After crossing the Seine the British breakout was now gathering momentum. It now seemed possible that the war would end soon. The Allied senior command was debating how best to exploit the situation, whether to allow Montgomery or Patton to lead a direct charge into Germany. Munitions and resources coming from the Channel were limited and it would fall to Eisenhower to decide whether they should be prioritised to one half of the invasion army, or whether a broad attack with shared resources was preferable.
For the moment the campaign on the ground was proceeding very differently to what had gone before. Frank Clarke, a soldier in the Guards Armoured Brigade, wrote this account of events in a letter to his sister Vera – ‘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.
Read the whole account on BBC People’s War.
A slightly more sombre celebration was taking place further back in the small French port of St Valery-en-Caux. Just over four years before, on 12th June 1940 the Highland Division had been forced to surrender at St Valery. It had been an ignominious day for the Division which comprised some of the most prestigious regiments in the British Army, all with long histories of battle honours.
Now, as the leading elements of the British Army raced ahead into Belgium Montgomery had diverted the Highland Division to the task of clearing out the French Channel ports enabling them to be the first Allied troops into St Valery, entering the port on 1st September. On the 3rd they paraded through the town and Major General Rennie addressed them on the significance of the day:
This is a very great occasion in the history of our famous division. Here at St Valéry on the 12th June 1940, a portion of the Highland Division, including its Headquarters, 152 and 153 Brigades, was captured by a large German force.
That magnificent Division was sacrificed in a last effort to keep the French in the war. True to Highland tradition the Division remained to the last with the remnants of our French Allies, although it was within its capacity to withdraw on Le Havre.
The Division drew on St Valéry the German 4th Corps, a Panzer and a Motor Division – in all six Divisions – and thereby diverted this force from harassing the withdrawal of other British troops on Le Havre and Cherbourg.
General Victor Fortune ordered the surrender of the division when it had run out of ammunition and food and all prospects of evacuation, which had been carefully planned by him, had failed.
That Highland Division was Scotland’s pride; and its loss, and with it the magnificent men drawn from practically every town, village, and croft in Scotland was a great blow. But this Division, then the 9th Highland Division, took its place and became the new 51st Highland Division.
It had been our task to avenge the fate of our less fortunate comrades and that we have nearly accomplished. We have played a major part in both the great decisive battles of this war – the Battle of Egypt and the Battle of France – and have also borne our share of the skirmishes and those costly periods of defensive fighting which made these great victories possible. We have lived up to the great traditions of the 51st and of Scotland.
I have disposed the Division, as far as is possible, in the areas where it fought at St Valéry. General Victor Fortune had his HQ here, 152 Brigade held the sector to the west, and 153 Brigade to the east. The Lothians and Border Horse held the sector to the south. The 154 Brigade and “A” Brigade (“A” Brigade was at that time operating with the Division) embarked at Le Havre.
I hoped by disposing the Division in that way to make it easier for some of you to find the graves of your relatives or friends who lost their lives with the St Valéry 51st. You will find at St Valéry and in the village cemeteries around, that the graves of our comrades have been beautifully cared for.
We have today playing with the Pipes and Drums of the Highland Division those of the Scottish Horse. There are also officers and men of the Lothians and Border Horse at this meeting.
See 51st Highland Division for more.