How my grandfather was one of the first Allied soldiers to re-enter Belgium after German occupation

    How my grandfather was one of the first Allied soldiers to re-enter Belgium after German occupation

    Tuesday, 03 September 2019
    Sam Boon pictured on the right with a fellow soldier. Credit: Adam Stones.

    For the people who were involved in the Allied advance on Brussels on Sunday 3 September 1944, it would be remembered as one of the most extraordinary days in their lives. For the rest of Europe, it would be recorded as one of the most significant days in military history; a day that not only broke records but also provided further proof that the Germans could be overrun, and that the tide had turned after five years of hard, pervasive global conflict. And one person, in particular, was at the spearhead of the activities on that day.

    Early life

    Samuel Boon – or simply Sam to anyone who knew him – lived in Heaton Chapel, Stockport. He worked as a works manager at the printing firm Edwards & Bryning ltd, in Rochdale, England. He was a modest, gentle man with brown hair and grey eyes. The daily mechanical churning of the presses in this corner of North West England was quite a distance from the battles on the continent. But the war was not so far away. Just a mile from his home on Rosedale Road was the Fairey Aviation factory, where Sam’s father-in-law worked as a woodwork specialist. The factory had been busy for some years producing aircraft under the UK’s rearmament programme. Battle, Fulmar and Barracuda aircraft were built there as Britain watched Germany’s military preparations with growing concern.

    Preparing for war 

    When the war came, Sam said he was very willing to join up because he didn’t want to impose the protection of his wife, Hilda, on anybody else. On 19 March 1942, Sam joined the Second Household Cavalry regiment that trained in Windsor. The Household Cavalry is made up of the two most senior regiments of the British Army; the Life Guards (Sam’s regiment) and the Blues and Royals (Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons). More modern notable members of the Household Cavalry include both Princes William and Harry, as well as the Dukes of Cambridge and Sussex. As a ‘Corporal of Horse’, Sam’s rank was marked out with three chevrons pointing down and a metal crown above them.

    Sam operated a Daimler armoured scout car. It had a Bren gun, a light machine gun, mounted to the front – but this was more for self-defense than for a heavy engagement. The role of the scout cars was to provide fast reconnaissance. They would advance at the front lines to assess opportunities, dangers, and resistance from the enemy. They were the first in harm’s way.

    Before he left for France, Sam – like thousands of others – received a note from ‘Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force’, signed by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who commanded the Allied ground forces during the Battle of Normandy. It said, ‘You are about to embark on the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German War Machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world… I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!’

    Normandy 

    Sam landed in Normandy on 14 July 1944. He was 35. For the Battle of Normandy and beyond, the Household Cavalry joined other regiments in forming the Guards Armoured Division. The Allies had been held back in Normandy after their initial advance following D-Day in early June. Progress was slow over difficult terrain and was met with challenging resistance. The Germans, it seemed, were determined to make the fight a long and hard one.

    The Allies – and the Guards specifically – were held up in Normandy for some weeks after this but finally made a decisive breakthrough in mid-August at the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, south of Caen. Here, over ten days, they encircled German forces, enabling them to create a gap to move eastwards through. Sam recorded in his diaries that on 30 August, ‘We lost a number of men and armoured cars in a skirmish with the S.S. in Albert’. That was around 25 miles from Arras, where they found themselves two days later. There, they were met with pouring rain, which made the conditions even more unpleasant.

    Sam wrote, ‘We had hoped that we would be given a few days rest, and we certainly needed it.’ Instead, the next day – 2 September – they were given tasks to complete around Arras and then the entire Guards Armoured Division moved around 18 miles to Douai, an industrial town in the northeast corner of France. At this point, they were around 20 miles from the Belgian border where, behind the L’Elnon River, the Germans held several lines of defense. Once at Douai, the Division set up near the airfield, where the weather continued to press against them, but they were given no break by their commanders.

    ‘It was cold with more than a touch of winter in the air,’ notes Sam. ‘Bitter squalls were blowing across the fields where the complete regiment was harboured. Civilians wishing to demonstrate their gratitude and friendship offered accommodations for the night and the thought of a warm billet was tempting. But an order from above soon put an end to such extravagant ideas: “All Ranks will dig slit trenches”. The narrow ditches that they would spend the night in were normally dug to establish defensive positions or to provide just short-term shelter. Sam recorded, ‘the order seemed altogether unnecessary but as often happens, we did not then know the reason.’

    Liberating Brussels

    The need was made clear that evening. The officers were called to attend a briefing by Major General Allan Adair, who was commanding the Guards Armoured Division. He told the officers he had received orders ‘from very high up’ concerning a bold plan for the following day, a plan called ‘Operation Grand Intention’. Adair cut to the point: “My intention is to advance and liberate Brussels. That is a grand intention.” A distance of 97 miles – and several challenges – still separated the Division from Brussels. If they pulled it off, it would break military records for speed and effectiveness. Sam himself wrote, ‘There was a distinct twinkle in the eyes of the Divisional Commander when he watched the effect of these words on those attending the conference. Brussels was a prize worth capturing.’

    The plan was for an airdrop at first light to capture many vital bridges to facilitate the ground advance. However, the weather deteriorated. Soggy earth from the freshly dug trenches clung to boots and it became difficult to move around. At midnight, the news came that the weather was too bad to risk the landings. The ground forces would have to make their own way and hope for the best. But this was a popular decision, as the officers had feared that waiting for the airdrops would limit their opportunity to make it to Brussels before nightfall and they had no ambition to still be fighting their way through the German lines in darkness.

    And so, in the morning, the men woke at 4:30 AM. ‘The operation was now on’. There would be two lines of advance. On the left, the Grenadiers and Coldstream Guards had the best roads and on the right were the Welsh and Irish Guards. Ahead of both went the armoured cars of the Household Cavalry. Sam and John with Lieutenant Clarke, fully recovered from the incident at la Botrie, and in another car, led the right advance.

    Re-entering Belgium 

    As cars and tanks started to roar towards Belgium and across cobbled streets, the Germans noted this was no small advance. A bridge that the Allies had hoped to cross was destroyed and they had to find an alternative. The Troop moved up and down the border looking for a crossing, while radio messages ordered them to speed up as the Welsh Guards – on whom the Squadron had been given a 20-minute start – were ‘clamouring at the back to get on’. Each line wanted to be the first into Belgium and then the first into Brussels. ‘They had something of a rider before the off at Aintree on Grand National Day,’ it is noted in the book Fighting with the Guards. But both firsts would go to Sam and his driver, John.

    ‘At last the tiny bridge was found; Lieutenant Clarke’s Troop, with Corporal Boon’s scout car in the lead, resumed its advance past some old forts, and over the air came a special message… ‘Congratulations to the first Allied soldiers to re-enter Belgium’.’

    They entered Belgium by the town of Rumes around 20 miles south of Roubaix. The Troop then pressed on to Tournai, and, with much-improved weather, then turned due East to cross the River Escaut. Whilst the land in Normandy had been tricky, in Belgium the terrain changed and the countryside became more open. They met some opposition from German forces and the combined Division received many casualties.

    Relief in Belgium

    Where there were no Germans, the welcome from the local Belgians was ecstatic. Sam told a North West England newspaper at the time, “as we entered village after village we were met with wary looks and empty streets. But by the time we reached the last houses of each village they recognised us as British and the cheering started and the flags appeared like magic.”

    Sam recalls more in his diaries; ‘when we entered Ath not a soul was to be seen but within two minutes the street was filled with civilians…. They climbed all over our vehicles. I don’t know which frightened me the most, the enemy only a few hundred yards ahead or the locals welcoming their liberators. It was chaotic. We had to threaten them if they did not move off the car and allow us to proceed. The situation was resolved by a young priest who arrived on a bicycle saying there were about seven Panthers and a Tiger tank moving in from the West. Immediately the crowds disappeared just as quickly as they had arrived.’

    They pressed on. ‘By now we were well amongst the fleeing enemy – they were coming in on us from the west at every crossroad.’ The scout cars were able to sweep past minor opposition but had to either wait for the infantry and tanks for stronger resistance or loop around and by-pass awkward strongpoints, constantly probing into the enemy’s territory. Around this time, near Enghien, Sam completely ran out of ammunition. They had to withdraw from the lead and pass back down the column until they found the ammunition wagon. They then made their way back to the front, keen to maintain their position leading the attack.

    At Enghien, the population reacted just as they had at Ath but, writes Sam, ‘as often happens in liberated places, the joy was clouded by last-minute tragedy.’ The squadron following them had found small groups of civilians murdered by the fleeing Germans, killed by rifle butts in the last moments of occupation.

    The road ahead was littered with destruction, with bombed and burning vehicles. At one point Sam looped around and on a side road, found 150 German soldiers. Fortunately, they showed no sign of wishing to resist.

    Welcomed in Brussels 

    For a time, both lines of Allied attacks were even in their progress. Then the left flank took the lead. The Welsh and Irish Guards decided to push their tanks to the maximum speed of 50 mph when they could, along the road to Hal and then Brussels, risking mechanical failure before they even reached the Belgian capital. Twelve miles from Brussels, the left line was held up by more anti-tank guns, and then again on the outskirts of Brussels by German anti-tank gunners stationed to defend the city.

    This allowed the right flank, headed still by Sam’s scout car, to lead the final dash to Brussels. As they approached, word grew in the city that they might be liberated before the day was out. Civilians turned on all their lights and flooded the streets.

    Sam and John were first in the centre of the city, the only two Allied soldiers in a city that had been under German control. A newspaper said that ‘like lightning a crowd engulfed them. The car disappeared under a mass of flowers, fruit and cheering girls.’

    Sam told the newspaper; “when two Jerries on motorcycles came down the street towards us, the car was covered with so many people I just couldn’t swing my gun on to them. They rode safely past us, but they didn’t escape. I passed a warning by wireless back along the column and another car was ready for them when they showed up.”

    It soon became clear the Germans had been shattered by the speed of the advance and that they had not intended to surrender the capital so speedily. Confidential top-level papers had not been destroyed and principal bridges were not blown.

    Victory in Europe

    The Guards Armoured Division’s advance of 97 miles in 14 hours was the most rapid armoured advance in all of military history.

    After that incredible day, the Division had to press on, crossing into Holland, through Eindhoven and into Nijmegen two weeks later, where another historical battle took place as they fought to control strategic bridges over the River Waal. They were then held up by Arnhem and didn’t reach Germany until late March/early April 1945. By 1 May they were in the city of Stade, 25 miles west of Hamburg. On 8 May, Victory in Europe was declared.
    Just under a year after their most famous day, the liberation of Brussels, the Guards passed back through the city on July 1945, on their journey home. The whole city – and the Queen of Belgium – turned up to honour them.

    For his role in the Liberation of Brussels, Sam received the highly prestigious ‘Croix de Guerre with palm’ medal from Belgium. This was a medal awarded to soldiers who had performed such heroic deeds in combat that they were subsequently ‘mentioned in dispatches’ recognized by headquarters.
    Sam left the Army in 1946 and returned to his civilian career, rising to become Director of another printing company. He never thought to trouble anyone with his stories of advancing across Europe and breaking military records.

    Field Marshal Montgomery signed a typed card to Sam when he left. It states, ‘I feel I cannot let you leave 21 Army Group on your return to civil life without a message of thanks and farewell. Together we have carried through one of the most successful campaigns in history, and it has been our good fortune to be members of this great team. God bless you and God speed.’

    Adam Stones