Archive for Belgium

Despite the fact that it was technically formed in July 1940, the SOE (Special Operations Executive) had been created in 1938 with the merger of 3 existing, key sections just after Germany annexed Austria. Churchill’s Secret Army was told to “Set Europe Ablaze”.

SOE agents were directed to many different Nazi occupied countries to both cause havoc behind German lines and at the same time make an effort to come across local resistance groups they would quite possibly work with as the occasion for invasion was here. Theatres of Operation included France, Belgium, Poland, Germany, Yugoslavia, Greece, Hungary, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Denmark, Romania, Abyssinia and the Far East.

As agents had to operate deep in Nazi held nations and they were chosen from a range of social class and background. The primary criteria was that the probable operative had exhaustive understanding of the region they would operate in and would pass as a native of that country. That is why, operatives in possession of dual nationality were highly sought-after.

The renowned airplane utilised by the Special Operations Executives in France was the Westland Lysander. It was a small airplane which meant it was so much more tough to see and was strong enough to land on makeshift landing strips. It was used to transport operatives to and from the United Kingdom together with lifting individuals who had to be debriefed in London. Airmen who had been shot down were also at times brought back to the Britain by Lysander.

Amid the Special Operations Executive group were a number of female agents and around 30% of the female agents routed into France from Section F, did not come back. The types of missions in each region were wide ranging. For example, in Poland, there was little need to encourage the local population as there was already general hate of the Germans. This was in contrast to areas such as Vichy France which worked with with the occupying forces and the possibility of SOE agents being betrayed was greatly increased.

For the duration of World War II, the SOE had utilised around 13,000 people who directly backed or provided somewhere in the region of 1 million agents.

During World War I, the ancient Belgium market town of Ypres had been in a very tactically significant place near to the British front lines and is also one of the most notorious areas along the Western Front as a consequence of the bloody fighting that took place here.

The city had been in the middle of the Ypres Salient, a part of the lines protruding towards the German lines. Historically, Ypres could possibly be traced back to the 12th century. In spite of years of fighting and occupation, Ypres grew but with the start of The First World War, the town under German control.

The 1st Battle of Ypres for the duration of October and November 1914 saw the Allies capture Ypres from the Germans and despite serious fighting around Ypres until the First World War ended in 1918, the Germans never recaptured the town.

Yet, during the four years of World War I, the city suffered a fearful toll because 4 big battles were fought about here. In the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April and May 1915, the Germans retook the high ridge off to the east of Ypres. The area covered the village of Passchendaele.

In 1917, among the most deadly struggles of the First World War occurred. The 3rd Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele saw Allied Forces recapture the ridge though at a terrible cost. Between July and November 1917, there was more than 500 thousand casualties on both sides and Ypres was virtually wiped off the map by German heavy guns.

The well-known Cloth Hall and quite a few other structures were reduced to rubble and ages of heritage were gone. In 1933, reconstruction began on the Cloth Hall and this was at long last finished in 1967 having been painstakingly rebuilt to restore its historical past. Nowadays, the Cloth Hall in Ypres is home to the In Flanders Fields Museum.

All through The First World War, the Menin Gate was simply an exit cut from the eastern ramparts of Ypres. A great many troops would have marched via this exit en route towards the front . In 1927, the Menin Gate Memorial was unveiled. It commemorates the names of around 54,000 soldiers who sadly are even now missing about the battlefields all across the Ypres Salient and each and every night, the Last Post ceremony takes place here at 8pm by the grateful citizens of Ypres.

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Xmas Ceasefire of December 1914

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Following the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, a good number of people imagined it would be settled by Christmas. Loyal teenage men were anxious to join the army as soon as possible as they feared they would lose out on the action. Of course, history has highlighted that their optimism was misguided as the war would not conclude right up until 1918. The German advance was stopped at the 1st Battle of Marne and the race for the sea began as the Allies and Germans both dug in. It was the beginning of the trench warfare of the Western Front.

The end result was lines of trenches winding down from the North Sea to Switzerland along a 440 mile front. The battle lines moved hardly at all as a struggle of attrition broke out. Original trenches weren’t well built and were prone to cave in. Even by trench warfare standards, 1914 was pretty horrific. As winter neared, the men on the front line realised that the war would not be over by Xmas after all.

The Western Front ran through both Belgium and France with soldiers from France, Belgium and Great Britain manning a range of sectors. In some parts, the German trenches were no more than 30 yards away. Being in such close proximity allowed the infantry to call to their opponents or even hold up signs. On the German belt buckles was the inscription “Gott Mitt Uns” (God is with us). The British reply was “We’ve got mittens too”. Some of the shouting matches were a bit more black humour. A volley of shots would get the shout “Missed” or “Left a bit”.

Nevertheless, it was these exchanges that laid the foundations of a few astonishing scenes along the Western Front on 24th December 1914. The Germans celebrate Christmas on the 24th as opposed to United Kingdom and France who celebrate on the 25th). The weather had improved and on the 24th, the sounds from the German trenches were different. They began singing carols and placed Xmas Trees on their trenches. Men began calling to each other and after a while, some ventured into no mans land where they talked and exchanged cigarettes, food and souvenirs. Stories of the truce varies as there were actually a handful of truces up and down the lines. They were mostly in the sectors manned by the British as the Germans were occupying Belgium and French land so the Christmas spirit was less in evidence amongst these men.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was unofficial but as many as 100,000 men were thought to have been involved. As well as fraternisation, the chance was also taken to reclaim and bury the dead. One of the most widely known parts of the truce was the football match between the British and Germans. There are a number of inconsistant reports in relation to the game with a number of finals scores. This would suggest there were several games at various locations.

The duration the ceasefire lasted also varied but generally, it was over on Christmas Day. More often than not, hostilities started again by mutual arrangement. In one case, on the morning of the 26th December 1914, Captain Stockwell of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers fired into the air and stood above the parapet. His opposite number in the German trench also stood up, they saluted and stepped down. Captain Stockwell heard the German fire a couple of shots into the air and World War I started again. Never the less, the Christmas Truce was very much against the wishes of British commanders and in the following years, artillery barrages were ordered for Xmas Eve.

In 2008, a plaque to the Christmas Truce on the Western Front was unveiled at the village on Frelinghen and was the 1st memorial to the events of Christmas 1914. The legacy the truce left behind is appreciable with several books being written and published and it was also the inspiration for quite a few songs.

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The TV mini series Band of Brothers is regarded as one of the recommended war motion pictures ever created. Based upon the book by Stephen Ambrose, the 10 parts follow the history from the soldiers of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Regiment of the American 101st Airborne. Episode one starts off with Easy Companies basic training at Toccoa, Georgia before being transferred to the United Kingdom while they prepare for a part with the D-Day Assault in Northern France.

Each episode gets going by filming original soldiers of Easy. The veterans discuss their war time ordeals that the episode relates to however at this stage, the men are not revealed. While the veterans aren’t identified, the episodes familiarizes you with the people early on and the actors are superbly cast making it uncomplicated to connect with them from the very start.

Even if the action scenes are filmed brilliantly, why Band of Brothers stand out from various different war movies is the fact that it brings forth the individual stories so effectively. As an example, in episode two simply prior to Easy Company are set to leap into Northern France, without doubt one of the soldiers, Bill Guarnere, learns his brother was killed at Montecassino.

The 10 episodes show the stories of Easy Company beginning with their basic training just before heading into battle in Northern France and to the village of Carentan. Episode four sees the introduction of replacement men into Easy and illustrates the difficulty they have being accepted by the Normandy veterans as Easy Company take part in Operation Market Garden.

The following two episodes cover the run up along with the fighting at Bastogne for the duration of the Battle of the Bulge. By now several of Easy Company are at breaking point and this is actually the topic of episode 7. While the war in Europe nears the conclusion, there is a final patrol for Easy Company. The horrors of war are brought to the forefront the moment the men locate a concentration camp. The final episode sees Easy Company head into Austria where they capture the Eagle’s Nest high in the mountains at Berchtesgaden.

The series finishes with interviews with the men of Easy Company and eventually identifies the men that audiences have learned to know throughout the 10 episodes of Band of Brothers.


The Menin Gate and the Last Post

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The Menin Gate in an impressive memorial to the military personnel who died during World War I in the Belgium town of Ypres (Iepers). During the war, the Ypres Salient was the arena of horrendous fighting and was nicknamed “Wipers” by the British Tommies who were stationed there. More than a quarter of a million men from UK and the Commonwealth perished in the fighting around this historic town. Of those men, around 100,000 have no recognized grave and around fifty percent of those are commemorated on the Menin Gate. This memorial to the missing contains the names of 54,000 soldiers from all around the earth.

All over the Western Front battlefields of Belgium and France, there are a good number of memorials but the Menin Gate is compelling for more than just its over all size. The gate stands at the Eastern exit of the town and the road leads straight to the old front line. The memorial was constructed by the British government and was presented in 1927. Its setting seems most appropriate and many of the men whose names are commemorated on the Menin Gate, will have travelled along this actual road to the front line, never to come back.

The residents of Ypres were all to conscious of the debt of gratitude they owed the fallen that they came up with an plan to honour them. Since 1928, each night at 8pm, traffic is prevented from passing by the Menin Gate and a short ceremony takes place. Buglers from the Last Post Association and town’s fire brigade congregate to play the “Last Post”. The ceremony should not be regarded as entertainment, it is a sombre affair and although the public are free to be present at the ceremony, they should keep in mind the reasons that it takes place.

The ceremony has taken place every single evening from 2nd July 1928, only interrupted due to World War II as the town was occupied by Germany. During the occupation of Ypres, the ceremony was held at Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey, Britain. The precise day that Ypres was liberated from the Germans in World War II, was again conducted at the Menin Gate.

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