Celebrating 75 Years of Freedom: The Liberation of The Netherlands by the Canadian Army in Spring 1945

By Douglas Phillips

        The Canadian Oxford Dictionary describes a “bond” as something that ties us together.  It could be a family bond tied together by blood, or a friendship bond with a special person.  Canada has both a blood bond and a special bond with the Kingdom of the Netherlands. These bonds were forged during the Second World War when Canadian troops freed the Dutch from German occupation.  It is also a story of how Canada, along with its Allies, saved the Dutch population from starvation with Operations “Faust” and “Manna” and why, on May 5th, 2020, we are commemorating seventy-five years of Liberation.

        Today many Canadians will visit Holland in the steps of our veterans who can no longer make the trip back.  The few that are still with us are now in their nineties.  The Canadian Dutch Associations and governments are planning a series of events to celebrate that special “bond” that has grown over the years. When the 75th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE Day) is commemorated on May the 8th,  2020,  please plan to join in and pay tribute to the contributions that our men and women soldiers, sailors and airmen played in ending the war, and most of all to remember those who gave their lives so we can live in freedom. 

        Before World War Two, Canada’s main immigration had come from the British Isles and we had little contact with the Netherlands. When Britain declared war on the German Reich on September 10th, 1939 after the invasion of Poland, Canada followed suit.  The Netherlands remained neutral, but that all changed on May 10, 1940 when Germany invaded the lowland countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, beginning five years of occupation, terror, oppression and death.
The Dark Days

        Behind the Atlantic defence wall that ran from Norway to the Spanish border, the Dutch were fed German propaganda.  The time that followed was known as the Dark Days, as all aspects of society from the press to the government, the economy, education and culture were under strict German jurisdiction.   To keep up Dutch morale Queen Wilhelmina made regular broadcasts from London’s Radio Oranje.  To subjugate the Dutch economy to Germany, hundreds of thousands of Dutch citizens were forced to work for the Nazi war effort in the Netherlands and in Germany.  Raw materials and machinery were siphoned off to feed the German war machine.

        Food was in short supply, and recipes appeared in the papers on fried tulip bulbs and onion dahlia soup.  There is a story of a German-driven cart which overturned. It was told that a bag of peas fell off the cart into the gravel and a group of starving children scrabbled furiously in the dirt just to grab a handful of peas.  The Germans also entered people’s homes and took all their blankets.  Radios were also seized, but many Dutch successfully hid theirs.  During the occupation the country was ravaged.  Factory equipment, vehicles, rail stock, shipping, barges and livestock were all taken to Germany.  By 1944 bicycles had become the sole means of personal transportation, but these were also systematically seized by the Germans.

Canadian Army Nurses in front of destroyed church
with medical supplies Rotterdam 1945 (private collection)

Anne Frank and the Jews

        The Nazis were deeply anti-Semitic, which led to the Holocaust and the attempt to exterminate all Jews.  In 1940 the Jewish population of the Netherlands numbered 140,000.  By 1942 they were ordered to live in one area, or ghetto, in Amsterdam, and forced to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothes.  Many Dutch people risked their lives helping Jews to escape, providing them with hiding places and false identification papers.  One young girl left a well-known diary about how many Jews were hidden until nearly the end of the war when they were betrayed.  Her family (with the exception of her father who survived) died not long after capture in one of the death camps.  The house where Anne Frank and her family were hidden is now a museum and still stands as a reminder of this terrible time.  See the link, and the diary of Anne Frank.  In July of 1942 the Nazis started deportation to death camps.  Over 104,000 Jews from the Netherlands died.

Canadian Army Liberation Map April 1945 ~ Wikipedia Media

The “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45

        The Netherlands was soon to become the battle front in the winter of 1944.  Since D-Day the Invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944 the Allied army had slowly pushed back the retreating German army towards the Rhineland.  In September 1944, the German war machine was running out of material, food and labour and the hard-pressed German troops stepped up looting of vehicles, goods and food from the Dutch.  A general rail strike ordered by the Dutch government in London stopped food and coal from reaching the major cities in the Western Netherlands.  Women, children and the elderly were forced to trek to the countryside to beg farmers for food, trading anything of value they could find.  On their return journey they were often met by German guards who immediately confiscated the food.  People were reduced to eating sugar beets and tulip bulbs.  In conversations with Dutch people now living in Canada, who lived through that winter as children, they vividly remember the unusually cold winter, the shortage of food and fuel. To keep warm they burned their furniture, went to the park with neighbours to cut down trees or search for anything that would burn. To add to the misery, electricity and gas were cut and then the water supply was stopped.  Diseases like typhoid started to spread, and with soap in short supply people contracted lice and numerous diseases.  Weakened by malnutrition, the young and old died by the thousands.  People dropped on the streets, fainting from hunger and many died, but there was no one to help them.  The population began to starve.  Most continued to struggle.  In the final months women and children became hunger trekkers who headed to the countryside looking for food, while the young men had to hide in fear of being taken and shipped to Germany as slave labour.  The black market flourished.  A curfew kept people off the streets at night, and families huddled together to keep warm.  Food kitchens were set up, but the bowls of broth were tasteless and without nourishment.    The economy ground to a halt and as winter turned to spring, the Netherlands could only hope and pray for liberation or death. 

Operation Faust
Canadian food convoy with white flags delivering vital food supplies April 1945
Courtesy of the “Sweetest Spring 2008”

Operation Market Garden and The Battle of the Scheldt Autumn 1944

        Once the Battle of Normandy was won, the 1st Canadian Army was assigned the task of clearing the French channel ports for supplies vital to the Allied advance.  Meanwhile the 2nd British Army had pushed forward into Belgium and southern Netherlands.   The Allies captured Antwerp, an ideal supply port for the continuing war effort.  Antwerp was vital but the German army controlled the Scheldt River Estuary which connected the port to the North Sea.  To speed                                                          up the ending of the war, the Allies launched Operation “Market Garden.”  The objective was to create a 103km salient into German territory with a bridgehead over the River Rhine, creating an Allied invasion route into northern Germany.  This was to be achieved by seizing a series of nine bridges by airborne forces with land forces swiftly following over the bridges. The American, British and Polish airborne troops attempted to land behind enemy lines, but the operation failed and any hope for a speedy end to the war was halted.  However, the operation did succeed in liberating the Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Nijmegen along with many towns, creating a 97km salient into German-held territory. The main objective failed however to secure a bridgehead over the Rhine, with the advance being halted at the river. With orders from Supreme Allied Headquarters, the 1st Canadian Army was called upon to clear the well-entrenched German forces on both sides of the River Scheldt.  Fighting was fierce on flooded fields and narrow dyke roads, but as the month of October rolled on Canadian troops captured strategic positions, and with the aid of the British Forces the enemy surrendered.  Finally, on November 28th the first convoy entered the Port of Antwerp carrying vital war supplies and fuel. 

Canadian soldiers in front of damaged buildings

The Winter on the Maas River 1944-45

After the Battle of the Scheldt the Canadian army was given the responsibility of holding the line along the Maas River. The major Dutch towns of Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague and North Western Holland were still under German occupation.  When would the rest of the country be free?  Food was in short supply and the death toll was rising. Throughout the next three months Canadian troops patrolled the front line with occasional encounters with the German army.  As the weeks dragged on the prospect for survival darkened.  In February the Allies were directed towards the Rhineland in order to finally end the war. The Ruhr valley, the industrial region of the German war machine, was more important for the Allied military planners.  Liberation would have to wait a few more weeks.

The Liberation Victory Campaign: “The Sweetest Spring” 1945

In the closing weeks of the war the Canadian Army was given the task of liberating the north and east of the Netherlands.  The Ist Canadian Corps moved up from Italy and joined the 2nd Canadian Corps who had been part of the Rhineland campaign, and together they crossed the Dutch border on April 1st and liberated Arnhem.  The Canadians fanned out, the Ist Corps to the east and the 2nd Corps to the northwest.  Armoured units from Canada and Poland led the attack, aided by the Dutch Resistance, and towns were finally freed.  By the middle of April, Apeldoorn, the site of Queen Wilhelmina’s summer estate, was secured by the Canadians. In some places the enemy still offered resistance and retreated behind the defensive line on the Eem and Grebbe rivers, but many surrendered knowing the war was nearly over.   The welfare of the civilian population in the still-occupied areas was more important than territorial gain and bitter fighting continued only in the north for the harbour town of Delfzijl from April 23 until May 1 when it was ulimately taken. 

Food Drop Schiphol Airport Amsterdam
Library and Archives 4939532
Credit Kryn Taconis

Food Relief Operations “Faust” and “Manna”

        By this time a big change in the west had taken place and with Operation “Faust” the relief of the civilian population by the Allies had begun.  This had been planned as far back as October 1944.  Prince Bernhard had permission from British Prince Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt to begin planning food for relief of the Dutch people as soon as the Netherlands was liberated.   A plan was prepared by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF).  In many areas there was significant evidence of starvation among the urban population and food distribution by the Canadians was more than welcome.  The situation was much more critical in the still-occupied provinces of North Holland, South Holland and Utrecht, the most heavily populated and largest cities.  The shortages of food, fuel and medicines were the greatest.  Most of the land lay below sea level, and without fuel to power the great pumping stations, the entire region was in danger of gradual flooding. 

Operation Manna
Avro Lancaster bombers drops food and
 medical supplies to waiting thankful Dutch people May 1945
Wikipedia Media

The Allies wanted to avoid mass death by starvation or drowning. With the official ration of less than one pound of bread per adult per week, it was imperative a deal be reached with the Germans.  By the end of April, with the Dutch Government in exile, the Allies and the Resistance negotiated a deal with the Germans, who said they would cease further destruction and executions and allow delivery of food.  With strict instructions from the Germans, the Allies’ planes had to fly at a certain altitude, on a specific course, and were not allowed to tip their wings.  The Allies, with Lancaster and Halifax bombers, dropped desperately needed food to thirty drop zones close to major cities.  These were carried out day and night.  The second day the Dutch people knew the planes were coming, they came out shouting words of welcome from rooftops, tops of barns and even treetops.  To quote Vicki Tassie  (from A Liberation Album), “One has to have lived through that hunger winter to know the overpowering relief of seeing those food bombers, planes that for once were bringing life.”  During April and May 1945, Operation “Manna” delivered 6,680 tons of food to the Dutch people and at the same time Canadian trucks driven by Canadian soldiers carried food, fuel and medical supplies.  In the days after the liberation, the public health was in urgent need of attention.  Canadian medical staff, working with Dutch medical teams, had to deal with diseases like typhus, typhoid fever and dysentery. 

German Surrender of The Netherlands
Lt. General Charles Foulkes delivers the terms of the surrender
Wageningen 5 May 1945
Library and Archives Canada Mikan 3191670

German Surrender May 1945

        The Germans unconditionally surrendered on May 4, 1945.  The next day at the Hotel “De Wereld” in Wageningen, and in the presence of Prince Bernhard as Supreme Commander of the Dutch Forces, General Charles Foulkes, Commander of the 1st Canadian Corps, accepted the capitulation from General J. Blaskowitz, Commander of the German troops in the Netherlands.  Five bitter years of occupation were over, the Netherlands was free, and it became the “sweetest spring” in memory.   “More than any other country, the Netherlands recognizes the Canadian Armed Forces as its liberator.  When the surrender of Germany was realized, a great friendship between our two countries was born, forever to remain very special” – J.G.S.T.M. Van Hellenberg Hubar, Netherlands Ambassador to Canada.   

Wedding of Captain Menzies to Miss Pamela van der Jagt
At the Town Hall Maarden, Netherlands
Library and Archives Ken Bell 3200840
There were many Canadian soldiers who returned with war brides,enhancing the bond between the two countries. Zutphen Holland October 1945 (private collection)
Liberation Celebration  – Dutch citizens welcome
Canadian soldiers from the West Nova Scotia Regiment near Rotterdam May 1945 (private collection)

Post War Aftermath and Lasting Bonds

        While Canadian troops did not fight alone in the campaign that liberated the Netherlands from German tyranny, they were the first soldiers to arrive in most of its cities, towns, villages, and hamlets.  They were also the ones who remained stationed in such cities as Utrecht, Hilversum, Amersfoort, Apeldoorn, and Groningen during the long process of repatriation to Canada, that was not concluded until the latter part of 1946.  After liberation while awaiting to return to Canada, Canadian soldiers were involved in many reconstruction projects.  Some volunteered as farm labourers, others repaired roads and cleared rubble from war-torn towns, and Canadian engineers helped clear the canals and rebuild dykes. 

        Many Dutch people did not survive the five years of war and German occupation.  To those who had survived, the presence of the Canadians was proof   that they were free. The links between the two countries, forged in the heat of battle and its aftermath were strengthened further after the war when thousands of Dutch emigrants headed for Canada.  Through all the years the debt of gratitude has not been forgotten for the singular and noble Canadian achievement.

Dutch Civilians welcome the 7th Reconnaissance Regiment
Liberation of Zwolle April 1945
Library and Archives Canada PA 136176

     The Commonwealth War Cemeteries throughout the world have been designed and laid out to give the impression of beautiful gardens with green grass and flowers everywhere.  They are places of beauty and peace and serenity.  More than 7,600 Canadians died in the nine terrible months it took to liberate the Netherlands.   (Veterans Affairs Canada).  Canadians with relatives buried in the Netherlands make personal pilgrimages to the grave sites, and these are carefully tended by the Dutch.  The war dead and many unknown soldiers are commemorated in the Memorial at Groesbeek, with the following words “We live in the hearts of friends for whom we died”.  Two other main cemeteries are at Holten and Bergen-op-Zoom.

        Every year since 1948, the Royal Family of the Netherlands has donated thousands of tulips to the people of Ottawa in gratitude for their wartime hospitality.  Each year in May tulips bloom in front of the Peace Tower as part of the “Canadian Tulip Festival” to celebrate the lasting ties between the two countries.  In 2019 a gift of “Liberation 75” tulip bulbs were presented to Canadian veteran Mr. Don White by Princess Margriet, and 100,000 bulbs will be presented to Canada for this year’s festival.  Bulbs will also be planted at 1,100 schools across Canada.   

Young Canadian Soldiers relax after a hard fight
Liberation of Holland (private collection)

75th Anniversary Celebrations

        On May 22nd and 23rd, 2020 at Denson Armoury, Yukon Lane, Toronto, there will be a two-day event to honour Canadian veterans who helped liberate the Netherlands, freed occupied Europe, and to commemorate those who lost their lives for our freedom.  On May 23rd HRH Princess Margriet of the Netherlands, together with her husband Pieter van Vollentioven, the Ambassador and Consulate-General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Canada, the Guard of Honour and the Dutch and Canadian communities, plus many others, will be at Denison Armoury.  Princess Margriet is the only royal person to have been born in Canada, in 1943, when the Dutch Royal Family were given shelter here.  Margriet’s mother, Princess Juliana, earned the respect and fondness of Canadians with her involvement with the Red Cross and her hospitality to Dutch service personnel.

                For more details and updates contact Martin Van Denzen President Dutch Canadian Association 416 229 1753, or www.waybacktimes.com

        On the Netherlands’ Remembrance Day, which is  May 4th,  gatherings are held throughout the Netherlands.  People observe two minutes of silence at 8 p.m. to pay their respects to service men and women and civilians who died during World War II. Wreaths are laid at the National War Memorial in Amsterdam.  On May 5th the country celebrates Liberation Day.