Dutch town grants unique honour to British war dead 75 years after liberation
A total of 328 soldiers are buried in the Commonwealth and War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery in Brunssum.
A Dutch town is to bestow a unique honorary citizenship on more than 300 British soldiers who died fighting to free the Netherlands during the Second World War.
The special honour will be granted to the 328 men buried in the Commonwealth and War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery in Brunssum to mark the 75th anniversary of the town’s liberation.
More than 100 of the solders’ relatives will travel from the UK, and as far afield as Australia and Canada, to attend a ceremony on Thursday.
Honorary citizenship is Brunssum’s highest municipal honour, with only 15 citizens having received it in past decades, and this will be the first time it has been awarded posthumously.
The inscription on the soldiers’ medal of honour reads: “Their lives. Our freedom”.
John Davies, from Perth, was just three weeks old when his father, Rifleman Sidney Arthur Davies, was killed aged 23 on December 9, 1944, and then buried at Brunssum.
“My mother, when my father was killed, she received a wallet which had been in his possession when he died and in the wallet was a letter from my mother to my father telling him that I had been born,” he said.
Mr Davies explained his father, who served with the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), was wounded in fighting near Geilenkirchen in Germany and died at the Brunssum dressing station.
He added: “I’ve always strived to do the best I can and I always think of my father when I do these things because I never knew him, but I can try my best to make him proud of me.
“It is very moving for us to know people remember and I know the Brunssum people will be coming to this cemetery for many, many years.
“War is a terrible thing. Look at what happened. Look at the sacrifices that were made. Let us never forget that happened but let us come out.”
Bombardier George Sebastian Pitfield, of the 94th Dorset and Hampshire Yeomanry Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, is believed to be the first casualty buried at the Brunssum cemetery after he was fatally shot aged 26 on a scouting mission on November 13, 1944.
His niece, Anne-Marie Williams, from Wareham in Dorset, said his widow Phyllis did not get over her loss and never remarried despite living to be 96.
Ms Williams said: “The first time we came here I fell in love with Brunssum. We have made so many friends. The hospitality of the Dutch people is amazing.
“I feel very proud to feel that my uncle sacrificed his life for other people and it is amazing that the people of Brunssum still remember that today 75 years on.”
Out of all the 328 British soldiers buried at Brunssum, just one is yet to be identified.
The southern Dutch town, near the German border, now has a population of 28,000 and is home to a Nato base.
Brunssum acting mayor Gerd Leers said the war cemetery had been “at the heart of the community” since the first burials.
“It was one of the first Commonwealth war graves in the world of which every grave was adopted by local citizens,” he said.
“Now, with the 75th anniversary of our liberation approaching, there was a widespread and heartfelt feeling that we should make a special gesture to express our deep gratitude to these men.
“The city council elected to make them honorary citizens, a distinction only rarely awarded and never before posthumously.”
He added: “Through awarding this distinction, the people of Brunssum wish to stress that these 328 men are not forgotten by us – and never will be.”
British ambassador to the Netherlands Peter Wilson will attend the awarding ceremony, alongside CWGC director general Victoria Wallace.
It comes as a series of other memorial events are held near Arnhem in the Netherlands this week to mark the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden.
In September 1944, 35,000 British, American and Polish troops parachuted and glided behind German lines in a bid to bring the war to an end by Christmas that year.
The subsequent fighting around Arnhem, later depicted in the 1977 Hollywood film A Bridge Too Far, claimed the lives of more than 1,500 British soldiers and saw nearly 6,500 men captured.
A commemoration event on Saturday will see 1,500 paratroopers from different nations jump on to one of the drop zones allied soldiers parachuted to over 75 years ago.
On Friday, the CWGC will launch its Voices of Liberation sound installation at the Oosterbeek War Cemetery where the public can listen to stories from the Second World War.
The CWGC maintains 23,000 memorial and cemetery sites around the world, helping to commemorate 1.7 million Commonwealth war dead.