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When A King Visits A Theatre Of War
This story was submitted by former member of the Canadian Provost Corps, Lieutenant Colonel (retired) James D. (Jim) Lumsden of Ottawa, Ontario. LCol Lumsden advises that the story, prepared by the late Colonel Andrew (Andy) Ritchie, OStJ, CD, in 1992, had previously been published in the 15 June 1992 edition of "Watchdog", the former official Newsletter of the Canadian Provost Corps Association.

When a very important person (VIP) visits a military establishment it causes a stir among the commander and staff officers who must arrange for the VIP's comfort, security and movement. When the VIP is a reigning monarch and the area visited is in an active war theatre, these concerns present an interesting challenge. Such was the case in November 1944 when His Majesty, King George VI paid a visit to headquarters and units of 21 Army Group located in Holland and Belgium near the frontier of Germany.

King George had a genuine interest and concern for the Armed Forces. He expressed a desire to visit the continent as early as the Normandy days but was persuaded not to by both Downing Street and Field Marshal Montgomery, on the grounds of safety and the bad effect on public morale should harm befall him. Finally, and reluctantly, a further request was approved by Churchill and Montgomery and he arrived at Second British Army Headquarters, located near Eindhoven, during the second week in November 1944. First Canadian Army became involved in his return to London at the expiration of his short (three day) stay.

It was decided he would travel by road from Eindhoven to Ostend. At Ostend he would embark in a waiting Royal Navy destroyer for his return across the Channel to England.

Although the German Army had been driven out of most of Belgium and Holland it was by no means defeated as would be demonstrated in later events. However, a part of Antwerp was opened following the capture of Walchern Island on 8 November. German V-1 (Buzz Bombs) were landing in Antwerp inflicting heavy civilian casualties. Units from the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division were carrying out aggressive patrolling along the length of the Maas River from the Scheldt eastward to the Nijmegen bridgehead. The Second British Army was positioned on the right flank of the Canadians and was closed up to the general line of the Maas and Roer Rivers, on a line running south from Nijmegen to Venlo and Roermund. In general the operational situation was quiet, with no major battles to be managed by senior generals. Nevertheless, there were many fierce skirmishes taking place during "routine" patrolling activity and the lowly platoon commanders. life was, to say the least, tempestuous.

The Canadian Provost Corps involvement began when Lieutenant Colonel George Ball, the Deputy Provost Marshal at Army Headquarters, was called in by the DA and QMG Brigadier J.F.A. Lister and informed that the C Pro C would be responsible for providing a road escort for the return trip to Ostend. The late Lieutenant Colonel JR. Stewart, then serving on the DPM' s staff recalled the urgency of the task since His Majesty was to leave Eindhoven at 0700 hours the following day., to arrive in Ostend by I130 hours. This left less than 36 hours to complete all necessary arrangements. Captain Eric Porter, Officer Commanding No 11 Provost Company was briefed at the DPM,s office about 2000 hours on 13 November where he received the following details:
  • The Route: Eindhoven SE to Herenthals (Holland), Aerschat (Belgium) Louvain, Brussels, then NW to Alost, Ghent and into Ostend. The overall distance was about 200 miles.
  • .
  • Royal Military Police of Second British Army would provide the escort for the first leg, from Eindhoven to Herenthals, a distance of about 28 miles.
  • .
  • Timing: Leave Eindhoven at 0700 hours 15 November and arrive at the Ostend dock by 1130 hours.

  • Transport: His Majesty, together with an equerry and driver, would travel in the C in C's Rolls Royce staff car.

  • Security -. The identity of the VIP must not be divulged to anyone except those involved in planning and carrying out this duty. This precluded any wording on route signs and only the disc directional with the broad arrow would be used.
There is an old military cliché which states that time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted. In this case it was essential to have up-to-date information on road conditions such as road surface, bottlenecks, congested sections and gradients. It was also necessary to complete a dry run over the entire route in order to establish the required optimum speed. In order to speed up the recce, the route was split up among three Recce Teams each made up of an officer, sergeant and motorcyclist. These teams left Company Headquarters at 0700, 14 November. Despite the damp and foggy weather the last one was back by 1330 hours. The reports were generally favourable, however, there were some areas which caused concern. Herenthals is a small village at the junction of the Albert and Meuse Canals. The route crossed both canals over bailey bridges constructed by the Engineers, some distance off the original road. This meant a detour of about one-half mile across a muddy field. To further complicate matters the area had been mined and although it had been swept by the Engineers it was most imprudent to venture off the beaten track. Fortunately, good one inch to one mile maps were available for this area. The next trouble spot was the Town of Louvain (East of Brussels). As is often the case in this part of the world, Louvain is a hub where five or six main roads converge. The volume of local traffic was also quite high since it was in the centre of a main supply area for the Second British Army. However, a satisfactory by-pass route was found which skirted the Town to the North and required only a minimum of route markers. Brussels was fairly straight forward despite the fact that the route ran through the centre of this City. The streets were broad and the route, which was also a Main Supply Route (MSR), had been well marked by the British RMP. (Note: HQ 21 Army Group was located here). The road from Brussels to Ostend was clear sailing.

The detailed route was marked on GS maps 1:100,000 and a dry run was made in the afternoon of 14 November from Ostend to Eindhoven. An average of 40 MPH was established as feasible to cover the 170 miles in four and one-half hours.

The Escort was detailed and personnel assigned. There would be a Pilot Escort about 50 yards in front of the VIP car, a Sweep Escort preceding the Pilot Escort by at least two miles and a Follow Up Escort following at the rear of the VIP car. All were jeep mounted and each was accompanied by two Provost on motorcycles. The duty of the Sweep was to deal with unexpected traffic problems. The Lead was responsible for navigation, speed and timing while the Follow-up would ensure that the VIP car was not overtaken by any vehicle. The following personnel of No 11 Provost Company were assigned:

  • Sweep Escort:
    Sgts Canning and McKnight

  • Pilot Escort:
    Lts Lee and Fitzgibbon

  • Follow-up:
    Lt Ritchie and Sgt Mc Arthur

  • Traffic Duties:
    Six corporals on motorcycles
The remainder of the day was spent on the usual maintenance and "spruce up" tasks such as topping up vehicles, cleaning kits, clothes, weapons and vehicles and folding maps.

Reveille was 0430 on 15 November. The escort arrived on schedule at the RV near Herenthals and was pleased to find some improvements in weather conditions. The fog had lifted but it was still damp, cloudy and cold. The RMP escort arrived sharply at 0740 hours and the handover was performed smoothly with the Rolls Royce driver coming to a brief stop as the RMP pulled off. The C Pro C Lead jeep moved out ahead of the sedan carrying His Majesty and flying the Royal Standard. The Follow-up escort fell in behind. It was White knuckle-time for the "Pilot, and "Follow-up" escorts as they moved slowly across the muddy track, over the bailey bridge and back to the main road. However, the Rolls did its maker proud and the driver showed remarkable skill in keeping to the narrow tracks. The only "wheel spin" was a minor one as the Rolls moved up a short incline at the end of the detour before pulling onto the main road. The first hazard was past. Much to our relief it had not been necessary to use the tow ropes we carried.

The journey through Aerschat and Lovain was uneventful and a good steady 40 mph was being maintained by Lee and Fitzgibbon. The main concern was not the odd military truck or small convoy, but the likelihood of a road block caused by an ancient "methol" burning a civilian bus or large truck. Indeed, one or two were encountered, but McKnight and Canning had done their work well and they had been pulled over and stopped. There were no problems on into Brussels, on the first class highway. However, as we approached the centre of the City, past the railway station, we encountered a strange and totally unexpected turn of events. The broad avenue, on both sides, was jammed with shouting and waving crowds. Our initial shock was replaced with a warm glow as it became apparent this was not a mob, but a happy crowd of well wishers. Many were waving Union Jacks or the flag of Belgium to shouts of "Vive le Roi, Vive le Anglais". Our fears were further allayed when we observed His Majesty happily returning the waves and salutes. So much for the efforts to keep the King's travel a deep dark secret.

The run from Brussels past Alost and Ghent was clear sailing on a good two-way highway. However, we must mention one list of detailed planning not previously described. This was the provision of two "rest stops on this long stretch of road. In deference to His majesty's comfort, these temporary canvas burlap ablutions were spotted beside the road between Brussels and Alost and before Ghent, with the locations suitably marked on the maps of the Equerry and escorts so as to enable a stop on a prearranged signal. Happily, a signal to stop was not made.

The entry to Ostend and into the dock area was uneventful. A party of three or four Naval Officers were waiting near the gang plank onto the destroyer. Following the usual formal greetings King George VI walked over, unaccompanied, to where Lee and Fitzgibbon were standing to attention. He shook the hand of each, inquired as to their homes in Canada, commented that the Canadian Provost Corps cap badge was the same as his own (the Royal Cipher), and as later related by these two beaming officers said: quote: "Thank you for taking me about the country so nicely.". He then rejoined the Naval party and embarked on the destroyer for England.

This is the end of the story. It is perhaps noteworthy for several reasons. This event, to our knowledge, has never been recorded except for a very brief note in one or two Canadian war diaries.

It was carried out on extremely short notice with only verbal instructions given. It shows the utter futility of trying to maintain secrecy (in the interest of safety) when our reigning monarch travels abroad. Finally, it gave a number of Provost a memory to cherish and a story to relate to their children and grandchildren.

As a postscript it should be mentioned that both Lee and Fitzgibbon, for months to come, attempted to supplement their normal pay by offering anyone, for a fee of ten shillings, to shake the hand that shook the hand of the King.