The Liberation of the Netherlands 1944-1945The Netherlands was a neutral country in 1939, invaded on May 10th, 1940, and fully occupied by May 17th. The next five years were brutal for the Dutch people. By the winter of 1944-45, food supplies were exhausted and thousands of men, women, and children perished of starvation – it was a winter of hunger.On September 4th, the Belgian city of Antwerp, with a harbour through which supplies to the advancing Allies could be supplied, had been liberated, but the 70-kilometre long estuary of the Scheldt River, which connected Antwerp to the sea, was still under occupation. The First Canadian Army was given the task of clearing the banks of the wide, multi-channeled River. It was a punishing place to battle - challenging terrain of canals, dykes, flood lands, and determined occupiers. Canadian soldiers fought a series of fierce battles including amphibious assaults from small boats along the estuary. Aside from the use of boats, the movement of men, tanks and other equipment was often restricted to narrow roadways along the top of dykes, under frequent fire. By November 8th the estuary and its large islands had been secured. The river was then cleared of mines, and on November 28 the first convoy of Allied cargo ships entered the port of Antwerp.The First Canadian Army spent the winter patrolling its portion of the front line in the Netherlands skirmishing occasionally with the enemy. In February 1945, the Allied advance in northwest Europe resumed, with a huge offensive to drive the enemy across the Rhine River and it fell to the First Canadian Army to clear the area pushing toward the Rhine.In March, the Canadians were reinforced by various Allied units, including the 1st Canadian Corps, transferred north from the battlegrounds of Italy. It was the first time in history, two Canadian army corps were fighting together. And with an international strength now of more than 450,000 men, the First Canadians became the largest army ever commanded by a Canadian officer.As other Allied armies crossed the Rhine into Germany, the Canadians began liberating the remainder of the Netherlands, greeted as heroes in small towns and major cities. Millions of Dutch had suffered terribly during the harsh winter of 1945, and Canadian troops facilitated the arrival of food, fuel, and other aid supplies to a population in the midst of starvation.The south had been liberated by the end of 1944, but the rest of the country was not fully liberated until the first months of 1945, and not completely until German forces surrendered on May 8, 1945. In early April, the Canadians began to clear the northeast of the country, often aided by information provided by Dutch resistance fighters. Canadian troops rapidly moved across the Netherlands, recapturing canals and farmland as they progressed toward the North Sea. They also began to advance in the western Netherlands, which contained the major cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. British and Canadian forces cleared the city of Arnhem in just two days by fighting a house-by-house battle. In late April, the Canadian advance in the western Netherlands came to a temporary halt. This allowed relief supplies to reach Dutch citizens who had almost reached the end of their endurance. Across the Netherlands, every city, town and village has a story to tell of liberation. The Canadian military forces moved through Holland in April of 1945. At 9:00 am on April 12, the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders moved forward from Raalte as the Division advance guard. The troops were mounted on the tanks of the 27th Canadian Armoured Regiment (Sherbrooke Fusiliers). The task was to seize and hold a bridgehead across the Overijsselsch Kanaal. This also involved the liberation of Heino. Trooper Brenton Ringer, from Nova Scotia, was on a tank that was to pass through Heino on that April 12, 1945. His Sherman tank was hit by a German Panzerfaust, on the Zwolseweg (the way, or road to Zwolle) in Heino. Four of the five tank crew were killed. All four men were from units in the 3rd Canadian Division. They were all part of the 9th Infantry Brigade. Brigades would typically be made up of 3 Infantry Regiments supported by an Armoured Regiment. The 27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers) provided the tank support. A fifth man, Blair Cameron, survived when he managed to get himself to a nearby Dutch home, crawling and suffering from arterial bleeding. Found by Anna Jonkman-Ruitenberg, she successfully stopped the bleeding with tea towels and assisted him until he was collected by the Canadian Army. Blair Cameron was from Moser River, Nova Scotia and trained in Yarmouth, NS, and Camp Borden, Ontario before going overseas. The town of Heino has never forgotten the five men and Canadians that liberated their home. There is a Canada Tree planted on Canada Square in remembrance of the tank crew. Nearer to the site were the tank was actually destroyed stood a cross in remembrance of the men for years. In 2020, the cross was replaced with a memorial stone.On the day before the liberation of Heino the Germans, fleeing from the Canadian liberation army, arrested and deported a large group of local people. The underground in Raalte was attempting to track down German soldiers along the Hondemotswetering between Raalte and Heino. In doing so, they shot a German soldier in the leg. The injured soldier was taken away to Heino by other soldiers and retaliation followed.On Wednesday, April 11, 1945, 66 men were arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned in the local Hassink café. Apart from local Heino residents, there were also hostages and evacuees from the west in hiding. The next day, under constant threats, the group was marched to Zwolle, while in Heino, the Canadians broke the last German resistance. The hostages spent another two anxious nights In Zwolle. Released from imprisonment on Saturday, April 14, they were able return to their homes. In the village of Hoogland the story of a Canadian uniform button is remembered:Young Maaten was ten or eleven years of age in 1976 or 1977. His mother was making clothes on the sewing machine and he was looking through a button box. There he saw a shiny button with CANADA and a leaf. Mama, he asked, where did this button come from? I don’t know, she replied, you should ask your dad. That evening his father told him the following story: We lived in the Parish house where my father, your granddad, was the keeper. In the spring of 1945, I was eleven years old. We were forced to hide in the cellar because outside there was fighting between the Canadian liberators and the occupiers. The Canadians brought their wounded to the kitchen of our house to care for them and your grandfather left the cellar to help them. That night two Canadians died in that kitchen. This button belonged to a Canadian uniform jacket. I found it in our house after the war. This story was first shared in 2017 on May 4th, Remembrance Day in the Netherlands by Maarten during a Remembrance Service. One of the soldiers, Edmond Levesque, that died on that night of April 22, 1945 had a connection to Yarmouth County. The south had been liberated by the end of 1944, but the rest of the country was not fully liberated until the first months of 1945, and not completely until German forces surrendered on May 8, 1945. Canadian airmen, sailors and soldiers played a major role in the liberation of Holland and, to this day, the Dutch people gratefully remember their sacrifices. Canadians are fondly remembered by the Dutch as both liberators and saviours who rescued millions from sickness and starvation in 1945. Deep and long-lasting bonds of friendship were forged between the two countries. A grateful nation – the Netherlands remembers. The fighting was often bitter but ultimately the Canadians were able to liberate the Netherlands and help bring the Second World War to an end in Europe. This victory, however, came at a terrible cost. More than 7,600 Canadian soldiers, sailors, and airmen died.
Private H.A. Woodruff of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders distributing candy to Dutch civilians in Bathmen, Netherlands April 9, 1945
Sources:Veterans Affairs: The Liberation of the NetherlandsMr. Maarten Boersen, Hoogland, NetherlandsMr. Flip Jonkman, Heino, Netherlands Liberation Route (listen to the audio of the events in Heino on April 11, 1945)
Residents welcome Canadian soldiers after the liberation of the town of Zwolle on 14 April 1945.