Author Andrew Iarocci says YES.
Author J.L. Granatstein says NO.
Iarocci is an assistant professor of history at Western University in London, Ont., and is the author of Shoestring Soldiers: The First Canadian Division, 1914-15. His research interests include military transportation and procurement. Granatstein has written dozens of books, including Who Killed Canadian Military History? and Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace. He is a former director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum.
Liberating the Netherlands was the most important political achievement of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, but it was not the most important military accomplishment.
Armies exist to fight and win wars, to defeat the enemy. The Canadians liberated a slice of western Holland in the Scheldt campaign from Oct. 2 to Nov. 8, 1944, and occupied parts
of southern Holland in the winter of 1944-45. However, the liberation of most of the populated parts of the Netherlands occurred in April 1945, when the Germans were teetering
on the edge of surrender, and after VE-Day in May. There was fighting, and there were casualties, and the Canadian soldiers deserve the honour and affection given ever since by the Dutch, but their liberation was not the greatest accomplishment of the Canadian army.
Instead, consider I Canadian Corps’ dazzling breakthrough of the Gothic Line, protecting the Po River valley in Italy in the late summer of 1944. General Bert Hoffmeister, commanding the 5th Canadian Armoured Division, saw that the German positions were curiously unmanned, persuaded his corps and army superiors to move up the attack planned for a few days later, committed his armoured brigade at once, and punched a great hole in the enemy line. That mattered, and “Hoffy’s Mighty Maroon Machine,” as it was called, made the difference. That Hoffmeister was an officer who had risen from the militia made that victory all the sweeter.
Simonds’ brilliant, if costly, campaign in the fall of 1944 was a war-winning battle.
Not convinced yet? Consider the battle to clear the Scheldt River estuary in October and early November 1944. Routed in Normandy, the Germans retreated east as fast as they could go in late August and September. Generals Dwight Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery mounted a huge airborne operation to seize crossings over the Rhine River, the famous “bridge too far.” But Montgomery somehow forgot about the Scheldt, the 65-kilometre-long estuary that supply ships had to sail to reach the great Belgian port of Antwerp, easily taken by British troops in September. Without marine access to that port, no supplies; without supplies, the Allies could not move. Clearing the Scheldt, by late September well fortified by more than 100,000 of the enemy’s best troops, fell to the First Canadian Army, led by its acting commander, Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds.
The one Canadian senior officer highly regarded by Canada’s allies, Simonds came up with a brilliant plan. Over objections from the Dutch government in exile, he persuaded the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command to destroy the dikes on Walcheren Island, flooding its farmland and isolating its defenders. He ordered Canadian divisions across the Leopold Canal, into the Breskens Pocket of fortified German resistance, and over the narrow peninsula to South Beveland and the even-more-constrained causeway to the eastern end of Walcheren Island. Finally, a seaborne attack and air and sea shelling destroyed the remainder of the enemy on Walcheren.
This was a gruelling campaign, fought in dreadful conditions of mud and cold. The flooded ground defied movement and forced the attackers to move atop the dikes, exposed to fire. The Germans resisted fiercely, their commanders understanding that the loss of the Scheldt estuary meant defeat in the west. But First Canadian Army (reinforced with troops from Britain, Poland and other Allied countries) prevailed, though suffering losses of almost 13,000 officers and men.
In late November, once the estuary had been cleared of mines, Antwerp at last opened to shipping. The attacks across the Rhine, the clearing of the Rhineland and the liberation of the Netherlands could now proceed, with the Allies’ superiority in materiel assured.
The Gothic Line victory today is remembered mainly by Canadians who fought there and by a few historians. It should be much better known. The victory on the Scheldt gets more recognition, but curiously First Canadian Army’s role somehow receives rather short shrift in most accounts. It deserves more plaudits. Simonds’ brilliant, if costly, campaign in the fall of 1944 was a war-winning battle, a greater military achievement than the actual liberation months later, and certainly the Canadian Army’s greatest achievement of the Second World War.
Every step of the Canadian Army’s long march through Italy, Normandy and Northwest Europe helped to win the Second World War. Among these campaigns, however, the liberation of the Netherlands stands out as the army’s most significant achievement.
After the failure of Operation Market Garden—a bold yet risky plan for airborne troops to seize bridges over the Rhine River in September 1944—the Allies faced the bitter reality of another winter at war with Germany. Allied logistics, meanwhile, had become badly strained. As of late September, most supplies were still coming by road all the way from the Normandy beaches, through France and Belgium, and then up the front in the Netherlands and along the German border. Antwerp, Europe’s largest port, had been in Allied hands since before Market Garden, but the approaches to the port along the Scheldt River estuary remained under stubborn German control.
It was largely the task of the First Canadian Army to clear the Scheldt estuary. This meant hard fighting in the Breskens Pocket (on the south bank of the estuary) coupled with a drive north of Antwerp through Woensdrecht, South Beveland, and finally, Walcheren Island (along the north bank). By the middle of November, the Canadians had defeated German forces in the Scheldt, and the first merchant ships arrived in Antwerp, just in time to support the Allied response to the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes Forest that December. The Canadian Army was not the only Allied force to fight in the Scheldt, but it was the key player. More than 6,350 Canadians were killed or injured, accounting for some 50 per cent of Allied losses in the Scheldt. Strategically, the opening of the port of Antwerp was arguably the Canadian Army’s single most important contribution to the war.
The liberation of the Netherlands was about more than strategy or logistics. The Canadian Army’s struggle against a ruthless opponent underscored the very purpose of sacrificing so much for total victory.
But the liberation of the Netherlands was about more than strategy or logistics. The Canadian Army’s struggle against a ruthless opponent underscored the very purpose of sacrificing so much for total victory. During winter of 1944-45, German occupation authorities had systematically deprived the population in the old provinces of Holland of food and coal supplies. Under the circumstances, each day under occupation meant more deaths from starvation and sickness. Estimates suggest that the famine, known as the Hunger Winter, claimed some 18,000 lives. Whatever the absolute total, civilians perished at such a rate that there were not enough gravediggers to bury them all. To drive the Germans out of the western Netherlands was not simply a military requirement, but also an urgent humanitarian necessity.
The liberation of the Netherlands was vital to ending the war. Canadians saved lives by forcing the Germans to surrender or withdraw. But the campaign also shaped Canada’s evolving national identity. After nearly six years of war, all five Canadian overseas divisions and two independent tank brigades were united within a single formation—the First Canadian Army—to fight as a truly national force (albeit one with other Allied troops under its command) in the Netherlands.
Did the unification of Canada’s overseas forces really matter that much, coming as late as it did in the war? As historian Terry Copp has written, the fighting of April-May 1945, much of it on Dutch soil, was as bitter and painful as anything the Canadians had yet seen—and they had seen plenty. In April, the final full month of the war, 1,191 Canadian soldiers died. A further 114 were killed in May before VE-Day. Each of these men—the last ones to fall in a long struggle—is buried in a Canadian cemetery in the Netherlands.