VICTORY IN EUROPE
CANADIANS PAID A BIG PRICE IN THE FINAL CAMPAIGN TO DEFEAT HITLER'S GERMANY
To say in April, 1945, that Europe was tired of war was to understate the obvious. Most of its grandest cities were an architecture of rubble. The great battles to liberate the continent from Adolf Hitler’s racialist conquests had been fought and won, leaving tens of millions dead in their wake but the war’s outcome certain. Indeed, if the Allies’ bold but poorly planned Operation Market Garden had succeeded in September, 1944, the deadliest war in history might already have been over. But British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s gamble to crack the spine of Nazi defences by landing paratroopers behind German lines in occupied Holland had turned into an Allied disaster, a slaughter at the infamous “bridge too far” near Arnhem. In Britain, where there had been a run on Union Jacks in the stores through the autumn in anticipation of peace by Christmas, there was now widespread grumpiness that the war’s deprivations dragged on.
Yet by that April, the Allies were again on the cusp of victory in Europe and the proclamation of VE-Day on May 8. Italy was almost entirely in Allied hands, and by the end of April the pompous Fascist leader-in-exile Benito Mussolini would be captured and shot by Italian partisans. The Soviet Red Army, having turned back the Nazis on the frozen Russian steppes, was driving towards Berlin from the east. American, British and Canadian armies, building from the Normandy beachhead secured 10 months before, were pushing across northern Europe, over the Rhine and into Germany itself. The Rhine had been “bounced,” in the military speak of the day, in February and March, under heavy fire and with terrible casualties.
Hitler had ordered his army, the Wehrmacht, to stand and fight, making him “the best commander the Allied forces had,” Canadian Army I Corps Gen. Charles Foulkes would later recall. But there were signs that the vaunted German discipline was crumbling, and many soldiers were already retreating to the bosom of the fatherland. Until the end, there were those Germans, Hitler among them, who believed that they could strike a separate peace with the Anglo-American Allies, to make common cause against the Bolshevik armies now gobbling up Eastern Europe.
But there would be no slackening from Winston Churchill’s vow to fight for the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. And the evidence emerging from the liberated concentration camps in German-occupied territories all through April was proving the justness of that cause: day after day, the Allies uncovered Nazi death camps, some with their crematoriums still burning in last-minute attempts to eradicate every witness to Nazi genocide. The first physical evidence of the Holocaust was being shown on newsreels in London and New York City movie theatres, even as Hitler retreated to the pyre that was Berlin and the madness of his final days.
VOOR UW EER EN GEWETEN OP!TEGEN HET BOLSJEWISME DE WAFFEN ROEPT U!
On the streets of Europe, the approaching end of the war boosted hopes of a better future. In Britain, there were already signs of a return to normalcy. The final German V-2 rocket had streaked silently into Kent in southeastern England on March 27, killing Ivy Millichamp, the last of 67,000 British civilians to die from German aerial bombing. And London’s blackout had already been lifted in favor of a “dimout.” Approval had been given to uncrate London statues that had been stored for protection from German bombs; Eros would return to watch over Piccadilly Circus, where the prostitutes known as Piccadilly Commandos had operated successfully through Britain’s own “occupation” by Allied troops.
So by April, the Allies were already turning their thoughts to winding up the war in the Pacific and to shaping the postwar era. For politicians and diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic, the deep thinking focused on hopes for another international organization of nations. America was now the new Rome, eager to spread its gospel of liberal internationalism. The phrase “never again” had yet to become a platitude. And everyone seemed ready to subscribe to the wishful utopianism prevalent at the end of every war to end all wars: the dream that a new world order would emerge from the ashes and the ruins and the blood.
But for Allied soldiers still meeting stubborn German resistance on the European continent, there was still far too much of the latter. The Canadian First Army, fighting as a full army under Canadian command for the first time, had the task of clearing the last German resistance from the Netherlands. At times, the advance moved swiftly and unopposed through countryside as flat as a pool table, to the cheers of joyous Dutch people finally liberated from five years of Nazi occupation.
Measured in carnage, the Canadians’ worst battles were behind them. Even so, of the 42,042 Canadians who died in action throughout the war, 1,482 met their fate in the final seven weeks of the European campaign. The war had to be played out to its last act, until Hitler lay dead in the garden of his Reich chancellery, along with Nazism and all the barbarity and evil it embraced.
The battle for Zutphen may not resonate in Canadian military annals with the glory of Normandy or Caen. Even the history books of the regiments who fought for this unremarkable medieval town in central Holland give it just a few pages. But despite the matter-of-fact style of regimental histories, where deadly snipers are always “dealt with in the usual way,” the accounts are chilling. Liberating Zutphen was a nasty business. Its Nazi defenders, a group of teenage paratroopers pressed into sendee for the first time, were among the most fanatical soldiers the Canadians encountered. Many of them refused to surrender, and were overrun only after being literally burned from their positions by flame-throwing Crocodile tanks. It took a week for the Canadians to capture Zutphen. After that, the push to Holland’s eastern frontier was like a Sunday drive.
Perched along the Issel River, Zutphen was crucial to the German forces’
But the five Canadian regiments approached from the south and east through towns so small that they barely merited place names:
Leeston and Warnsveld. It was Easter Monday, April 2, when the first Canadian reconnaissance teams moved in. The rest of the assault followed a day later, cutting across horribly exposed farmers’ fields under withering sniper fire that came from pillboxes, ditches and behind manure piles.
Rev. Hendrik Dykman was just a boy when the Canadian wave reached his father’s schoolhouse.
last stand in the Netherlands. The town controlled the German supply route to the western front, and that is where the defenders expected the attack to come from: the west.
Now a United Church minister living in Guelph, Ont., he has compiled a detailed chronicle of the liberation of Zutphen. It includes several eyewitness accounts from Dutch residents, who watched the
Canadian advance illuminated under bursting shells. ‘With their faces blackened, the Canadians came running and crouching through the pasture straight to our house,” recalled Dina Vink-Jimmink, who watched from the cellar window of her father’s farm before the family fled the artillery barrage into the fields. Looking back at their home, the family could see “flames now shooting up from the farm roof. We watched our family farm of many generations bum furiously and listened to the bawling of our dying cows. Then, Father cried and cried, like a baby.”
On the outskirts of Warnsveld, the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders regiment came under a hail of sniper fire in the early afternoon of April 5 from a heavily de-
EVEN WITH GERMANY IL fended compound. The buildings were pavilions of the Groot Graffel, a psychiatric hospital housing about 1,600 patients. Pinned down, the Canadians moved a howitzer into place across the street and began returning fire. ULL RETREAT, THE WAR HAD TO BE PLAYED OUT TO THE END
The first Canadian shell whistled through the trees on the property just as five staff members began digging a
mass grave for 15 recently deceased patients. The Germans had refused to allow them to be buried in the hos-
pital cemetery. “We ducked and carried on digging,” recalled caretaker Anton Denkers. But the whine of another shell sent everyone scurrying inside for cover. The history of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders reports a horrific scene of German snipers rushing through the hospital, firing from window after window amid laughing, crying, singing patients, some tied to their beds. Denkers paints a different scene. “All patients who were not physically ill were standing in the hallways,” he remembered. “Each nurse had seven or eight female patients holding on to her arms. These poor women trusted the nurses completely.” Two patients died in the fighting.
Dressed in his white hospital uniform and waving a white flag, Dr. Peter van Bork, head of Groot Graffel, must have seemed like an appari-
tion to the Canadians as he walked out of the hospital garden, through a gate and down a footpath towards the Canadians. Ignoring the chocolate offered him by a Dutch child who was watching the shelling, van Bork dropped his flag and started screaming at the signaller, Sgt. Ivan Gilchrest, to “stop firing at my hospital.” At a regimental reunion years later, Gilchrest acknowledged being “quite intimidated by that doctor.” The Canadians called a halt and, having seen van Bork walk safely along the path without triggering any mines, sent an armored car to retrace his steps into the hospital grounds. The snipers were dealt with in the usual way.
Zutphen itself was reached on April 7, the first soldiers wading across the river because every bridge had been blown. There is a haunting black-and-white photograph of two Canadians storming across the moat; the legs of a third can be seen protruding from under a blasted pile of bricks where he had been hit before he reached the water. Eerily, the enemy is invisible. Another Canadian Army photo shows the serious face of a Canadian soldier patrolling the cobbled streets of the town centre, the tower of Zutphen’s history museum rising behind him. By the next day, the museum would be a smouldering shell. Having come under sniper fire from the tower, the Canadians opted to destroy it.
Fifty years later, a mature maple tree stands alone in the middle of one of those open fields outside Wamsveld, where the Essex Scottish Regiment planted it to mark their sacrifice. This May, Wamsveld will unveil its own monument: a marble block engraved with the names of the 33 Canadians who died to free the town. It has been placed on a comer of the sprawling grounds of the rebuilt Groot Graffel.
Across the marsh, Zutphen, too, has been rebuilt, though in something less than its medieval charm. It has a synagogue again, but few Jews. Only onetenth of the nearly 500 Jews living in Zutphen before the war returned afterward, according to Christiaan te Strake, curator of the history museum that is mounting an exhibition of local artifacts to mark the 50th anniversary of liberation. He shows a form that residents were required to fill out declaring whether they had Jewish blood, and holds a yellow star that all Jews were forced to wear. ‘When you actually touch history like this, it’s spooky,” he remarks. In the Netherlands, 104,000 Jews were deported to Nazi death camps, and the country has wrestled since with a collective guilt that more was not done to save the Jews.
“In war, a few people make the choice to collaborate, a few decide to resist, and most just try to survive” is te Strake’s explanation. A 78-year-old survivor still living in Zutphen recently approached te Strake to donate the work card he had been required to carry into Germany when the Nazis rounded up able-bodied Dutchmen for forced labor in the final months of the war. “This man could have destroyed his card in 1946, but he kept it in a drawer all these years,” says te Strake, turning the weathered document over in his fingers. ‘When he came to give it to me, all he could say, over and over, was, T didn’t want to go, you know.’ I told him not to feel guilty, that he had just done what was needed to survive. But it was as if he wanted absolution.”
Just outside Zutphen on April 9,1945, Canadians uncovered 10 Dutch bodies buried under loose earth. They had been tortured and mutilated, and the Canadians forced their German prisoners to dig graves for a proper burial. CBC Radio journalist Mathew Halton reported on his encounter with the German prisoners:
“Who did it?” I went on.
“Not us, not us,” they replied. We are soldiers. The Gestapo did it. ”
“Do you understand why the world hates your country?” I asked.
And for the first time in reply to that question, I heard a German say, ‘Yes, yes, I understand. ”
The reaction of German civilians to the approaching Allied armies and the degree to which Germans felt responsibility for Nazi criminality is, of course, enormously contentious, and of more than academic interest. Fifty years after the war, most Germans see VE-Day as their day of liberation, too. A recent opinion poll in Germany found that 72 per cent of respondents regard May 8,1945, as the day their country was freed from tyranny—only 11 per cent view it as the day of Germany’s defeat. It is the mood of that majority that Chancellor Helmut Kohl will strike when he marks the event with ceremonies in Berlin this year. It may signify a German rejection of Nazi ideology, but it may also represent a reversion to the notion that the Nazis were a criminal clique who hoodwinked an innocent nation.
For that was the prevalent attitude uncovered by the first Allied soldiers and reporters entering German territory. They noted a clear attempt by German civilians to distance themselves from Nazi crimes as horrors that had been done in their name, but for which they shared no blame. The famous American war correspondent Martha Gellhom had no sympathy for the defeated Germans. ‘To see a whole nation passing the buck is not an enlightening spectacle,” she wrote with unconcealed fury in April, 1945. “The Germans, untroubled by regret—because after all they did nothing wrong, they did only what they were told to do—keep
on saying with energy, we are not Nazis. It is their idea of forgiveness, probably followed by a sizable loan.”
The evidence that German civilians had profited from the war was clearly visible—and evoked fury from the Allied troops. Gellhorn described a group of German women crying over their possessions lost from Allied artillery fire. “We have all seen such beastly and fantastic suffering accepted in silence that we do not react well to weeping,” wrote Gellhom, with un-
Yet such losses were the most intensely personal experiences of the war for the majority of Germans. That is why so many were able to rationalize their wartime role, wrote Rutgers university historian Omer Bartov in his critical 1992 study of German behavior, Hitler’s Army. “The war remained a deep, painful memory of one’s own suffering, and it left no room for one’s victims,” wrote Bartov. “Defeat converted them all into victims, and victims cannot be called to account.”
Fifty years later, the German war experience still holds a valuable lesson: wilful ignorance is not exoneration. As Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi has noted in an essay describing typical German behavior under the Nazis: “Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.
“I hold them fully culpable of this deliberate omission.”
In the rainy early April weather after the fall of Zutphen, the 2nd
Canadian Corps had veered eastward for a final drive for the German border. There were five German divisions still in Holland, including one composed largely of Dutch Nazis, and progress was occasionally difficult. But in most places, the Germans were retreating faster than the Canadians could advance across the monotonous landscape of northern Europe. In the regimental history of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Capt. Claude Bissell, who was later to become president of the University of Toronto, recalls that the only indication of having crossed into Germany “was the sudden appearance of white flags—a tablecloth, a pillowcase, usually scrupulously white—hung across the
door of the houses or flapping on an improvised flagpole.”
mistakable disdain. “I remember Oradour in France, where the Germans locked every man, woman and child of the village into the church and set the church afire, and after the people were burned, they burned the village. This is an extremely drastic way to destroy property. The Germans themselves have taught all the peoples of Europe not to waste time weeping over anything easy like furniture.”
But in the German town of Friesoythe, two Canadian regiments were meeting fanatical resistance. The Lake Superior regiment had actually been forced to withdraw from a part of town it had captured because of heavy fire from the German 88-mm guns. The Argylls were called in to subdue the town on April 14.
Their plan, devised by Col. Frederick Wigle, the commanding officer, was based on surprise—after midnight, rifle companies would sneak into the town on foot in a wide sweep away from the heavily guarded main road.
Caught off guard, the German troops put up limited resistance. But the Argyll’s advance was so swift that the headquarters group, which had stationed itself in a house on the outskirts of town, was cut off from the main force. Early the next morning, a group of about 50 German soldiers emerged from the woods near the headquarters. The Germans were probably just trying to escape, and they carried their weapons casually, unaware
Wigle was the scion of a prominent Hamilton family and had been a tremendous university athlete at McGill. Whether his fellow Argylls had ever warmed to him is a matter of debate. He had only commanded the regiment for 10 weeks, and some soldiers had difficulty swallowing his rah-rah leadership style—“all the usual stuff that might have had some effect on me in 1940,” wrote one disgruntled captain to his wife. But loved or not, Wigle was respected. Just five days before Wigle’s death, Maj.-Gen. Chris Vokes had presented Wigle with the Distinguished Service Order for his fighting at the Hochwald Gap.
Exactly what followed Wigle’s death is another hazy chapter in the blur of time and battle. In his memoirs, Yokes claimed he heard a rumor that Wigle had been shot by a civilian, and ordered Friesoythe to be razed in return. Even after the true account of the colonel’s death became known, Vokes admitted to feeling “no great remorse over the elimination of Friesoythe.” The Argyll official war diary makes no note of this act, although Cpl. John Booth did recall that “snipers had been left behind in some house attics so the town was cleared and razed the same day.” Other Argylls insist that they never carried out orders to bum the town, although one veteran admitted to detonating incendiary grenades in his anger over Wigle’s death. But one fact is beyond dispute: Friesoythe was levelled.
of the Canadians nearby. But the outnumbered Canadians opened fire anyway, triggering a battle. The Germans stormed the building, where one soldier was able to enter through a door and, looking up the stairs, killed Wigle with a
single burst. The enraged Canadians refused to surrender. “The Germans came up to the house and threw grenades through the windows,” Cpl. Bud Fraser told a reporter a week later. “None got inside. The boys were fighting mad after the colonel was killed.”
THE WAR HOLDS OUR ATTENTION BECAUSE IT IS A MORALITY TALE
Eleven civilians had been killed in the shelling of Friesoythe leading
up to the Argyll attack, but by then almost all the 4,200 residents had fled to the safety of the surrounding countryside. Ferdinand Cloppenburg was one, just 14 at the time. When he returned with his mother and three brothers on April 18, Friesoythe was a smouldering min. Photographs of the town taken several years later show it with still just a few houses. “There was nothing to rebuild with,” says Cloppenburg, now 63 and the regional district attorney. “No money, no materials.”
Cloppenburg still lives in the centre of Friesoythe, his suburban-style house blending with the rest of Friesoythe’s modern architecture, strange for a town founded in 1308. “No, ‘Canada’ is not a bad word around here, although that might not have been the case in 1946,” he says, thumbing the pages of the thick file he keeps on the burning of the town. “The feeling here is that it was all just a part of war. When you are a nation that starts a war, you cannot be a victim. But destroying a town, burning it down,” he shakes his head sadly. “That’s not a good thing.”
The Canadian liberation of the Netherlands created a bond between the two countries that has passed into national myth on both sides, sealed by marriages between Canadian soldiers and Dutchwomen, symbolized by the annual flowering of tulips on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. In practice, the presence of Canadian troops in the postwar months had its tensions. Dutch writer Jan Wolkers, then a teenager, remembers that the Canadians pitched tents in a 17th-century castle compound near his house in Oegstgeest Recalls Wolkers, with some poetic licence: “The air smelled of chewing gum and sperm.” Rudy van Dantzig, the former artistic director of the Netherlands’ National Ballet, wrote that his first homosexual encounter came as a young boy just after the war in a liaison with a Canadian soldier whom he idolized. The encounter was dramatized in a popular 1989 film For a Lost Soldier, in which von Dantzig’s character tries to explain the significance of the liberation—both military and personal—to a group of bored, cynical young Dutch dancers.
For the war does fade, first into memory, then into history, and some-
And for many Europeans, the Second World War still makes history. In the east, Nazi Germany’s despotic totalitarianism was replaced by despotic Stalinism, which would last for another 45 years. The presidents of the three Baltic states absorbed by the Soviet Union—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia— declined invitations from Russian President Boris Yeltsin to mark VE-Day in Moscow this year. “The Second World War is not an event from the past; it’s something we’re still getting over,” says Ivan Laas, an Estonian schoolteacher.
times into folklore. That the history of the Second World War is still being revised may well be a good thing. British readers, awash in books this year, have learned that they were not all united in the idyll of common purpose that has so often been rhapsodized. During the war, crime and divorce rose and there was rampant profiteering. Allied nations had their share of Nazi appeasers and anti-Semites. But there is also mischievous and malicious revisionism, with no shortage of ambitious historians and journalists attempting to equate instances of Allied war atrocities with the systemic criminality of Nazi Germany.
Signs of the war’s unhealed scars are everywhere. Descendants of the Sudeten Germans, who helped foment the war by encouraging Hitler to swallow Czechoslovakia, now want compensation for property seized from them by vengeful Czechoslovakians after the war. And Kohl has infuriated the Polish government by refusing to invite President Lech Walesa to the VE-Day commemoration in Berlin. Opening the ceremonies to Walesa would require inviting all the other countries occupied by Germany, Kohl argued. His position ignores the fact
But above all, the Second World War still holds our attention because, away from the sweep of politics and armies, it is a morality tale. It asks us each what we would have done under terrible circumstances. Would we have risked our lives to hide a Jew? Would we have agreed to work in Germany as conscript labor? Would we have razed Friesoythe to avenge a friend? Would we still go to war to save a country from oppressors? And, in 1995,50 years after the last great war ended, is keeping Sarajevo free from Serbian militarism worth a Canadian life?
In Hansport, N.S., Gladys Fraser says she has never questioned the cause for which her brother fought 50 years ago. She remembers Percy Dexter Higgins, two years her senior, as a good-looking boy who loved basketball and hated his curly hair. Dexter Higgins had just graduated from high school and was set to go to work for the bank in his home town of Stellarton, N.S., when the war broke out and he enlisted in the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. During the war in Europe, he married and had a daughter, and rose to the rank of lieutenant. He was 23 and 4,500 km from home when he was killed leading a charge over a fence outside Wamsveld in that momentous April of 1945, struck down by machinegun fire in what is now a placid farmer’s field. □
that Polish forces in exile fought, in massive numbers, on both fronts, putting up far greater resistance to the Nazis than, for instance, the French, who will take their place in Berlin on May 8.