The Canadian soldier who conquered the Dutch
Wilfred Berry was an obscure Canadian soldier liberating an obscure Dutch village. Then he was killed, and became in death what he’d never been in life — a hero, one of the many who, 20 years later, still make Canadians something special in the Netherlands
IT’S HARD — perhaps impossible — to fully explain why the Dutch should have a special affection for Canada and Canadians.
True, Canadians liberated Holland from the Germans — but Americans freed half Europe, and they're still almost universally disliked. True, Canadian tanks went to battle carrying bread for starving Dutch civilians —but. like all soldiers in just-freed Europe, Canadians later profited from a black market. True, 1,900 Canadian soldiers married Dutch girls — but within a year of liberation 3,374 other Dutch girls bore illegitimate children, mostly of Canadian paternity.
But even if all this addition and subtraction seems to amount to a big fat zero, most Dutch men and women over 35 still say of the Canadezen: “Ze kunnen een potje hij ons breken.“ Literally translated, that's: “They can break a pot of mine any time.” In spirit, it means the speaker is so tond of Canadians they can do him harm, and he'll still like them.
“Ze kunnen een potje bij ons breken" . . . it's something for Canadians to be proud of, that. And if it is hard to explain this entente. it's also easy to find evidence of it. The tulips of Ottawa which bloom each spring are annual gifts from Queen Juliana who, as crown princess, spent part of the war in our capital. Thousands of Dutch families still exchange Christmas cards with Canadian soldiers befriended in the months after May 5, 1945. when the Germans, holding out in that part of Holland not yet overrun, finally capitulated. There's an old man from Deventer so grateful for liberation that for 20 years he's sent the Canadian embassy a Deventer cake, a spicy loaflike confection, on the anniversaries of the treeing of his home town. Annual Liberation
Day parades and parties are dying out as memory fades, but the evidence of gratitude remains in streets named after Canada, Canadian generals, Canadian cities. Not long ago, when we stopped outside the royal palace near Hilversum, the queen's gardener asked where we were from and, on the reply, “Canada,” he made sure the palace guards weren't looking, plucked a red rose from the regal flower beds and, with a flourish, presented it to my wife.
We were in Holland trying to measure this intangible goodwill Canadian soldiers somehow left behind, along with the babies, the debris of battle and their dead. But nothing—not the gift of tulips, the old man and the cake, the Liberation Day parades, the street names nor even the gallantry of the queen’s gardener — explained it as well as the story of Trooper Wilfred Robert George Berry, an unknown soldier, and Oldeholpta, an unknown village in the northern part of Holland called Friesland.
Wilfred Berry wasn’t a memorable man. Even his three brothers and one sister don’t remember him well, because their mother died when Wilfred, the eldest, was a teenager and the family split up. He was not particularly ambitious; a competent, but not outstanding, soldier just as he had been a competent, but not outstanding, assemblyman at the General Motors plant in St. Catharines, Ont., before he enlisted on April 13, 1941, at the age of 20. Six months later he was in England, where he waited out a goodly part of his war with a few hundred thousand others. He and the rest of the Royal Canadian Dragoons were still in Italy when the Canadian Army fought up through Belgium and into Holland and swept around the
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First, fighters—then quiet. War had come to the village
AmsterdamHagueRotterdam area where a third of Holland’s 12 million people live and where the Germans kept control until capitulation.
In March 1945, along with the rest of the Dragoons, Berry landed in Holland to join the fight for northeast Europe. He had won no medals and earned no stripes but simply had done
what he was told, usually not knowing. and not caring either, which piece of which jigsaw he was supposed to he in someone’s grand design.
By April 1945 the Canadians had ended the gory battles of southern and southeastern Holland and had rolled across the relentlessly flat countryside beneath the lowering clouds of Hol-
land's spring skies so that, as one veteran remembers it. "it was as though you were driving forever through a Vermeer landscape.”
Sometime during the drive north through Friesland the crossroads town of Heerenveen became an important strategic objective. Oldeholpta is near Heerenveen : an easily missed side
turning wriggles off the main road and past the church of yellowing limestone which, they say, dates from the 1 2th century. Then it becomes the treeroofed main street of Oldeholpta. lined with neat bungalows, mostly of red brick, with the newer and bigger houses near the church and the smaller homes toward the other end of the village, perhaps a mile away.
Until the end, Oldeholpta saw little of the war. At first, German officers billeted themselves in the abbé’s house near the church, but they soon left. Later, German trucks would roll into the village without warning and soldiers would search the houses for young men to be pressed into slave labor, and for Jews as well: Holland’s Jewish population was all but exterminated. But usually these raiding parties found no one because the young men had an early-warning system and. as the Germans arrived, would flee across the fields to the marshland half a mile away, where they would hide aboard a raft camouflaged to look like an island. There was an 8 p.m. curfew in the village, as there was everywhere in Holland, but otherwise the village peace was little disturbed: the people didn't even go hungry, because Oldeholpta is in the heart of verdant farmland, and Jan Dekker, the butcher, was a good provider for himself and his friends, and too important to be dragged away to a labor camp.
In fact, the shooting war didn’t come to Oldeholpta until Thursday. April 12. The day before, a patrolling German armored car had broken down at the far end of the village and been abandoned. The night before, the village had lain awake, alternately listening to the radio news from London and to the distant rumble of artillery. That morning, as the sun grew hot. Allied fighters strafed a German convoy on the main road nearby. By noon there was an ominous quiet, and Oldeholpta stood expectant by its front gates. At 1.30 p.m. there was a growing rumble from the road behind the church, and then three scout cars—menacing, but their weapons stilled—turned the corner. The Canadians had arrived.
The villagers cheered and draped themselves around the cars and the Canadians grinned and stopped outside Jan Dekker’s meat shop, asking directions for Heerenveen and distributing white bread, chocolate and cigarettes. Then, when villagers told them the crew of the abandoned German
Suddenly from ambush, a burst of fire— and Berry lay dying
armored car parked farther down the road had fled the day before, they turned up the lane alongside Jan Dekker's and drove to Heerenveen.
Thirty minutes later three more Canadian scout cars drove through the village. This group missed the turning to Heerenveen and drove on toward the apparently abandoned German armored car. The lead scout car was about 150 yards ahead of the others, and as it passed the German vehicle there came a burst of tire from an antitank rifle. The villagers were wrong: two Germans had remained behind on guard, hidden. The scout car swung out of control, then toppled on its side. Two of the threeman crew scrambled out and took cover. The driver, hit in the back, lay half toppled out of the car, his dark hair hanging limply down, blood spreading on the ground.
It was Wilfred Robert George Berry.
He had been in Holland for three weeks, and 10 days earlier had. for the first time in three years, met his younger brother Torne by chance during a convoy halt, and said shyly that he was thinking of getting married. Now he was dead, or dying.
They remember — and cry
There are some in Oldeholpta who say he lived for perhaps 30 minutes after the shooting; that he called out for water; that old Andriesje Dekker. the widow in whose Iront garden the scout car lay, took him water— and to do so braved the bullets sprayed along the street by the two other Canadian scout cars by now' parked in the forecourt of Hendrik Kroonkamp’s café. But Frau Dekker is dead now and cannot be asked it it's true.
Anyway, the Germans escaped and the other scout cars went on to Hecrenveen. leaving the corpse of Wilfred Berry at the roadside for the villagers to guard overnight. When Jan Dekker, an old man now. sat in his meticulously neat living room telling me this story, he cried when he reached the part where he took his turn guarding the body. He said he still sees Wilfred Berry’s face in his sleep.
The villagers buried Wilfred Berry in Oldeholpta, and collected 1,000 guilders for a memorial. It stands there today, a simple shaft of marble that says it is in memory of Trooper Berry; born. Shelburne, Ontario, Canada, on August 23. 1920 — "killed in action.” A maple tree has been planted nearby, and in the spring, summer and fall, you'll usually find a vase of flowers standing before the memorial. Berry was later reburied in one ot the three official Canadian cemeteries for the wat dead in Holland, and most years one of the village organizations -—the billiard club from the Kafe Kroonkamp, the choir, the schoolchildren—goes on a pilgrimage there to tend the grave.
There’s many a lather who, 22 years after, can tell of his son's death with dry eyes. In Oldeholpta they still cry for Wilfred Berry, and the children all know' the manner of his death.
But then. 19 years after he was killed, Wilfred Berry came to the rescue of the village in another matter. In 1964 the village built its first new road in 20 years. It is perhaps 150 yards long and contains eight houses. The local government—centred in a nearby town of Wolvega, named the new road Yester Straat and
the villagers were outraged. In the local Fries dialect yester is a word that means "cow pen." and for one thing no one wanted to live in a cow pen and for another the village did not sympathize with those who wanted to impose the dialect on their neighborhood. And so they besieged the local-government council meetings un-
til. finally. Burgemeester Boelens said the name of Yester Straat could be changed, but only if the villagers could come up with a more suitable name.
Jouke de Leeuw, the schoolmaster, called a village meeting in the café at which about 100 people rejected every suggested name until de Leeuw himself stood and proposed Yester Straat become Wilfred Berry Straat. There was a unanimous standing vote of approval. Jouke de Leeuw and Jan Dekker. who was chairman of the meet-
“They fought for us, you understand, us they didn’t know”
mg. delayed their proposal until early 1965 when all Holland had begun planning celebrations of the 2()lh anniversary of the liberation. I hey knew that Burgemeester Bodens could hardly refuse the village permission to rename the street in memory of a Canadian liberator. And so. on May 5. 1965 - 20th anniversary of liberation -the village had a second memorial to the one man who died there during the war. Vester Straal became Wilfred Berry Straat.
I he impact that the death of Will red Berry had on Okleholpta is as hard to explain as this special relationship between Canada and Holland.
In part, it might be because the Canadians organized a truce with the Germans in midbattle so food could be sent in to starving Dutch civilians in still-occupied Holland. In part, it might he because Canadians fighting in Europe were all volunteers — and the Dutch knew it. In the case ol Okleholpta it might seem, at least to a cynic who'll never been there, that Wilfred Berry’s memory is a sort ol communal trophy ol the war: the only blood to be shed for that village was Ins blood. But men like Ian Dekker and Joukc de Leeuw don’t cry for spurious reasons.
SOON, THIS SPECIAL relationship between Canada and Holland will vanish: already the young are impatient of their elders’ stories of the war—
they want only to forget. Indeed, modern Holland has plenty of problems to occupy the Dutch so that dwelling on yesterday is an irritant or an escape. It has inflation (an ailment it shares with most other Western countries): doctors within its medicare scheme are rebellious; and the popular image of the Dutch as a phlegmatic. if not stolid, race was abruptly shattered when the Dutch look to the streets of Amsterdam to demonstrate their anger that Princess Beatrix should dare marry a German. Then there are the Provos of Amsterdam, a group of social protesters who all wear white, hold spontaneous demonstrations in mid-Amsterdam promptly at N.30 pan. each Saturday and seem to believe the world should return to fundamentals, though they’d like to retain one product of scientific progress: the motorized bicycle, which is the l ord ol Holland and is locally called the Bromfeits: they make a
sound just like their name, and buzz around the cities -notably The Hague like a swarm of bees, a plague to themselves and everyone else.
I here are other signs that memory is fading. I he annual transAtlantic pilgrimages of relatives of the 5.632 Canadian servicemen buried in Holland to the war cemeteries at Bergen op Zoom. Groesbeek and Holton have ended. Emigration from Holland to Canada, which sent almost a quarter million Dutch to Canada in the
past 20 years, is dwindling as the Common Market revitalizes Europe.
Even so. it’ll be a long time before the Dutch are permitted to forget the fact ol the Canadian liberation. Canadian Generals Crerar and Foulkes are celebrated in street names, along with Churchill and Roosevelt. In Deventer. a still almost-medieval town on the River IJssel, there is even a Gibson Straat, named after the brigadier commanding Canadians who liberated the town on April 10. 1945. Deventer is probably best known for its Deventer koek (cake), one of which arrives by mail every April 1 1 at the Canadian embassy in The Hague. It is sent by Albert van Donsclaar, a 66year-old former wholesale tobacconist, as a token of his gratitude for the liberation. Today, van Donsclaar lives in retirement in an apartment development about four kilometres outside Deventer, and there recently explained that "no one could understand quite what liberation meant to us unless they, too, had once been prisoners in their own country.”
On the evening of April 10, 1945, when the tide of fighting had swept through the town and the Dutch emerged from their cellars, van Donselaar gave seven battle-fatigued Canadian soldiers his family's beds. He remembers still: "Those boys, they
slept like dead men, and I sat up all night listening as they ground their teeth and called out. shivering and
shouting, fighting in their sleep. Fighting for us. you understand, us they didn't know.”
The Deventer koek is neither the only, nor the most surprising, reminder of the liberation regularly received by the Canadian embassy. A few months ago they received a letter front a woman who said that after the liberation she had turned down a proposal of marriage from a Canadian soldier, but now she had changed her mind and wanted to accept, so could they help her find him again. From Skiplauten, a man wrote and said he had just cleared his drainage ditch and found the blockage was caused by an old, decaying Canadian Army uniform. Why, he asked, would a soldier bury his uniform in a ditch? And then there are the children the Canadian soldiery left behind: there was much vociferous concern in the two years after fighting ended about the exchange of favors between Dutch girls and their heroes, the liberators. At the time Holland's leading satirical magazine. Metro, reported: ‘"Our correspondent in Bergen op Zoom [a major Canadian base] says that if a new world war should break out in 20 years, no Canadian army would have to be sent to Holland: a few shiploads of uniforms would be sufficient.” And now. once in a while, the subject comes back to haunt the Canadian embassy: Staff Sergeant
Neill Hill, aide to Canada's military attache in Holland, not long ago handled a letter from a woman who said the father of her eldest son, now 20, was a Canadian and she wondered if
he would be prepared to help pay for the boy's art-school training. The soldier, she said, had told her his name was Brad Stork. “What do you do, for God's sake?” says Sergeant Hill. “You can cry a little, but I suppose it's part of war.”
It was to keep the liberators out of trouble that, at Doetinchem, near Arnhem, officers put 100 or so men of the Black Watch to w'ork creating a park out of a piece of scrubland near a housing development on the town’s outskirts. That park, a belt of wellkept lawn on either side of a stream, became a symbol of Doetinchem’s affection for Canada. The streets around it were renamed — Toronto Straat, Winnipeg Straat, Vancouver Straat. T he park is Canada Park; the local school is Canada School. There's an old Canadian tank mounted on a concrete pedestal in the park: it was knocked out in the first round of bitter fighting across the River IJssel at Doetinchem. and stood, derelict, for 20 years as a plaything for two generations of children. Then in 1965, a detachment of Canadians stationed in Germany were sent to smarten up the park for the 20th-anniversary ceremony to be held there. They moved the old tank, and painted it. too.
1 was there one bleak, rainy day and a handful of children were clambering over the outside of the tank. Before the tank w-as painted, they used to climb inside it and light a fire on the driver’s scat and fan the smoke out through the gun barrel. That was fun. But when they moved the tank, the Canadians bolted down the trapdoor entrance. 1 asked the children if they knew who the Canadians were, and one who seemed to be the leader said, “Yes, they're the ones who fixed the lid of the tank. We do not like them much.”
And so, one day soon, the Canadian in Holland will be greeted with the same smiling, but frequently remote, courtesy wdth w'hich Europeans greet all tourists. The Canadians will have become just another history-book name for one of the scores of warring tribes that have battled back and forth across Europe for centuries. But for a lew years you will still be able to go to Holland and say you’re from Canada and have the queen's gardener offer your wife a rose. ★