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By: MAG Staff
In the final months of the Second World War, Canadian forces were given the important and deadly task of liberating the Netherlands from Nazi occupation.
From September 1944 to April 1945, the First Canadian Army fought German forces on the Scheldt estuary — opening the port of Antwerp for Allied use — and then cleared northern and western Netherlands of Germans, allowing food and other relief to reach millions of desperate people.
Holland’s geography was challenging; the south bank was floodland enclosed by dykes, below sea level, and well suited to defence. The operation had four parts to clear Nazis from the area and access port of Antwerp:
In early October, a Canadian Infantry Division with an Armoured Division began assaulting the Leopold Canal. German fortifications made Allied advances difficult. Canadian casualties were heavy while attacking over flooded land. The Armoured Division headed north from the Leopold Canal towards Bergen-op-Zoom. By October 24, another Canadian Infantry Division headed north and advanced into South Beveland. Assisted by the British, they secured the area on October 31.
Part of the Canadian Army encountered German opposition in the Breskens Pocket. On October 9, a marine assault broke German hold on the canal. The Allies crossed, forcing German withdrawal into coastal bunkers. Canadians secured the south shore of the Scheldt by November 3. The most fortified position on the Scheldt was Walcheren Island. Its only land access, a causeway surrounded by saturated flats. Canadians attacked the causeway on October 31, establishing a foothold. They advanced to secure the island on November 6. By November 8, all enemy resistance ended. There were a total of 6367 casualties.
Before the Second World War, the Dutch people had a quiet but happy life. The first days of occupation in 1940 were filled with fear. Schools were closed. An evening curfew was introduced. Germany promised there would be no Nazi doctrine. Yet, the Royal Family fled.
Food rationing was imposed. German authorities gave families stamps; they weren’t given enough. Rural families supplemented their ration swith milk and vegetables from local farms. In cities, this was not possible.
The Nazi’s forced skilled people to help them. Some Dutch worked with the Nazi’s to gather information for the Resistance. By January 1941, German movies replaced Western ones, and Nazi newsreels preceded them. Disgusted, people booed or left the theatre. This behaviour became banned. Anyone caught leaving was arrested; people stopped attending. Radio stations were seized to spread propaganda. Finally, radios were confiscated and possessing one became illegal.
Eventually, Nazis issued alarming decrees. One ordered Jews to wear a star; another prevented them owning or operating businesses. This sparked conflict, which ended when a young Nazi supporter died. In retaliation, several hundred Jews were sent to concentration camps.
These decrees broke the promise of no Nazi doctrine. Angered, the Dutch protested; organizing a strike. In response, Germans ordered early curfew, brought more police, and refusal to work became punishable. Further, martial law was declared, and armed units began patrols. About 100 instigators were arrested and sent to concentration camps. After the strike, tighter controls were implemented. Rations were cut, and Dutch men were ordered to work in Germany. Many men hid, joining the Resistance.
Check out the stories below to learn about the experience of Dutch people during the war who later emigrated to Alberta, as well as that of a couple Albertans who were enlisted in the war.
By November 1944 the Dutch provinces north of the Rhine and Waal Rivers remained controlled by Germany. Conflict to the south continued, resulting in Allied access to Antwerp.
Port access renewed Allied advances toward Germany. However, other operations were limited, as it was decided Canadians would defend along the Maas River to conserve supplies. The Canadians’ primary task was defending the Nijmegen salient in Holland, most importantly the bridge over the Waal River. Germany made several unsuccessful attempts to demolish the bridge.
Liberation was delayed further by the Battle of the Bulge beginning December 1944, then by Operation “Veritable”, ending March 1945 with Germany’s retreat from the Rhineland. Following this, the 1st Canadian Corps was brought from Italy in preparation for liberating the remainder of Holland. For the first time, all Canadian ground forces were under a single command.
With Canadians delayed, a terrible situation developed in Holland. Food couldn’t reach parts of the country; people were eating tulip bulbs and sugar beets. An estimated 22,000 Dutch starved to death before a truce allowed Allied supplies to be brought into occupied Holland.
Attempting to support the Allies, Dutch Resistance organized a railway strike in September 1944 to reduce German movements. Unfortunately, it also affected food delivery to civilians. The strike caused German officials to ban the shipment of food.
The ban was lifted in November. But early and harsh winter conditions froze canals, making them impassable for barges. Shortages became clear in January 1945; food and fuel had run out. The Red Cross brought in some food, as did the Germans who were also short supplied. Germany eventually proposed that if the Allies would stop their offensive, they would allow Allied supplies into Holland. After talks with the Canadian Corps and Army, a temporary truce was declared April 30.
Food was delivered by air and ground. “Operation Manna” was air delivery conducted by the Royal Air Force. The crew of the first flight on April 29, included 5 Canadians. They successfully dropped their cargo of food rations and chocolate and returned to the airfield. “Operation Faust” was the ground delivery of food by the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Beginning May 2, 360 vehicles delivered 1,000 tons of supplies daily, saving 4.5 million Dutch suffering from starvation.
The Germans overreached themselves in January 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge. By using too many resources, Germany left very little to resist in Holland. The Canadians attacked twice to push Germany back.
On March 30, the first attack crossed the Rhine River and Dutch border. There was little resistance as the Canadian Armoured Division advanced, capturing Almelo’s communication centre. From there, they continued into Germany, leaving two Divisions in Holland. They advanced rapidly, reaching the North Sea in two weeks.
The second attack was towards Arnhem. The 3rd Canadian Division launched a diversion behind the Germans on April 11 that crossed the Ijssel River. By April 13, Arnhem fell and the breakout towards Western Holland began.
The 1st Canadian Division advanced on Apeldoorn (a communications centre) while the 5th Canadian Armoured Division cut off the German garrison. German resistance west of Apeldoorn was stronger. But negotiations to get food into western Holland stopped operations on April 22.
Half of Holland was liberated militarily with extraordinary Canadian accomplishments. In 16 days, the 2nd Canadian Division advanced 180 km and built 1,140 feet of bridges over canals. Additionally, the 3rd Canadian Division advanced 185 km in 26 days, building 36 bridges.
(pictured above) Sapper Leonard Miller, 1918-45. Born on his family farm in the Cottonwood District west of Innisfail on June 27, 1918. On March 16, 1945, Sapper Miller and three of his comrades were defusing enemy mines. At 1615, three mines exploded, killing all four soldiers.
Canadians liberated Eastern Holland militarily, but the remainder peacefully. Negotiations for food deliveries to starving Dutch and the following truce paved the way to German surrender. Hitler’s death on April 30, 1945 increased this possibility. Finally, the Italian surrender on May 2 led German authorities in Holland to negotiations for surrender.
Conflict in Holland ended May 5 at 8:00 am. General Foulkes, 1st Canadian Corps Commanding Officer, accepted the surrender of German forces in Holland from General Blaskowitz. Starting May 7, Canadians began officially liberating the remainder of Holland. Everywhere, they found excited crowds, Dutch flags, and orange streamers (Holland’s national colour).
Celebrations peaked on May 21 with a victory parade in The Hague. It included marching Canadian soldiers, airplanes flying overhead, and celebratory artillery fire. The Dutch people also began dealing with those who aided Germany. The heads of women in relationships with Germans were shaved. For others it meant prison or execution.
Several months of occupation duty followed liberation. The war continued in the Pacific and transport home needed to be arranged. During occupation, relationships formed and many Dutch women came to Canada as war brides. The war was over, but a special bond was formed between Canada and Holland.