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A soldier's recollection of liberation in Belgium

by actiondesksheffield

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
Frank William Clarke
Location of story: 
Belgium, Brussels, Paris, Arras, Somme, Vimy Ridge, Normandy
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
05 August 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Maggie O'Neill of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Kathleen Clarke, and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Letter from Frank William Clarke to his sister Vera - Thursday 7th September 1944

Dear Vera

I just had to write and tell you of all the wonderful things that have happened to me during the past week. You have no doubt read and heard all about the sensational advance of the Guards Armoured Division, culminating in its liberation of Brussels. We travelled across France, North of Paris, across the Seine, through Arras and the battlefields of the last war, over the Somme and across the border into Belgium — 430 miles in less than six days. It must have been the greatest advance in history. It was very, very interesting and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. During the whole journey, we had little opposition, for the German army was in full retreat. It took us all our time to keep up with them.

When we left Normandy, we were told that our objective was across the Seine. We went across on a pontoon bridge, for the RAF had blown all the permanent structures. Once over we soon captured the first flying bomb sights. I took the message over the wireless and you can imagine the excitement it caused. This was our first real triumph V.

We drove on, liberating town after town, village after village, and we were madly cheered on our way. Some of the places we went through had been occupied by the Germans less than ten hours ago. The excitement was intense! The journey across the battlefields of 1914-18 was most interesting — the Somme, Arras, Vimy Ridge. The whole of that area is now fertile farming land, peaceful and beautiful and it is ghastly to imagine that thirty years ago, those fields were littered with the smashed bodies of good men. Their bones ploughed into the earth by shell-fire! No wonder the soil is fertile. Along the route we passed a number of war cemeteries, housing their wasted dead, and they were a vivid reminder of the futility of war. The Canadian memorial on Vimy Ridge looked most impressive.

We continued, riding right through the long days, stopping only a few hours each night for refuelling and a bit of sleep. The pace was terrific, V and all the time we were heading for the Belgium border. Then on Saturday night, we were told that early next morning, we would be setting out for Brussels. What an objective, for it was 90 miles away! It seemed impossible that we would ever make it, for if we did, we would achieve the distinction of advancing faster in one day than any other formation before us.

We set out early and we were soon being cheered on our way, some people even waving to us in their pyjamas and nightshirts. It was amazing! But the most amazing part was yet to come when we crossed the border in Belgium. The French people were glad to see us but the Belgians went mad. Their villages and towns were gaily festooned with flags, Belgian and Allied, and the streets were a mass of colour. Before we had gone many miles, our vehicles were covered with flowers and every time we halted, we had fruit and wine showered on us. We looked like flying greengrocer’s shops. From early morning till we arrived I ate, ate, ate cakes and biscuits, fruit and wine. My god how hysterically crazy and excited were these people to see us. Across the roads were banners, “Welcome to our Allies,” etc. and bands played in the path of this advancing army.

On and on we drove towards Brussels, the excitement getting more intense every hour. The people were getting frantic! The route was a blaze of colour and my arm fair ached with waving to the excited crowds. At times it was almost impossible to move through the seething masses, for they climbed on to the trucks kissing us and crying. These people had been four years beneath the Nazi yoke, suffering, unhappy and now they were free. The Allies had fulfilled their promise. Liberation was theirs.

And then we entered the suburbs of the capital! Our Brigade was the first formation to go in. Well V I don’t know how to describe it. It is almost impossible for I can never put into words the reception that greeted us. To put it mildly, it was stupendously terrific. The city went raving mad. Bands, screams, singing, crying, all these sounds rent the air. It was the proudest moment of my life. We had brought freedom and happiness to these good people. As we progressed further in the crowds began to get out of hand for they climbed into the trucks, on the tops kissing and hugging everyone. The vehicles were absolutely covered with flags and streamers. It was the most amazing sight!

As we neared the centre of the city, progress got very slow for the crowds were blocking the roads. The whole of Brussels had come out to welcome us. It took us over three hours to get from the suburbs to the Centre. We entered the town at 8.00 pm and we parked at about 11.00 pm. It got dark but lights were blazing in the cafes, the noise got even louder as radios blared out their greetings.

Eventually we reached our destination. There was a red glow surrounding the centre of the city, for the Germans had set fire to the tremendous magnificent Palace of Justice. It was a blazing inferno! The red ominous glow was the Germans' welcome to us. High up in buildings we could hear the occasional crack of rifles. Snipers! The enemy was still with us.

And now came the most amazing sight of all V. In the cellars of the Palace of Justice, had been stored by the Germans, thousands and thousands of bottles of wine and champagne. They were all brought up into the streets and Brussels fairly swam in wine. The celebration was tremendous.

We spent the night under our trucks on the fine squares and boulevards of that grand city. So ended a remarkable journey, - an awe-inspiring day.

Vera, I shall never, never forget Brussels. It was the most exciting moment of my life. A moment I shall always remember. Our Division had made history. I shall never forget Sunday the 3rd September 1944.

We were up early on the Monday morning and very soon, the squares started to fill with the good people of Brussels. They had come to see their liberators, those English soldiers that had fled the continent four years before. They knew we would return and never were people more genuinely happy to see us. It is difficult for the English to realise what this day meant to them. The Boche had been driven out- they were free again. What greater cause for celebration!

They visited our vehicles, invited us to parties, in fact did everything they possibly could do to make us at home. They treated us like gods. I made numerous friends, in particular with an English-speaking girl. She showed me all round the town. I had a marvellous time, V, I had my photo taken dozens of times, I nursed babies, kissed them, was kissed, hugged and applauded. Never have I been so excited. I have been unable to eat for three days now. The Belgian people are the most marvellous, greatest people in the world. Never will I forget them. I should feel very proud to belong to such a nation. I will certainly visit Brussels after the war for it is a wonderful city.

Our story, unfortunately, was short-lived V for the war is still to be won. I am writing this out in the wilds, somewhere on the road to Berlin. You’d be surprised if you knew where, but just keep on watching the newspapers. History is being made.

As I sit here thinking of the thrilling, exciting times I was enjoying not so very long ago, it makes me feel sad. Although so fleeting an experience I shall always treasure the memory of our glorious entry into the Belgian capital.

I do hope it will not be long now V before I am with you all once more. I have so much to tell you. But until then I’ll say goodbye and God Bless you all.
Love Frank xxx


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