A Costly Liberation: Canada and the Schelde, November 1944

There are two major misconceptions about the Netherlands. The first is that every Dutch person speaks English and, second, that all Dutch people love Canadians for our role in liberating large parts of the country in 1945. As we approach Remembrance Day on 11 November, we've decided to explore the history of Remembrance Day and reflect on its future. Before we do that, however, today's post looks at Canada's involvement in the Second World War, particularly in the Netherlands, and how both the Dutch and Canadians have come to remember this period of history.

At the undergraduate level, Canadian students with an interest in military history will be able to say a couple things about Canada's involvement in the Netherlands. Typically, these consist of the birth of Dutch Princess Margriet's in Ottawa, as well as an exchange of tulips as a sign of good relations between the two states. But, more often than not, it's Canada's role in the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945 that takes center stage.

While the "Sweetest Spring" narrative celebrated between Canadian and Dutch governments from the 1980s to today is not necessarily wrong, it's certainly not representative of the country as a whole. In fact, during the battle for the Schelde, which took place between October and November 1944, Canada inflicted upon the Dutch province of Zeeland an unprecedented level of damage, destruction, and death.

By 4 September 1944, the Allies and members of the Belgian resistance captured Antwerp from German forces. From 6 to 20 September 1944, over 100,000 German troops were ferried across the Schelde estuary to the central islands of Zeeland, where they readjusted their defensive lines. The capture of Antwerp and its fully functional port came at an extremely important time. Gale storms and fighting had destroyed many of the Channel ports the Allies relied on to supply armies in the West, so Antwerp's undamaged port provided an opportunity to resupply First Canadian Army and other elements of 21st Army Group. If the Allies couldn't open the port of Antwerp by December 1944, Eisenhower and many others believed, operations to defeat Nazi Germany would come to a standstill.

There was just one problem. Antwerp is an inland port that lies some 80 kilometres from the North Sea, and the thousands of German troops that fled after the capture of Antwerp now occupied heavily defended positions at the mouth of the Schelde in the province of Zeeland. When the Canadians were tasked with clearing the approaches to Antwerp (the province of Zeeland), Canadian Lt.-General Guy Simonds and other Allied commanders had to consider how best to dislodge German forces in the region.

Water had been used as a form of defence in the Netherlands for centuries-it hindered Spanish advances through their territory during the Eighty Years War in the sixteenth century. During occupation, too, the Germans flooded small tracts of land by stopping pump systems, thereby flooding low-lying polderland at very short notice. The Allies, too, recognized the efficacy of such defensive tactics. But, Simmonds believed they could also use water to their advantage. Simonds proposed that the Royal Air Force conduct bombing raids on the seadykes that kept Zeeland dry. This would effectively "sink" the island of Walcheren and neutralize German positions. It would also prepare the ground for a complex amphibious assault from virtually all directions.

On 3 October 1944, Bomber Command launched over 2,000 sorties and dropped over 10,000 tons of ordnance to breach dykes at four locations on the island of Walcheren. By 28 October, over 16,000 of Walcheren's 18,800 hectares were flooded with saltwater. The effects were devastating. Many civilians on the island were killed and almost all were affected by the loss of property and livestock. Houses across the province were made inhabitable by Allied action.

When historians discuss operations in the Schelde few pay much attention to problems of reconstruction or damages caused by the Canadians. Instead, they talk about how 90 percent of the Allied losses in the area were Canadian (1,418 killed, over 5,000 wounded). When the Germans surrendered in Zeeland's capital, Middelburg, on 8 November 1944 there was very little celebration. Only Middelburg remained close to dry (1/3 of the town was flooded) and it swelled with displaced persons seeking dry land. Mines, previously buried, floated precariously in the water and submerged barbed wire made traveling by boat extremely dangerous. Civilians were stranded in their villages, often living in attics or on their roofs.

Today, there are few signs of a grateful population. There are comparatively few monuments to the Canadians and British. At Westkapelle, 10 percent of whose population was killed on 3 October 1944, a museum tells a story of the environmental and human tragedy that befell the region in fall 1944. Each exhibit is organized around the theme of destruction. The environment is portrayed as stronger than either belligerent in the war, and "liberation" is tantamount to destruction. Instead of commemorating the Allies, a good portion of the museum is dedicated to how the people of Westkapelle sought to recover from the war. This includes a life-size Bruynzeel home, which were temporary shacks many civilians had to use as homes (some of which were used until the 1960s). Ironically, a monument erected to the British commandos who landed on the breached dyke in November 1944 is situated just meters from the museum.

This reflects the conflicting memory surrounding this period of history. Canadian, British, and Dutch memories appear to be at odds. Yet, only thirty kilometres away from Westkapelle, the Bevrijdingsmuseum (Liberation Museum) in Nieuwdorp subscribes to the traditional narrative of  liberation celebrated among Canadians. The experience of this particular part of Zeeland was not nearly as traumatic as towns on Walcheren. In places where war didn't accompany destruction, stories of liberation often focus on euphoria of the local population.

While Canadian troops played an extremely important role in the military exigencies of 1944, and effectively executed arguably some of the war's most complex operations, we should not lose sight of the fact that these operations were extremely destructive. The extent of damage the Allies inflicted on the region has had a profound impact on how civilians in this part of the Netherlands remember the war. While Canadians marched into Apeldoorn to liberate a grateful people in 1945, other Canadians worked alongside Dutch authorities to assess the impact of war and aid in reconstruction efforts. The Canadian role in Allied Civil Affairs is a much less known, but perhaps an equally important, chapter of Canada's experience in the Netherlands. Canada's memory of the war, however, has been and will likely always be a selective one.