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The race to freedom: Belgium commemorates momentous years of 1944-45 liberation
The epic battle of Waterloo, the killing fields of World War One in Flanders, the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes… Belgium’s soil is indelibly marked with conflict. Now, as a final curtain to five years of major wartime commemorations, the country is marking the 75th anniversary of its liberation from the Nazis in 1944 with a year-long programme of events.
Following the Allies’ dramatic landing in Normandy on 6 June 1944, by the end of August Brussels citizens were uncertain of their fate. After more than four years of occupation, German forces had begun to flee the city, heading east. The first city to be liberated was Mons, on 2 September. That evening, General Brian Horrocks briefed officers of the British Army’s Guards Armoured Division in northern France that their objective the following day would be Brussels.
His announcement was greeted with delighted astonishment. The division suffered some casualties on their drive into Belgium, but the Germans were still in disarray after their defeat at Normandy. Leading the British entry into the Belgian capital on 3 September were the Household Cavalry on the left, the Grenadier Guards on the right, with the Welsh and Irish Guards following close behind. The battalions worked closely, led by divisional commander Major-General Sir Allan Henry Adair as they advanced 110 miles in one day – the quickest advance by any army in history until the second Gulf war in 2003.
Citizens had not expected to be liberated so soon, and after fears of all-out-fighting faded, euphoria broke out as huge crowds rushed into the streets and greeted and slowed the liberators. There was a similar celebration among Allied troops; it was their first break since D-Day. The next day, Radio Belgique in London broadcast the message: “The capital is freed, the capital is free!” A few skirmishes between Belgian resistance and German soldiers took place in Cinquantenaire park, while flames rose from the Palais de Justice as the departing army set fire to its archives.
The next day, a unit of the Free Belgian Forces – also known as the Piron Brigade, after its commander – made its victorious entry alongside British soldiers. On 7 September, British Field Marshall Montgomery met the mayor of Brussels at the city hall and complimented Colonel Piron on his brigade’s feats during the Normandy campaign. On 8 September, the exiled government of Hubert Pierlot returned to Brussels.
Meanwhile, the British Second Army was liberating Antwerp. In the ensuing days and weeks, the Battle of the Scheldt claimed many lives as the city’s port could not be operated effectively without control of the estuary. With the help of Canadian forces, fierce battles took place off the Belgian and Dutch coasts, and the first Allied ship docked in Antwerp on 28 November.
One of the bloodiest battles of the war was yet to break out. In a desperate gamble to split the Allied armies by a surprise blitzkrieg through the Ardennes to Antwerp, Hitler ordered hastily assembled Panzer divisions to strike in the strategic border town of Bastogne in south-east Belgium. A series of battles in freezing temperatures followed between 16 December and 25 January, in which more than a million soldiers fought for control of this wooded, hilly area. The Ardennes Offensive became known as the Battle of the Bulge because the Allied line resembled a large bulge as the Germans drove deeper in an attempt to secure vital bridgeheads.
About 85,000 Allied soldiers were killed, injured or reported missing during the battle, with the American army bearing the brunt. The equivalent figure for the German army is estimated at 100,000. Almost 3,000 civilians died, and the siege left an indelible legacy on the local community.
It wasn’t until the end of January, after particularly bitter winter weather, that the Allies succeeded in smothering the German advance and effectively ending their European campaign. Germany eventually capitulated on 8 May and the war officially ended on 2 September 1945. Peace finally reigned in western Europe.
Traces of this momentous period in Belgium’s history remain across the country. To mark the anniversary, each region is organising its own events, commemorating conflicts carried out in the air, at sea and on land.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin autumn/winter 2019. Pick up a copy today in newsagents.