The first time an airplane landed in Chièvres was during World War I. Germany had invaded Belgium and with its expansive farmlands, Chièvres had become one of Germany's prime locations for establishing a military air base A photograph dated 1917, depicting a German aircraft landing on the grassy fields of Chièvres, is the first historical indication of what would soon become a vital and strategical base point for many battles. The Germans, however, would not have the time to build this air base as Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, terminating World War I. Chièvres "airfield" thus returned to a peaceful agricultural land.
The development of military operations and political events at that time also attracted the Belgian defense authorities to Chièvres as a prime site for an airfield. During the winter of 1939-40 the Belgian government drew up plans to establish that airfield for Belgian military aviation. However, plans to build the airbase came to a halt in May of 1940 when Germany once again invaded Belgium during World War II. On 19 May, the German 35th Infantry Division, 27th Corps, commanded by General Hans Reinhard, entered Chièvres.
The Germans soon carried out their 1917 project to make Chièvres an operational airfield. The expansive fields surrounding Chièvres were ideal for this purpose, as was Chièvres' location halfway between Germany and the coast of Great Britain. In preparation for the airbase construction, various houses in the area were leveled, the grand trees lining the road from Ath to Mons were cut down, and immediate excavation to fill in partition ditches and remove fences and hedges began on the fields. At the end of May 1940, the Germans added 1,050 acres to the airfield eight times larger than the Belgians had originally planned in 1939. The airfield then increased to 1,235.3 acres. This was quite small in comparison to the expansion that would take place over the next several years. In 1944 the airfield reached its maximum size of over 3,706.5 acres. The Germans rounded up every able-bodied person to work on the construction. In 1940-1941, they employed more than 9,000 men and women to equip the field, build the runways, hangars, barracks and towers. For several years on a daily basis, trains filled to capacity brought thousands of workers electricians, builders, road workers, masons all earning between 6 and 8 Belgian Francs per hour. Two runways, which were 21.26 yards wide and 1.24 miles long, were quickly built with concrete and painted in camouflage with green and brown paint. Because heavily loaded aircraft carrying bombs and fuel could hardly gain altitude, the Germans cut the rooftop peaks off of many houses situated at the end of the runways as a safety measure. These houses, with their interrupted rooflines still stand today near the control tower on Chièvres Air Base.
In addition to the airfield construction, the Germans built a railway line from the Mévergnies train station to Chièvres airfield, to the repair shops at Bauffe, and to the woods called "Bois des Billettes" where a depot for seamines was located. The Germans built sheds for unloading and storing equipment and fuel with eight fuel depots totaling a capacity of 160,369.88 gallons. The largest fuel tank, which was brought through Chièvres square, was buried under the Grand'Place as the truck carrying the tank could not make the turn through the town with such large cargo. This tank, although empty, still remains beneath the Grand'Place today.
For its defense, the airfield was surrounded with a net of antiaircraft batteries. Six batteries of six guns were placed all around the airbase in shelters containing their own ammunition bunkers, telephone, and other necessary equipment. To detect and pinpoint enemy airplanes, the Germans also set up three powerful radar posts:
The first unit to occupy Chièvres in 1940 was one of the most famous Luftwaffe fighter wings the "Jagdegeschwader 26" flying Messerschmitt Bf109E fighters. Their main mission was to attack the beachhead of Dunkirk, France and to bomb airfield and airplane factories in the vicinity of Paris. Because of the lack of ground-support installations, the Germans soon abandoned Chièvres.
Italy then declared war on France and Britain, and as a result, suffered from several severe British bombings. The Italian government was forced to order counterattacks on Britain; however, their bomber range was not expansive enough to reach British soil from faraway Italy. No longer occupying Chièvres, the Germans authorized a contingent for Italy under German command. Under this contingent, Italy was able to carry out their counterattacks on Britain from Chièvres where their aircraft could easily reach British targets.
Because the Italians were now occupying Belgian soil, the Belgian government in exile in London declared war on Italy in November of 1940.
Using Chièvres as their base of attack, the Italian 43rd Group participated in several air raids over Britain, bombing the ports of Ramsgate, Harwich, and Ipswich. Many of these raids did not end well for the Italians mainly due to the inexperience of the pilots in combat situations and inclement weather.
At the end of December 1940, the Italian government recalled the Italian Air Corps from Belgium as the military situation was becoming increasingly worse in the Mediterranean area.
Once again occupying Chièvres, the Germans, in order to deceive Allied reconnaissance aircraft, had 50 oxen working on the base, as well as 1,000 sheep that also kept the grass down as well as helping with the crop cultivation. To the enemy aircraft flying overhead, all that could be seen from the skies over Chièvres was the usual agricultural activities. The Germans also built a fake airfield in a small village called Aubechies. This &uquot;airfield" was composed of two wooden hangars and two "dummy" planes, which looked like bombers. At night, during air raids, the fake hangars, buildings. and runways were purposely illuminated, thus diverting the Allies' attention from Chièvres.
On 14 June 1944, approximately thirty German aircraft from Chièvres bombed the landing beaches in Normandy. Later that month, K.G. 6 moved its aircraft to an airfield near Paris, but soon returned to Chièvres after the bombing of Normandy. The Germans stayed in Chièvres until the end of August, but were forced to retreat to a Dutch airfield on 1 September 1944. Before leaving, the Germans destroyed all the airfield's installations. Moreover, the staff of the German military administration brought more than 27.5 tons of base documents and records to the Chièvres Grand'Place. Tanker trucks poured petrol over papers, records, and other documents. The entire history of Chièvres airbase over the last four years had disappeared.
On 3 September 1944, motorized and armored units of the 1st U.S. Division, coming from Beloeil, entered Chièvres. Chièvres was liberated. Within a week of the liberation, the Army Engineers of the USAAF established a camp at Chièvres and began to rebuild the destroyed airfield. They started by filling in bomb craters by means of freight cars full of coke, a residue of coal. On 1 October 1944, the airbase was once again fully operational and became Advance Landing Ground A-84 of the 9th U.S. Army Air Force. The first to set up at Chièvres was the 365th Fighter Group commanded by Colonel Ray Stecker. It was composed of the 386th, 387th, and 388th Fighter Squadrons flying P-47 Thunderbolts. They were succeeded by the 368th Fighter Group, the 361st Fighter Group, and the 352nd Fighter Group.
The P-47s flying from Chièvres took part in the Battle of the Bulge, flying interdiction missions agains German motorized columns in the Ardennes.
After V-E day and until December 1945, U.S. Army personnel and engineers occupied the airfield. B-24 Liberators flew repatriated allied prisoners of war coming from German camps. The Americans also established a camp for German prisoners of war. For a short period of time, the airbase was partly occupied by a Polish guard company, incorporated into the U.S. Army. Its task was guarding the airfield and clearing the area. In December 1945, the Americans left and returned the base to Belgian military authorities.
Evidence of World War II still remains in the peaceful farming community of today as historical spy and radar towers can still be found along roadsides. Live mines are found from time to time, the last found in 1995, as farmers continue to till the land. Bunkers, though well hidden by overgrown grass and reshaped by wind and rain, can be found with a keen eye among the sugar beets growing in the fields. Caserne Daumerie, which was built by the Germans and later bombed during World War II, was repaired and remains today as the present home of the 80th ASG and 39th Signal Battalion Headquarters.
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