Monday 24 June 2024

Euro 2024 ~ Wuustwezel ...

For three nights I am the guest of Jerom & Erika on their farm “Berksvenhoeve” just outside the town of Balen in the Province of Antwerp, Belgium. The location is absolutely perfect for the places I plan to visit in this part of Belgium and The Netherlands. In Belgium, my primary locations are Leopoldsburg just 10Km south east and Wuustwezel about 70Km north west. Then across the border about 38Km north from Wuustwezel is the town of Steenbergen in The Netherlands, where I will go to visit the grave of perhaps the most famous RAF Wing Commander of WWII. His story and that of the famous RAF raid he led, resulted in a famous 1955 movie, which I would say was known by every school boy of a certain vintage ~ more about this part of the journey is written later in the blog.

My couple of days here in Northern Belgium, are dedicated to the memory of my first cousin once removed Hugh Wright. Hugh was killed during the liberation of Wuustwezel in the Belgian province of Antwerp, located 5Km south from the Dutch border, on October 21st, 1944. He was buried the next day at a temporary location in nearby De Meir, then 19 months later on May 9th, 1946 at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery in Leopoldsburg, province of Limburg. As a Royal Engineer attached to the 49th Infantry Division (The Polar Bears), he was at the time part of Operation Rebound within the greater Operation Pheasant.

Operation Rebound ~ in Northern Belgium, the British 49th Infantry Division along with the 4th Canadian Armoured Division were to attack towards Loenhout (just east of Wuustwezel) and then unleash the breakthrough up the main road to Wuustwezel. On October 20th, Operation Rebound started with a barrage at 4.00pm. By the end of the next day, allied forces had pushed into Wuustwezel from the rear taking about 500 prisoners.

Operation Pheasant ~ this was a military operation involving British and Canadian forces under the command of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, which included British Second Army, the Canadian First Army and the II Canadian Corps, under the command of Lieutenant General Guy Simonds. It was part of the larger Allied effort to liberate the Netherlands from German occupation. 

The main objective of Operation Pheasant was to clear the German forces from the northeastern part of the Netherlands and secure key cities and towns, including Arnhem. The operation took place from October 20 to November 18, 1944. It was conducted concurrently with the larger Allied operations in the Netherlands, such as Operation Market Garden and the clearing of the Scheldt estuary. While Operation Pheasant made progress and succeeded in liberating parts of the Netherlands, it faced challenges, including difficult terrain, bad weather, and stiff German resistance. The operation did not achieve all its initial objectives as the Allies faced strong German counterattacks.

Military operations during WWII were complex, with various interconnected campaigns and strategies. Operations’ Pheasant and Rebound, in conjunction with other operations in the region, played a significant role in shaping the course of the conflict in Northwestern Europe and contributed to the liberation of the Netherlands and Belgium, which had been under German occupation since 1940.

Today almost 80 years after his death, I made a contemplative visit to the exact location where Hugh was killed, at the intersection of Bann and Kalmthoutse Steenweg, in the town of Wuustwezel. I cannot accurately describe my feelings, it was certainly a very emotional experience, where my thoughts connected more with the past than the present. As I stood at the location with cars passing, folks walking along by the road side and every day life going on in presumably a normal way, I attempted to bridge the eight decades and go back to that Friday afternoon of October 21st, 1944. The contrast between the ferocity, the hell and the death of that day to this one, a bright peaceful summers day, is no doubt enormous. 

The shoulder combination is the 49th Infantry Divisional, the Polar Bear indicating service in Iceland, the White Metal Rose for Yorkshire County and the 40 for the Divisional Royal Engineers Headquarters

Today’s visit to Wuustwezel completes a very personal journey. I only wish my dad Gordon who adored his cousin Hugh and spoke of him often, could have been with me. Sadly he died in January 2005, before much about Hugh's war experiences were revealed through many years of research.

The following unedited account is written by the late Eddie Booth, a Polar Bear and Royal Engineer, who served with Hugh and survived the war. He describes the circumstances of Hugh’s death. Note, in line with Hugh’s Scottish heritage he is referenced typically as “Jock”.

“……..After the excitement with the Yanks we returned to the unit, only to find that in our absence some Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) blokes had parked five three-ton lorries nose to tail in the lane. They had not bothered to camouflage them at all. A jerry tank had arrived on the scene, spotted the five lorries, put a shell in the first lorry and one in the rear lorry, then hit the three in the centre. He must have spotted our two vehicles and put a shell in the engine compartment. Unfortunately, Jock had taken cover under the engine and was killed instantly. The powers that be decided that we were in the wrong position and we had to move. This meant that we had to leave Jock behind. His body was collected by burial squads and is now interred in Leopoldsburg War Cemetery, Belgium .....

..... Unfortunately, the five RASC vehicles were parked on an open stretch of lane and there had been no attempt at camouflage at all. Had they not attracted the Jerries attention I doubt if he would have spotted our two vehicles…….”


Eddie's wife Millicent from Yorkshire, England, kindly sent me all of his incredibly interesting wartime notes and diaries. Within the pages are many references of "Jock" (Hugh) from the landing in Normandy, battling through France and onto Belgium. In the years after the war Eddie, who died aged 89 in September 2004, and Millicent made many pilgrimages to WWII sites in Europe and to Hugh’s grave in Leopoldsburg.

The following is taken from a 2007 email written to me by Guido Van Wassenhove, the author of a book about the liberation of Wuustwezel and Loenhout titled ~ “Wuustwezel en Loenhout in de tweede wereldoorlog” (Wuustwezel and Loenhout in World War Two).

“…………The name of Lance Corporal Hugh Wright did arouse my interest.

Lce Cpl Wright - RE was killed in action the 21st of October 1944 at Wuustwezel during the second German counter attack - between 4 and 6 PM.

A German Panzer (Jagdpanther) had crossed the British lines. The Jagdpanther drove along Baan (coming from the direction of the Polar Bear Monument) facing the crossing with Kalmthoutse Steenweg.

On its way he shot three grenades at the church tower where three men of the Signals observed the area, especially the area of Stone Bridge (the road from Wuustwezel towards Loenhout) to direct the division artillery. The third shot from the tank killed them all.

When the panzer was about to turn back, he spotted vehicles stationed near the old windmill at the crossing of Baan and Kalmthoutse Steenweg, infantry of the Royal Scots Fusiliers and Royal Engineers came under fire. The panzer fired at and hit the truck that was in clear view at the crossing. I do not know if this was the truck that Hugh was on, but the explosion also caused the explosion of a tanker and several other trucks, some men of the Royal Scots Fusiliers were injured.

Two British soldiers were killed: Hugh and Frederick Houghton 240th Field Coy RE. Both were buried near the spot where they died. Exhumed in 1946 to be reburied at the War Cemetery of Leopoldsburg

Approximately an hour later, the German panzer was destroyed by three Churchill tanks about a mile north of the Polar Bear Monument. One of the German crew did escape, but was taken prisoner. When he was being led away, he stabbed one of the guards. The German a few minutes later was crushed by a Churchill tank…..”

Below are photos taken in Wuustwezel at the crossroads of Baan and Kalmthoutse Steenweg, the location where the parked Royal Engineer trucks were attacked by the German Panzer.

The position I am standing to take this photo on Bann, is where the German Panzer had a good view of the Royal Engineer trucks parked on  Kalmthoutse Steenweg in front of the blue sign

I am now standing where the Royal Engineer trucks where parked, the German Panzer would be about where that car is parked 

The tree line is where the Royal Engineer trucks where parked and is the location of Hugh's death

Hugh's complete story can be accessed by clicking on the image or the link below ~


The Polar Bear Monument in Wuustwezel ….

Here the German counter attack was halted 21~22 October 1944 by

The 49 West Riding Infantry Division

Wuustwezel to our liberators 21 October 1984

Pictures of Hugh at the memorial, along with his medals (L to R) ~ 1939~45 Star, France and Germany Star, Defence Medal and War Medal 1939~45. Also in the display is White Rose of Yorkshire ~ The 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division was a pre–WWII Territorial Army Division raised in the West Riding of Yorkshire.
I wrote in the Memorial Register

At this location every year on October 21st, the local residents hold a memorial service to those killed during the liberation of their town. At the unveiling ceremony on 21st October 1984, the Burgomaster of Wuustwezel, Jos Ansoms said this of the monument and what it represents ~ "It is a sober monument, sober and simple as the lads of whom it reminds us. It is convincing and dignified like the British military that are remembered."

The Wuustwezel memorial is now recognized as the principal site of remembrance to the Polar Bears in Belgium. Whilst less imposing than its cousin in Fontenay-le-Pesnel, its understated simplicity makes it every bit as moving. The aforementioned sober simplicity of this construction of brick and stone surmounted with a stylized French limestone sculpture of a Polar Bear, contrasts starkly with the Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun that also occupies the site (which was not there on the day of my visit), a contribution of the Polar Bear Association in 2009, an association to which I continue to be a proud member.

I could not leave the Wuustwezel before I paid my respects at nine CWGC graves located in the grounds of the village church. All were killed on either 21st or 22nd October 1944 during the liberation of Wuustwezel. In total 108 British servicemen were killed in action or died of wounds received, of these 98 wore the Polar Bear insignia of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division.


Wuustwezel Churchyard ~

Trooper Harry John Abbot

Royal Armoured Corps

147th (10th Bn. The Hampshire Regt.) Regt.

Died 22 October 1944, aged 27

Son of Harry and Florence Abbott; husband of Gertrude Florence Ann Abbott, of Ipswich, Suffolk.




Private John Bird Garmory

Duke of Wellington's (West Riding Regiment) 7th Bn.

Died 21 October 1944, aged 22

Son of Robert and Elizabeth Garmory, of Lochgelly, Fife.



Fusilier Phillip John Edward Griffiths

Royal Scots Fusiliers 11th Bn.

Died 21 October 1944, aged 33



Fusilier Stephen Hamilton

Royal Scots Fusiliers 11th Bn.

Died 21 October 1944, aged 30

Son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Hamilton, of Whitby, Yorkshire.




Fusilier Wilfred Samuel Hancock

Royal Scots Fusiliers 11th Bn.

Died 21 October 1944, aged 19


Gunner James Reid

Royal Artillery 55 (The Suffolk Yeomanry) Anti-Tank Regt.

Died 21 October 1944, aged 27

Son of John and Agnes Reid; husband of Agnes Reid, of Yoker, Renfrewshire.



Private Robert Henry Rhodes

Duke of Wellington's (West Riding Regiment) 7th Bn.

Died 21 October 1944, aged 28

Son of Robert and Kathleen Mary Rhodes, of Aldershot, Hampshire.




Gunner John James Stachini

Royal Artillery 143 (The Kent Yeomanry) Field Regt.

Died 22 October 1944, aged 26

Son of Jack and Beatrice Stachini; husband of Brenda Alwyn Stachini, of Anerley, Kent.




Private Frederick James Wells

Leicestershire Regiment 1st Bn.

Died 22 October 1944, aged 18

Son of James and Rose Wells, of Leicester.



Wuustwezel Churchyard  CWGC Documents ~

Gooreind Churchyard ~

A Polar Bear marks the entrance to the cemetery

Gunner Alan John Taylor

Royal Artillery 143 (The Kent Yeomanry) Field Regt.

Died 24 October 1944, aged 21

Son of William John and Elizabeth Taylor, of Haslemere, Surrey.



Sapper Gabriel John Turcotte

Royal Canadian Engineers 6 Topographical section

Died 28 October 1944, aged 21

Son of Leonidas Turcotte and of Wilhelmina Turcotte of Forest View, Alberta Canada.



Gabriel John Turcotte was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to Leonidas and Wilhelmina Turcotte. His father died when Gabriel was only three years old. He left school after Grade VII so he and his brother could support their mother and three sisters. Despite having left school early, he was able to read and write well in both French and English. Gabriel had worked five years as a farm labourer in McKague, Saskatchewan and another year with the Canadian National Railway (CNR). During his time with the CNR, he enlisted in the Canadian Army in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on 22 July 1941 at Number 12A District Depot. He was assigned to the Royal Canadian Engineers and stated his desire at the time was to train as a carpenter.

Gabriel completed his basic training at Number 120 Basic Training Centre in Regina, Saskatchewan and then was sent to A6 Canadian Engineer Training Centre in Camp Dundurn. On 12 December 1941, he embarked from Halifax, Nova Scotia and arrived in the United Kingdom on 23 December and sent to the Canadian Engineer Reinforcement Unit in Hawley in southern England, for continued training. On 13 March, he was posted to the 1st Battalion, RCE and participated in the many construction and defence related projects they completed. In December 1942, he returned to the CERU, now qualified as a Carpenter Group ‘C’. He was soon qualified Driver Class ‘C’ and sent on a Driver Operator course in June after which he was posted to the Survey Reinforcement Unit. In November 1942, he was assigned to Number 5 Topographic Section, a platoon-sized element of the 2nd Field Survey Company. In May 1944, Gabriel was moved to Number 6 Topographic Section and prepared for action on the continent. After an overnight crossing of the Channel, he arrived in France on 1 August 1944.

Canadian survey units were very often located near the front lines where maps could be quickly distributed to units. Gabriel's unit was close enough in the crowded Normandy Beachhead that on 8 August 1944 during Operation Totalize, nine men were killed and 15 wounded when American bombers dropped their loads short just south of Caen. As the enemy withdrew from Normandy and fled towards Belgium, the demand for maps increased to the point that integral transport from the survey companies was marshalled into a Survey Depot by the end of August. First Canadian Army carried a stock of maps that weighed over 250 tons. Army HQ was the main client of the survey companies and they were usually located nearby, while detachments were often forward with the advancing divisions. A key reason was to keep artillery units ‘on-grid’.  Without continued map updates and traverse lines, the accuracy and effectiveness of supporting fire would be lost. After nearly four months of keeping First Canadian Army on track, the 2nd Field Survey Company HQ and the 6th Topographic Section had just moved into new billets in a château at Maria-ter-Heide, just northeast of Antwerp on the morning of 28 October.  From there, survey parties would be sent forward.

The area around the château was heavily mined. It is important to remember that all members of survey companies were Royal Engineers first. Clearing parties started working immediately, finding disarming and fencing off mines and booby traps. Lt Hudson, L/Cpl E. W. Gibbons and Spr G. J. Turcotte, were one such crew. They soon discovered a slit trench filled with explosives and mines about 70 yards to the north of the château with a booby-trap switch and a trip wire attached to the entire lot.  After Lt Hudson safely disarmed the trap, the three were asked by a civilian farmer to clear some mines near the gateway leading into the camp.  At 1130 hours, one of the mines, likely a booby-trapped S-mine, exploded and killed all three as well as a Belgian labourer standing nearby.

That afternoon, Lieutenant Robert Philip Hudson, Lance-Corporal Ernest Wilfred Gibbons and Gabriel Turcotte were buried in the Pelouse d’Honneur in the parish churchyard of St. Joseph Wuestwezel in the village of Gooreind. While two of his comrades were later moved the Adegem Canadian War Cemetery in Antwerp.

Gooreind Churchyard CWGC Documents ~

Drive north to Steenbergen, The Netherlands ~

When planning my time in this part of Belgium, I discovered that Wuustwezel was not far from the grave of Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC at Steenbergen-En-Kruisland Roman Catholic Cemetery in The Netherlands. His story and that of the Dambusters must be one of the most widely known of WWII, and resulted in the 1955 movie “The Dam Busters" with Richard Todd playing the part of Guy Gibson.

The bombing raid over Germany by the Dambusters was an epic highlight of World War II. It was led by Guy Gibson, the first Commanding Officer of 617 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF) and resulted in the breaching of two large dams. Following the success of the operation, Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), Britain’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

Guy Penrose Gibson was born in Simla, India, on August 12, 1918. When he was six, his family returned to Britain. He yearned to fly from an early age, but his first attempt to join the RAF met with rejection. However, he was later accepted and underwent flying training and chose to fly bombers. He flew an attack mission against the German fleet near Wilhelmshaven on September 3, 1939, the first day of World War II. From April to September 1940, Gibson flew 34 operational missions of various types, including mine laying in sea lanes and enemy harbours, raids against shipping and attacks on military and economic targets on land. His squadron mates knew him as a fearless pilot who would not refuse any mission even in marginal weather. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in July 1940.

In March 1943, the newly formed 617 Squadron, under the command of Gibson, was tasked with executing Operation Chastise that required three crucial dams in the Ruhr Valley, the Möhne, the Eder and the Sorpe, to be breached. The aim was to damage a vital source of power to the key industrial areas of Germany, inundate large areas and greatly reduce production of war materials. A special weapon called Upkeep had been developed by Barnes Wallis for the purpose. It was a “bouncing bomb” that would skim along the surface of the water before hitting the dam and exploding. The weapon required extreme accuracy in delivery, from a height of 60 feet, a speed of 385mph and at a precisely computed distance from the target. Adding complexity to the mission, the entire flight had to be in darkness to avoid detection. Preparatory training was accordingly intense and rigorous.

Following the success of Operation Chastise on the night of May 17, 1943, Gibson was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), below is the citation for the VC from The London Gazette of 25 May 1943 ~

 “This officer served as a night bomber pilot at the beginning of the war and quickly established a reputation as an outstanding operational pilot. In addition to taking the fullest possible share in all normal operations, he made single-handed attacks during his “rest” nights on such highly defended objectives as the German Battleship Tirpitz, then completing in Wilhelmshaven. When his tour of operational duty was concluded, he asked for a further operational posting and went to a night-fighter unit instead of being posted for instructional duties. In the course of his second operational tour, he destroyed at least three enemy bombers and contributed much to the raising and development of new night-fighter formations. After a short period in a training unit, he again volunteered for operational duties and returned to night bombers. Both as an operational pilot and as leader of his squadron, he achieved outstandingly successful results and his personal courage knew no bounds. Berlin, Cologne, Danzig, Gdynia, Genoa, Le Creusot, Milan, Nuremberg and Stuttgart were among the targets he attacked by day and by night. On the conclusion of his third operational tour, Wing Commander Gibson pressed strongly to be allowed to remain on operations and he was selected to command a squadron then forming for special tasks. Under his inspiring leadership, this squadron has now executed one of the most devastating attacks of the war - the breaching of the Moehne and Eder dams. The task was fraught with danger and difficulty. Wing Commander Gibson personally made the initial attack on the Moehne dam. Descending to within a few feet of the water and taking the full brunt of the anti-aircraft defences, he delivered his attack with great accuracy. Afterwards he circled very low for 30 minutes, drawing the enemy fire on himself in order to leave as free a run as possible to the following aircraft which were attacking the dam in turn. Wing Commander Gibson then led the remainder of his force to the Eder dam where, with complete disregard for his own safety, he repeated his tactics and once more drew on himself the enemy fire so that the attack could be successfully developed. Wing Commander Gibson has completed over 170 sorties, involving more than 600 hours operational flying. Throughout his operational career, prolonged exceptionally at his own request, he has shown leadership, determination and valour of the highest order.” 


On September 19, 1944, Gibson set out at night in a De Havilland Mosquito Mk XX, with Squadron Leader James Warwick DFC RAFVR as his navigator, to lead an airborne force attack on rail links and industrial targets in Germany. After executing the mission and ordering the other aircraft home, Gibson and Warwick failed to return. It was initially thought they had been shot down by the enemy. But some believed the aircraft was downed by friendly fire or simply ran out of fuel.  To this day, the circumstances remain unclear. It was at around 2230, the Mosquito crashed near Steenbergen killing both men outright.

Initially, a search of the crash site only revealed one body but later on the next day, evidence of a second airman was uncovered. Guy Gibson and James Warwick were buried together in Steenbergen Roman Catholic Cemetery.

If you are familiar with the story of the Dambuster, then you will know the significance of the Black Labrador

Wing Commander Guy Penrose Gibson

Royal Air Force Cdg. 627 Sqdn.

Died 19 September 1944, aged 26

Awards ~ Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order and Bar, Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, U.S. Legion of Merit (Commander)

Son of Alexander James Gibson and Norah Gibson; husband of Eve Mary Gibson, of Westminster, London.

Squadron Leader James Brown Warwick

Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve 627 Sqdn.

Died 19 September 1944

James Brown Warwick was born in Belfast in 1921 and was educated at the Boys Model School and the Orange Civil Service Academy. In late 1938 aged 17, Jim as he liked to be called, moved to London and joined the Imperial Civil Service, working in the offices of the Air Ministry. At the outbreak of war to escape the bombing in London, his office was moved to Harrogate. Later in July 1940, when the Air Ministry became the Ministry of Aircraft Production, he was moved back to the capital.

During March 1941, he joined the RAF and in the December, as part of the the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), he was posted to Canada and then Florida, for navigation training. Returning to the UK in February 1943, he was posted to 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU), and on 29th April, was transferred to 49 Sqn at RAF Fiskerton flying Lancasters.

On the completion of two tours, Jim was posted to 1485 Bombing and Gunnery Flight at Bardney on the 14th January 1944. During February he was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and posted back to 1661 HCU as an Instructor. During his RAF service, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and promoted to Squadron Leader.

On 25th August 1944, Jim was posted to 54 Base at RAF Conningsby as Station Navigational Officer, as such he was deemed to be "Non-Operational" ~ Guy Gibson had also been transferred there following a flag-waving tour of America and Canada

As mentioned previously, on 19th September 1944 Guy Gibson was tasked to led an airborne attack flying a Mosquito, a decision that was met with incredulity, as he had never before flown this type of aircraft. Not having a regular navigator, one had to be found, Warwick was chosen despite being Non-Operational and having also never flown in a Mosquito.

On September 19th 1974, 30 years after Guy Gibson’s death, a memorial service was held at Steenbergen, and a plaque was unveiled by Air Marshal Sir Harold Martin, better known as “Micky Martin,” a Dambuster, who piloted one of the aircraft in the front section to attack the Ruhr Valley Dams. At the conclusion of the service, the only remaining airworthy Lancaster of the R.A.F, flew above in salute.

Steenbergen-En-Kruisland Roman Catholic Cemetery CWGC Documents ~

Some interesting viewing about the Guy Gibson and The Dambusters, click on the image or the links below …


A 1943 recorded interview with Guy Gibson ~

The King and the Dambusters 1943 ~


Wing Commander Gibson visits scouts in Kent 1943 ~


The Damb Busters (1955) - Re-created Main Titles in HD Colour ~


Dam Busters Reunion 1955 ~

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