A newly released document at the National Archives reveals a contentious message from King George VI to King Leopold of Belgium. In the message, sent as a War Office telegram on 26th May 1940, King George VI urges Leopold to leave Nazi occupied Belgium in order to establish a united Government. The King suggests that there would be no practical benefit for Leopold to stay in his country under German occupation and further points out the only likely outcome would be for Leopold to be made a prisoner of the Germans. In such circumstances he would no longer be in a position to continue his duty to the Belgian people.
The following day, King Leopold sent a telegram to Lord Gort, the Commander of British Forces, notifying Gort of his intention to surrender due to the deteriorating military situation and before the invertible debacle.
After the Second World War, King Leopold’s decision to stay in Belgium during the occupation without taking any active role in continuing the fight against Fascism, led to considerable criticism from his people. Originally the newly released document containing this correspondence was intended to be closed to the public until the year 2050. It mostly contains correspondence from the immediate post war period debating whether the British Government should release a copy of the telegram following controversy in the Belgian press over Leopold’s decision to surrender and of the existence of correspondence between the two kings.
A transcript of King George VI’s telegram and King Leopold’s reply to Lord Gort is reproduced below.
Letter from H.M. The King to King Leopold of Belgium 26.5.40
I am very grateful for your letter. I note that Your Majesty considers it to be your duty to your people and to your Allies to remain with your Army in Belgium. In taking this decision Your Majesty will not have overlooked the extreme importance of establishing a united Belgian Government with full authority outside territory occupied by the enemy, and while paying tribute to Your Majesty’s devotion, I and my Government must express our grave concern at your decision.
While it would be presumptuous of me to advise you in respect of your duty to your people, I can say that as regards the Allies and the fulfilment of their joint purpose in war, I do not feel that Your Majesty is called upon to make the sacrifice which you contemplate.
Moreover, I am bound to put to Your Majesty another point. If it were possible for you to remain in Belgium at liberty to mix with your people, and to act and speak for them, there might be great value in the establishment of such a rallying point necessary to the Belgian Nation. But I can hardly hope such would be the outcome of Your Majesty’s decision to stay with the Army. It seems to me that Your Majesty must consider the possibility, even probability of your being taken prisoner, perhaps carried off to Germany, and almost certainly deprived of all communication with the outside world. Such a position would leave your People bereft of their natural leader, without so far as I can see any compensating advantage.
(Signed) GEORGE R.I.
Message from King Leopold of Belgium to Lord Gort, 27.5.40
He wishes you to know that his Army is greatly disheartened. It has been incessantly engaged for four days and subjected to intense air bombardment, which the R.A.F. have been unable to prevent. The knowledge that the Allied Armies in this sector have been encircled, and that the Germans have great superiority in the air, has led his troops to believe that the position is almost hopeless. He fears a moment is rapidly approaching when he can no longer rely upon his troops to fight or be of any further use to the B.E.F. He wishes you to realise that he will be obliged to surrender before a debacle.
The King fully appreciates that the B.E.F. has done everything in its power to help Belgium, and he asks you to believe that he has done everything in his power to avert this catastrophe.
(Source: TNA FO 371/79035, transcribed by www.arcre.com, 29 January 2017)