The Mechelen Incident

The Mechelen Incident of 10 January 1940, also known as the Mechelen affair, was an event during the Phoney War.

A German aircraft with an officer on-board carrying the plans for Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), a German attack on the Low Countries, crash-landed in neutral Belgium near Vucht, in the modern-day municipality of Maasmechelen. This revealed the plans to the French and British command and caused an immediate crisis situation, that however soon abated. It has been argued that the incident led to a major change in the German attack plan, but this hypothesis has also been disputed.

The affair began with a mistake made by the German aviator Major Erich Hoenmanns, the fifty-two year old airbase commander at Loddenheide airport, near Münster. On the morning of 10 January, he had been flying a Messerschmitt Bf 108 Taifun, a plane used for reconnaissance, liaison, and other miscellaneous roles, from Loddenheide to Cologne when he lost his way, extensive low fogbanks obscuring his view of the landscape. While searching for the River Rhine, which, he hoped, would enable him to regain his bearings, changing course he flew too far west, having already crossed the frozen over and indistinguishable Rhine, and ended up circling Vucht near the River Meuse, at this point the border river between Belgium and The Netherlands.

It was then that he appears to have inadvertently cut off the fuel supply to the plane's engine by moving a lever inside the cockpit. The engine spluttered, then stopped, and Hoenmanns was forced to land in a nearby field around 11:30 AM. The aircraft was severely damaged. Both wings were broken off when they hit two trees as he sped between them; the heavy engine tore off the nose section. Despite the fact that the plane was a write-off, Hoenmanns survived unscathed.

Had Hoenmanns been alone on the plane nothing of great import would likely have happened, apart from his internment for landing without permission in a neutral country. However, he had a passenger, one Major Helmuth Reinberger, who was responsible for organising the supplying of 7. Flieger-Division, the unit that was to land paratroopers behind the Belgian lines at Namur on the day of the coming attack. He was going to Cologne for a staff meeting and Hoenmanns had the previous evening in the mess of the base invited him over a drink to fly him there; usually Reinberger would have had to make the tedious trip by train, but Hoenmanns needed some extra flying hours anyway and wanted to bring his laundry to his wife in Cologne. Hoenmanns was unaware that Reinberger would have with him Germany’s plan for the attack on The Netherlands and Belgium, which at the day of the flight was decreed by Hitler to take place a week later on 17 January.

Hoenmanns only discovered that Reinberger was carrying secret documents when after landing they asked a farmhand where they were, to be told that they had unknowingly crossed Dutch territory and had landed just inside Belgium. On hearing this Reinberger panicked and rushed back to the plane to secure his yellow pigskin briefcase, crying that he had secret documents that he must destroy immediately. To let him do this Hoenmanns moved away from the plane as a diversion. Reinberger first tried to set fire to the documents with his cigarette lighter but this malfunctioned; he then ran to the farmhand who gave him a single match. With this Reinberger hid behind a thicket and piled the papers on the ground to burn them. But soon two Belgian border guards arrived on bicycles, Sergeant Frans Habets and private Gerard Rubens, and seeing smoke coming from the bushes, Rubens rushed over to save the documents from being completely destroyed. Reinberger fled at first but allowed himself to be taken prisoner after two warning shots had been fired.

The men were taken to the Belgian border guardhouse near Mechelen-aan-de-Maas (Mechelen-sur-Meuse). There they were interrogated by Captain Arthur Rodrique, who placed the charred documents on a table. Reinberger tried, after Hoenmanns had distracted the Belgian soldiers by asking to make use of the toilet, to stuff the papers into a burning stove nearby. He succeeded, however, as the lid of the stove was extremely hot, when lifting it he yelled with pain. Startled, Rodrique turned and snatched the papers from the fire, burning his hand badly. The documents were now locked away in a separate room. The failure to burn them made Reinberger realise that he was finished, as Hitler's henchmen would surely kill him if they got hold of him, for letting the attack plan fall into the hands of the enemy. He decided to commit suicide and tried to grab Rodrique's revolver; when the infuriated captain knocked him down, Reinberger burst into tears, yelling 'I wanted your revolver to kill myself'. Hoenmanns came to Reinberger's support saying: 'You can't blame him. He's a regular officer. He's finished now.'

Two hours later the first officers of the Belgian intelligence service arrived, bringing the papers to the attention of their superiors in the late afternoon.

The aircraft involved in the events described in Tom Paulin's poem 'The Mechelen Incident' (LRB, 24 August) was a Messerschmitt Me 108, not an Me 109. The Me 108 was 'a virtual fighter', designed in the 1930s as a four-seater touring aircraft. It was similar in appearance to the Me 109, possibly built as part of its development programme: the Me 109 was a single-seater fighter, one of the best produced by any nation in the Second World War. 'Me' was the British designation for the planes: in Germany they were called the 'Messerschmitt Bf 108' and 'Bf 109' after the manufacturer, Bayerische Flugzeugwerke. Willi Messerschmitt was head of the design team.