VE-Day – Victory in Europe Day – marked the end of the fighting for First Canadian Army and the liberation of the Netherlands. No more bombs would fall on German cities, the artillery on the Western Front was silenced, and the killing stopped at death camps like Auschwitz and Dachau. But the war not yet over. The fighting continued in the Pacific and would not stop until the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945. And for the Canadians in the Netherlands, there was still much to do.
On 5 May 1945, General Charles Foulkes, as the commander of 1 Canadian Corps, accepted the surrender of German forces in the Netherlands at the Hotel de Wereld in Wageningen. He was faced with a number of difficult issues. With only 25,000 Canadian troops under his command, he was now responsible for 125,000 German soldiers. These men would have to be fed and controlled. Foulkes was also responsible for making sure the Dutch were fed. It was a big job.
Foulkes made the decision to treat the Germans as “capitulated troops” rather than “prisoners of war.” This may seem like a small semantic distinction, but it meant the Germans remained under their own commanders and were responsible for feeding themselves. If they had been treated as POWs, the Canadians would be responsible for feeding them. As there was not enough food to go around, it was more important to feed the Dutch first. “If there was any shortage of food,” Foulkes stated, “the Germans went short.”
With the fighting over, the priority of the Canadian army was to look after the Dutch people. In a speech in Toronto just after he returned home, Foulkes recalled what that responsibility entailed:
“The Army now had to set about to feed the population. The Army Service Corps turned into grocers and butchers, and into distribution centres. The Engineers got the waterworks and sewage plants going. The Catering Advisors had to run soup kitchens. The Medical Corps had to superintend and supervise hospitals. There were more than 40,000 Dutch people who suffered from malnutrition.”
Foulkes also recognized in 1945 that there was something different about this engagement: “I sincerely hope that those good relations established in Holland between the Canadian troops and the Dutch people may continue, and that we may foster between that hard working, long-suffering population, a bond of friendship for Canada. We have very much in common.” It is no wonder the Dutch and the Canadians have shared a special relationship over 75 years.
Despite their role as liberators, all was not rosy with the Canadians’ occupation of the Netherlands immediately after the war. While conditions were nothing like German occupation, the Canadian presence created problems of its own. After six years of occupation, the Netherlands was terribly impoverished and its people found themselves confronted by an influx of what historians J.L. Granatstein and Desmond Morton describe as “well-paid soldiers with a taste for wine, women, and song.” The Canadian soldiers had just survived a period of war, death, and sacrifice and they were now looking to have fun. As historian Michiel Horn, a Dutch child during the war, observed, “who could blame them?” Granatstein and Morton point out that “military discipline, never a Canadian strong point, sometimes faded from sight.” The black market thrived. Eight Canadian cigarettes could be sold for the same amount a skilled labourer would earn in a week. The Dutch were faced with a conundrum. They were (and remain) grateful for their liberation, but the presence of foreign troops, even Canadians, proved to be disruptive. Fraternization between Canadian soldiers and local women was common and resulted in 1,886 marriages and 428 children. There were many other unplanned pregnancies, a scandalous occurrence in the conservative Netherlands. These “liberation children” often faced a difficult childhood of bullying, while others were never told about their true fathers.
John Morgan Gray, an intelligence officer in First Canadian Army, recalled in his memoirs that, slowly but surely, the Canadians were wearing out their welcome:
“The smart, well-disciplined troops that had waved and smiled their way into Dutch hearts and homes in the delirious weeks following VE Day had become just another Occupation Army, not hated yet, but standing in the way of a return to normal life in Holland. The race-tracks, the theatres, the playing fields, the dance halls were for Canadian troops, where Dutch girls might be entertained, but not Dutch men. A Nijmegen paper finally said in a resounding editorial what many had been muttering; the gist of it was, “Let them go home. We are grateful to them, but let them go home. We won’t forget these nice smiling boys, and they will always have our good wishes and our gratitude, but let them go home. They are not happy here and we are no longer happy to have them: so let them go home.”
Repatriation to Canada was taking place too slowly for all involved. However, by the end of 1945, all but 10,000 Canadians had been sent home. The Canadian Forces headquarters in the Netherlands finally closed its doors on 31 May 1946.