In 1945, the Canadian 1st Army of 120,000 men was given a grim assignment: to clear the Western Netherlands, and drive the Germans from the Atlantic Coast. It took months as Canadians faced the fierce resistance of the German 15th Army, a formidable force of 90,000 men.* For the Dutch people and the Canadian Army, who had lost 7,600 men, liberation came on May 5, 1945. In the town of Wageningen, Canadian Commander Charles Foulkes accepted a surrender from General Johannes Blaskowitz covering all German forces in Holland. On May 7, 1945, great liberation scenes erupted all over Holland. As reported by CBC war correspondents Marcel Ouimet and Peter Stursberg, large agitated crowds cheered and mobbed the Canadians soldiers who came driving through each major city. Some soldiers were even knocked down from their tanks as they were being embraced by a wild Dutch crowd.
On May 8, Prime Minister William Mackenzie King addressed the nation. He underlined that the “victory was won at so great a price.” After six years of conflict, in which Canada had enlisted more than one million men and women in the armed forces, 42,000 were dead. It was indeed a remarkable contribution for a country of 11 million people. Canada had won the respect of other nations and emerged as a new power in the world, a benevolent power. As Canadians and Europeans took to the streets to celebrate, Mackenzie King pointed out that the War was not over; Japan had yet to surrender. For many, it was a summer of semi-peace.
In Holland, the Dutch people cheered and swarmed their Canadian liberators. As soldier Lloyd Rhainds of Sault Ste.Marie remembers: “we were so happy to be liberators.” * 2 The Dutch celebrated freedom with their Canadian liberators in what has been called: “Holland’s wild summer of 1945” which lasted for months. By then, Canadians and their new Dutch friends were engaged in serious partying. In the city of Haarlem, in the euphoria of the street celebration, Lloyd was attracted to a young Dutch girl who was riding a bike. He hitched a ride … for life. They both remember that summer: “We danced in the streets for weeks on end, parties and parties (…) drinking and sex (…) It was as if you were crazy, you couldn’t stop.” Lloyd and Olga were married on Christmas eve 1945 in the Haarlem Town Hall. Olga became a “Canadian war bride.” There were 41,000 Canadian war brides and 19,000 war children, all transported to Canada by the Department of National Defense at an average cost of $140.29. The first wave of a huge baby-boom. 3 *
In Canada, VE-Day revelries were also intense in many cities; and on, at least one occasion, the festivities turned into rioting. The port city of Halifax was the main point of entrance for the returning forces from Europe. The city was totally unprepared to handle the huge logistic challenge caused by the repatriation. Halifax became quickly overwhelmed. Above all, both civilian and military authorities had grossly misjudged two human factors: the level of frustration of both civilians and sailors after six long years of sacrifice, and the irrepressible impulse to cheer and drink on VE-Day. Pubs and liquor stores were locked up tight in Halifax that day. Sailors didn’t agree with that idea. No drinks on VE-Day ! On May 7th and 8th, celebrations went rancid in Halifax as civilians and sailors broke into Keith’s Brewery and cleaned it out. Later on, the crowd rioted and looted liquor stores and local shops along Barrington and Sackville Streets. The results: 564 stores damaged; 207 looted shops; 211 people indicted for rioting; damages estimated at $1 million; and Rear Admiral Leonard Murray, the man in charge of the Navy in Halifax was fired. * 4
The end of the war also represented a challenge for returning combatants. They quickly realized that the world they had known and fought to preserve had changed. The new Canada was going to be a very different place, and everyone would have to adapt and fit in. Some men found it hard to “re-assimilate,” especially Blacks and aboriginals. Some were repudiated and wondered how they could fit into the new social order. In parts of England, the locals were glad to see the Canadian and American soldiers and sailors leave. Many thought that the Yanks and also Canucks were simply “overpaid, oversexed and over here.” Repatriation had also become an issue: a complex point system had been introduced by the Canadian Army to bring the boys home, but in phases. Tens of thousands of soldiers had to sweat it out before they could be repatriated and get on with the “best years of their lives.”
The war had been costly but it also brought to Canada a new prosperity. The industrial sector which had expanded and diversified during wartime was now producing at full capacity and the economy was booming. The social fabric of Canada was also changing; many women were now working and the birth rate was high. Family life was redefined, and a new middle class appeared. This is the Canada I was born into; the late 1940s were a period of lull in which the country focused on the economy and the production of commodities. By the 1950s, North America rapidly slid into the Cold War, consumer society and Mall culture. I still believe that in some way consumerism is the corollary of the psychological and social pressures brought on by the Cold War.
Find out more about Canada in World War II :
Barris, Ted. Days of Victory : Canadians Remember 1939-1945. Thomas Allen Publishers, 2005.
Granatstein, J. L. The Last Good War: An Illustrated History of Canada in the Second World War, 1939-1945. Vancouver, Douglas & McIntyre, 2005.
VE-Day 60th. CBC Home Video, 2005.
The Liberation of Holland. CBC Home Video, 2005.