Liberation of Holland 70th: Canadian vets reflect on extreme hardship
Veterans tell their stories of Canada's role in the liberation of Holland in 1945
This year, on the 70th anniversary of the liberation, many of the surviving Canadian soldiers who will make the journey to take part in the Dutch ceremonies view this as a last opportunity to share stories of a campaign that was hard-won and cost many lives.
Canadian veteran Sgt. Herb Pike of the 48th Highlanders remembers the shock of what he witnessed when he crossed into the Netherlands and found the people starving.
"The civilians were not in good shape. Their health was bad because they were literally eating tulip bulbs. They had nothing."
The liberation of the Netherlands began in earnest in the fall of 1944. Canadian troops and allied forces had enclosed the German forces, but still needed to secure the Scheldt estuary in order to provide access to the port of Antwerp to deliver Allied supplies.
Lance Cpl. William (Bill) Davis of The Black Watch regiment remembers the challenge of securing certain zones along the tidal river.
"After we finished the fighting on the Scheldt, I swore I'd never go back. It was the worst winter they had had in 50 years. Rain, snow, cold, a miserable place — and, of course, we never had experience fighting in the dikes."
Ensuing battles with elite German paratroopers were fierce, enforcing the need to remain vigilant along a zone that stretched from Dunkirk, France to Nijmegen in the north east of Holland.
Canadian veteran Sgt. Allan Stapleton, Regiment 1st Divisional Signals, is proud the Canadian volunteers were matched against the elite German paratroopers.
The Canadians also had some specialists in the fight for Holland, including Jim Summersides.
"I served with the First Special Service Force and the 48th Highlanders during World War II. The First Special Service Force was a very elite group trained in parachute jumping, commando, mountain-climbing, a little bit of everything. Lots of learning how to fight with both American and enemy weapons. The First Special Service Force was called the Black Devils because we used to be night fighters that blackened our faces and went in particularly on raids during the night."
Summersides remembers going up against the Hitler youth, in particular.
"When you faced the Hitler youth, you knew it. They were a different breed of cat, as we used to say— they were very, very dedicated to Nazism. The German soldier himself, he was doing much the same as we were — doing a job. But if you got mixed up the SS or the Hitler youth, it was an entirely different ball game."
The eventual takeover of the Scheldt estuary allowed Allied ships to deliver much-needed supplies to Antwerp in preparation for a major offensive that would ultimately secure Northwestern Europe.
On April 17, 1945, Canadians soldiers freed the town of Apeldoorn.
Sgt. Herb Pike was part to the unit that arrived in town that day, and 70 years later he says he admires the Dutch people for continuing to honour the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers.
"The Dutch will truly, truly never forget what the Canadians did and they let us know that they don't forget, which is very much appreciated. They keep saying they will never forget and they haven't, because they show it to us every time we go over."