La libération des Pays-Bas

April to May 1945

VE Day, or Victory in Europe Day, took place on 8 May 1945. It was the culmination of six long years of war, which ended with the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Hitler had died a week earlier when he killed himself in his bunker as the Soviets closed on Berlin. In Great Britain, the pubs stayed open late and people celebrated late into the night all over London and the rest of the country. Similar scenes unfolded in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Montreal. While fighting still raged in the Pacific, there was great relief around the world that the fighting in Europe was over.

However, there was also unrest. The spontaneous celebrations in Halifax fuelled by liquor and beer unmasked wartime tensions between civilians and servicemen, and sparked two days of riots. For the Dutch people, though, liberation brought relief. They had survived and life could now return to something more closely approaching normal. The war diary of the Canadian Scottish Regiment recorded one example of the Dutch reaction to liberation. This scene was repeated thousands of times around the Netherlands:

It would have been impossible to take and hold the town of Deventer so successfully if it had not been for the splendid cooperation of the Dutch Underground Movement. There was a continuous stream of German [prisoners of war] and civilian prisoners being brought in to the Command Post for dispatch to the PW cage. It is impossible to describe fully the enthusiasm with which the people of Deventer welcomed the battalion. No member of the battalion could stop on the street without having a flock of men, women and children gather around him asking for chocolate and cigarettes as an introduction to any other conversation they might have to offer. It was learned that the occupation of Deventer by this battalion would come to a rapid end this afternoon. The troops were not pleased with this news as we had hoped to have a day or so amongst the friendly people. (War Diary, Canadian Scottish Regiment, 8 April 1945).

For many 21st century Canadians, it is difficult to understand what liberation meant to the Dutch. Their country had been occupied by the Germans since May 1940, and they suffered terribly. Draconian rules, deportation of Jews and others to concentration camps, a lack of freedom, severe food shortages, and a scarcity of everything needed for day-to-day life (including fuel for home heating) created unimaginable burdens on the people. Many parts of their country became a battleground where homes and lives were destroyed. Allied bombing raids inadvertently added to this death and destruction. By the time the war was over, some 301,000 Dutch civilians and 17,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen had been killed – a huge sacrifice in a country with a prewar population of less than 9 million people. (By comparison, Canada suffered over 45,000 military deaths with a population of nearly 11 million). The Dutch deaths came in many forms: in concentration camps, in captivity, by execution, by acts of war, from forced labour, as a result of the “Hunger Winter” of 1944–45, and due to sickness, starvation, disease, and overall poor public health. It is easier to grasp what liberation meant to the Dutch when you know this.

First Canadian Army was ordered to liberate the Netherlands. Montgomery assigned them this task while the British, American, and Soviet armies pushed across Germany. The 2nd Canadian Corps moved north to Leeuwarden, Delfzijl, and the Germany city of Leer, passing through Deventer and Zwolle on the way. The 1st Canadian Corps, the newly-arrived “D-Day Dodgers” from Italy, was sent west into old Holland. This would be its first battles since arriving in Northwest Europe. Advancing through Arnhem, it captured Apeldoorn on its way towards Amsterdam and Rotterdam. These large cities suffered the worst of the “hunger winter,” as the people could not feed themselves as readily as those outside the major urban areas. They were desperately in need of the Canadians’ help to avoid a humanitarian disaster.

Herb Pike, a sergeant in the 48th Highlanders, was shocked to see all the people starving when his regiment crossed into the Netherlands:

« The civilians were not in good shape. Their health was bad because they were literally eating tulip bulbs. They had nothing…. When we finally took over, up in The Hague, we found big huts full of food that the Germans had. Every kind of food you can think of, yet the poor Dutch were outside having nothing. It was tough to see, not only the men who were in rough shape too, but the women were in bad shape and particularly the children. Imagine little children with nothing to eat. It was pitiful. »

To help the Dutch, however, the Canadians first had to defeat the Germans. Many of those formerly loyal to Hitler wanted nothing more than to return to their families, but others fought to the bitter end. Surrender could mean prison or death as they answered for their war crimes while others never gave up on their Nazi ideals. In some cases, German officials even threatened retribution against their families back home in Germany if they gave up.

As the end of the war approached and the battles were fought in the Netherlands, the Canadians did their best to limit collateral or excess damage to the countryside. This meant no large artillery barrages and limited use of tactical air power to support an attack. They wanted to avoid as much unnecessary death and destruction as possible in the Netherlands. In France, the nature of the German defences offered the Allies no option but to use their full strength, and many French civilians had left their homes so they were no longer in harm’s way. In Germany, where the Allies were not worried about excess destruction so they used all the firepower available. It was, after all, the Germans who had started the war and supported Hitler. The Allies’ decision to limit their military attacks in the Dutch countryside out of concern for the local population came at a cost: the soldiers tasked with taking back this territory questioned the decision and 1st Canadian Division suffered over 500 casualties including more than 100 killed in April and early May.

Since the end of the war, Apeldoorn has been at the centre of Dutch celebrations for their Canadian liberators. In 1995, more than 150,000 people took to the streets to greet the returning Canadian veterans. This celebration repeated a similar scene the Canadian troops experienced when they entered Apeldoorn on 17 April 1945, shortly after the fight for the city had ended. For the triumphant Canadians, it was immediately clear what they had been fighting for. Farley Mowat, the famous Canadian author and environmentalist, was a captain in the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment. He recalled that the regiment advanced “into a city waiting for liberation, and half crazed with its own emotion. The enemy had gone and the only shots were those fired into the air from the commanding officer’s pistol as he south to clear a path through the civilian throngs.” The battalion’s war diary noted, with more than a little irony, “it was tough going due to the cheering and crowding of the thousands of liberated Dutch people who crowded the streets and showered bouquets of flowers on the troops. A good looking soldier had to use his weapon to beat off the girls, and many a fair maiden’s kiss was forced on the boys.” (War Diary, Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, 17 April 1945). The war diarist was of course being tongue-in-cheek – the Canadian soldiers welcomed all the attention they received.

Many Canadian regiments across the Netherlands experienced similar experiences of sharp fights followed by glorious liberation celebrations. The towns of Laren and Holten by the Black Watch and Fort Garry Horse; Groningen by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division; and Delfzijl by Major-General Bert Hoffmeister’s 5th Canadian Armoured Division. On 12 April, the 8th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment and the South Saskatchewan Regiment reached Kamp Westerbork, a transit camp for the German concentration camps. It was here that Anne Frank and her family were shipped after their betrayal. Many Dutch Jews had been already deported, but the Canadians rescued the 876 men, women, and children who were still at Westerbork. On 14 April, Private Léo Major of Le Régiment de la Chaudière single-handedly liberated the town of Zwolle through bluff and sheer chutzpah. On 15 April Don White and the Royal Canadian Dragoons liberated Leeuwarden. The 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions finished the war in Germany as they fought to cross the Kusten Canal and capture the city of Leer. At times, the fighting was as intense as anything the Canadians experienced during the war, although in Germany there were no restrictions on the use of artillery or air power.

As April gave way to May, it became clear the end was near. Commanders did their best to protect their men as nobody wanted to be the last to die. On 5 May, the news everyone had been waiting for arrived: a ceasefire had been declared and all fighting ended. There were few celebrations, however. The Canadian troops were intensely proud of their accomplishments, but for the moment, the overwhelming feeling among the troops was relief at having survived.

« The shelling of the night increased at 0700 hours, the guns played their final hymn of hate, swelling to a crashing finale at 0800 hours – and then silence – a silence so strange and new that we stood in silence ourselves, and there was not a man in the Regiment who deep down in his heart failed to say a quiet prayer of thanks. » (War Diary, Royal Canadian Dragoons, 5 May 1945). « The effect on the men of the news of the unconditional surrender of all Germans on our front was not very evident. There was rather an air of unbelief, as thought it were difficult to realize that the fighting was actually all over, than of celebration. The men were quiet and went about their duties as before or fell to discussing among themselves, how soon it would be all over and how soon they would be making the home bound trip across the Atlantic. »

War Diary, North Nova Scotia Highlanders, 5 May 1945

When Herb Pike, the Highlander who’d been shocked by the condition of the Dutch civilians his regiment encountered in 1945, returned to the Netherlands 70 years later, he admired how the Dutch people continued to honour the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers.

« The Dutch will truly, truly never forget what the Canadians did and they let us know that they don’t forget, which is very much appreciated. They keep saying they will never forget and they haven’t, because they show it to us every time we go over. »

Though we know today that the end of the war was imminent, the fighting continued until the end. The long, intense battles of Normandy, the Scheldt, and the Rhineland were a thing of the past, but the Canadians faced an ongoing series of short, sharp, and costly fights as they pushed to liberate the Netherlands. Historian Terry Copp has captured the paradox of this phase of the war:

« If the story of Canadian operations in April contains no great decisive battles, it includes a potent mix of both triumph and tragedy. Canadian and Dutch memories of April are usually recollections of that “sweetest of springs,” the spring of liberation. Canadian soldiers found themselves engulfed by a joyous population which knew, all too well, what the war had been fought for, and they showered their liberators with kisses and flowers and love. But April was also the cruellest month; while the war had been won, the killing did not stop. Fatal casualties are often the best measure of the intensity of combat. For the Canadians in northwest Europe, the worst days had been 6 June with 359 fatalities; 8 July (262); 25 July (344); 8 August (290); 14 August (261); and 26 February (214). On 16 other days, many of them in October 1944, fatalities exceeded 100 men. The last such 100-fatality day was 10 March 1945 at Xanten and Veen. In April 1945 more than 50 soldiers were killed on each of seven days; 114 more were killed between 1 May and the surrender on 5 May, including 12 on the last day of fighting in Europe. »

Though it was clear the war would soon be over, Canadian soldiers continued to fight and die right up to the last day of the war. We cannot forget these men who sacrificed everything as we also remember Dutch gratitude and their liberation stories.