On To Victory: The Canadian Liberation of the Netherlands, March 23-May 5, 1945
March 23, 1945. Tens of thousands of Allied troops, following on the heels of a massive artillery barrage, lunge across the Rhine River aboard amphibious craft, while even more land from the skies. Operations Plunder and Varsity aimed to smash the German forces determined to stop this crossing, which sought to unleash a breakout into the heartland of Germany and the Netherlands and bring about a rapid end to the war.
On the left flank of Plunder, First Canadian Army thrusted into the westernmost corner of Germany and advanced into the Netherlands to free the Dutch people from a tyrannical Nazi occupation. In much of the Netherlands, the population was on the brink of starvation, a disastrous humanitarian crisis imminent.
For the millions of Dutch facing imminent starvation, the period of their liberation, from March 23 to May 5, 1945, is “the sweetest of springs.” But for the Canadians fighting a series of fierce, desperate battles in these last months of the war, it was bittersweet. A nation’s freedom was being won and the war concluded, but these final hostilities ultimately cost First Canadian Army 6,289 casualties, of which 1,481 were fatal
These numbers would have been far higher had it not been for one of the war’s most highly guarded secrets—a clandestine agreement with the German command in the Netherlands to allow the Allies to deliver food to the people in western Holland—where the country’s largest cities were situated—in exchange for a ceasefire in that area. Food supplies were virtually exhausted, and the Germans had threatened to open the dykes and flood the entire region if they were attacked. Only skillful negotiation with these German leaders prevented a catastrophe.
But on other fronts, the Canadians continued the grim fight to liberate the rest of Holland and to drive into northern Germany as part of the Allied push to end the war. During the forty-eight days from the start of the Rhine crossings, Canadian troops faced some of their toughest fighting. Repeatedly, at such towns as Bienan, Speldrop, Zutphen, and Deventer and in the major Dutch city of Groningen, they were embroiled in costly large-scale street fighting. And on the other side of each of the multitude of canals or rivers—whose dykes provide ideal defences—the Germans waited calmly for the attack. Each day the casualties mounted, while the tension of a war nearly over increased. Would the last man to fall today be the war’s final casualty?
With his trademark “you are there” style that draws upon official records, veteran and Dutch civilian memories, and a keen understanding of the combat experience, Mark Zuehlke brings to life this final chapter in the story of Canada in World War II, in time for the 65th anniversary of Holland’s liberation by Canadian troops.
Published by Douglas & McIntyre, 2010:526 pages.