Face To Face: Was the liberation of the Netherlands the Canadian Army’s most important achievement in the Second World War?May 12, 2015 by Legion Magazine
Celebrating the return of Queen Wilhelmina, Canadian troops and Dutch groups parade past the Royal Palace and Dam Square in Amsterdam on June 28, 1945.
Author Andrew Iarocci says YES.
Author J.L. Granatstein says NO.
Iarocci is an assistant professor of history at Western University in London, Ont., and is the author of Shoestring Soldiers: The First Canadian Division, 1914-15. His research interests include military transportation and procurement. Granatstein has written dozens of books, including Who Killed Canadian Military History? and Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace. He is a former director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum.
Liberating the Netherlands was the most important political achievement of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, but it was not the most important military accomplishment.
Armies exist to fight and win wars, to defeat the enemy. The Canadians liberated a slice of western Holland in the Scheldt campaign from Oct. 2 to Nov. 8, 1944, and occupied parts
of southern Holland in the winter of 1944-45. However, the liberation of most of the populated parts of the Netherlands occurred in April 1945, when the Germans were teetering
on the edge of surrender, and after VE-Day in May. There was fighting, and there were casualties, and the Canadian soldiers deserve the honour and affection given ever since by the Dutch, but their liberation was not the greatest accomplishment of the Canadian army.
Instead, consider I Canadian Corps’ dazzling breakthrough of the Gothic Line, protecting the Po River valley in Italy in the late summer of 1944. General Bert Hoffmeister, commanding the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, saw that the German positions were curiously unmanned, persuaded his corps and army superiors to move up the attack planned for a few days later, committed his armoured brigade at once, and punched a great hole in the enemy line. That mattered, and “Hoffy’s Mighty Maroon Machine,” as it was called, made the difference. That Hoffmeister was an officer who had risen from the militia made that victory all the sweeter.
Simonds’ brilliant, if costly, campaign in the fall of 1944 was a war-winning battle.
Not convinced yet? Consider the battle to clear the Scheldt River estuary in October and early November 1944. Routed in Normandy, the Germans retreated east as fast as they could go in late August and September. Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery mounted a huge airborne operation to seize crossings over the Rhine River, the famous “bridge too far.” But Montgomery somehow forgot about the Scheldt, the 65-kilometre-long estuary that supply ships had to sail to reach the great Belgian port of Antwerp, easily taken by British troops in September. Without marine access to that port, no supplies; without supplies, the Allies could not move. Clearing the Scheldt, by late September well fortified by more than 100,000 of the enemy’s best troops, fell to the First Canadian Army, led by its acting commander, Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds.
The one Canadian senior officer highly regarded by Canada’s allies, Simonds came up with a brilliant plan. Over objections from the Dutch government in exile, he persuaded the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command to destroy the dikes on Walcheren Island, flooding its farmland and isolating its defenders. He ordered Canadian divisions across the Leopold Canal, into the Breskens Pocket of fortified German resistance, and over the narrow peninsula to South Beveland and the even-more-constrained causeway to the eastern end of Walcheren Island. Finally, a seaborne attack and air and sea shelling destroyed the remainder of the enemy on Walcheren.
This was a gruelling campaign, fought in dreadful conditions of mud and cold. The flooded ground defied movement and forced the attackers to move atop the dikes, exposed to fire. The Germans resisted fiercely, their commanders understanding that the loss of the Scheldt estuary meant defeat in the west. But First Canadian Army (reinforced with troops from Britain, Poland and other Allied countries) prevailed, though suffering losses of almost 13,000 officers and men.
In late November, once the estuary had been cleared of mines, Antwerp at last opened to shipping. The attacks across the Rhine, the clearing of the Rhineland and the liberation of the Netherlands could now proceed, with the Allies’ superiority in materiel assured.
The Gothic Line victory today is remembered mainly by Canadians who fought there and by a few historians. It should be much better known. The victory on the Scheldt gets more recognition, but curiously First Canadian Army’s role somehow receives rather short shrift in most accounts. It deserves more plaudits. Simonds’ brilliant, if costly, campaign in the fall of 1944 was a war-winning battle, a greater military achievement than the actual liberation months later, and certainly the Canadian Army’s greatest achievement of the Second World War.
Every step of the Canadian Army’s long march through Italy, Normandy and Northwest Europe helped to win the Second World War. Among these campaigns, however, the liberation of the Netherlands stands out as the army’s most significant achievement.
After the failure of Operation Market Garden—a bold yet risky plan for airborne troops to seize bridges over the Rhine River in September 1944—the Allies faced the bitter reality of another winter at war with Germany. Allied logistics, meanwhile, had become badly strained. As of late September, most supplies were still coming by road all the way from the Normandy beaches, through France and Belgium, and then up the front in the Netherlands and along the German border. Antwerp, Europe’s largest port, had been in Allied hands since before Market Garden, but the approaches to the port along the Scheldt River estuary remained under stubborn German control.
It was largely the task of the First Canadian Army to clear the Scheldt estuary. This meant hard fighting in the Breskens Pocket (on the south bank of the estuary) coupled with a drive north of Antwerp through Woensdrecht, South Beveland, and finally, Walcheren Island (along the north bank). By the middle of November, the Canadians had defeated German forces in the Scheldt, and the first merchant ships arrived in Antwerp, just in time to support the Allied response to the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes Forest that December. The Canadian Army was not the only Allied force to fight in the Scheldt, but it was the key player. More than 6,350 Canadians were killed or injured, accounting for some 50 per cent of Allied losses in the Scheldt. Strategically, the opening of the port of Antwerp was arguably the Canadian Army’s single most important contribution to the war.
The liberation of the Netherlands was about more than strategy or logistics. The Canadian Army’s struggle against a ruthless opponent underscored the very purpose of sacrificing so much for total victory.
But the liberation of the Netherlands was about more than strategy or logistics. The Canadian Army’s struggle against a ruthless opponent underscored the very purpose of sacrificing so much for total victory. During winter of 1944-45, German occupation authorities had systematically deprived the population in the old provinces of Holland of food and coal supplies. Under the circumstances, each day under occupation meant more deaths from starvation and sickness. Estimates suggest that the famine, known as the Hunger Winter, claimed some 18,000 lives. Whatever the absolute total, civilians perished at such a rate that there were not enough gravediggers to bury them all. To drive the Germans out of the western Netherlands was not simply a military requirement, but also an urgent humanitarian necessity.
The liberation of the Netherlands was vital to ending the war. Canadians saved lives by forcing the Germans to surrender or withdraw. But the campaign also shaped Canada’s evolving national identity. After nearly six years of war, all five Canadian overseas divisions and two independent tank brigades were united within a single formation—the First Canadian Army—to fight as a truly national force (albeit one with other Allied troops under its command) in the Netherlands.
Did the unification of Canada’s overseas forces really matter that much, coming as late as it did in the war? As historian Terry Copp has written, the fighting of April-May 1945, much of it on Dutch soil, was as bitter and painful as anything the Canadians had yet seen—and they had seen plenty. In April, the final full month of the war, 1,191 Canadian soldiers died. A further 114 were killed in May before VE-Day. Each of these men—the last ones to fall in a long struggle—is buried in a Canadian cemetery in the Netherlands.
The Scheldt Estuary and the Liberation of Holland
There Was Only One Way: The Walcheren Causeway
by Laura on June 3, 2009
For background information on the objective and purpose of the Walcheren Causeway read Jordan Glass’s informative post titled “The Walcheren Causeway”. I found some more information about this Second World War battle in David J. Bercuson’s book titled, Maple Leaf Against the Axis: Canada’s Second World War.
It was a one way road for the allies. We wanted to get from the mainland and down the peninsula. The only way to get there was across the Walcheren Causway, which essentially was a thin strip of land pot-filled with shell craters and surrounded by mud. The allies could not approach this area by boat due to the simple fact that there was not enough water surrounding it. The option of vehicles and infantry making their way across these salty marches on either side of the causeway was also out of the picture, for the mud would swallow them whole. This left only one option in attacking Walcheren. They would have to fight their way across the almost completely exposed causeway.
The Germans held the west end of the causeway. About 2/3 of the way down the causeway, near the west end, the Germans had blown a tank trap (an extremely large crater spanning the width of the causeway). They had also constructed brick-lined trenches for the protection of their troops.
Soldiers from the Black Watch regiment were the first to advance. They attacked on October 31, 1944 (Halloween). By night fall, they had to retreat. The Calgary Highlanders were next in line. The Germans used hand grenades and flame throwers to hold back the advancing Highlanders. At 3:00 am they pulled back, regrouped and devised another plan. Three hours later, they attacked “under cover of a new and more extensive fire plan” (Bercuson, 1995: 251). Later that day, the Highlanders had to pull back again. As a last resort, the Maisonneuves attacked Walcheren on November 2, 1944. They didn’t get more than 200 metres before they had to be rescued by the Scottish troops of the 52nd (Lowland) Division.
Private D. Tillick of the Toronto Scottish Regiment (M.G.) and Lieutenant T.L. Hoy of the Calgary Highlanders, who both were wounded on the causeway between Beveland and Walcheren, waiting for treatment at the Casualty Clearing Post of the 18th Field Ambulance, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (R.C.A.M.C.), Netherlands, 1 November 1944.
Miraculously, the Scottish troops of the 52nd (Lowland) Division found another way. They found a strip of mud flats that could support the weight of advancing troops. They managed to access the west end of the causeway. When they arrived, they found that they out flanked the Germans. The battle was done. With the taking of the Walcheren Causeway, the Battle of the Scheldt Esturary was over. The men were a few days shy of settling in for their sixth Christmas of the war.
Bercuson, David. Maple Leaf Against the Axis: Canada’s Second World War. 1995. Red Deer Press, Calgary, Canada.
Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada
The Walcheren Causeway
by Jordan on June 2, 2009
Ok, so my project was on the Walcheren Causeway. I chose this because it was a battle fought and won primarily by the Calgary Highlanders, which I am a part of . The Walcheren Causeway was a man made rode which connected the island of Walcheren with the rest of Europe’s coast. The reason the allies needed to take Walcheren so badly was that it’s shore covered the channel leading right into the port of Antwerp. Because it was an isolated island, the Germand placed anti-ship batteries on the shores to destroy any incoming supply ships that would try and resupply allied forces in Antwerp. The Walcheren causeway was the only way in or out of the island that didn’t involve using naval forces, as such the allied commanders decided to send infantry up this 1 mile stretch of land and take the island by force, spreading like water into a shallow through a small hole. There were three regiments involved in the conflict, the first to attack the causeway was “C” company of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, second was “B” Company of the Calgary Highlanders (yay!) and thirdly was Le Regiment de Maisonneuve. Sadly, the entire operation of capturing the Walcheren Causeway would later be known as simply a costly diversion as the 4th British Commando brigade would land at Flushing and Westkapelle and eventually capture the island from there. All in all the Calgary Highlanders suffered 64 casualties, the Black Watch took 85 Casualties and Le regiment de Maisonneuve only took 1 casualties with 10 wounded.
In the battle however, Company Sargeant Major “Blackie” of the Calgary Highlanders was awarded the Distinguished conduct Medal for his actions on the causeway when he would throw back live German grenaded before they could explode among his own men. This medal is second only to the Victoria Cross, Canada’s highest honor for a soldier to recieve.
A Brief Note on the Photos Above
by Chris on May 21, 2009
Calgary Highlanders in the Netherlands, October 1944, during the battle to clear the German's out of the Scheldt Estuary and open the ports at Antwerp to Allied shipping. Photograph by Canadian CFPU photographer Ken Bell.
The photos in the sliding menu bar above were collected from a few different places around the web, but primarily from the Canadian War Museum website and Library and Archives Canada. These photos are technically in the “public domain,” since copyrights generally expire after 50 years.
Library and Archives Canada hosts a wealth of interesting information and digitized documents, and is well worth a visit. The images from the Scheldt Estuary, Normandy, Passchendaele and Dieppe came from their collections. Their “Faces of War” virtual exhibition is particularly good. It contains several photographs from Canada’s official war photographers taken during the Second World War, including Ken Bell‘s shot (inset). Incidentally, we recently saw an interesting documentary on the the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit (The CFPU was established in September 1941), called Shooters. According to the film, Canadian cameramen like BellÂ captured a number of scoops during the war, including the first iconic footage of Allied soldiers going ashore on D-Day (Canadian soldiers, no less) shot by Sgt. Bill Grant of the CFPU.
This was the first footage of the landings to be shown around the world, thanks in part to Brian O’Regan, the father of Shooters director James O’Regan. James recalled the story in an interview with CanadianFilm.com’s Peter Dudley:
â€œMy Dad (who was 19 years old on D-Day) was pushing his motorcycle off the landing craft and up on the beach. … As he approached the seawall, he noticed this can of film in the sand. He knew what it was because he was trained. It was exposed film because it had tape around it and it had [Grant's] number one written on it. Not finding either Bill Grant or the press bag, he took the film back to the beach commander who put it on the next boat back to London and it was in the war office by 1 p.m. That was the first film back from Normandy. If you look at the war record at the Archives, the talk is there were â€œwhoops and cheersâ€ at the sight of that film.”
Shooters may be difficult to find, but the Military Museums in Calgary could possibly screen it for you, or you can order it directly from O’Regan’s website.
The other images above came from the Canadian War Museum’s First World War Teacher Resources. The two pieces of war art depicted are The Battle of YpresÂ by British artist Richard Jack, and Australian artist William Longstaff’s 1931 Ghosts of Vimy Ridge. Longstaff painted another famous painting, at least Down Under, depicting a similar scene of spirits flooding toward the Menin Gate. We will be visiting both of these memorials on our trip.
by Chris on April 26, 2009
This site is officially live as of dinnertime on Sunday April 26. It’s also officially devoid of any content whatsoever.
Our goal with the site is to create a collaborative community for six lucky Canadian junior and senior high school students who will receive a paid trip to the Canadian First and Second World War battlefields of Western Europe. The contest, sponsored by The Military Museums in Calgary, Alberta, asked students from around the province to submit a fairly open-ended entry (ranging from essays and artwork to multimedia) about Canada’s role as a Peacekeeping nation. Although the winners will not be announced until May 22, 2009, the entries have already been judged and the winners have been chosen.Â
The trip includes stops in Belgium, Holland and France, including the Walcheren Causeway, Ypres, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, Dieppe, Juno Beach, and Paris, and will be led by my wife Laura and I. Laura is the manager of education and interpretation at the museum, and I am an armchair history buff along for the ride.Â
As we work to make this an interactive learning tool for our lucky students as well as a valuable resource on Canadian military history for the casual visitor, we are also going to be learning the ins and outs of web design on the WordPress platform. The process will certainly be iterative and educational on many fronts, so please excuse the work-in-progress nature of the site and come back soon as we continually grow!