Following the Allied breakout from Normandy in August 1944, the Allies swiftly moved north and east into northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The Belgian port of Antwerp was liberated by the British Second Army on 4 September, 1944 and became a target for German V-weapons in early October, 1944.
In November, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) requested assistance from the Department of Home Security with dealing with the aftermath of incidents caused by the V-weapons in Antwerp. In early December 1944 it was announced that special “No. 1 Overseas Column”, made up of Civil Defence volunteers, would be sent to Antwerp to assist the Belgian authorities and Pioneer Corps there.
224 volunteers were drawn from the Regional Columns of the Civil Defence Reserve, including 20 vehicles, mobile workshops, canteen, motorcycles and rescue equipment. The column had veterans of the air raids on London, Manchester, Liverpool, Plymouth and Glasgow amongst its ranks. The column included heavy rescue, first aid, decontamination and incident control. They were to wear a new shoulder title “C.D.R. Overseas Column” on their dark blue battledress. Although under military control they were not members of the armed services and were not armed.
The column, commanded by Charles Newman CBE, was organised at Sutton Park, north of Birmingham, and left for Europe on Christmas Day 1944. They stayed at a transit camp until 27 December and then onboarded their vehicles on an LST for the sailing to Belgium on 28 December. However, poor weather meant they anchored in port until 30 December. They finally reached Belgium on New Year’s Day 1945. They travelled to their headquarters in Antwerp and reported to 21st Army Group on 5 January as ready for action.
On 16 January, 1945, the Overseas Column suffered its first casualty. Following the explosion of a V2 missile, 44-year-old Group Sergeant Thomas James Parkinson (formally a member of a Manchester Rescue Squad) entered through debris to assist people trapped inside. A wall collapsed and although pulled out by fellow CD members he died. Party Leader Mahaffy was injured in this incident but later recovered. Parkinson is buried in Schoonselhof Cemetery. Sources quote 18 February as the day Parkinson died and this appears on his headstone and in press cuttings from the time. Parkinson received a posthumous King's Commendation for Brave Conduct which was gazetted in September 1945.
Between January and March 1945, 427 V1s and 256 V2s landed in the greater Antwerp area. The Overseas Column attended 44 incidents caused by V-weapons. The city featured buildings with deep basements that had not been reinforced. When struck by V-weapons this basements often filled with debris making the task of the Overseas Column exceedingly difficult. In some areas of the port they also had to contend with the presence of moats and waterways hampering rescue attempts. The Overseas Column also trained the local P.L.B. (Passieve Luchtbescherming - Passive Air Defence) and police in dealing with incidents.
Attached to the column was Don Dallas as Liaison Officer. He was an experienced member of a rescue squad and also a journalist. He had written for many magazines on ARP and Civil Defence matters since the start of the war. He volunteered his services for the Overseas Column and his position was discussed in papers because he was a conscientious objector. However, he was sent with the column to Belgium and wrote a number of articles on the performance of the column in Antwerp.
With the end of hostilities in Europe on 8 May, 1945 the Overseas Column was stood down. A thank you parade on 14 May, 1945 was organised by Camille Huysmans, the major of Antwerp, to thank members of the Civil Defence Reserve - No.1 Overseas Column for their assistance.
Apart from the files held by the National Archives, there appears to be very limited information or photos of the Overseas Column in Antwerp.
This article would not have been possible without the assistance of Chris Ransted. The group photo is courtesy the Bunker & Airplane Archeo Antwerp website.
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