Addressing a standing-room-only crowd in the new Omnisportcentrum—a 5,000-seat multi-use sports arena in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, Mayor Fred de Graaf spoke to the Canadian veterans present and those gathered to honour them. “We knew we could not keep honouring your fallen comrades. We had to pass on the information. We had to let the next generation know of the suffering that we went through. And that is what we have done.”
It was a bold statement, but one no one would challenge. The Canadian veterans had just ridden through the city in vintage military vehicles to the cheers, shouts and kisses of crowds estimated as high as 150,000—more people than the city’s population. For some, it was like the victory in the Netherlands 65 years ago that they had come to celebrate.
For others, it was appreciation for their past actions as they had never experienced.
It was the last event on the May 1-10 pilgrimage organized by Veterans Affairs Canada to mark the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands. Led by Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, the delegation included representative veterans of the Netherlands campaign.
With the minister were Jack Ambler of Regina who had flown with the Royal Air Force dropping supplies for those in the ill-fated attempt to take the bridge at Arnhem during Operation Market Garden; Elsie Dandy, a nursing sister from Fergus, Ont.; Ron Monkman of Victoria Beach, Man., who served with the Winnipeg Rifles; André Rousseau of the Royal Canadian Navy; Lieutenant-General Gilles Turcot of Magog, Que., who commanded a company of the Royal 22nd Regiment during the liberation; and Robert Wilson of Victoria who served with the merchant navy.
The Royal Canadian Legion was represented by Dominion President Wilf Edmond. He was joined by Gordon Marsh of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada (ANAVETs) and Jan de Vries of the National Council of Veteran Associations and a veteran of the liberation campaign himself. The Canadian Forces was represented by Dave Munro of Chemainus, B.C., a member of the Canadian Peacekeeping Veterans Association.
Canada’s youth were represented by two high school students who had participated in the Encounters With Canada program, Fannie Simon of Kedgwick, N.B., and Eric Dalshaug of Saskatoon. Senators Fred Dickson and Tommy Banks and Liberal MP Rob Oliphant and Bloc Quebecois MP Guy André rounded out the party.
After landing at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, the delegation travelled by coach to Apeldoorn, roughly 80 kilometres south. The city, which has a population of 135,000, is centrally located and for years has been the site of Victory in Europe celebrations, including the massive liberation parade.
The royal family’s support and commitment to honouring Canadian liberators was evident from the first event on May 3. Queen Beatrix, who, with her mother Princess Juliana, took refuge in Canada during the Second World War, was present for the very first ceremony, a remembrance service at Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery, the largest of the Canadian war cemeteries in the Netherlands. She was accompanied by her sister, Princess Margriet, who was born in Ottawa during the occupation.
The royal presence did much to highlight the bonds between the two countries forged in the Second World War. Canada was the safe haven for the young royal family while young Canadians were given the task of clearing the northern coast once the Allies had achieved success in the Battle of Normandy. In doing so, they liberated the Netherlands and brought food to a starving population, but at of cost of 7,600 Canadian lives.
There are 2,338 Canadian graves, including 141 air men in Groesbeek. The cemetery is near Nijmegen from which the Battle of the Rhineland began in what was to prove the final fighting of the war. Among them is Sergeant Aubrey Cosens of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. In his speech, Blackburn recalled the actions of Cosens on the night of Feb. 25-26, 1945, which earned him a posthumous Victoria Cross. While attacking three farm buildings near the hamlet of Mooshof, Cosens entered all three buildings alone, killing or capturing the occupants. However, a sniper’s bullet found him, killing him instantly.
A full remembrance service followed with Queen Beatrix placing the first floral tribute at the Cross of Sacrifice.
For the Dutch, May 4 is a very solemn day. It is when they remember all of the men, women and children who died during the occupation, including the soldiers, sailors and airmen who died liberating them. It is marked by two minutes of silence held at 8 p.m. everywhere, in restaurants, offices and on the streets.
In Apeldoorn, roughly 3,000 people, including some members of the Canadian delegation, gathered in the central park for speeches, but when eight o’clock struck, the entire crowd fell silent. Hardly a noise could be heard throughout the city.
That morning at Holten Canadian War Cemetery, the Canadian delegation attended a ceremony organized by the Welcome Again Veterans Foundation and attended by Princess Margriet and her husband Pieter van Vollenhoven.
The Holten cemetery was established after the war as a final resting place for Canadian military personnel who died in the Netherlands or in Germany. There are 1,355 Canadians buried there, including three airmen and one sailor.
In contrast to the flat landscape stretching over most of the western part of the country, the cemetery is in a forested area on a hill. While most of the graves are located on flat ground at the base of a slope, the Cross of Sacrifice is on higher ground overlooking the cemetery. It was there that bugler Cameron Walker of the Governor General’s Foot Guards and piper Sergeant Bill MacDougall of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa played the Last Post and the lament for a solemn remembrance ceremony.
Close by were roughly 100 Dutch children patiently waiting for their part in the ceremony. After a flypast of four Harvard aircraft and a wreath- and flower-placing ceremony, the children responded to a signal by jumping into the air. They then moved quietly to their places in front of the rows of graves.
Picking up small bouquets that had been placed at the end of each row, the children ran to a grave where they placed their flowers, and then quietly stepped back to reflect for a few moments on the soldier buried there. The children were then off to another row until all the graves in the cemetery had flowers in front of them. As they returned to their original places, a helicopter dropped hundreds of paper poppies which were eagerly snapped up by the other children in the crowd. “The amazing thing is the way the children have learned about the wars,” said Legion Dominion President Wilf Edmond. “We would be a better country if we could just teach that to the youth of Canada.”
After the formal ceremony, the Canadian youth representatives each gave presentations on soldiers from their home province, and they did this while standing in front of the well-kept graves.
The mood of the country turned to celebration the next day. One of the most exuberant celebrations takes place in Wageningen, where on May 5, 1945, at the Hotel de Wereld, Canada’s Lieutenant-General Charles Foulkes, accompanied by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, accepted the formal surrender of Colonel-General Johannes Blaskowitz, commander of the German forces in the Netherlands. The hotel is still there and the square outside is known as May 5 Square. The main route to it has been renamed Generaal Foulkesweg.
While the rest of the delegation viewed the parade from bleachers beside the hotel, veterans in the group rode in the parade on vintage military vehicles furnished by the Keep Them Rolling group of antique vehicle enthusiasts. “The Liberation March Past is a very important part of what makes Wageningen such as special city. I can see people standing in rows too deep to count, lining rooftops and leaning out of windows to show their support,” said Blackburn, addressing the crowd before sharing the reviewing stand with Dutch Secretary of Defence Jack de Vries.
Children released white, helium-filled balloons into the air as white doves flew over the streetscape. A sign made of fireworks exploded, spelling out 65 Years Freedom.
Marching at the end of the parade were thousands of Canadian high school students who were travelling with the EF Educational Tours. Throughout the week the delegation would often run across the more than 2,400 students and teachers from 85 schools across Canada participating in events. Each student had been assigned to research a particular member of the military, many of them buried in the cemeteries being visited.
The following day, the delegation rose early to travel to Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery near the Belgium border. Located north of the Scheldt River, the cemetery is the resting place for many killed in the Battle of the Scheldt in the fall of 1944. There are 968 Canadian graves, including 64 for members of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
With 45 kilometres of docks, the Belgian city of Antwerp became essential for supplying the troops for the final advance into the Rhineland. But while the Allies controlled the port, the Germans controlled the Scheldt Estuary through which ships would have to pass to reach Antwerp.
The Germans had flooded the area to defend their positions, but the Canadians broke through in a series of amphibious attacks that were among the mostly costly battles Canadians fought during the war. It was there that André Rousseau, now 86, fought in motor torpedo boats as part of the 29th Canadian Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla. “We used to go out in threes, hunting for German ships trying to protect the area. We couldn’t fight them broadside, so we used to charge at them head-on,” he said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper attended the service at Bergen-op-Zoom along with Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands and General Walter Natynczyk, Canada’s chief of defence staff.
Speaking of the First Canadian Army, Harper said, “This army, more than 175,000 Canadians reinforced by Dutch and Allied forces fought its way from Normandy to Rotterdam, field by field, canal by canal, dike by daunting dike. They crossed deep, boot-sucking mud. They passed over ground heavily mined. They navigated flooded lowland, the water sometimes too high to wade through, but too shallow for boats. And around them, and before them always, the dreadful rattle of the machine-gun.”
Addressing the youth, Harper said, “Would you know what heroism is? Look here. Would you know what it means to be a citizen? Look here. Would you, a lifetime awaiting you, know how you should live? Then look here and look about you, where only heroes rest. Where only those remain, who drank the full cup of a citizen’s duty.”
The delegation then visited a wind-blasted point near the town of Middelburg on the North Sea. Blackburn was representing Environment Minister Jim Prentice, the minister responsible for Parks Canada, as he and Dr. Richard Alway, chairman of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, and local officials unveiled a plaque explaining the Canadian role in the Battle of the Scheldt which raged from September until Nov. 8, 1944.
The next day Senator Dickson led the delegation, as Blackburn had returned to Canada to participate in VE-Day commemorations. The group travelled to Kamp Westerbork, a transit camp where thousands of Jews, gypsies and resistance members were brought before being shipped by train in cattle cars to Auschwitz and other extermination and concentration camps.
The railway tracks used to send trainloads of people to the concentration camps have been torn up and twisted skyward, so that no train can ever use them again. It is a powerful memorial. “Here at Westerbork, we are reminded of a dark past. We can sense the loss and the unspeakable things that have happened here. From this place 93 trains transported some 100,000 people to extermination camps in Eastern Europe,” said Dickson. “Among the dead, of course, was the diarist Anne Frank.”
The final commemoration attended by the group was the May 9 Apeldoorn parade. Crowds lined the streets and joyful bursts of enthusiasm greeted the veterans, many of whom were riding high on dozens of restored military vehicles. Leading the entourage was the Royal Canadian Artillery Band from Edmonton.
That excitement and appreciation gave the mayor the confidence to claim his generation had succeeded at passing on the message of remembrance to a new generation that had no knowledge of the repression and hunger of the war years. It was a statement with which no one chose to argue.
It was an unfulfilled promise and a journey that would take 65 years to complete, but on a drizzly, cold afternoon, May 3, Jean-Marie Leroy returned to his pal Private Joseph Conrad Montcalm. The reunion took place in the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands when Leroy’s ashes were interred next to Montcalm’s grave in a touching service attended by Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn, Montcalm’s younger brother André, and family members.
Leroy, who was born in Belgium in 1924, but moved to Canada when he was six, had joined the Fusiliers Mont-Royal during the Second World War. Within the unit he became fast friends with Montcalm. “Jean-Marie was of small stature, about 5’4” and 125 pounds, where Conrad was 6’ 1” and 225 pounds. While in basic training Jean-Marie was afraid Conrad, in the upper bunk, might fall on him during the night, so they switched, recalled André Montcalm in his graveside eulogy.
Together the two had served in Normandy and on into Belgium and the Netherlands. But the fast friendship was tried on Jan. 28, 1945, in fierce fighting near Groesbeek. The 20-year-old Montcalm was wounded by machine-gun fire and called for Leroy to come to his aid. With the battle raging around him, Leroy could not pause but promised he would return as soon as possible. It was not until the fighting was over that Leroy learned his friend had died.
He returned to Canada and lived in Trois-Rivières, Que., but the promise stayed with him the rest of his life. When he died in January 2009, his will asked that his ashes be placed by his friend in the cemetery.
After Blackburn and André Montcalm spoke, the younger Montcalm poured ashes from a vial into a small hole dug into the earth by his brother’s grave. He then scooped earth from a bucket on top of the ashes. He was followed by Blackburn and Leroy’s friend Guy Bordeleau who had arranged the ceremony. The Canadian Forces padre, Captain Charles Deogratias, gave an interment blessing and the reunion was complete.
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