The Parc du Cinquantenaire is a large slab of green in the Etterbeek district of Brussels. It is home to some museums, a lot of statues, and a triumphal arch. Foreigners like the park and crowd it out on Belgium’s rare sunny weekends.
Buried in a corner behind hedges and an overshadowing building is a shiny grey stone wall and a monument of an arching pilot reaching for the sky. The wall records all the Belgian airmen who have died in military service since the first biplane wobbled into the sky over the country back in 1908. In the section for the dead of the Second World War is the name R. de Hemricourt de Grunne.
The neatly carved white letters hide a story not many know. Comte de Hemricourt de Grunne was a war hero and aristocrat, but he was also one of only fifty Belgians who fought for General Franco’s right-wing nationalist rebels in the Spanish Civil War. Short, dark, and bushy browed, the Belgian playboy abandoned a life of idle luxury to fight a personal crusade against a foreign government in a foreign land.
In 1936 General Francisco Franco and his fellow Army officers attempted to overthrow Spain’s left-wing Popular Front government. The Nationalist insurgents believed the country was speeding towards anarchy, atheism, and communism. The government and its supporters saw the rising as a fascist assault on democracy. Foreigners from all sides flocked to join the fighting. Around 2,400 Belgians joined the pro-government International Brigades. A lot less enlisted on the other side.
Belgium was two separate nations, French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders, bonded by common government, the Catholic Church, and King Leopold III, but separated by culture, language, and temperament.
Up in Flanders, extreme-right separatist movements like Gustave de Clerq’s Vlaamsch Nationaal Verbond and Joris van Severen’s Dinaso, showed little interest in Spain. Down south, Wallonien fascists passionately supported Franco but kept their followers on a tight leash, Rex’s Léon Degrelle more successfully than his rival Paul Hoonaert of the Légion Nationale. Only Rexist militant Celestin Hastir is known to have disobeyed Degrelle’s prohibition on volunteering. Hoonaert was equally opposed to involvement but could not stop Légion Nationale militants making up most of the fifty Belgian volunteers.
The best known Belgian volunteer for Franco belonged to neither party, although he sympathised with the Rexists thanks to an uncle active in Degrelle’s movement. Rodolphe, Comte de Hemricourt de Grunne had spent his adult years enjoying himself in Brussels night clubs. At twenty-five all he had to show for life was an aching liver and a pilot’s license, and that only earned to spite his sister after she boasted about her flying lessons.
The civil war awoke in De Grunne a previously dormant desire to fight ‘for the Right and for Religion’. Beneath the dilettante shell was a devout Catholic for whom the war was a religious crusade.
On 7 October 1936 he joined the Falange Centuria Argentina, an infantry unit of Argentinean volunteers, around fifty strong. In one of his first letters home the aristocrat asked his uncle in Belgium to send over some party propaganda for his fellow soldiers ‘because the Rexists have lots of support here’.
De Grunne had no opportunity to distribute it. Wounded in late November on the Santander front in northern Spain he spent the rest of 1936 in hospital. A Spanish pilot in the next bed suggested the Belgian’s talents would be better used in the Air Force. De Grunne agreed. He had no unit to rejoin. Most of his Argentinean comrades were crippled or dead.
After an uneventful year flying patrols in northern Spain, De Grunne was hit by anti-aircraft fire while flying in sub zero temperatures over Teruel in early 1938 and forced into an emergency landing that wrecked his aeroplane but left him unhurt. He shot down his first plane in March that year. Nine more kills followed.
A Polikarpov I-15 machine-gunned out of the sky, a Grumman Delphin sent spiralling into the ground in plumes of smoke, others clinically dispatched through the gun sights. A fighter ace, De Grunne would fly 425 missions and 794 flying hours, his appetite for war diminishing with each pilot he shot down.
It took Franco’s Nationalists three years to grind down their Republican enemies. On 19 May 1939 the capital hosted the Nationalist victory parade. Franco watched from a podium surrounded by his Moroccan bodyguards in scarlet and white robes as thousands of troops marched past. Alongside Spanish legionnaires, Falangists, and Carlists were Moroccans, Legion Condor Germans, Italians of the CTV, the French Jeanne d’Arc unit, Portuguese Viriatos, and a troop of White Russians allowed to form a national unit for the parade.
Fighter aircraft spelt out ‘FRANCO’ in the sky over the capital. At the controls of one was De Grunne. War over, he returned to Brussels but barely had time to reconnect with his old life when the Second World War began.
German troops over ran Belgium in May 1940. De Grunne was serving in the air force and retreated with his unit to England. He joined RAF 32 squadron at Biggin Hill but was shot down in August 1940 and badly burned. Following reconstructive surgery he visited Portugal to convalesce but arguments with the Belgian government-in-exile, which wanted him to cross the border into Spain and spy on Franco’s war plans, sent him back to England.
De Grunne rejoined the fight against the Luftwaffe. On 21st May 1941 his luck ran out. His Spitfire was shot down into the Channel. His body was never recovered.
Check out Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or amazon.com] for more about foreigners who joined the Nationalists.
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