have fallen into Belgian hands, the attack will happen tomorrow to preempt countermeasures. I make explicit reservations about this message, that I do not consider reliable, but which it is my duty to report." The "sincere informer" was the Dutch Military Attaché in Berlin Gijsbertus Sas who spoke with Goethals around 5 p.m. Sas’ information had to be carefully considered because he was in contact with a German intelligence officer who was an opponent of the Nazi regime, Colonel Hans Oster.  
   
  Informed of Goethals’ message, General Van Overstraeten was astonished that the informant appeared to know about the capture of the plans. Van Overstraeten altered the warning that the Belgian Chief of the General Staff Lieutenant-General Edouard van den Bergen had drafted which was about to be sent to all Belgian Army commanders that an attack on the next morning “quasi-certain.”.  
   
  Van den Bergen, who had secretly promised French supreme commander Maurice Gamelin to bring Belgium to the allied side decided to broadcast on the popular current affairs radio program that night an immediately recall to their units of all 80,000 Belgian soldiers on leave to ensure that these would be at full strength at the moment of the German attack. Van den Bergen also ordered the barriers to be moved aside on the southern border with France so the French and British troops could march in swiftly when they were called in, in response to the German attack. Both actions were made without the knowledge of the King or Van Overstraeten. If the Germans had indeed attacked on the January 14th, Van den Bergen would probably have been congratulated for his decisions. However, Van den Bergen fell in disgrace for acting in this way without the King's permission, as King Leopold was the Supreme Commander of all the Belgian armed forces. Van den Bergen was rebuked so harshly by Von Overstraeten that the Belgian Chief of Staff's reputation never recovered, and at the end of January he resigned.  
   
  General Alfred Jodl called off plans to execute the attack on the Low Countries three days early on January 14 and postponed them to January 15 or 16, to be decided as the circumstances demanded. That evening he received news that the Belgian and Dutch troops had been put on alert. This was attributed to the Mechelen Incident and the obvious approach of the Sixth Army.  
   
  Sunday, January 14, 1940  
  King Leopold III of Belgium sent a message to Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, via Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, a friend of the King’s who had established himself as the secret link man to the British Government, asking for certain guarantees. The guarantees included assuring that the Allies would not open negotiations for a settlement of any conflict without Belgium's agreement. Keyes added a rider that he believed Leopold might be able to persuade his government to call the Allies immediately if the guarantees were forthcoming. This was of interest to the Allies because both Britain and France had been trying to persuade Belgium to let their troops in ever since the war had started.  
   
  The French are informed of King Leopold III of Belgium’s message to Britain, although there was no reference to the fact that Keyes was only giving his opinion about the calling in of the allies. The French record stated that 'the King would ask his Government to ask the Allied armies to occupy defensive positions inside Belgium immediately', if the Belgians received satisfaction in related guarantees. Edouard Daladier, the French President, quickly told the British Government that, as far as France was concerned, the guarantees could be given. The French believed that the Belgians would receive a satisfactory response from the British Government in relation to the guarantees, and would then immediately invite the Allied Armies to march in.  
   
  At 3:50 p.m. Daladier informed Gamelin that the Belgians had in principle agreed to a French advance and asked whether he was ready to execute it. Gamelin was very pleased, responding that due to heavy snowfall at the Belgian-German border the Germans would be themselves be unable to advance quickly, that a German invasion was therefore unlikely and that this posed an ideal situation for a French entrenchment, adding "We must now seize the occasion". Gamelin ordered that the Allied troops under his control during the night of January 14-15 should make their approach march to cross the Franco-Belgian border so that they would be ready to enter at a moment's notice.  
   
  In reaction to the Belgian alert concerning information received from Dutch Military Attaché in Berlin Gijsbertus Sas’ the previous evening, Dutch supreme commander Izaak H. Reijnders ordered that no leave was to be granted to any soldier and to close the strategic bridges while fuses should be placed within their explosive charges. In the afternoon the population became worried by the radio broadcast about the leave cancellation as it was feared that the Germans would take advantage of the severe cold to cross the now frozen New Hollandic Water Line.  
   
  Monday, January 15, 1940  
  At 8 a.m. Gamelin saw the British response to the guarantees: they were offering a watered down version that was most unlikely to be acceptable to the Belgians. At the same time he received messages from the advancing forces that the Belgian border troops had stopped removing the border obstacles and had not been ordered to allow them entrance into their country. Three hours later Daladier, prompted by Gamelin who insisted that the premier should make the Belgian government "face up to its responsibilities", told Pol le Tellier, Belgium's Ambassador in Paris, that unless the French had an invitation to enter Belgium by 8 p.m. that evening, they would not only withdraw all British and French troops from the border but would refuse to carry out similar maneuvers during further alerts until after the Germans had invaded.  
   
  The Belgian cabinet was unable to come to a positive decision about the French invitation to have the Allies enter Belgium. The invasion that had been predicted for the January 14 had failed to materialize. Heavy snowfall continued on the eastern border, making an immediate German attack unlikely. The King and his key advisor General Raoul van Overstraeten, both staunch neutralists, hoped a diplomatic solution could be reached to end the war and had no intention to involve their country unless it were absolutely necessary. Around 12 p.m. Van Overstraeten ordered the Belgian border troops to rebuild the barriers and reminded them of the standing order to "repulse by force any foreign unit of whatever nationality which violated Belgian territory". At 6 p.m. Daladier told a disappointed Gamelin he "could not take the responsibility of authorizing us to penetrate preventively into Belgium."  
   
  With the element of surprise lost due to the Mechelen Incident, the poor road conditions due to snowfall, and the bleak weather prospects, General Alfred Jodl advised Hitler to call off the invasion of the Low Countries indefinitely.  
   
  Tuesday, January 16, 1940  
  At 7 p.m. Hitler, in response to the Mechelen Incident, concurred with the advice from the previous day of General Alfred Jodl, the Wehrmacht's Chief of Operations, to call off the invasion of the Low Countries indefinitely.  
     
     
   
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