THE CHRONICLE, Friday,11 th February 1966
CONGLETON'S HAPPIEST INVASION
A flashback to the " Chronicle " wartime files for a picture of a visit to
Congleton by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.
The caption, because of wartime censorship, merely states that he is "inspecting
troops in the Midlands," and for the same reason the Town Hall which could
be seen in the background of the picture (taken on the Fairground) was painted
out. Seen centre is the then Mayor, Ald. D. Charlesworth, with Town Clerk Mr. E.
A. Plant and Home Guard C.O. Col A. Gaunt. The report in the " Algemeen Dagblad "
stated that Queen Wilhelmina also visited Congleton but the "Chronicle " has no
record of that although she did visit the Brigade when it moved.
When the Dutch arrived 25 years ago
Exactly 25 years ago, a different language was being heard in Congleton's streets mingling with the Cheshire accent of local residents—the language of Dutch troops who were gathering in the town for what was virtually the rebirth the Netherlands army. Their arrival in the Borough was the first of several subsequent " invasions " of the town by a variety of troops —in addition to English regiments, the Americans and the Irish were to follow—but it was perhaps the happiest, and one which was to forge the strongest links with another country.
What followed is described in a recent issue of a Dutch national newspaper, "Algemeen Dagblad," which has published a ' special feature on the anniversary, written by Colonel A. Paessens, Command-ant of the second Fighting Group Princess Irene Brigade, in which Congleton is frequently mentioned.
AND THROUGH THE ROYAL NETHERLANDS EMBASSY IN LONDON, THE CHRONICLE WAS ABLE TO CONFIRM THAT THE COLONEL PAESSENS IS THE SAME OFFICER WHO SERVED WITH THE IRENE BRIGADE IN CONGLETON AS A LIEUTENANT.
He has just left active military service and retired. The article, a copy of which was obtained for the "Chronicle" by Mr. J. N. Van Pelt, of St. John's road, Buglawton (and who also kindly arranged translation of it among his friends) begins:
Twenty-five years ago on the Fairground at Congleton in the heart of England stood khaki clad men from all walks of life who were to form the new Prinses Irene Brigade. They were assembled for the presentation of new colours by Queen Wilhelmina and Prins Bernhard and they had been assembled from 28 different countries of the world to help in the liberation of their country."
The article goes on to describe the whirlwind ten days war in their country during which it had been over-run by German Panzer troops and paratroops, who invaded on l0th May 1940, and tell how small contingents had arrived in England by various routes some by Belgium and France, mixed with thousands of refugees and constantly attacked by the German Luftwaffe; others by way of Brest, a week after Dunkirk and out of the chaotic situation a number of soldiers arrived in Plymouth who were later to form the 'nucleus of the Prinses Irene Brigade. The British Army, which had lost the prime of its own forces, made immediate use of the Dutch friends at airfields and ports and other key points.
The story continues :"In October, 1940, at what was to be the beginning of a very hard winter and with the threat of invasion greatly diminished, the Dutch troops were. assembled at what was to them an unknown town called Congleton. It was situated west of the Pennines, on a river which never seemed to use of continuously passing around thousands of bends and corners.
" The town. had known better times, especially prior to the 1914-18 war, when the silk and cigar industry were at the height of their prosperity. The old and now empty factories were the silent witnesses of this faded prosperity.
" When the first troops arrived and were marched from Congleton station to their different quarters, everybody seemed to wake up. They found themselves suddenly on the brink of a new era in the history of Congleton. The Dutch Cabinet in London knew hard times were to come and they ordered the establishment of what was to be the Prinses Irene Brigade.
" January, 1941, saw all these Dutch troops of all ranks assembled on the Fairground (at Congleton) where Her Majesty Queen Wilhelmina was to present the new colours to the Brigade which was named after her granddaughter. After this memorable occasion, troop's began to arrive from all parts of the world, the first being a contingent of volunteers from South Africa; ethers also arrived from Alaska, S. America, Siam, Australia, Canada, N. Africa, Turkey, Russia and from the French Foreign Legion."
The biggest headache (the story continues) was to teach everybody English, which was to be the main language used by the army instructors in the Brigade. Eventually, after intensive training, troops were sent to the Dutch East Indies in January, 1942 (this was at the time of Pearl Harbour, and unfortunately they were too late and were sent with their British Comrades to the British Indies), to India and Canada to serve as instructors for Dutch troops called up In other countries; others were transferred to train as commandos and a number were also trained as secret agents. Still others were transferred as gunners In the Merchant Navy, and a paratroop unit was also formed. They saw service in many parts of the world, Including Normandy.
The " Chronicle " could find any number of " Congleton Dutchmen " to tell their personal stories of those days, but that of Mr. Van Pelt can be taken as an example.
IN FACT, IT IS SOMEWHAT DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS IN THAT THE FIRST THING HE HAD TO DO ON COMING TO CONGLETON WITH THE DUTCH TROOPS WAS . . . TO LEARN TO SPEAK DUTCH !
The explanation for this dates back to the First World War, Britain was sending horse meat to Holland and it was decided that it ought to be boned in this country, so Mr. Van Pelt's father was sent over to do the Job, eventually settling in King's Lynn. Mr. Van Pelt's jnr., was born in Holland and was 18-months-old when he was brought to England, so consequently he learned to speak only English.
When war broke out, he volunteered for the British Army but could not be accepted because he was a Dutch national. Later, however, he was called up for the Dutch army, going first to Porthcawl and then to near Cardiff with the " Dutch Legion "—as the motley collection of Netherlands soldiers was. then called—before coming to Congleton.
There were many like him with a language problem; some of his colleagues, for example, could speak only French. "When we were moved to Wolverhampton," he recalls, " they reckoned there was not a language In the world which could not be spoken in the Dutch camp."
In Congleton, he was stationed at Buglawton—at Eaton Bank Mill—with the Ist Bn. while the 2nd Bn. was accommodated at the bottom of the Fairground. I had never heard of Congleton before, he admits; " we did not know the place existed. It seemed a quiet little place, but the people were very friendly." So friendly in fact, that at Eaton Bank he found a wife—then Miss Florrie Aspells! After the formation of the Brigade in Congleton, they moved to Wolverhampton, and were later to land at Normandy soon after D-Day, and see the fighting through to the end of the European war. Some of the Dutch troops who left Congleton in uniform came back in " civvies "—to settle down here with the girls they had married (in 1942, in Mr. Van Pelt's case), They quickly became absorbed into the life of the town but retained their links with " the old country" through a local Dutch club, which at one time had about 60 members. They even kept up some of the old traditions, such as the annual visit of Saint Nicholas (the Dutch equivalent of our Father Christmas), with local footballer Van Elsacker always taking the role of Saint Nicholas and Mr. Van Pelt always filling the role of his comcured assistant, " Black Pete."
With the passing of time, however, the club has "
Mr. Van Pelt went to the Brigade's re-union in 1964, and Sound Congleton still on
many people's lips. " We had a smashing tine," he says, " and saw many old
friends, hut it was all Congleton. It was ' How is so and-so in Congleton ? '
all the time.
Says the " Algemeen Dagblad ": Now what has happened to Congleton? the town is still so near to the Prinses Irene Brigade. It is still as peaceful and quiet as it was 25 years ago. As one of the notables from Congleton said:" We have six Conservatives and six Labour councillors who still fight a tug-of-war, but always seem to come to a peaceful solution. We neither seem to go backwards or forwards. The men of the Brigade who married Congleton girls and settled down after the war are well liked and have settled down to work in various industries."
Whoever "the notable " referred to may be, his information about the constitution of the council is incorrect, but his sentiments are accurate.
As for the Irene Brigade it has now been reorganised and become the Guards Regiment. Fusiliers Prinses Irene.
Everyone is 25 years older—Mr.Van Pelt, who came as a young soldier, has a daughter aged 18 and a son aged 12 and will soon be celebrating his silver wedding anniversary—but memories of the "Dutch invasion" remain as pleasant as ever. The links, too, are as strong as ever, an it would be nice to think that some means of preserving them will be found perhaps, on some future important occasion in the Borough, a Dutch contingent may be invited to the town, as has been the case with our French " twins."
One permanent memento of the Dutch visit remains in Congleton a plaque made by Dutch potters and presented to the Congregational Church (which gave the use of the Church to the Dutch Army for services, and part of the Sunday School as a canteen) by Netherlands Protestant churches in appreciation of the hospitality shown by the town towards the soldiers. It ends with the inscription : "I was a stranger and ye took me in."
There is also a Dutch grave in the town—that of Pte. W. Korteling, who was buried at St.John's, Buglawton in 1941.