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Veterans ‘Prinses Irene Brigade’ help celebrate unit’s 60th anniversary

Replaced since by Guard Regiment

Tags: World War II

OIRSCHOT, the Netherlands - Some 2,000 veterans of the Garde Regiment Fusiliers Prinses Irene and its predecessors recently joined Irene van Lippe - a younger sister of Queen Beatrix - in ceremonies to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the unit. Founded on January 27, 1941 as the Koninklijke Neder-landse Brigade, it was decommissioned in 1945. Its traditions were continued a year later by the newly formed Regiment Prinses Irene.

The military unit was set up to replace a largely rag-tag ‘Dutch Legion’ consisting of a few hundred Dutch soldiers and officers and about 250 Marechaussee who had been caught outside the Netherlands when it was over-run by invading German armies in May 1940. Some had managed to flee to England from France.

During the first few months, there was no direction to - nor proper command of - the Legion, which at one time was led by a very unwilling Major Sas, the former military attaché at the Dutch embassy in Berlin. Sas wanted to be as far away from England as he could, given that he had been instrumental in obtaining Blitzkrieg data from a German spy. He expected England to fall soon.

Conscripts among emigrants

The Legion was shuffled from one English army base to another, finally moving from tents into a abandoned factory in Congleton, southeast of Liverpool. One of the Queen’s aides - Major Phaff - took command of the Legion on January 1, 1941. His command was short-lived as well and the Legion in a short period went through a series of commanders.

In the meantime, the Dutch government-in-exile had decided to expand the ‘Dutch Armed Forces’ by instating conscription for eligible young Dutch men, including emigrants and offspring of emigrants, living in the U.S., Canada, South Africa, South America, the U.K. and elsewhere. The authorities also could draw from the many other Dutchmen abroad who in the aftermath of the German invasion of the Netherlands had offered to fight the Nazis. Many of them never had lived in the Netherlands and could not speak Dutch. It then was decided to set up a depot and boot camp in Canada - first in Guelph, then in Stratford, Ontario - for the Canadian and U.S. conscripts and volunteers.

Volunteers from 26 countries

Such volunteers (they came from 26 different countries) however mostly were older - some much older - than the conscription age and only had been accepted to inflate the numbers. The Brigade however never reached the numbers normally associated with such a unit. Instead of the customary 3,000 to 4,000 personnel, the Prinses Irene Brigade never totalled more than approximately 2,000 men at one time, while perhaps only 3,000 people in total ever were part of it.

There was a vaguely described task - ‘to liberate the Netherlands’ - but the Brigade had no clearly defined purpose. Some of the men were sent to Canada, the Antilles and Surinam, and the Dutch East Indies, others - such as the Marechaussee - were assigned policing or guard duties in London, or became gunners on merchant ships. About eighty able men eventually were attached to British Commando units.

Normandy and beyond

In 1942, the Brigade was divisioned into a fighting section of able men and a larger group of soldiers who could be used for auxiliary and administrative tasks. The fighting section consisted of three units of 250 men each and of one scout unit. Better quality weaponry was made available as well as adequate transportation, making the units more versatile and mobile. The four groups then were properly trained together with British units.

In the summer of 1943, the Brigade officially became part of the 21st Army Group, consisting of the First Canadian Army and the Second British Army. With the temporary addition of some 100 Dutch marines from their base in the U.S., the unit reached its Brigade ‘strength,’ more precisely that of a large batallion. Its task still was to assist in the Liberation of the Netherlands although the Brigade was not considered suitable as first or second wave material for the Invasion of Normandy.

Tilburg and Hedel

Ferried across to France in August 1944, the Brigade eventually saw action. It was part of the liberating forces at St. Come and Pont Audemer (France) and Beeringen in Belgium. The Prinses Irene Brigade played much more than a token role in the liberation of Tilburg (1944) and Hedel (1945). It also played a role at the Hague. With the Liberation completed and the SHAEF-instituted set-up of the new Dutch Armed Forces in the immediate aftermath of the war, the Brigade was disbanded to make place for a Regiment.

The current Garderegiment carries on the tradition of its 1941-1945 predecessor. It is the first in line to supply units to various peace missions of NATO and the UN. The Fusiliers always can be recognized by their cordon, an orange-and-blue braid which is issued to each new Fuselier by World War II veterans.

The unit received its colours from then Queen Wilhelmina, Beatrix’ grandmother, on August 27, 1941, and was renamed Koninklijke Nederlandse Brigade ‘Prinses Irene.’ The unit became known as the Prinses Irene Brigade, a moniker still more common to the unit than the current ‘Garderegiment Fusiliers Prinses Irene,’ the name it received in 1952. The brigade was named after Irene (‘Peace’), the second child of Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard, living in Canada at the time.