DESIGNATION: First Belgian Independent Brigade
ACTIVATION: January 21, 1944
CAMPAIGN: Northwest Europe
Among the representatives of myriad exiled nations operating from England in 1944 were a handful of Belgians—most of whom had not seen home since escaping from their country following the German invasion of May 10, 1940.
By the end of the third year of war, the British began organizing exiled Belgian units into a larger formation and equipping it with Lend-Lease materiel. On December 12, 1942, Belgian forces in Britain were reorganized into the First Group, which consisted of three independent motorized units, an artillery battery, armored car squadron, and transport and medical services. The charismatic Lt. Col. Jean Piron was placed in command of the group, which was further reinforced with an engineer company in October 1943. The group was officially designated the First Belgian Independent Brigade on January 21, 1944.
Shortly after its organization, the brigade was assigned to the Twenty-first Army Group and in May 1944 was sent to Great Yarmouth. By July, as Allied forces were fighting to expand their beachhead in Normandy, the brigade moved to marshaling areas between Cambridge and Newmarket. On August 7, Piron’s 2,200 men set foot again on the European mainland, landing at Gold Beach and moving in their 500 vehicles toward foxholes along the Orne River. Attached to the British 6th Airborne Division, the brigade took up positions at Pegasus Bridge.
The brigade went on the offensive on August 17, occupying the stronghold of Moulin du Buissons during the day and seizing Franceville that night. On August 21, the 1st Motorized Unit crossed the Dives River and forced the Germans out of Cabourg, Houlgate and Auberville. The Belgians’ momentum then carried them through Viller-sur-Mer and Deauville, and they reached la Touques the next day.
The brigade resumed its onslaught on August 24, with a river crossing at la Touques. The Belgians broke through German defenses in the area and advanced along the coastal road reaching Honfleur, eight kilometers ahead of their British comrades. By the end of the next day, the brigade had crossed the estuary of the Seine River and had the port of Le Havre in sight. Having greatly assisted the British advance, the brigade was pulled out of the line and control passed to the British 49th Infantry Division.
In its new assignment, the brigade carried out operations to clear the Forest of Brotonne before receiving orders on August 29 to reinforce Allied troops trying to fight their way into Le Havre. Two days later the Belgians moved into Le Havre.
On September 2, Colonel Piron was summoned to the headquarters of the British XXX Corps, where Lt. Gen. Brian Horrocks gave him welcome news: “I intend to enter Brussels tomorrow evening. Our tanks will open the road and you will follow by eliminating any resistance along the way.”
Following close on the heels of the Guards Armored Division, on September 3, at 4:46 p.m., Piron’s command car crossed the Belgian border at Rongay. Once again on home soil, Piron’s men had moved by nightfall to within 30 miles of their capital.
On the morning of the 4th, the Belgian Brigade entered Brussels and was met with an unforgettable reception from their newly liberated countrymen. As promised by Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, the brigade remained in the vanguard of the advance. Fighting alongside the 8th British Armored Brigade, by September 11 it had liberated Beringen, crossed the Albert Canal and reached Bourg Leopold. By the following week, it had advanced into Neerpelt and was then prepared for a new assignment.
As part of the VII Corps, the Belgian Brigade protected the flank of XXX Corps’ advance during Operation Market-Garden. Between September 19 and 23, the brigade entered Holland, made contact with the Americans in Maaseik and occupied Bree. On the 28th the brigade passed to the U.S. XIX Corps’ command. An assault on Wessem supported by American tanks failed as reinforcements stiffened the German line.
The ultimate failure of Operation Market-Garden left a static front deep within Holland, and the brigade was returned to the control of the British to assist in holding the liberated Dutch territory. October 4-26 was spent conducting patrols along the Meuse, and at the end of the month the Belgians were placed under the control of the 53rd Welsh Division, whose commanders put them in the north between Hussel and Elf with orders to eliminate the German bridgehead along the canal.
On November 11, the 1st and 2nd Motorized units eliminated the bridgehead but suffered heavy loses. The men were then moved to Louvain for a period of badly needed rest and recuperation. On December 20, the brigade was sent to positions southwest of Antwerp and reorganized as a typical infantry brigade along British lines. Now able to recruit from within their country, the armored squadron became the core of the 1st Belgian Armored Regiment and the artillery unit formed the nucleus of the 1st Artillery Regiment. The three motorized units became infantry battalions, each with 825 men.
Piron’s men then moved to the region of Nimegue, Holland, to reinforce the 5th Canadian Armored Division. On April 18, 1945, the 1st and 3rd battalions failed to breach the Grebbe Line near Ochten. For the remainder of the war in Europe the Belgians conducted patrols and endured enemy shelling in this area.
On May 8, the brigade moved to Cullenborg and Leerdam to accept the surrender and disarm the German 361st Division and 20th Brigade. Two days later, after the German Landsers laid down their arms, they marched into captivity under a banner erected by the Belgians that read, “May 10, 1940–May 10 1945.”
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.