Porthcawl at War

 

A few years ago a book called "Porthcawl at War", was published by Mike Mansley. It tells a story of a little Welsh town in wartime. One of the chapters in book handles about "the Dutch" who were there for a few months.  Mr. Sonnemans of the Museum Brigade en Garde Prinses Irene helped Mike to write this chapter of the then so called Dutch Legion. (Nederlands legioen.)

 

 

On May 13,1940, a telephone call from the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina woke King George VI from his  sleep at 5 a.m. alerting him to the danger she  was facing of being kidnapped and held as  hostage by the advancing German Army. Later  that day she left The Hague and boarded the  Royal Navy destroyer "Hereward" and crossed the  North Sea to Harwich, from where she travelled  to London and was met by the King. On May 14  Rotterdam was attacked by air and many civilians were killed. A large force of German Airbome troops entered the City on the same day and at 9 a.m. on 15 May the Dutch capitulated and many soldiers were captured. However, about 1400 military personnel evaded capture and made their way to England.

The soldiers were first billeted in Haverford west but they were moved shortly afterwards to Dan-y-Graig Camp, Porthcawl, where they were accommodated in tents. Of the 1460 who arrived, 120 were officers, 360 were senior NCOs' and 980 corporals and privates. In the early days after their arrival they were guarded behind barbed wire by British troops because it was feared that there were fifth columnists amongst them. Their average age was 32, which was very high and many were in poor physique and were unfit for military duties.

The enduring recollection of the Dutch soldiers by those Porthcawl residents who lived in the town in 1940 is that they were all tall, good looking and wore the glamorous uniform of "Queen Wilhemina's Bodyguard". The truth is that the soldiers were a mixture of the regular Dutch Army, the Marechaussee and the Politie Troepen.

Sadly, there was no "Bodyguard", but the Marechaussee had the task in Holland of manning the borders and of providing general security throughout the country, including the responsibility tor guarding the Royal Family. They wore impressive dark blue uniforms with white braiding and breeches tucked into high boots. The Politie Troepen were more or less police troops and wore grey-green uniforms, also with braiding. They did not retain their distinctive uniforms tor long however, as they were soon issued with standard British battledress uniforms.

Collectively they were known as the "Royal Dutch troops" (and also, as the Dutch Legion) until 27 August 1941 when Queen Wilhelmina presented them with a standard in the name of the "Princess Irene Brigade" and it is by this title that they are now officially remembered.

The 1460 men who had escaped from Holland were joined in Porthcawl by Dutchmen from  America, Canada and South Africa and eventually they formed a brigade of a Headquarters unit  three companies with machine guns, mortal, anti-tank and  light anti-aircraft guns, a reconnaissance squadron with armoured cars and an artillery battery. A replacement company was also formed from mariners who had been trained in America and whose duty it was to follow the Brigade in the field.

Mr. L.A.K. Wassen of Rotterdam, Holland, was a soldier in the Dutch Infantry Brigade and was called up tor "National Service" in October 1938. When Germany invaded Poland his unit was moved to the German-Belgian border, which was overrun when the Germans invaded Belgium and struck towards the French frontier. Mr. Wassen escaped from the port of Brest in a Dutch ship, which landed him in what he believes was Cardiff, but was probably Plymouth. He remembers being given food and tea and then he was put on a train, eventually arriving at Dan-y-Graig Camp Porthcawl.

 

Klik hier voor kaartje van Dan-y-Graig

 

Mr. Wassen was a cook who worked mainly in the Officer's Mess, which he has indicated was located in the area now occupied by the houses of Chestnut Drive. The camp gates were, he says, roughly where the concrete roadway of Dan-y-Graig Avenue, which was built before the war, now joins with the tarmacadamed surface of the post-war housing development. Tents occupied the area up to the Porthcawl - Penybont boundary and the Marechaussee and Politie Troepen were accommodated towards the bottom of the slope, roughly in the area of Lime Tree Way. "I specially remember the first weeks of the camp", Mr. Wassen says, "We were not able to  leave but after that period we went many times  to the Coney Beach and the pubs, where we  started to learn English. The girls were wonderful teachers!"

The Dutch soldiers were very popular with the young ladies of the town - and also, it is said, with the jewellers, who were reputed to have rapidly exhausted their stocks as these were bought up as presents by the soldiers.

A Dutch lieutenant who escaped from Brest in a  Dutch ferry boat was Mr. Jack de Waal of  Bussum, Holland. He landed in Plymouth and arrived in Porthcawl on 9 June 1940. Newton Church, the Seabank Hotel and the ice cream  parlour owned by Mr. R.E. Jones are vividly remembered.

R.E. Jones Ltd owned the Marine Hotel and the Esplanade Hotel, including the adjoining ice cream parlour (now a café) and a photograph of the  Dutch  Army  parading  outside  their Headquarters in the Esplanade Hotel on the occasion of Queen Wilhelmina's Birthday, 31 August 1940 clearly shows "R.E. Jones Ltd" sign written on the side of the Marine Hotel.

Mr. de Waal recalled that Mr. Jones's daughter named a Dutch officer but says that she died some three years ago. Mr. de Waal later named  an English girl from Harrow, Middlesex, but during his stay in Porthcawl he made friends with several young ladies and still retains amongst his souvenirs an address scribbled on a piece of paper by a Peggy Lewis of South Place. Attempts to trace her have not been successful.

Lieutenant de Waal was sent with a platoon to guard the docks at Port Talbot and was there when Swansea was badly bombed. "I well remember the oil tanks burning and the sky dark with oily smoke and soot."

The first Dutch soldier in Porthcawl to be equipped with British battledress was Lt Col (retired) Hertel, of Eibergen. He was a Sergeant in the regular Dutch army when war broke out. His Dutch Army uniform had been badly damaged during the early part of the war and re-equipping him became an urgent necessity. Sergeant Hertel only spent three months in Porthcawl, before being transferred to London and becoming driver to Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.

The Dutch did not stay very long in Porthcawl. In September, 1940, the 2nd Battalion of the Dutch Legion, as it was then called, moved to Ruperra Castle, near Machen, which had been built in 1622 and rebuilt after a fire in 1789. King Charles I used as a refuge after the battle of Naseby in  1645. They were then moved to Conway, but  shortly after they left the castle, it was badly damaged by fire, although the Dutch were not blamed! They later moved to a newly built camp at Wrottesley Park, just outside Wolverhampton and it was there, on 27 August 1941, that they became known as the Prinses Irene Brigade.

The Brigade trained with British units and on 6 August 1944 it embarked tor Normandy and joined the British 6th Airbome Division east of the Orne, taking up a frontline position on 12 August and taking part in the advance towards the Seine.

The Brigade was heavily invaded in the fighting through Belgium and Holland and on May 8, 1945, it entered The Hague as the first allied unit. The Brigade was disbanded at the end Of 1945 but on April 15 1946 the Prinses Irene Regiment was established. It later became the Prinses Irene Guards Regiment and still maintains the traditions of the original Brigade that began in Porthcawl.