OTTAWA — After five years of hunger, fear and despair, there were tears of jubilation.
Under occupation by the Nazi Germans, the Dutch had endured an especially harsh winter in 1945. Thousands had already died of starvation and thousands more were frail, weak and dying.
Second World War veteran Gilles Turcot — one of the thousands of Canadians who brought food and freedom to Holland that spring — tries to focus on these moments of joy when he remembers the long bloody war.
“They wanted to hold you and kiss you and thank you,” he recalled from his home in Magog, Que. “The Dutch people are the most generous in terms of showing gratitude for the efforts for liberating them.”
Turcot went overseas at the start of the war in 1939 at age 21 with the Royal 22nd Regiment — the “Van Doos.” Wounded by a shell during the invasion of Sicily, he returned to Europe for the end of the war. As second in command of his company, the troops fought their way through to “finish the war.” Moving from town to town, they found alternately weak and fierce resistance.
“A lot of the SS were fanatics and they thought they would still win the war, but on the whole we were stronger than they were by then in Holland and we were pushing them back, pushing them back, until we pushed them back in the hook against the sea,” he said.
Turcot, who continued to serve in the armed forces after the war, is returning to the Netherlands this week to mark the 65th anniversary of the liberation.
“It will be the last time, no doubt, and the country will be covered in Canadian flags,” he said.
But amid the celebration will be grief for the thousands of Canadians who never returned home. Turcot said he is still stunned to see the ages etched on white markers in neat rows at war cemeteries.
“It makes you cry. At the time they’re killed, you’re the same age and it doesn’t strike you in the same way. But once you’re old like I am and go to the cemeteries, I can’t help but cry.”
Dr. Steve Harris, chief historian with the Department of National Defence, said the liberation of Holland took part in two distinct phases — in the fall of 1944 and the spring of 1945. While the Germans didn’t fight hard everywhere, the campaign still had intense and deadly fighting.
In some areas, there was a bizarre proximity of both violent battle and joyous celebration.
“In some of these towns, the Canadian army would fight its way through and by the time the lead elements were at the far end of the town, there was already a liberation party going on at the back of the town,” he said.
Harris said the deep gratitude of the Dutch endures 65 years later because the oppression and hunger was so severe. If the liberation had come just two months later, an estimated half the population in the western part of the country would have starved to death.
“We helped them get their political independence back, but I think that’s almost second place to the fact that we saved the people, and they know that they were saved,” he said.
The Dutch show their gratitude to Canada with annual gifts of tulip bulbs, by tending to the war graves and by extending a welcome to Canadian visitors for commemoration every five years. Next week’s events in Holland are expected to be the last to take place on a grand scale, as the direct connection weakens with the aging veteran population. Thousands of Canadian students, teachers, veterans and dignitaries are travelling to take part in ceremonies in the run-up to VE-Day May 8, the end of the Second World War in Europe.
Wim Geerts, the Netherlands’ ambassador to Canada, expects a crescendo of appreciation across the country to thank the “brave Canadians.”
“Unfortunately that group is getting smaller, and that is why we think it is important to pass on the torch to the younger generation, encouraging them to visit war cemeteries and think about what it must have been like being far from home, risking their lives and fighting for the liberty of others,” he said.
The critical period in bloody history forged a close bond between Canada and the Netherlands.
“It was a turning point in our history. Our lives, the lives of our grandparents and parents, would be very different if we had not been liberated from Nazi occupation,” Geerts said. “They are our liberators — our heroes.”