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Leopold III (November 3, 1901 – September 25, 1983) was King of the Belgians from 1934 until 1951. On the outbreak of World War II, Leopold tried to maintain Belgian neutrality, but after the German invasion in May 1940, he surrendered his country, earning him much hostility, both at home and abroad.

Prince Leopold was born in Brussels, the first child of Prince Albert, Duke of Brabant, heir to the Belgian throne, and his consort, Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria. In 1909 his father became King of the Belgians, as Albert I, and Prince Leopold became Duke of Brabant

In August 1914, when Belgium was invaded by Germany, King Albert allowed Leopold, then aged twelve, to enlist in the Belgian Army as a private and fight in defence of the kingdom. However, in 1915, with Belgium almost entirely occupied by the Germans, Leopold was sent to join Eton College, while his father fought on in France.
After the war, in 1919, the Duke of Brabant visited the Old Mission and Saint Anthony Seminary in Santa Barbara, California.

He married Princess Astrid of Sweden in a civil ceremony in Stockholm on November 4, 1926, followed by a religious ceremony in Brussels on November 10.

Princess Astrid was born on November 17, 1905, at the Arvfurstens Palats in Stockholm as the third child and youngest daughter of Prince Carl, Duke of Västergötland, and his wife, Princess Ingeborg of Denmark. Her father was the third son of Oscar II, King of Sweden and Norway, by his wife, Sophia of Nassau. Her mother was a daughter of King Frederick VIII of Denmark by his wife, Louise of Sweden. Astrid’s father was a younger brother of King Gustav V of Sweden; her mother was the younger sister of kings Christian X of Denmark and Haakon VII of Norway. Astrid had two elder sisters Margaretha, Princess Axel of Denmark, and Märtha, Crown Princess of Norway, and a younger brother Prince Carl Bernadotte (prev. Prince Carl of Sweden, Duke of Östergötland).

When World War II broke out in September 1939, the French and British governments immediately sought to persuade Belgium to join them. Leopold and his government refused, maintaining Belgium’s neutrality. Belgium considered itself well-prepared against a possible invasion by Axis forces, for during the 1930s the Belgian government had made extensive preparations to deter and repel an invasion of the country by Germany such as the one that had occurred in 1914.

On May 10, 1940, the Wehrmacht invaded Belgium. On the first day of the offensive, the principal Belgian strong point of Fort Eben-Emael was overwhelmed by a daring paratroop operation and the defensive perimeter thus penetrated before any French or British troops could arrive. After a short running battle that eventually involved the armies of all four belligerents, Belgium was overwhelmed by the numerically superior and better-prepared Germans.

Nevertheless, the Belgian perseverance prevented the British Expeditionary Force from being outflanked and cut off from the coast, enabling the evacuation from Dunkirk. Alan Brooke who commanded II Corps of the BEF thought that the 10th Belgian Division was in the wrong place and wanted to deploy north of Brussels to avoid “double-banking”. He was advised by Roger Keyes to see the King, and on May 12 was “making progress in getting matters put right” in discussion with the king in English, but was interrupted (twice) by the King’s advisor who spoke to the King in French (in which Brooke was fluent).

The advisor was insistent that the Belgian division could not be moved and the BEF should be stopped further south and clear of Brussels; Brooke said he was not putting the whole case to the king; he found that arguing with the advisor was a sheer waste of time as he cared little about the BEF and most of his suggestions were “fantastic”.

The King’s advisor Van Overstraeten was not the Chief of Staff, as Brooke had assumed, but the king’s aide-de-camp, with the rank of Major-General, and would not give up the Louvain front. The French liaison officer, General Champon, told Brooke that Van Overstraeten had ascendancy over the King and had taken control, so it was useless to see the Chief of Staff. Later (15 May) Brooke found that the BEF was likely to “have both flanks turned” with French defeats, and started withdrawal on 16 May.

After his military surrender, Leopold (unlike Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands in a similar predicament) remained in Brussels to surrender to the victorious invaders, while his entire civil government fled to Paris and later to London.

On May 24, 1940, Leopold, having assumed command of the Belgian Army, met with his ministers for the final time. The ministers urged the King to leave the country with the government. Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot reminded him that capitulation was a decision for the Belgian government, not the King. The king indicated that he had decided to remain in Belgium with his troops, whatever the outcome. The ministers took this to mean that he would establish a new government under the direction of Hitler, potentially a treasonous act. Leopold thought that he might be seen as a deserter if he were to leave the country: “Whatever happens, I have to share the same fate as my troops.”

Leopold had long had a difficult and contentious relationship with his ministers, acting independently of government influence whenever possible, and seeking to circumvent and even limit the ministers’ powers, while expanding his own.

French, British, and Belgian troops were encircled by German forces at the Battle of Dunkirk. Leopold notified King George VI by telegram on 25 May 1940 that Belgian forces were being crushed, saying “assistance which we give to the Allies will come to an end if our army is surrounded”. Two days later ( May 27, 1940), Leopold surrendered the Belgian forces to the Germans.