On June 6, 1944, Canada and its allies launched the largest amphibious attack in the history of the world. The invasion took place along France’s Normandy coast, at beaches code-named Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword, and Juno.
As approximately 156,000 Allied soldiers, including more than 21,000 Canadians, stormed the Nazi defences, Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King addressed the country by radio: “Let the hearts of all in Canada today be filled with silent prayer for the success of our own and Allied forces and for the early liberation of the people of Europe.”
The fight for Normandy was the beginning of the end of the Second World War. After Juno Beach, Canadians helped to drive the Germans from northern France and then headed to the Netherlands, which Germany had occupied since May 1940.
The Dutch campaign of 1944–45 was fought in terrible conditions. Vast swaths of the country were strategically flooded by the Germans, and later by the Allies, forcing the Canadians to fight in waist-deep water against a well-entrenched and fanatical enemy.
With the war finally threatening Germany itself, the Wehrmacht troops were desperate to defend their fatherland. All the while, many Dutch citizens were starving during a hongerwinter (hunger winter) that saw families forced to eat tulip bulbs to survive.
Last fall, Canada’s History travelled to the Netherlands to take part in seventy-fifth-anniversary commemorations, which will continue throughout the spring of 2020. Across the Netherlands, the Canadian Maple Leaf will fly proudly — a testament to the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers seventy-five years ago and a symbol of the enduring legacy of gratitude and friendship that unites the Netherlands and Canada.
In the late 1970s, Ben Dunkelman of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada described what it was like to fight in the flooded fields of the country’s Scheldt region.
“I must say that I remember the Scheldt estuary as a hell on earth for the soldier,” Dunkelman wrote in his autobiography, Dual Allegiance. “To this day, I don’t know how I got through.”
It’s late October 2019, and I’m in Nieuwdorp, Netherlands, courtesy of Liberation Route Europe, an organization that promotes travel as a way of educating people about the Second World War. Our group is greeted by our guide, Gert-Jan Jacobs, who explains how Canada and its allies liberated this country in stages between October 1944 and May 1945.
The first attempt to free the Netherlands, also commonly known as Holland, actually took place in September 1944.
On September 17, the Americans and the British launched Operation Market Garden, which saw thousands of paratroopers dropped behind enemy lines near the cities of Arnhem, Nijmegen, and Eindhoven.
Their mission was to secure a series of bridges and canals leading to the Rhine River, creating a land corridor the Allies could use to invade Germany. If successful, Operation Market Garden might have ended the war by Christmas. Its failure — immortalized in the 1977 movie A Bridge Too Far— resulted in the launch of the Canadian-led Scheldt campaign of October–November 1944.
The goal was to free the estuary leading to Antwerp, Belgium, which had been captured by the Allies in early September 1944, so that the port could be used to transport supplies to the front lines.
The plan called for the Canadians and their allies to drive the enemy from the north of the port, secure a route to the South Beveland peninsula, clean out the “Breskens pocket” north of the Leopold Canal, retake South Beveland, and, finally, liberate Walcheren Island.
Driving through the Scheldt region, I’m struck by the patchwork of flat fields and raised dikes. This is polder country, where the land is anywhere from a few dozen centimetres to a couple of metres below sea level. (A polder is low-lying land, protected by dikes, that has been reclaimed from marshes or bodies of water.)
We arrive at the former island of Walcheren, which today is surrounded by farmland (the sea water was drained decades ago). Gert-Jan, our guide, asks a guest historian, Wouter Hagemeijer of the Netherlands Institute of Military History, to recount the story of the Battle of Walcheren Causeway, which took place here late in October 1944.
Hagemeijer explains how tactical flooding was used by both sides in the war. As the Allies entered the Scheldt, the Germans blew up dikes to slow the troops’ advance. Each high tide sent sea water pouring into the breaches, forcing the Dutch to flee their homes.
In many flooded areas, the water was too shallow for boats but too deep for tanks or artillery to operate. The Canadians were forced either to wade through the icy brine or to attack along the tops of dikes against the entrenched German forces.
“It is fighting you don’t want to do,” Hagemeijer said. “It was quite ferocious.”
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Early in October 1944, George Teasdale of the Calgary Highlanders stormed a German emplacement in South Beveland.
Decades later, he described the battle: “A German on top of a dike opened up on us and some guys were just cut in two. Some guys who were injured had fallen in the ditches and there was a lot of screaming. Well, we didn’t have time to stop. We had to get on top of this dike and flush this guy out.”
At Walcheren, the Allies turned the tables, breaching dikes and flooding the island, trapping the Germans on a few pockets of high ground. Between October 31 and November 2, the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade, plus elements of the British 52nd Lowland Infantry Division, repeatedly assaulted the German positions, fighting along a forty-metre-wide, one-kilometre-long causeway that connected the island to the mainland.
The victory at Walcheren brought the Scheldt campaign to an end, but at a high cost; over five weeks of fighting in the Scheldt, the First Canadian Army (which included both Canadian and Allied troops) suffered 12,873 casualties.
Years later, memories of the Scheldt remained seared in the minds of the Canadians who fought there. “After we finished the fighting on the Scheldt,” Lance Corporal Bill Davis of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) recalled in 2015, “I swore I’d never go back.”
When the Second World War erupted in September 1939, the Dutch hoped to remain neutral, as they had during the First World War. Unfortunately, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler needed Holland’s North Sea ports to complete his Atlantic Wall of coastal defences that ultimately stretched from Spain to Norway.
On May 10, 1940, the Germans entered Holland. Armed with First World War-era weapons and provided with little modern training, the Dutch were able to resist for only a few days.
At first, occupation life settled into an uneasy yet manageable rhythm, Hagemeijer said, in part because the Germans considered the Dutch to be a brother Aryan race. “They considered us as almost Germans and tried to win us over.”
Holland’s Jews were not so fortunate. Once the Nazis had subdued the general population, they quickly began to foment hatred of Dutch Jews. At the time, the country was home to around 140,000 Jews, including some who had fled Germany during Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. Over a period of months Jews were segregated, ostracized, persecuted, and made to wear the Star of David.
Many Dutch were angry at the turn of events, and in February 1941 they launched a mass protest strike in Amsterdam in solidarity with the Jewish population. The labour uprising was harshly punished. The Germans quickly enacted Arbeitseinsatz— the forced labour of Dutch men for the German war effort — and a few months later they banned all political parties except for the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging(NSB), or National Socialist Movement, a Dutch fascist party that at the time had only a fringe following.
Suddenly, Holland’s most extreme right-wing citizens were in power, eager to work with the Nazis to hunt down both Jews and members of the Dutch resistance.
In the 1970s, Rachel Stern, née Veffer, of Toronto recalled her experiences as a Jewish child living in Amsterdam during the occupation. She spoke of the day a rabbi appeared at her family’s home to inform her parents of new restrictions that were being imposed on Jews.
“But the worst was yet to come,” she said. “Out of an envelope he pulled several Stars of David made out of a yellow material, and he instructed us to sew them on every piece of clothing so they would be clearly visible when we went out. We were now branded people, and when the Germans decided to round us up, it was to be easy for them to pick us out.”
Many Dutch sympathized with the Jews, and some sheltered them from the Nazis — but the role collaborators played in helping to fulfill Hitler’s “final solution” remains a national wound. During the war, more than three quarters of Holland’s Jewish population was murdered — the highest death rate of all the occupied western European nations.
Today, Dutch museums are challenging visitors to confront this tragic legacy. At the Vrijheidsmuseum in Groesbeek, we watch a short film that explores the moral quandaries Dutch citizens faced during the occupation.
During the video, a young blond man speaks directly to viewers about his excitement at finally being accepted into the local police force. The scene changes, and the man, now visibly worried, says he’s been ordered to hunt down and arrest Jews and will be fired if he doesn’t comply.
A similar scenario plays out at the Dilemma Maze, a commemoration installation located between the Canadian and British cemeteries at Bergen op Zoom. The maze consists of a series of connected crosses. As you enter, you’re presented with a hypothetical scenario — you’ve been asked to shelter Jewish neighbours fleeing from the fascist authorities.
At each stage of the maze, you are asked Wat zou jij nu doen? (What would you do?) Your choices help you navigate through the maze — but they also decide the fate of the frightened fugitives.
Inspired by real-life events, the Dilemma Maze is a confrontational, emotionally jarring experience that reminds you there are no easy answers in wartime.
What if the fugitives were your neighbours? Or your friends?
Wat zou jij nu doen?
In August 1942, Leendert Hoogenboom, a member of the resistance cell Groep Van Deest, was dragged from his home in Middelburg and taken to a Nazi-run prison, known as the Oranjehotel, in Scheveningen, a district in The Hague, Holland.
On this evening, we’re sitting with Leendert’s grandson, Marcel Hoogenboom, at the historic Hotel Erica in Berg en Dal, in eastern Holland. Marcel is the hotel’s manager, and he explains how his grandfather was betrayed by a neighbour, a devoted member of the fascist NSB.
Shuttled among several concentration camps in Holland, and, later, Germany, Leendert ended up at Dachau, a concentration camp for political prisoners. Inmates there were routinely beaten and flogged and forced into slave labour for the Nazi war machine. Malnutrition and illness were rampant.
In April 1945, as the end of the war loomed, Leendert was freed and attempted to walk back to Holland. Sick from his mistreatment in captivity, he died in a hospital in Speyer, Germany, three hundred kilometres from the Dutch border.
Marcel switches his story to a tale of his grandmother, Leendert’s wife. One day, decades later, she was eating in a restaurant when she saw a statuesque white-haired man enter with his family. It was the informant who had sent her husband to his eventual death.
“My grandmother freezes in her chair,” Marcel says, recounting the story. “She gives my aunt an elbow, and she says, very coldly, ‘This is the person who lived next door to me in the war.’”
Marcel’s grandmother double-checked the restaurant’s register. It was the right man, but the wrong name. “He changed his name,” Marcel explains. “He took another identity, remarried, had children and grandchildren, a whole new life.”
Unbowed, the diminutive nonagenarian marched up to her former neighbour, tapped him on the shoulder, and said: “You may write down that [fake] name on that list, but I know who you are.” Later, the family debated whether to report the man to the police. Marcel’s grandmother replied, “I do not want anyone to know I have seen this person. I have faced him. This is my justice, my revenge.”
Justice. Revenge. In wartime, the line dividing the two is often blurry.
In Apeldoorn, I visit a famous statue, The Man With Two Hats, whose twin is found in Ottawa. The bronze sculpture depicts a Dutch man joyously waving a pair of broad-brimmed chapeaus in celebration over being liberated by Canadians.
I think back on some of the other images I have seen on my trip — historic photos of starving Dutch children, or of Nazis gleefully beating Jews in Amsterdam. I think about the grey-and-navy-striped concentration camp uniform that hangs inside the Memory Vrijheidsmuseum in Nijverdal — and about the prisoner who once wore it. Did she or he live to celebrate the liberation?
I approach a nearby middle-aged woman and ask whether it was difficult for the Dutch to forgive the Germans after the war. It was easier for young generations, she says, but older Dutch people struggled. “It was very difficult for them at first. They had a swear word for [the Germans]. They were Moffen.”
Moffen. The closest English approximation is “Kraut,” a commonly used slur for Germans during both world wars.
I Google the word Moffen, and images appear of frightened Dutch women being dragged through the streets of Holland. Some are being held by men, who gleefully shave the women’s heads. One woman is bald except for tufts of hair cut into the shape of a swastika.
Confused, I read the photo’s caption. It describes the women as Moffenmeiden— among the estimated 140,000 Dutch women who, either willingly or forcibly, engaged in sexual relations with German soldiers during the occupation and who were ostracized following the liberation.
In many cases these women, some of whom bore the children of German soldiers, were forced to flee the Netherlands to evade the stigma.
Staring at the faces of the men in these photos, I wonder, did they believe they were meting out justice — or revenge?
Wat zou jij nu doen?
In Canada, we are still grappling with our country’s historic sins. We struggle to reconcile the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, or our nation’s racist treatment of Indigenous soldiers, with our vision of Canada and its allies as “the good guys” of the war.
While seventy-five years seem like a long time, in reality, it’s barely even history yet. For veterans of the war, and for those who lived through those frightening times, the Second World War is memory. The emotions are still raw, despite the passing of time. And yet there is also forgiveness.
I ask our Dutch companions, Gert-Jan and Ruurd Kok, the latter an archaeologist and writer taking part in the media tour, about the current state of relations between the Netherlands and Germany. The two countries have grown close over the decades, Ruurd explains. Both countries are members of the European Union, and German tourists help to keep the Dutch economy humming.
Ruurd says a few words to Gert-Jan in Dutch and then switches to English. With a wry smile, he says, “Bring us back our bikes!”
Gert-Jan smiles and chimes in, “We want our grandfathers’ bicycles back!”
Ruurd explains the joke: It relates to Dolle Dinsdag (Mad Tuesday), a pivotal moment of the occupation. On September 5, 1944, Dutch radio reported that the Allies had liberated Belgium and were marching on Holland.
As thousands of citizens celebrated in the streets, frantic Germans and NSB collaborators rushed to flee the country. They piled into cars and trucks, commandeered horse-pulled wagons, and even stole countless bicycles in their dash to safety. Sadly, Mad Tuesday was an illusion. The Allies’ advance was halted in Belgium, and the Germans soon returned, bent on punishing those who had cheered their flight.
Today, the memory of Dolle Dinsdaglives on during international soccer matches between Holland and Germany, where Dutch fans wearing their blazing Oranjejerseys can be heard taunting their German foes, geef ons onze fietsen terug! (give us back our bicycles!). The Dutch have forgiven the Germans — but they will never forget.
After the victory at the Scheldt, the Allies gathered their strength for a final push into Germany. As the winter of 1944 set in, the northern portion of Holland remained under German control. Throughout the occupied provinces, Dutch families suffered from a devastating famine that arose after supplies entering the region slowed to a trickle. As many as twenty-two thousand Dutch people died during the hunger winter.
Maria Haayen was a teenager at the time, and, thirty years later, after immigrating to Canada, she recalled the hardships of that terrible winter.
“Every day was a fight for life,” she said. “When you are hungry, all you ever do is dream about food. That was the most important thing in our conversations — dreaming about the time after the war when we could have cake, and eggnog, and chocolate, and rice with butter and sugar.”
Ruurd, the Dutch archaeologist, is too young to have experienced the hunger winter, but he said his parents ate tulip bulbs to survive: “That’s why I was told never to throw away my food.”
The famine finally eased after the Allies liberated the northern half of the country in the spring of 1945. Some of the heaviest fighting took place near the German border at Groesbeek, where we meet guide Maarten Dekkers of the Vrijheidsmuseum.
The region of rolling hills and dense forests to our southeast was the scene of the Battle of the Rhineland. Between February and March of 1945, the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division fought their way south from Nijmegen to clear the territory between the Maas and the Rhine rivers.
During the campaign, the Germans put up a fierce defence — the Allies suffered nearly 23,000 casualties, including 5,300 Canadians killed or wounded.
“We called down target after target of artillery fire, trying to knock out the tanks and enemy paratroopers,” Lieutenant Colonel Denis Whitaker of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry recalled years later. “We sent our men to attack the counter-attackers, until I had no more men to send. One by one my top officers were wounded or killed.”
With Canadian, American, and British-led forces closing in from the west, and the Russians assaulting Berlin in eastern Germany, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. On May 8, the Allies accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender.
As my trip to the Netherlands draws to a close, I’m struck by how current the war is here, compared to the experience in Canada. Everyone here has a story; everyone was affected.
I meet Jan Schoofs at his farm outside Groesbeek. When he was seven, he awoke to the sound of an airplane engine crashing through the roof of his family’s barn. Seconds later, the fuselage of a Halifax bomber smashed into a nearby field, killing its Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force crew.
The airplane had been shot down while on a bombing raid over Essen, Germany. To this day, Schoofs maintains a shrine to the fallen airmen in his living room.
In Bergen op Zoom, I walk along the Canadalaan, or Canada Lane — the first street in the city to be liberated on October 27, 1944. Every house, on both sides of the street, is flying a Canadian flag.
At the nearby Canadian War Cemetery, I watch Princess Margriet of the Netherlands lay a wreath on behalf of the Dutch royal family. Her family was sheltered by Canada during the war, and she was born in an Ottawa hospital. In the spring, evidence of Holland’s eternal gratitude sprouts to life in Canada’s capital in the form of the thousands of Dutch tulips donated annually to our country.
At the Canadian Memorial Sloedam at Walcheren, I see five-year-old Kiki Niewenhuijse and her grandmother lay flowers at the foot of the monument. Kiki’s mother Natasja tells me that her family attends the ceremony every year. In the Netherlands, the story of the liberation isn’t just history — it’s a sacred trust, handed from one generation to the next.
I speak to a pair of Canadians who, during a memorial ceremony at Bergen op Zoom, stood as an honour guard over the graves of Canadian soldiers. Corporal Mason Bouchard and Corporal Mika Pooley of Thunder Bay, Ontario’s Lake Superior Scottish Regiment have travelled here to honour veterans of their regiment who died liberating Holland.
Bouchard said he was amazed by the gratitude shown by the Dutch.
“We’re kind of overwhelmed,” he said. “There’s just a lot of positive energy around here. I’m surprised how much they love Canadians.”
The Dutch love Canadians. It’s something I’ve heard many times during my trip. I think back to the black-and-white photos of the liberation that I’ve seen. They depict unbridled joy, a swirling chaos of smiling faces and waving flags, of boys and girls clambering atop Canadian jeeps and tanks, and of young women hugging Canadian soldiers, some of whom would later become their boyfriends and even husbands.
Nearly two thousand Dutch women married Canadian soldiers, part of a wave of more than forty-seven thousand European war brides who immigrated to Canada following the war.
On May 8, 1945, Canadian troops liberated Amsterdam. An officer with a Canadian transport company issued a report on the chaos that ensued: “It is impossible to describe the scene…. People … were wild with joy. All the buildings had flags and banners draped on them, the people were carrying flowers, flags, streamers. People started to climb onto the vehicles.”
Captain T.J. Allen, the historical officer of the 1st Canadian Division, later wrote of the liberation, “Thousands lined the roads and blocked the way through the towns, to laugh, to shout, to weep.”
On the return flight to Canada, I think back to a conversation I had with Colonel Timothy Young, a veteran of tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan and the current Canadian Armed Forces attaché to the Netherlands. As we stood before the Canadian war memorial at Walcheren’s Sloedam causeway, I asked whether he is surprised at how vigorously the Dutch work at keeping the memory of the liberation alive.
“Freedom means something very different to Dutch youth, and to the Dutch in general, than in Canada, because our freedom has not been taken away from us,” Young said.
“One thing I say to a lot of Canadians who come to the Netherlands — to truly understand Canadian history, you have to leave Canada. It’s when you see the commemoration events in Sloedam and at Bergen op Zoom, you will see the extent that the Canadians went to, to fight for the freedom of the Netherlands. It’s hard for us to get that message back to Canada. That’s what we need to share.”
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