During the final months of the Second World War, Canadian troops and their Allies pushed deeper and deeper into Nazi-occupied Europe. By the spring of 1945, the Canadians had freed the coastal cities of France, crossed the Leopold Canal in Belgium, cleared the Scheldt Estuary, liberated cities and towns in Holland and joined the final push across the Rhine River into Germany.
Despite the horrible cost – 44,339 Canadian lives – their efforts helped secure victory in Europe by May 8, 1945. Their sacrifice also cemented a profound mutual respect between Canadians and the Dutch.
These four stories capture that shared admiration.
It was Theo Diepenbrock’s third visit to the hilltop cemetery near Groesbeek that week. This time, the elderly Dutchman carried a small plaque inscribed with a tribute to veterans. He planned to leave it at one of the 2,338 Canadian graves there. It’s a grave he knows well.
“Hello, Johnny,” Theo Diepenbrock said in a quiet voice.
Diepenbrock knelt before the headstone of J.J. Bruck, a bombardier with the Royal Canadian Artillery. The engraved stone displayed Bruck’s regiment number, his age when he died – 24 – and the date of his death – 26th February 1945. On that day, during the Canadian offensive to push the German armies to final capitulation, a gun shell had misfired, and Bruck was killed.
At the time, Diepenbrock had only known Bruck and the rest of his 6th Field Regiment gun crew (about half a dozen men) a matter of weeks. “I was only 17,” Diepenbrock said. “I was with the Canadian gun crew every day, making coffee for them, helping them clean up the guns and talking to them.”
Theo Diepenbrock was the 13th of 18 children trying to survive what would be the last months of the Second World War. “The hunger winter,” the Dutch called it. The retreating German troops had cut off all food supplies to civilians, including those in the Groesbeek valley. Thousands of civilians were living on little more than cooked tulip bulbs and boiled nettles.
“It was cold, and we needed boots for the winter. [Johnny Bruck] gave me chocolate and other food for my family,” Diepenbrock said. “They came from the middle of nowhere in Canada … just volunteers … and they kicked Hitler out of Holland.”
That sacrifice changed Diepenbrock’s life. The Canadians freed his family and their neighbours in the Groesbeek valley. They went on to liberate towns and cities across the Netherlands, preventing the starvation of thousands in the process. That’s why every week since – come rain or shine – Theo Diepenbrock has gone to the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery to attend J.J. Bruck’s grave.
Next page: A tank trooper’s account
If the liberation of Holland altered the lives of the Dutch, it also profoundly affected their liberators – the Canadians.
Tank trooper Bruce Evans, originally from a farm north of Toronto, came ashore in the Canadian sector of the Normandy invasion area on D-Day, June 6, 1944, only to be wounded by a mortar explosion on Juno Beach.
By early 1945, Evans was back in the front line commanding his own tank with the 1st Hussars in Holland. His squadron began clearing entrenched German troops between Nijmegen and Arnhem and then provided tank support for the offensive through Groesbeek to the German border in February 1945. “In this operation,” Evans said, “we essentially had three problems: the enemy, the icy roads and the flooded areas.” Often the combination of slick conditions and flooding drove the Hussars’ tanks off the roads, leaving the Canadians vulnerable to German counter-attack until tank recovery crews arrived to tow their vehicles to higher ground.
In April, his tank group moved into Apeldoorn where the street-to-street fighting intensified but where the Dutch civilian support proved equally intense. “Even at night, the Dutch people came out of their homes to wave and call out. They were overjoyed to see us,” Evans said. “Unfortunately, some became casualties, caught in the crossfire.”
One gesture of kindness in the midst of the battle, however, stayed with the young tank commander. Evans recalled his tank crew firing on a target just 400 yards away. During a short lull in the firefight, Evans ordered the tank driver to pull the vehicle between two buildings for protection from snipers.
“Suddenly, I noticed this tapping sound on the outside of the tank,” Evans recalled. “When we peered outside, behold, there was a Dutch family handing up a bowl of fruit to us, taking a great risk doing it. It was all they had.”
During the war, Enschede resident Annie Keijzer turned 17. She joined the Dutch underground and since she had attended beautician school, one of her first jobs was to dye Jewish women’s hair blond “to make them look more Aryan.” Next, she became a courier delivering papers, parcels and identification papers. Eventually, she gathered me’’s clothes, which her father channelled to downed Allied airmen to help them escape to Spain as civilians.
She lived with danger constantly. During the hunger winter, Keijzer and her mother travelled into the country to barter for food. “My mother and I [rode] our bicycles with wooden wheels to the farmers,” she said. “We traded my mother’s beautiful linen for food. Once, when we had been very successful, with the food strapped to our bodies, we were stopped by a German SS. I put my arm up and said, ‘Heil Hitler.’
“He was friendly and asked if we had any food. I said, ‘Yes, butter, milk and wheat.’ He laughed and said, ‘Go on with you.’ Driving away, there was a wet trail behind my poor mother; she had wet her pants.”
Finally, on April 1, 1945, Canadian troops of the 51st Highland Division entered Enschede, which was one of the last Dutch towns to be liberated.
Keijzer had promised to kiss the first liberating soldier she encountered. A few hours later, he entered the shelter. He was six foot five and from Halifax. “I kissed him, but my first Canadian didn’t have time for that,” she said. “He had a Bren gun in one hand and a Sten gun in the other. He looked at me and asked, ‘You speak English?’
“I said ‘Yes,’ and he told me to stay in the shelter and make sure everyone was out of the houses. I told him my grandfather did not want to come out; he had told me, ‘If God wants me to die, I will die in the shelter or the house.’ The Canadian said, ‘Tell him the Bible also says you shall not seek death.’ My grandfather came.”
Liberation by Canadian soldiers had a lifelong effect on Annie Keijzer. She married Maup Pompili, who had acted as an interpreter for the Canadian Army and they moved to Canada in 1952. Keijzer’s first job? She ran a beauty salon.
Next page: Contruction and destruction
Since childhood, Kees Traas, a 48-year-old construction contractor in the town of Nieuwdorp, Zeeland, in southwestern Holland, has gathered military memorabilia associated with the liberation of his region by infantry, artillery and armoured regiments of the 1st Canadian Army in the fall of 1944.
“As kids, my brothers and I played soldiers,” Traas said. “Eventually, they threw away the weapons and artifacts. I started collecting them … When I was four or five, my uncle gave me a Canadian army helmet. I always wore it.”
The battle for Walcheren Island on the north shore of the Scheldt Estuary, through the town where the Traas family had lived for generations, proved to be a Canadian crucible. During October 1944, Canadian troops had cleared the south shore of the estuary, mucking their way through miles of flooded terrain, earning the nickname Water Rats.
Then in November, they joined Operation Infatuate, the assault against German strongpoints on Walcheren Island, which had been flooded by Allied bombing of its dikes the previous month.
The final barrier to liberating Wal-cheren was a 500-yard causeway onto the island. At midnight on Nov. 1, a company of Calgary Highlanders attempted the crossing but had to turn back in the face of intense enemy fire. The regiment’s war diary reports another company “was ordered to make a second attempt down the bullet-swept path … Despite the hottest of crossfire, this gallant band of Calgary Highlanders rushed the roadblock and seized it, taking 15 prisoners.”
During the battle of the Scheldt Estuary, 107 Highlanders were killed and another 327 wounded; 19 of the dead and 45 of the wounded fell at the Walcheren Island causeway.
It’s quite likely the Canadian helmet that sparked Kees Traas’s lifelong fascination for military artifacts came from that murderous dash across the Walcheren Island causeway. And from that helmet and assorted shells, badges, books and photographs, Traas’s private collection has grown to thousands of pieces, each identified, catalogued and displayed in his Infatuate War Museum.
Its inventory increases, it seems, every year, thanks to donors who insist “the story of the liberation of Holland must stay alive.” Kees Traas and his modest museum live up to that commitment every day.