The Liberation of The Netherlands

The Liberation of the Netherlands was completed on May 5, 1945 by the First Canadian Army.

Following the initial Allied landings on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and the breakout from the bridgehead which saw the Canadians engaged in bitter fighting at Caen and Falaise, the First Canadian Army was assigned the task of clearing the coastal areas and opening the channel ports for vital supplies. The First Canadian Army was international in character. In addition to three Canadian divisions it had a Polish Division, a British Corps, and at various times American, Belgian and Dutch troops.

Under the command of General H.D.G. Crerar, the Canadians, on the left flank of the Allied forces, pushed rapidly eastward through France towards Belgium. September began with the 2nd Canadian Division being welcomed to Dieppe. Boulogne, Calais, and Cap Gris Nez followed, and by the end of September the Channel coast, with the exception of Dunkirk had been cleared and Southern England freed of the harassing fire of rockets and shells which had been launched from these sites. Farther north, the 2nd British Army seized the port of Antwerp with its installations virtually intact.

2nd Canadian Infantry Division

Meanwhile, the British and American troops had pushed forward on a broad front and were engaged in a major struggle in southern Holland. In September, in a bold effort to cut through Holland, the 2nd British Army mounted an airborne attack to secure river crossings at Grave, Nijmegen and Arnhem. If successful this operation would have given the Allies control between the Rhine and Ijsselmeer (Zuiderzee), and would have severed the connection between Holland and Germany. As it fell just short of success, it became apparent that the war would continue through the winter and into the spring of 1945.

After the Battle of the Scheldt the First Canadian Army prepared to winter. For three months, between November 8th, 1944, and February 8th, 1945, Canadians were not involved in any large-scale operation. Rest was more than welcome. The 3rd Infantry Division and the 2nd Armoured Brigade had been fighting since early June, other units since July.

        

3rd Canadian Infantry Division   -   2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade

Those five months of action had a major impact on all First Army battalions. Men were killed in action or evacuated after being wounded; others suffering from battle exhaustion collapsed under the constant stress of ever-present death, facing mortars, shells and bullets every day. Others were made prisoners by the enemy, to be interrogated then transferred to a stalag in German territory.

The Battle of the Rhineland, February 8th - March 11th, 1945

For Operation Veritable, the First Canadian Army had to leave the Nijmegen area and move towards the southeast to take over the Rhineland, a narrow strip of land between the Maas and Rhine rivers. The Dutch-German border followed the Maas in that sector. For the first time, fighting was to take place on German soil and a fierce opposition was expected. Three defence lines protected the area: the first one was a series of outposts, then the Siegfried Line that ran through the Reichswald Forest, and finally the series of fortifications through the Hochwald Forest. To slow down the Allies' progress, the Germans destroyed dykes and flooded the area. February's milder weather and thaw softened the muddy ground, hindering the advance of armoured vehicles and artillery.

Under command of General Crerar and the First Canadian Army were the divisions of II Canadian Corps, as well as nine British divisions, some Belgian, Dutch, Polish and US units. It was the largest military force under Canadian command ever. During this month of fighting, the First Canadian Army lost 15,634 killed, wounded or missing, including 5,304 Canadians, but they had gained the banks of the Rhine which marked the last major line of German defense.

2nd Canadian Corps

Crossing the Rhine, March 23rd, 1945

On the evening of March 23rd, Marshal Montgomery gave the signal to operation Plunder, the crossing of the Rhine near Wesel and Rees. A set-piece attack, with prior aerial and artillery bombings. In flat-bottom landing crafts and amphibious vehicles, four British and US divisions, together with a commando brigade crossed the 500 metres to the river's opposite bank. The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade took part in the operation, crossing the river north of Rees and later capturing Millingen.

The British and Canadian troops which fought in the Rhineland suffered tremendous losses from the German artillery. This is why Montgomery decided that it should be silenced by a large-scale airborne operation, codenamed Varsity. While the infantry was crossing the Rhine, 1,589 aircraft flew over the area in successive waves. In full daylight and despite intense counter-attacks, the parachute battalions were dropped behind the German lines and got to work as soon as they touched the ground. Some 1,337 gliders then landed in the drop zone with vehicles and equipment for the airborne troops. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was involved in that operation and landed in a wooded area along the Wesel-Emmerich road. It was immediately met with heavy machine-gun and sniper fire; this did not halt the Canadian paratroopers who reached and cleaned up their targets.

At the end of the afternoon, land and airborne troops made their junction and solidified the bridgehead on the Rhine's east bank. The Battle was over and the Allies had succeeded in crossing one of the last natural defences of the German Reich. A speedy end to the war now became a definite possibility.

As March drew to an end, Canadian units moved northwards to take Emmerich on the right bank, while General Crerar transferred the First Army's HQ to that same side of the Rhine. On April 1st, 1945, I Canadian Corps under Major-General Charles Foulkes was placed under the First Canadian Army in replacement of I British Corps of Major-General Crocker, which had been under Crerar's orders since the campaign of Normandy and was now passed under the Second British Army.

1st Canadian Corps

The way was now clear for the final phase of the campaign in Northwest Europe. On March 23 Field Marshal Montgomery's Allied forces began the assault across the Rhine. Although the First Canadian Army, as such, took no part in the crossings, the troops of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade, under British command, participated in the crossing of the Rhine at Rees, and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, still with the 6th Airborne Division, dropped successfully east of the river near Wesel. In this operation a Canadian medical orderly, F.G. Topham, won the Victoria Cross, in responding heroically to the needs of a wounded man. Several days later the 3rd Division crossed the Rhine and fought its way to Emmerich.

Northeastern part of The Netherlands

With the Rhine behind them, it was now possible for the Allied forces to exploit their great advantage in numbers and to press forward into Germany. On the eastern front the Russians were approaching Vienna and were ready to advance over the Oder River against Berlin.

1st Canadian Armoured Brigade

The Canadian Army's role in these final days of the war was to open up the supply route to the north through Arnhem, and then to clear the northeastern Netherlands, the coastal belt of Germany eastward to the Elbe River, and western Holland.

This time the First Canadian Army was far more completely Canadian than ever before as the 1st Canadian Corps which had fought so long in Italy transferred to Northwest Europe. Two Canadian Army Corps would fight side by side for the first time in history. The 2nd Canadian Corps would clear the Northeastern Netherlands and the German coast, while the 1st Canadian Corps would deal with the Germans remaining in the Western Netherlands north of the Maas.

The 2nd Canadian Corps' northern drive rapidly gained momentum and as the troops crossed into the Netherlands they were greeted by the enthusiastic demonstrations of the liberated Dutch people.

On the right, Major General Vokes' 4th Canadian Armoured Division crossed the Twente Canal and pushed forward to capture Almelo on April 5, before curving eastward to re-enter Germany. In the centre, the 2nd Division crossed the Schipbeck Canal and advanced in a virtually straight line to Groningen in northern Holland which they reached on April 16. The 3rd Division, on the Corps' left flank, was charged with clearing the area adjoining the Ijssel and after several days of stiff fighting occupied the historic Zutphen on April 6. Then, pushing forward they captured Deventer, Zwolle and Leeuwarden and reached the sea on April 18.

The operations of the 2nd Corps were then extended from eastern Holland into western Germany. The 4th Division crossed the Ems River at Meppen and combined with the 1st Polish Armoured Division in thrusts on Emden, Wilhelmshaven and Oldenburg. the 3rd Division also moved on Emden; while the 2nd Division advanced from Groningen to the area of Oldenburg.

4th Canadian Armoured Division

Finally The western part of The Netherlands

In the Western Netherlands the 1st Canadian Corps, comprising the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, and the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, under the command of Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes, was responsible for the liberation of the area north of the Maas River. In this region with its large cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, the people had almost reached the end of their endurance from the misery and starvation which had accompanied the "Hunger Winter". Food supplies in the cities were exhausted, fuel had run out almost entirely, and transport was virtually non-existent. Thousands of men, women and children had perished.

1st Canadian Infantry Division

The assault on Arnhem began on April 12, and after much house-to-house fighting the town was cleared two days later. The 5th Division then dashed northwards to the Ijsselmeer some thirty miles away to cut off the enemy defending against the 1st Division about Apeldoorn. Apeldoorn was occupied on April 17.

By April 28, the Germans in the Western  part of The Netherlands had been driven back to a line running roughly between Wageningen through Amersfoort to the sea, Known as the Grebbe Line. On that day a truce was arranged, fighting ceased in West Holland, and several days later food supplies began to move through for the starving people. No part of Western Europe was liberated at a more vital moment than the west of the Netherlands, and the Canadian soldiers who contributed so immensely to that liberation were cheered and greeted with great joy.

On April 25, the American and Russian troops met on the Elbe. A few days later in Berlin, encircled by the Russians, Hitler committed suicide. The war ended a week later. On May 5, in the village of Wageningen, General Foulkes, accepted the surrender of the German troops in Holland. General Simonds of the 2nd Corps, in Bad Zwischenahn, did the same on his front. The formal German surrender was signed on May 7 at Reims in France.

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