The 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade, also known as the "Piron Brigade" (Brigade Piron) after its commander Jean-Baptiste Piron, was a Belgian and Luxembourgish military unit in the Free Belgian forces during World War II. It participated in the Battle of Normandy and, later, the liberation of Belgium and the Netherlands.
Brigade Piron originated in 1940, with hundreds of Belgian soldiers who had escaped to Britain, as had the Belgian Government. A new command of the Belgian Army, under Lieutenant-General Victor van Strydonck de Burkel, was created in Tenby on 25 May 1940, three days before the Belgian capitulation. Van Strydonck de Burkel became commander of the Belgian Forces in Great Britain in June 1940 and in the same month, a Belgian Minister (Jaspar) called upon all Belgians to come to Britain to continue fighting.
At the end of July 1940 there were 462 men in the Belgian Forces in exile; the arrival of many Belgians allowed the creation of several military units. The troops were trained in Great Britain and Canada and in 1942, Major Jean-Baptiste Piron arrived in Scotland where he quickly joined the army staff, with the responsibility of improving the training of Belgian troops. In an artillery competition, the Belgian battery came first. The Belgian Forces in Britain were officially made available to the Allies on 4 June 1942. By the end of the year the army had been restructured, including the creation of the 1st Belgian Brigade, under the command of Major Piron, with a mix of infantry, artillery and reconnaissance units. Troop training continued through 1943 and landing exercises were conducted in early 1944. A Luxembourgish unit was assigned to Brigade Piron in March, forming an artillery troop. Because the Belgians had arrived from around the world, thirty-three languages were spoken in the Brigade in 1944.
The D-Day landings took place on 6 June 1944 without Brigade Piron, to the great disappointment of its 2,200 men but the British preferred to reserve them for the liberation of Belgium. (This policy was applied to all of the smaller national military contingents, which were expected to form the basis of post-war armies and for whom it would have been difficult to find replacements for casualties.) Piron lobbied the Belgian government in exile, which requested the British Government to send the Belgian troops to the front, to reverse the declining morale of those troops.
On 29 July 1944, the Brigade was ordered to be ready to move. Its first units arrived in Normandy on 30 July and the main body arrived at Arromanches and Courseulles on 8 August, before the end of the Battle of Normandy. The Brigade operated under the command of the British 6th Airborne Division (Major General Gale), which was part of the 1st Canadian Army. The Belgians entered active service on 9 August.
The Belgian Brigade participated in Operation Paddle, Clearing the Channel coast from 17 August with British and Dutch (Prinses Irene Brigade) troops of the 6th Airborne Division. Merville-Franceville-Plage was liberated in the evening, Varaville on 20 August. The Brigade's armoured vehicles were detached to assist British units. Dives-sur-Mer and Cabourg were taken on the morning of 21 August and Houlgate in the afternoon. The Brigade took Villers-sur-Mer and Deauville on 22 August, and Trouville-sur-Mer and Honfleur at the mouth of the Seine on 24 August. The Belgian armoured vehicles were reunited with the rest of the Brigade on 26 August at Foulbec, when Brigade Piron came under command of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division. On 29 August, the Brigade crossed the Seine to support Operation Astonia, the |attack on Le Havre on the following day. At the last moment the Brigade was withdrawn from the front and transferred to the Second Army for operations in Belgium. The efforts of Brigade Piron on Normandy's Côte Fleurie are commemorated by memorials, road names and war graves.
On 2 September, the Brigade and the Dutch Princess Irene Brigade had been transferred to the Second Army and ordered to move as quickly as possible to the Belgian border. The British were already in Belgium and expected to enter Brussels on the following day and this transfer would allow the Belgian and Dutch Brigades to operate in their homelands. The Brigade arrived at the French–Belgian border on 3 September, after an overnight journey and continued to Rongy in Brussels the following day, just after the British.
During their advance through Belgium, the Belgian troops were sometimes mistaken for French Canadians, since local people did not expect that their liberators would be fellow Belgians. Brigade Piron liberated other Belgian towns and cities before reaching the Netherlands border on 22 September. Its campaign in the Netherlands lasted until 17 November, when it was relieved from the front and moved into reserve in Leuven. Brigade Piron returned to the Netherlands between 11 April 1945 and June 1945. In the small Dutch border town of Thorn, a bridge has been named in honour of its liberation on 25 September 1944.
Brigade Piron occupied part of the British zone of occupation until 15 December 1945.
Brigade Piron formed the basis of the new Belgian Army. In a reorganisation on 17 November 1945, the Brigade's artillery and armoured units were reorganised to form specialised regiments and the engineers joined a new engineer battalion. The remaining infantry, reinforced by volunteers, became the First Brigade Liberation, based at Leopoldsburg barracks.
In August 1944, the 1st Belgian Brigade consisted of:Staff
1st, 2nd and 3rd Motorised companies – each with rifle platoons reinforced by mortar, machine gun, anti-tank and anti-aircraft platoons.
Armoured Car Squadron – 4 squadrons equipped with a mixture of Daimler Armoured Cars, Staghound armoured cars (some armed with anti-aircraft weapons) and Daimler "Dingo" Scout Cars and a supply and recovery squadron
Artillery Battery – 12 25 pounder gun-howitzers, organised into 3 troops, one of which was Luxembourgish.