Alphen, the Netherlands. 13 April. No, this is not yet another Titanic metaphor! American historian David McCullough once wrote, “History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are”. The other night I had first-hand experience of McCullough’s dictum. Seated close to me on the top table of the Thirtieth Anniversary Falklands Command dinner was Field Marshal the Lord Bramall, one of Britain’s most innovative and respected soldiers. Field Marshal Bramall had played a crucial role during the Falklands Conflict alongside Admiral Fieldhouse, Commander-in-Chief Fleet, who in many ways was the key figure in winning the 1982 war. He also pioneered the Fifth Pillar arguing that there needed to be much tighter co-ordination between British foreign and defence policy and that in the field defence attachés could be used much more effectively as agents to such an end. This is the kind of innovative thinking that ‘cost-reduction at any cost’ London should be considering today.
However, it was not the Falklands Conflict or the Fifth Pillar that was the topic of our chat but rather the 1944 liberation of a small Dutch village very close to my own – Goirle (pronounced HHHorla - that Dutch ‘G’ that sounds like ‘HH’ and which still causes me grief). I hope I do not embarrass the Field Marshal by relating what happened next but it is a story modern Europe should hear and remember.
Goirle has grown somewhat since 1944 and I am sure Field Marshal Bramall would not recognise much of it. However, in October 1944 British General Dempsey’s Second Army was ordered to clear the area south of Tilburg where I live. On 25th October, 1944, led by the British 4th Armoured Brigade in the centre, and flanked by the Royal Netherlands Brigade on the right and the 1st Polish Armoured Division on the left, Second Army moved northward on the road from Turnhout close to the Belgian border, via Poppel and on towards Tilburg, Baarle-Nassau and my own village Alphen. The specific objective was to clear Goirle of Germans prior to taking Tilburg and Breda the two major towns in the area. This was an advance covering some twenty-five miles (30 kilometres) in distance.
Then Lieutenant Bramall was amongst the most forward elements of the drive north. On the edge of Goirle he met a Dutchman on a moped and asked him if there were any Germans left in the village. The Dutchman said no and bravely offered to take Lt. Bramall into the centre of Goirle to see for himself. It is possible that the Dutchman in question was part of the local Resistance as there was a very active Resistance cell south of Tilburg which played a heroic role by providing a pipeline to smuggle downed allied airmen back to Britain. The Germans had left and in effect Lt. Bramall liberated Goirle on his own, although he is far too modest to say so.
By 28th October Tilburg had been cleared as Second Army moved towards its main objective of clearing the entire south of the Netherlands below the River Maas. Towards that end, 4th Armoured Brigade first cleared the Tilburg-Breda road, whilst the Poles drove on into Breda and the Dutch move forward to the East.
It will not be long before all the veterans who took part in that great campaign of liberation are gone and the least we can do is to remember what they did for Europe. For me as an historian there is no greater thrill than to meet someone who played such a role at such a time in a place that I know well. It brings history to life and reminds all of us that have become unreasonably comfortable and complacent in the present that peace is not guaranteed. It has to be safeguarded and at times fought for. Goirle today is plump and prosperous even in the midst of the Eurozone crisis but it owes its freedom to a man I sat next to at dinner last week and many of his ilk from many a nation.
As we Europeans get tetchy with each other over the Euro and a raft of other irritations it might serve all of us to remember from time to time the many Lt. Bramall’s of this world who rendered to us the freedom we have to be openly critical of each other. It also reminds me at least that freedom can never be taken for granted even in a place as wealthy and as well-heeled as this.
History is after all who we are and why we are the way we are…and history came home to me last week.