How Canadian forces brought 'sweetest of springs' to Netherlands
Interview with military historian Mark Zuehlke
Mark Zuehlke, whose On to Victory: the Canadian Liberation of The Netherlands — the eighth volume of The Canadian Battle Series — has just been published, spoke with CBC News on April 30, 2010, by phone from Calgary, where he was speaking and signing books at the Military Museum.
The latest volume chronicles 44 days of war during what is known in The Netherlands as "the sweetest of springs."
Besides the Second World War series, Zuehlke has also written books about the War of 1812, the First World War and the Spanish Civil War. A former journalist now based in Victoria, he also writes mysteries.
This is an edited transcript of the interview.
Q: In March 1945, the campaign begins in The Netherlands. The Canadian soldiers who would do the fighting, what combat experience did they have, and how ready were they?
Mark Zuehlke: By that time, they were extremely ready. Most of these guys had crossed the beaches at Juno Beach on June 6, 1944. They had fought their way up through northwest Europe. They had gone through the Scheldt estuary, the entire Normandy campaign and the clearing off of the coastal ports.
That was the Second Canadian corps. First Canadian corps had just arrived from Italy.
They were extremely well trained and veteran troops as well. They had started out July 10, 1943, with the long march across Sicily and then up the boot of Italy. So you have soldiers who really know what they are doing by that time in March.
Q: This campaign was different. There were no big battles. What was the combat like for the Canadian soldiers in March and April?
A: The fighting that the Canadians were involved in during these last 48 days of the war was quite different from what they had faced in most of the rest of the war. Generally, they were fighting large battles before that.
Now they are not fighting big battles; they are fighting day-to-day actions against small pockets of Germans who are withdrawing back across the many canals and rivers and dikes.
Q: At this point, did the Canadian soldiers have a sense that the war was nearly over?
A: Everyone knew that the war was winding down. The German army was collapsing. They were running out of ground. The Americans and Russians were closing in on Berlin. So there's a definite sense that the war is not that far from coming to an end, but nobody knows when that's going to be.
That creates a huge psychological pressure for the average Canadian soldier, because he's going forward into a battle today that's really bad, and he's wondering, "Am I going to be the last Canadian killed and then suddenly there'll be a ceasefire?"
Q: Wasn't it a Canadian who was the last soldier killed in the First World War?
A: That's right, he was killed two minutes before the ceasefire.
Q: For the people of The Netherlands, were they sensing that it was over?
A: Holland is in a humanitarian crisis. Food supplies have run out, and the Germans are no longer able to even provide basic rations to the Dutch population.
That crisis started because when the Allies got to Antwerp in the Fall of 1944, the Dutch population had thought that we would just be continuing into Holland and would liberate the entire country in a matter of days.
Even the Allied intelligence thought that. They thought the Germans would just flee from Holland. So people were lining up in the streets in Amsterdam waiting for the Canadians to arrive.
Of course, we didn't arrive. That's because [Field Marshall Bernard] Montgomery launched his Operation Market Garden, which is the attempt to take the rivers, all the bridges, through to the Rhine River in western Germany.
As a result of that, when the Germans realized we weren't coming, they launched a major campaign of retribution against the Dutch population. They flooded 20 per cent of the agricultural land, and they removed the entire transportation system of the country, taking most of it to Germany and sinking or destroying the rest.
So suddenly the Dutch were unable to feed themselves, particularly in the large cities in western Holland like Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Utrecht. They no longer had any food coming in. And that's when you have what's called the hunger winter. By early spring, the country's on the edge of mass starvation.
The Allies and the Germans agree in their statistical calculus that if there isn't massive food relief brought in by early May, then 3.5 million of the population of western Holland could die from starvation.
Q: So was this more about preventing starvation of the local population or defeating the German forces?
A: It became both, because they started thinking they have to defeat the Germans as quickly as they can in order to bring food relief, and at the same time, there is a recognition that it is a difficult task to defeat the Germans in western Holland. There are 120,000 of them. We can only free up about 60,000 Canadian and British troops to move into that western Holland area.
So they are outnumbered, the Germans are threatening to flood almost all of western Holland, which is below sea level, if we fight our way into there.
That leads to the secret negotiations that were started initially by the Dutch government in exile and the Dutch resistance movements working together and approaching the Germans in western Holland, and then later by the Allied high command with the Canadians working with that negotiation.
Q: How did the negotiations between the German and the Canadian and Allied commanders come about?
A: It started with the Dutch. A couple of people who had ostensibly been working with the German occupation force but were actually with the Dutch resistance put out feelers to Reichkommisar Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who is the governor of Holland.
He has already recognized that he has created a huge issue. He is aware that the crisis is going to happen, and he is looking for solutions as well. He recognizes that the Germans are going to lose the war, and he is going to be the one with the responsibility for all these starving Dutch.
So they start talking. Seyss-Inquart at one point says to the Dutch negotiators, what about if when the Canadians get to a certain spot approaching western Holland they just stop and we won't fire at them. We will let the Canadians open up the front lines and move supplies into western Holland to feed the people.
The Dutch take this back to the Allies and that leads to a series of negotiations where Seyss-Inquart and other top ranking Germans come through the Canadian lines to a little village called Achterveld and at a little school there they have face to face negotiations with Canadian officers and others.
At the same time there is fighting going on over most of Holland, even as these talks are going on. So it's quite a bizarre scenario.
Q: Did Berlin know about this?
A: No. That was one of the major issues. Seyss-Inquart knew that if Berlin learned about this he was going to be replaced and probably killed in a matter of hours. At the same time the Allies are keeping this very quiet as well.
There's an understanding through the Allies, and especially the Soviet Union, that there would be no negotiations except unconditional surrender. Seyss-Inquart is not proposing unconditional surrender, he's proposing a ceasefire, which is quite different. His men would continue to hold their arms, they just won't fight.
Q: For your two books, On to Victory and Terrible Victory, you were there. For people you met, for whom this is not just history, who were alive at the time, how do they feel about Canada's role in their history?
A: As the Canadians came in to various towns and cities, even through the farm country, the Dutch are always pouring out, waving their flags and flowers, celebrating, kissing the Canadians and thanking them because they were desperate, they were really happy to be liberated. They had been under the German boot for five years.
We were giving them back their freedom. That feeling never abated. It remains as strong today in Holland as it was in those days in 1945.