The Liberation of Netherlands

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.

First Canadian Army was ordered to liberate the Netherlands. 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.

“Dutch civilians load a Canadian truck with food, following agreement amongst Germans, Dutch and Canadians about the ground distribution of food to the Dutch population. 3 May 1945, near Wageningen, Netherlands. (Air drops of food by the UK & US had started on April 29th and lasted till May 8th.)” Photo: Alex Stirton. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, a134417. 

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. 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. 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.

“Spring in Arnhem, Holland, 1945” Painting: Captain George C. Tinning. Located in the collection of the Canadian War Museum, 19710261-5582.

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.