Canada’s Finest Hour

An Introduction

“I could go on for hours about all the suffering the war has brought, but then I would only make myself more dejected. There is nothing we can do but wait as calmly as we can till the misery comes to an end. Jews and Christians wait, the whole earth waits; and there are many who wait for death.”

Anne Frank, 13 January 1943

“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

Anne Frank, 15 July 1944

Everyone knows the story of Anne Frank, the young Jewish girl from Amsterdam who kept a diary while her family lived in hiding to escape the evil of Hitler’s Nazi regime. For two years they remained in their secret annex and could not go outside. The members of the Frank family knew that liberation was coming as they closely followed the news of D-Day and the fighting in France. But the Franks ran out of time. They were betrayed by someone close to them and transported to Auschwitz, the infamous concentration camp. Anne, her sister Margot, and their mother Edith, did not survive.

Theodora Nuze, a resident of Arnhem, had a very different experience. She recalls the failed British attempt in September 1944 to capture the bridge in her city. But what she really remembers was the deprivation which followed. “The Hunger Winter was terrible,” she told an interviewer after the war. “There was no food, children used to go through bins to find food. In the night you could hear children going to the farmers trying to get food, you could hear them walking. One time it was early in the morning and a boy was out walking with a little buggy and it was covered up. They said to him “you have done well, what have you got?” and he took the cloth off and it was his mother, collapsed as she was too weak to go to the farms to get food. That happened a lot!”

There were also stories of resistance and reprisal. A Dutch underground cell attacked a German officer’s car on 29 September 1944, killing a soldier and wounding another. In response, the Germans arrested and deported almost the entire male population of the town of Putten – 602 men – to concentration camps. In March 1945, the highest-ranking Dutch SS officer, Hans Rauter, was accidentally killed by the Dutch resistance cell attempting to hijack a German meat delivery truck. In retaliation, the Germans executed 263 Dutch prisoners.

The stories about Anne, Theodora, and the resistance fighters are just a small sample of what the Dutch endured during five long years of occupation. The extent of the country’s oppression during the war helps to explain the gratitude Dutch citizens felt about the Canadian soldiers who liberated the country in April and May 1945. The battalions did not just defeat the German occupiers; they gave the Dutch their lives back – a fact that has never been forgotten in the Netherlands.

This project will explore that time 75 years ago when Canada came to the rescue. There is much to learn as we follow to learn about this important period between the end of the Normandy campaign, in August 1944, and the conclusion of the war nearly nine months later. What did the Canadians experience? What did liberation mean for the Dutch? How is the experience remembered by those who were there (soldiers and civilians) and by people today? These are just a few of the questions for you to explore.

Have you ever stopped to consider why Ottawa hosts an annual tulip festival? Or did you know that Dutch school children leave their warm homes on Christmas Eve to attend a candlelight ceremony at the Canadian War Cemetery in Holten? Or that you can find Canadian flags proudly flying in unlikely spots, such as Dutch towns like Apeldoorn and Groningen, and many other places throughout Western Europe?

These gestures acknowledge the crucial role played by Canadian soldiers, sailors, and airmen, backed by an entire nation, in helping to liberate France, Belgium, and the Netherlands during the Second World War. That cataclysmic conflict was the single most transformative event for Canadians in the 20th century. As we approach the 75th anniversary of VE Day, it is worth looking back at those trying times and seek to understand how Canadians helped end the tyranny of Nazi occupation.

In 1939, Canada was under no obligation to go to war. Unlike 1914, the country did not automatically follow Britain’s declaration of war after Germany invaded Poland on September 1 of that year. In fact, Canada could have chosen to stay out of it. There was no direct threat to our borders. As Senator Raoul Dandurand famously stated in 1924, Canada was “a fireproof house, far from inflammable materials.” However, Canadians from coast to coast understood that Hitler and his Nazi thugs were a threat to everything they held dear. Canada declared war on 10 September 1939, a week after Britain did.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King well remembered the horror of the Western Front in the Great War, a conflict that cost Canada some 60,000 lives. But he hoped to make a minimal commitment to this new global conflict and resisted sending another army to Europe. Instead, he sought to support the Allied war effort in other ways, such as a flying training program in Canada. King’s commitment resulted in the creation of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), one of Canada’s major contributions to victory in the Second World War.

But Canada also sent troops to Europe to fight. The 1st Canadian Infantry Division was dispatched across the Atlantic before the end of 1939, and four more divisions would follow over the next two years. As well, Canada made enormous contributions to the air war and the fight at sea. By the time the war ended, one million Canadian men and women were in uniform, and 43,000 paid the ultimate price. Given that Canada had a population of only 11 million people at the time, the war touched almost every community and most families across the country. A look at your local cenotaph or the memorial plaque in your school will quickly demonstrate the cost of the war where you live.

After the rush to get the first contingent to England, Canada’s war effort developed slowly. Individual Canadians were fighting all around the world as part of the British army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, but it took a long time for Canadian units to join the fighting. And those outings didn’t go well at the start. Two Canadian battalions and a brigade headquarters arrived in Hong Kong just in time to be overwhelmed by the Japanese offensive launched in conjunction with the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The next significant battle for Canadian troops was the ill-fated Dieppe Raid of 19 August 1942. In Canada, the Royal Canadian Navy was slowly expanded so it could play a key role in the Battle of the Atlantic, and the goal of ensuring that the shipping lanes to Great Britain remained open and safe for merchant vessels carrying goods to Britain. For the air force, the BCATP was starting to train pilots, navigators, and other air crew and Canadian squadrons became operational flying out of England.

In mid-1943, the 1st Canadian Infantry Division was finally committed to the fight. It was sent to the Mediterranean to take part in the amphibious assault on Sicily known as Operation Husky. In less than two months, the Allied forces, including the Canadians, captured the large island, and drove the Germans back to the mainland, and in the process, Italy was knocked out of the war. The division’s success led the Canadian government to send more formations – 5th Canadian Armoured Division and I Canadian Corps HQ. These troops would soon be known as the D-Day Dodgers because they were seen to be missing out on the real taking place in France. The nickname was bestowed in jest but adopted by the troops in Italy as a badge of honour.

Since being expelled from the continent following the battle of Dunkirk in June 1940, the Allies had been seeking a way to take the fight back to Germany. Incursions in North Africa, Sicily, and finally mainland Italy were a good start, but the Allies’ goal was always to take back France. Until that happened, the Allies had limited ways they could directly hit back at Germany. The only option was aerial bombing of Germany cities. This offensive developed slowly, as the aircraft were not capable of delivering a knock out blow from the air that would end the war. Slowly, however, RAF Bomber Command acquired the necessary aircraft to mount effective bombing raids. Canada made a major contribution to this campaign through No. 6 Group RCAF, a formation composed of Canadian squadrons flying planes known as Halifaxes and Lancasters, both with the ability to bomb targets in Germany.

Finally, on 6 June 1944, the Allies launched Operation Overlord, the long-awaited invasion of France. Canada had a central role in this endeavour. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division landed on Juno Beach, one of five main landing beaches. By the end of the day, some 14,000 Canadian troops were ashore in France. In the air, 39 RCAF squadrons supported the invasion, while 61 major warships, 46 landing craft, and 17 motor torpedo boats of the Royal Canadian Navy took part.

Next to the disastrous August 1942 raid on Dieppe, it was Canada’s most costly day of the war – 381 soldiers killed, nearly 600 wounded, and 131 lost as prisoners of war. But D-Day was the beginning of the end. To learn the stories of what occurred on Juno Beach on 6 June 1944, visit the Juno Stories, a Defining Moments Canada project from 2019. There was still nearly 11 months of hard fighting before Hitler surrendered. Though it all, Canada played a central role – in the fight to open the Port of Antwerp, the battles through the German Rhineland, and most memorably, the liberation of the Netherlands. This multimedia portal will explore many facets of the important time.

You will discover the stories of Canadians and Dutch caught up in the terrible fighting. They include men like Philip Pochailo, who flew dangerous missions over occupied Europe as a part of RAF Bomber Command, and Charles Byce, an Indigenous soldier who was recognized for his bravery in the face of the enemy. You will also encounter the remarkable story of Mona Parsons, who risked everything to rescue downed Allied airmen. Unlike the Dutch, whose country was invaded, the Canadians profiled here all volunteered or chose to join this fight, not just because it was important and right, but in recognition of the fact that the alternative was unthinkable.

This portal will also feature a thematic guide, which will help you understand the time period. The Race to Antwerp, the Battle of the Scheldt, the Battle of the Rhineland, and the Liberation of the Netherlands will all be examined. The portal will also provide insights about the role of the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force. Finally, you will find discussions about Occupation and Resistance, and Aftermath and Remembrance. These sections will provide you with the context you need to begin your own journey of discovery.

Even after 75 years, Canada and the Netherlands enjoy a special relationship borne of the horror that was the Second World War. The Dutch people endured five years of German occupation, though it must be noted that some Dutch chose to collaborate with the enemy. They were not free. Their property was confiscated. And worst of all, Jewish people were deported to the concentration camps while able-bodied men were conscripted as forced labourers. Through it all they suffered deprivations, hunger, and mistreatment. Even when liberation came, the killing did not stop as many Dutch towns were bombed, shelled, or became battlegrounds. In spite of this, the Dutch welcomed the Allies, and the Canadians in particular, as liberators. And the deep gratitude of the Dutch people has not weakened with the passage of time. The children and grandchildren of the people liberated have kept the memory alive.

The anniversary of the end of the war has been marked in the Netherlands each year. But 1995, the 50th anniversary, was a special one. Many thought that year would be their last chance to thank the veterans in person. Thousands of people attended ceremonies to mark the momentous occasion. Among the returning liberators was Joe Andrews who served in the 4th Canadian Armoured Division Signals and spent five years overseas. He fought through France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. Towards the end of the war, he billeted with a Dutch family and formed a close connection that resulted in letters and visits after the war.

In an essay in The Globe and Mail, Ken Andrews recalled his father’s return in 1995:

“Both Mom and Dad travelled overseas. My father wore his ribbons and medals on his navy blazer. It was his first trip back to continental Europe since the war had ended. We watched his trip unfold on television here in Canada. We saw the massive parades in Apeldoorn with thousands of Dutch men, women and children crowding the parade route, wildly cheering and thanking the Canadian soldiers, now slower and often stooped but still looking smart and proud as they marched or waved from flatbed trucks. They were feted, hosted, toasted and made to feel special in ways most had probably never known or imagined. Toward the end of the parade, crowds pressed forward onto the street from the sidewalks to the point where the veterans could march only in single file as people shook their hands and urged their children to touch the ‘liberators.’”

The Second World War experience for Andrews was typical. He returned home to Canada and regular life and moved on. He rarely thought or talked about the war. At least until he returned to the Netherlands after 50 years. His son recalled that “Dad never thought himself a hero. He was a proud Canadian who simply fought for his country. ‘It was the right thing to do,’ he said. In Apeldoorn, Vught, and Almelo, he came to more fully realize the enormity of that contribution by hundreds of thousands of Canadians.”

John Morgan Gray was one of the first Canadian soldiers to enter Rotterdam after its liberation in May 1945. He recalled talking to some Dutch men soon after he had finished his lunch. A crowd had formed around his Jeep and the locals were looking at the remains of his meal – sandwiches and pie. Gray asked if this food was of any interest to them:

The Dutchman stared at me incredulously—any use? He climbed onto the bonnet of the jeep and began to break the sandwiches into little bits and to give each man a small handful. The men ate slowly, relishing every crumb, licking at their hands to get the last taste. Some got sandwich, some pie, but all had something, relishing it, smacking their lips…. Many soldiers … had a similar experience that first day … and to many Dutch people the very taste of liberty remained for a long time a mouthful of good bread or pastry such as they had almost forgotten.’

The Dutch were finally free after five years of occupation, and they have never forgotten the role the Canadians played in delivering their freedom.

The gratitude of the Dutch is felt at all levels – from the children liberated in the smallest of towns to Dutch Royal Family. Queen Wilhelmina escaped with her family to the United Kingdom when the Germans invaded in May 1940. Juliana, her only daughter, relocated to Canada with her children, Beatrix and Irene, for safety. For the duration of the war, they lived at Stornoway in Ottawa. This house is now the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition.

On 19 January 1943, Juliana gave birth to her third daughter, Margriet, at Ottawa Civic Hospital. The Governor General of Canada, Lord Athlone, passed a special law declaring Juliana’s hospital rooms to be the sovereign territory of the Netherlands so the princess would have exclusive Dutch citizenship. The Dutch never forgot the kindness of the Canadian people. When Juliana was finally able to return home in 1945, she sent the City of Ottawa a gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs in gratitude. The following year she sent another 25,000 bulbs to establish a display at the hospital where her daughter was born and promised to send another 10,000 bulbs each year. Ottawa soon became famous for its brilliant tulip displays. The first official tulip festival took place in 1953. It has continued every year since, a brilliant reminder of the wartime connection forged between Canada and the Netherlands.

The story of the Canadian liberation of the Netherlands and Northwest Europe is a vast topic. This website, created by Defining Moments Canada, can’t provide a comprehensive history of the period. But through a carefully curated collection of individual stories, personal stories, and primary resources, we hope to whet your appetite to learn more about this transformative period. The three main characters in this journey are Philip Pochailo, Mona Parsons, and Charles Byce. Each has a unique experience during the war and we invite you to see the world as it existed through their eyes.

Pochailo was a young man from Rainy River, Ontario, who enlisted in the RCAF in 1942. He trained to be a bombardier and flew his first mission two years later, in April, 1944. His flying career was brief as he was shot down just two weeks before D-Day. Unlike the rest of his crew, he parachuted to safety, evaded capture and joined the Dutch Underground. He spent the next year on the run, helping the Dutch resistance until he was liberated by Canadian troops in Rotterdam in 1945.

Parsons was a rarity – a Canadian woman who took the fight to the Nazis. Living in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband, she worked with a local resistance group until she was captured and sentenced to death by firing squad in September, 1941. A German officer took pity and commuted her sentence and she spent most of the war in a German prison/labour camp. She ultimately escaped and made her way across Germany, where she was rescued by soldiers of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. All Canadians should know her story of defiance and resilience.

Byce was a Cree from Chapleau, Ontario. He had a tough childhood as he was sent to the local residential school, where he suffered much discrimination and denial of his Indigenous culture. In spite of this difficult childhood, Byce joined the Canadian army in 1940. He served overseas with the Lake Superior Regiment and was honoured many times for his bravery in combat. His remarkable story demonstrates the strength of the human spirit.

This project is also going to link six Canadian servicemen with the European city they are most closely associated with:

Don White > Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Moe Hurwitz > Breskens, Netherlands

Tom Law > Ostend, Belgium

Donald Somerville > Arnhem, Netherlands

Léo Major > Zwolle, Netherlands

Earl Olmstead > Groesbeek, Netherlands

Each has an extraordinary story to tell. For example, White helped to liberate Leeuwarden in April, 1945, Law was present in Ostend when an accidental explosion destroyed his fleet of motor torpedo boats and killed dozens. Kennedy was one of Canada’s brave engineers, risking everything to rescue to British airborne soldiers who survived the failure of Operation Market Garden. Each man’s story will be told using his personal memories and well as other surviving artifacts, like unit war diaries, aerial photographs, maps from the period, as well as other primary documents that will help you better understand what took place during the Canadian liberation of the Netherlands and Northwest Europe.

Please join us now as we take you back to a time 75 years ago when the world was very different than it is today.


Flying training

The program trained pilots, navigators, bombardiers and air gunners as well as ground crew.

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Princess Margriet.
Photo of Princess Margriet c. 1964. Courtesy of the Dutch National Archives.

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