Belgian Congo WWII


Fokker F.VII3m Belgian Congo.


Congolese soldiers of the Force Publique, 1943.

The Congo was also characterized by the extraordinary development of huge mining industries (particularly in the province of Katanga, well known for its copper, and in the Kasai region, famous for its industrial diamonds). From the 1920s on, heavy investments in the exploitation of the colony’s rich mineral resources transformed the Congo into a major actor in the world economy. During both world wars, the Belgian Congo played a great role as purveyor of raw materials for the Allies, while the Congolese troops also engaged in warfare against the German and Italian forces.

Believing the war lost and over, King Léopold refused to lead a Belgian government-in-exile. Instead, he stayed in-country while the Belgian government was trapped in Vichy. A rival government-in-exile formed in London in July that sharply criticized the king and continued to fight the German occupation with whatever personnel escaped and military resources were provided by the Western Allies. Over the next four years the London government drew upon the distant asset of the natural resources and native troops of the Belgian Congo.

King Leopold III of Belgium and his govern surrendered to the Germans on 27 May 1940, but a Belgian government, led by H. Pierlot, in exile in London went on with the war. The governor of Congo, Pierre Ryckmans, supported the exiled government. Congo was of great economic importance for the Allies, thanks to the abundance of minerals (Uranium included). For this reason the exploitation of local workers increased during the war, causing the strikes of Jadothville and Elisabethville (since 4 December 1941, crushed with violence) and then the general strikes and revolts of Katanga and Kasai of 1944. Moreover the forced labour (corvee) was doubled from 60 days each year to 120.

In 1941 Congolese troops (two battalions), commanded by gen. Gilliaert, took part to the campaign in East Africa and, on 6 July 1941, they accepted the surrender with honours of war of the exhausted forces (5,000 Italians and 2,000 Ethiopians) of gen. Pietro Gazzera in the region of Galla e Sidamo (South-West Ethiopia), already attacked by the 23rd Nigerian and 22nd East African brigades and Ethiopian rebels.

From the military point of view it should be note that the Belgian expeditionary Force first entered western Italian East Africa on 19 March 1941 at the Sudanese border town of Jokau and marched up the Subai River in the direction of the town of Gambela sixty miles distant (1). The only opposition the Belgians and Congolese experienced now in this Sudanese town (occupied by the Italians in June 1940) was from a 400-man Bande unit, which was quickly routed. On 21 March, as the Belgians approached the outskirts of Gambela they ran into a static defence line manned by a couple of Italian officered Bande units. The Congolese were sent to attack but were repulsed, therefore the next day a KAR unit circled around to the north and attacked the Bande defences on their right flank. The Italians and their native auxiliaries were taken completely by surprise and quickly withdrew. Soon afterwards the Congolese moved in again, occupied the town and dug in at in and near Gambela, thus accomplishing their main mission with a minimal loss of 3 Congolese Askari killed and 3 Belgian officers and 15 Congolese Askari wounded. At the end of June the Congolese were back at action. This time General Pietro Gazzera with his force of 300 Italian officers (including nine generals) and 5,000 askari was retreating to Dembidollo, when he was attacked by the Congolese. Pressed by them, the KAR troops closing the gap from the east and SAAF pounding him day and night, he radioed to Adis Abeba on 3th July that he is willing to surrender his force. Arrangements were made and on 6 July, the Belgian Congolese commander, Major-General Gillaert, accepted Gazzera’s surrender at Gambela.

(1) Other source claimed that the first contact took place eight day earlier when a Belgian Congolese battalion with a KAR unit attacked the town of Asosa. The Italians quickly withdrew and retreated south to the town of Ghidami. Apparently the Belgians and Congolese were also active at the Italians stronghold at Saio, where they have by early June 1941 assembled three Congolese infantry battalions, a mortar and engineer company and a couple of 75mm batteries of mountain artillery.On 3 July the Belgians launched their version of blitzkrieg and attacked the “dumplings” in front of Bortai creek. One battalion circled around and threatened the Italian line of retreat, while others two engaged themselves in the dumplings. The Italians soon had it enough and surrendered with a force of total 2,500 Italians and 3,500 askari.

There are several sources (most in French but also English) about the military aspects of the Belgian Campaign in Italian East Africa 1940-1941. The titles are listed below. Most of them are hard to track down and if you by any chance of do that the prices are usually “abnormal”, if you know what I mean.

Weller, George Anthony: The Belgian Campaign in Ethiopia: A Trek of 2,500 Miles through Jungle Swamps and Desert Wastes. New York: Belgian Information Center, 1941


Werbrouck, R.: La Campagne des Troupes Coloniales Belges en Abyssinie. Leopoldville, Congo: Courrier d’Afrique.

Bruls, J.: Vers les Hauts Plateaux d’Abyssinie avec les Congolais en Guerre. Louvain: Editions SAM, 1946.


The Belgian underground was a strong presence in the country. In the beginning, organized resistance grew from a core of those who had masterminded anti-German activities during World War I. As the possibility of ultimate German defeat became increasingly real, the Belgian resistance movement grew rapidly, some, though not all of it, organized by the Belgian Communist Party. Belgian resistance was not organized solely to sabotage German war efforts. A great deal of the underground was dedicated to developing and maintaining intelligence networks to supply the Allies with information and also with developing networks, lines, and safe houses to aid in the escape of downed Allied airmen.

Somewhat less significant were the Belgian armed forces in exile. They were very small in number, amounting only to about 3,000 men, of whom only some 1,600 had arms and equipment. A Belgian battalion was organized at Tenby, Wales, and participated in Allied efforts to liberate Belgium. Some 300 Belgians also served in small commando units and in units of the Special Air Service (SAS). In terms of numbers, about 40,000 colonial troops in the Belgian Congo remained under Allied control throughout the war and served in Africa. After the liberation of Belgium, they constituted more than half the 75,000-man new Belgian army that was quickly formed to fight in the closing months of the war.


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