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CHAPTER16 – BELGIUM – LIBERATION AND  FRATERNISATION

 

From Paris I hitched a lift in a Free French Army truck to rejoin 243 Coy which was still in Normandy. Soon, as part of the British 2nd Army, we moved rapidly through the mining areas of Northern France into Belgium, first to Ostend and then onto Antwerp

The political situation in Belgium was very similar to that in France. There was a strong Resistance movement, a large section of which was under Communist Party control. There was the same tension between it and the coalition government of Catholics, Liberals, and Socialists, even though the Communist Party also had ministers in it. After the liberation, economic life was in complete chaos. Many factories were shut or working only two or three days a week due to a shortage of coal and other materials.  Belgium was normally a coal exporting country, yet for the whole of October 1944 there had been no supply of coal to industry, and the civilian population faced the prospect of a winter without coal. Many pits were idle.  The coal owners gave the lack of wood for pit props as the reason. Yet supplies of timber from the Ardennes forests were being held back because of a dispute over its price between the mine owners and the timber industry.

The bread ration was 300 grams per person per day. Sugar, meat and butter were unobtainable at official prices. The black market was flourishing, and the rich could still eat their fill, while those who relied only on the official rations went hungry. All over the country strikes and demonstrations were taking place.  At Charleroi and in the mining regions there had been a one-day general strike for better rations. In Brussels, thousands of women demonstrated with posters in French, Flemish and English: ‘We want butter and coal!’, ‘Milk for our babies!’, ‘Down with the black market!’.

With the cold of winter coming on the population was desperate for coal.  Pioneer Corps companies were given the task of defending the mines, coal dumps and barges and trains carrying coal. Coal trains halted by signals or at level crossings were often attacked by crowds, several hundred strong, who stoned the Pioneers, forcing them to take cover while the crowds carried away the precious fuel.  The Pioneers had orders to shoot into the crowds if necessary.  At Mons, 271 Company and at Charleroi, 94 Company, patrolled the canal towpaths with trucks specially fitted with searchlights and Bren guns.(1)  This was not the kind of war the Pioneers expected to be fighting.  There was much discontent and grumbling.  ‘We haven’t come here to deny freezing women and children warmth’.  What made both the soldiers and the civilian population particularly angry were the rumours that much of the coal was being hived off by black marketeers.

.  More often than not, the soldiers, sympathising with the people, turned a blind eye to the pilfering.  This got so prevalent that the commanding officers of several units had to threaten the soldiers with punishment.  If the Pioneers had been ordered to fire on the crowds, I think  they would have refused to do so.  They would have mutinied..

With industries idle and an estimated 300,000 unemployed in a country with a population of eight million, the restarting of production became a matter of life and death for the working class.  There was conflict over who managed the factories and controlled production.  At the SAFEA chemical fertiliser plant, the workers elected a committee to organise production.  When the bosses told them to shut down the plant, saying they were unable to draw money out to pay the wages, the workers called on the local Resistance forces who helped them occupy the plant.

A national conference of “Miners’ Trade Union Struggle Committees” called on the workers to demonstrate on 30th October for the following demands:

  1. Immediate restart of production.
  2. Requisitioning of all idle pits and industries and their management put under workers’ control.
  3. Rational organisation of food supplies with the co-operation of the Resistance movement.
  4. Legal recognition of the workers’ ‘purging commissions’.  (These had been set up to put on trial managers accused of collaborating with the German occupation authorities).

The Pierlot government’s decision, in November 1944 to disarm the Resistance groups provoked a crisis.  In an article published in the December 1944 issue of Socialist Appeal under the headline ‘British Bayonets in “Liberated” Belgium’, I reported on the bloody clashes this provoked and on the role of the British military in support of the government:

‘British troops have been put at the disposal of the Belgian capitalist government to help disarm the Resistance forces…While, on Sunday, 19 November, thousands of workers and members of the Belgian Resistance forces demonstrated in Brussels against the government’s order to disarm the Resistance movement, British troops stood by to help the government.  General Erskine, head of the Allied Military Mission, publicly stated that the decision of the Pierlot government to disarm the Resistance had the approval of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force), and that if necessary British troops would be placed at the disposal of the government should the Resistance refuse to give in.

 

`On the 25th, a demonstration of 10,000 people organised by the Resistance, demanding the resignation of the government and the organisation of food and coal supplies, was fired on by the gendarmerie, after a group of demonstrators had broken a police cordon in front of the rue dc la Loi (the Belgian Whitehall). Thirty-seven demonstrators were wounded by machine gun fire, and four were killed…’

I drew the following conclusions:

 

`Thus once more the warning of the Trotskyists that this “war against Fascism is a sham and that the real purpose of the war is the furtherance of the profits and power of Big Business, is shown to be true by events as they unfold… Now that Belgium is “free” of the Germans the question is posed: “After the Germans, who will rule — the capitalists (with the help of the Anglo-Americans) or the workers?… and to this question each section of the Resistance will give its own answer according to its class and political character. The reactionary Armee Secrete and White Brigade will act as the bosses’ special guards, whereas the Patriotic Militias and Partisans of the FI, being largely working class, will act — and have already acted — as workers’ militias.  When the Patriotic Militias helped the workers occupy the SAFEA works, and when maybe tomorrow they will help the miners occupy the pits they were and will thereby be acting as exclusive organs of the working class – as workers’ militias…The Belgian trotskyists – the Revolutionary Communist Party of Belgium  - have put forward the slgan of “Workers’ Militias’ based on the factories with elected officers and under the control of the workers’ or factory committees.

 

I concluded by warning about the use of British troops

 

‘During the demonstrations in Brussels, British and Canadian troops were standing by to help the Belgian police and gendarmes if necessary.  As yet they have not had to fire.  But British workers and soldiers must understand that the struggle is only beginning and that British troops will be used, sooner or later, against the Belgian and European workers.  When the British soldiers come to realise the dirty work they will be made to do in defence of ex-collaborationist big bosses, and ordered to come out against their Belgian fellow workers they, in their overwhelming majority, will be disgusted and opposed to being used as SS.’ (2)

My unit, based in Ostend was not involved, but I did my best to explain what was going on to my fellow soldiers. I had not yet managed to get in touch with the Belgian comrades, but I had made contact with some members of the OF (the Flemish section of the Communist Party-influenced Independence Front). I drafted a leaflet addressed to the allied troops explaining the situation and appealing to them to refuse to be used against the Belgian Resistance and workers:

`Soldiers! You have fought your way from the Normandy beaches fondly hoping you were helping to liberate the people of France and Belgium from Fascism. Now the generals are threatening to use you against the Resistance. Why? So that the rich, the capitalists who collaborated with the Nazis and enriched themselves at the expense of the people can continue to profiteer from shortages. Don’t let yourselves be used for this dirty work!’

I took it along to the OF and asked them to print it. Though my contacts were in favour, the leadership vetoed it, saying it was too provocative to distribute.  I said: ‘OK. Don’t distribute it in your name. Let it be signed “A group of British soldiers” and I will distribute it.’ But they wouldn’t hear of it.

In Belgium, as in France, the escalation of the conflict, which we had anticipated, did not take place. In both countries, as in Italy, the Resistance was disarmed and incorporated into the regular army without too much of a struggle.  This was with the co-operation of the Communist Party and Socialist Party..

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From Ostend 243 Company was moved to the docks of Antwerp. The rapid advance of the allied forces had stretched their lines of communication. Since the Germans still held out in the Channel ports, supplies still had to be landed at the artificial Mulberry harbour in Normandy and transported all the way to the front. The capture of the port of Antwerp should have meant that the supply routes could be shortened, but access to the port was blocked by the continued German occupation of the Walcheren Islands at the mouth of the Scheldt river.

 The British army launched an amphibious assault against determined German resistance and suffered heavy casualties.  The three islands held by the Germans were Breskens, South Beveland and Walcheren.  Pioneer companies took part in the assault together with commando and infantry units.  806 Company provided smoke screens, while under fire, to cover the assault on Breskens which was cleared of the enemy on 22nd October 1944.

 

The advance into South Beveland began on 24th October against considerable opposition and once again 806 Company supplied the infantry with smoke cover from dukws, landing craft and stormboats.  Lieutenant M. Dunion of the company operating one point on the landing beach under heavy fire.  By 31st October the causeway linking Beveland and Walcheren was reached.’ (2)

The third island, Walcheren, was defended by a 10,000 strong garrison with about thirty batteries of artillery.  The area was also defended by mine-fields and barbed wire.  A section of 144 Pioneer Company was attached to No.4 Royal Marine Commando for the assault on Flushing, on the south coast of the island.  The Pioneers’ task was to clear under-water obstacles and set up a beach-head.  They suffered casualties from enemy fire.

The remainder of 144 Company was attached to other Royal Marine Commandos for the assault on Westkapelle on the western side of the island which started on 1st November.  The company was split into five parties, on separate landing craft which were heavily shelled by the German batteries on the shore. 

The War History  goes on to give this vivid account of the activities of 144 Company:

‘L.C.F.37, carrying a hundred thousand rounds of two-pounder and Oerlikon ammunition, received a direct hit and was utterly destroyed.  L.C.T.31, in which were Lieutenant Phillips and 42 Pioneer other ranks, struck a mine and sank rapidly, but all were rescued and evacuated to Ostend.  Heavily engaged by the enemy defences the support and rocket craft closed in to 500 yards but the formidable defence works and concrete pillboxes defied destruction and the craft were withdrawn and fresh attacks carried out by rocket-firing Typhoons.  Leading elements of 41 and 48 Commandos reached the shore at about 10.15 a.m. and an hour later the village of Westkapelle was in our hands, although the enemy still held strong points around it.  At 11 a.m. Captain Rowe and three of his men were wounded, one subsequently dying of his wounds, and evacuated, and Sergeant Brian assumed command of the remainder of that party in addition to his own.  Shortly after midday the L.C.T. carrying C.S.M. Herman and his party attempted a landing under extremely heavy fire and he and five of his men were wounded.  His own wounds were, however, not severe and he attended to the wounded under fire and then continued with the task in hand until 3 p.m. when the craft bearing Pioneers were ordered to “stand off.”  A landing the following morning, 2nd November, was successful and the men at once commenced forming ammunition, food and supply dumps and guarding prisoners. […] Fighting continued until 8th November when the German garrison surrendered. […] The Company casualties were 10 killed and 24 wounded.  C.S.M. Herman was awarded the M.B.E. for the consistently high standard of his conduct throughout the operation. (3)

A section of our 243 Company was in a support role.  After the fighting had died down we were detailed to retrieve the bodies of the dead from the wrecked landing craft, identify them and collect their personal documents.  A party of German prisoners whom we were guarding worked with us. In my autobiography Reluctant Revolutionary I described the scene and my feelings.

‘ We had to wade knee deep among the reeds on the river bank or scramble about in waterlogged and charred half sunk landing craft to fish out bloated bodies or parts of bodies. We would pick up a legless or armless trunk, limbs torn from bodies, or an army boot with a severed and bloody foot still in it. The worst part was searching the pockets of the dead and finding soaked and blood-covered personal letters and photos of wives, parents and children. These had to be collected and put in envelopes with the soldier’s name and number to be handed on.  We were assisted by the German POWs. Although we were ordered not to fraternise with them, it was almost inevitable that we did so. During breaks from our macabre work, British and German soldiers would munch their cold rations, sitting side by side on empty ammo boxes in the middle of a flat, windswept landscape of marsh and reeds under a lowering sky. Conversations in broken English or German would start. Cigarettes would be offered. A German soldier would bring out a photo – ‘Meine Frau und kinder.’ Then a British soldier would bring out a photo of himself and family, and both would pore over them with the maimed bodies of the dead lying a few feet away - their photographs of loved ones tied up in bags waiting to be sent to widows and bereaved parents.  In these conditions, it was hard even for the most chauvinist soldier to hate the `enemy sitting by his side. If one had to feel hatred it was likely to be for the rulers, politicians and generals who had sent us all — British and German — to this slaughterhouse. (5)

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While we were in Antwerp, the town and the docks were being constantly bombarded by German VI s ( flying bombs or `doodlebugs).  Antwerp was also one of the main targets for the V2s, the German long range rockets.  Some sixteen hundred fell on the city and docks killing 3,500 civilians and 680 Allied service men.  Few Pioneer Corps units escaped casualties. Approximately ten per cent of the military losses were suffered by Pioneers. (6)    The worst case of the loss of our troops was when a crowded cinema was hit.

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The end of the war wa i sight and the prospect of a general election. Since most of the men in the forces would not be home by the time an election took place, a scheme was introduced whereby they could apply to be registered to vote while still in the forces.

Each serviceman had to request a form, complete it and hand it in to an officer.  Being afraid of the political apathy of our comrades, those of us who were politically aware urged everyone to request and fill in a form.  In my unit the adjutant in charge of he registration was doing very little to publicise or distribute the forms.  I asked for a bundle of forms to distribute and he found it impossible to refuse.  This gave me a wonderful excuse to carry out political propaganda more or less openly.  I went round the company with the forms and explained why we should kick the Tories out and vote Labour.  We should demand the Labour Party carry out socialist policies, such as nationalising  the banks and industry and putting them under workers’ control, freeing the colonies, etc.  This generated lively discussions and the officers did not like it, but there was little they could do to stop me.  I was only explaining voting procedure!  If it wasn’t for the right to vote, what were we fighting for?

 

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Notes

  1. WHRPC p.272
  2. Socialist Appeal, December 1944
  3. WHRPC  p.264
  4. WHRPC  pp.265-6
  5. Reluctant revolutionary, Socialist Platform lts, London, 1994, p.97
  6. WHRPC, p.268