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Small arms of the Belgian Army 1939-1945.

Tiny Belgium prepared to fight the Germans, but its purely defensive strategy wouldn't hold up to the blitzkrieg. Some Belgians managed to continue the fight to victory.

In 1830, the predominantly French speaking, southern provinces of the Netherlands broke away to form an independent state--the Kingdom of Belgium. In 1839 the kingdom was declared "perpetually neutral" by an agreement among Britain, France and Germany. This new, if small, country was blessed with large coal and iron deposits which, when combined with the enterprising nature of the inhabitants, resulted in Belgium becoming one of Europe's primary centers of firearms manufacturing.

Located in eastern Belgium, the city of Liege had been a center of firearms production since the 18th century, the products of Liege had helped equip many European armies. By the 1880s the gunmakers of Liege were major players in the international arms market, especially Latin America.

In 1888, Paul Mauser introduced a bolt-action repeating rifle with a manually-loaded, 10-round detachable box magazine, chambered for a rimmed 7.65mm smokeless powder cartridge. But Mauser's fertile mind was working overtime, and in less than a year he introduced three improvements: a one-piece bolt with dual frontal lugs that locked directly into the receiver ring; a charger(stripper clip) loaded magazine that permitted faster reloading and a higher rate of aimed fire; lastly, a single-column-box magazine.

In 1889, Mauser entered his improved rifle in Belgian army trials, and after two years of testing, it was adopted as the Fusil d'Infanterie Mie. 1889. It was an ungainly-looking rifle with a full-length tubular metal hand-guard inspired by Germany's Infanterie-Gewehr 88.

Belgian Army Rifles

A license was sold to the Belgian government to produce the rifle at the state arsenal, Manufacture d'Armes de L'Etat in Liege. In fact, until the post-World War I years, the government facility only produced parts, while the largest number of rifles were manufactured by a new company that was established in the city of Herstal specifically to produce Modele 1889s for the army--Fabrique Nationale d'Armes de Guerre (FN).

Besides the infantry rifle, the Belgians manufactured a variety of carbines for the army, gendarmerie, and Garde Civique (Flemish: Burgerwacht).

The Modele 1889 rifle and carbines fired the Cartouche Balle 7,65mm Modele 1889, which consisted of a bottlenecked, rimless case 53mm long whose 211-gr. round-nosed, full metal-jacketed (FMJ) bullet achieved a muzzle velocity of approximately 2130 fps.

Despite its "neutrality," in 1914 Germany invaded and occupied all of Belgium except for a small corner of the country. Belgian troops continued to fight alongside French and British units until the end of the war.

During World War I, the Belgians converted Modele 1889 rifles into carbines at a facility in Birmingham, England. The conversion consisted of shortening the barrels and barrel jackets, turning down the bolt handles and installing new rear sights. They were known as the Carabine pour Mitrailleurs, Batteries d'Infanterie et Agents de Transmission Modele 1916.

In 1915, the Belgian government placed orders for Modele 1889 rifles and, the following year, Modele 1916 carbines with Hopkins & Allen of Norwich, Conn., which delivered approximately 119,000 by 1918. After the war, FN continued converting rifles in addition to producing purpose-built carbines until 1927.

Belgium had been devastated by the war and ensuing occupation. The Germans had stripped the country of industrial machinery, foodstuffs, coal, iron and fuels. Infrastructure was non-existent and the country had to start over from scratch to rebuild its once prosperous economy.

This had only begun when the Great Depression hit, and by 1932, unemployment had risen to 25% though under the "New Deal-style" Plan de Man, it was reduced to 15% by 1937. The 1930s also the rise of fascist and nationalist parties centered around the two ethnic groups, the French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings.

Despite the rising Nazi party in neighboring Germany--in 1936 the Belgian government once again declared the nation neutral, repudiated a mutual defense pact with France and, the following year, received a guarantee of neutrality from Germany.

The army, and large reserves, were reorganized as purely defensive forces and--with France's Maginot Line as an example--began construction of a series of fortifications, the Koningshooikt-Wavre Line that utilized the River Meuse and the Albert Canal, and ran from Ant werp to the city of Mechelen. It was thought that these static fortifications would hold up any German invasion long enough for Belgian forces to link up the French and counterattack.

The post-World War I Belgian army continued to use the Modele 1889 until a 98-type Mauser short rifle--the Fusil d'Infanterie Modele 1935--was adopted. Originally assembled at Manufacture d'Armes de L'Etat from modified German Infanteriegewehre 98 received as war reparations, production of purpose-built rifles eventually began at FN.

The following year, a rebuilding program was instituted and many serviceable 1889 rifles had new barrels and sights installed and the bolts modified so as to cock on opening. The resulting Fusil d'Infanterie Modele 1889/36 saw service with Belgian armed forces until the country was overrun by the Germans in 1940.

Many remained in service with the Force Publique--the European-officered military gendarmerie in the Belgian Congo (see below).

The Cartouche Balle 7,65mm Modele 30 used a 174-grain FMJ, boattail spitzer bullet traveling at 2380 fps.

With the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Belgian government ordered a general mobilization, and eventually their army numbered more than 600,000 men. On May 10, 1940, the Wehrmacht invaded the Nether-lands, Belgium, France and Luxembourg, but the Koningshooikt-Wavre Line proved useless against the German's Blitzkrieg tactics.

The supposedly impregnable fortress of Eben-Emael fell to glider-borne Fallschirmjager after less than a day's fighting, the Albert Canal was crossed, and Panzers attacking trough the Ardennes outflanked the Koningshooikt-Wavre Line.

The civilian population fled westward, clogging roads and preventing the movement of troops. The army held out for 18 days, holding onto to a small pocket along the Leie River until May 27. when many of them retreated along with French and British units to the coastal village of Dunkirk, where they were rescued by British naval forces.

Belgium's king, Leopold III, surrendered to the Germans, although a number of government ministers, including Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot, escaped to Paris and, after the Fall of France, to London, where they established a government in exile.

Belgian Light Machine Guns

During World War I, the Belgian army was originally equipped with small numbers of the Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1909 Benet-Mercie light machine gun. These were later supplemented with French-supplied Fusils Mitrailleur Modele 1915, the heartily detested "Chauchat."

The Modele 1915 was constructed primarily from sheet metal stampings, the barrel and bolt being the only machined parts. Overall quality was poor, resulting in less than optimal reliability, but they could be produced quickly and in large numbers--which was all the French army asked for. Late in the war, Chauchats were produced for the Belgians chambered for their standard Cartouche Balle 7,65mm Modele 1889.

After the war, the Belgian army continued to use the Chauchat, although the Manufacture d'Armes de L'Etat "improved" it. Known as the Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915/27, it featured a strengthened receiver and bipod and sheet metal covers for the ejection port, operating handle slot and the cooling holes in the forearm.

Modified guns proved much more reliable than the French-made guns and remained in service until replaced by FN-made Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1930 (see below). After that, they were passed down to reserve units, who still had them when the Germans invaded in 1940.

The Belgians realized that the Modele 1915/27 was only a stopgap solution and began trials to find a new light machine gun. FN had an agreement with Colt to produce John M. Browning's designs, one of which was his M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).

The BAR was a gas-operated, selective-fire rifle with a 20-round magazine, and was designed by to be used by a two-man team (gunner and ammo carrier). While its relatively small magazine capacity and lack of a quick-change barrel reduced its rate of fire, its light weight and reliability made it popular with the troops.

In 1928, FN received a contract from Poland for a version of the BAR known as the Rcczny karabin maszynowy Browning wzor 1928 (hand held light machine gun Model 28) in 7.92x57mm. It differed from the U.S. M1918 in having a finned barrel for superior cooling, a separate pistol grip, different style stock, forearm and sights.

In 1929, Dieudonne Saive, who became FN's chief engineer, was given the assignment of improving the wzor 1928 for upcoming Belgian army trials. Saive's improvements included a rate of fire reducing mechanism that provided slow (350 rpm) and fast (600 rpm) rates of fire, an improved gas system, a more substantial bipod and mounting system, magazine release and a sliding cover for the ejection port. The following year the improved weapon was adopted as the Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1930.

The Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1930 was the standard light machine guns of the Belgian armed forces until their surrender. The Wehrmacht issued large numbers of captured guns as the 7,65mm leichtes Maschinengewehr 127(b).

The Belgian government in exile decided to form a volunteer military unit known as the 1st Fusilier Battalion made up of Belgian emigres living in the UK, and soldiers who had been evacuated from Dunkirk. Eventually, all Free Belgian units in Britain were formed into the 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade, better known as the Brigade Piron after its popular commander, Col. Jean-Baptiste Piron.

Belgian Handguns & Submachine Guns

The primary handgun of the Belgian armed forces was the FN Pistolet Grande Puissance Modele 1935 (better known as the Browning Hi-Power). Based upon prototypes made by John Browning, it was finalized by the aforementioned Dieudonne Saive in the early 1930s. A locked breech, single-action design chambered for the 9mm Parabellum cartridge, it was unique in using a 13 round magazine at a time when most military handguns held seven to nine rounds.

Belgian issue pistols had tangent rear sights adjustable from 50 to 500 meters and were issued with a large leather holster having a pocket for the pistol and another for the shoulder stock.

The Belgian military and police also used large numbers of earlier FN/Browning pistols, including the Modeles 1900, 1910 and 1910/22, all chambered in 7.65mm Browning (.32 ACP).

The standard Belgian submachine gun was the Mitraillette Modele 1934, a copy of the German Haenel MP28/ II. This weapon was a produced under license by the Societe Anonyme Anciens Establissments Pieper Bayard. It was a well-made, reliable--albeit rather heavy--weapon, and expensive to produce.

Two assistants of the commander of an infantry company were armed with a Mitraillette Modele 34, as were eight men in each regimental reconnaissance platoon. Active and first reserve divisions had about 80 Modele 34s total and the elite Chasseurs Ardennais received a large number of them before the outbreak of hostilities.

By 1944, the Brigade Piron numbered 2,200 officers and men, including 80 Luxembourgeois who had escaped from occupied Europe via Vichy France and Spain.

In addition to the Brigade Piron, Belgian soldiers served in No. 10 (Inter Allied) Commando and made up the 5th Special Air Service. Members of the latter unit were dropped by parachute into northern France to perform reconnaissance and sabotage missions and to link up with the French Resistance.

These "Free Belgian" units were equipped primarily with standard British small arms, including No. 1 and No. 4 Lee-Enfield rifles, Bren light machine guns, Sten submachine guns, Webley Mark IV and Enfield No. 2 revolvers.

During the German occupation, the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond (Flemish National Union), an authoritarian party, collaborated with the Germans but was eclipsed later in the war by the more-radical and pro-German DeVlag movement.

In French-speaking Wallonia, Leon Degrelle's created the fascist Rexist party and later organized the Legion Wallonie that fought alongside the Germans on the Eastern Front. A similar Flemish unit, the 6e Vrijwilliger Afdeling Langemarck, was formed from Flemish volunteers. Both began as formations in the regular German army, but were later transferred to the Waffen SS.

The Brigade Piron arrived in Normandy on August 8, 1944, and served alongside British and Canadian units in northern France. On October 3rd, it was one of the first Allied units to enter Belgium and the following day it, and the Welsh Guards, entered Brussels.

The brigade was involved in combat in the Netherlands until November 1944, after which it returned to Belgium to be reorganized and recruit additional personnel, eventually numbering three infantry battalions, six batteries of artillery and an armored car regiment. Returning to combat in the Netherlands in April 1945, the brigade's units fought at Nijmegen and Walcheren.

In the postwar period, the Brigade Piron, expanded and renamed the "Liberation" Regiment, formed the core of the Belgian army of occupation in Germany. The Free Belgian special forces formed the basis for the Belgian army's 1st Commando Regiment and 1st Parachute Regiment.

The Force Publique

Between 1874 and 1877, the famous African explorer Henry Morton Stanley made a journey across central Africa and discovered the course of the Congo River. Intrigued by Stanley's findings, King Leopold II of Belgium engaged him to establish his authority in the Congo basin. By 1884, Stanley had signed treaties with several African rulers purportedly giving the Belgian monarch sovereignty in their areas.

At the Conference of Berlin (1884-85) the European powers recognized Leopold's claim to the so-called Congo Free State.

To control and police the new colony, in 1885 Leopold created a gendarmerie known as the Force Publique. The officers and high ranking non-coms consisted of Belgian regular soldiers, while the rank and file African soldiers, known as askaris, were recruited locally.

The Force Publique was equipped with standard Belgian small arms. At the outbreak of World War I, the primary rifles were the Fusil d'Infanterie Mie. 1873 (Albini-Braendlin), a single-shot, hinged breech weapon firing 11mm blackpowder ammunition, and the Fusil d'Infanterie Modele 1889.

In the late 1930s most were reequipped with the Fusil d'Infanterie Modele 1889/36, which remained in service into the 1960s.

During World War I, the Force Publique had served against German colonial forces in Burundi, the Cameroons, German East Africa and Rwanda. They performed well, winning the respect of their British, Indian, Portuguese and South African allies, as well as that of their German opponents.

With the German conquest of Belgium in 1940, the authorities in the Congo sided with the government in exile in London, and provided much-needed raw materials, most notably gold and uranium, to Britain and the United States.

The Force Publique was expanded, eventually numbering 40,000 askaris and 280 European officers. Three brigades were sent to Abyssinia in June 1940 to assist the British in conquering the Italian colony, where they performed admirably.

They assisted in the conquest of Vichy-controlled colony of Dahomey. Another group, designated the 1st Belgian Congo Brigade Group, were transferred to Egypt and British Palestine. Members of the Force Publique also served with British forces during the invasion of Madagascar and the Burma Campaign.

I would like to thank the following for providing materials used to prepare this report: Capt. Monty Mendenhall, Stuart Mowbray, Joe Puelo, Vince DiNardi, Lisa Warren, the late Peter Kokalis, Max Popenker, Blake Stevens, Collector Grade Publications and James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, ME, www.jamesdjuha.com.

By Paul Scarlata Photos by: Paul Budde (unless otherwise indicated)

Caption: Prewar Belgian reservists were still armed with the Fusil d'Infanterie Modele 1889, the first smallbore, smokeless powder Mauser rifle adopted by any nation.

Caption: In 1940, some Belgian reservists were still armed with the Carabine pour Mitrailleurs, Batteries d'Infanterie et Agents de Transmission Modele 1916.

Caption: The Fusil d'Infanterie Modele 1935 used a 98-type Mauser receiver and flush-mounted box magazine, (source: Bolt Action Military Rifles, Mowbray Publishing)

Caption: The Fusil d'Infanterie Modele 1889/36 had a new, shorter barrel and sights installed. (source: Bolt Action Military Rifles, Mowbray Publishing)

Caption: Prewar Belgian soldiers armed with a World War I Belgian Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915. (courtesy James D. Julia Auctioneers, Fairfield, ME, www.jamesdjulia.com)

Caption: These Belgian soldiers are armed with an FN Modele 1935 pistol and Modele 30 machine gun, while the gunner's assistant is holding a Modele 30 magazine. (FN Archives)

Caption: The FN-made Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 30 was the standard light machine gun of the Belgian army at the outbreak of World War II. (courtesy Max Popenker)

Caption: The standard pistol of the Belgian armed forces in 1940 was the FN Pistolet Grande Puissance Modele 1935. Note the original tangent rear sight.

Caption: The Luxembourgeois platoon of the Brigade Piron armed with No. 1 Mk. III * Lee-Enfields. Relatively few Belgians, Dutch and Luxembourgeois escaped to fight.

Caption: The standard submachine gun of the Belgian army was the Mitraillette Modele 34, a variant of the 9mm Parabellum 0 German MP.28. (Monty Mendenhall photo)

Caption: Two Belgian soldiers. The man on the right has both a Mitraillette Modele 34 and a Modele 89 rifle. Belgian troops held up the German advance for several days.

Caption: Askaris of the Force Publique were armed with the Fusil d'Infanterie Modele 1889/36. Like other colonial forces, they contributed to the Allied cause.

Caption: The Brigade Piron was equipped with British uniforms and arms, including No. 4 Enfield rifles. It was to form the nucleus of the postwar Belgian Army.

Caption: Belgian soldiers of the 5th Special Air Service ride in a jeep armed with three Vickers K machine guns, former aircraft guns with a very high rate of fire.

Caption: As in most European nations, some switched sides, like this MP40armed member of Leon Degrelle's Legion Wallonie fighting with the Waffen SS on the Eastern Front.
SPECIFICATIONS

FUSIL D'INFANTERIE MODELE 1889

Caliber:           Cartouche Balle
                   7,65mm Mle. 1889

Overall Length:    50 inches

Barrel Length:     30.7 inches

Weight:            8.1 pounds

Magazine:          Five-round, charger-loaded,
                   single-column box

WSBr Sights:       Front--Inverted V-blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable by
                   ramp & leaf from 100 to
                   2000 meters

Bayonet:           10-inch single-edge blade

SPECIFICATIONS

CARABINE POUR MITRAILLEURS,
BATTERIES D'INFANTERIE ETAGENTS
DE TRANSMISSION MODELE 1916

Caliber:           Cartouche Balle
                   7,65mm Modele 1889

Overall Length:    41.2 inches

Barrel Length:     21.65 inches

Weight:            7.8 pounds

Magazine:          Five-round, charger-loaded,
                   single-column box

Sights:            Front--Inverted V-blade *
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable by
                        ramp & leaf from 100 to
                        2000 meters

Bayonet:           16-inch single-edged blade

SPECIFICATIONS

FUSIL D'INFANTERIE MODELE 1889/36

Caliber:           Cartouche Balle
                   7,65mm Modele 30

Overall Length:    43.1 inches

Barrel Length:     23.6 inches

Weight:            8.3 pounds

Magazine:          Five-round, charger-loaded,
                   single-column box

Sights:            Front--Inverted V-blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable by
                        tangent from 100 to 2000
                        meters

Bayonet:           10-inch single-edged blade

SPECIFICATIONS

FUSIL D'INFANTERIE MODELE 1935

Caliber:           Cartouche Balle
                   7,65mm Modele 30

Overall Length:    43.6 inches

Barrel Length:     23.4 inches

Weight:            8.9 pounds

Magazine:          Five-round, charger-loaded

Sights:            Front--Inverted V-blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable by
                        tangent from 100 to
                        2000 meters

Bayonet:           10-inch single-edged blade

SPECIFICATIONS

FUSIL MITRAILLEUR MODELE 1915/27

Caliber:           Cartouche Balle
                   7,65mm Modele 1889.
Overall Length:    45 inches

Barrel Length:     18.5 inches

Weight:            18 pounds

Magazine:          25-round detachable box

Sights:            Front--Inverted V-blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable by
                   tangent from 200 to
                   2000 meters

Rate of Fire:      400 rpm

SPECIFICATIONS

FUSIL MITRAILLEUR MODELE 1930

Caliber:           Cartouche Balle
                   7,65mm Modele 1930.

Overall Length:    45 inches

Barrel Length:     18.5 inches

Weight:            18 pounds

Magazine:          20-round detachable box

Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--Aperture adjustable by leaf
                   from 200 to 1500 meters
Rate of Fire:      350 & 600 mm

SPECIFICATIONS

FN PISTOLET GRANDE
PUISSANCE MODELE 1935

Caliber:           9mm Cartouche Modele 1935

Overall Length:    7.8 inches

Barrel Length:     4.625 inches

Weight:            35 ounces

Magazine:          13-round double-column box

Sights:            Front--Serrated blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable from
                   50 to 500 meters

Bayonet:           Checkered wood

MITRAILLETTE MODELE 34

Caliber:           9mm Cartouche Modele 1935

Overall Length:    32 inches

Barrel Length:     7.8 inches

Weight:            8.8 pounds

Magazine:          32-round side-mounted box

Sights:            Front--Inverted V-blade
                   Rear--V-notch adjustable by
                   tangent from 100 to
                   1000 meters

Bayonet:           None

Rate of Fire:      500 rpm

SPECIFICATIONS

SHORT MAGAZINE:
LEE-ENFIELD NO. 1 MK. III *

Caliber:           .303 Mark VII

Overall Length:    44.5 Inches

Barrel Length:     25 Inches

Weight:            8 pounds, 10 ounces

Magazine:          10-round charger-loaded box

Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--U-notch adjustable by
                   tangent from 200 to
                   2000 yards

Boyonet:           Sword style with
                   17-inch single-edge blade

SPECIFICATIONS

RIFLE NO. 4 MK. I

Caliber:           .303 Mark VII

Overall Length:    44.4 inches

Barrel Length:     25 inches

Weight:            8.7 pounds

Magazine:          10-round charger-loaded box

Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--300-yard battle sight &
                   aperture adjustable by leaf
                   from 200 to 1300 yards

Bayonet:           Socket style with
                   8-inch cruciform snike

SPECIFICATIONS

GUN, MACHINE, DREN,
.303 INCHES, MARK II

Caliber:           .303 Mk. VII

Overall Length:    45.25 Inches

Barrel Length:     25 inches

Weight:            22 pounds, 5 ounces.

Magazine:          30-round detachable box

Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--Aperture adjustable by leaf
                   from 200 to 1800 yards

Rate of Fire:      500 rpm

SPECIFICATIONS

PISTOL, REVOLVER,
NO 2. MARK I, .380 INCH

Caliber:           .380 Mark 2

Overall Length:    10.25 inches

Barrel Length:     5 inches

Weight:            27 ounces

Capacity:          6

Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--Square notch

Grips:             Wood or Bakelite

SPECIFICATIONS

PISTOL, REVOLVER,
WERLEY .380 INCHES, MARK IV

Caliber:           .380 Mark 2

Overall Length:    10.5 inches

Barrel Length:     5 inches

Weight:            27 ounces

Capacity:          6

Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--V-notch

Grips:             Bakelite

SPECIFICATIONS

MACHINE CARRINE, STEN, MARK II

Caliber:           Cartridge, S.A. Ball, 9mm, Mark 1z

Overall Length:    30 inches

Barrel Length:     7.75 inches

Weight:            6.5 pounds

Magazine:          32-round detachable box

Sights:            Front--Blade
                   Rear--Aperture fixed
                   for 100 yards

Rate of Fire:      550 rpm
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Author:Scarlata, Paul
Publication:Firearms News
Geographic Code:4EUBL
Date:Jul 1, 2017
Words:3537
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