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Canada Marks 70th Anniversary Of German Surrender In The Netherlands

05/05/2015 05:48 EDT | Updated 05/05/2016 05:59 EDT
WAGENINGEN, Netherlands - It was 70 years ago Tuesday that the guns fell nearly silent along the Canadian and British lines in Holland.

The war in northwestern Europe was almost over and Pte. Frank Graham, who'd fought with the Canadian 1st Division all through Sicily, Italy and Holland, found himself thunderstruck.

"When I heard they'd given up, I thought, no they don't," said Graham, 92. "I didn't believe it to start with."

The BBC had announced the ceasefire the night before, on May 4, 1945, yet Graham said he'd been disappointed by rumours before.

Seven decades on, Graham was part of a sentimental parade of veterans who rolled past a reviewing stand in vintage army vehicles outside of the hotel where the capitulation was made official.

As was evident on their faces, it was a bittersweet moment for the old soldiers in this tranquil, leafy town as they mingled with actors dressed in the uniforms they used to wear and rode in trucks and jeeps they had once driven.

"Brings back a lot of memories," said former corporal Al Stapleton, looking at an armoured reconnaissance car. He also served with the 1st Division, but as a signaller.

Scattered, heavy thunder showers threatened Tuesday's parade and even cancelled a photo opportunity Prime Minister Stephen Harper had planned with the veterans, who had to scramble for cover.

It was far cry from the breezy, cold day in 1945 when Col.-Gen. Johannes Blaskowitz, commander of all German forces in the Netherlands and Denmark, showed up at the wrecked Hotel de Wereld.

Canadian Lt.-Gen. Charles Foulkes accepted the surrender in a simple signing ceremony, which was to be followed two days later by the more formal unconditional surrender of all German forces accepted by Allied supreme commander U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower at Reims, France.

"I watched the tired, old Blaskowitz sitting across the dusty table from Gen. Foulkes and blinking like an owl as he agreed to every surrender term," Canadian Press war correspondent Ross Munro wrote in his post-war book, Gauntlet to Overlord.

Despite the general ceasefire on May 5, 1945 in the Canadian sector, troops continued to die for at least three more days and at least 12 casualties were recorded, said Canadian War Museum historian Jeff Noakes.

Unlike the First World War, where the last direct fire casualty was recorded just before 11 o'clock on Nov. 11, it is tough to determine who — precisely — was the last soldier to die in Europe when the shooting stopped. The last Canadian to die in the Second World War was killed in the Pacific some months later.

Don Somerville, 92, a former sapper who served as a combat engineer, said everyone in his unit had an inkling the war was drawing to a close and nobody wanted to be the last to die.

After German dictator Adolf Hitler's suicide, he says "everybody started shutting down then, hoping they could make it. You know?"

Somerville recalled, in vivid detail, the 9th Canadian Brigade assault across the Ems River to capture the town of Leer, Germany just a few days before the official surrender.

The brigade started on D-Day and survivors claimed Leer "was the worst assault they'd ever had," said Somerville. "We knew there was inklings that the war might be over, but the infantry lost an awful lot of men in there. We lost eight or nine (combat engineers)."

The campaign in northwest Europe cost 79,774 Canadian casualties, of whom 21,478 were killed.

"Freedom would not be as we know it today without you," Gen. Tom Middendorp, the Dutch chief of defence, said at the beginning of the parade. "We can't repay you."

The sentiment was echoed among the thousands who lined the street, some four deep along the sidewalks, waving small Canadian flags to cheer on the veterans.

One young couple in their 20s with a six-month-old baby surprised veteran Bert Reynolds by asking to have their picture taken with him.

Harper responded to the warm welcome.

"I know I speak for all the Canadians here — our esteemed veterans in particular — when I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for the kindness you show us," Harper said to his Dutch hosts at the parade.

"It is so incredibly moving to visit the Netherlands and to see your tributes to our lost soldiers: a familiar Canadian name on a street here, on a bridge there, to see the love and care paid to their final resting places, to see the candles at Christmas at Holten, but, most of all, to see the honour and love you shower upon our veterans, in particular the veterans who have travelled so far to be with us today."

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