6 The Chronicle, Thursday, 30th December, 2010. www.chronicleseries.co.uk
It’s 70 years since a friendly invasion of Dutch soldiers
Come next year it’s 70 years since one of the landmark events in Congleton’s history.
For 11th January sees the anniversary of the Dutch Brigade — later the Prinses Irene Brigade — being formed in the town.
Seventy years ago young (and handsome to some) Dutch soldiers arrived in the town, having escaped from their homeland to take up the fight to liberate it. They were doubtless in a sorry state having fled their country in the face of Hitler’s assault.
During the Second World War, the Royal Netherlands Motorized Infantry Brigade was a military unit initially formed from approximately 1,500 Dutch troops, including a small group guarding German POWs, who arrived in the United Kingdom in 1940 following the collapse of the Netherlands.
The Dutch had fled the Netherlands in May and June 1940 for the UK. They came from a variety of sources — the infantry, bicycle corps, cavalry, artillery and air force, as well as police and military police.
At the start the brigade was known as the Royal Dutch, then the Dutch Legion. On 11th January 1941 the Royal Dutch Brigade was set up officially, the eventual name, the Prinses Irene Brigade, being given on 27th August 1941 courtesy of Queen Wilhelmina.
Augmented by conscription among overseas citizens from Canada, the United States, the Middle East, Dutch Antilles, Argentina, Dutch Guiana and South Africa, the Dutch force grew slowly as troops were detached for other duties such as the Commandos and the Navy.
They were popular with the locals, perhaps more so than the English, Americans and Irish regiments that were to follow them, for they were particularly well-behaved — and a permanent to the extent that they gained a place in Congleton’s history.
For unlike the rest, who married local girls and took them off to live in other parts of the country or the world, a number of the Dutch bridegrooms settled here instead and happily remained, what were once their unusual surnames becoming accepted as normal Congleton names.
They came from 24 different countries in the world to fight for their homeland and were all brought together in Congleton to form the new Princess Irene Brigade, named after the-then young royal Dutch princess.
This led to the first of a number of “royal visits” (kept quiet in those days of censorship) to the town, for Queen Wilhelmina and Prince Bernard presented the new regiment with its new colours on the fairground.
After intensive training the Dutch soldiers went to various parts of the world, to help in the war effort — to the east, to India and Canada to instruct other Dutch troops called up in other countries to train as commandos and even to train as secret agents.
But whether they married local girls or not, they never forgot their days in Congleton, either with the 1st Btn at Eaton Bank Mill or the 2nd Btn at the bottom of the fairground.
They have held a couple of their regimental reunions here, for one of which the “Chronicle” arranged a plaque to be added to the war memorial, at which the old soldiers, proudly carrying their own standards, join their British comrades for the annual Remembrance service.
Another permanent reminder is a plaque that gave the use of the then Congregational Church for services by the Dutch troops and the Sunday School for use as a canteen.
(The engraved stone tablet, made by Dutch potters, was presented by Netherlands Churches to Congleton Congregational Church, in recognition of the welcome extended by the church to Dutch Forces during their wartime stay in Congleton. The Dutch Army was granted the use of the church for services and part of the Sunday School was used as a canteen. The inscription, engraved in blue, on a grey background, refers to the hospitality shown to the Dutch Forces and ends with the words: “I was a stranger and ye took me in”).
There is even a Dutch war grave: Pte W Korteling was buried in Buglawton in 1941.
As for their old regiment, like the British counterparts, it has been involved in reorganisation over the years, but its name remains in the Guards Regiment Fusiliers Princess Irene.
After leaving Congleton, the Dutch landed on 6th August 1944 at Graye-sur-Mer Normandy, France, serving under the Canadian 1st Army until it moved forward with the British 2nd Army. Heavy fighting took place around the
Riverside mill: a billet for the Dutch.
Chateau St Come (Hellfire Corner) and the brigade liberated Pont Audemer in the progress.
They crossed into Dutch territory on 20th September 1944 at Borkel and Schaft.
After Operation Market Garden, the operation to capture bridges across the Rhine at Arnhem, the brigade moved south and on 24th October was ordered to go to Tilburg to attack the town from the south while the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division attacked from the east.
The brigade spent the winter of 1944/45 in the region of Walcheren and North Beveland (Zeeland) losing several soldiers. From Zeeland the brigade went back to Noord-Brabant.
The brigade was involved in heavy fighting in the town of Hedel, north of Den Bosch, on the river Maas in April 1945.
It entered The Hague on 9th May 1945 as liberators.
Photographs: some are from the “Chronicle” archives but many are courtesy of Richard van de Velde, and are on his website www.prinsesirenebrigade.nl
Glamorous princess provoked an outcry for kneeling at Mass
Prinses Irene herself makes for an interesting tale. She had three sisters — her older one is the current monarch of the Netherlands, Queen Beatrix and among her godparents was Queen Elizabeth, Queen consort of King George VI.
It wasn’t all work!
Holland was a Belsen in the making, report said
The plight of the Dutch soldiers’ homeland is given in a cutting saved in the “Chronicle” archives — we’re not sure whether it’s from the paper or a national newspaper — of the Netherlands after the liberation.
It describes the Netherlands as being like Belsen in its early stages, before “the complete disintegration and breakdown” and fears what would have happened had the Germans not surrendered.
“In place of a hutted camp without drainage or water supply, here are great modern cities equipped with all the devices of civilisation, but the end would have been the same.
“It is not possible yet to discover how far the dreadful process of starvation has gone. It seems to have appalled even Germans. I think we are in time. In the worlds of the Wilhelmina Hospital in Amsterdam: ‘We have got our heels over the ditch’.
The article then said very gravely: “It is going to mean a long and sustained effort over many years to rehabilitate the Dutch people. They need fuel, food, medical supplies, transport. They will do the rest but, however, well they do it, the memory will never be erased from their minds and the physical signs will be apparent for a generation.”
The report continued: “All the way through the country there has been an urgency in the welcome of the people, all wearing their orange favours. At first you might think they are blowing kisses to you, but they are making a motion with fingers to lips indicating their longing for a cigarette.
“To halt to eat sandwiches by the roadside to have a smoke is impossible. Immediately you are surrounded by masses of people, hands almost clawing you in their need.”
Most startling was the lack of damage. “Scarcely a crater” marred the highways and most of the towns and villages were whole. Utrecht did not appear to have a wound and Amsterdam was a completely undamaged city.”
But there was a great increase in premature births, and infantile mortality from cold and starvation had been serious all the previous winter. In Rotterdam the death rate had increased from a normal of 100 a week to 450 a week.
There was a grave shortage of drugs. The Germans had taken all insulin, as well as all the food, and there were no vaccines. Through lack of fuel there was also no light or power. No soap, no hot water.
The report continued: “Slowly the appalling truth dawns that Holland was a Belsen in the making. One dare not think of what would have happened once the process of deliberate, calculated starvation had begun to gallop.” The majority of the population in the cities had lived on boiled and baked tulip bulbs and sugar beet. Each week they had less than half a small loaf and that was almost all. One of the most tragic sights was the spectacle of the starving setting off on their derelict bicycles, their last remaining form of transport to seek food on the farms.
On a positive note the report said the picture of what is being done was “a happier one”.
They were attending to their own distribution of food supplies and the “manna from heaven” dropped by the Allied air forces was getting into the mouths of the people. Rotterdam had had its first real meal for months and Utrecht the previous day. “Amsterdam eats today,” said the report.
Flour dropped in bulk by air was bread in people’s mouths within two days. Into the port of Rotterdam food and fuel ships were coming and unloading fast. A million tons of coal was heaped in the Ruhr and it was hoped soon to transport it by canal.
Because of the invasion of the Netherlands by Nazi Germany during World War II, the Dutch Royal family went into exile in Canada, where Prinses Irene attended Rockcliffe Park Public School, in Ottawa.
As a teenager, she was dubbed by the Dutch Press as “the glamorous princess”.
She studied at the University of Utrecht, then went to Madrid to learn Spanish.
In Madrid, she met Carlos Hugo of Bourbon-Parma, eldest son of pretender to the throne of Spain, Xavier, Duke of Parma.
In the summer of 1963, she secretly converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism — and the first time the public or the Royal Family knew about it was when a photograph appeared on the front page of an Amsterdam newspaper showing the Princess kneeling at a Mass in the Roman Catholic Church.
It provoked a Protestant outcry and a constitutional crisis.
Although not illegal for a Catholic to reign over The Netherlands, the country was Protestant-dominated. For a while Catholicism was not officially allowed and churches in Amsterdam have plain facades — Dutch tolerance meant that everyone knew where the churches were and that Catholics prayed there.
By the 20th century attitudes had begun to change, but only very slowly. The high fertility rate of the Catholics was a matter of some concern for all non-Catholics (a reflection of modern Dutch concerns for its Muslim population).
For Prinses Irene, second in line to the throne, to convert to Roman Catholicism and to associate with an alleged leader of Franco’s party caused consternation.
The Royal family’s staff travelled to and from Spain trying to reign in their daughter and the Dutch government threatened to resign en masse if the Royals themselves went to Spain.
Princess Irene claimed that her marriage was intended to help end religious intolerance, but when she and her husband visited the Pope and she was pictured at a Carlist (pro Catholic) rally in Spain her cause was lost.
Prinses Irene hoped her marriage would help end religious intolerence.
She married Carlos Hugo in 1964, lost her right of succession to the Dutch throne and agreed to live outside the Netherlands. The couple had four children, but the marriage ended in divorce in 1981.
Soldiers’ brides started a new life in Holland
In September 1948, the “Chronicle” published the names of 46 Congleton girls who had married Dutch soldiers and were leaving to start life afresh with husbands and children in Holland.
On behalf of its readers, the “Chronicle” wished them the best of luck and happiness and hopes someday (“it is not being merely conventional”) to have the pleasure of renewing acquaintance.
“May they come back and visit us and bring their children for us to look at. Candidly, it is the children in whom I am most interested,” wrote then editor and chairman Lionel Head in his “Cabbages and Kings” column.
Mr Head wrote: “This event is important historically and ethnologically, internationally as well as from the purely local angle. We want new blood not only in this little town, but in this country; we want fresh ideas and a new outlook and above all, we want sturdy stock from which to breed new generations. What, you will ask, have we to expect from this direction when our women-folk and children are taking themselves off to Holland?”
Some of the new generation that spring from these AngloDutch unions are going to find their way back to this country, he wrote.
“And they’re going to be worth having. For not only will they bring with them fresh ideas and influences from a friendly neighbouring state, they will be the offspring of some of the best stock in Europe; the nicest girls (don’t forget the Dutch were here first) and undoubtedly, Holland’s most splendid young manhood.”