The city of ʼs-Hertogenbosch celebrated that it has been free for 75 years. The 10-day-long festivities to mark the end of World War II (in the last week of October 1944) included a cycle tour of 22 kilometres. Over 200 people cycled along and many of them – mostly children – wore a green cap with an image of the formation patch of the 53rd Welsh Infantry Division; one cap for every fallen soldier in the battle of ʼs-Hertogenbosch.
The Netherlands remembers that is has been a free country for 75 years, this year in the South and mostly next year, since the biggest part of the country was liberated in May 1945. The battle of ʼs-Hertogenbosch was part of an operation with the code name Operation Pheasant.
Operation Pheasant took place in the last part of October 1944 and was a direct result of the failed operation Market Garden, in which Arnhem proved a bridge too far. The objective was to make the much needed port of Antwerp usable. At the time, all supplies for the allied forces were still coming in via the beaches of Normandy. These long supply lines led to problems and they needed to be shortened. The port of Antwerp had fallen into allied hands with little damage, but the entrance of the port – the Scheldt estuary – runs through the South of the Netherlands and that was still occupied by the Nazis.
There are a number of websites describing the battle of ʼs-Hertogenbosch. On one of them we find: “The 53rd (Welsh) Division, commanded by Major General Robert Knox Ross, was assigned the task of capturing ʼs-Hertogenbosch. He had the tanks of the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, the flame-throwing Crocodile tanks of 141st Royal Armoured Corps Regiment (the Buffs), some Flail tanks and AVREs of the 79th Armoured Division and Kangaroo personnel carriers, Sherman tanks without turrets capable of carrying 10 men, under command. The action to capture and liberate ‘s-Hertogenbosch was to be the 53rd (Welsh) Division’s first major engagement as a whole division, as up to then they had been employed piecemeal in brigades often in support other divisions.”
On 22 October 1944, the first shots were fired on the village of Nuland from the area between Vinkel and Geffen. British Pathé called it the “Hammering at ‘s-Hertogenbosch“. On Sunday morning 20 October 2019, many people came with their bicycles to the Parade, a square next to the cathedral in ʼs-Hertogenbosch. They would cycle the same route the “liberators”, as the soldiers of the 53rd Welsh Division are commonly called now, took from Vinkel (now part of the municipality of ʼs-Hertogenbosch) all the way to ʼs-Hertogenbosch proper. The cycle parade passed through many of the villages that were liberated in the battle that had lasted 6 days. Buses brought the people and their bicycles to the starting point in Vinkel. There, 146 green caps were handed out, mostly to the children in the group. That number is the total number of men the 53rd Welsh Division lost in the battle of ʼs-Hertogenbosch. The caps were a way to honour these fallen soldiers.
Before the parade started in Vinkel, the city offered the participants a lunch with music. Welsh singer Llio Evans sang two songs by Welsh composer Ivor Novello and as a surprise to the audience she also sang a song in Dutch from and about the war. The cycle tour went from Vinkel to Geffen (now in the municipality of Oss), Nuland, Kruisstraat, Bruggen, Rosmalen, Hintham and finally ʼs-Hertogenbosch. Church bells were ringing in every village and quite a few people came to watch the parade. What took the riders just a few hours had taken the Welsh Division 6 days. Although the Market of ʼs-Hertogenbosch was reached on the 25th, it took until the 27th of October 1944 before the entire city was freed.
The price was high for all parties involved. As mentioned before the Welsh Division lost 146 men, another 75 went missing and 270 men were wounded. The Germans lost even more men; 274 and they had about 600 wounded. Around 1,600 Germans were taken prisoner. In the city of ʼs-Hertogenbosch 118 civilians died and 80 were wounded. Just in the first night of the attack on the city, from 23rd to 24th of October, 50,000 grenades were fired onto it. The damage was considerable after the battle: 722 buildings were completely destroyed and 1057 were heavily damaged. The beautiful station building was very heavily damaged (and replaced in the 1950s), the railway tracks were completely destroyed. All but three of the many bridges in the city were blown up or destroyed in the figths.
The war ended on 27 October 1944 for ʼs-Hertogenbosch but not for the 53rd Welsh Division. Just three days after the battle they were sent to the Ardennes from where they advanced north through Germany. The war finally ended for the boys in Hamburg in May 1945. However, the bond with ʼs-Hertogenbosch was so strong that veterans from the division kept returning annually for memorials (moving images from British Pathé 1945). There is a Welsh Monument and the city has a bridge named after the Welsh that I have shown you on my blog before. Even this year, 75 years after the war ended, 4 veterans came to ʼs-Hertogenbosch in a delegation of over 200 people from Wales. I was honoured to be able to shake hands and speak to the two of them who came to an evening event that was closed with a moving version of the Welsh National anthem.
Soprano Llio Evans from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrogbwllllantysiliogogogoch led the Welsh National Anthem in the theatre of ʼs-Hertogenbosch. She was in the city all 10 days and tied the different events together, for that she also received a silver medal.
The Tour of Freedom. Roughly the route the liberators took to free the city of ʼs-Hertogenbosch (from East to West).
The Tour of Freedom. Cycling the route the liberators took to free the city of ʼs-Hertogenbosch.
The 10-day-long commemorative festivities were closed on Sunday 27 October, the actual date the city was liberated, with a beating retreat ceremony.