On 2 September 1944, the British Guards Armoured Division (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Allan Adair) was stationed in northern France when, late in the evening, XXX Corps commander Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks gave the order to march on Brussels.
Allan Adair and his men set off early on 3 September and by evening had entered Brussels by the Avenue de Tervuren, having covered more than 120km in one day. They were greeted by crowds of jubilant Belgians lining the Boulevard de Waterloo.
That same morning, most of the German troops had taken to their heels. In Brussels – as in other cities – their withdrawal was accompanied by much destruction. Before leaving, German soldiers set fire to the Palace of Justice in order to burn the documents still stored there. Despite efforts to extinguish the fire, the copper dome of the building collapsed, although not before thousands of bottles of wine had been removed from the cellars and distributed among the wildly celebrating crowds. Sporadic fighting was still occurring in some parts of the city, including violent clashes between resistance fighters and German soldiers in the Parc du Cinquantenaire.
The next day saw the arrival of the 1st Infantry Brigade of the Free Belgian Forces, better known as the Piron Brigade after its commander Colonel Jean-Baptiste Piron, who had transformed it into a first-rate combat unit after being put in charge in 1942. As part of the British 6th Airborne Division, the brigade was active in Normandy from 8 August 1944, liberating towns and villages eastward along the coast. Brussels’ citizens were pleasantly surprised to discover compatriots among the liberating forces, though some mistook them for French Canadians.
On 8 September, Hubert Pierlot, prime minister of the Belgian government-in-exile in London, returned to Brussels to lead a government of national unity. He was met with almost total indifference by the population. One of the first actions of the new government was to appoint Prince Karel, Count of Flanders, as regent in the absence of his brother, King Léopold III. But faced with the problems of food shortages, controversy over his acrimonious relations with the exiled king, and his failure to pursue collaborators sufficiently vigorously, Pierlot and his government grew increasingly unpopular. Forced to rely on the British military commander, Major General Erskine, to maintain order in the face of communist-led riots and resistance fighters’ refusal to give up their arms, Pierlot’s government eventually fell in February 1945.
Located in Brussels’ Parc du Cinquantenaire, or Jubelpark, this museum traces the history of the Belgian army from the late 18th century to the present day by means of a vast hoard of weapons, armaments and uniforms. The magnificent Bordiau Gallery (named after the architect of the park and its buildings) is dedicated to the major conflicts of the 20th century. New displays for the World War II material are currently being constructed, and will cover four main topics: the German occupation of Belgium (1940–44), the Liberation (1944–45), the ideology and race policy of the Nazis (1933–45) and the war in the Pacific (1937–45).
The Atlantic Wall was a line of German fortifications and gun batteries built to protect the northern European coastline from Allied invasion. Much of it still exists, including a well-preserved section along the Belgian coastline, 8km from Ostend. Here among the dunes can be found sixty bunkers (some from World War I), connected by lines of trenches and tunnels. The area was part of an estate owned by the Regent, Prince Karel, who was active in the preservation of the defences. The site is not suitable for those with disabilities or wheelchair users.
Top image: The Würzburg Riese Radar at the Atlantikwall Museum in Ostend, Belgium © Oriole Gin/Shutterstock