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Vinkt is a small village in Belgium, with about 1,200 inhabitants, now part of the town of Deinze and situated 20 km southwest of Ghent. It was near the Vinkt bridge over the Schipdonk Canal that in May 1940 at least 86 civilians were killed by the German Wehrmacht in a war crime known in Belgium as the Vinkt massacre.
The situation on May 25
As the German Army continued to advance west, pushing back both the British Expeditionary Force (trying to escape to Dunkirk) and the Belgian army, the village of Vinkt became an important target, as it lay both on the road south from Gent to Lille, and astride the Schipdonk Canal that blocked the German advance to the west. However, on May 25, both sides already knew the outcome of the Battle for France: the French army had collapsed and the Belgian army had been reduced to prolonging the war for the sole purpose of protecting the British retreat.
The bridge over the Schipdonk Canal was being guarded by the 1st Belgian Division of Chasseurs ardennais (which in the Belgian army of the day meant one regiment of tanks out of five regiments in a division - the rest being motor riders and cyclists). Coincidentally, this division turned out to be one of the most motivated in the Belgian army. The Belgian command decided not to destroy but to guard the bridge, so as to help as many British stragglers as possible on their way west, and as many Belgian refugees as possible on their way south: more than one million Belgians (most of them on foot, as cars and horses had been requisitioned by the different armies) had become refugees. News of what happened at Vinkt would cause an additional one million to flee south or even west. By the middle of June, according to Red Cross figures, 30% of the Belgian population had left the country.
Arriving near the bridge on May 25, the German 225th Division, consisting mostly of badly trained soldiers from Itzehoe in the North of the Hamburg area, found it impossible to cross. They then took 140 civilians hostage and used them as human shields. As the Chasseurs ardennais managed to continue to harass the German positions with great precision, and crossing remained impossible, a grenade exploded among the hostages, killing 27.
On this Sunday, The Germans took hostages both at the Meigem and Vinkt church, and at various farms in the neighbourhood. Some hostages were killed on the spot, but the most horrible event happened at Meigem church, where an explosion killed 27 hostages.
Adolf Hitler, on German radio, demanded Belgium's immediate and unconditional surrender. Belgian King Leopold III announced to his government that he would use his authority as Supreme Army Commander to lay down arms. For the constitutional crisis following this, see the History of Belgium.
Meanwhile, the Chasseurs ardennais, completely in the dark about all this, were still holding and defending the bridge against vastly superior odds. For unclear reasons, the 225th Division now started to execute their hostages, and taking new ones, executing them on the spot. Refugees were taken out at random from the endless columns on the trek south and executed immediately. One priest managed to escape buried under two dead colleagues. He was one of four such victims managing to escape to tell the tale.
Leopold III and the Belgian army capitulated in the early morning (4 am, 5 am German time).
This did not stop the carnage in Vinkt. Nine hostages were shot after the capitulation. In a style that would subsequently become all too familiar on the Eastern Front, the last five victims had to dig their own graves first.
Total number of victims
Most sources claim between 86 and 140 victims, 86 being the total number of executed victims. The divergence stems from the fact that other historians include the victims in front of the bridge and those 27 killed by the explosion at the church in Meigem. Whereas the exploded grenade on May 25 was almost certainly German, the explosion at the church has usually been attributed to Belgian artillery. However, there remains a controversy over the church explosion, as some victims later claimed they saw German officers throw hand grenades into the church, and all women hostages were taken out of the church just before the explosion - ensuring that all 140 victims of the incident were male.
A very different picture was painted by the priest who managed to escape on May 27: he claimed to have seen dead women and children, even babies. Since no corpses of women or children were later found, this would imply, if true, that the scene was later cleaned up, and the real death toll of the executions is much higher than the 86 or 140 usually claimed. However, most Belgian historians believe that any additional refugee victims the priest saw, were killed in crossfire, and not intentionally.
The Vinkt massacre shares some strange similarities with the later massacre at Nemmersdorf (today Mayakovskoye) in East Prussia, where there are similar accusations of embellishment and manipulation after the fact and an attempt was made to include refugees killed in crossfire before a bridge among those executed.
As news of the carnage spread, German press sources denied it or excused it, claiming that Belgian civilians had dressed up as soldiers. Although British newspapers knew the exact story, they refused to press the point - because this had happened in Belgium, they were afraid of being accused that they were repeating the war propaganda claims they had made in 1914 with the gross exaggeration of "the rape of little Belgium".
On the Western Front, the Vinkt massacre was not only the first major infraction of the Geneva Convention by the German army, but also unique in that it was committed by an ordinary Wehrmacht unit, and not by a special SS unit, not even by the Waffen SS. It may be the only notable war crime of the Wehrmacht committed on the Western Front before 1944.
Although largely ignored outside Belgium, it did not go entirely unpunished. The German officers were tried in an after war trial.
- Norbert Frei, Transnationale Vergangenheitspolitik. Wallstein Verlag 2007, ISBN 3-89244-940-6, S. 345