Starting a war is easy, the difficult part is ending it. When Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met at Yalta in February 1945 they knew the war against Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich was all but won even if much hard fighting remained. Their attention was therefore focused on postwar Europe and plans for the destruction of the Japanese Empire. These discussions were greatly influenced by the military situation in both theatres of war and we need to remind ourselves of what the world looked like in the first months of 1945.

Canadian soldiers toss their hats in the air in celebration of the formal surrender of German forces in the Netherlands. The date is May 5, 1956. 

The German offensive of December 1944, remembered as the Battle of the Bulge, consumed the energies of the Anglo-American armies well into January 1945. When it was over, the Allies began preparations for a major offensive that would take them to the Rhine—the objective they had tried to reach at Arnhem in September 1944. The operational challenges confronting the Anglo-American armies were compounded by a shortage of replacements and the growing differences between the British and Americans over the conduct of the war. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s infamous press conference, in which he seemed to claim credit for the defeat of the German Ardennes offensive, was just one of many issues straining Allied unity.

On the eastern front the situation was very different. Stalin had responded to Churchill’s request to advance the date of the Red Army’s winter campaign and on Jan. 12, 1945, his forces began a 300-mile advance into the heart of Germany. By Feb. 1 they were just 60 miles from Berlin. The contrast between the success of the Red Army and the halting progress in the west was evident to all.

January 1945 was also a difficult time in the Pacific. American General Douglas MacArthur’s campaign in the Philippines was behind schedule and both the army and navy were suffering heavy casualties. The battle for Manila was still under way in February when plans for the assault on Iwo Jima—Feb. 19, 1945—and Okinawa—April 1, 1945—were finalized. The horrific human costs of combat in a war of attrition against the Japanese meant that divisions from Europe would be required as soon as possible.

Considering all the circumstances, the agreement reached at Yalta seemed to promise far more than Britain and the United States could have hoped for. Poland, now fully occupied by Soviet troops, was to have new boundaries, a new government, and free elections. The Declaration On Liberated Europe promised a similar future for other countries under Soviet control. Agreement was reached on the structure of the United Nations and the occupation of zones in Germany, including one for France. Most important of all, from the America point of view, was Stalin’s commitment to declare war on Japan 90 days after the end of the war in Europe.

If the Soviet Union had lived up to the words of the agreement, Yalta would be hailed as a great triumph, but Stalin had no intention of allowing free elections in Poland or any other country deemed vital to Soviet interests. This became apparent not long after the delegations left Yalta and by the end of March 1945 Churchill was in full cry condemning the Soviet Union. He urged the U.S. to finish the war in Berlin, Prague and Vienna and establish new facts-on-the-ground to counter the Soviet threat.

But Dwight D. Eisenhower—the sup-reme allied commander—took a very -different view. He was determined to withdraw American forces from Mont-gomery’s control and to avoid pursuing political objectives without specific orders. He planned to leave Berlin to the Soviets and to meet the Red Army at the Elbe River in Germany while deploying enough forces to overcome German re-sist-ance in the so-called Alpine Redoubt.

Eisenhower’s decision remains as controversial today as it was in 1945. But leaving politics aside the best way of ending the war was to capture Berlin, force a surrender and avoid fighting for every German city. Instead, with the major U.S. armies stopped at the Elbe, Montgomery committed his forces to a series of costly battles for objectives that would have been bypassed if Berlin had fallen.

Canadian leaders, political and military, were neither consulted nor informed about these strategic debates but Canada’s soldiers were soon caught up in the consequences. Eisenhower’s decision to avoid Berlin meant that Montgomery’s 21st Army Group was to protect the American flank, clear northern Germany and reach the Baltic, cutting off any Soviet occupation of Denmark. These operations proved beyond the resources of 2nd British Army and Montgomery, determined to avoid asking for American assistance, drew upon the Canadians to help carry out his plans.

On April 5, 1st Polish and 4th Canadian armoured divisions were ordered to provide flank protection for British forces advancing on Bremen, southwest of the German seaport of Hamburg. Mont-gomery wanted 4th Armoured Division transferred to the 30th British Corps but Canadian General H.D.G. Crerar politely refused. The five-division Canadian Army was at last fighting together and Crerar had no intention of allowing it to be split up. The next day, 4th Cdn. Armd. Div. crossed into Germany and reached Sogel on April 9. Here the Lake Superior Regiment was counter-attacked by a force that included numbers of very young men in no discernable military uniform.

One of the units caught up in the -fighting at Sogel was 12 Cdn. Field Ambulance. The unit’s war diary records the following: “They (the enemy) pressed an attack (with) approximately 30 men right down the street on which we were situated. Our men had to take up arms. Some of the enemy were killed within 10 yards of the advanced dressing station entrance. Naturally a great deal of excitement ensued. After about one hour a troop of tanks arrived who blasted houses from which enemy sniping (came from). When the attackers were finally wiped out we realized we had been holding a small portion of the front. If we had not taken up arms we would have been shot up and the enemy would have gained access to the main street of town. We had five of our personnel wounded, one seriously. Personnel of an engineer and RCASC (Royal Cdn. Army Service Corps) unit who had been overrun in the early dawn were killed or wounded. All ranks of the unit did very well. Advanced dressing station personnel continued working even with small arms fire coming through the windows. Stretcher-bearers were working under direct fire. Two were wounded.”

The soldiers’ attitudes towards the enemy hardened in these affairs and so mortars, artillery and—when available—tactical air power were used without any of the restraint evident in the Nether-lands. The worst reprisal incident occurred in Friesoythe when rumours that the death of Lieutenant-Colonel F.E. Wigle, commanding officer of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, was caused by a sniper in civilian clothes. This led to setting the village on fire.

On April 16 the division was confronted with the task of an assault crossing of the Küsten Canal, a water barrier more than 100 feet wide that seemed to be well defended. For 4th Cdn. Div. this meant a prolonged and costly battle. The Algonquin Regt., with memories of the Leopold and other canals in mind, got a bridgehead established and were then joined by the Argylls. All through the 18th counter-attacks beat against the perimeter. By the morning of the 19th the exhausted but determined engineers had a bridge in place and a squadron of British Columbia Regt. tanks sped across to provide sorely needed assistance.

The enemy’s determined defence of the Küsten Canal was part of a last desperate attempt to hold parts of northern Germany long enough to allow for the evacuation of soldiers and civilians fleeing the vengeance of the Red Army. Montgomery was equally determined to win control of the area and he committed large resources, including 2nd Cdn. Inf. Div. which was ordered east to join in the battle for Bremen.

With four Canadian divisions committed to action, the last two weeks of the war produced a large number of casualties, including 490 fatalities. Of these, 114 died in May, including 12 on the last day of the war in Europe. Continuing the advance into northern Germany while the Soviets were in the suburbs of Berlin made little military sense, but the Allies had promised to maintain pressure to prevent the transfer of German units to the east and Montgomery’s orders reflected this commitment.

One last major task remained, the advance to the Baltic to safeguard Denmark. Eisenhower wanted priority for this operation, a request that prompted a last bitter protest from Montgomery, who replied that if the Russians reached Denmark it would be because of Eisen-hower’s faulty strategy. Mont-gomery might ignore Eisenhower but when Churchill demanded action, the field marshal moved promptly, advancing the date of the dash to the Baltic. This operation was carried out by the 18th U.S. Airborne Corps with 6th British Airborne Div. under command. Since Brigadier James Hill’s 3rd Parachute Brigade was in the vanguard there was no hesitation and when 1st Cdn. Parachute Battalion linked up with the Scots Greys of the Royal Armoured Corps they discovered that tanks could go quite fast even with paratroops clinging onto them.

Hill decided to continue north without pause and the columns raced by thousands of armed German soldiers who, along with masses of civilians, were fleeing from the Russians. The Canadians were in the lead when the Baltic was reached and it fell to Lt.-Col. Fraser Eadie and his men to confront Soviet forces on the outskirts of Wismar. A fine mixture of determination and diplomacy was required to convince the Soviets that Wismar was going to stay in Canadian hands but the tough, experienced paratroopers were the right men for the job. Captain Richard Hilborn, who had jumped into France on D-Day, took on the liaison role with the Russians and managed to smooth over differences with the aid of a generous supply of champagne.

On the morning of May 5, 1945 messages ordering all units to cease offensive operations were issued and the news spread quickly. Lt.-Col. Syd Thompson, the acting commander of 5th Bde., recalled visiting his battalions to ensure no risks were taken. Their reaction was typical. No one cheered and there were few celebrations. Rumours about a surrender had been circulating for weeks but the fighting had not stopped and the steady drain of casualties had sapped the energy of the men in the rifle companies. The war diaries of combat units portray a mood of deeply felt relief that the killing had stopped.

The soldiers now faced a very different future. Some volunteered for service in the Pacific and it was these adventuresome souls who got home to Canada first. The rest faced the prospect of occupation duties or long periods of waiting for their turn to be sent home. The professional soldiers, and those who hoped to make a career in the postwar army, spent time analysing the “lessons learned” in the campaign and developing recommendations for new equipment and doctrine. The vast majority wanted little more than a quick return to civilian life and said so, loudly and often.

Repatriation was organized on a point system, which initially emphasized the principle of early in, early out, so there was a steady exodus from the battalion through the summer of 1945. Those who remained took courses, learned about their options through the Rehabilitation Training Program and went on weekend leaves in the friendly cities of Holland. They also tried to make sense of what they had been through. The Calgary Highlanders published a souvenir issue of their regimental journal, The Glen, which included brief histories of each component of the battalion and some reflections on what it all meant. In The Glen, as in other regimental publications of the time, Canadian soldiers expressed pride in their achievements, a determination to remember fallen comrades, and hope for a world without war.

In the first decade after 1945, Canadians had little difficulty in giving meaning to the achievements and sacrifices of the men and women of the armed forces. The horrors of the Third Reich were fresh in everyone’s mind and no one doubted that Canadians had made a major contribution to the defeat of the “monstrous tyranny” that had threatened the survival of Western civilization.

This view came under attack in the 1960s from a generation influenced by the war in Vietnam and the rise of a new ahistorical nationalism. All wars were suspect and the kind of patriotism that had formed the context for Canadian participation in World War II seemed too closely tied to Britain to be acceptable. History came to be written and taught as though the only important events of the war years were the conscription crisis, the internment of Japanese Canadians and the rise of labour unions.

All of this began to change in the 1980s and 1990s when a new generation, with no active memory of the Vietnam War, came of age. These young people were anxious to learn about the achievements of their grandparents and were quick to recognize that two of the most important chapters of Canadian history were written on the battlefields of Europe. The period was also marked by the retirement of many veterans and a new willingness to tell their story before memories faded. The result was an explosion of popular and scholarly interest in WW II.

For Canadians, the new interpretation centres at Vimy and Beaumont-Hamel are outstanding achievements that present history in an accessible format without any sacrifice of content. The Juno Beach Centre, a marvelous building on a magnificent site, will develop exhibits of similar quality in the years ahead. The Canadian Battlefields Foundation commemorative viewing areas at Point 67/Verrières Ridge and at St-Lambert-sur-Dives offer the opportunity to see and understand two important battle-fields (Canadian Battlefields In France Recognized, September/October 2003). In Belgium, the Canada Museum in Adagem and the Flanders Field Museum in Ypres are must-see sites for Canadians in Europe.

Legion Magazine’s decision to expand the regular feature articles on military history is yet another sign of the new interest in Canada’s story. My own contribution to this series will now focus on the soldier’s experience during WW I. The essays will offer an interpretation of the Great War based on the belief that we need to understand the past on its own terms. I look forward to sharing ideas and stories with you.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine on March 1, 2004.