On May 14, 1940, after the German Operation “Fall Gelb” the Netherlands surrendered to Germany with the exception of the south westerly province of Zeeland. From the Netherlands only a few military succeeded in escaping to Great Britain. When the battle was also lost in Zeeland, a large number of soldiers escaped to Great Britain via the Belgian and French ports Brest and Cherbourg. Next to troops of the regular forces, part of the ground personnel of the flying schools Haamstede and Flushing succeeded in fleeing to Great Britain.
Finally 120 officers, 360 non-commissioned officers and 980 corporals and soldiers derived from all kinds of units had arrived in Great Britain up till June 1940. The British encamped them near Haverfordwest and near Portcawl, under the command of General-Major Noothoven van Goor from 23 May onwards. This Dutch group was called “Detachment Royal Netherlands’ Troops in Great Britain” [Detachment Koninklijke Nederlandse Troepen in Groot-Britannië] and her commander in chief was named “Inspector of Dutch Troops” [Inspecteur der Nederlandse troepen] . On June 30th 133 men were selected from this group and transferred to the RAF and the flight crews were transferred to the Dutch East Indies and detached with the Naval Air Force’s 320 (Dutch) Squadron.
After a period of uncertainty the group was armed, supplied with uniforms and clothing and was charged with guard duties. End July Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands visited the troops and the Dutch Government (in exile) started to make plans to establish a Dutch unit. It was decided that in any case the number of people in military service had to be increased significantly. On 27 May all Dutchmen between 20 and 35 years of age and living in Great Britain were called up. On the 8th of August also Dutchmen living in Northern Ireland, Canada and the United States were called up and later on also those living in South Africa and other countries. Volunteers from other countries could report but were just registered and only in a later stage ferried to England.
The number of people that became available for active service was disappointingly low because a number of Dutchmen volunteered for the American and Canadian armies, a significant number was sent to the Dutch Indies and a part succeeded in withdrawing from active duties. Next to that, a large number of people was simply not fit for service or was not available for active service because they were not healthy or received remission in one way or the other. Also a German U-boat succeeded in torpedoing a ship with 392 passengers and crew amongst whom 59 recruits, 1 member of the Prinses Irene Brigade and 33 Dutch naval personnel.
Of all personnel that became available in Great Britain, only a limited number could be enlisted in the regular Army [Koninklijke Landmacht] because part of them was placed with the Navy [Koninklijke Marine] and Air Force [Koninklijke Luchtmacht]. Next to that, also the Government in Exile required personnel. Towards the end of the year the Government in Exile decided to establish a Brigade.
On January 11th 1941 the Brigade was officially established and received the name “Royal Dutch Brigade” [Koninklijke Nederlandse Brigade] and would consist of a staff and two battalions in accordance with the British organization structure. End January an armored unit was added which contained a large content of the Royal Constabulary [Koninklijke Marechaussee] . In May 1941 the first units could be moved from the temporary camp to their definitive barracks in Wrottesleypark, at 4 kilometers from Wolverhampton. The Brigade Commander Colonel of the Infantry H.J. Phaff also became the camp commander with a different staff.
In August 1941 the Brigade consisted of a staff, a communications unit, two battalions, a depot (out of which the 3rd battalion had to be formed) a brigade supply train, medical support post, a repair unit and a section military police. The armored unit in the meantime had been dissolved again. By Royal Decree Nr. 1 dated 26 August, 1941, the Brigade was called “Koninklijke Nederlandse Brigade Prinses Irene”. [The brigade has been named after Her Royal Highness Princess Irene of the Netherlands, born in Soestdijk on August 5, 1939, as the second daughter of Princess Juliana and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and is sometimes called briefly “the Irene Brigade” or “the Brigade”. FB]
The strength of the troops was diminished between 1 September 1941 and 13 April 1942 with 48 officers, 76 non-commissioned officers and 395 corporals and soldiers. Reasons for the decrease in strength were the establishing of 322 (Spitfire) Squadron and participation in the Nr 10 Interallied Commando and the SAS. Also troops had been sent to Suriname and Ceylon. Finally 1.300 men remained of whom 900 were fit for battle service. In 1942 it appeared to be necessary to develop an organization of 1.000 men which would serve as the basis for the, to be newly set up, forces in the Netherlands after the war.
Halfway 1942 the command of the Brigade was taken over by Lieutenant-Colonel of the Artillery A.C. de Ruyter van Steveninck. On 16 December 1942 the Minister of War (in Exile) visited the Brigade with the announcement that reorganization would have to be carried out and a totally motorized brigade would be created. This reorganization was realized on 1 January 1943 and the name Brigade was maintained, even though the organization was different. Now the Brigade consisted of the following units: staff, scouting unit, three independent companies (called battle groups) an artillery battery, a train and a repair unit. The Brigade was regularly exercised and in 1943 participated in maneuvers also in combination with British units and on different locations.
In the course of 1943, XXI Army Corps was established under General Bernard Montgomery including the 1st Canadian Army and the 2nd British Army. The Prinses Irene Brigade was joined with this group and charged with coastal guard duties in Dovercourt and Frinton-on-sea.
After inspection by the British it was correctly established that the Brigade was not up to strength and was reinforced with a group of marines that was being trained in the United States. They were added to the Brigade and joined the 2nd battle group till the end of the war. Now the Prinses Irene Brigade complied with the British requirements.
During Operation Overlord on June 6th 1944, the Irene Brigade was still in charge of coastal guard duties. End June they were transferred to a tent camp near Narborough where maneuvers were held in a larger context, amongst others with the Belgian Brigade. The Irene Brigade was preparing to be transferred to the mainland and was completely isolated from the outside world because of security reasons. All equipment and armament was thoroughly checked and where necessary, replaced. French money and 24-hours-rations were distributed. The Prinses Irene Brigade was prepared and ready to go for it.