Belgium and Holland









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The Regimental History states that on 12 September, after being relieved by a Polish armoured regiment at St Nicholas, about ten miles SW of Antwerp, “We ended up in the very pleasant little village of Heyst-op-den-Berg where we were promised five days of maintenance and rest. We were foolish enough to believe this.” It goes on to describe how they received orders to “act as a Regimental Group under the command of 101 U.S. Airborne Division and protect and keep open the lines of communication from Eindhoven to Grave.” This was part of Operation Market Garden that culminated in the Battle of Arnhem.

B.L.A. Belgium, 16 September 1944

Woman Dear,

Just received your letter of the 12 Sept. in which you say you wonder where I am now. Well I couldn’t honestly tell you myself – all I know is that the villages have names longer than the main street, many of them hyphenated more than once, and appear on no maps you (or I) could lay our hands on.”

“… this war of movement is about the most chaotic thing one could encounter… we are, for a day or two, miles from any active front and in an area which has been in our hands for more than a week – yesterday there was a minor flap all of a sudden – in a wood not a mile away some local wench discovered Tedesci – over a hundred of them who have been there all this time not more than five miles from a major town. Again, at another town one of our tanks, completely buried in flowers and the local population, was suddenly presented with a target in the shape of a Jerry half-track armoured car which swung round the corner firing .50 HE at some of the trucks and carriers (and the general population). The unfortunate Jerry failed to see the tank buried as it was, and our gunner climbing rather sorrowfully into the tank (he knew the effect of one of our shells in a town street) pressed the firing button. The gun was one of those long ones you saw at Worthing – the half-track ceased being a half-track instanter all the flowers and population fell off, a house fell down and all the glass came out for several streets around. The population didn’t mind the damage a bit, even the man whose house fell down, for were there not some six Germans satisfactorily dead all over the sidewalk? The flowers were replaced, the gun examined with awe and also a replica shell – the empty case carried off as a souvenir and I venture to say it will be a show-piece there for years to come.

“... it is possible that you may get a letter in French from a wench of some twenty summers – it was thuswise – yesterday Fred and I went a trip to a certain city and there met a chap who took us to his domicile for food, produced his fiancé and they together then showed us the town – very nice town, very nice chap, very nice girl, very nice ice-cream sundaes… The aforesaid chappie age 23 has just emerged from a confinement (not of the female variety). He has never left his own house for over twelve months because to do so was to run an imminent danger of being whipped into a lorry by Jerry press-gangs and taken off to the Reich. Jerry’s favourite hunting grounds were dances, football matches, dog races etc. into which he burst after first drawing a cordon round the place – all men in certain age groups were taken away willy-nilly.”

On the way to Holland


"En route for Dutch frontier to support American 101st Parachute Div. dropped at Grave during the Arnhem 'do'."





B.L.A. Belgium, 19 September 1944

“I’m very browned off at present, sitting in the driving seat of the old wagon waiting to move. We are on the main road and have been crawling along for nearly three days now – days mark you not hours – total distance covered is less than ten miles."

"The date by the way is the 21st so I’ve discovered – time is flying quicker than I thought.”



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B.L.A. Holland, 29 September 1944

“I’ve just concluded my third ‘jildy’ of the European War and was I glad to get out. Last night I had my first decent sleep for eight nights or so – in a brick kiln of all things – as we are now parked in a sort of brickworks. There are numerous civilians here as well and one is awakened at 5 am for the day by the squawks of young infants.”

“There are a couple of priests here in muddy cassocks who hold a prayer meeting at night"

"I suppose it would be picturesque to anyone with an artistic eye – the long catacombish kiln lit only by candles and hurricane lamps at intervals, strewn with straw. Soldiers lying along the walls talking in low voices, vague shadows illuminated occasionally by a struck match, the priests picking their way through the tangle of arms and legs, a few women and girls seeking their little bits of privacy here and there and the crash of guns outside with the shriek of a shell with a torn driving band as it tears over the roof. They are our shells fired from somewhere behind us – Jerry does not seem to bother this place at all though he sends salvoes into the crossroads about a quarter of a mile further on – we were there for several days until it got too hot altogether – hence this move.”

Jim’s letters at this time were redirected by a neighbour to Mathrafal, Meifod, Montgomeryshire, which appears to be a farm a few miles NW of Welshpool.

“Just received your letter from Wales, the second one. I’m glad to hear that you are enjoying yourself – and why shouldn’t you. It wouldn’t help me any for you to be in a state of permanent what d’you call it would it? Believe me I enjoy myself when I get the chance. There has been little to enjoy this last fortnight or so – quite the opposite but that is the way things go and nothing can be done about it so why fret?”

Jim went on to comment on his recent jildy, as he described it.

“The Arnhem effort was a gamble pure and simple and didn’t quite succeed in its entirety. However the results are not altogether disappointing. The Airborne put up a magnificent show and deserve every praise for their efforts. Their life is also a gamble – short and sweet as it were. They get good pay, preferential treatment in many many ways, good Leaves, and in return lay themselves open to the risk of the 10-1 chance if it is required of them… They may get away with it, having seen far less than I have – or they may land in another Arnhem – it’s a gamble.”

After comparing the chances of survival of airborne soldiers with those of front line infantrymen he finished with “Personally I take my beret off to them all.”

B.L.A. Holland, 3 October 1944

“My hotel consists of a barn of ample dimensions with a straw-rick in the centre – it is partly thatched and partly tiled with bunches of tobacco leaves hanging up to dry from the rafters. The lorry is just outside and the little charging engine (ex-Jerry) is going and lighting our boudoir with electric light (ex-Jerry cable)… About two feet of straw makes a fine mattress. The farm is a poor one of peasant type and the most remarkable feature is the horde of children – so far I’ve seen ten… The wireless set is at the bottom of my bed – not the old-stager but another one (ex-Jerry) running off new batteries (ex-Jerry). In fact I’m almost happy. Have just purchased some ‘milk’ for a tin of ‘haricot oxtail’. You have never known haricot oxtail but every man in the 2nd Army prefers bully – that’s how bad it is.”

“The news is now on in this outlandish language and all the farmer’s family is gathered around drinking it all in. It’s rather funny for a bomb or a stick thereof has just come down a good way away and all their heads turned immediately to us to see what we did. As we did nothing all the heads turned back to the set.”

“Bing is on the old radio at present – I must hand it to the Yanks for their entertainment. We have no Crosbies, no Hopes, no Allens, and the British side of the A.E.F. programme is a disgrace. The only one who is any good at all is Tommy Handley.”

4 October: “In Belgium I watched a typical village blacksmith at work making a pair of lovely iron gates whilst his mate was making ploughs – a great thing is craftsmanship. On this farm here I’ve seen another thing I’ve always wanted to see – a spinning wheel at work, worked by the daughter, a girl about 14 years old. It looks easy but it isn’t.”

It is a little unclear whether Jim was writing from Belgium or Holland in the next few letters.

According to the Regimental History, on 2 October they moved to the village of Volkel near to Udem in Holland. Within a week they were preparing to move again and on 10 October set off north crossing the River Maas at Grave. They then returned the way they had come and took up a position around Poppel ten miles south of Tilburg, but in Belgium. It might be as well to remember that Jim was servicing the tanks and this would have involved journeys that were quite independent of the general movement of the regiment. He admitted in a later letter of 27 October: "That is one of the advantages of our little job - we are our own bosses."

Two letters overlap, one dated both 6 and 7 October, the other dated 7 and 9 October. Holland and Belgium are mentioned in both, and either letter could well have been finished days later.

B.L.A. Holland, 6 October 1944

“I’m writing this in warmth and luxury by a nice hot stove by which hangs a tale. Be it known that when we first arrived here in this village the soldat anglaise was an unknown quantity, a living question mark to the population. I, with several others, was billetted here and the lady of the house bustled about to show us bedrooms. Mac and I grabbed a room with a double bed all made up but when we went to bed that night all the sheets, pillows and blankets had been stripped from it leaving the bare mattress… For the first two days of our stay life was formal and a little strained withal, and then came our first break. The young lady à l’autre côté de la rue discovered that I spoke a little French and in the course of an afternoon further discovered that I had a rudiment of table manners, could drink coffee without making a noise, knew what sugar-tongs were for, etc. Could I be human? The news must have spread because the next day the lady of the house smiled once or twice and spoke to me in halting French. To detract from this show of camaraderie however she asked us to use a flight of stairs at the back of the house to avoid dirtying her hall and main stairs – not so good n’est-ce pas?”

“Then came the great ‘break’. A niece appears on the scene aged 18 and very posh – Bedford College and all that you know. Evidently we made a good impression for we were invited to her house ‘about two kilometres away’ to meet her uncle and aunt – our lady’s sister – they were great patriots and had seen no soldats anglaise at all. Off we went in the dark. Maria (the wench), our lady of the house, Fred, Arthur, Mac and myself. We went along the canal bank and much to my amazement our lady planted herself between Arthur and me and linked arms with us. Two kilos – it was seven kilos – along lanes and hedgerows until I was literally on my knees. Alors nous étions là, a grand mansion of imposing proportions in extensive grounds. As Arthur said ‘Some joint’. The uncle is a man of sixty with infantile paralysis in his legs. He made his money in Conge Belge where he spent fifteen years…”

“We returned thence about 11pm avec the lady of the house of course and everyone was very friendly. The next morning Maria arrived again, donned an apron and proceeded to help her aunt to clean out the house. When I visited our room again I was paralysed – the floor was polished, our blankets had disappeared and the bed was resplendent in snowy sheets and pillows with a cerise eiderdown – all our junk was carefully put away in drawers with a separate one for our revolvers…”

“Downstairs the best sitting room stove was lit, the blackout up and the armchairs out. We were ‘there’ – almost, because we still ate our meals on the lorry which is parked outside the door and there was one thing still missing from our room and I intended to get it put back – a matter of honour as it were.”

Jim mentioned a group photo that he was given by the family which seems to be the one shown below, with the address on the back including the name 't Hasselt, a town in northeast Belgium very near the border with Holland. In a later letter Jim clarified for Pip that Mia Nijskins was the young woman who lived with her aunt and uncle, the Greusens. If we allow for Jim coping with unfamiliar spelling, the names Nyskens on the card and Geusens on a letter sent to Pip in November from Belgium would also seem to apply to this family. Confirmation that Jim was in Belgium at the time.

Group photo in Belgium
reverse of group photo

Is the building in the background the "grand mansion of imposing proportions in extensive grounds"?

Jim described a second visit with Maria to her uncle’s house. This time they cycled, using folding paratroops’ bikes, over cobblestones, setts and mud filled potholes. Once there, they repaired a radio, a vacuum cleaner and an electric floor-polisher, had a meal and cycled back in the rain to find “our lady waiting for us with a bottle of beer apiece.” The next day the turnaround was complete: “We are not allowed to eat outside – we eat in the dining room off a cloth. We have trifle and apple tart provided and IT is in the bedroom at last! To wit one Jerry.”

A Jerry in this context was of course a guzunder or chamber pot. After adding a new date, 7 October, Jim wrote that it must be about a week since he posted a letter for Pip. It looks as if this letter was sent off and he started another one the same day. Jim explained why they had received no mail for a while. The Post Corporal, Harry Taylor (no relation), had suffered several problems on his travels. After the first breakdown Jim picked up the story.

B.L.A. Holland, 7 October 1944

“Eventually he is towed back to camp ignominiously by a passing truck and so endeth the first lesson. Now Harry is a stickler and after booming about for a while he sets forth again, this time in a Jerry effort pinched at Falaise. Everything went very nicely until the truck he was following braked hard and Harry tried to help it along to the great detriment of his radiator.”

Inevitably, when you need traffic there isn’t any in sight so “… eventually Harry and his mate decide to go in opposite directions in search of succour. After much trouble and tribulation Harry returns in triumph with someone calculated to mend this radiator in no time. Alas, the Jerry wagon was there – sans wheels! That’s the trouble with this Army – everyone in it is, by now, a rogue and vagabond and one has to be very careful what one leaves lying about.”

9 October: “Have left our nice barn and am now parked alongside another one in an entirely different area. This barn is full of refugees as are all the barns etc. around. Their village, a little way up the road is at present in the firing line so they have vamoosed. At present we are awaiting the rest of the wagons – we being the stooges who hold the area till they arrive. Last time we did this holding game was in Italy – we crossed the Sangro River alone and the bridges were promptly swept away by a torrent leaving us all alone in Fossacesia which was being shelled most inconsiderately by Jerry.”

That incident occurred in November 1943 and, as he mentioned in his letter, just before he was shipped off to Algiers with an attack of jaundice. Which adds more detail to his earlier account written at the time but subject to censorship.

Jim described different bombing techniques he had observed.

B.L.A. Holland, 17 October 1944

“You may remember the big raid on Caen – 650 Liberators and Lancasters. We watched the raid from just outside Carpiquet aerodrome and saw the one plane that was lost go down in flames. For some reason or other he swerved off just before reaching the target area, went round in a large circle, and then started in over the target all by himself, all the others having been in and already on their way back. He was flying very low and was a sitting bird for the A/A of which there was a huge quantity. He was on fire in two engines straight away but he dropped his bombs, circled and went in again to drop the rest by which time all four engines and his tail were ablaze. Then he came down like a stone.”

“The people I really hand the bouquets to though are the medium bomber crews. They must have nerves of steel those blokes. They bomb in daylight from about 5000 ft and always fly in close formation, wing tip to wing tip, in sixes, twelves or eighteens. I have seen them flying straight into heavy 88 mm flak that was so thick, it was impossible to distinguish the individual bursts – always in perfect formation. In the days of the bridgehead their losses were heavy but they always did what they were asked for. The Typhoons are good too, but theirs is a more dashing role and they never seem to lose any planes. I have watched hundreds of Tiffies going in, sometimes only a few hundred yards away from us but have never yet seen one shot down. I think it is because of the fear Jerry has of them, and small wonder, as the noise of their rockets going down and the terrific explosions they make would scare anything – they have scared us, even when we know they’re on our side!”


A bomber V2 barracks in Holland

"Evidence of our bombing.
Remains of uncompleted underground barracks etc. on a V2 rocket site in Holland."

Jim discussed a recent pay rise of 7/- a week and another 3/6 a week as from 17 October for four years’ service, and planned to send some savings to Pip. He was writing in the truck which was standing beside a farm cum general store. Yoyo, a young lady of 22 from the farm, had gone to make coffee. “… they make about twenty cups a night for the lads. Actually it is made from roasted wheat but it isn’t bad at all.”

B.L.A. Belgium, 20 October 1944

“We have left our previous location and after being here two days are moving again after lunch – not very far though, just a few miles. A lot of this movement seems to serve no purpose whatsoever, it being a policy never to leave a formation in one place for any length of time. Presumably we get browned off if we are in a reasonable place and much prefer mud and wet.”

Jim continued in a gloomy mood, anticipating more rain throughout the winter ahead, then on the 21st he added “Life is much more pleasant today as the sun is shining and it is lovely and warm.” He had moved into the house of another schoolmaster, who had nine children.

“I have discovered one reason, apart from the obvious Catholic influence, for the large families – I speak of Belgium by the way. The people here get a considerable allowance for every child. This man’s salary, for instance, is far smaller than his allowances for his children are.”

“I feel sorry for his wife however, she looks as though nine children are a bit of a strain, though they seem to be no trouble at all. The house now, for instance, is as silent as the grave, yet they are all in the next room.”

“Sometimes I wonder if Britain is such a wonderful place after all – they seem to get along all right in these places – they don’t seem to want so much, materially I mean, and they do not blame the government for everything. Also they are intensely proud of their country. It is very common to hear someone say ‘No true Belgian would do that of course’ quite unaffectedly. The prestige of Britain is terrific, even though they think we have had a far easier time than we have had.”

23 October: “No peace for the wicked. In a new place again, this time a pub. I sleep in the billiard room which sounds much more posh than it is. Their tables, by the way, have no pockets and one simply scores cannons all the time.”

“I’ve not decided yet who is in the family and who isn’t. The wench who told us we can sleep there suddenly put her hat and coat on last night and disappeared. This morning at 7.30 am I found a blonde making shirts on the sewing-machine who I last saw peeling spuds in a house at the other end of the village.”

Jim recounted the story of one of their Dispatch Riders who, with a friend, set off to visit a couple of girls in a town 50 miles back.

“Coming back in the early hours of the morning and in a downpour, he took the wrong road and tried to cross a big canal on a bridge which was, unfortunately for him, blown up in the middle. He was flat out at the time in an endeavour to get back before reveille, so of course he described a beautiful curve into the canal plus passenger. They returned ingloriously in a 3-tonner sent to bring them in, plus bike which was fished out of the canal after much searching. I think there will be a vacancy for a DR shortly.”

B.L.A. Belgium, 27 October 1944

“I have, by the way, a tablecloth about 10 miles long by 7 or so wide which I found in a ditch near Caen. It is a good linen one and probably originated from some big place nearby. Could you find a use for it?”

“I’m glad in a way that you have got a puppy. I think every child should have something of the sort around and as Dave has shown signs of fear with dogs it may be a good thing.”

B.L.A. Belgium, 28 October 1944

“I feel like Lord Nuffield tonight being, with about ten other blokes, the possessor of a mansion ‘le plus magnifique’. My room contains two beds with bedside tables, a larger table at which I’m writing, several chairs including two super deck chairs and a wicker table on which the wireless is busy playing. There are several built-in cupboards and my bed belonged to a certain Ernst Licht, Oberwm. d. Sch. d. R. whatever that means. I presume him to be a doctor as this place was until yesterday or thereabouts a Jerry convalescent home for, I should judge, the Offizier Klass of the Luftwaffe…”

“Over my bed is a lovely telephone complete with automatic devices and dials. I tried to call the Fuhrer at Berchtengarten but someone must have cut the wire.”

“No doubt we shall move again tomorrow – we always do when I’m comfortable. We don’t always live like this – did I tell you of the night Fred and I spent in the village refuse dump? It was at those damned crossroads.”

30 October: “We moved. I thought we would, and our new location is some 80 miles away from my mansion. I sleep in a feather bed now in a bare sort of room in what was once a farmhouse.”

“Down the road is a nice looking wench of about 23 who speaks very good French. I’m going there this afternoon at her request not because she is a nice looking wench of 23 or thereabouts, but because the room is the warmest one in the village as far as I can ascertain.”

“She was very shocked yesterday when I affirmed that we have Mahommedans in the British Army. I like to shock their sense of religious righteousness as the first thing they ask is if one is a Catholic. When one says ‘No’ they say ‘Protestant?’ and now one always replies Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Christian Scientist or some such, which reduces them to puzzled silence. Their religion is so beautifully straightforward – Is you is or is you ain’t a Catholic.”

Jim turned to the question of pay, with a long and detailed account of payments, credits and how to send money to Pip, before returning to his discussion with the young lady.

“She wished to know if I believed in Heaven and Hell – she did of course and couldn’t understand how anyone couldn’t believe in it otherwise where did differentiation arise between the good man and the bad man in After Life. You can imagine me trying to argue in French on such a subject! She said if I killed a man I would go to Hell but not if I killed Germans because I was ordered to do so by my Leader and Jesus said one cannot be blamed for obeying one’s Leader. She was quite shocked when I said I didn’t give a tuppeny damn about Churchill or what he tells me to do or my Officers either, but do what I think… I’d like to know where Christ said one cannot be wrong to obey one’s leader…”

B.L.A. Belgium then Holland, 12 November 1944

“Our luxurious surroundings are gone and we are out in a field – no good… It’s damn cold I may say and I take a poor view of the whole thing. Fred is lucky of course – as he is attached to the squadron office he has a room and a light, therefore his flow of mail will be uninterrupted!”

At this time, the Regimental History explains, the Allies were fighting across the border between Belgium and Holland often over ground that had changed hands previously. This might explain how Jim came to be invited to “a chicken dinner” by “the Conge Belge gentleman” who featured in a letter back in early October.

Jim recalled that “Everybody was in tears when we left and we were all kissed on both cheeks even by grandma… I have orders to go back there after the war – that’s about the tenth time. We could do a cheap holiday in Belgium!”

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