In May 1940, the German Army stormed into the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. Having crushed Poland the year before, and invaded and conquered Denmark and Norway just a few weeks earlier, the Germans now turned their attention to the west, and the small nations on the North Sea coast were the first on their list.
Employing a new form of warfare; known as “blitzkrieg,” or “lightning war;” the Germans swept into Dutch and Belgian territory, overwhelming or driving back all who tried to resist. In Belgium, King Leopold III recognized the hopelessness of his country’s situation, and opted to surrender just weeks after the invasion.
While many monarchs and elected leaders of occupied nations (including much of Belgium’s civil government) fled to create governments-in-exile, Leopold stayed behind and surrendered with his army. He was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner for five years, eventually ending up in a house near Strobl, Austria.
It was there on May 7, 1945, that the King was liberated by soldiers of a unit comprised largely of men from the Illinois National Guard.
The U.S. Army’s 106th Cavalry Group had started out almost 50 years earlier as the 1st Regiment of Illinois Volunteer Cavalry during the Spanish-American War. The unit served with distinction in Mexico in 1916 and during World War I in 1918.
By the time America entered World War II in 1941 the regiment had been modernized and re-designated as the 1st Squadron, 106th Cavalry. Soldiers from all 48 states had joined the Illinoisans in the 106th. It was inducted into federal service and trained at bases in Louisiana and Texas. In 1942, the last of the regiment’s horses were retired and it became a fully mechanized unit.
In February 1944, the 106th, under the command of Colonel Vennard Wilson, embarked at New York bound for England, there to join the great invasion which would liberate Western Europe. The 1500 soldiers of the 106th began landing in Normandy about four weeks after the initial invasion.
“Such as we were, we went to war, in a confused sort of way,” wrote the authors of the 106th history, The 106th Cavalry Group in Europe, 1944-1945. “Normandy was our experimental lab. It was a bitter place where the enemy was discovering that he was losing the war.”
After more than a month penned into a relatively small area around the landing beaches, the 106th and the other Allied forces finally broke through the German line and began the drive toward Paris and across Northern France. “In front of us, resistance was crumbling, and it was like seeing a streak of blue in the sky after many days of rain,” wrote the 106th’s historians.
Over the next eleven months, the 106th played its part in the daring Allied drive across France and into Germany. As a cavalry reconnaissance unit attached to General George Patton’s 3rd Army, the 106th was often out in front of the advancing army.
Along the way, they traded their light M5A1 tanks for the more heavily armed M24.
Now part of the U.S. 7th Army, they breached the vaunted German Siegfried Line defenses along Germany’s border with France and crossed the Rhine into the German heartland in late March 1945. Their first crossing of the Rhine involved two soldiers from Troop A of the 106th rowing across the river in a small rowboat. The unit crossed in much larger force the next day.
With the coming of spring, the 106th turned south toward the Alps, crossing the Danube River on April 27 and accepting the surrender of larger numbers of German and Axis soldiers, including a Hungarian division at Wasserburg, Germany on May 2 (which was retreating away from Soviet forces advancing from the east). The 106th helped to seal off any chance of Nazi die-hards mounting a last stand in the rugged peaks of the Alps.
Having taken control of the German Autobahn highway system, Allied forces now raced through the country and into Austria, encountering surrendering troops, but also hitting pockets of resistance as well as individual snipers. As the 106th established its headquarters in Salzburg, Austria, it was clear that the war was coming to an end.
“The day ended in a blaze of luxurious glory. We billeted ourselves in the Osterreicher Hof, the best hotel in Salzburg, and feted our latest victory with a steak dinner and excellent wine.”
But the 106th’s war wasn’t over just yet.
As some of the soldiers were sitting at a café, they were approached by a well-dressed man on a bicycle who asked them for assistance. The man was Austrian Prince Georg Furstenberg, “a well-known anti-Nazi,” who asked if the Americans would help to release some food supplies which were being hoarded by a local mayor. With the use of a tank, the Americans were able to persuade the mayor to release the food to the local residents.
In gratitude, the prince invited the soldiers to his home and shared another story with them.
“The grateful prince invited the men to his home where they heard the story of King Leopold III and his wife, Princess Lilian, being spotted in the back seat of a German staff car headed to a nearby mountain chalet,” said Lt. Col. Raymond Pierlot, the assistant military attache at the Belgian embassy in Washington while attending a regimental reunion in 1999.
The Americans carefully concocted a plan to outfox the Germans and rescue the royal family. A group of German-speaking officers from the 106th moved to the King’s rescue, driving a large Mercedes which had belonged to the former German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. The German SS guards fell for the ruse.
“The men, using a hand-drawn map, drove to the chalet and approached through the gate. The German guards, thinking it was a German staff car, let the Americans pass. The 17 Germans guarding the King put up no resistance. The danger was real, though,” Pierlot said.
“Thus was the King of the Belgians liberated,” summarized the 106th’s account.
After his rescue, the King would pose for photos with the officers of the cavalry squadron which had come to his rescue.
The history of the 106th Cavalry Group includes the citations and letters typical of most World War II combat units: letters from Corps and Divisional commanders attesting to the unit’s service record. But there are two others which stand out.
“In the conduct of these operations the 106th Cavalry Group, U.S.A., showed a tenacity and vigor worthy of the greatest praise. Never allowing itself to be cut off, even when it was engaged with a determined enemy force superior in numbers to its own, successfully accomplishing all the missions assigned to it, persistently seeking contact when the enemy concealed himself, this Regiment has proven itself possessed of the highest military attributes and of a combat proficiency without equal. This Citation confers the decoration of Croix de Guerre with Palm.”
The letter is signed by Charles de Gaulle.
Another letter is much more specific.
“The 7th of May 1945 is a date which I shall never forget, for it was on that day that my family and I had the good fortune to be delivered from the enemy by your unit,” wrote King Leopold III. “Under all circumstances, you have shown yourselves worthy of the highest military traditions. For this I congratulate you and give each of you individually my best wishes for success in all things. I cannot doubt but that this association will reaffirm the bonds which unite Belgium and the great American nation.”
The ties between Belgium and the United States were solidified after the war, as the two nations developed close commercial ties and became allies in NATO. King Leopold’s story does not have a happy ending, however, as his countrymen were critical of his decision to surrender to the Germans instead of leading a government-in-exile as so many others had. He eventually abdicated his throne in 1951.
The 106th remained in Austria until October 1945, serving part of that time as an honor guard for King Leopold. The regiment returned to Illinois and was eventually headquartered at Urbana. The end of the war brought about a return to home and civilian life, but not for all.
“I feel pride in this regiment,” wrote Colonel Wilson in a post-war letter. “These exploits of ours were not without cost. You cannot whip the enemy unless you take your share of the losses. To our 1500 men there have been 701 Purple Hearts issued, and 215 of those will never again go into combat. We owe a certain debt to these dead.”
In all, 22,000 Illinoisans died in World War II, including 23 on D-Day.
The 106th Cavalry was kept alive through various reorganizations of the Illinois National Guard in the decades after the war. In the most recent reorganization in 2006, the 106th became the Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Target Acquisition squadron for the Illinois National Guard’s 33rd Brigade Combat Team. The unit’s headquarters troop is based in Kewanee, with A troop at Pontiac, B troop in Dixon and C troop in Aurora.