Liberation of Holland 70th: Canadian vets reflect on extreme hardship

A grateful nation continues to honour Canadian soldiers 70 years after liberation, but the road to Holland in World War II was marked with fierce battles and numerous casualties. Veterans tell their stories.

Veterans tell their stories of Canada's role in the liberation of Holland in 1945

Memories of VE Day: Herb Pike

9 years ago
Duration 2:15
Featured VideoCanadian WW2 veteran, Herb Pike, remembers seeing starving dutch civilians after the liberation of Holland

Anniversaries commemorating the Second World War liberation of Holland are celebrated by scenes of Dutch parents and children waving Canadian flags as aging veterans march through local communities. But for the Canadians who freed the Dutch from five years of Nazi occupation, the anniversaries also bring back memories of fierce battles and comrades lost. 
Herb Pike (second from right) with fellow Canadian soldiers in Holland during World War II. He says he'll never forget the awful condition of the Dutch people in towns he helped liberate, who had been starving under the Nazi occupation. (Herb Pike)

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.

Memories of VE Day: Bill Davis

9 years ago
Duration 2:53
Featured VideoCanadian WW2 veteran, Bill Davis, remembers the tragic battle to secure an important water way in the Netherlands

"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.

The battle was one of the early campaigns leading to the eventual Dutch liberation — but it was not easy. Fierce fighting, breached dikes and unbearable weather made the task even more daunting for the soldiers. The campaign exacted a heavy toll, with more than 6,000 Canadian soldiers killed, wounded or missing in action. 

Memories of VE Day: Jim Summersides

9 years ago
Duration 1:44
Featured VideoCanadian WW2 veteran, Jim Summersides, recalls his luck in surviving an enemy attack that claimed the life of a soldier next to him

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."

Dutch children look for food on mostly empty shelves during World War II. Starving people were reduced to eating tulip bulbs out of desperation for food.
When the watery causeway was eventually secured, Canadian troops turned their attention to securing a 360-mile perimeter leading into German territory.

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 Germans gave us the biggest compliment. They always put parachute troops against our forces. Wherever the Canadians were, they wanted to know, because they would put the parachute troops, the young fellows who could really fight against Canadian volunteers."   

Memories of VE Day: Al Stapleton

9 years ago
Duration 1:20
Featured VideoCanadian WW2 veteran, Al Stapleton, remembers how Canadian troops were respected and feared by German soldiers

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.

Sgt. Herb Pike of Canada's 48th Highlanders says he admires the Dutch people for continuing to honour the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers to this day. (Herb Pike)
Soon after, in April 1945, various Canadian regiments moved deeper into the Netherlands, liberating towns and communities along the way.

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."