One More River to Cross: The Canadians in Holland

Along one of the myriad canals that crisscross the Dutch Lowlands, the enemy was fighting with a last-ditch determination and suicidal fury.

In a typical engagement a German sniper killed a member of a Canadian tank crew. The Canadians went after him, hurling grenades. Just as quickly he tossed them back until he in turn was killed.

It was April 1945 and while it was clear that the German regime was in its death throes, the German Army was determined to fight it out to the end.

After the Americans made their dramatic capture of the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine, they and the British focussed on the Rhine bridgehead. On their left flank, there still remained a German garrison of some 120,000 men in Holland, including remnants of the elite First Parachute Army. Commander Bernard Montgomery ordered the Canadians to clear them out.

On March 31st the Canadians moved out from Cleve in convoy southeast towards Calcar, then over the Rhine on a bobbing Bailey pontoon bridge near Rees. On April 3, in the dark of night, Canadian engineers threw a bridge over the locks of the Twente Canal and fought off a counterattack. The following day the Lake Superior Regiment crossed the bridge and dashed on to Delden, where they found the Lincolns recovering from a tumultuous welcome by the Dutch.

Liberation of the Netherlands by Canadian troops, 1945 (Grant, DND PA-136176).

On April 5 the Lake Superiors crossed the zigzag border into Germany then back into Holland again to the outskirts of the Dutch fortress of Coevorden. Here the Canadians encountered opposition from the fanatical Hitler Youth, many of whom threw away their lives in absurd suicidal missions. The fortress fell to the Canadians nevertheless.

Everywhere the Canadians were faced not only with hungry but jubilant Dutch citizens but also with a steady stream of bedraggled prisoners, liberated slave labourers and Dutch collaborators looking for protection from their revenge-minded countrymen.

The next objective for the Canadians was the village of Friesoythe, Germany, which guarded the approach to the Kusten Canal. Intercepted German radio transmissions revealed that the German high command considered the canal to be a critical area and the local commander was ordered not to retreat under any circumstances. As they neared the outskirts of the town, a company of the Lake Superiors came under heavy fire, suffering a number of dead and wounded. The Argylles approached by stealth of night and took the town by surprise. A number of buildings were already on fire when the Canadians, angry at the death of their commanding officer, burned what was left of the town.

To add to their worries, the Canadians came under what is now paradoxically called “friendly fire” from British Spitfires. The Canadians cursed the stupid “pigeons” who could not tell friend from foe. They demanded, and got an apology and later shared a drink with the pilots.

Back on the western flank the 3rd Canadian Division encountered savage opposition as they reached Zutphen. From here they headed north on April 15, liberating the Dutch city of Leeuwarden, while the 17th Hussars swung west to capture the causeway that linked east and west Holland at the north end of the IJsselmeer (pronounced EYE-ssel-mare, the large inland sea that defines western Holland). They reached it on the 18th, sealing off the escape of the German forces.

On April 17th the Canadian Armoured Division reached the south shore of the IJseelmeer at Harderwijk. When the Strathconas arrived, they spotted a German ship, sent out a patrol and captured it. The patrol turned over the prisoners, but “said nothing too much about the cargo” of wine and cheese.

On April 28 the German town of Oldenburg was spared the fate of Friesoythe, when the local priest negotiated surrender. It was tragic to lose lives with the end so near. On May 4 an officer and the padre of the Canadian Grenadier Guards left their lines to try to assist German wounded. Both were killed. That very day the message came to cancel all operations, with the ceasefire set for 08:00 hours the next day. Most of the men were too numb to celebrate.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Canada chose to fight in the Second World War. We were effectively at war when Britain declared it. Mackenzie King waited one symbolic day before he committed Canada. Nevertheless, most Canadians supported that war. If they had doubts, they were dispelled in Holland, where they were hailed as liberators.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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