History of the Piron Brigade
1st Belgian Independent Group
At the origins of the Belgian brigade
Like the free French forces, the first independent Belgian group formed at the end of the campaign in France which sees the success of German troops. Belgian and Luxembourg volunteers, who do not support the idea of collaborating or seeing Germans occupy their country, join England to continue the fight.
Indeed, three days before the surrender of the Belgian army, Lieutenant-General Victor Baron Strydonck of Burkel sets up a new military command at Tenby in Britain on May 25, 1940 and calls are made to bring the Belgians and Luxembourger: At the end of July 1940, 462 volunteers had already crossed the Channel. These numbers make it possible to set up the first units which are then trained in the United Kingdom as well as in Canada. Belgians from all over the world join their comrades and no less than thirty-three different languages are spoken within this unit.
Many former Belgian and Luxembourgish soldiers bring their skills, including artillerymen who, during a shooting campaign between Allied soldiers, rank first. Commander Jean-Baptiste Piron, a Belgian officer who left his occupied country in April 1941, arrived in Great Britain in January 1942 to consolidate the efforts made and to coordinate the participation of the Belgians in the fight against the Nazi regime: the June 4, 1942, they are officially attached to the Allied forces as the 1st independent Belgian group. In the spring of 1944, 2200 soldiers were ready for combat in this brigade commanded by Piron.
Battle of Normandy
The Piron brigade is deployed in Normandy only from August 8, 1944: indeed, the Allies favor the deployment of free French forces on D-Day and want to keep in reserve the Belgians for the liberation of Belgium. Piron is putting pressure on his government in exile so that his men are deployed at the earliest because morale tends to drop: this insistence works and the brigade is put on alert on July 29, 1944 and the next day, the Belgian precursors are landed on the beach of Arromanches.
Embarked aboard four Liberty Ships (H. Austin, P. Benjamin, Finlay and Gladstone) on August 4th, the Belgians crossed the Channel on August 6th. The next day, the landing operations begin: the vehicles are landed at Arromanches while the men are landed at Courseulles. The entire brigade, under the command of General Gale’s 6th British Airborne Division, was in Normandy from 8 August 1944, landing at Arromanches and Courseulles-sur-Mer. From 9 August, the “Piron Brigade” is declared operational on the Norman front. The arrival of this unit is done as part of the preparation of the Paddle operation which should allow to precipitate the fall of the German armies towards the Seine. Before the pursuit of their opponents, the Belgians face the entrenched positions of the 12th S.S. Panzerdivision “Hitlerjügend”.
First of all, in Normandy, they are fighting positions that occupy the military east of Orne, punctuated by various reconnaissance missions. On August 13, 1944, skirmishes multiply in Sallenelles, Le Hauger and in the region of the Buisson farm. The duels of artillery multiply and on August 14, the brigade deplores its first wounded. Edouard Gérard, the youngest of the Belgian volunteers, is the first killed in the brigade.
Movement fights begin in the east of the Orne with the launch of Paddle August 17 at three o’clock in the morning: the Belgians seize along the “flower coast” of the farm Buisson, villages Sallenelles, Merville, Franceville and Varaville on August 20, despite the presence of many mines that slow the progress of the Allies. The localities of Dives-sur-Mer and Cabourg are liberated at the end of the morning on August 21st, Deauville on the 22nd. The Germans destroyed most of the bridges during their retreat, slowing the Belgians still, fighting alongside the Dutch soldiers of the Colonel de Ruyter’s “Prinses Irene” brigade. When the forces engaged must stop their progress, the artillery takes over and constantly harasses the enemy positions.
The French resistance gives assistance to the Allied soldiers, by the arms or by the material support, in particular during the crossing of the wet cuts as on the Touques. The city of Honfleur is liberated on August 25th.
On August 26, the 1st independent Belgian group is attached to the 49th British Infantry Division. The Seine is reached on August 29, and the brigade is withdrawn from the front. General Gale writes to Jean-Baptiste Piron the following message during the withdrawal of the Belgian forces: “It is with deep regret that your magnificent brigade leaves my command … It has been an honor to fight with you. protect your advance towards your valiant country“.
During their engagement in Normandy, the Belgians lose twenty-six killed and sixteen wounded.
The liberation of Belgium
The Piron Brigade returned to the battlefield route on September 2, 1944, as part of the 2nd British Army. The next day, Belgians cross the Franco-Belgian border and enter Brussels on September 4, participating in the liberation of their country. They progress to the border with Holland which is reached on September 22.
The fighting continues on Dutch territory until November 17, when the Piron Brigade is withdrawn from the front to be replenished. Placed in reserve in Leuven, it was redeployed in the Netherlands after the armistice, from May 11 to June 1945 as an occupation force.
After the Second World War, the Belgian army is restructured on the model of the battle order of the Piron brigade.