Belgian village in uproar as UK war memorial relocated

By Matt Cole
Europe Correspondent

Workmen remove the base of the war memorial. Picture by Andre Cleiren from De Wase Koerier
Image caption,
The village mayor says the memorial has been put in storage

Residents of a Belgian village are furious after their mayor ordered the removal of a Royal Air Force war memorial, honouring British troops.

The monument in Doel, on the River Schelde near Antwerp, was taken away in the early hours of Monday and its plinth was destroyed by workmen.

It had stood on the site since 1948 in memory of those who manned defences against German air raids in WWII.

Officials say the memorial is being moved to make way for a bigger port.

But campaigners say no such plans have been approved and think it an insult to British forces that the monument has been prematurely taken away.

Since the first rumours emerged that the memorial was under threat, Alain Heyrman, 48, has campaigned to protect it.

"It was still respected and honoured by everyone round here," he said.

"It's important for us to have the remembrance of the Second World War and the brave British soldiers who fought for our freedom."

Every July since 1948 the villagers have held a procession finishing at the polished granite memorial, honouring their RAF defenders. But that ended in 2009 when the local mayor, Marc Van de Vijver, banned it.

He claimed the event was being hijacked by Doel residents campaigning against the bulldozing of their village to make way for the port expansion.

Those villagers believe the memorial's removal is the latest part of a plan to weaken their resolve to campaign to save Doel.

Marc Van de Vijver denies this and insists the two issues must not be linked. He says the memorial's future is guaranteed, albeit in another nearby town five or six miles away.

The official said: "We're moving this to protect the monument.

"We want to continue the tradition that has existed for over 50 years. For the last 10 years we've known this area could be redeveloped so in order to preserve it, we thought it should be relocated."

The mayor also explained that workmen removed the memorial under cover of darkness because they simply wanted to make an early start.

Mr Heyrman is livid with the mayor's conduct and says the port expansion should at worst need the memorial to have been shifted a short distance along the riverbank.

"Even if the port expansion ever takes place, they could still keep the monument here," he said.

"If necessary relocating it 100m along the embankment to outside the limits of the new port. The monument is the soul of the village and should not have been moved.

"There's no connection with the other village. The embankment of the River Schelde is the place where the action took place, where the artillery guns were, so people have to respect that the monument should be here."

But Mayor Van de Vijver says that as the air defences protected the wider region, the monument does not have to be on the exact site of the guns.

Villagers remain worried that as no land has been secured for a new memorial, it will not happen. The mayor says the main part of the original monument is now safely in storage.

However he is refusing to let residents or the BBC know the location of its storage so its condition can be verified.

Those who have spent decades honouring the memory of British troops who fought to keep Europe free of Nazi tyranny say they will fight on until the memorial is returned to where they believe is the only fitting and proper place - the village of Doel.