Liberation!
Canada and the Netherlands
1944–1945
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Canadians played an important role in the liberation of the German-occupied Netherlands during the Second World War, forging lasting bonds between the two nations.

Canadians landed in France on D-Day — 6 June 1944 — fighting through the summer in the Normandy campaign. Afterwards, they advanced northeast through France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

In October and November 1944, Canadian and Allied forces defeated the Germans blocking the Scheldt Estuary. This allowed the liberation of southern parts of the Netherlands and gave Allied ships access to the vital port of Antwerp, Belgium. After pushing into Germany in early 1945, Canadian and Allied forces liberated large parts of the Netherlands in April and May.

Heavy Fighting

In 1944 and 1945, Canadians faced the challenge of liberating villages, towns and farms in the heavily populated Netherlands.

Personnel of C Company, North Shore Regiment crossing a demolished bridge in Zutphen, the Netherlands, 7 April 1945.

Donald I. Grant/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-130059

1944
The Scheldt

The First Canadian Army, which included Canadian, British and Polish units, fought to clear the Scheldt Estuary.

The Battle of the Scheldt

British and Belgian forces liberated the port of Antwerp, Belgium on 4 September 1944. The Germans reinforced defences north of the city and in the Scheldt Estuary to the west of Antwerp, blocking access to the port. The First Canadian Army had to clear the Germans out.

Canadian Scottish Regiment Universal Carriers navigating mud and water in the Breskens Pocket, 28 October 1944.

Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-131252

Victory in the Scheldt

During brutal fighting in the Scheldt Estuary, the Allies used bombers to destroy dikes and flood the heavily fortified island of Walcheren.

By 8 November 1944, they had defeated the last German defenders. In five weeks of fighting, the First Canadian Army suffered nearly 13,000 dead, wounded or missing, including 6,367 Canadians.

Aerial photograph taken after the bombing of Westkapelle, on Walcheren Island, the Netherlands, 3 October 1944.

George Metcalf Archival Collection
Canadian War Museum 19890223-684

Miller Brittain

The 29 October 1944 bombing of German defences on Walcheren Island took place shortly before British amphibious landings there. For Canadian bomb aimer Miller Brittain, that raid was part of an intensive schedule of operations. “We have been busy since coming off leave …,” he wrote, “This past week we were to Cologne twice, Dusseldorf and Bochum…. We were also to Holland but that hardly seems worth mentioning after the others.”

Brittain later became an official war artist. His works are part of the Museum’s collection.

Personnel of C Company, North Shore Regiment crossing a demolished bridge in Zutphen, the Netherlands, 7 April 1945.

Donald I. Grant/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-130059

Miller Brittain (second from right) with his crew in front of their Halifax bomber, 1944.

George Metcalf Archival Collection
Canadian War Museum 19770102-008

Miller Brittain (second from right) with his crew in front of their Halifax bomber, 1944.

George Metcalf Archival Collection
Canadian War Museum 19770102-008

Letter from Miller Brittain to his parents, 5 November 1944

George Metcalf Archival Collection
Canadian War Museum 19770102-006

Liberation, 1944

The first areas of the Netherlands were liberated in the fall and winter of 1944 as a result of the Battle of the Scheldt and other Allied operations. That Christmas, after four years of German occupation, parts of the country celebrated their freedom.

A Dutch boy holds a sign reading “Christmas 1944 somewhere in Holland. Allied Friends GOD BLESS YOU” at a Christmas dinner for Canadian soldiers in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, 1944.

George Metcalf Archival Collection
Canadian War Museum 20060165-003

1945
Liberation

In April 1945, the First Canadian Army swept north, liberating more of the Netherlands from nearly five years of German occupation, and providing food and medical aid to the starving population.

Westerbork Transit Camp

In April 1945, Canadians liberated the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands. From there, some 100,000 Jewish people, as well as several hundred Sinti and Roma, had been sent to German concentration and death camps across Europe as part of the Holocaust.

A Canadian Universal Carrier helping liberate Westerbork transit camp, 12 April 1945.

NIOD, Beeldnummer 66445

Anne and Margot Frank

As the German persecution of Jewish people in the Netherlands intensified in 1942, Dutch teenagers Anne and Margot Frank, along with their family and others, went into hiding. They were captured in August 1944 and held in Westerbork. Anne and Margot were ultimately sent to Bergen-Belsen, where they died of typhus in early 1945.

Today, their ordeal is known worldwide thanks to the publication of Anne’s diary, which has become a famous testimony of the Holocaust.

Anne Frank at age 13, in May 1942

Photo Collection Anne Frank Stichting (Amsterdam)

Margot Frank at age 15, in December 1941

Photo Collection Anne Frank Stichting (Amsterdam)

The “Hunger Winter”

In retaliation for a railway strike that harmed the German war effort, Germany stopped food shipments to the western Netherlands, creating the “Hunger Winter” of 1944-1945. By spring 1945, millions of Dutch civilians faced starvation. The Allies arranged emergency food deliveries, even before the fighting ended.

Dutch civilians in Wageningen load a truck provided by Canada with emergency food supplies for distribution to the Dutch population, 3 May 1945.

Alexander M. Stirton/Canada. Dept. of National
Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-134417

Operations Manna and Chowhound

This Dutch ceramic plaque commemorates Operations Manna and Chowhound, during which British and American bombers dropped food into and around occupied Dutch cities. The Royal Canadian Air Force’s 405 Squadron helped mark drop zones for British bombers, many of which had Canadian crew members.

Ceramic Tile

Canadian War Museum 20150366-007

James McGinnis

James McGinnis joined the Canadian Army in 1942. He served as a truck driver from the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 through to the end of the war in Europe.

In early May 1945, he was among those who delivered food to the starving civilians in German-occupied regions who had suffered through the “Hunger Winter” of 1944–1945. The gratitude of the Dutch population made a lasting impression on McGinnis.

James McGinnis in uniform

Courtesy of the McGinnis family

The “Sweetest Spring”

Throughout April and May 1945, Canadian and other Allied forces were enthusiastically welcomed by the Dutch people, freed from almost five years of German occupation. Joyous crowds thronged the streets and mobbed liberating forces in what came to be known as the “sweetest spring.”

Civilians surrounding a Sherman tank of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division during the liberation of Hilversum, the Netherlands, 7 May 1945.

George Metcalf Archival Collection
Canadian War Museum 19920085-1384

German Forces Surrender

On 5 May 1945, Canadian general Charles Foulkes accepted the surrender of the German forces in the Netherlands at Wageningen. That morning, the First Canadian Army was ordered to cease offensive operations.

Canadian general Charles Foulkes (left) and German general Johannes Blaskowitz (right) signing the German surrender at Wageningen, the Netherlands, 5 May 1945.

George Metcalf Archival Collection
Canadian War Museum 19801063-044_18c

A Peaceful Summer

The next few months were called the “Canadian Summer” because of the significant Canadian military presence in the Netherlands at the end of the war in Europe. It was a time marked by the joyful arrival of peace.

The Canadian Women’s Army Corps Pipe Band parades in Bolsward, the Netherlands, summer 1945.

George Metcalf Archival Collection
Canadian War Museum 20110057-021_21a

Farley Mowat

Among the Canadians in the Netherlands was Farley Mowat. He led a team that collected German equipment and weapons for technical evaluation and as trophies.

Several of those pieces are now part of the Canadian War Museum’s collection, including a tank destroyer on display in LeBreton Gallery. Mowat’s report notes that it “was captured by 4 Cdn Armd Div [Canadian Armoured Division] near Wilhelmshaven”.

Mowat later became a famous author, and some of his books are based on his wartime experiences in Italy and the Netherlands.

Lieutenant Farley Mowat (left) enjoying an accordion performance in Motta, Italy, 3 October 1943.

Lieut. Jack H. Smith/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-190825

Farley Mowat’s report, “Historical Collection of German Equipment"

Library and Archives Canada, RG 24, Vol. 20455

War Brides

Many Dutch civilians and Allied military personnel met and married in the Netherlands during and after the war. Nearly 2,000 Dutch war brides and more than 400 children came to Canada.

The wedding of an unknown Canadian officer and an unknown Dutch woman in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in 1945 or 1946.

George Metcalf Archival Collection
Canadian War Museum 20050048-050_2

Petronella “Nell” Greefkes and Cecil Ringguth

Growing up under German occupation was difficult for Nell Greefkes. Her father went into hiding, fearing capture or deportation for forced labour in Germany. Nell helped her mother support the family however she could. “The things I had to do to keep my family alive …” she mused in a 1999 interview.

In the summer of 1945, Nell met, fell in love with and married Canadian soldier Cecil Ringguth. She came to Canada with him, and they had six children.

Nell Greefkes and Cecil Ringguth’s engagement photo, 1945.

Courtesy of the Ringguth family

Repatriation and Homecoming

At war’s end, Canadians returned home from overseas and postings across Canada. Some had been away for years. The repatriation and demobilization of Canada’s armed forces, involving nearly 7 per cent of its population, was perhaps the largest movement of people in Canadian history.

Relatives wait in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for the arrival of Canadian soldiers aboard the troopship SS Île de France, June 1945.

Lieut. Richard Graham Arless/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-192969

Harry Brott

Not every Canadian made it back. More than 7,600 Canadian service personnel died in the liberation of the Netherlands. Among them was Harry Brott, killed by a German artillery shell in Apeldoorn on 15 April 1945. The same bombardment also destroyed Dutch civilian Nelly Van Den Berg’s house.

After the war, Van Den Berg wrote to Harry’s widow, Ruth Brott, to tell her about his death. The two remained in touch for decades afterwards.

Harry Clarke Brott in uniform

Courtesy of Catherine Quick

Ruth Brott (left) during a visit to Nelly Van Den Berg (right) in the Netherlands, 1986.

George Metcalf Archival Collection
Canadian War Museum 20170712-005_3

A Lasting Relationship

The liberation of the Netherlands created a friendship between Canadians and the Dutch that has continued to the present day and is felt in many ways.

“The historic ties that bind us such as the liberation of the Netherlands by Canadians, and the postwar wave of Dutch immigration to this country, have forged a very close friendship between our two countries.”
—– Henk van der Zwan, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Canada

The return of Canadian veterans to celebrate the anniversaries of the liberation attracted nationwide attention in both countries. In the Netherlands, children and adults still tend to Canadian war graves.

At the Canadian War Museum, visitors are invited to share how war has affected them, their family or their friends. Many visitors mention the liberation of the Netherlands and the enduring relationship between the two countries:

“My great grandfather was part of the liberation of the Netherlands. It shows me how much helping strangers can be an awesome power.”

“My family wouldn't be here if not for the bravery and sacrifice of Canadian Forces in liberating the Netherlands in 1945. Thank you.”

“My grandparents, oma + opa, came to Canada because of how they helped the Netherlands in World War II.”

“My mom was a young girl in Holland during the war. The first Canadian she ever met was a soldier who gave her his chocolate bar out of his ration pack.”

“My uncle lied about his age to enlist in WWII army. He died in April 1945 - 1 month before VE day + is buried in the Canadian cemetery in Groesbeek, Holland.”