PHOTOS: ALEX STIRTON, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA133321; LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA116720; LONDON PICTURES SERVICE/BRITISH HIGH COMMISSION OTTAWA; ALEX STIRTON, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA–PA140417
For Canadians, the Second World War in Europe continued almost to the last moment, to May 8, the official day of victory. At sea, convoys continued to cross the North Atlantic ready to fight off the U-boats until the final Kriegsmarine surrender. Only when the Nazi submarines surfaced and began to steam to Allied ports was the war truly ended. In the air, the bombing of German targets continued until late in April while Typhoons and other planes gave air cover to advancing troops. Flying Spitfires on April 29, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 412 Squadron shot down three FW-190s that had been aimlessly passing over the Elbe River in northern Germany “with no apparent mission beyond offering target practice,” or so one pilot said at the time.
On land, the divisions of 1st Canadian Army fought difficult actions both before and after Adolf Hitler’s suicide on May l in his bunker under Berlin. In reducing the German positions at Delfzijl, a Dutch North Sea port, 72 Canadians lost their lives in an action that concluded only on May 2. More died in a simultaneous assault on Emden, the German port just across the River Ems, including 15 men of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders killed when enemy fire sank their boats as they tried to make their way onto the defended bank. The regimental history of the Cape Breton Highlanders, a unit that had fought its way through Italy, called Delfzijl its hardest fight of the war. Not until May 4, finally, did news of the ceasefire order reach Canadian units on Dutch and German soil.
One Royal Canadian Navy officer on convoy escort on V-E Day recalled how startling it was to see “the lights go on at sea….The sight of 60-odd ships—well formed into convoy and fully illuminated—was a truly remarkable one, and after 5 1/2 years of darkness, a little frightening to behold.”
The darkness was ending everywhere. Gunner James P. Brady, a Métis from Alberta serving with a medium regiment, was in Marx, Germany, when the war ended. He wrote in his diary on May 8: “At last the wondrous day. Victory in Europe. Our crew, however, are silent and thoughtful. Anti-climax. There is no feeling of exultation, nothing but a quiet satisfaction that the job has been done and we can see Canada again.”
Few at the front cheered. Major Harry Jolley, a Dental Corps officer from Toronto, wrote to his sister that his own and his comrades’ reaction to the Nazi surrender had been almost a disappointment. “One would imagine that it would be one day at which an old soldier would look back and recall vivid unforgettable scenes….” Not so, he said. “I saw a few men gathered about our signals wagon as I went over to listen,” but “none of us shouted, threw hats in the air, nor anything of that sort. I remember I turned away and shouted to a friend ‘It’s all over now, Jack.’ He barely acknowledged having heard what I said and continued talking to the others in the group he was with. I felt—I don’t know practically nothing…. It was amazing.”
The last days of war had seen brutality mixed with a few signs of hope and compassion. Certainly, there was more than enough brutality to suit everyone. The 5th Canadian Armoured Div. had served in Italy as part of 1st Canadian Corps until the beginning of 1945 when it had been brought to Northwest Europe as part of Ottawa’s plan to reunite all of 1st Canadian Army under Canadian command. Now the division, called Hoffy’s Mighty Maroon Machine after its General Officer Commanding, Major-General Bert Hoffmeister of Vancouver, and the maroon patch the division sported, was driving north to cut the main road that the Germans were using for their retreat into northern Holland. The troopers took the village of Otterlo, and Hoffmeister set up his headquarters there on April 16. The remnants of three Wehrmacht divisions, desperately trying to reach the relative safety of western Holland, staged a breakout that night, and the brunt of their strength fell on the lines of the Irish Regiment of Canada, the Governor General’s Horse Guards, and the 17th Field Regt. A quiet night turned into death and chaos, but the Canadian units, all experienced and well-led, rallied and smashed the breakout, killing or capturing hundreds.
The Irish and the gunners received the lion’s share of the credit. Canadian Battery Sergeant-Major Gordie Bannerman remembered Hoffmeister on the morning of April 17 “standing up in…a large armoured car (and) speaking to the Irish group, probably a company. The general said what a terrific fight that the Irish had put up last night and how well all personnel had performed. ‘So I thank you all for a job well done.’ Up spoke an Irish major and his views were expressed to a man. ‘It was not us Sir who broke the German attack it was those darn artillerymen who did not know enough to run but stayed and broke the attack.’ Hoffmeister then asked who could lead him to the gunners and Darcy Spencer and I said ‘We can. We are from the 17th.’ ‘Climb on the armoured car and show me where’ was his reply!”
Hoffmeister knew how to fight and to lead.
So, too, in different ways did Maj.-Gen. Chris Vokes, commanding the 4th Canadian Armd. Div. His division was operating in Germany in mid-April when he learned that Lieutenant-Colonel F.E. Wigle of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, one of his ablest battalion commanders, had been killed by a German civilian at Friesoythe, Germany. In a cold rage, the tough-talking, tough-acting Vokes ordered the town to be destroyed. “We used the rubble to make traversable roads for our tanks,” Vokes wrote much later.
As later evidence demonstrated, the commanding officer had in fact been killed by German troops, bypassed in the advance, but Vokes was then and forever unrepentant. “I confess now to a feeling still of great loss” over the death of his friend “and a feeling of no great remorse over the elimination of Friesoythe.” It was a just war Canada was fighting, and in the minds of many Canadians, the Germans had brought ruination down upon the world and deserved whatever retribution fell on them.
No Canadian commander wanted more of his men to die in the final moments of the war. At Delfzijl, on April 29, the Canadians fired psychological warfare leaflets into the German lines, telling the enemy that Gestapo chief Heinrich “Himmler has today offered unconditional surrender to the Allies….We Canadians assume that up to now you don’t know about this. The war is practically over. You have done your duty.” Most of the Nazis continued to fight nonetheless, SS and Gestapo fanatics roaming behind the lines to shoot or hang any soldier who sought to save his own skin by deserting.
On the North Atlantic, the vicious, unending struggle with the U-boats continued until the last days of war. The Nazis had developed the Type XXI boats, the first true submersibles with an underwater speed of 17 knots and a schnorkel breathing apparatus that made surfacing almost unnecessary. The U-boats had sunk merchant ships and the minesweeper HMCS Clayoquot off Halifax around Christmas 1944.
The enemy’s last Canadian sinking occurred when HMCS Esquimalt, just out of sight of Halifax, was torpedoed on April 16, 1945, by U-190. Forty-four of her crew of 71 died when the minesweeper went down in just four minutes. In turn, Canadian frigates scored kills in British waters in the last months of the war. And just after V-E Day, U-889 arrived at Shelburne, N.S., its smiling captain, “full of goodwill and charm” and happily posing for the photographers, or so Commander Anthony Griffin wrote in his wonderful memoirs of his war service.
In the German-occupied northern Netherlands, meanwhile, the population continued to starve. The Hunger Winter of 1944-45 had seen the daily calorie consumption reduced to 600, and the desperate Dutch scrounged for tulip bulbs or sugar beets. Some 4.5 million Dutch slowly starved, while the very young and the very old died. The country was held in check by 120,000 Nazi troops and Dutch SS and collaborationist units. “Those five years we went through were violent,” one Dutch family wrote in thanking a Canadian soldier who had helped liberate them, and the Germans were dreadful beasts in their violation of our laws. They murdered our men, women and children; stole everything having any value for them, and we were hungry and poor… imprisoned, killed and tormented.”
Compassion had never been a trait for which the Nazis were known, and the Germans had stood by for months while the Dutch wasted away. But the Nazi Reichskommissar, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, hoping (vainly) that he might escape a war crimes trial, opened negotiations for a truce so that food could be brought to the Dutch. On April 28, most fighting in the Netherlands ceased—but not at Delfzijl—and soon convoys of trucks carrying the necessities of life were entering German-occupied territory.
Armed Wehrmacht soldiers watched suspiciously as the Canadian and British trucks rolled through their lines. From above, Operation Manna sent bombers laden with food to drop 7,000 tons under heavily-laden parachutes to cheering crowds. Some pilots, flying low because for once there was no ack-ack to avoid, swore they could hear the Dutch people cheering over the noise of their engines.
It was better to drop food than bombs. The last major operation by the RCAF’s No. 6 Group of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command was on April 25 against coastal defences in the Frisian Islands. Seven crews were lost, with 28 Canadians killed, when a chain-reaction of collisions brought down the big Lancasters.
Canadian soldiers did not and could not forget the nature of their enemy. Sam Cass, a Jewish chaplain, serving in 1st Canadian Army, somehow secured matzo and other supplies to hold Passover services for troops both on German and Dutch soil at the end of March. That was deeply moving, but as he reported to Ottawa, one service was particularly memorable: “I conducted a Seder at Nijmegen for the civilian community and about 35 troops. This was the first Passover these surviving remnants of Jewry enjoyed in the past five years. We met in the vestry of the synagogue, formerly the home of the rabbi, who had been deported by the Nazis. The synagogue itself, once a beautiful sanctuary, had been desecrated and stripped by foul vandal hands. The chairman of the group in addressing them said that the passage of the Haggadah, which reads ‘This year we are in bondage; next year may we be free’ may well be amended for them to read ‘In the past year, we were in bondage; but this year we are free.’ This was a dramatic gathering, and its impressions will not be forgotten by all personnel, British and Canadian, who attended.”
Six million of Europe’s Jews and millions of other untermenschen had been slaughtered by Hitler, and there were relatively few survivors among the Jews. On April 12, the South Saskatchewan Regt. of the 2nd Canadian Div. was advancing north into the Netherlands and came upon a place called Westerbork. This was a transit camp, a processing point through which 107,000 Dutch Jews had been transshipped to the death camps of Auschwitz. When the Canadians arrived, only 876 inmates remained. One of them, Robert Engel, recalled that he had heard a shout, “They are coming! They are coming!” Then he had seen a Wasp flamethrower (a carrier) and a soldier peering out from the top. “All I could say was ‘Thank you, thank you.’ He grinned and said ‘It’s okay. It’s okay.’” The liberated Jews began to sing the Dutch national anthem and then “Our liberators started singing. We didn’t know the song, had never heard it, but…they sang it with such pride, standing there with their dirty faces beaming…they sang…O Canada… and we were free.”
Everywhere the Canadians were hailed as liberators. At Utrecht, Ralph Allen reported to the Globe and Mail newspaper, every Allied vehicle entering the city through lines of cheering Dutch “was strewn with roses, lilies, big red and yellow tulips, orange streamers, makeshift confetti and colored pamphlets in praise of the Allies.” Lini Grol, a young woman who later immigrated to Canada, remembered that “People started running out of their houses with flowers and climbed on the tanks” when the first Canadians reached her town. “Everybody was so happy and started crying, including me: it was the most beautiful day of my life.” Grol added that she had starved for so long; it took her emaciated body time to get used to a diet that once again included fats.
Hearing the Dutch people’s stories of the occupation made the Canadians unforgiving. Captain John Gray, an intelligence officer, wrote in his memoirs that he drove in his jeep near just-liberated Rotterdam, freed only after the Nazi capitulation in Holland, and passed a house full of Wehrmacht soldiers who were “waving and yelling excitedly,” almost as if they were the people who had been liberated. “This we weren’t quite in a mood for yet, and we hurried by…. It wasn’t just a rough hockey game we had all been playing” and “they could not expect us to stop thinking them loathsome just because pieces of paper had been signed saying the shooting would stop.”
That incident stayed in Gray’s mind, but even more so he recalled sharing the remains of his lunch with a small crowd outside the Rotterdam Stadthuis. “I asked a man who seemed to be a leader was this of any use to them? He climbed onto the bonnet of the jeep and began to break the sandwiches into little bits and to give each man a small handful.…They ate slowly, relishing every crumb, licking at their hands to get the last taste. Some got sandwich, some pie, but all had something.” To many of the Dutch, Gray added, “the very taste of liberty remained for a long time a mouthful of good bread or pastry such as they had almost forgotten.” It was a grand thing to liberate a people.
Wars don’t end in tidy ways unfortunately, and there was chaos across the still-Nazi-controlled territories. Prisoners of war, for example, covered by the Geneva Convention, were entitled to proper treatment, but the Germans, fearful of the Soviet armies and keeping up the possibility of using their Allied captives as last-minute bargaining chips, had begun marching airmen towards the West as early as January 1945.
“This will be hard for you to believe,” RCAF Warrant Officer Don Scowen wrote his parents in Canada, “but from the 22nd of January to 13th of March we were walking from Lamsdorf to here—just over 500 miles. After the first 15 days we stopped at a Stalag but Joe Stalin was too fast for the Hun and we had to move off again and then we were just over four weeks on the road before we got here…. We had to live on German rations till the Yanks came and they have helped us out quite a bit even though their Army is moving so fast that the supply columns find it difficult to keep up. Strange to relate it was Good Friday afternoon when the Yanks got here and if you ever saw a madhouse this place was it. It was one of the greatest sights of my life to see that old white star.
“Most of us are in pretty bad shape at present,” Scowen went on, carefully telling his parents nothing of his own condition, “but will soon buck up on good rations. We had a lot of deaths from dysentery and exhaustion but I’ll bore you to death with the details in a few weeks’ time. God, does it feel good to know it won’t be long now before I see all of you again. I can hardly wait. God bless you and Gen. Patton.”
Another RCAF prisoner of war who had marched across the Reich in winter, Flight Lieutenant Robert Buckham, wrote of the day of his liberation: “We are free.
“It happened yesterday (May 2). The morning brought rumours that the 11th Div. of Montgomery’s 2nd Army is in Lubeck, Germany. The parapet overlooking the city was constantly crowded as we watched the aircraft fly over the city to the accompaniment of the sounds of mixed gunfire on the ground. At 5:20 p.m., an armoured tank appeared on the road, clattered out of the smoke as it approached the camp. The lead tank stopped opposite the camp, the turret opened, and a khaki-clad figure popped out and waved in our direction. The tension broke. A roar of cheers; crudely made flags waving; laughter and tears mingling; the guards running off, weaponless; men climbing the wire to run to the tanks; men embracing each other, shouting incoherently; men kneeling to pray; men staring vacantly, bewildered; thousands of men in a state of hysterical, blessed release.”
The Germans knew the end was near, too, and while many prepared themselves to fight to the end, others sought to surrender as expeditiously as possible. At the RCAF’s 126 Wing airfield at Wuntstorf, Germany, on April 29, a Luftwaffe Junkers 52 came in, as intelligence officer Monty Berger recalled, “With its navigation lights on, circled the field slowly and landed. The erks (mechanics) who eventually took the Luftwaffe crew into custody said the aircraft had taxied so nonchalantly to a spot near the wing’s dispersals they thought it was a Dakota!” One of the German crew remarked quietly that the Reich was “kaput.” It was, Berger added, “hard to argue the point.”
The end of Nazi resistance was now coming very fast. Gen. Harry Crerar, commander of First Canadian Army, hated the Germans with a passion fostered by his having fought two wars against them. He ordered that all his soldiers killed in Germany be buried in the friendlier soil of the Netherlands, for example. And because he did not want to deal with the Nazi officers, Crerar gave the task of negotiating the surrender in the Netherlands to Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes, commanding 1st Canadian Corps.
The surrender discussions were detailed, laying out responsibilities and giving the enemy clear instructions and warnings. On May 3, for example, Foulkes told the Wehrmacht representative, Lt.-Gen. Paul Reichelt, that while there would be no further Canadian attacks, any incidents started by the Germans would “be retaliated tenfold.”
Reichelt agreed to consider disarming the Dutch members of SS units, hated by the local population, and Foulkes showed him a map of Europe which had marked on it what remained of the Third Reich and informal talks on the question of surrender were carried on. Reichelt expressed the opinion that he and the German soldiers in Holland were prepared to flood the country and, if necessary, die in Holland sooner than to submit to surrender which meant being transported to Russia as slave labour. The commander of 1st Canadian Corps pointed out that as far as he knew there was no such arrangement and that there seemed to be little object and very little to be gained, except the destruction of Holland, by flooding the country and attempting to hide behind the Dutch people.
It was also pointed out to Reichelt—in no uncertain terms—that this act would be considered a war crime and those responsible would be considered war criminals and would be dealt with as such. The Dutch had suffered enough in five years of occupation; they would at least be spared this final act of ruination by the Germans.
Foulkes accepted the German surrender in the Netherlands at Wageningen’s The World Hotel on May 5. The Nazis, the Canadian general wrote later, were unhappy with the terms: “They thought that they would be accepted as prisoners of war and therefore would be fed by us…. However, as the stocks of food available were very short” and the needs of the Dutch very great, “I decided that the Germans would have to fend for themselves and that if there was any further shortage of food it would be the Germans who had to go short.”
The disarmed enemy forces, ordered to maintain their own forms of discipline, were kept away from the Dutch civilians. Most soon began a hard march back to camps in defeated Germany.
For Flying Officer Bob MacDougall, a tail gunner, the war ended very differently. Shot down over Denmark on April 26, his Halifax bomber ditched just off the coast. The crew made it to shore, and then split up. MacDougall soon was caught by a German soldier and put in a PoW camp. But on May 7, the capitulation of Germany now all but concluded except for the celebrations, the Nazis in Denmark wanted to surrender to a senior Allied officer. Incredibly, the 21-year-old MacDougall was the most “senior“ officer they could find. Flying Officer MacDougall duly and graciously accepted this pleasant duty, and jubilant Danes responded to the news by carrying him through the streets on their shoulders. It was over at last.
And so what was the result of the end of the war in Europe? Hitler was dead, Germany in ruins, the Nazis’ conquests liberated by the Allies and the Soviets. Millions had died in battle, in death camps and from hunger and disease; more would perish in the months to come, and peace proved to be a chimera as a long Cold War pitted the democracies against Josef Stalin’s regime. Nonetheless, this was a good war, a righteous war.
Freedom had prevailed and the democratic West had seen the triumph of its arms and of the values of the civilization it represented. Germany had once been part of that civilization; under Hitler’s monstrous regime, its people had violated every civilized norm. The Germans had to be stopped, and they were. The Canadian people, the men and women of the armed forces, had done their full part.
The war had left more than 42,000 Canadian servicemen dead—2,000 in the navy, 17,000 in the RCAF, and 23,000 in the army. Eight of the dead were women. The Merchant Marine lost 1,600 killed in action at sea. More than 54,000 servicemen had suffered wounds and 9,000 had been taken prisoner. This was a heavy price indeed, but blessedly less than in World War I.
Still, the losses weighed heavily on the people at home. “V-E Day for us was nothing to celebrate,” recalled one woman who had lost her husband and the father of her two children during fighting in the Falaise Pocket in Normandy. For the survivors of battles at sea, on land and in the air, there was relief at coming through more or less intact. But dead friends and relatives could not be forgotten in the field or at home.
The day after V-E Day, Gunner Brady talked feelingly of his artillery regiment’s commemorative service: “We assemble and parade before our Officer Commanding, Colonel Gagnon, and march to a memorial service in the little rural church nearby to commemorate those of our regiment who fell in the campaign. The colonel begins to read the 36 names of our fallen. Tears are in his eyes. He falters and hands the paper to the adjutant who calmly folds the paper and puts it in his pocket and quietly says, ‘It is not necessary. They were comrades. We remember.’”
And so we should, so we must.
Historian J.L. Granatstein was director and chief executive officer of the Canadian War Museum from 1998 to 2000. His most recent book is The Last Good War: An Illustrated History of Canada in the Second World War, 1939-1945 (Douglas & McIntyre).