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Weymouth war veteran makes an emotional trip to Belgium
ALMOST 70 years after he first visited Belgium in a tank to liberate Brussels, Weymouth war veteran Cyril Gill has made an emotional return to the country.
In the Christmas of 1944, Cyril was a tank driver with the Second Battalion of the Welsh Guards. After the troops had liberated Brussels, he and his battalion travelled to the small town of Jodoigne where they waited until they were called up to fight in the battle of the Bulge.
They stayed there a few days and were made very welcome by the grateful townspeople.
Cyril, who is now 88, remembered: “When we landed in France, we went straight through. We couldn’t hang about because we wanted to get to the Battle of Arnhem but we didn’t manage it. Afterwards I heard from my mother that my brother had fought at Arnhem and was taken prisoner and ended up in Poland.”
Having missed Arnhem, the Welsh Guards hurtled on through the town of Nijmegen and on to Jodoigne, which they reached in the snow of Christmas 1944.
In the early hours of Christmas day, they travelled on to the Bulge and then returned to Jodoigne, where they were greeted like saviours.
“The townspeople were wonderful and could not do enough for us,” said Cyril. “They said it was because we had liberated Brussels and the area around their town.”
Cyril had always wanted to return to Jodoigne, especially to see a plaque given to the town by the Second Battalion of the Welsh Guards ‘in grateful remembrance of the lavish hospitality accorded to the soldiers whilst quartered in the town from Christmas 1944 to February 1945, and for the many kindnesses to them by your citizens on subsequent visits’.
He also has a cache of photographs from his time there and was curious to see whether any of the people he met were still alive.
Earlier this month his granddaughter Karen and her husband James arranged the trip back to Jodoigne with funding from the National Lottery’s Heroes Return fund.
They travelled to Brussels, where they saw the famous Little Man Pee or Manniekin Pis, the small bronze statue of a boy urinating into a fountain that Cyril remembered seeing in 1944.
The next day they travelled by bus to Jodoigne.
Cyril said: “I realised that things were not what I expected and I didn’t recognise anything to start with. We found the plaque about the Belgian people thanking the Welsh Guards and I wanted to find the places that I had photos of, but things had changed and we didn’t get far.
“So we went into a café and asked some questions and a gentleman called George Sougne looked at the photos and said he would help us. He took us to the town hall and the deputy mayor Jean Levieux left his duties to escort us around the town in his car to find all the places in the photos.
“He took us to a place called Le Abbatoi where all the tanks parked up and he then went and got his sister, who was one of the little children in my photographs.
“He made us feel like royalty. We found everything we needed and the hospitality was exceptional.”
Mssr Levieux presented Cyril with a badge of the town, which he wears on his coat next to his Veteran’s Medal, and then took him to see a tree that had been planted in the town square in 1830. A few years ago it was struck by lightning so a new tree had been planted in its place. However, the old tree was cut up in to thin slices so that everyone in the town could have a piece and the deputy mayor also presented Cyril with a piece.
Cyril said: “After that we took some more photographs and were about to get the bus back to Brussels when George insisted on driving us all the way – it was 22 miles and he wouldn’t take any petrol money.
“I am so grateful to everyone who was involved in the trip, the National Lottery, Karen and James, George and Jean in Jodoigne. It was touch and go whether I would actually get there as I had a mini stroke two days before leaving but I did and I am so glad I did.”