Next spring, much of the world will commemorate the 70th anniversary of VE-Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe. Given the current tensions between the West and Russia, there may be little incentive to focus on the events of 1945 among the great powers.
For Canadians, however, the year should be remembered for the role Canada had in the Rhineland battles and liberation of the Netherlands—important chapters in our history.
If you plan on visiting the Netherlands, you may want to begin in Amsterdam by giving yourself at least a day to explore the city and visit the Anne Frank Museum. Following their arrest by the Gestapo, Anne Frank and her family were sent to Westerbork, a transit camp that had originally been constructed to house refugees from Nazi Germany. Westerbork was liberated by Canadians, but not until April 1945, after Anne and many, many others had perished at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
After First Canadian Army cleared the approaches to Antwerp, Belgium, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry divisions were allowed a brief rest. Fourth Canadian Armoured Division, meanwhile, fought north to the Maas, where the wide river formed a new German defensive line. When our battlefield study groups visit the area, we follow the route taken by the 2nd Canadian Corps to the city of Nijmegen, which was secured by the United States 82nd Airborne in Operation Market Garden.
Nijmegen became the forward logistical base for the Canadian Army as it prepared for Operation Veritable, the code name for the 1st Canadian Army offensive launched during the opening phase of the Battle for the Rhineland. Canadian Civil Aid officers provided assistance to a population devastated by the accidental bombing of the city centre in early 1944 which was followed by a street battle in September.
Our study groups use Nijmegen or Arnhem as a base for examining Veritable and Operation Blockbuster, the battles of February and March 1945 that won control of the Rhineland. We also look back to September 1944, visiting the “bridge too far” and the airborne museum in Oosterbeek on the edge of Arnhem. If you decide to devote a day to learning more about Market Garden, be sure to visit the memorial to the Canadians of 23rd Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, who carried out the evacuation of most of 2,400 British airborne troops who escaped capture.
There are excellent hotels in both cities or in the hilly and forested area east of Nijmegen, an unusual and very beautiful part of the Netherlands. You might want to begin your visit at Groesbeek, home of the Canadian military cemetery and a memorial for our soldiers with no known grave. Just up the road from the cemetery is the National Liberation Museum which features well-conceived exhibits on both Market Garden and the Rhineland offensive.
You will also want to visit the Reichswald Forest War Cemetery south of Kleve. There are more than 7,600 burials, mostly airmen, including 705 from the Royal Canadian Air Force. They and their comrades were brought here from temporary graves all over western Germany. The cemetery is in the heart of the forest which was the scene of the first phase of the Rhineland battle, fought largely by British troops serving as part of 1st Canadian Army. You will have no trouble understanding the challenges of fighting through this large state forest with its cross-hatch of roads and fire lanes.
Operation Veritable began on Feb. 8, 1945. Today, the start line for the operation is marked by a steel cairn on the Wylerbaan, just north of the Groesbeek Museum. Wyler was the first village in Germany captured by Canadians with the Calgary Highlanders and Régiment de Maisonneuve opening the way for an advance along the south bank of the Rhine.
The ground was deliberately flooded in the hope of blocking the attack, but members of the 3rd Canadian Div., calling themselves the Water Rats, used Buffalo amphibious vehicles to seize the defended villages that loomed partly above the water.
Today, Kleve—also spelled Cleve—is a modern prosperous city rebuilt on the ruins of a town destroyed by bombing on the eve of Veritable. From Kleve, I suggest you take Highway 57 and visit the Schloss Moyland art museum. This was once the castle of Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife of Henry VIII. In 1945, it was a Canadian brigade headquarters.
Just past the museum, turn right onto the Moylander Allee. There is an unsigned parking area on the right. This is a good place to pause and explore the woods of Moyland Ridge, the scene of a desperate three-day battle fought by 7th Canadian Brigade.
Further east is Highway 67, the Goch-Kalcar road. This was the start line for Operation Blockbuster, a complex corps-level operation involving all three Canadian divisions plus 11th British Armored Div.
At the village of Mooshof, situated off the L457, you can visit the farm buildings where Sergeant Aubrey Cosens earned the Victoria Cross. The buildings have been renovated, and there is a commemorative plaque.
The villages of Keppeln, captured by Le Régiment de la Chaudière after their “most difficult battle of the war,” and Uedem, a heavily fortified part of the enemy’s Hochwald defensive position, were both destroyed during the battle.
South of Uedem, the L77 east will take you through the infamous Hochwald Gap. At the Villa Reichswald, the view of the gap from the café garden offers a new understanding of the problems encountered by 4th Armoured Div. in its costliest battle of the war.
The town of Xanten, with its Roman amphitheatre and archeological park, was heavily bombed and shelled in the final phase of Blockbuster. Xanten has good restaurants and hotels around the market square. The cathedral is of special interest as the crypt contains a memorial to the victims of the Third Reich.
Once it crossed the Rhine, 2nd Canadian Corps turned north to liberate the northeastern provinces of the Netherlands while 1st Canadian Corps, recently arrived from Italy, opened a supply route through Arnhem before advancing west to free Amsterdam and Rotterdam. These operations, which began in early April, did not involve great battles on the scale of the Scheldt or Rhineland, but April 1945, known to the Dutch as the “sweetest of springs” (the spring of liberation), was a potent mix of both triumph and tragedy for the Canadian Army.
If fatal casualties are the best measure of the intensity of combat, the worst days of the campaign were June 6, 1944, with 359, July 8 (262), Aug. 14 (261), and Feb. 26, 1945 (214), but 1,482 were killed in action during the last month of the war, including 114 who died in the last week. This costly toll of young lives lost took place against the background of the liberation and the victory that was achieved.
These fallen Canadians are buried at the military cemetery near Holten, located in a wooded area that is reminiscent of a Canadian forest. The Netherlands offered a large tract of land and the cemetery is entered through a garden of extraordinary calmness and beauty. Every year on May 4, a service of remembrance is held here, and on Christmas Eve schoolchildren place a lighted candle at each grave. No Canadian visiting the Netherlands should miss Holten.
The town itself was the scene of one of the many brief, but bloody battles fought along 2nd Division’s advance north to Groningen, where on April 13 the Canadians encountered a determined enemy garrison holding the outer defences of Germany’s Ems River estuary.
Groningen is a fascinating university town well worth visiting in its own right, but for Canadians, the city and the port of Delfzijl were the major battlefields of April 1945. At first Canadian Major-General Bruce Matthews was reluctant to believe that a full-scale assault on a Dutch city was necessary, but eventually all three brigades and the Fort Garry Horse were committed to a street-by-street engagement. Neither air nor medium artillery could be used against a friendly city full of civilians, and even the field regiments were carefully restricted.
Nevertheless, 270 buildings in the centre of the city were damaged or destroyed and at least 100 civilians died during the three-day battle. You can examine the area near the railway station where 4th Bde. fought, and then walk into town via the two main squares to get some sense of the challenges presented by this urban battlefield.
There is a plaque on the town hall with an inscription which commemorates “the liberation of Groningen by Canadian Armed Forces, April 1945.” In 1995, the city started a Liberation Forest of 33,000 maple trees. Fifteen years later a Canadian Allied Forces Museum opened.
Your next stop should be Apeldoorn, a city of considerable interest, famous for the Het Loo Palace and gardens. The Royal Canadian Regiment, working with the First Hussars, made the initial advance on April 15, but was stopped at the Apeldoorn Canal which was well-defended. Plans were made to clear the city using a minimum of artillery, but the rapid advance of 5th Armoured Div. and 2nd Bde. south and west of the city persuaded the enemy to abandon Apeldoorn. The population, which was doubly grateful for liberation without the destruction of their city, reached out to embrace the Canadians.
Every five years since 1985, Apeldoorn has been the scene of some extraordinary anniversary commemorations. The Veterans Parade from the Het Loo Palace brings most of the city into the streets, “waving more Maple Leaf flags than could be seen at any parade in Canada.”
From Apeldoorn it is an easy drive to Amsterdam, though you should be aware that morning traffic (especially on Mondays) into the city frequently creates gridlock. There are restrictions on automobiles in the city centre, so be sure your hotel has parking. If you are returning home via Amsterdam’s airport, Schiphol, the route is well marked.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine on July 21, 2014.