The First Canadian Army immediately moved forward to liberate the last German-held areas in the western Netherlands, including the great cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. "Every village, street and house," reported the headquarters of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division, "was decked with red, white and blue Dutch flags and orange streamers...the Dutch people had heard a rumour of our arrival, and were lining the roads, streets in thousands to give us a tumultuous welcome...When the convoy reached the outskirts of Rotterdam, it lost all semblance of a military convoy...a vehicle would be unable to move because of civilians surrounding it, climbing on it, throwing flowers – bestowing handshakes, hugs and even kisses...."
Stripped of resources by the Nazi occupiers, the Dutch were starving and cold. The First Canadian Army brought with them masses of food, coal and medical supplies.
This was the second part of the rescue mission. Since April 29 the heavy four-engine bombers of the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command, including No 6 (RCAF) Group, had been dropping supplies to the Dutch population behind German lines. The bombers that had rained fiery death on so many German cities had become life-givers. "When we flew over the occupied part of Holland," recalled one Canadian flyer, "I was so relieved that I myself no longer had to be destructive, that I was not too concerned about the possibility of being fired upon by the German ground installations...And then the Dutch people would appear everywhere in the vicinity of the drop – on treetops, on rooftops, everywhere waving banners and caps – and I'm sure of it, you felt you could hear them cheering." On May 8, as the army took over the supply duties, the bombers began another humanitarian task: flying to Britain thousands of Canadian and Allied prisoners of war from German camps.
What many remember vividly was the night of May 8. For the first time in Britain, and much of Europe, cities that had been "blacked out" for over five years as a precaution against air attack were suddenly brilliantly illuminated. Mary Buch, a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Women's Division) who was stationed in Scotland, recalled that "Edinburgh Castle was flood-lit for the first time since 1939. To us this glorious sight symbolized the true end of the war in Europe."
So it was at sea as well. The north Atlantic convoys, merchant ships sailing together under the protection of Canadian warships, were suddenly ablaze, veritable Christmas trees of navigation and running lights after over five years of dangerous "blacked out" steaming.
For many men and women of the Canadian forces, V-E day was an "anti-climax." Too many times, in nightmare battles, it seemed that the German forces had been irretrievably broken, but time and again this most skillful enemy had regrouped and fought on with undiminished intensity. "The Colonel," wrote one artilleryman in his diary for May 9, "begins to read the 36 names of our fallen. Tears are in his eyes. He falters and hands the paper to the Adjutant who calmly folds the paper...and quietly says, 'It is not necessary. They were comrades. We remember.'"
Few Canadian service members, their thoughts turning to home, commented on the remarkable position their country had assumed in Europe. The 200 000 men and women of the First Canadian Army were "strung out over northern Europe from Bremen [Germany] to Dunkirk" in France, and all through the Low Countries. It was a formidable, heavily mechanized force whose striking power included more than a thousand artillery pieces, more than a thousand tanks, and 39 infantry battalions, each with 800 riflemen whose arms included mortars, heavy machine guns and an arsenal of hand-held weapons. In support were 19 Royal Canadian Air Force fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons - a force of over 300 fast attack and reconnaissance aircraft - that operated from airfields across northwestern Europe. In Britain there were 21 other squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force, including the 15squadrons – each with 20 heavy four-engine bombers – of No 6 Group. The Royal Canadian Navy's 250 seagoing warships, and many smaller vessels, were operating in a wide range of roles – minesweeping, troop-carrying, and convoy escort – from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Ocean and across the Atlantic. The Canadian merchant marine included more than 200 seagoing merchant vessels that operated around the world.
All told, 500 000 Canadian army, navy and air personnel served in Britain and Europe during the Second World War. At least another 100 000 served in Newfoundland (not then part of Confederation), and in eastern Canada, operating the aircraft, warships and bases that formed the North American end of the Atlantic supply lines that fuelled the war against Nazi Germany with troops, weapons, vehicles, food and industrial resources.
Canadian forces played a decisive part in virtually every phase of the war against Nazi Germany and Italy, its fascist ally. The first step was to secure merchant shipping in the Atlantic against the German submarine fleet. The cargoes carried by the merchant ships were essential to Britain's survival and to build up the armed strength needed to strike back at the enemy. Canadian warships provided nearly half of the escorts for merchant ship convoys, and Canadian aircraft as much as a third of the vital air protection for the precious merchant ships. Canadian warships and aircraft destroyed 50 enemy submarines.
Canadian aircrew made up nearly a quarter of the strength of the combat commands of Britain's Royal Air Force. These members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, half of them in 47 Canadian squadrons and half serving in a wide range of British units, were prominent in all aspects of air warfare, and especially in the bombing offensive that destroyed Germany's cities.
Canadian Army formations stood on guard in Britain in 1940-1, when Britain's army was shattered and a German invasion was a real possibility. From 1943 until early 1945, Canadian Army formations played a major part in the invasion of Italy, and the liberation of that country from the strong German occupying forces.
The war at sea, the war in the air, and the war in Italy were all preliminaries to the invasion of German occupied France, at Normandy on June 6, 1944. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division was one of five Allied assault divisions that landed that day, the greatest amphibious invasion in history. A hundred Canadian warships carried troops, protected the invasion fleet, and provided gunfire support to the troops ashore. Hundreds of Canadian bombers and fighters hunted German submarines at sea and battered the German defences on land. In the fearsome battles of Normandy that continued until late August 1944 and resulted in the death, injury or surrender of 400 000 German troops, the First Canadian Army faced some of the fiercest opposition and suffered some of the heaviest losses of the Allied armies.
In October and November 1944, the Canadians again endured unrelenting, bitter combat, this time in appalling conditions of wet and cold. They smashed the heavily fortified German defences on the River Scheldt and thereby opened the great Belgian port of Antwerp that was the key to supplying the vast Allied liberation armies. This important Canadian victory was critical to ensure that the final Allied offensives went forward in full strength and on time in early 1945. The Canadians were a spearhead in those offensives, pushing in from February to April 1945 across fortified rivers in the Netherlands and western Germany, against an enemy that showed little sign of weakening until the very last days.
Canada's military achievement was particularly notable because it had been organized so rapidly from meager beginnings. At the outbreak of war in September 1939, there were fewer than 10 000 full-time professional sailors, soldiers and airmen. The reserve forces – citizens who did a few weeks training each year – numbered fewer than 60 000. There was almost no modern equipment. The government, still grappling with the savage economic consequences of the Great Depression of the 1930s, planned a "limited liability" effort. Canada would concentrate on home defence and send only small forces overseas. Finance department officials doubted that the country could afford even that.
The plan changed in May and June 1940 when France, Britain's major ally and thought to be the strongest military power in Europe, collapsed in the face of lightning quick German assaults led by tanks and aircraft. Suddenly Canada was Britain's largest ally (the Soviet Union entered the war against Germany only in June 1941, and the United States in December of that year). Canada willingly, urgently, began full-scale mobilization in 1940 to help save Britain, but it was a late start. The effort succeeded nevertheless, and, uniquely among the major combatant nations, the overwhelming majority of those enlisted were volunteers. Canada's overseas forces were truly citizen forces, comprised almost entirely of ordinary people who put their lives and health on the line to defeat tyranny and preserve democracy.
Those citizens paid a very heavy price. In all, 42 000 Canadian service men and women gave their lives during the Second World War, almost all in the Atlantic and European theatres: 22 917 in the army, 17 101 in the air force, and 2024 in the navy. A further 54 000 were wounded. Nearly one in ten of the half-million Canadians who served in Europe suffered death or injury. The merchant marine, all civilian volunteers who did not form part of the armed forces, suffered still heavier loss rates. More than 1600 Canadian and Newfoundland sailors died, fully ten percent of those who served.
General H.D.G. Crerar, commander of the First Canadian Army, confessed in his V-E Day message to feeling humbled by the achievements of his forces: "If Canada in peace can realize the fine potentialities of her citizens...there is no limit to [her] future."
Roger Sarty is Professor of History, Wilfrid Laurier University, Research Director, Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies, and Chair, Council for Canadian Security in the 21st Century.