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The anti-tank ditch in Haacht

The anti-tank ditch in Haacht

Fancy a 3-km walk along a defensive wall from the Second World War? Then make your way to Haacht!

At the start of the First World War, the German Army invaded Belgium without a great deal of trouble, marching through largely undefended territory. In an attempt to make it more difficult for an invading army in the future, after the war new forts were constructed in Belgium, such as the supposedly impregnable fortress of Eben-Emael on the border with the Netherlands. Despite this, the country’s military leadership were still concerned about its ability to defend the country. When international tensions again began to rise in the late-1930s, they came up with a plan.

This involved building a 400-kilometre defensive line from the north of the country to the south: more specifically from Koningshooikt in Antwerp to Wavre. It was called the KW-line and was replete with bunkers, anti-tank walls, water-filled ditches, trenches, machine gun pillboxes, steel fences and barbed wire obstacles.

Haacht3Construction of the KW-line began in 1939, involving firstly conscripts and then about a thousand civilian workers hired from private contractors.

the Anti-Tank ditch in Haacht

The Belgian army was responsible for guarding the northern part of the line down to Leuven, while the British army was ready to hold the part from Leuven to Wavre.It became operational just in time: on the eve of the German Army’s advance: 10 May 1940.

Unfortunately, theory didn’t equate with practice. South of the KW-line, in northern France, the German Army was making great gains, while north of the KW-line, the Netherlands surrendered. There was a very real risk that the Belgian and British troops guarding the KW-line would become encircled.

Anti-tank: Anti-climax?

On 15 May 1940, the Germans reached the KW-line at Wijgmaal, just north of Leuven. A day later, the Belgian Allied High Command ordered its troops to pull back. The KW-line was abandoned, before it was ever really used. On 28 May, Belgium capitulated.

In Haacht, north of Leuven, part of the anti-tank ditch that formed a section of the KW-line is still visible. It covers 3 km between the Hansbrug, a bridge over the River Dijle, and the small village of Wakkerzeel. It consists of a 3.5 meter high concrete wall flanked by a ditch with several locks and dams to regulate the flow of water into the ditch.

The whole length of the 3-km anti-tank ditch in Haacht can be walked, although don’t go expecting anything spectacular. For much of the way it looks very much like … a low concrete wall and a rather muddy ditch! Part of it is now a nature reserve, as it’s been colonized by rushes and sedges, making it ideal for various amphibians, so spring is probably the best time of the year to visit it.

However, if you are interested in a bit of Belgian war memorabilia, it might be your ideal afternoon trip. If you want to get a feeling of the place, here is a Google Street View along the footpath.


Thanks to reader Alan Anderson for sending me this picture of his local KW-line bunker south of Leuven:


In the true spirit of a Discoverer of Belgium, he crawled inside to take this shot of the machine gunner’s view over the River Dyle and the surrounding countryside and the mustard-filled fields:


Alan also points out that there is a Museum of the KW-line in Chaumont-Gistoux (open May to September)

23 thoughts on “The anti-tank ditch in Haacht”

  1. Thank you for this excellent piece Denzil. I “discovered” this defensive line when I researched the several pillboxes that dot the countryside near us. We live at the extreme end of the line in Limal, just beyond Wavre, which gets a brief mention in Churchill’s war memoirs. Next time I’m out on my bike I’ll take some photos and send them to you.

    1. Thanks Alan. Yes it’s interesting to be walking and cycling around the countryside and seeing these pillboxes and bunkers isn’t it? Sometimes slap bank in the middle of a field. Apparently they make great homes for bats!

  2. I appreciate the low-tech nature of this defense and wonder if it would have worked. At the risk of oversimplifying, I expect so, otherwise it wouldn’t have been built, right? Then again, human nature being what it is, we will “do something, anything!” when compelled, even though there really isn’t much point. Which would seem to be the case here, since Belgium pulled back.

    Fascinating piece, thanks.

    1. Interesting comment Maggie. Certainly when I was looking at it I couldn’t really see it withstanding a heavy Panzer attack, but in its prime it might have looked more awe-inspiring. History unfortunately is full of great defensive “strongholds” that were fairly easy to penetrate or pass by.

  3. So many remnants of WWII exist in Europe, changed by time but still echoing the horror of war. The ditch today looks peaceful but once stood to protect its citizens from attack. We should all remember better.

    1. Thanks for your comment Sharon, and the reminder to maybe put ourselves in the position of local Belgians building this defence and worrying about their loved ones and whether the ditch will protect them or not.

    1. Thanks Judy. Yes I am aware that for me it is an interesting historical artefact, but for others it could well trigger memories of distant relatives fighting over here. Thanks for your comment as always Judy

  4. Some of these bunkers are being consumed by urban sprawl. I know of a case of a young family acquiring land with a bunker on it. It cannot be demolished (since classified) and hence has to be integrated into the house. Quite a challenge for the architect, but when completed, what a playground for the children! Can there be a better reuse of the biggest waste in history?

    1. That’s interesting Hans. I knew they were protected but didn’t realise they can still be used. There is one over the fence at the end of our garden, and it’s clear that these bunkers were certainly built to last!

  5. Thanks we know a lot about the WWI sites but not much about WWII. Fortifications like this showed the Allies thinking prior to WWII. Still stuck in 1918. The Germans using their Blitzkrieg tactics would have rolled straight over blockages such as this.

  6. Now that is some ditch Denzil and one with lots of history. Yet nature has now claimed it again as her own, and it now holds a more peaceful purpose..
    Lovely to catch your posts in the reader this afternoon Denzil, I thought I might have missed more posts, but I see only a couple on here..
    Hope all is well in your part of the world my friend.
    Sue 🙂

    1. Hi Sue, thanks for dropping by. No you haven’t missed anything; been a bit quiet on the blogging front for a few weeks. Best wishes to you. Stay healthy through this colder weather.

  7. I had no idea about the KW line. I guess they didn’t think about the countries surrounding Belgium when they created it. Maybe they thought Belgium was an island? 🙂 I have a hard time saying “It’s the thought that counts.” in this situation, as I’m sure the whole process cost quite a bit of man power and money for not having been used at all. I”m glad some of it makes for a nice walk now.

    1. Yes Liesbet, thanks for your comments. I too was caught in two minds, between thinking “what a great effort to protect citizens” and “what on earth made them think this would ever work against the might of the German Army?” I think the same questions arise with any kind of national defence mechanism. There’s only so much you can do to make a country impregnable, and the opposition will always find a way around it in the end.

  8. It may not have been very effective when needed, but I suppose the construction of the ditch provided paid employment at a time when that would have been much appreciated. It’s nice to see that the ditch and bunkers are now homes for plants and animals.

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