World

VE-Day: Canadian WWII vets feted in Netherlands on liberation anniversary

The Netherlands has never forgotten the mostly young Canadian soldiers who drove the Nazis out of their country in the dying days of the Second World War, and today, May 5, is when they show how much they still care. David Common reports from the 70th-anniversary celebrations in Wageningen.

Will likely be the last tour for Canadian vets in their 90s

The day is remembered not only for the liberation of the Netherlands, but for the capitulation of the Nazis in a country they had occupied for five dark years.

After a nine-month campaign and many costly day-to-day battles, the Germans surrendered to the Canadians on May 5, 1945. To this day, the Dutch have truly never forgotten.

They parade Canadian veterans through the streets of Wageningen, in central Netherlands, treating them as the liberators they were seven decades ago.

One of those veterans, 91-year-old Roly Armitage, has trouble putting the reception into words.

Still, he told me that if the rest of the world could have the rapport and friendship that exists between Canadians and the Dutch, we'd be living in one great universe.

Indeed, for miles here the crowds are thick with Canadian flags hanging from town windows and young children waving from rooftops and balconies. The Canadians ride in restored military vehicles, sometimes overwhelmed by the attention.

Canadian vet Roly Armitage, 91, says the friendly and respectful relationship the Dutch and Canadians have should be a model for other countries. (CBC)

It's been like this every significant anniversary since the end of the Second World War. But there won't likely be another one like this year.

The Canadian veterans, ever fewer in number, are simply getting too old for the arduous voyage.

Around 14,000 Canadians came ashore at Normandy in 1944 — those who survived those battles and the many decades since are few in number.

Today, only a few dozen were well enough the make the journey back to old battlefields.

Virtually all are in their 90s, and often frail. So much so, in fact, that the Canadian Armed Forces plane that transported many of these aging veterans to Europe flew unusually low — around 12,000 feet — to avoid a situation where a rapid cabin depressurization might irreparably harm an elderly passenger without the speed or strength to put on an oxygen mask.

Seventy years ago, when hostilities ended in Europe, Armitage chose to stay in Holland before returning home to Canada. He bunked in a hotel along the North Sea coastline and he's back there again this year. The owner still refuses to give him a bill.

Back then, Armitage remembers a Dutch teenager arriving by bicycle and asking for gas for his car.

He turned him down, explaining the rationing and the ban on using military fuel for civilian purpose. But the teen explained that his dad made beer.

Alright, hold on a minute, the Canadian soldier responded, we'll check with an officer. So, off they went and there was one question that sealed the deal: What's your name?

Freddy Heineken, the young Dutchman responded.

PM speaks at VE Day ceremony

8 years ago
Duration 11:02
Stephen Harper's address at Holten cemetery marks 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands

This year, there are 800 Canadian students attending many of the VE-Day events across Holland, plus air and army cadets.

Across the country, streets and squares are named 5 May in recognition of the day occupation became liberation.

The week-long festivities are often more celebration than solemn reflection, and today's parade is to end with Dutch children, who have each studied the life of some of the 7,600 or so Canadian soldiers killed in Holland, releasing commemorative balloons and fireworks.

And joining Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in Holland for the anniversary, is General Tom Middendorp, the chief of the Armed Forces of the Netherlands -- a present soldier thanking those of the past, those who came from afar to free his country. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Common covers a wide range of stories for CBC News, from war to disrupting scams. He is a host with the investigative consumer affairs program Marketplace, and a correspondent with The National. David has travelled to more than 85 countries for his work, has lived in cities across Canada, and been based as a foreign correspondent in the U.S. and Europe. He has won a number of awards, but a big career highlight remains an interview with Elmo. You can reach David at david.common@cbc.ca, Twitter: @davidcommon.

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