The Liberation of Boom 1944
Darren and I have been very lucky to have been invited to Boom in Belgium to perform as part of the celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the town from Nazi Germany. Boom was a very important part of the liberation of Belgium as it was part of the overall strategy to secure the docks at Antwerp which were vital to the continued effort to bring supplies from the United Kingdom to the soldiers on the front line.
We have been to Belgium several times before and has always been overwhelmed by the amount of respect and remembrance shown towards the British and the British men that fought and lost their lives in the fight against Hitler. What we didn’t quite realise was how personal the stories were and the legacy that those British liberators left behind. As reenactors we know a lot about the history of World War 2 and we are familiar with the great war films – particularly Saving Private Ryan and the TV series the Band of Brothers – but there are many little known stories of heroism amongst the advancing British army and this is why Boom was so intriguing.
The legacy of the liberation featured 3 major stories that of Lt. Colonel Silvertop – a soldier from the North East of England leading the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment; a local chap called Robert Vekemans and the fact that 22 British Soldiers married local girls from Boom.
The whole story is way too detailed to fully explain but I have included some highlights.
Lt. Colonel Silvertop
In and around Boom and Antwerp there are several locations named after Lt. Colonel Silvertop and as soon as we arrived in Boom his name was mentioned several times – we had not heard of this great man and did not know the significance of his role in their Liberation.
Lt. Colonel David Silvertop is a celebrated war hero in Belgium but little known in the UK. Hailing from North Yorkshire he fought with the Desert Rats and in 1943 was injured in the battle of Medenine (Tunisia) . Following this he gained command of the 3rd Royal Tank regiment who rapidly advance to Belgium following the D-Day Landings.
The Germans occupying the town of Boom had set mines on all the bridges which was also heavily guarded. On hearing that the British were making an advance local bridge engineer Robert Vekemans was able to successfully intercept the tank column alerting them to the heavily defended bridges and guiding them to a fairly undefended old toll bridge that Vekemans had concluded would be able to take the weight of the Sherman tanks. This meant that the Royal Tank Regiment were able to attack the German troops from behind and secure another crucial bridge.
Lt. Colonel Silvertop through was to pay the ultimate price less than 3 weeks later advancing into the Netherlands to relieve the trapped army after the failure of Operation Market Garden. On September 25th Silvertop was killed in a situation that has remained unclear – however the official British Army report say that 2 German Halftracks sprayed the group with bullets and Silvertop, only 32 years old, was killed instantly. Lt. Colonel David Silvertop now rests in a small cemetery in Ooplo.
Commemorated in his home town by a statue in his honour Robert Vekemans relocated to Paris following the war where he married and had a family. His son Etienne represented him at the memorial.
Astonishingly although the British troops were in Boom for approximately 2 weeks 22 local girls went on to marry British Soldiers – 21 of them married in Belgium with the 22nd getting hitched in the UK. The soldiers who married created and ‘unbreakable bond’ and are commemorated on 22 benches along the River in Boom. We were lucky enough to meet Nancy Early (daughter of James Early) and the Daughter in Law of John Flack
Dinner with the Mayor
We were lucky enough on our arrival to be taken out for dinner with the Mayor of Boom to a beautiful local restaurant where we met Etienne Vekemans and his family, Nancy Early, Tina Jonkers from operation Neptune, Fabienne (daughter in law of John Flack), Alex Ramael (the heritage officer in Boom) and the team from the Mayors office.
Saturday was an early start however we were pleased to bump into John Prentis and his family who are from Broadstairs (near Ramsgate). John’s granddad Chuck Harris is a D-Day veteran having been a Royal Marine Commando – I have had the honour of meeting him a couple of times – he is an amazing man still living independently despite his advancing years!
We took the boat across the river for the first commemoration where the bridge used to be located. The bridge was demolished in 1945 but the top of the arch has been restored and now serves as a monument alongside a Sherman tank. The commemoration was very moving and flowers were laid on the tank.
We travelled back across the water for the second commemoration which also featured the battle-pipes. In the remembrance square there is a huge memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives in both world wars plus a plaque on the floor wit the names of those residents who lost their loves after the liberation from V1 and V2 bombs.
Following the memorial service the military vehicles took part in a huge convoy through the town alongside modern vehicles forms he Belgian army – the crown were given both Belgian and British flags to wave.
Saturday afternoon Concert
The afternoon was time for a celebration featuring the songs from the wartime period. The Belgian people had little music of their own during this time so adopted the music of their liberators and are consequently familiar with the same wartime tunes that we are familiar with. It was a real treat to have the Merlins reenactment group there looking smart in their RAF uniforms and taking part in the dancing. Fortunately the rain had cleared by 3 pm and we were blessed with sunshine which increased the audience somewhat!
Following the concert we were absolutely exhausted so headed back to our fabulous Hotel, the Domus.
On the Sunday of our visit I was invited to sing at a local care centre where there was likely to be members of the local community who would remember the occupation. On arriving we met local man Marcel who was a member of the Belgian resistance – narrowly escaping being sent to a labour camp in Germany he went into hiding – sleeping in a monastery.
Despite the language barrier we had a great afternoon.
When I first performed at Operation Neptune back in 2015 I had the good fortune of meeting Leopold who has been a member of the Belgian army. I met him on the Saturday and on the Sunday he came back to the event with a photograph of himself as a young army officer. I then met Leopold again in 2017 and this time his family had contacted me to say that they were brining him to the event in Boom and could I possible meet up with him.
Unfortunately I received a message on Friday saying that Leopold had been taken into hospital; with that in mind I contacted Tina Jonkers to see if it would be possible to take a trip to the hospital to visit him – as it turned out the hospital was only 20 minutes away so we after the care home we went to surprise him! Leopold was looking surprisingly well considering he had had an operation to remove a couple of toes due to a flesh eating bug! We stayed for around 30 minutes, sung a song accapella and then Leopold and his family gave us some chocolates.
Following the hospital visit we had a dinner reservation at Tina’s daughters bistro which was absolutely delicious – we were joined again by John and his family – Darren also managed to secure some Victory beer from Operation Neptune and I bought a couple of original 1940s dresses off Tina.
Monday it was time to say farewell to Boom. We met up with Alex from the heritage department for a quick tour of the exhibition and the historical important sites in and around Boom – taking a trip on the boat across the river again and visiting the memorial benches and the statue in tribute to Robert Vekemans. The exhibition was excellent with many models, photographs and memorabilia including the trench coat that belonged to Robert Vekemans.
Departing at lunchtime we started our long drive back to Nottingham only to be held up on the Channel tunnel!
We are very thankful to the hospitality extended to us in Boom and also being educated in the historical importance of this town in the liberation from Nazi occupation.