Leslie Ray’s Talk on the 70th Anniversary of Liberation

BRUCE BEACH CHURCH GROVE SERVICE

SUNDAY AUGUST 9, 2014

“Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13

7600 Canadian soldiers who took part in the liberation of the Netherlands  & who lie buried in British Commonwealth cemeteries in that country are testament to this Bible passage.

In May of this year, the KSPB was privileged to visit the Netherlands to take part in the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Liberation of that country and the end of the Second World War.

The Dutch people were wonderful hosts who treated us royally. Before discussing the band trip, I would first like to give some background on the Netherlands and the role of our troops in its liberation.

The Netherlands had managed to remain neutral throughout the First World War. Sadly this was not the case in the Second World War. Although the Dutch proclaimed neutrality as soon as war was declared in September 1939, Germany nevertheless invaded on May 10, 1940. The small Dutch army was no match for the mighty Wehrmacht and the Netherlands capitulated 5 days later on May 15. Thus began 5 years of brutal occupation. The Dutch government and royal family immediately fled to England where they remained until May 1945. The exception to this was Crown Princess Juliana, later Queen, who was evacuated with her 2 young daughters to Ottawa where they lived until the summer of 1945. It was in Ottawa that Princess  Juliana’s  & Prince Bernhard’s 3rd daughter, Margriet, would be born in January 1943. Princess Margriet has always kept close ties to Canada, visiting countless times and being given honorary Canadian citizenship. She was present at all the major commemorations we attended in Holland this past May. As a way of thanking Canada for sheltering Juliana and her daughters during the war, the Dutch send 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa every year.

Why are the Dutch so grateful to Canada to this day? Why do they have a special place in their hearts for our veterans – their liberators?

By 1944, living conditions in the Netherlands had become intolerable. The economy had been stripped bare. People were beginning to show signs of malnutrition.  On September 17, the Allies launched Operation Market Garden, flooding the skies over Arnhem & Nijmegen with paratroopers. The goal was to seize the bridge at Arnhem (a bridge too far) which would allow the Allies to invade western Germany. The Dutch believed liberation was imminent. In London, the Dutch government in exile ordered a nationwide railway strike in an effort to impede the German military. Unfortunately the airborne invasion failed to achieve the Rhine crossing and only a small portion of the southern Netherlands was liberated. In retaliation for the railways strikes, the Germans placed an embargo on all food imports. This marked the start of what the Dutch refer to as the “Hunger Winter”.

For 9 months, there was no meat, butter, milk available. Potatoes and bread were severely rationed. Sugar beets, which were normally used for cattle feed, were made into a foul tasting mash. Tulip bulbs were boiled to make a meal. House cats and dogs began to disappear. One resident of Amsterdam described the city: “Garbage heaps piled against tree stumps. Starved dogs, warped with hunger, pawing at the heaps. Barefooted people sitting or lying in doorways, begging children with hunched up shoulders & pipe stem legs.. Bodies could not be buried due to lack of wood for caskets. There was no soap. Frequently there was no water, gas or electricity. Dysentery, diptheria & typhoid were rife.”

It is estimated that in 1945, between 16,000 and 20,000 Dutch died of starvation or causes related to severe malnutrition. In total, over 205,000 Dutch people perished between 1940-1945, the highest per capital death rate of any Nazi occupied country in western Europe.

The Canadians performed extraordinary feats from September 1944 to May 1945 in defeating the Germans. Extraordinary because of the waterlogged & flooded terrain as well as the strength of the well defended German positions. The Canadians cleared the Scheldt estuary in October 1944 at a cost of 12,000 casualties, thus opening the port of Antwerp which allowed the Allies to land desperately needed supplies and troops. In February 1945, Canadians cleared part of the western bank of the Rhine at a cost of 15,000 casualties, allowing our troops as well as British troops to cross the Rhine on March 23. By April 15, the maple leaf rather than the swastika flew over the eastern Netherlands. On May 5, 1945, German General Blaskowitz surrendered to Lt Gen Charles Foulkes, commander of 1st Can Corps.

Dozens of personal testimonies bear witness to the remarkable outpouring of gratitude toward the Canadian liberators. They were hugged, kissed and cheered in the streets for days. One Canadian soldier wrote: “Roads and streets everywhere were decorated with flags, bunting and flowers. Dutch people of all ages lined the roads from early morning until late evening shouting and waving as each unit passed. Everyone wanted to ride in a jeep. To say that the joy of the Dutch people was boundless is not an exaggeration. Our troops, many of whom had traveled from Sicily, had never seen such happiness and rejoicing as poured from the hearts and homes in West Holland.”

So, given this background, it is not hard to understand why Canadians are so welcomed by the Dutch and why ties have remained close since 1945.

On May 1, 42 members of the KSPB flew from Toronto to Amsterdam as well as 10 Legions members who would form a colour party at all the events. Over 100 veterans went as well. Many were on our flight. After take off, the captain paid tribute to the veterans and thanked them for liberating his country. All passengers on the 747 applauded loudly. During the flight, our pipe major and pipe sergeant marched up the aisle playing Scotland The Brave and When The Battle’s O’er. When our flight landed in Amsterdam, fire trucks sprayed the plane with great arches of water as a salute to the veterans. Inside the terminal, the mayor of Amsterdam, the chief of the Dutch armed forces and other dignitaries waited to greet us. We were immediately whisked onto our bus and taken to Almelo, a city of 72,000 in eastern Holland, which would be our home base.  We were met by the town crier and our host committee.

The first major event in which we took part was a commemoration at Grosbeek Canadian war cemetery where 2,617 of our soldiers are buried. Grosbeek is unique in that many of the dead were brought here from nearby Germany. General Crerar, commander of the Canadian land forces in Europe, ordered that no Canadian dead be buried in German soil. We were supposed to play there but unfortunately did not as it ended up pouring rain. The  ceremony there was very moving. The wife of our Prime Minister, Loreen Harper, attended, as well as the Minister of Veterans Affairs, Erin O’Toole, a padre of the Canadian Armed Forces and Major General Richard Rohmer, a WW 2 veteran who lives in Collingwood and has summered for many years at Bruce Beach. After the ceremony, several KSPB members placed special commemorative markers on the graves of Bruce County boys who are buried there. Despite the rain, a couple of our pipers played some laments at the graves.

The following day we were taken to Holten Canadian war cemetery where 1439 of our soldiers are buried. Holten cemetery is located in a beautiful national park. The site was chosen by  Lt Gen Guy Simonds, commander of 2 Canadian Corps, as the place reminded him of back home.  This time the weather cooperated and we were able to play. The KSPB and the Mariposa Pipes and Drums from Orillia formed an honour guard at the entrance to the cemetery and took turns playing for over an hour while people arrived.  Prime Minister Steven Harper and Princess Margriet attended this ceremony. As at Grosbeek, the veterans were seated in the front row. 100 Canadian soldiers stood guard at the Cross of Sacrifice. Many speeches were given by the Canadian and Dutch dignitaries. A children’s choir from Victoria BC sang; Canadian and Dutch young people read a poem in English and Dutch entitled “Commitment to Remember”. Many wreaths were placed at the memorial. About 100 Dutch children placed yellow roses on the graves. A helicopter dropped thousands of poppies over the cemetery.

That evening in Almelo, the band played inside an old chapel. Afterwards we marched, along with some Dutch military drummers, 6 blocks through the city centre to the Remembrance Monument where hundreds of people were gathered. The City Brass Band played several well known hymns, speeches were made, and the Dutch and Canadian national anthems were sung. KSPB played a few tunes. Last Post was played and a minute of silence was observed. Numerous people laid wreaths at the cenotaph.

On May 5, we played at a remembrance ceremony at the town hall. The mayor of Almelo had invited the mayor of the city’s twin town in Germany to attend. Afterwards we departed for the big parade in Wageningen. This parade featured 25 bands, both brass and pipes and drums. It took approximately an hour to march through the city. Thousands of people lined the streets waving Canadian & Dutch flags and cheering. The veterans were all in vehicles. Dutch people would run up to them to shake their hands and thank them for what they did 70 years ago. Many Dutch offered them a small glass of the local brandy. People held up signs saying ‘forever grateful’. Several planes scattered tulip petals over the city to commemorate  the food parcels dropped by the British and Canadians to the starving Dutch people near the end of the war. As soon as we finished marching and playing, we were whisked onto our bus and taken to a small city called Zutphen. We were given a lovely buffet dinner and then proceeded to do the 3rd parade of the day. Needless to say, by the end of this one, we were exhausted and were extremely glad to get back to our hotel in Almelo.

Over the next few days,  we visited a war museum in Nijverdal, played in Almelo’s town square on market day, and also played at several seniors’ homes in the area. Our final parade was in Apeldoorn. Huge banners along the route read “Hello Again” and “Thank you Boys”. Although it was  a smaller parade than the one in Wageningen, there were still hundreds of people cheering & waving Canadian & Dutch flags & shaking the hands of the veterans. After the parade, our bus took us the Velodrome for a tribute concert to the veterans. As the veterans and dignitaries, including Princess Margriet, arrived, about 150 pipers and drummers played. The Appeldoorn philharmonic performed and a screen at the front of the stadium showed images from the war.

Our final evening in Almelo, the host committee put on a sumptuous buffet and some entertainment for us at our hotel. The band also played a few tunes. One of our hosts even attempted to play the bass drum to the amusement of all. It goes without saying that we had fabulous hospitality our whole time in the Netherlands and we cannot thank the Dutch enough for making us feel so welcome.

Many of the veterans said as we were leaving ‘see you in 5 years!’. Given their advanced age, it is doubtful that any of them will be attending a 75th commemoration of liberation but who knows? The Dutch told us that this 70th commemoration was considered particularly special as it is thought that due to the fact that the few remaining veterans are all in their 90s, this may be the last one. However, it goes without saying that, even if none of our veterans ever cross the Atlantic again, the Dutch people will never ever forget what our troops did and will be forever grateful.