Canadians’ role kept alive
Tracing war sacrifices, heroics on Liberation Trail
BERGEN OP ZOOM, Netherlands — Canadian flags on the fronts of many buildings are fitting reminders of a long-lasting love between our countries.
Our soldiers ended German occupation of this 806-year-old city in October 1944, guide and retired teacher Willem Loeff explained.
Ordered to evacuate, he said the mayor got the commander “to relent because there were 20,000 refugees from the south, and 30,000 residents.”
The inevitable cost included two girls accidentally slain by tank machinegun fire.
Our group was reminded daily of the war’s anguish while travelling Liberation Trail Europe, an international remembrance route with numerous heritage sites between England and Poland. Begun in the Netherlands in 2008, it honours “those who sacrificed their life for our peace and freedom, and to keep their memory alive.”
In addition to visiting museums and locales memorializing the Second World War, we heard of the young men who freed communities, residents at risk for hiding them, plus resistance fighters.
During ceremonies, including at mind-numbingly large cemeteries, we met locals and dignitaries honoring sacrifices by 7,600 liberators from the ‘Land of the Maple’ — 5,706 Canadians killed in Holland, the rest reinterred from elsewhere in Europe.
Like many Netherlanders, this picturesque city of almost 66,000 hasn’t forgotten.
After we arrived, 50 “Silent March” participants crossed the main square carrying signs with names of Canadian places that were home to at least one soldier killed locally.
Many of the 1,118 in the Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery died crossing rivers whose bridges were strategically destroyed.
Others fell trying to dislodge enemy soldiers north of Antwerp during the Battle of the Scheldt. Up to 175,000 Canadians and 200,000 to 450,000 other Allied soldiers were involved, Veterans Affairs Canada says.
“The Germans cut the dykes to let seawater flood the low-lying fields and the attackers were forced to follow narrow, fire-swept routes along the tops of dykes or to attempt amphibious assaults,” the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa notes. Fighting near the muddy 350-km Scheldt river between western Belgium and the southwestern Netherlands “cost the First Canadian Army 6,367 killed.”
During a moving Oct. 28 ceremony at the war cemetery, dignitaries including Sabine Nolke, Canada’s ambassador to The Netherlands, laid wreaths. Teenagers brought flowers.
“Our two countries share a belief in a world in which equality and fairness, human rights and dignity and fundamental freedoms are guaranteed,” Nolke said. “The men resting here fought and died for those principles,” she said.
“We cannot afford to take them for granted.”
Plagued by overseas conflicts, journalists vilified for news fakery — some murdered — Nolke said “denials, propaganda, misinformation and plain old-fashioned lies” threaten seven decades of international order.
She warned against turning “a blind eye” when people of different backgrounds are presented as threats, when political gains foster divisions, “when public discourse descends into tribalism; when facts become negotiable depending on one’s agenda.”
“The province of Zeeland played a crucial role during the liberation,” notes the Liberation Museum Zeeland, in the town of Nieuwdorp.
After fierce fighting, Antwerp’s harbour opened for Allied shipments, particularly essential food for residents German invaders starved.
“It took 85 days to liberate this area,” museum director Stef Traas explained.
Opened in 2009, the soonto-be-expanded facility’s displays include some of the 45,000 relics residents donated, such as deactivated bombs, bullets, helmets and uniforms.
Its film includes war footage, and dioramas have fullsize models portraying military plus civilian figures.
A German bunker came from nearby Vlissingen, Holland’s “most-bombed city due to its shipyard,” guide Robert W. Catsburg said. The museum’s park also features a temporary Nieuwdorp church
that replaced a bombed-out one, a U.S. Army tank, plus anti-landing craft barriers beside a pond.
In addition to recounting residents’ plights, guides emphasize “freedom and democracy for future generations,” Traas said.
“We started the Liberation Route to connect history and tourism,” said Peter Kruk, Liberation Route Europe Foundation’s program manager.
With preparations underway for 2019 and 2020 — the latter marking 75 years since German forces in Holland surrendered on May 5, 1945 — “we are promoting 300 remembrance and heritage sites, special events and commemorations.”
The 2020 program will include a 3,000-km hiking route between London and Berlin, with new markers along existing trails “where something happened,” Kruk said.
In addition to three large Commonwealth war cemeteries, Amsterdam-based Martin Reelick, vice-president of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 005, said communities tend local graves of Allied soldiers plus resistance fighters, and celebrate anniversary dates.
During the occupation, 234,000 Dutch citizens died, some in concentration camps and prisons, others executed, starved or worked to death, Veterans Affairs Canada notes. Sickness, disease and general health decline due to deprivation contributed to the losses.
There are also memorials to Jews, Reelick said, adding only 8,000 survived of 88,000 registered when Holland surrendered in May 1940.
Liberated by Canadians five years later, little remains of Camp Westerbork, from which almost 98,000 Jews were transported to Germany for execution. One was Anne Frank, whose father had her diary published in 1947.
A photo of children’s activities organizer Salo Carlebach, who voluntarily accompanied 50 orphans to a death camp, stands among 102,000 small bricks representing all Westerbork victims, guide Michiel Smit said. “He didn’t want them to go on the train alone.”
FOREST OF MAPLES
Northeast of Groningen, near the 30,000 maple tree Liberation Forest, a leafy steel monument has 43 perforations representing each Canadian soldier killed in Holland’s largest northern city.
The forest is also dedicated to other Allies, plus Dutch fighters.
Some of Groningen’s rebuilt central buildings bear battle scars, including the climbable Martini church tower, whose 62 carillon bells mark the time.
During a three-day liberation battle, 270 central buildings were damaged or destroyed, with 100 civilians, 150 Canadians and 400 Germans killed, historian Joel Stopels said.
In some cases, Stopels said families learned loved one’s fates months — even years — after their deaths.
In 2015, a plaque was placed on a bridge for a Toronto private killed as Canadians swept through Apeldoorn in April 1945.
Stopels learned that Sadie McCormack, who was told over seven decades that Pte. Thomas Joseph Warnock McCormack, 19, died “somewhere in northern Holland,” was seeking his grave. Before her visit in 2013, Stopels consulted files at Holten Canadian War Cemetery.
“At least now we know,” she says in his documentary film, after placing a Canadian flag on her brother’s grave, among 1,355 with Canadian and 39 other buried Allied soldiers. “It’s a closure.”
Another sad anecdote on display describes Nova Scotia mother-of-four Viola Langille finally learning of the death of her husband, Pte. Ira Langille, 32, of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, R.C.I.C., Cornwall, five months after he was wrongly reported missing.
The information centre’s impressive computerized and physical archives promises “the memory of those who died is kept alive.”
A symbolic National Canadian War Memorial in Apeldoorn, a city of 160,000, honours ties between Netherlands and Canada since the liberation.
Dedicated in 2002, a duplicate of ‘The Man with Two Hats’ stands in Ottawa.
Adopted by school children, the 4.6-metre bronze statue — which represents war and peace, repression and freedom, life and death, sadness and joy — also helps remind future generations that “freedom is not normal, Mayor John Berends told us.
“You must remember it. You must never forget.”
Cyclist travels beneath The Poppy Bridge, a highway viaduct near Welberg that children painted large poppies on in 2017, dedicated to civilians and soldiers killed in the village during the Second World War.
A Canadian flag flies in the central square of Bergen Op Zoom, above a band playing Second World War tunes as part of services marking the 74th anniversary of liberation.
Bergen op Zoom Mayor Frank Petter holds one of 50 signs with names of Canadian places that were home for at least one Canadian soldier killed liberating the city in 1944. Antique cannons face the Westerschelde River near 1699 Oranjemolen windmill in the southern seaside city of Vlissingen, which has a Second World War museum display.
Mila Haak holds a photo of the former Middelburg Abbey and Long John tower in Middelburg.
Steel Maple Leaf monument beside Liberation Forest has 43 perforated holes representing each 2nd Canadian Infantry Division soldier killed liberating Groningen.