Every November, we pause to remember those who paid the ultimate price for our collective freedom.
This year, as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, let us remember the little-known Canadian battle of Otterlo.
Liberation of Holland
Once the battle of Normandy was won on August 25, 1944, the First Canadian Army was assigned the important and deadly task of liberating the Netherlands. This Army was the largest ever to have been under control of a Canadian General, but it was (much like Canada today) very international in nature, reuniting Canadian, British, Polish, American, Belgian and Dutch soldiers.
The Netherlands campaign did not start well at all. In September 1944, the Brits and Americans failed to take control of three key rivers, in the devastatingly costly Operation Market Garden, one of the war’s largest Allied operation. Despite this crushing strategic defeat, the First Canadian Army felt that the long-suffering and starving Dutch could not wait for relief any longer. By then, the Netherlands had suffered tremendously under 4 years of Nazi occupation. The liberation route being blocked at the south, the Canadian Army swung around and advanced northeasterly to free Holland.
Initially, progress was slow and bloody but things started to turn by the Spring of 1945. By the middle of April, Canadians freed the city of Arnhem after two days of house-by-house fighting. A day later, they freed Apeldoorn. This leads us to the last major battle to have taken place in the Netherlands.
The battle of Otterlo
On April 16, 1945, the 5th Canadian Armoured Division liberated the village of Otterlo. There, they set up the divisional headquarters and positioned an infantry battalion before continuing on to Wekerom and Voorthuizen.
That is when Otterlo found itself stuck between Canadians advancing to the west and Nazis moving east, desperately trying to rush their remaining troops to safety. The ensuing battle, opposing 1,000 men on each side, was vicious.
Charles Lynch, a Canadian war correspondent for Reuters, described the events in an April 17, 1945 broadcast:
Down the road leading to Otterlo from the north came a column of men. A Canadian artillery Sergeant challenged them when they came abreast of the gun lines. The reply was a vicious burst of spandrel fire. The battle of Otterlo was on.
Ten second after the Canadian Sergeant’s challenge, there was bedlam. Gunners jumped to their field pieces and fired them over open sites at the oncoming Germans. When enemies overran the guns, the gunner dug themselves in and went on fighting from their slit trenches with Sten guns, rifles and pistols. Not a single gunner surrender and not a single gun was captures. But the Germans surged passed the gun areas and into Otterlo. […]
You can listen to Lynch’s vivid account depicting the horrors of this battle in this CBC’s digital archive. Warning though, it is not for the faint of heart.
The battle raged on all night. By early morning, the situation had escalated into a full blown battle. Canadian tanks were called in for assistance and Wasp flamethrowers had to be used. In the end, Canadians were successful, with the German side suffering tremendous losses.
This was the last major battle in the Netherlands.
The devastating “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45, with more than 30,000 casualties, was followed by the “Canadian Summer” during which deep and long-lasting bonds of friendship were formed between the two countries. Some 1,900 Dutch women married Canadian soldiers, returning to Canada with some 400 children.
Lasting friendship between Holland and Canada
In total, more than 7,600 Canadian soldiers died fighting for the Netherlands’ freedom.
The Dutch people never forgot this sacrifice.
Following Holland’s liberation, the Dutch Royal family gifted 100,000 tulip bulbs to Canada in gratitude for having liberated the Netherlands and having sheltered their future Queen Juliana during the war. Year after year, for nearly eight decades now, the Netherlands continues to send tens of thousands of tulip bulbs, which bloom during Ottawa’s world-renowned Tulip Festival.
To this day, Dutch schoolchildren are entrusted with the graves of Canadian soldiers and tend to them, until they pass this responsibility onto the next generation of children.
On Christmas Eve every year, school children walk to each of the 1,355 Canadian graves at the Holten War Cemetery to light a candle in memory of those who lost their life liberating the Netherlands. This yearly sight is an amazing tribute to fallen Canadiens.
May we never again leave graves to be tended by children. Lest we forget.
Your digital poppy
This year again, the Canadian Legion counts on you to help support Canadian Veterans. Their poppy campaign will undoubtedly be affected by the pandemic. For this reason, we encourage all of our readers to get their virtual poppy and post it on social media. We’ve posted ours on the blog and will keep it there until Remembrance Day.
You can also support the Canadian Legion by visiting their online store. Have a look at their poppy displaying face mask and other proudly Canadian gifts.