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Artists and Breendonk
The site chosen for the fort was a place known as Schalkland, to the south of the Dendermonde highway (Malines-Termonde). Although nearly all the plots used for the future construction were in the district of Breendonck, it was officially named the “Willebroeck Fort”. Count Buisseret de Blarenghien, the Mayor of Breendonck, made an official complaint and a Royal Order dated 12 January 1907 rechristened the fort “Breendonck Fort”.
The site is in the “Petit-Brabant" region, less than 25 kilometres from the centre of Brussels and 19 kilometres from Antwerp.
The spelling of the name of the village of Breendonk has changed considerably over time.
n the 13th century, it was known as “BREEDENDONCK”, which can be translated as “large marshland”. The spelling then evolved into BREENDONCK before finally becoming BREENDONK in 1977 (the towns were merged on 1 January).
Breendonck and the fortified enclosure of Antwerp
In the early 20th century, the need was felt to create a new line of fortified defence to protect the port and city of Antwerp, in addition to the “Réduit National” (national stronghold - decided in 1859, to the displeasure of the residents of Antwerp). Several proposals were put forward, by General Alexis de Brialmont among others, which eventually led to the adoption of the law on the “plan to defend Antwerp and develop the port facilities of the city” published in the Moniteur Belge on 29 April 1906.
This law provided for a line of defence to surround the town, consisting of separate forts, constructed a respectable distance from the city (at least a dozen kilometres). In total, the line of defence extended over nearly 95 kilometres.
The line included the forts of Stabroek, Ertbrand, Kapellen, Brasschaat, Schoten (1st sector), Gravenwezel, Oelegem, Broechem, Kessel (2nd sector), Lier, Koningshooïkt, Sint-Katelijn-Waver, Walem (3rd sector), Breendonck, Liezele, Bornem (4th sector) and finally Steendorp and Hassdonk (5th sector).
In the gaps between these forts, there were also the redoubts of Berendrecht, Smoutakker, Drijhoek (1), Audaan, Schilde, Massenhoven (2), Tallaert, Bosbeek, Dorpveld, Duffel (3), Letterheide, Puurs (4), Lauwershoek and Landmolen.
The forts were of various types, according to the military jargon of the time: first and second rank forts, with composite or detached caponiers. Breendonck is a second-rank fort with composite caponiers, with the Liezele fort some 4 kilometres to the West and Walem fort 8 kilometres to the East. Between Breendonck and Liezele is the Letterheide redoubt, while a floodable area separates Breendonck and Walem.
Construction only began in 1909. The excavation work alone was budgeted at 177,000 Francs.
The fort was built in non-reinforced concrete. Nearly 41,000 cubic metres were needed to complete it, costing 719,385 Francs. In total, the Breendonck fort required an investment of around 2,200,000 Francs.Once the construction was finished, the moat was dug around the fort, with an average depth of 3.75 metres and an original width of nearly 50 metres. The mass of earth excavated was placed on the concrete structures in order to hide the fort from the enemy‘s view and protect it from direct hits. The height of the earth is nearly 14 metres in places.
The fort is equipped with various cannons and howitzers, 33 in total:
- Two 150mm cupola guns, Cockerill model 1909, in central position. These cannons could fire a 39-kilo shell 8,400 metres. They were protected by a 22 centimetre steel cupola weighing nearly 55 tonnes.
- Two 120mm howitzers, Cockerill model 1909, capable of firing 20 kilo shells 6,400 metres.
- Four 75mm cupola guns, Cockerill model 1906, firing 5.5kg shells 6,000 metres.
- Seventeen rapid firing 57mm guns were used for close defence and flank shots.
In addition to these guns and howitzers directed towards the South and therefore towards the potential enemy, 8 other weapons were situated on the flanks (in the place called the “traditore” battery) and directed towards the neighbouring forts to help them if needed. There were four 75mm guns and four 120mm guns on a 1909 model embrasure gun-carriage.
These guns were capable of keeping the enemy at a distance from Antwerp, but were already outclassed at the time of their installation, by the heavy German 305mm and even 420mm guns. The Germans could easily bombard the Belgian forts while keeping out of reach of the Belgian artillery.
A 15cm cupola without its guns cost 290,000 Francs at the time (as an indication, the daily wage for a worker was between 1 and 3 francs).No anti-aircraft equipment was installed.
Around 330 men, mainly infantry soldiers, made up the garrison of the fort in wartime (80 in peacetime). They were responsible for defending access, by taking up position on the turrets which were sheltered by the raised earth.
here were twelve barrack rooms (12 x 5.5 metres), two kitchens (soldiers and officers), a bakery, cells (3), a shower room and separate toilets for the soldiers, officers and sub-officers.
The First World War
In July 1914, when war broke out, the fort – unlike its neighbours – was not finished.
To clear the view for the gunners, Colonel Génie Van Weyenberghe destroyed nearly 200 houses in the town of Willebroek on 9 August 1914 (Westdijck, Palingstraat, Oude Dendermondsesteenweg, Steenweg op Tisselt).
The invasion of Belgium began on 4 August 1914. Preoccupied solely with reaching Paris as quickly as possible, the German army put all its might towards the South, only blocking off Antwerp.
It was only on 9 September that the German High Command ordered General von Besler to take Antwerp: the siege artillery had been released by the fall of Namur and Maubeuge. The general had 120,000 men and a lot of powerful artillery: 42cm guns, Austrian 30cm Skoda mortar guns, 30.5cm howitzers and 21cm mortar guns etc.
Although the fort was built to resist the French 220mm mortar gun, it could not resist the 305mm and 420mm German guns.
The bombardment of the forts began on 28 September.
Breendonk was bombarded for the first time on 1 October. As a breach had been opened up by the fall of Wavre-Ste-Catherine and Lierre, Breendonk was attacked from the East.
On 1, 6 and 8 October, the Breendonk fort was hit by 563 Austrian 305mm mortar gun projectiles, shells fired by artillery some 8 or 9 km beyond the range of its own artillery.
On 8 October, the fort underwent very heavy bombardment. 305mm shells rained down and one of them fell down a chimney before exploding between two barrack rooms. The Fort commander, Captain Wijns, was seriously injured and died shortly afterwards. The fort was taken the following day and the surrender of Antwerp was complete. The town of Willebroek was then occupied by German troops although the bridges had been destroyed.The proud survivors commemorated the heroic defence of the town with a bronze plaque which was affixed to the left of the postern in 1926.
The Second World War
On 10 May 1940 at 8.30am, King Léopold III, the Commander in Chief, arrived at Breendonk. He had been preceded by the first rank of the GHQ and the General Chief of Staff. It was from here that the King delivered his national proclamation on 10 May. It was also here that he received the commanders of the Seventh French army, placed on the right, and the British forces on the left, as well as General Billotte, the commander of the Group of Northern Armies to which the Belgian army reported as of 12 May.On 16 May, General Billotte ordered the abandonment of the Antwerp-Namur line, which had become untenable since the capture of Sedan. On 16 May at midnight, the General Chief of Staff left the fort; in the afternoon of the 17th, the whole GHQ was moved to the Ghent region.
The SS Camp
On september 20th 1940 Sturmbannführer Philip Schmitt brought his first victims to Breendonk. The Fort became officially the Auffanglager Breendonk, a transit camp; a major centre for the Sicherheitspolizei-Sicherheitsdienst (SIPO/SD), the german political police.
During the first year of the Occupation, the Jews made up half the total number of prisoners. From 1942 onwards and the creation of the « vezammelkamp » (reception camp) at the Dossin barracks where the Jews were assembled before their departure towards the east and the extermination camps, most of the Jews disappeared from Breendonk, which gradually became a camp for political prisoners and members of the Resistance.
On the 22nd of September 1941, a first convoy of Belgian political prisoners was transferred from Breendonk and from the citadel of Huy to the concentration camp of Neuengamme close to Hamburg. Other convoys were to follow …
Prisoners stayed on average three months at the fortress before being deported towards the concentration camps in Germany, Austria or Poland.
The regime set up here by the Nazis hardly differed from that of an official concentration camp. The undernourishment and the forced labour wore down the body and mind. The ever-present physical cruelty sometimes caused the death of prisoners.
Initially, the camp was only guarded by a few German SS and a detachment of the Wehrmacht. In September 1941, the Wachtgruppe of the SD arrived as back up. This time, these were no longer German SS but mainly Flemings.
In total, around 3500 persons, including around thirty women, were subjected to the “Hell of Breendonk”, as Franz Fischer calls it in his memoirs.
Around half of these 3500 did not come back from the camps alive.
Trials of War Criminals
The Malines Trial
The case opened in the Malines trial in the spring of 1946 were on the one hand those concerning the Belgian SS men and on other hand the ones concerning the civilians and the prisoners who have behaved badly towards their fellow prisoners. The SS men Wijss, De Saffel, Raes, Lampaert, Brusselaers, Hermans, Vermeulen, the cowherd Amelinckx, the smith Carleer, the gardener Van Praet, the former prisoners Obler eand Lewin were sentenced to death.
The Antwerp Trial
On single german war criminals stood trial for what had been ciommited in Breendonk: commandant Schmitt. On November 25th 1949, he was sentenced to death.