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The Netherlands

The Princess Irene Brigade


The Netherlands was officially neutral at the start of World War Two with no significant Homeland Defence but in early May 1940 the country was invaded as part of the German Blitzkrieg, the short-term aim being to secure the right flank of the German Armoured Thrust through Belgium into France. Long-term the aim was to neutralize the country thereby gaining control of the North Sea allowing the German High Seas Fleets based in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel unrestricted access to the Atlantic. The country quickly surrendered but not before the Dutch Royal Family, senior politicians and some members of the Armed Forces escaped to England where a Government in Exile was formed in London. Other members of the Armed Forces escaped to England via the British Evacuation of Dunkirk and were then moved to South Wales where they were joined by other Dutch citizens from Canada, South Africa and the United States as well as the Dutch Colonies in the Caribbean. Ultimately a total of some 4,500 men was assembled. However these were reduced as men either volunteered or were selected for service in the Far East, the Royal Air Force and other military organisations. The remaining 1,500 were formed into an Infantry Battalion Group with a supporting Battery of Field Guns and an Armoured Reconnaissance Squadron, capable of further expansion if circumstances permitted. A second combat team was subsequently created for employment with Royal Marine Commandos.


This Force was granted the title Princess Irene Brigade by command of the exiled Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands in January 1941 and was presented with a Royal Banner by their Queen later that year. Wrottesley Park near Wolverhampton became the unit’s home but prior to the Normandy Invasion the Brigade moved to East Anglia.


The Princess Irene Brigade, like the Belgian Brigade Piron, were part of the Invasion Follow Up Forces, and did not land in France till early August 1944 where they were initially employed in helping to destroy the remaining scattered German Forces in Normandy. Subsequently they were involved in operations connected with Market Garden (Arnhem) and first crossed the Belgian border into their Homeland on 20th September 1944. Late October, as part of the 15th (Scottish) Division, the Brigade was involved with the liberation of the first significant Dutch town, Tilburg.


Unlike the Belgian Brigade Piron, the Princess Irene Brigade was in continuous front line action until the very end of the war. One explanation may be that the most populous areas of the Netherlands were not liberated till the very end of the War, the opportunity therefore of a significant expansion with fresh volunteers never occurred.  The formation, small in numbers but very important from a political and morale viewpoint, took part in a number of actions in Southern Holland in the Spring of 1945 and for a time was under command a Royal Marines Commando Brigade.


With the surrender of all German Forces in Holland in early April 1945 the Princess Irene Brigade was given the honour of being the first Allied troops to enter the Dutch capital, The Hague. Following the final surrender of the Germans and the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, there were no Dutch Forces in the British Zone of Occupation due to the greater importance of rebuilding the shattered facilities in the Netherlands and quickly re establishing a credible presence in the Japanese occupied Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in the Far East.


The Princess Irene Brigade was therefore disbanded but a new Regiment, the Regiment Prinses Irene (later renamed the Guarderegiment Fusiliers Prinses Irene) was raised in 1946 to perpetuate the achievements and traditions of the wartime Brigade.


Subsequent Years


Following the creation of the NATO military alliance in 1950 the Dutch Government agreed to make a military contribution to the Defence of Western Europe in the event of any attack by Soviet led Warsaw Pact Forces. This included the permanent stationing of a Brigade Group in Northern Germany. The Brigade Headquarter and key units was established in Seedorf, a small village near to the market town of Zeven, midway between Hamburg and Bremen, a short distance north of the Autobahn linking the two Hanseatic Cities. Other major units were believed to be stationed in the Hohne area for a time and certainly Dutch troops were a familiar sight on the NATO Firing Ranges at Munsterlager and on the major Autumn Exercises on the Lüneburger Heath. The Brigade was initially known as 121 Light Brigade but subsequently was retitled 41 Mechanised Brigade.


There was also a small Dutch Garrison in the town of Blomberg, in the hills north of Paderborn and to the east of Detmold, its facilities were a closely guarded secret much appreciated by British troops exercising in the area.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the reunification of Germany and the overthrow of the majority of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe the military threat posed by the Warsaw Pact Alliance disappeared and a radical revue of both individual and collective NATO member states defence policies was set in train. One consequence was the setting up of a joint German/Netherlands Corps Headquarters in Münster Westphalia with peacetime command of an integrated Corps and the capability, if required, to deploy overseas to command other NATO Forces on operations.


One long-term consequence of the Dutch Commando of the Princess Irene Brigade wartime experiences with the British Royal Marines was a continuing cooperation in specialist training and operational contingency planning between the two countries’ military organisations.


For further details of the wartime history of the Princess Irene Brigade click here.

For an English translation of a Dutch document outlining the wartime history of the Princess Irene Brigade click here.

For a brief outline to the creation of the German/Netherlands Corps click here.

For an outline of 41 Mechanised Brigade in the early 21st Century click here.